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Tales from the Family Free - Countess Nagurska and the Imperial Assassin

by Iwo Załuski

Ireneusz Ogiński
Michal Kleofas Ogiński

During the closing stages of the eighteenth century there lived in Vilnius, the capital of Russian Lithuania, a beautiful, wealthy, and recently widowed courtesan, Countess Maria Nagurska. Her numerous suitors found that in addition to her charms and assets, she also came with a rich and eventful history.

She was born Maria Neri in Venice in 1777, the daughter of a local innkeeper of Florentine extraction, who claimed descent from the musiciaSt Philip Neri. Early in 1796 Maria watched with interest as her native city filled up with refugees from the Wars of the Final Partitions of Poland, many of them dashing and handsome young bloods, veterans of the campaigns against the invading forces of King Frederick of Prussia and Empress Catherine of Russia – both monarchs in the process of acquiring their later sobriquets of “the Great”. These young veterans included the already legendary piano-playing warrior Prince Michał Kleofas Ogiński, who had until only recently, under Stanislaw Kosciuszko, been leading his commando units in Northern Lithuania against the Russians. Now stateless, dispossessed and penniless, like all the other veterans of the campaigns, he could only hang around the calles and canals of La Serenissima, as the stunningly beautiful maritime capital of the Venetian Republic was affectionately known. Unless, that is, he could find a piano on which to play his already popular polonaises.

Among Michał Kleofas’ fellow veterans were Count Kajetan Nagurski, and Tadeusz Wysogierd. They were close friends and did everything together, including romancing the local girls – specifically the voluptuous, nineteen-year-old Maria Neri, whose documented accomplishments included singing barcarolles and practising the art of love. Both young men noted these qualities, and were smitten by her, but Tadeusz was the quicker off the mark, seduced her and took off with her to Florence. Kajetan, not to be outdone, chased the fugitive couple to the Tuscan capital, and after a showdown, won her from the much more dashing and handsome Tadeusz.. Kajetan became besotted with her to the point of obsession, and in the lax atmosphere of the Venetian emigré scene most society niceties went with the Adriatic wind, and he could flaunt his new love with some degree of impunity. Michał Kleofas Ogiński would almost certainly have known her, although no actual meeting has been documented.

In 1796 Catherine of Russia died, and was succeeded by her son, Paul. Under the new Tsar life was beginning to return to some semblance of normality in the former Polish Commonwealth, and many refugees were accepting amnesties already offered by Catherine, and returning to whatever might pass for a new homeland in the former Polish and Lithuanian territories.

Kajetan Nagurski joined this re-immigration. Perhaps inspired by Rousseau’s recently mounted play, “Pygmalion”, he took Maria back with him to Warsaw, now the Prussian city of Warschau, where he installed her with a governess-cum-companion and various tutors to educate and “finish her off”, and thus render her acceptable in high society. Meanwhile he himself returned to Russian Lithuania, to reclaim and sort out his estate. Diarist and writer Stanislaw Morawski, in his autobiography “My Years of Youth in Vilnius”, described how Kajetan, unable then to get a passport allowing him back into Prussia, and thus to Warsaw, asked Morawski’s father, Apolinary, to visit Maria and see how she was getting on: “My father promised, went and met the young lady. On entering he naturally expected to see a tavern wench. Imagine his unexpected surprise when he saw before him a lady of rare beauty, completely at ease with drawing room etiquette, speaking perfect French, Italian without the Venetian accent, writing fluently and without significant spelling mistakes, in a word, a completely finished lady showing not the slightest hint of a tavern upbringing.”

Apolinary Morawski was, like so many others before him, smitten by Maria, and, despite the age gap, it was only a matter of time before they became lovers behind Kajetan’s back. Their affair was discovered and broken up by the infuriated Kajetan himself. He subsequently had her brought to his estate in Lithuania, where he married her. However, Kajetan’s health, which had never been good, deteriorated further, and he developed jaundice. He virtually took to his bed, so Maria began to be seen in the company of the dashing young Count Ludwik Pac, whose father, Count Michal Pac, owned Jezno, one of the finest palaces in Lithuania. The affair came to an end when Kajetan decided to go to Vienna, where he hoped to find a cure for his jaundice, and take Maria with him. Ultimately, he failed to find a cure, and died there soon afterwards. His widow, now an independent lady of some considerable means, returned to Vilnius, and life in that city’s highest social echelons.

She then sent for her younger sister Cuchina (probably a nickname - her Christian name is not on record) to give her a better life in Lithuanian society, and as a companion for herself. Cuchina complied, and promptly became pregnant by Nicholas Morawski, Maria’s former lover’s younger brother, and uncle of the writer. So Maria sent Cuchina back to Florence, and arranged for her to marry Count Scotti – in the end a satisfactory arrangement all round. The child was born in happy circumstances a legitimate Scotti.

In 1801, Countess Maria Nagurska’s life changed direction after she caught the attention of General Bennigsen.

General Count Levin August von Bennigsen was born in Brunswick in 1745. His military career began in the Hanoverian army, but in 1764 he was head-hunted and brought to Russia by Catherine the Great. He fought in Russia’s Turkish wars and distinguished himself against the Poles during the Wars of the Final Partitions. He became friendly with the young Tsarevitch Alexander, the son of Tsar Paul. Alexander was imbued with a dubious sense of divine mission, which led him to covet the Russian throne without delay in order to impose his God-given destiny onto that of Mother Russia. Together with a small coterie of like-minded idealists, including Bennigsen, Alexander plotted the attempted assassination of his father – ostensibly to frighten him into abdicating. At least, that was the theory. However, the plot, referred to in the history books as the St Petersburg Ides of March, did not go entirely to plan; Bennigsen, if Stanislaw Morawski’s documentation is to be believed, was the man who actually did the deed by personally strangling the Tsar to death in his bed. The idealistically-fired Alexander duly succeeded his father to the throne, and, as a mark of gratitude, promoted Bennigsen to the position of Governor of Vilnius. On his city’s social circuit he met the beautiful Countess Nagurska, for whom he developed an instant infatuation.

Meanwhile, the accession of the new Tsar had a direct effect on the fortunes of Michał Kleofas Ogiński. At this time he was living with his wife Izabela and two infant sons, Tadeusz and Xavier – not very happily ever after, as it happened – at his wife’s family’s estate at Brzeziny, to the south west of Warsaw. He had spent five penniless and peripatetic years trying to restore the Polish state by diplomatic means. He now dreamed of just returning home to get his life and estates, now in Russian territory, back. Catherine had offered him an olive branch, which he knew to be a trap, and rejected: he had been sentenced to death in his absence for his part in Kosciuszko’s campaigns against her forces, and she did not forgive and forget readily. Her son, Tsar Paul, did not trust him, and refused him permission to return. The new Tsar Alexander, however, not only forgave him, but also praised him for being true to his convictions in fighting for his homeland, and offered him an unconditional amnesty. Michał Kleofas, whose marriage to Izabela had just ended in inevitable divorce, had nothing to lose, and perhaps something to gain by returning home, so he accepted the amnesty, and returned to Lithuania.

He initially found somewhere to live in Vilnius, where, on the social circuit, he again came across Maria Nagurska, whom he still remembered as Maria Neri, nineteen-year-old daughter of a Venetian innkeeper. Now he found a beautiful, 25-year-old socialite with all the graces and apparent breeding of a princess, and the mistress of Governor Bennigsen, who was obviously quite besotted with her, and wanted to marry her. She had given him a key to the back door of her house, and a specified time and day on which she would receive him. This was accepted practice in the sexual social mores of the time. However, she kept him suspended in a state of frustrated anticipation which he could ill endure. He was now approaching sixty, and agonised long and thoroughly over his predicament. Finally, he decided to take the bull by the horns, go to her there and then, and propose marriage. Casting aside his allotted “slot”, he entered her house and burst into her chambers to find her in flagrante delecto with Prince Michał Kleofas Ogiński. He immediately conceded a very embarrassing defeat, and left without further ado. He never contacted her again.

Like Bennigsen, Michał Kleofas had fallen head over heels in love with Maria Nagurska; the feeling was reciprocated, and their passionate affair continued unabated until it was discovered that she was pregnant. Michał Kleofas proposed, Maria accepted, and they were married sometime during 1804, and settled at his estate at Zalesie, nestled among the green meadows and birch forests close to the town of Smorgon, half way between Vilnius and Minsk. By this time Michał Kleofas had been appointed senator at the Court of the Petersburg, and was put in charge of Education in Russia’s newly acquired lands. The new Princess Maria Oginska took to her new role as Lady of the Manor perfectly. The Manor had been built for comfort rather than as a luxurious residence, but Maria loved it. Zalesie is a delightful spot for us”, she wrote to her sister, Countess Cuchina Scotti, in Florence. We are surrounded by snow and frost, but we scarcely notice them, because it is so true that one finds happiness everywhere where one’s heart is without remorse and full of affection.”

The idyll, however, was short-lived. Stanislaw Morawski, describing the open nature of Michał Kleofas Ogiński’s second marriage, wrote that there was no man of consequence, no young Russian general, perhaps even no broad-shouldered valet who was not her lover. Added to these were actors, singers, and ordinary soldiers. I do her no injustice, as she herself does not attempt to hide the fact.” The tower of Maria’s wing at the Manor later became covered in numerous mosaic portraits of various men, to whom she would refer, with a wicked twinkle in her eye, as “my friends”. Morawski continues to throw some light on the ancestry of their four children: “Apart from Zaluska [Amelia, born on December 10 1803, who later became Countess Zaluska] conceived with Ogiński, every one of his daughters [Emma and Ida, born in 1805 and 1813 respectively] had a different father. Her son [Ireneusz, born in 1807] was conceived of the singer Paliani.” Italian Giuseppe Paliani was music tutor to the Ogiński girls.

Evidently, Princess Maria Ogińska had not abandoned her early documented talent for “the art of love.”

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