Who Was Casanova?

The personal memoir of history’s most famous lover reveals a misunderstood intellectual who befriended the likes of Ben Franklin

The little death in Venice: Casanova was forced to flee his beloved home town twice (the San Cassiano Canal). (Francesco Lastrucci)
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Purchased in 2010 for $9.6 million, a new record for a manuscript sale, the original version of Casanova’s erotic memoir has achieved the status of a French sacred relic. At least, gaining access to its famously risqué pages is now a solemn process, heavy with Old World pomp. After a lengthy correspondence to prove my credentials, I made my way on a drizzly afternoon to the oldest wing of the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris, a grandiose Baroque edifice on rue de Richelieu near the Louvre. Within those hallowed halls, built around a pair of ancien régime aristocratic mansions, I waited by marble statues of the greats of French literature, Rousseau, Molière and Voltaire, before being led through a domed reading room filled with scholars into the private sanctum of the library offices. After traipsing up and down endless stairwells and half-lit corridors, I was eventually seated in a special reading room overlooking a stone courtyard. Here, Marie-Laure Prévost, the head curator of the manuscript department, ceremoniously presented two black archival boxes on the wooden desk before me.

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As I eagerly scanned the elegant, precise script in dark brown ink, however, the air of formality quickly vanished. Madame Prévost, a lively woman in a gray turtleneck and burgundy jacket, could not resist recounting how the head of the library, Bruno Racine, had traveled to a secret meeting in a Zurich airport transit lounge in 2007 to first glimpse the document, which ran to some 3,700 pages and had been hidden away in private hands since Casanova died in 1798. The French government promptly declared its intention to obtain the legendary pages, although it took some two and a half years before an anonymous benefactor stepped forward to purchase them for la patrie. “The manuscript was in wonderful condition when it arrived here,” said Prévost. “The quality of the paper and the ink is excellent. It could have been written yesterday.

“Look!” She held up one of the pages to the window light, revealing a distinctive watermark—two hearts touching. “We don’t know if Casanova deliberately chose this or it was a happy accident.”

This reverential treatment of the manuscript would have gratified Casanova enormously. When he died, he had no idea whether his magnum opus would even be published. When it finally emerged in 1821 even in a heavily censored version, it was denounced from the pulpit and placed on the Vatican’s Index of Prohibited Books. By the late 19th century, within this same bastion of French culture, the National Library, several luridly illustrated editions were kept in a special cupboard for illicit books, called L’Enfer, or the Hell. But today, it seems, Casanova has finally become respectable. In 2011, several of the manuscript’s pages—by turns hilarious, ribald, provocative, boastful, self-mocking, philosophical, tender and occasionally still shocking—were displayed to the public for the first time in Paris, with plans for the exhibition to travel to Venice this year. In another literary first, the library is posting all 3,700 pages online, while a lavish new 12-volume edition is being prepared with Casanova’s corrections included. A French government commission has anointed the memoir a “national treasure,” even though Casanova was born in Venice. “French was the language of intellectuals in the 18th century and he wanted as wide readership as possible,” said curator Corinne Le Bitouzé. “He lived much of his life in Paris, and loved the French spirit and French literature. There are ‘Italianisms’ in his style, yes, but his use of the French language was magnificent and revolutionary. It was not academic but alive.”

It’s quite an accolade for a man who has often been dismissed as a frivolous sexual adventurer, a cad and a wastrel. The flurry of attention surrounding Casanova—and the astonishing price tag for his work—provide an opportunity to reassess one of Europe’s most fascinating and misunderstood figures. Casanova himself would have felt this long overdue. “He would have been surprised to discover that he is remembered first as a great lover,” says Tom Vitelli, a leading American Casanovist, who contributes regularly to the international scholarly journal devoted to the writer, L’Intermédiaire des Casanovistes. “Sex was part of his story, but it was incidental to his real literary aims. He only presented his love life because it gave a window onto human nature.”

Today, Casanova is so surrounded by myth that many people almost believe he was a fictional character. (Perhaps it’s hard to take seriously a man who has been portrayed by Tony Curtis, Donald Sutherland, Heath Ledger and even Vincent Price, in a Bob Hope comedy, Casanova’s Big Night.) In fact, Giacomo Girolamo Casanova lived from 1725 to 1798, and was a far more intellectual figure than the gadabout playboy portrayed on film. He was a true Enlightenment polymath, whose many achievements would put the likes of Hugh Hefner to shame. He hobnobbed with Voltaire, Catherine the Great, Benjamin Franklin and probably Mozart; survived as a gambler, an astrologer and spy; translated The Iliad into his Venetian dialect; and wrote a science fiction novel, a proto-feminist pamphlet and a range of mathematical treatises. He was also one of history’s great travelers, crisscrossing Europe from Madrid to Moscow. And yet he wrote his legendary memoir, the innocuously named Story of My Life, in his penniless old age, while working as a librarian (of all things!) at the obscure Castle Dux, in the mountains of Bohemia in the modern-day Czech Republic. 

No less improbable than the man’s life is the miraculous survival of the manuscript itself. Casanova bequeathed it on his deathbed to his nephew, whose descendants sold it 22 years later to a German publisher, Friedrich Arnold Brockhaus of Leipzig. For nearly 140 years, the Brockhaus family kept the original under lock and key, while publishing only bowdlerized editions of the memoir, which were then pirated, mangled and mistranslated. The Brockhaus firm limited scholars’ access to the original document, granting some requests but turning down others, including one from the respected Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig.

The manuscript escaped destruction in World War II in a saga worthy of John le Carré. In 1943, a direct hit by an Allied bomb on the Brockhaus offices left it unscathed, so a family member pedaled it on a bicycle across Leipzig to a bank security vault. When the U.S. Army occupied the city in 1945, even Winston Churchill inquired after its fate. Unearthed intact, the manuscript was transferred by American truck to Wiesbaden to be reunited with the German owners. Only in 1960 was the first uncensored edition published, in French. The English edition arrived in 1966, just in time for the sexual revolution—and interest in Casanova has only grown since.

“It’s such an engaging text on so many levels!” says Vitelli. “It’s a wonderful point of entry into the study of the 18th century. Here we have a Venetian, writing in Italian and French, whose family lives in Dresden and who ends up in Dux, in German-speaking Bohemia. He offers access to a sense of a broad European culture.” The memoir teems with fantastic characters and incidents, most of which historians have been able to verify. Apart from the more than 120 notorious love affairs with countesses, milkmaids and nuns, which take up about a third of the book, the memoir includes escapes, duels, swindles, stagecoach journeys, arrests and meetings with royals, gamblers and mountebanks. “It’s the West’s Thousand and One Nights,” declared Madame Prévost.

Even today, some episodes still have the power to raise eyebrows, especially the pursuit of very young girls and an interlude of incest. But Casanova has been forgiven, particularly among the French, who point out that attitudes condemned today were tolerated in the 18th century. “The moral judgment never came up,” Racine told a press conference last year. “We neither approve nor condemn his behavior.” Curator Le Bitouzé feels his scurrilous reputation is undeserved, or at least one-dimensional. “Yes, he quite often behaved badly with women, but at other times he showed real consideration,” she said. “He tried to find husbands for his former lovers, to provide them with income and protection. He was an inveterate seducer, and his interest was never purely sexual. He didn’t enjoy being with English prostitutes, for example, because with no common language, he couldn’t talk to them!” Scholars, meanwhile, now accept him as a man of his time. “The modern view of The Story of My Life is to regard it as a work of literature,” says Vitelli. “It’s probably the greatest autobiography ever written. In its scope, its size, the quality of its prose, it’s as fresh today as when it first appeared.”  


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