The Rake’s Progress

Casanova’s Europe: Art, Pleasure, and Power in the Eighteenth Century

an exhibition at the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, August 27–December 31, 2017; the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, February 10–May 28, 2018; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, July 8–October 8, 2018

Casanova: The Seduction of Europe

Catalog of the exhibition edited by Frederick Ilchman, Thomas Michie, C.D. Dickerson III, and Esther Bell
Museum of Fine Arts, 344 pp., $45.00
Collection George Ortiz, Switzerland
Jean-Honoré Fragonard: The Desired Moment, circa 1770

“He would have been a very handsome man had he not been so ugly,” noted Casanova’s friend and fellow bel esprit Prince Charles-Joseph de Ligne, who knew him only at the end of his life. “He is large, as well-built as Hercules, but with the coloring of an African.” This is confirmed in the passport issued to the thirty-two-year-old Jacques Cazanua (sic) by the French government on August 27, 1757, requesting permission for him to travel freely in Flanders for two months. Here he is described as “approximately five pieds 10 and a half pouces in height [6 feet, 2 inches]; with a long, swarthy face and a long, large nose; and a big mouth with brown, bulging eyes.”1 The official description doesn’t quite conform to the portrait drawing of him, made around 1751 by his younger brother Francesco, one of only two authentic likenesses of Casanova to have survived.

The life and times of Giacomo Casanova (1725–1798)—perhaps the most recognizable historical figure of eighteenth-century Europe, Merriam-Webster’s archetype of the “promiscuous and unscrupulous lover”—are the subject of “Casanova’s Europe: Art, Pleasure, and Power in the Eighteenth Century,” a terrific exhibition organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in collaboration with the Kimbell Art Museum and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.2 Following the French National Library’s acquisition of the 3,700-page manuscript of Casanova’s memoirs in 2010 for $9.6 million, there have been two new scholarly editions of this enjoyable, self-aggrandizing, and—for the most part—accurate account of the first fifty years of the author’s life. A Pléiade edition was published by Gallimard between 2013 and 2015; the indispensable three-volume Bouquins edition, first published by Robert Laffont in 1993, has been revised and reissued, the last volume appearing in April of this year. There has yet to be a new English translation, and anglophone readers must still rely on Willard R. Trask’s six-volume History of My Life, which appeared between 1966 and 1970.3

Casanova’s Histoire de ma vie, written between 1790 and 1794, ends abruptly with the author in Trieste in 1774, just before he returns to Venice after an exile of eighteen years. The autobiography records several decades of travel throughout Europe, as well as two visits to Constantinople, in which Casanova covered an estimated 70,000 kilometers in conveyances that ranged from an oxcart to a six-horse luxury Schlafwagen. (Increasingly, his travel was motivated by the need to escape creditors.) Casanova may have visited as many as 134 cities and lived in at least twenty of them. He is estimated to have slept with between 122 and 136 women and a handful of men; to have sired at least eight children (and to have committed incest with one of his daughters); and to have contracted venereal disease eleven times. He fought at least…

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