The Adventurous Life of History's Most Famous Lover, Casanova

| Fri, 06/03/2016 - 00:00
Giacomo Casanova

“There is a happiness which is perfect and real as long as it lasts; it is transient, but its end does not negate its past existence and prevent he who has experienced it from remembering it.” - Giacomo Casanova

Say the name ‘Casanova’ and, generally, people will associate it with the idea of playboy, libertine, serial lover and seducer. In fact, his name has even turned into a phrase – to be a Casanova – to imply a man who is very good at seducing women. And while it cannot be denied that Casanova was certainly good at it and had a large number of affairs, there is so much more to his figure than his lover’s escapades. He was a writer, an intellectual, a traveler, an adventurer, a subversive spirit, a provocateur.  

His autobiography, Histoire de ma vie (Story of my Life), written in French, is considered a fine work of literature; it is not just a recollection of his love adventures (which he described to create an honest portrait of the human condition), but also an authentic portrayal of European customs and society in the 18th century.

Giacomo Casanova was born in Venice in 1725 to two impoverished actors, at a time when the city teemed with life and energy, when the pursuit of pleasure and the good life was a trait that all Venetians shared. Should you wish to visit his childhood neighborhood, head to San Samuele, where a stone plaque on the wall of the tiny Calle Malipiero says that Casanova was born there.   

Plaque dedicated to Antonio Casanova

Early on, Casanova demonstrated a quick wit; he graduated in law from the University of Padua at 17; early on, he also discovered the pleasures of sex, thanks to two young, well-born sisters, as he would recall in his memoir; in fact, he wrote that his lifelong passion for women was established by this encounter. “I was born for the sex opposite to mine,” he wrote in the preface of his memoir. “I have always loved it and done all that I could to make myself loved by it.”

He was ‘adopted’ by a patron, the wealthy Venetian senator Alvise Gasparo Malipiero, the owner of Palazzo Malipiero, a palace located on the Grand Canal, close to Casanova’s first home. Malipiero taught him about fine food and wine and how to behave in society, and it was in that palace that Casanova began his intense social life, frequenting the best circles, conducting high society affairs, and acting like a dandy, which he could do very well. However, he was thrown out of the house when he was caught seducing the senator’s own object of desire, an actress.

Drawing depicting Palazzo Malipiero

He later found another patron, another wealthy Venetian senator, Don Matteo Bragadin, who took him in after Casanova had saved his life (Casanova also had an interest in medicine). Showered with funds, he was able to live like a playboy aristocrat; he gambled heavily and (of course) engaged in numerous amorous pursuits.

But fortunes could turn quickly in the Venice of the time and, at the age of 30, Casanova was sent to prison by the Venetian Inquisition, which accused him of being as a cardsharp, a con man, a Freemason, an astrologer, a cabbalist and a blasphemer; most likely this came in retaliation for his attentions to one of the Inquisitor’s mistresses. He was imprisoned in the Doge’s Palace for 15 months, until he escaped through the roof. You can see the cell that Casanova shared with rats, as well as the Inquisition’s torture rooms during the Secret Itineraries tour organized by the Doge Palace.

His escape forced him to leave Venice, beginning an exile of 18 years, but also marking the beginning of his life as an avid traveler. He spent a long time in Paris, but also traveled to many other European cities, especially when he got himself into trouble, which he continued to do. While he could always count on his personal charm to influence people, he often had to flee the creditors he made from gambling.

In 1774, when he was 49, Casanova obtained a pardon from the Inquisition and returned to Venice; he could not keep himself out of trouble though, and, after writing a satire that offended powerful figures, he had to flee the city again. This would be his final exile from Venice.

Portrait of Casanova

With the approach of middle age, Casanova’s good fortunes with the ladies began to abate, and that was a bad blow for him.  “The power to please at first sight, which I had so long possessed in such measure, was beginning to fail me,” he wrote.

In addition, he was penniless, and moved from one European city to the next in search of a job, or a patron. “Fortune scorns old age,” he wrote. Finally, at 60, he was hired as librarian to Count Joseph Waldstein, a young nobleman who lived in Bohemia, in Castle Dux, about 60 miles north of Prague.

His life there was lonely; he did not speak German and was not able to communicate with the locals. As the well-traveled and cosmopolitan man that he was, he felt constrained in such a small place. He often fought with the staff of the count – once, he is said to have fought over how to cook pasta (how so very Italian of him).

letterSo miserable he felt that he is said to have contemplated suicide. His doctor thus suggested that he write his memoirs to ward off melancholy. It worked, and Casanova would go on to produce his masterwork, the vast Story of my life, apparently laughing all the time: “I am writing my life to laugh at myself, and I'm succeeding,” he wrote in a letter to a friend. “What pleasure in remembering one’s pleasures! It amuses me because I am inventing nothing. Worthy or not, my life is my subject, and my subject is my life.”

When Casanova heard the news that Venice had been conquered by Napoleon in 1797, he decided to plan a trip there, but fell ill from a kidney infection and died in 1798. His memoir was not completed. It ends when Casanova was 49. It is thought he wanted to end it before he turned 50, when he felt he was no longer enjoying life.

“Cultivating whatever gave pleasure to my senses was always the chief business of my life,” he wrote, referring not just to physical pleasure, but to all pleasures of life. And why not.