Giacomo Casanova: Master of Seduction or a Misunderstood Intellectual? | History Hit

Giacomo Casanova: Master of Seduction or a Misunderstood Intellectual?

Portrait of Manon Balletti by Jean-Marc Nattier (left); Drawing of Giacomo Casanova (centre); Madame de Pompadour (right)
Image Credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons; History Hit

Giacomo Casanova is renowned as one of the most famous lovers in history. Indeed, in his autobiography, which details more than 120 love affairs with a range of women from milkmaids to nuns, he states: “I was born for the sex opposite to mine… I have always loved it and done all that I could to make myself loved by it.”

However, the Venetian was also infamous throughout his lifetime for being a scam artist, deviant, alchemist, spy, church cleric, gambler, traveller and writer who fought duels, wrote scathing satires and made multiple daring prison escapes. An avid traveller and networker, he counted Voltaire, Catherine the Great, Benjamin Franklin, many European aristocrats and likely Mozart amongst his acquaintances and friends.

So who was Giacomo Casanova?

He was the eldest of six children

Giacomo Casanova was born in Venice in 1725 to two poor actors. The first of six children, he was looked after by his grandmother while his mother toured around Europe in the theatre, while his father died when he was eight.

On his ninth birthday, he was sent to a boarding house. The conditions were terrible, and Casanova felt rejected by his parents. Owing to the squalor of the boarding house, he was placed under the care of his primary instructor, Abbé Gozzi, who tutored him academically and taught him the violin. Aged 11, he had his first sexual experience with Gozzi’s younger sister.

The Church of San Samuele, where Casanova was baptized

Image Credit: Luca Carlevarijs, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

He went to university aged 12

Casanova quickly demonstrated a quick wit and appetite for knowledge. He went to the University of Pauda aged just 12 and graduated in 1742, aged 17, with a degree in law. While there he also studied moral philosophy, chemistry, mathematics and medicine.

At university, Casanova became known for his wit, charm and style – it is said that he powdered and curled his hair – and also for his gambling, which sowed the seeds of a ruinous and life-long addiction. He also had an affair with two 16- and 14-year-old sisters.

He saved the life of his patron

Using his medical training, Casanova saved the life of a Venetian patrician who was having a stroke. In response, the patrician became his patron, which led to Casanova leading a life of luxury, wearing magnificent clothes, rubbing shoulders with powerful figures and, of course, gambling and conducting love affairs.

However, after 3 or so years, Casanova was forced to leave Venice due to a number of scandals, such as a practical joke that involved digging up a freshly buried corpse, and a rape accusation from a young girl.

Peter Ackroyd presents this four-part documentary about the cultural history of Venice.
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He attracted the attention of the police

Casanova fled to Parma, where he engaged in a love affair with a French woman called Henriette, who he appeared to love more than any other woman for the rest of his life, claiming that he enjoyed her conversation even more than their sexual relationship.

After their affair ended, Casanova returned to Venice, where he resumed gambling. By this time, Venetian inquisitors started to record a lengthening list of Casanova’s alleged blasphemies, fights, seductions and public controversies.

Drawing of Giacomo Casanova (left); Frontispiece illustration of Casanova’s ‘History of my Flight from the Prisons of the Republic of Venice’ (1787, dated 1788)

Image Credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons; History Hit

After a period of successful money-making through gambling, Casanova set off on a Grand Tour, reaching Paris in 1750. His new play La Moluccheide was staged at the Royal Theatre, where his mother often performed as lead.

He escaped from prison

In 1755, aged 30, Casanova was arrested for affront to religion and common decency. Without a trial or being informed of the reasons of his arrest, Casanova was sentenced to five years imprisonment in the Doge’s Palace, a prison reserved for political, defrocked or libertine priests or monks, usurers and higher status prisoners.

Casanova was placed in solitary confinement, and suffered from the darkness, summer heat and ‘millions of fleas’. He devised a plan to escape, first using a piece of sharpened black marble and an iron bar to gouge a hole through his floor. However, just days before his planned escape, despite his protests, was moved to a better cell.

He solicited the help of his new prisoner neighbour, Father Balbi. The marble spike was smuggled to Balbi, who made a hole in his and then Casanova’s ceiling. Casanova created a rope bedsheet, and lowered them into a room 25 feet below. They rested, changed clothes, walked through the palace, managed to convince the guard that they had been accidentally locked into the palace after an official function, and were freed.

He pretended to be 300 years old

Over the coming years, Casanova’s schemes became yet more wild. He fled to Paris, where every patrician wanted to meet him. He claimed that he was over 300 years old, and could make diamonds from scratch, and convinced a noblewoman that he could turn her into a young man, for a price. Recognising his talents, a count recruited him as a spy to sell state bonds in Amsterdam. This made him wealthy for some time, before he squandered it on gambling and lovers.

By 1760, the penniless Casanova was on the run from the law. He also managed to scam his way into an audience with King George III, and also met with Catherine the Great in an attempt to sell her the idea for a Russian lottery scheme. In Warsaw, he duelled a colonel over an Italian actress. In all, he travelled some 4,500 miles across Europe by coach.

Casanova tests his condom for holes by inflating it (right); Page from the autograph manuscript of ‘Histoire de ma vie’ (left)

Image Credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons; History Hit

He died a penniless librarian

Casanova was now both impoverished and ill from venereal disease. By 1774, after 18 years of exile, Casanova won the right to return to Venice. Nine years later, he wrote a vicious satire of the Venetian nobility that had him expelled again.

In his later years, Casanova became librarian to Count Joseph Karl von Waldstein in Bohemia. Casanova found it so lonely and boring that he considered suicide, but resisted the temptation in order to record his now famous memoirs. In 1797, Casanova died, the same year that Venice was seized by Napoleon. He was 73 years old.

Dan chats to Emily Brand, a writer, historian and genealogist who specialises in the social history of the eighteenth century and is currently researching the trials and tribulations of romantic (and not-so-romantic) relationships in England.
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His erotic manuscript was banned by the Vatican

Casanova’s legendary memoir, ‘Story of My Life’, details his over one hundred love affairs as well as information about his escapes, duels, stagecoach journeys, swindles, swindles, arrests, escapes and meetings with nobility.

When the manuscript finally emerged in 1821, it was heavily censored, denounced from the pulpit and placed on the Vatican’s Index of Prohibited Books. It was only in 2011 that several of the manuscript’s pages were displayed for the first time in Paris. Today, all 3,700 pages have been published in volumes.

Lucy Davidson

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