Soldier, spy, diplomat, writer, adventurer, chiefly remembered from his autobiography, which has established his reputation as the most famous erotic hero. Casanova's memoirs are a fascinating but 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." (in History of My Life, 1966-71)
Giacomo Casanova was born in Venice. His father, Gaetano Casanova was an actor, a low ranking job in society, but he also directed some plays. He had married in 1724 Giovanna Maria (Zanetta) Farussi, an actress, and a perfect beauty. Her father, so it was said, died of shame within a month of the wedding. Casanova himself claimed that his real father was a theatre-owner called Michele Grimani,a descendant of a Spanish nobleman.
In his childhood Casanova suffered from nose bleeds, and his parents thought that he would not live long. "My illness made me a gloomy child, and not the least bit amusing." 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.
From early on, Casanova showed extraordinary cleverness, and in spite of his humble background, he was able to receive a good education. According to History of My Life, he learned to read in a less than a month. With the help of Abbé Grimani, the brother of his true father, Casanova was sent in 1734 to live with Doctor Gozzi in Padua. He studied at the University of Padua and at the seminary of St. Cyprian from where he was expelled for scandalous conduct. Casanovahe felt an "unconquerable aversion" to the legal profession, and 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 – initially he was attracted by the smart uniforms –, played violin, but not very successfully, and worked for the lawyer Manzoni. In 1742 he received his doctorate from Padua. A few years later he became a secretary to Cardinal Acquaviva of Rome, but a scandal again forced Casanova to leave the city and he traveled in Naples, Corfu, and Constantinople. Eventually he settled in Venice, where he had a love affair with Signora F. In 1746 he was a violinist in the San Samuel theater.
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 her 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 translated 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, was 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 dungeon 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 on, Casanova was a gambler. "I loved to spend, and my heart bled when I could not do it with money won at cards." 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. While in London, a courtesan named Marianne Charpillon stole all his money. Moreover, she had refused to go to bed with him. To get revenge, Casanova bought a parrot and trained it to recite "Miss Charpillon is more of a whore than her mother." The parrot nearly got sued for libel.
From Ausburg Casanova wrote a letter to Prince Charles of Courlande on the subject of fabricating cold. For Pietro Rossi's troupe of actors in Genoa he translated Voltaire's Le Café ou l'Ecossaise. Originally the comedy had been published in 1760 as a translation from the English of a "M. Hume". Voltaire did not like Casanova's achievement. "My self-esteem was so wounded by this," Casanova said in his memoirs, "that I became the sworn enemy of the great Voltaire." 1772 he wrote, in Italian, the well-documented History of Unrest in Poland.
Between 1774 and 1782 Casanova served 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." (in Casanova or the Art of Happiness by Lydia Flem, 1997)
Casanova wrote seven issues of Opuscoli miscellenei, ten of Le Messager De Thalie, one of Talia, an adaptation of a novel by Mme de Tencin, and The Siege of Calais. His novel, Nè amori nè donne: ovvero, La stalla ripulita, sent him into a second exile. In Prague he published Le soliloque d'un penseur, a denunciation of Cagliostro and Saint-Germain. The history of his flight from "The Leads" came out in 1788. "The subject in itself is captivating," wrote the German Litteratur-Zeitung, "all prisoners awake our compassion, particularly when they are enclosed in a severe prison and are possibly innocent."
From 1785 Casanova 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". Casanova finished the twelfth volume in 1792, with his age at forty-seven years. He also tried to find a solution to the famous old problem of the duplication of the cube. His physician, James Columb O'Reilly, had advised 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 Memoirs, written in French which he thought more sophisticated than his native Italian, tell the story of Casanova's life until 1744. They give a colorful picture of the culture of the 18th century Europe. The 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. He had suffered from bladder trouble for three-and-a-half months. 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.
Casanova's main work was his autobiography, first published in complete form in the 1960s. He also published verse, translation of the Iliad, a satirical pamphlet on Venetian aristocracy, and an utopist novel L'Icosameron, where brother and sister spend 81 years inside the Earth, meet strange creatures called Mégamigres, and mate in the new Eden. The novel, dedicated to Count Waldstein, occupies 5 volumes, and was probably influenced by Voltaire's Micromégas and Ludvig Holberg's Nicolaii Klimii Iter Subterraneum (A Journey to the World Underground). (Other adventure stories inside the earth: Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Edgar Rice Burrough's Pellucidar novels.)
Anton Raphael Mengs
The only things about which he knows nothing are those which he believes himself to be expert: the rules of the dance, the French language, good taste, the way of the world, savoir vivre. It is only his comedies which are not funny, only his philosophical works which lack philosophy—all the rest are filled with it; there is always something weighty, new, piquant, profound. He is a well of knowledge, but he quotes Homer and Horace ad nauseam. His wit and his sallies are like Attic salt. He is sensitive and generous, but displease him in the slightest and he is unpleasant, vindictive, and detestable. He believes in nothing except what is most incredible, being superstitious about everything. He loves and lusts after everything. ... He is proud because he is nothing. ... Never tell him you have heard the story he is going to tell you. ... Never omit to greet him in passing, for the merest trifle will make him your enemy.
Prince Charles de Ligne
Casanova's unpublished works include Essai de critique sur les moeurs, sur les sciences et sur les arts (Critical Essay on Morals, Sciences, and Arts); Lucubration sur l'Usure (Lucubration on Usury); and Reverie sur la Mesure moyenne de notre Année, selon la Réformation Grégoire (Reflections on the Common Reckoning of Our Year According to the Gregorian Reform). At his death he left behind some 8,000 pages of other manuscripts.
For further reading: Giacomo Casanova, His Life and Memoirs, ed. George Dunning Gribble (1929); The Other Casanova by Paul Nettl (1949); Casanova: A New Perspective by J. Rivers Childs (1960); Casanova by John Masters (1969); Life of Casanova by Mitchell Buck (1977); The Quadrille of Gender: Casanova's Memoirs by Francois Roustang (1988); The Man Who Really Loved Women by Lydia Flem (1997); Casanova in Love by Andrew Miller (1998 - note: fictional story of Casanova in London); Casanova: His Known and Unknown Lifeby Endore Guy (2001); Casanova and His Time by Edouard Maynial (2003)
|Jean Honoré Fragonard|
For Casanova, as well as his contemporary sybarites of the upper class, love and sex tended to be casual and not endowed with the seriousness characteristic of the Romanticism of the 19th century. Flirtations, bedroom games, and short-term liaisons were common among nobles who married for social connections rather than love.
Although multi-faceted and complex, Casanova's personality, as he described it, was dominated by his sensual urges: "Cultivating whatever gave pleasure to my senses was always the chief business of my life; I never found any occupation more important. Feeling that I was born for the sex opposite of mine, I have always loved it and done all that I could to make myself loved by it." He noted that he sometimes used "assurance caps" to prevent impregnating his mistresses.
Casanova's ideal liaison had elements beyond sex, including complicated plots, heroes and villains, and gallant outcomes. In a pattern he often repeated, he would discover an attractive woman in trouble with a brutish or jealous lover (Act I); he would ameliorate her difficulty (Act II); she would show her gratitude; he would seduce her; a short exciting affair would ensue (Act III); feeling a loss of ardor or boredom setting in, he would plead his unworthiness and arrange for her marriage or pairing with a worthy man, then exit the scene (Act IV). As William Bolitho points out in Twelve Against the Gods, the secret of Casanova's success with women "had nothing more esoteric in it than [offering] what every woman who respects herself must demand: all that he had, all that he was, with (to set off the lack of legality) the dazzling attraction of the lump sum over what is more regularly doled out in a lifetime of installments."
Casanova advises, "There is no honest woman with an uncorrupted heart whom a man is not sure of conquering by dint of gratitude. It is one of the surest and shortest means." Alcohol and violence, for him, were not proper tools of seduction. Instead, attentiveness and small favors should be employed to soften a woman's heart, but "a man who makes known his love by words is a fool". Verbal communication is essential—"without speech, the pleasure of love is diminished by at least two-thirds"—but words of love must be implied, not boldly proclaimed.
Mutual consent is important, according to Casanova, but he avoided easy conquests or overly difficult situations as not suitable for his purposes. He strove to be the ideal escort in the first act—witty, charming, confidential, helpful—before moving into the bedroom in the third act. Casanova claims not to be predatory ("my guiding principle has been never to direct my attack against novices or those whose prejudices were likely to prove an obstacle"); however, his conquests did tend to be insecure or emotionally exposed women.
Casanova valued intelligence in a woman: "After all, a beautiful woman without a mind of her own leaves her lover with no resource after he had physically enjoyed her charms." His attitude towards educated women, however, was typical for his time: "In a woman learning is out of place; it compromises the essential qualities of her sex ... no scientific discoveries have been made by women ... (which) requires a vigor which the female sex cannot have. But in simple reasoning and in delicacy of feeling we must yield to women."
Casanova was recognized by his contemporaries as an extraordinary person, a man of far-ranging intellect and curiosity. Casanova was one of the foremost chroniclers of his age. He was a true adventurer, traveling across Europe from end to end in search of fortune, seeking out the most prominent people of his time to help his cause. He was a servant of the establishment and equally decadent as his times, but also a participant in secret societies and a seeker of answers beyond the conventional. He was religious, a devout Catholic, and believed in prayer: "Despair kills; prayer dissipates it; and after praying man trusts and acts." Along with prayer he also believed in free will and reason, but clearly did not subscribe to the notion that pleasure-seeking would keep him from heaven.
He was, by vocation and avocation, a lawyer, clergyman, military officer, violinist, con man, pimp, gourmand, dancer, businessman, diplomat, spy, politician, medic, mathematician, social philosopher, cabalist, playwright, and writer. He wrote over twenty works, including plays and essays, and many letters. His novel Icosameron is an early work of science fiction.
Born of actors, he had a passion for the theater and for an improvised, theatrical life. But with all his talents, he frequently succumbed to the quest for pleasure and sex, often avoiding sustained work and established plans, and got himself into trouble when prudent action would have served him better. His true occupation was living largely on his quick wits, steely nerves, luck, social charm, and the money given to him in gratitude and by trickery
"Casanova", like "Don Juan", is a long established term in the English language. According to Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed., the noun Casanova means "Lover; esp: a man who is a promiscuous and unscrupulous lover". The first usage of the term in written English was around 1852. References in culture to Casanova are numerous—in books, films, theater, and music.
- Zoroastro, 1752 (libretto; translator)
- Confutazione della Storia del Governo Veneto d'Amelot de la Houssaie, 1769 (3 vols.)
- Lana caprina, 1772
- Istoria delle turbolenze della Polonia, 1774 (3 vols.)
- Dell'Iliade di Omero tradotta in ottava rima, 1775 (3 vols.; translator)
- Scrutinio del libro "Eloges de M. de Voltaire par différents auteurs", 1779
- Il duello, 1780- The Duel (translated by James Marcus, 2011)
- Lettere della nobil donna Silvia Belegno alla nobildonzella Laura Gussoni, 1780 (ed. Folco Portinari, 1975)
- Le messager de Thalie, 1780-81
- Soliloque d'un penseur, 1786
- Histoire de ma fuite des prisons de la République de Venise qu'on appelle les Plombs, 1787 - The Escapes of Casanova and Latude from Prison (ed. P. Villars, 1894)
- Icosameron ou histoire d'Edouard, et d'Elisabeth qui passèrent quatre vingts ans chez les Mégramicres habitante aborigènes du Protocosme dans l'interieur de notre globe, 1788 (5 vols.) - Casanova's "Icosameron", or, The Story of Edward and Elizabeth who spent Eighty-One Years in the Land of the Megamicres, Original Inhabitants of Protocosmos in the Interior of the Globe (translated and abridged by Rachel Zurer, 1986)
- Solution du probleme deliaque démontrée par Jacques Casanova de Seingalt, 1790
- Corollaire a la duplication de l'Hexaedre donée a Dux en Boheme, 1790
- Demonstration geometrique de la duplicaton du cube, 1790
- Le Polemoscope, 1791
- A Leonard Snetlage, Docteur en droit de l'Université de Gottingue, 1797
- Mémoires de J. Casanova de Seingalt, 1826-38 (12 vols.) - The Memoirs of Jacques Casanova de Seingalt, The Prince of Adventurers (2 vols., new and abridged ed., 1902) / The Memoirs of Jacques Casanova (edited by Madeleine Boyd, 1929) / Casanova’s Escape from the Leads: An Excerpt from the Memoirs of Giacomo Casanova di Seingalt (tr. Arthur Machen, 1925) / The Memoirs of Jacques Casanova de Seingalt, 1725-1798 (8 vols., tr. Arthur Machen, 1938) / Memoirs (6 vols., tr. Arthur Machen, 1951-61) / The Story of My Life (translated by Stephen Sartarelli and Sophie Hawkes, 2001) - Casanovan vaellusvuodet (suom. Maija Westerlund, 1959)
- Les connaissances mathématiques de Jacques Casanova de Seingalt, 1882
- L'oeuvre de Casanova de Seingalt, 1921 (2 vols.)
- Le messager de Thalie: onze feuilletons inédits de critique dramatique ; Le précis de ma vie...., 1925
- La dernière amie de Jacques Casanova: lettres de Cécile de Roggendorff, 1797-1798, d'après une correspondance inédite, 1926
- Lana Caprina: Lettre d'un lycanthrope, Correspondance inédite de J. Casanova, L'intermédiaire des Casanovistes, 1926
- Soliloque d'un penseur: correspondance inédite (1773-1783, 1926 (ed. Édouard Maynial)
- Casanova chez Voltaire, 1929 (ed. Henri de Régnier)
- Caro mio don Giacomo: Réflexions, notes de voyages, portraits, paradoxes et maximes morales, 1946 (ed. Jean-Francois Laya)
- Histoire de ma vie, 1960-62 (12 vols., a definitive edition) - History of My Life (12 vols., tr. Willard R. Trask, 1966-1971)
- Casanova en verve, 1973 (ed. Robert Abirached)
- Examen des "Etudes de la Nature" et de "Paul et Virginie" de Bernardin de Saint Pierre, 1985 (written 1788/89; ed. Marco Leeflang and Tom Vitelli)
- Lettere a un maggiordomo, 1985 (ed. Piero Chiara, tr. Carlo Martini)
- Pensieri libertini, 1990 (ed. Federico di Trocchio)
- Lana caprina. Epistola di un licantropo, 1991 (ed. Renato Giordano)
- Philocalies sur les sottises des mortels, 1993 (ed. Tom Vitelli)
- Histoire de ma vie: suivie de textes inédits, 1999 (12 vols. in 3, ed. Francis Lacassin)
- I pensieri di Casanova: vademecum del libertino contemporaneo, 2006 (edited by Francesco Paolo Sgarlata)
Casanova (1918), dir. Alfréd Deésy, a Hungarian film featuring Béla Lugosi
The Loves of Casanova, or Casanova, a 1927 French film starring Ivan Mozzhukhin
Casanova (1933), dir. René Barberis
Adventures of Casanova (1948), dir. Roberto Gavaldón
Il cavaliere misterioso (The Mysterious Rider), a 1948 film by Riccardo Freda, in which Casanova is played by Vittorio Gassman in his debut as a lead actor
Casanova '70 (1965), dir. Mario Monicelli, starring Marcello Mastroianni
Poslední růže od Casanovy (The Last Rose from Casanova), a 1966 Czech film featuring Felix le Breux as aging Casanova during his stay at Duchcov
Giacomo Casanova: Childhood and Adolescence, a 1969 feature film by Luigi Comencini, starring Leonard Whiting
"Casanova" (1971, short film), dir. Mark Cullingham and John Glenister
Fellini's Casanova, a 1976 feature film by Federico Fellini, starring Donald Sutherland
Casanova & co (1977), dir. Franz Antel, starring Tony Curtis
Casanova (1981, TV film), dir. Kurt Pscherer; Casanova (1990), dir. Morten Lorentzen
La Nuit de Varennes (1982), a film featuring Marcello Mastroianni
Casanova - Il Veneziano, vita e amori di Giacomo Casanova (1987), a television movie, starring Richard Chamberlain, dir. Simon Langton
Casanova (2004, TV film), dir. Richard Blank
Casanova (2005), a feature film featuring Heath Ledger, Sienna Miller and Charlie Cox