Giacomo Girolamo Casanova: Synonymous with lovemaking charm and persuasion, even since Casanova’s death in 1798, his name evokes and defines the same person to this day. In today’s vernacular, “Womanizing.” Despite his impoverished condition and position at his death in Bohemia, Giacomo Girolamo Casanova’s memoir fetched a stunning figure in 2010 by the Bibliotheque Nationale de France of $9.6million! He was the first to assert that the revelation of his sexual exploits were in the scholar Tom Vitelli’s words, an American Casanovist, “He only presented his love life because it gave a window onto human nature.”
Casanova was a very learned and dimensional figure who acquainted with the likes of Ben Franklin, Voltaire and Catherine the Great. He translated The Iliad into his native Venetian dialect, supported himself as a gambler and bon vivant.
Giacomo Girolamo Casanova was born in Venice in 1725 to actress Zanetta Farussi, wife of actor and dancer Gaetano Giuseppe Casanova. Giacomo was the first of six children, followed by Francesco Giuseppe (1727–1803), Giovanni Battista (1730–1795), Faustina Maddalena (1731–1736), Maria Maddalena Antonia Stella (1732–1800), and Gaetano Alvise (1734–1783). Casanova’s father died while he was a child and his mother sent him to boarding school in Padua. Casanova met a young woman there, the daughter of his instructor, Bettina she was “pretty, lighthearted, and a great reader of romances. The girl pleased me at once, though I had no idea why. It was she who little by little kindled in my heart with the first sparks of a feeling which later became my ruling passion.” Here he was ignited with the stuff that drove him. Casanova graduated from the University of Padua in law at seventeen. Amassing significant gambling debts there, he scurried back to Venice.
He began his lifelong pattern of finding a patron, 76-year-old Venetian senator Alvise Gasparo Malipiero, the owner of Palazzo Malipiero. Malipiero was grooming Casanova as a ‘dandy’. Casanova was tall (disputed heights between 5’9” to 6’), dark and handsome with long, powdered and elaborately curled hair. Malipiero instructed him on manners, food and wine.
At this time, Casanova experienced his famous first sexual encounter with two sisters, Nanetta and Maria Savorgnan, then fourteen and sixteen. He claimed they instilled his lifelong passion for sex. Scandals ensued, landing him in prison for the first time for a gambling debt. In his memoir, blandly titled: Histoire de ma vie, (Story of My Life) he proclaimed that “I have always loved it [sex] and done all that I could to make myself loved by it.”
Failing in his law profession and his attempt to work for the Church as a scribe with the powerful Cardinal Acquaviva in Rome, he elected to buy a post in the military of the Republic of Venice. In Casanova’s, Story of My Life, he described his effort so:
“I decided to dress as a soldier … I inquire for a good tailor … he brings me everything I need to impersonate a follower of Mars … My uniform was white, with a blue vest, a shoulder knot of silver and gold … I bought a long sword, and with my handsome cane in hand, a trim hat with a black cockade, with my hair cut in side whiskers and a long false pigtail, I set forth to impress the whole city.”
Casanova soon bored with this occupation, and at age twenty-one, he set out to become a professional gambler. Venice still sports some of his haunting grounds, Cantina do Spade, still one of the most atmospheric bars in Venice, is one. Stories here abound with his fervor. Soon another patron surfaced, Don Matteo Bragadin, who showered him with funds and clothing. His swarthy complexion and prominent nose set off his regalia. He reflects in his memoir, “My currency was unbridled self-esteem.” Few women could resist it.
Scandals continued to ensue, including an accusation of rape that was dismissed. One of his most famous liaisons took place at this time with MM., a ravishing, noble born nun, whom he spirited away from her convent on Murano Island by gondola to a sumptuous retreat. Casanova recorded in his memoir that she “was astonished to find herself so receptive to so much pleasure.” He continued this relationship with MM. (thought to be Marina Morsoni) for many years, including a ménage a trois with her older lover, the French ambassador; then a quatre with another young nun.
Strangely enough, Pierre Cardin purchased the palazzo in which Casanova lived during his prime. He even created an annual literary prize titled the Casanova Award, to celebrate literary genius. Parenthetically, Cardin also purchased the chateau of Marquis de Sade’s home in Provence.
Again, Casanova fled his scandals in Venice to Parma. Here he engaged in his most ardent affair, a Frenchwoman, Henriette. “No woman so captivated Casanova as Henriette; few women obtained so deep an understanding of him. She penetrated his outward shell early in their relationship, resisting the temptation to unite her destiny with his.” (Childs, J. Rives, Casanova: A New Perspective. New York: Paragon House, 1988) He returned to Venice after the smoke had cleared, had a winning gambling streak, and decided it was time for “The Grand Tour”…which was the mainstay for the upper class in 1750.
Casanova’s first stop was Paris. He joined the Freemasons and adhered to a secret cult, Rosicrucianism. This is a philosophical secret society said to have been founded in late medieval Germany by Christian Rosenkreuz. It holds a doctrine or theology “built on esoteric truths of the ancient past,” which, “concealed from the average man, provide insight into nature, the physical universe and the spiritual realm.” Rosicrucianism is symbolized by the Rosy Cross. After two years, Casanova moved on in 1752 to Dresden and encountered his mother. He wrote a well-received play, La Moluccheide, now lost. He then visited Prague and Vienna, where the tighter moral atmosphere of the latter city was not to his liking. Casanova finally returned to Venice in 1753. In Venice, he resumed his wicked escapades, picking up many enemies and gaining the greater attention of the Venetian inquisitors. His police record became a lengthening list of reported blasphemies, seductions, fights, and public controversy. Casanova finally hit the wall of convention.
At age thirty, Casanova was arrested again.
According to John Masters (who was a regular soldier in the Indian Army of Britain), (Casanova. MASTERS, John. London: Michael Joseph/Arcadia Press, 1970): “The Tribunal, having taken cognizance of the grave faults committed by G. Casanova primarily in public outrages against the holy religion, their Excellencies have caused him to be arrested and imprisoned under the Leads.” “The Leads” (Piombi in Italian) was a prison of seven cells on the top floor of the east wing of the Doge’s palace, reserved for prisoners of higher status and political crimes and named for the lead plates covering the palace roof. Without a trial, Casanova was sentenced to five years in the “inescapable” prison. The building is the center of Venice today. Casanova was soon moved to a more convivial cell according to Masters, spending fifteen months there.
“I sat in my armchair like a man in a stupor; motionless as a statue, I saw that I had wasted all the efforts I had made, and I could not repent of them. I felt that I had nothing to hope for, and the only relief left to me was not to think of the future.”
Casanova made a daring escape with the help of his neighboring cellmate, Rev. Barbi. Employing a knife he fashioned from a piece of marble; he dug out through the roof. Leaving behind a note that quoted the 117th Psalm (Vulgate): “I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord.”
After the convoluted escape through roof, windows and sheet ropes dropping into a 25 foot ceiling room, they convinced a guard they were locked into the prison by mistake after a party in the Palace, they escaped. That day they made their way to Paris. Much controversy surround this escape, but there was some physical evidence to corroborate it. Thirty years later in 1787, Casanova wrote Story of My Flight, which became popular and was reprinted in many languages, describing the escapade.
In Paris, Casanova became a salesman for the lottery, very successfully selling many tickets. His words, “deceiving a fool is an exploit worthy of an intelligent man.” ( Casanova, Story of My Life. New York: Everyman’s Library, 2006). Casanova climbed the social and political ladders in Paris, even sold state bonds in Amsterdam at a discount during the Seven Years War, which made him a rich man. Only to squander the funds and continue his disaffecting liaisons with his ‘harem’ employees, he again fell into destitution. And yet again, Casanova was imprisoned.
On the lam again, he traveled to Cologne, Stuttgart, and Marseille where he met Voltaire, then to Genoa, Florence, Rome, Naples, Modena and Turin traversing one sexual romp to another. Casanova started styling himself as the Chevalier de Seingalt, a name he would increasingly use for the rest of his life. He endeared himself with Pope Clement XIII, who funded many of Bernini’s masterpieces, and awarded Casanova a regal ribboned-cross for his chest, Papal Oder of Eperon d’or, to add to his pomp.
Off to England, he gained an audience with King George III to sell the lottery scheme. While there, he bedded a great beauty, Mistress Pauline. Due to his dalliances, he contracted venereal diseases and left England broke and ill.
In recovery, he traveled exhaustively on rough roads, in coaches for four thousand miles as far as St. Petersburg. He managed to meet with Catherine the Great in Russia and Fredrick the Great in Prussia, to sell his lottery scheme, which failed. He was expelled from Warsaw after a duel that wounded his hand over a lady. Off across Europe again, hitting the gambling salons, only to expelled from France by none other that Louis XV himself. His reputation now preceded him. He appealed to Charles III but to no avail and then wandered around Spain where his debauchery was not well known. In Barcelona, he escaped assassination and landed in jail again for six weeks.
Casanova finally managed to return to Venice where even his adversaries wanted explanation for his daring escape from the Doge Palace. Now a spy again for Venice, paid by piecework, he reported on religion, morals, and commerce, most of it based on gossip and rumor he picked up from social contacts. After many miles and jails spells, his good looks were fading at age 49, where his nose and smallpox scar now became prominent. The females were now few and far between. He then published the translation of The Illiad to little financial reward. In fact, Casanova got into a published dispute with Voltaire over religion. When he asked, “Suppose that you succeed in destroying superstition. With what will you replace it?” Voltaire shot back, “I like that. When I deliver humanity from a ferocious beast which devours it, can I be asked what I shall put in its place.”
Later that year, the Inquisitors put him on the payroll, after pardoning him, and sent him to investigate commerce between the Papal states and Venice. Back on the road again, he traveled to Paris and met Ben Franklin to understand his balloon flight design. His welcome in Paris exhausted, he looked for another position. In 1785, his Foscarini died (his current lover and housekeeper who loved him dearly). A few months later, he became the librarian to Count Joseph Karl von Waldstein, a chamberlain of the emperor, at Duchcov Chateau, Bohemia (now the Czech Republic).
Bored by his surroundings and duties, though well paid, he contemplated suicide but decided to dedicate himself to his memoirs. He managed some travel to Dresden, Vienna and frequently Prague, the center of Bohemia, where he met Mozart and viewed Don Giovani for the first time in 1787. Word then arrived that the Republic of Venice had ceased to exist and that Napoleon Bonaparte had seized Casanova’s home city. There was no returning home, Casanova died on June 4, 1798, at age 73 at Duchov Chateau (The Castle Dux) where he was buried…his grave is unknown, now marked elsewhere in town by a fading wooden cross.
His memoirs continued a life of their own. Willed to his nephew, who sold it promptly to a German publisher, Brockhaus which then retained it for 140 years. During a WWII bombing that directly hit their offices housing the manuscript, a family member bicycled it across Leipzig to a bank vault. When the Allied forces captured the city, even Churchill inquired about the memoirs. The memoirs were saved and returned to the German owners, to be first published in 1960 in French, and 1966 in English. Story of My Life (original title: Histoire de ma vie jusqu’à l’an 1797, (History of my Life until the year 1797)) is regarded by some to be one of the great autobiographies, some fourteen hundred pages long detailing over one hundred twenty liaisons. A man with no home, never married, no children, sometimes violin player, spy and astrologer and no apparent source of income until Duchov Chateau, he was a Boulevardier…a European gambler and a louse.
Giacomo Girolamo Casanova summarizes his life in the memoir in French:
“What pleasure in remembering one’s pleasures! It amuses me because I am inventing nothing.”
NOTE: With special inspirational THANKS to my great friend, artist Alek Kardas…
More about Casanova at Fondazione Giacomo Casanova: HERE