In the popular imagination the Venetian adventurer Giacomo Casanova (1725–1798) is, above all, a smooth operator, the archetypal “man who loved women”—even if no one today could possibly believe such a sweet talker. Or could they?
Whether Casanova really did all the things he is known for is a question that haunts critical opinion surrounding his enthralling and immensely long book, History of My Life. Over the years this upstart son of Venetian actors seems to have insinuated himself into the palaces of cardinals and the arms of courtesans, hobnobbed with famous philosophers and notorious charlatans. By the time he was fifty Casanova—a/k/a the Chevalier de Seingalt, a/k/a the occult master Paralisée Galtinarde, a/k/a the spy Antonio Pratolini—had lived in Venice, Rome, Istanbul, Corfu, Paris, Geneva, Vienna, Marseille, London, Berlin, Madrid, Moscow, Warsaw, and Trieste. Ten years later—broke, ailing, and apparently cast aside by Fortune—he accepted a sinecure as the librarian at a nobleman’s estate in Dux, a Bohemian backwater of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There, from 1790 to 1798, as blood flowed in the streets of Paris, Casanova scribbled away, recalling happier times, largely for his own amusement and consolation. As he said in a letter:
I write thirteen hours a day which passes like thirteen minutes. What pleasure it is to recall pleasures! But what pain it is to recollect pains. I amuse myself because I do not invent. What bothers me is the necessity I am under to disguise the names for I have no right to publicize the affairs of others.
Early chapters of his story, which he wrote in French, were read by the debonair Prince de Ligne (the so-called “first gentleman of Europe”), who enthusiastically compared them to Montaigne’s essays in their frankness. But the book itself was never finished. Casanova had just reached the year 1774—and his return to Venice after nearly two decades in exile (because he was wanted for escaping from the Leads, the infamous prison in the Doge’s palace)—when he succumbed to an infection of the genito-urinary tract. (Not surprising in one who had, he said, experienced at least eleven episodes of the “pox.”) According to several witnesses, his last words were: “I have lived as a philosopher, and die as a Christian.”
The manuscript of the History then drifted into the hands of a grandnephew, who sold it in 1821 to the Leipzig publishing firm of Brockhaus, which published it in a loose German translation (1822–1828). This was followed a few years later by a French text (1826–1838), edited and reworked by a Jean Laforgue, who had been commissioned by Brockhaus to polish the occasionally Italianate diction and tone down some of its sex scenes (even though the decorous Casanova is never graphic). All subsequent translations—including the one into English by Arthur Machen (1894)—necessarily followed this nineteenth-century travesty. Not until 1960–1962 did Brockhaus, in conjunction with Plon in Paris, finally print the original, to the joy of Casanovists around the world. Willard R. Trask expertly rendered this text into English in 1966, and his is the English version to read, whether entire (twelve volumes bound as six) or in the new abridged Everyman edition, which trims the narrative in half, for those with “other calls on their attention.”
The memoirs themselves offer far more than some four thousand pages of genteel eighteenth-century sexual adventures. They provide a top-to-bottom survey of the glittering, shabby world of Europe before the French Revolution, from the douceur de vivre of the aristocrats to the desperation of the common people. The historians J.H. Plumb and John Julian Norwich have written admiringly of their portrait of the age, and writers as diverse as Stefan Zweig, Edmund Wilson, and V.S. Pritchett have found them compulsively readable. In a textual note to the Everyman edition, Peter Washington compares Casanova’s History of My Life to Proust’s In Search of Lost Time:
Characters recur; experiences are repeated in new circumstances, places revisited, philosophies assessed, adventures pondered, all with cumulative force…. As the author ages, shadows fall across the brilliant surface of his story. A Proustian sense of the passage of time appears, compounded by an equally Proustian need to understand the relationship between outward events and personal evolution.
To liken Casanova’s History to a great novel may suggest that the autobiography verges on fiction. After all, even the most empirical memoir is constantly prey to cosmetic enhancement. Lives are chaotic, messy, and crowded with inessentials, while art requires order, themes, and a pleasing variety so as to transform the detritus of experience into an object of beauty. The temptation to sharpen or improve an anecdote can be irresistible. At what point does the merely artful pass into the fictional?
In Casanova’s case, questions have periodically arisen about his overall reliability and truthfulness. (One nineteenth-century bookseller even argued that the whole History was made up by Stendhal.) Consider the book’s most famous episode: Casanova’s thrilling escape from the Leads, where he had been imprisoned for corrupting Venetian youth and being a general nuisance to certain men in power. Did he and a fellow prisoner actually break through the ceiling of his cell with a long metal bolt, and then scramble across the roof of the Doge’s palace? Or did his patron Matteo Bragadin simply bribe the jailer to let him out?
As it happens, nearly all the evidence confirms that the account in the memoirs is essentially true. The escape was famous during Casanova’s lifetime and, because he was obliged to retell the story so often, he actually published a short account of his “flight from the Leads” (1788). No one, then, questioned its authenticity. That he was the first person ever to break out of the famous prison was widely known throughout Venice. Previous inmates, with far better connections than Casanova, had never been able to buy their way to freedom. Today, virtually every scholar who has studied the Venetian state documents believes that Casanova escaped pretty much just as he says he did.
What about the lengthy conversations—such as the barbed exchanges with Voltaire—that add so much drama to the History’s pages? Can anyone’s memory be that good? In the case of the French philosophe, Casanova tells us that each night he scribbled down everything he could remember about his talks with the great man. The distinguished authority on Voltaire Theodore M. Besterman was convinced of the essential accuracy of their encounters. At several points, Casanova casually alludes to his trunks full of papers. Researchers conjecture that such memoranda, notebooks, and correspondence provide the basic foundation for History of My Life, even though most of this material is now lost (and much of it probably burned). All through the nineteenth century visitors to Dux would take away scraps of Casanova’s manuscripts as souvenirs.
In general, scholars and biographers, such as the eminent Casanovist J. Rives Childs, admit that some elements in the memoirs may be embroidered, and that sometimes two episodes are telescoped into one, but that documents in archives, newspaper morgues, and record offices confirm most of what we are told about Casanova’s public career as an adventurer, professional gambler, and occasional spy. Extensive endnotes to the Trask translation of the memoirs identify hundreds of the figures in the text, even those mentioned only by their initials or under patently false names.
Casanova disguised the identities of the more prominent women with whom he carried on, making it difficult to track down the people hidden behind the abbreviations C.C., M.M., Madame de…, and Mademoiselle XCV. But as Judith Summers shows in her excellent Casanova’s Women, a good many of these figures have now been traced with reasonable certainty. (For example, the singer that Casanova first notices in her disguise as a castrato named Bellino is very likely Angiola Calori, later a well-known diva; Madame de… is the Baroness de Roll whom Boswell met in 1764.) Casanova tended to describe women as younger than they were—some tender beauties were often closer to thirty than to sweet sixteen. (It’s been suggested that many of the ladies may have simply lied to him about their age.) Today Casanova’s alleged intimacy with at least 150 women and some very young girls remains an impressive (or repugnant) number, yet it is hardly extraordinary by the contemporary standards of a serious coureur de femmes, rock star, or basketball player. The overall believability of his account also seems underscored by his willingness to mention occasional nights of impotence and faked orgasm, to acknowledge his incestuous feelings (and actions), and to confess that his sexual capacities greatly ebbed in his thirties.
In the end, it is obviously impossible to verify the more intimate details in Casanova’s memoirs, though the book does strike most readers—as well as knowledgeable scholars—as a basically reliable account of an extraordinary life. Aspects of that life may be distressing to modern sensibilities, but they largely conform to what we know about eighteenth-century manners from Rousseau’s Confessions and Boswell’s journals. Autre temps, autre moeurs. Certainly, few books better convey the sheer, exuberant joy of being alive and young than these reminiscences. As their author writes in his preface:
Cultivating whatever gave pleasure to my senses was always the chief business of my life; I have never found any occupation more important. Feeling that 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. I have also been extravagantly fond of good food and irresistibly drawn by anything which could excite curiosity.
In his prime, Casanova was over six feet tall, darkly handsome, generous, decisive, and self-confident, a good dancer, funny, and passionately attentive to the people who interested him. From the moment he fell for a woman her surrender became the burning focal point of all his energies, thoughts, and schemes. “When a man is given time, he achieves his aim by attention, and when he is pressed…he makes use of presents and gold.” Usually completely infatuated, if only temporarily, Casanova often plans to marry his current inamorata, though in the end he can’t ever quite give up his freedom. Even then he seldom abandons the woman—instead he finds her a husband, lines up a new protector, or sends her home with gifts and money. Never aggressive or brutal, he refuses to take advantage of anyone who is tipsy, and reveals no taste for kinky fetishism or sadomasochism. Sex is vile, he insists, without “love.” Though he may be a libertine, he always aspires to act as a man of honor. At least three times he generously helps pregnant women who have been jilted by their lovers. Ultimately, giving pleasure, he says, is far more important than receiving it.
In fact, the giving of pleasure drives these recollections. As Casanova feels the shadows closing in, he writes himself back into the sunny world of the past. His style throughout is clear and direct; he takes his time in setting up and describing a scene, and yet he lets nothing go on too long. His prose can be punchy (“economy spoils pleasure”), dramatic, lyrical, or philosophical. His amours actually take up only about a third of his narrative, leaving much room for discussion of financial ventures (the establishment of a lottery, the operation of his silk factory), the character of the cities and countries he visits, and the aristocrats, theater people, and con artists with whom he mingles. Above all, he does what he does best even now—he charms his audience.
Consider the memoirs’ seductive opening, describing Casanova’s earliest known ancestors. It could easily be mistaken for a sentence by Gabriel Garcìa Márquez:
In the year 1428 Don Jacobe Casanova, born at Saragossa, the capital of Aragon, natural son of Don Francisco, abducted Donna Anna Palafox from a convent on the day after she had taken her vows.
The surprise at the end—“the day after she had taken her vows”—characterizes the rhythm of the History as a whole. Consciously or not, Casanova packs his narrative with as many surprises and unexpected turns as life itself. Perhaps his great discovery as an autobiographer lies in showing that nothing we experience is ever entirely finished: the most unlikely people turn up again and again, and each time they add a new layer to a relationship.
From boyhood, Giacomo was educated to become a cleric, but as a teenager abandoned that vocation to begin trying out one new career after another: soldier, diplomat, fiddler, magician, con artist, factory owner, mathematician, professional gambler, secret agent, writer. As a man about Europe, he displayed as voracious an appetite for learning as for wine and women (he didn’t much care for music). Horace and Ariosto were his favorite poets and he apparently knew their work by heart. He composed a history of Poland, translated the Iliad into Italian, brought out several mathematical studies, and hoped for a best seller with a five-volume Utopian romance set inside a hollow earth (Icosameron, 1788). As for non-Utopian romance, he slept with serving girls, actresses, several sets of sisters, opera stars, French aristocrats, at least three nuns, a few men, and his own daughter.
Several of these women appear and then reappear during his wanderings. For instance, early in life, Casanova spends some weeks on a country estate in Italy, and grows besotted with an adolescent chambermaid named Lucia. But she is so guileless and innocent that he never attempts more than the occasional caress. Wrong, wrong, wrong, he tells us, one of the darkest sins of his life. Why? Because he had awakened her sexual desires without satisfying them, and a few months after he’d gone back to Venice she ran off with a courier, a blatant scoundrel. End of story? Far from it, he notes, thus piquing the reader’s curiosity. As usual, though, we are soon on to other adventures, and Lucia is forgotten.
Hundreds of pages and eighteen years later, Casanova finds himself in Amsterdam, where he idly wanders into a kind of nightclub:
It was a musicau—a dark orgy in a place which was a veritable sewer of vice, a disgrace to even the most repellent debauchery. The very sound of the two or three instruments which made up the orchestra plunged the soul in sadness. A room reeking with the smoke of bad tobacco, with the stench of garlic which came from the belches emitted by the men who were dancing or sitting with a bottle or a pot of beer to their right and a hideous slattern to their left….
A shady-looking character soon points out a Venetian woman in the shadows. Impelled by his usual curiosity, Casanova takes a chair next to her, but in the smoke-filled gloom it’s hard to make out her features. Is she really Venetian? He is brought a bottle, gives her some change, and she offers him a painted kiss, which he refuses. She tells him a little about her past:
An estate in Friuli, eighteen years, a courier—I am moved, I look at her closely, and I recognize Lucia of Pasiano…. Far more than age, debauchery had withered her face and all its appurtenances. Lucia, fond, pretty, ingenuous Lucia, whom I had loved so much and whom I had spared out of delicacy, in such a state, ugly, repellent, in a brothel in Amsterdam! She drank without looking at me and without caring to know who I was.
Such shocks recur throughout the memoirs. One night Casanova attends a vocal concert, after which its star attraction—an old flame named Teresa Imer, later known as Mrs. Cornelys—passes the hat. As is his custom when in funds, Casanova gives generously to the singer, whom he hasn’t seen in several years. But then:
I looked closely at a little girl of four or five years who was following her and who, when she reached the end of the row, came back and kissed my hand. I was extremely surprised when I saw that the child had precisely my features. I managed to hide it, but the little girl stood there staring at me.
This child, Sophie, will eventually become one of the main reasons that Casanova travels to England. In London he then meets a professional beauty named Marianne de Charpillon and realizes that he already knows her. Back in Paris, six or seven years earlier, he had been romancing a shopkeeper’s wife and one afternoon had taken her to an expensive jewelry store. There a young girl of around twelve, in the company of her grandmother, was weeping because she could not afford a pair of earrings. To impress his new mistress, Casanova gallantly bought the earrings for the child. She has become La Charpillon. Now, all grown up, the seductress warns him not to fall in love with her, but he does—and is teased, toyed with, frustrated, fleeced, and finally driven to contemplate suicide. In the end, an embittered Casanova acquires a parrot and teaches it to say: “Miss Charpillon is more of a whore than her mother.”
Still, of all the chance encounters in a crowded life none matches the romantic story of the mysterious Henriette, the great lover’s greatest love. About their three idyllic months together in Parma, Casanova writes:
They who believe that a woman is incapable of making a man equally happy all the twenty-four hours of a day have never known a 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 during the night.
One day, though, Henriette receives a letter that compels a return home to France. Casanova escorts her as far as Geneva. Having never told him her real name, she now asks that he never seek to find her again. Once her carriage drives off, the weeping lover goes back to their room at a hotel called the Scales—and notices something. “On one of its two windows I saw written: ‘You will forget Henriette too.’ She had written the words with the point of a small diamond, set in a ring, which I had given her.”
Yet this isn’t the end to what the critic Edmund Wilson called “one of the most attractive love affairs in literature.” Many years later, Casanova happens to be passing through Geneva, with much on his mind. He idly takes a room at the Scales:
It was August 20, 1760.
Going to the window, I happen to look at the panes and I see, written with the point of a diamond: “You will forget Henriette too.” Instantly remembering the moment when she had written the words for me thirteen years earlier, I felt my hair stand on end. We had stayed in that very room when she parted from me to return to France. I flung myself into a chair to indulge in all my reflections. Ah, my dear Henriette! Noble and fond Henriette whom I had so greatly loved, where are you? I had never heard or asked news of her from anyone. Comparing myself with myself, I decided that I was less worthy to possess her than I had been then. I could still love, but I found in myself neither the delicacy which was then mine, nor the exalted feeling which justify the errors of the senses, nor considerateness, nor a certain probity; and, what horrified me
—and here is the Casanovan realism—“I did not have the same vigor.”
As it happens, Fortune still isn’t finished with Casanova and Henriette. For, there comes a day, when traveling in the vicinity of Aix-en-Provence, that the Venetian’s carriage breaks down near an isolated château and a heavily cloaked figure appears…. But readers should discover on their own what happens next.
Perhaps more important in Casanova’s adult life than Henriette, or the delightful and innocent C.C., or that ravenous voluptuary—and nun—called M.M., was the Marquise d’Urfé, who once possessed the “finest bosom in France.” But that was forty years before she meets our hero; what matters now is that she is immensely wealthy and entirely convinced of the truth of alchemy. Casanova has already passed himself off as a magus several times. Once, having met a man who proudly revealed that he owned the rusty knife with which Saint Peter cut off the high priest’s ear, a hesitant Casanova confessed that he knew the location of its sheath, which he duly supplied for just a trifling consideration. That was amusing, but this rich noblewoman is serious business.
The obsessed Madame d’Urfé reveres Paracelsus, pores over rare alchemical manuscripts, and knows all about the magic properties of pentangles. Casanova quickly leads her to believe that he is an immensely powerful adept, an occult master able to topple nations on a whim. His powers derive chiefly from an “elemental spirit” named Paralis, with whom he communicates via number cabalism. Yes, Madame d’Urfé is graciously permitted to ask Paralis a question:
Trembling with joy, Madame d’Urfé writes her question; I put it into figures, then into a pyramid as always, and I make her obtain the answer, which she herself puts into letters…. She sees before her eyes the word which was required to decode her manuscript. I left her, taking with me her soul, her heart, her mind, and all her remaining common sense.
Needless to say, Casanova’s acolyte is soon regularly underwriting his expenses (perhaps to the tune of a million francs), in the hopes of benefiting from his ancient and profound wisdom. Madame d’Urfé’s most cherished dream is to transfer her soul into a young male body. Unsurprisingly, Casanova knows just the ritual that will allow Seramis, as he now calls her, to give birth to herself as a male child—it requires the assistance of a water sprite (actually a hot little number named Marcolina dressed in green) and some of the most difficult sex of the Venetian adventurer’s career. That Casanova can give such a convincing account of himself as a crook and a charlatan adds to the plausibility of his memoirs.
Throughout his reminiscences, Casanova is constantly on the move—some scholars have speculated that he worked as a secret agent of the Freemasons—and he observes his surroundings with the eye of a sociologist. The streetwalkers in Vienna all carry rosaries, he says, so that they can tell the police that they are on their way to church. In Madrid he is shocked that he must leave his room at an inn unlocked so the Holy Inquisition can check up on him. What, Casanova asks, might they be so curious about?
Everything. To see if you eat meat on a fast day. To see if there are several people of both sexes in the room, if the women sleep alone or with men, and to learn if women who sleep with men are their legitimate wives, and to be able to take them to prison if their marriage certificates do not speak in their favor. The Holy Inquisition, Señor Don Jaime, is ever on the watch in our country for our eternal salvation.
As this suggests, Casanova possesses a dry, and sometimes self-deprecating, humor. Sassy Marcolina tells him that “I seemed to travel only to bring happiness to unfortunate girls, provided that I found them pretty.” Once an unknown Parisienne offers the young Venetian a ride home late at night, and the pair dally together in the carriage. A few days later he glimpses her again at a salon and politely asks her to introduce him to the hostess. She replies that, unfortunately, she cannot, not knowing the monsieur to whom she is speaking. “I told you my name, Madame. Do you not remember me?” The noblewoman then coolly answers, “I remember you perfectly; but such escapades are no ground for claiming acquaintance.”
Casanova’s Europe is full of such distinctive characters. He encounters a gigolo nicknamed Count Six Times, spends an evening with that charismatic charlatan the Comte de Saint-Germain (who is never seen to eat and claims to be several hundred years old), and even “discovers” the rosy-bottomed Miss Louise O’Morphy, now immortal from Boucher’s provocative portrait. In fact, every day seems to bring a fresh adventure. Casanova fights duels with aristocrats and discusses taxes with Frederick the Great (who admires his body). He banters with the Pope and walks in a garden with Catherine of Russia. Late in life, he even chats with Benjamin Franklin about balloon flight and with Mozart’s librettist Lorenzo da Ponte about Don Giovanni (to which musicologists believe he contributed some plot ideas).
Notwithstanding the generally Chaucerian zest of his recollections, Casanova periodically reminds us that he writes as a depressed old man, in a godforsaken castle in the middle of nowhere. He confesses that after the Charpillon affair his youthful confidence began to diminish. By his forties his patrons and friends were dead and dying, and he was finding himself less welcome among the well-to-do. Women no longer flirted with him, and he often had to exert all his skill to win their favors.
Still, in his memories, he could relive some of the more delicious moments and, like the randy Wife of Bath, recognize that “I have had my world as in my tyme.” There were those crazed weeks when M.M. led him into all sorts of excess. She owned I Modi, the little book of Aretino’s postures, the one with the explicit illustrations by Giulio Romano. Perhaps they could try a few, he had suggested. “That is very like you,” she had answered, observing that “some of them are impossible and even silly.” “True, but four are very interesting.” Happy times.
Giacomo Casanova led the kind of lucky, adventurous life that many people fantasize about when young—and then set aside for careers, families, children, respectability. Not this largely amoral yet winning social climber and cheerful amorist. He experienced the world as his own theater and seraglio, and then told us that, for the most part, it was all quite wonderful:
Those who say that life is only a combination of misfortunes mean that life itself is a misfortune. If it is a misfortune, then death is a happiness. Such people did not write in good health, with their purses stuffed with money, and contentment in their souls from having held Cecelias and Marinas in their arms and being sure that there were more of them to come…. If pleasure exists, and we can only enjoy it in life, then life is a happiness. There are misfortunes, of course, as I should be the first to know. But the very existence of these misfortunes proves that the sum of good is greater. I am infinitely happy when I am in a dark room and see the light coming through a window which opens on a vast horizon.
May 31, 2007