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Giacomo Casanova: Profile of One of History’s Greatest Memoirists



"Soldier, spy, diplomat, writer, adventurer, bon vivant… chiefly remembered from his autobiography, which has established his reputation as the most famous erotic hero. Casanova’s memoirs are a fascinating (albeit unreliable) account of his adventures with 122 women – according to his own counts – but they also provide an intimate portrait of the manners and life in the 18th century. His countless projects, employments, and initiatives took him through the courts of Europe – in Paris he was employed to do some espionage work by Louis XV and from London he tried to sell the secret of a cotton red dye to his own country.“I saw that everything in the world that is famous and beautiful, if we rely on the descriptions and drawings of writers and artists, always loses when we go to see it and examine it up close.” (from Histoire de ma vie, 1966-71)

Giacomo Casanova was born in Venice. His father, Gaetano Casanova was an actor, who also directed some plays. He had married in 1724 Giovanna Maria (Zanetta) Farussi, an actress, and a perfect beauty. In his childhood Casanova suffered from nose bleeds, and his parents thought that he would not live long. Strong women dominated his life: his mother and a witch who helped him to stop the bleeding. Later in his life he occasionally dressed himself as a woman. Casanova’s parents left him in the care of his maternal grandmother, Marzia Farussi, and went off to London. Zanetta and Gaetano returned to Venice in 1728. Casanova’s father died in 1733 but Zanetta turned down all her suitors and decided to support her children on her own. However, she soon left Venice and ended in Dresden, where she was a member of the Comici Italiani ensemble.

According to Casanova’s History of My Life, he learned to read in a less than a month. In 1734 Casanova was sent to live with Doctor Gozzi in Padua. He received a good education, and showed early extraordinary cleverness. He studied at the University of Padua and at the seminary of St. Cyprian from where he was expelled for scandalous conduct. Drinking and love affairs ended his plans to become a priest, but he never gave up his belief in the existence of an immortal God. “What assumes me that I have never doubted Him is that I have always counted on His providence, turning to Him through the medium of prayer in all my moments of distress, and finding my entreaties always answered.” Casanova served in the army for some time, played violin, but not very successfully, and worked for the lawyer Manzoni. In 1742 he received his doctorate from Padua. In 1744 he became a secretary to Cardinal Acquaviva of Rome. A scandal again forced Casanova to leave the city and he traveled in Naples, Corfu, and Constantinople, settling in Venice. He had a love affair with Signora F. and in 1746 he was a violinist in the San Samuel theater in Venice.

Casanova enjoyed good health until very late in life – he was five feet nine inches and he had a very dark skin. He contracted his first venereal disease in adolescence and the pox, gonorrhea, ‘Celtic humors,’ and other venereal diseases marked different periods of his life. He also learned the rudiments of medicine and when sick he recovered by following a strict diet of nitrate water for six weeks. Although his sex life was very lively, he did not enjoy orgies, which were popular among the high society. Once he said: “Real love is the love that sometimes arises after sensual pleasure: if it does, it is immortal; the other kind inevitably goes stale, for it lies in mere fantasy.”

Casanova met in 1749 his great love, the young and mysterious Frenchwoman, Henriette, in Cesena. “People who believe that a woman is not enough to make a man equally happy all the twenty-four hours of a day have never known an Henriette.” Henriette left him, returned to his family, and Casanova remembers it in his autobiography as one of the saddest moments in his life. “What is love?” he asked, and compared love to an incurable illness and divine monster. He went to Lyons, where he was received as a Freemason. By 1750 he had worked as a clergyman, secretary, soldier, and violinist in several countries.

Suspected by the Inquisition, Casanova traveled from town to town – to Paris, Dresden, Prague, and Vienna, and then to Venice. In Dresden he traslated the opera Zoroastre into Italian and his mother had the role of Erinice in the play. With François Prévost d’Exiles he wrote a play, LES THESSALIENNES, which had four performances at the Comédie-Italienne in Paris in 1752. His parody of Racine’s The Thébaïde, is performed in Dresden in 1753.

Casanova’s freedom ended in 1755 for a year. He was arrested, his manuscripts, books, works on magic, and Arentino’s book on sexual positions were seized. Casanova was denounced as a magician and sentenced for five years in lead chambers under the roof of the Doge’s Palace. The dungeos is extremely hot. He managed to escape with his friend, Father Balbi. “I then turned and looked at the entire length of the beautiful canal, and, seeing not a single boat, admired the most beautiful day one could hope for, the first rays of a magnificent sun rising above the horizon…” Casanova made his way to Paris, where his escape made him a celebrity. Like Dostoevsky later, Casanova was a gambler and in 1757 he introduced the lottery. This invention made him a millionaire. He also established a workshop for manufacturing printed silk, hiring twenty young girls to do the work. From the marquise D’Urfé he cheated huge sums of money.

During his years in exile Casanova came in contact with such luminaries as Louis XV, Rousseau, and Mme. Pompadour. In 1760 he fled from his creditors and traveled across Europe. Casanova continues his adventures in Naples, England, Germany, and Spain. He translated Voltaire’s comedy L’Ecossaise for Pietro Rossi’s troupe of actors in Genoa. In 1772 he wrote, in Italian, the well-documented History of Unrest in Poland. Between 1774 and 1782 he worked as a spy for the Venetian inquisitors of state. His literary efforts did not meet success. In 1787 Casanova met Mozart in Prague, and attended the first performance of the opera Don Giovanni. The libretto was written by Lorenzo Da Ponte, but Casanova had earlier told the composer some episodes of his life. In one text Casanova sees that women are responsible for Don Giovanni’s evil deeds:

“The blame lies entirely with the female sex for bewitching his mind and enslaving his heart. Oh, seducing sex! Source of pain! Let a poor innocent person go in peace.” (from Casanova or the Art of Happiness by Lydia Flem, 1997)

Casanova wrote seven issues of OPUSCOLI MISCELLENEI, ten of MESSAGER DE THALIE, one of TALIA, an adaptation of a novel by Mme de Tencin, and The Siege of Calais. His novel, NE AMORI NE DONNE, OVVERO LA STALLA RIPULITA, sent him into a second exile. In Prague he published SOLILOQUE D’UN PENSEUR, a denunciation of Cagliostro and Saint-Germain and next year appeared an episode from his Story of My Flight. From 1785 he spent as a librarian in the service of the Count of Waldstein in the castle of Dux, Bohemia (now Duchcov, Czech Republic). During his last years the toothless Casanova concentrated on his memoirs “to keep from going mad or dying of grief”. His physician, James Columb O’Reilly, had adviced him: “For several moths you must give up gloomy studies which tire the brain, and sex; for the time being you must be lazy, and, as a kind of relief, you might review the happy days spent in Venice and other parts of the world.” The Memoirswritten in French, tell the story of Casanova’s life until 1744. They give a colorful picture of the culture of the 18th century Europe. Original manuscript, sold by Casanova’s family to the German firm of F.A. Brockhaus in 1821, was not released until 1960. The texts used up that time were based on a 28-volume German translation (1822-1828) and a highly inaccurate French edition (1838). The integral French text was first published as Histoire de ma vie in 1960-1962. The first full English edition was translated by W.R. Trask in six volumes (1966-71).

Casanova died on June 4, 1798. Among his last lady friend was Cecile von Roggendorf, a twenty-two-year-old canoness, and Elise von der Recke, who sent him soup and wine.

Article by Dennis Payne, September 13, 2013


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