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Casanova Giovanni Giacomo
Giacomo Girolamo Casanova de Seingalt was a Venetian adventurer and author. His main book Histoire de ma vie (History of My Life), part autobiography and part memoir, is regarded as one of the most authentic sources of the customs and norms of European social life during the 18th century.
So famous a womanizer was he that his name remains synonymous with the art of seduction and he is sometimes called "the world's greatest lover". He enjoyed the company of European royalty, popes and cardinals, along with men such as Voltaire, Goethe and Mozart; but if he had not been obliged to spend some years as a librarian in the household of Count Waldstein of Bohemia (where he relieved his boredom by writing the story of his life), he would probably be forgotten today.
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, being followed by Giovanni Alvise (1730–1795), Faustina Maddalena (1731–1736), Maria Maddalena Antonia Stella (1732–1800), Gaetano Alvise (1734–1783), and Francesco (1737–1803). Because of his mother's profession, it is suspected that some or all of these were fathered by men other than her husband. Casanova himself suspected his biological father to have been Michele Grimani, a member of the patrician family that owned the San Samuele theatre where Zanetta and Gaetano had worked. Lending support to this, Grimani’s brother Abbé Alvise Grimani, became Casanova’s guardian. In his memoirs, however, Casanova provides an elaborate paternal genealogy to explain his birth, beginning in Spain in 1428.
The Republic of Venice during Casanova’s time was past its peak as a naval and commercial power. Instead Venice thrived as ‘the’ pleasure capital of Europe, ruled by political and religious conservatives who tolerated social vices and encouraged tourism. It was a required stop on the Grand Tour, traveled by young men coming of age, especially Englishmen. The famed Carnival, gambling houses, and beautiful courtesans were powerful drawing cards. This was the milieu that bred Casanova and made him its most famous and representative citizen.
Casanova was cared for by his grandmother Marzia Baldissera while his mother toured about Europe in the theater. His father died when he was eight. As a child, Casanova suffered nosebleeds, and his grandmother sought help from a witch: “Leaving the gondola, we enter a hovel, where we find an old woman sitting on a pallet, with a black cat in her arms and five or six others around her.” Though the unguent applied was ineffective, Casanova was fascinated by the incantation. Perhaps to remedy the nosebleeds (a physician blamed the density of Venice’s air), Casanova, on his ninth birthday, was sent to a boarding house on the mainland in Padua. For Casanova, the neglect by his parents was a bitter memory. “So they got rid of me,” he proclaimed flatly.
Conditions at the boarding house were appalling so he appealed to be placed under the care of Abbé Gozzi, his primary instructor, who tutored him in academic subjects as well as the violin. Casanova moved in with the priest and his family and lived there through most of his teenage years. It was also in the Gozzi household that Casanova first came into contact with the opposite sex, when Gozzi’s younger sister Bettina fondled him at the age of eleven. Bettina 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 the first sparks of a feeling which later became my ruling passion.” Although she subsequently married, Casanova maintained a life-long attachment to Bettina and the Gozzi family.
Early on, Casanova demonstrated a quick wit, an intense appetite for knowledge, and a perpetually inquisitive mind. He entered the University of Padua at twelve and graduated at seventeen, in 1742, with a degree in law (“for which I felt an unconquerable aversion”). It was his guardian’s hope that he would become an ecclesiastical lawyer. Casanova had also studied moral philosophy, chemistry, and mathematics, and was keenly interested in medicine. (“I should have been allowed to do as I wished and become a physician, in which profession quackery, is even more effective than it is in legal practice.”) He frequently prescribed his own treatments for himself and friends. While attending the university, Casanova began to gamble and quickly got into debt, causing his recall to Venice by his grandmother, but the gambling habit became firmly established.
Back in Venice, Casanova started his clerical law career and was admitted as an abbé after being conferred minor orders by the Patriarch of Venice. He shuttled back and forth to Padua to continue his university studies. By now, he had become something of a dandy—tall and dark, his long hair powdered, scented, and elaborately curled. He quickly ingratiated himself with a patron (something he was to do all his life), 76-year-old Venetian senator Alvise Gasparo Malipiero, the owner of Palazzo Malipiero, close to Casanova’s home in Venice. Malipiero moved in the best circles and taught young Casanova a great deal about good food and wine, and how to behave in society. When Casanova was caught dallying with Malipero’s intended object of seduction, actress Teresa Imer, however, the senator drove both of them from his house. Casanova’s growing curiosity about women led to his first complete sexual experience, with two sisters Naneeta and Maria Savorgnan, then fourteen and sixteen, who were distant relatives of the Grimanis. Casanova proclaimed that his life avocation was firmly established by this encounter.
Scandals tainted Casanova’s short church career. After his grandmother’s death, Casanova entered a seminary for a short while, but soon his indebtedness landed him in prison for the first time. An attempt by his mother to secure him a position with bishop Bernardo de Bernardis was rejected by Casanova. Instead, he found employment as a scribe with the powerful Cardinal Acquaviva in Rome. On meeting the Pope, Casanova boldly asked for a dispensation to read the “forbidden books” and from eating fish (which he claimed inflamed his eyes). He also composed love letters for another cardinal. But when Casanova became the scapegoat for a scandal involving a local pair of star-crossed lovers, Cardinal Acquaviva dismissed Casanova, thanking him for his sacrifice, but effectively ending his church career.
In search of a new profession, Casanova bought a commission to become a military officer for the Republic of Venice. His first step was to look the part:
Reflecting that there was now little likelihood of my achieving fortune in my ecclesiastical career, 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.
He went to Corfu, after which he was stationed for a short period in Constantinople. He found his advancement too slow and his duty boring, and he managed to lose most of his pay playing faro. Casanova soon abandoned his military career and returned to Venice.
At the age of 21, he set out to become a professional gambler but losing all his remaining money, he turned to Grimani for a job. Casanova thus began his third career, as a violinist in the San Samuele theater, “a menial journeyman of a sublime art in which, if he who excels is admired, the mediocrity is rightly despised. … My profession was not a noble one, but I did not care. Calling everything prejudice, I soon acquired all the habits of my degraded fellow musicians.” He and some of his fellows, “often spent our nights roaming through different quarters of the city, thinking up the most scandalous practical jokes and putting them into execution … we amused ourselves by untying the gondolas moored before private homes, which then drifted with the current”. They also sent midwives and physicians on false calls.
Unhappy with his lot as a musician, good fortune came to the rescue when Casanova saved the life of a Venetian nobleman of the Bragadin family, who had a stroke while riding with Casanova in a gondola after a wedding ball. They immediately stopped to have the senator bled. Then, at the senator’s palace, a physician bled the senator again and applied an ointment of mercury to the senator’s chest (mercury was an all-purpose but toxic remedy of the time). A priest was called as death seemed to be approaching. Casanova, however, took charge and taking responsibility for a change in treatment, under protest from the attending physician, ordered the removal of the ointment and the senator recovered with rest and a sensible diet. Because of his youth and his facile recitation of medical knowledge, the senator and his two bachelor friends thought Casanova wise beyond his years, and concluded that he must be in possession of occult knowledge. Being cabalists themselves, the senator invited Casanova into his household and he became a life-long patron.
Casanova stated in his memoirs:
I took the most creditable, the noblest, and the only natural course. I decided to put myself in a position where I need no longer go without the necessities of life: and what those necessities were for me no one could judge better than me.… No one in Venice could understand how an intimacy could exist between myself and three men of their character, they all heaven and I all earth; they most severe in their morals, and I addicted to every kind of dissolute living.
For the next three years under the senator’s patronage, working nominally as a legal assistant, Casanova led the life of a nobleman, dressed magnificently, and as was natural to him, spending most of his time gambling and engaging in amorous pursuits. His patron was exceedingly tolerant, but he warned Casanova that some day he would pay the price; “I made a joke of his dire Prophecies and went my way.” However, not much later, Casanova was forced to leave Venice, due to further scandals. Casanova had dug up a freshly buried corpse in order to play a practical joke and exact revenge—but the victim went into a paralysis, never to recover. And in another scandal, a young girl who had duped him accused him of rape and went to the officials.
Escaping to Parma, Casanova entered into a three-month affair with a Frenchwoman he named “Henriette”, perhaps the deepest love he ever experienced—a woman who combined beauty, intelligence, and culture. In his words, “They who believe that a woman is incapable of making a man equally happy all the twenty-four hours of the day have never known an Henriette. The joy which flooded my soul was far greater when I conversed with her during the day than when I held her in my arms at night. Having read a great deal and having natural taste, Henriette judged rightly of everything.” She also judged Casanova astutely. As noted Casanovist J. Rives Childs wrote:
Perhaps 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. She came to discern his volatile nature, his lack of social background, and the precariousness of his finances. Before leaving, she slipped into his pocket five hundred louis, mark of her evaluation of him.
Crestfallen and despondent, Casanova returned to Venice, and after a good gambling streak, he recovered and set off on a Grand Tour, reaching Paris in 1750. Along the way, from one town to another, he got into sexual escapades resembling operatic plots. In Lyon, he entered the society of Freemasonry, which appealed to his interest in secret rites and which, for the most part, attracted men of intellect and influence who proved useful in his life, providing valuable contacts and uncensored knowledge. Many famous 18th Century men were Masons including Mozart and George Washington. Casanova was also attracted to Rosicrucianism.
Casanova stayed in Paris for two years, learned the language, spent much time at the theater, and introduced himself to notables. Soon, however, his numerous liaisons were noted by the Paris police, as they were in nearly every city he visited.
He moved on to Dresden in 1752 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 was not to his liking. He finally returned to Venice in 1753. In Venice, Casanova 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. A state spy, Giovanni Manucci, was employed to draw out Casanova’s knowledge of cabalism and Freemasonry, and to examine his library for forbidden books. Senator Bragadin, in total seriousness this time (being formerly an inquisitor himself), advised his “son” to leave immediately or face the stiffest consequences.
The following day, at age thirty, Casanova was arrested: “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” was the famous prison attached to the Doge's palace, across the Bridge of Sighs, named for the thick lead plates on the roof. Without a trial, Casanova was sentenced to five years in the “unescapable” prison.
At first, he was placed in solitary confinement. Over months, he was given reading matter, better food, and even an armchair, all provided by his patron. During walks he was granted in the prison attic, he found pieces of marble and an iron bar which he secreted back to his cell and hid in his chair. When he was absent temporary cell-mates, he turned the bar into a spike through a month of sharpening. Then he began to dig in the floor, realizing that his cell was just above the Inquisitor’s chamber. Just three days before his intended escape during a festival (when no one would be in the chamber below), Casanova was moved to a “better” cell (with a view), despite his protests that he was perfectly happy where he was. In his new cell, “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.”
Overcoming his inertia, Casanova set upon another escape plan. He solicited the help of the prisoner in the adjacent cell, Father Balbi, a renegade priest. The spike was passed to the priest in a heaping plate of pasta carried on top of a Bible by the hoodwinked jailer. The priest made a hole in his ceiling then climbed across and made a hole in the ceiling of Casanova’s cell. To neutralize his new cell-mate, who was a spy, Casanova played on his superstitions and terrorized him into silence. When Balbi broke through to Casanova’s cell, Casanova lifted himself through the ceiling. He left behind a note with the motto “I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord”.
The spy remained behind, too frightened of the consequences if he would be caught escaping with the others. Casanova and Balbi pried their way through the lead plates and onto the sloping roof of the Doge’s Palace, with a heavy fog swirling. The drop to the nearby canal being too great, Casanova pried open the grate over a dormer window, and broke the window to gain entry. They found a long ladder on the roof, and with the additional use of ropes, lowered themselves into the room whose floor was twenty-five feet below. They rested until morning, changed clothes then broke a small lock on an exit door and passed into palace corridor, through galleries and chambers, down stairs, and out a final door. It was six in the morning and they escaped by gondola. Eventually, Casanova reached Paris, where he arrived on the same day (January 5, 1757) that Robert-François Damiens made an attempt on the life of Louis XV.
Skeptics contend that Casanova’s tale of escape is implausible, and that he simply bribed his way to freedom with the help of his patron. However, some physical evidence does exist in the state records, including repairs to the cell ceilings. Thirty years later in 1787, Casanova wrote Story of My Flight, which was very popular and was reprinted in many languages, and he repeated the tale a little later in his memoirs.
He knew his stay in Paris might be a long one and he proceeded accordingly: “I saw that to accomplish anything I must bring all my physical and moral faculties in play, make the acquaintance of the great and the powerful, exercise strict self-control, and play the chameleon.” Casanova had matured, and this time in Paris, though still depending at times on quick thinking and decisive action, he was more calculating and deliberate. His first task was to find a new patron. He reconnected with old friend de Bernis, now the Foreign Minister of France. Casanova was advised by his patron to find a means of raising funds for the state as a way to gain instant favor. Casanova promptly became one of the trustees of the first state lottery, and one of its best ticket salesmen. The enterprise earned him a large fortune quickly. With money in hand, he traveled in high circles and undertook new seductions. He duped many socialites with his occultism, particularly the Marquees Jeanne d'Urfé, using his excellent memory which made him appear to have a sorcerer’s power of numerology. In Casanova’s view, “deceiving a fool is an exploit worthy of an intelligent man”.
Casanova claimed to be a Rosicrucian and an alchemist, aptitudes which made him popular with some of the most prominent figures of the era, among them Madame de Pompadour, Count de Saint-Germain, d'Alembert and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. So popular was alchemy among the nobles, particularly the search for the “philosopher’s stone”, that Casanova was highly sought after for his supposed knowledge, and he profited handsomely. He met his match, however, in the Count de Saint-Germain: “This very singular man, born to be the most barefaced of all imposters, declared with impunity, with a casual air, that he was three hundred years old, that he possessed the universal medicine, that he made anything he liked from nature, that he created diamonds.”
De Bernis decided to send Casanova to Dunkirk on his first spying mission. Casanova was paid well for his quick work and this experience prompted one of his few remarks against the ancien régime and the class he was dependent on. He remarked in hindsight, “All the French ministers are the same. They lavished money which came out of the other people’s pockets to enrich their creatures, and they were absolute: The down-trodden people counted for nothing, and, through this, the indebtedness of the State and the confusion of finances were the inevitable results. A Revolution was necessary.”
As the Seven Years War began, Casanova was again called to help increase the state treasury. He was entrusted with a mission of selling state bonds in Amsterdam, Holland being the financial center of Europe at the time. He succeeded to sell the bonds at only an 8% discount, and the following year was rich enough to found a silk manufactory with his earnings. The French government even offered him a title and a pension if he would become a French citizen and work on behalf of the Finance Ministry, but he declined, perhaps because it would impede his wanderlust. Casanova had reached his peak of fortune but could not sustain it. He ran the business poorly, borrowed heavily trying to save it, and spent much of his wealth on constant liaisons with his female workers who were his “harem”.
For his debts, Casanova was imprisoned again, this time at Fort-l'Éveque, but was liberated four days afterwards, upon the insistence of the Marquess d'Urfé. Unfortunately, though he was released, his patron de Bernis was dismissed by Louis XV at that time and Casanova’s enemies closed in on him. He sold the rest of his belongings and acquired another mission to Holland to distance himself from his troubles.
This time, however, his mission failed and he fled to Cologne, then Stuttgart in the spring of 1760, where he lost the rest of his fortune. He was yet again arrested for his debts, but managed to escape to Switzerland. Weary of his wanton life, Casanova visited the monastery of Einsiedeln and considered the simple, scholarly life of a monk. He returned to his hotel to think on the decision only to encounter a new object of desire, and reverting to his old instincts, all thoughts of a monk’s life were quickly forgotten. Moving on, he visited Albrecht von Haller and Voltaire, and arrived in Marseille, then Genoa, Florence, Rome, Naples, Modena and Turin, moving from one sexual romp to another.
In 1760, Casanova started styling himself the Chevalier de Seingalt, a name he would increasingly use for the rest of his life. On occasion, he would also call himself Count de Farussi (using his mother's maiden name) and when Pope Clement XIII presented Casanova with the Papal Order of the Éperon d'Òr, he had an impressive cross and ribbon to display on his chest.
Back in Paris, he set about one of his most outrageous schemes—convincing his old dupe the Marquess d'Urfé that he could turn her into a young man through occult means. The plan did not yield Casanova the big payoff he had hoped for, and the Marquess d'Urfé finally lost faith in him.
Casanova traveled to England in 1763, hoping to sell his idea of a state lottery to English officials. He wrote of the English, “the people have a special character, common to the whole nation, which makes them think they are superior to everyone else. It is a belief shared by all nations, each thinking itself the best. And they are all right.” Through his connections, he worked his way up to an audience with King George III, using most of the valuables he had stolen from the Marquess d'Urfé. While working the political angles, he also spent much time in the bedroom, as was his habit. As a means to find females for his pleasure, not being able to speak English, he put an advertisement in the newspaper to let an apartment to the “right” person. He interviewed many young women, choosing one “Mistress Pauline” who suited him well. Soon, he established himself in her apartment and seduced her. These and other liaisons, however, left him weak with venereal disease and he left England broke and ill.
He went on to Belgium, recovered, and then for the next three years, traveled all over Europe, covering about 4,500 miles by coach over rough roads, and going as far as Moscow (the average daily coach trip being about 30 miles in a day). Again, his principal goal was to sell his lottery scheme to other governments and repeat the great success he had with the French government. But a meeting with Frederick the Great bore no fruit and in the surrounding German lands, the same result. Not lacking either connections or confidence, Casanova went to Russia and met with Catherine the Great but she flatly turned down the lottery idea.
In 1766, he was expelled from Warsaw following a pistol duel with Count Colonel Franciszek Ksawery Branicki over an Italian actress, a lady friend of theirs. Both duelists were wounded, Casanova on the left hand. The hand recovered on its own, after Casanova refused the recommendation of doctors that it be amputated. Other stops failed to gain any takers for the lottery. He returned to Paris for several months in 1767 and hit the gambling salons, only to be expelled from France by order of Louis XV himself, primarily for Casanova’s scam involving the Marquess d'Urfé. Now known across Europe for his reckless behavior, Casanova would have difficulty overcoming his notoriety and gaining any fortune. So he headed for Spain, where he was not as well known. He tried his usual approach, leaning on well-placed contacts (often Freemasons), wining and dining with nobles of influence, and finally arranging an audience with the local monarch, in this case Charles III. But when no doors opened for him, however, he could only roam across Spain, with little to show for it. In Barcelona, he escaped an assassination and landed in jail for six weeks. His Spanish adventure a failure, he returned to France briefly, then to Italy.
In Rome, Casanova had to prepare a way for his return to Venice. While waiting for supporters to gain him legal entry into Venice, Casanova began his modern Tuscan-Italian translation of the Iliad, his History of the Troubles in Poland, and a comic play. To ingratiate himself with the Venetian authorities, Casanova did some commercial spying for them. After months without a recall, however, he wrote a letter of appeal directly to the Inquisitors. At last, he received his long sought permission and burst into tears upon reading “We, Inquisitors of State, for reasons known to us, give Giacomo Casanova a free safe-conduct … empowering him to come, go, stop, and return, hold communication wheresoever he pleases without let or hindrance. So is our will.” Casanova was permitted to return to Venice in September 1774 after eighteen years of exile.
At first, his return to Venice was a cordial one and he was a celebrity. Even the Inquisitors wanted to hear how he had escaped from their prison. Of his three bachelor patrons, however, only Dandolo was still alive and Casanova was invited back to live with him. He received a small stipend from Dandolo and hoped to live from his writings, but that was not enough. He reluctantly became a spy again for Venice, paid by piece work, reporting on religion, morals, and commerce, most of it based on gossip and rumor he picked up from social contacts. He was disappointed. No financial opportunities of interest came about and few doors opened for him in society as in the past.
At age 49, the years of reckless living and the thousands of miles of travel had taken its toll. Casanova’s smallpox scars, sunken cheeks, and hook nose became all the more noticeable. His easy going manner now more guarded.
In 1779, Casanova found Francesca, an uneducated seamstress, who became his live-in lover and housekeeper, and who loved him devotedly. Later that year, the Inquisitors put him on the payroll and sent him to investigate commerce between the Papal states and Venice. Other publishing and theater ventures failed, primarily from lack of capital. In a downward spiral, Casanova was expelled again from Venice in 1783, after writing a vicious satire poking fun at Venetian nobility. In it he made his only public statement that Grimani was his true father.
Forced to resume his travels again, Casanova arrived in Paris, and in November 1783 met Benjamin Franklin while attending a presentation on aeronautics and the future of balloon transport. For a while, Casanova served as secretary and pamphleteer to Sebastian Foscarini, Venetian ambassador in Vienna. He also became acquainted with Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist, who noted about Casanova, “This singular man never liked to be in the wrong.” Notes by Casanova indicate that he may have made suggestions to Da Ponte concerning the libretto for Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
In 1785, after Foscarini died, Casanova began searching for another position. A few months later, he became the librarian to Count Joseph Karl von Waldstein, a chamberlain of the emperor, in the Castle of Dux, Bohemia (now Duchcov Castle, Czech Republic). The Count—himself a Freemason, cabalist, and frequent traveler—had taken to Casanova when he had met Casanova a year earlier at Foscarini’s residence. Although the job offered security and good pay, Casanova’s describes his last years as boring and frustrating, even though it was the most productive time for writing. His health had deteriorated dramatically and he found life among peasants to be less than stimulating. He was only able to make occasional visits to Vienna and Dresden for relief. Although Casanova got on well with the Count, his employer was a much younger man with his own eccentricities. The Count often ignored him at meals and failed to introduce him to important visiting guests. Moreover, Casanova, the testy outsider, was thoroughly disliked by most of the other inhabitants of the Castle of Dux. Casanova’s only friends seemed to be his fox terriers. In despair, Casanova considered suicide, but instead decided that he must live on to record his memoirs, which he did until his death. In 1797, word arrived that the Republic of Venice had ceased to exist and Napoleon Bonaparte had seized Casanova’s home city. It was too late to return home. Casanova died on June 4, 1798 at age 73. His last words are said to have been “I have lived as a philosopher and I die as a Christian”.
Czech Republic, 1996, Duchcov Castle, where Casanova died