Maria Mercandotti

Name
Maria Mercandotti
Birth and death
1801 - 1863
Occupation
Profession details
Ballet Dancer
Related place
Author
Alistair Grant

Doce Canciones (Twelve Songs) by Federico Moretti (1765-1838) were originally published in England by the London firm of Clementi, Banger, Collard, Davis, & Collard, a publishing house that lasted only from 1810-18. Doce Canciones were not published in Spain or Italy because of the upheaval caused by Napoleon's invasion of Spain in 1808 and the resulting Peninsular War, which lasted until 1813. Moretti dedicated the songs to James Duff, the fourth Earl Fife (1776 -1857), a Scottish nobleman who had served alongside Moretti as an officer in the Spanish army. Duff left Spain for England in 1811, and took with him the manuscript of Doce Canciones to have them published in London. The original London publication advertises Moretti as a "Colonel of the Legion of Foreign Volunteers", which indicates the basis for Moretti's friendship with Duff. They had become friends as foreign soldiers and officers fighting in Spain, and shared an enthusiasm for Spanish culture, especially music and dance. Moretti had previously composed songs in the form of Spanish seguidilla, whilst Fife had discovered the dancer Maria Mercandotti in Spain while she was still a child, brought her and her mother to England, and had helped launch her on the ballet career that made her famous throughout Europe.

On 9th September 1799, James Duff had married Lady Maria Caroline Manners, but the couple had no children. His wife died in 1805, and he volunteered to help the Spaniards fight against Napoleon, and fought at The Battle of Talavera as a Major General in the Spanish army. The Battle of Talavera took place on the 27th and 28th July 1809 was a bloody but inconclusive battle some 120 km southwest of Madrid. The Anglo-Portuguese army under Sir Arthur Wellesey joined with a Spanish army under General Cuesta to attack French-occupied Madrid. After two days of fierce fighting, the French army withdrew. For this rather inconclusive victory, Wellesley was ennobled as 'Viscount Wellington'. However, despite Wellesey's actions, the strategic advantage remained with the French, and their defence of Talavera removed the threat of attack on Madrid, and bought enough time for the arrival of French reinforcements.

It is not known where or how James Duff met Maria Mercandotti in Spain. She was born in Andalusia, and bought to London by Duff as a ten year-old. Her mother, who accompanied her to London, was rumoured to be Duff's mistress, and Maria his daughter. Given that she was born in 1801 however, and Duff did not go to Spain until the outbreak of the Penninsula War in 1808, this is unlikely. However, she was beautiful and talented, and had found a rich and socially well-connected patron in James Duff.

The virtuoso dancer, Louis Duport, in Vienna, choreographed the first Cinderella ballet in 1813. However, Cendrillon, with music by Catalan guitarist Fernando Sor, and choreography by François Decombe Albert was considerably more influential. It is the first known ballet based on Perrault's original tale, and premiered at the Kings Theatre, London in 1822, starring Maria Mercandotti. Mr Ebers, the manager of the Kings Theatre, contracted her for the huge sum of £800 for a single season, and, according to Ivor Guest, who devoted an entire chapter to her career in his history, Romantic Ballet in England, Mercandotti became known as "The Andalusian Venus". The diminutive Mercandotti was captivating as Cinderella, not least because the heavy costumes traditionally associated with masques were replaced by floating fairy gowns and silk tights and very little else! Moreover, dancing au point had been introduced to the London ballet in 1821, and the sylphlike Mercandotti suited the new dancing style and costume perfectly. One critic called her "A divine fairy sprite". The London public went wild for Mercandotti as Cinderella. Suitors hung around her stage door hoping to make her their wife or mistress but with an £800 contract and glittering dancing career beckoning, it was going to take a very wealthy man to lure her away from the stage.

On the evening of 8th March 1823, the theatre was packed again, but "divine fairy sprite" failed to appear. Instead, a seemingly anxious Mr Ebers came on stage and announced to an irate audience that "The Andalusian Venus" had 'disappeared'! For the next few weeks, the newspapers were full of the Gretna Green 'elopement' of the famous opera dancer, "The Andalusian Venus", with "Golden Ball". Edward Hughes Ball Hughes (1799-1863), was an immensely wealthy friend of the Prince Regent, and a noted dandy. He was known to society as "Golden Ball" because of his extraordinary wealth. In addition to being fabulously rich, and handsome, he had achieved great notoriety as a relentless hedonist and colossal gambler. After Eton, a short stint at Cambridge, and the briefest of naval careers, at the age of nineteen he inherited an enormous fortune. His newfound wealth gave him instant access to the highest social circles. During the Regency, dandies like Ball Hughes were social celebrities. In an age when London high society was obsessed with scandalous gossip about sex, wealth, and fashion, Hughes Ball Hughes was a superstar. One widely-quoted contemporary critic claimed his marriage to Mercandotti "made as much noise in England as the war against Spain". An indication of the extent of Hughes Ball Hughes and Mercandotti's fame is a notice from the Society page of the Rhode Island American and General Advertiser of 3rd June 1823:

"A late Gretna-Green marriage of Mr Hughes Ball, to the celebrated and fascinating Opera-dancer, Mademoiselle Mercandotti, made as much noise in England as the war against Spain. The bride is described as a beautiful Spanish girl, with a small and delicate person, formed with perfect symmetry. Her movement is that of a sylph, her face interesting and rather pensive, with dark, beaming, and intelligent eyes - "Speaking to the soul, which struggles through and chastens down the whole" - The husband, a young man with the solid charms of an income in the funds, of one hundred and twenty thousand a year."

The satirists had great fun at their expense to. Perhaps the best-known engraving is by Isaac Robert Cruikshank (1789-1856), A Visit to Court, or All the world's a stage. And men and woman, merely players!! Cruickshank presents a satire on the social elevation of two celebrated theatrical celebrities through their wealthy husbands. On the left is Mrs. Coutts, the widow of the banker Thomas Coutts, and pirouetting on the right, holding aloft a golden ball, is Maria Mercandotti, Mrs. Hughes Ball Hughes. Despite her previous popularity as a dancer, after her marriage to Hughes Ball Hughes none of the contemporary satirists depicted Maria Mercandotti in a very flattering or charitable light. Even the 'surprise, secret elopement' appears to have been a carefully staged publicity stunt, because Mercandotti's mother, Lord Fife, and even Mr Ebers all present at the wedding. After honeymooning at Oatlands Park, Hughes Ball Hughes' estate in the borough of Elmbridge in Surrey, the couple lived between Oatlands Park and Ball's mansion adjoining Greenwich Park, where they extravagently held open house to members of the ton. London's high society during the Georgian era of the Regency and reign of George IV was known as the ton. The full phrase is from the French le bon ton, meaning "good taste" and "in the fashionable mode", and is pronounced 'tone'.

However, Ball's relentless gambling and party-going quickly bored Maria, and the couple soon quarrelled, separated, and divorced, after which she disappears from history. After gambling away his fortune, Golden Ball absconded to France to escape his creditors at Engheim les Bains, a fashionable spa town, where he met Louis Napoleon, and became known as "Le Wellington des Joueurs". A contemporary observed, "He is no longer Golden Ball, but since the gilt is off, he rolls on much more smoothly than he did". Golden Ball died in 1863, not quite so impoverished as he had been, having sold off much of Oatlands Park to railway and property developers.

References:

  • Ivor Guest, Romantic Ballet in England: Its development, fulfillment, and decline, Phoenix House, 1954.
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