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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Tracing Casanova’s real-life story is not a straightforward quest. He obsessively avoided entanglements, never married, kept no permanent home and had no legally acknowledged children. But there remain fascinating vestiges of his physical presence in the two locations that mark the bookends of his life— Venice, where he was born, and the Castle Dux, now called Duchcov, in the remote Czech countryside where he died.

And so I began by prowling the Rialto, trying to locate one of Casanova’s few known addresses buried somewhere in Venice’s bewildering maze of Baroque laneways. Few other cities in Europe are so physically intact from the 18th century, when Venice was the decadent crossroads of East and West. The lack of motorized vehicles allows the imagination to run freely, especially in the evening, when the crush of tourists eases and the only sound is the lapping of water along the ghostly canals. But that doesn’t mean you can always track down the past. In fact, one of the paradoxes of this romantic city is that its residents barely celebrate its most noted son, as if they were ashamed of his wicked ways. (“Italians have an ambiguous attitude toward Casanova,” Le Bitouzé had told me. “He left Venice, and he wrote in French.” Kathleen Gonzalez, who is writing a walking guide to Casanova sites in Venice, says, “Even most Italians mostly only know the caricature of Casanova, which is not a subject of pride.”)

The only memorial is a stone plaque on the wall of the minuscule laneway Calle Malipiero in the San Samuele district, declaring that Casanova was born here in 1725 to two impoverished actors—although in which house nobody knows, and it may even have been around the corner. It was also in this neighborhood that Casanova, while studying for a career in the church at the age of 17, lost his virginity to two well-born teenage sisters, Nanetta and Marta Savorgnan. He found himself alone with the adventurous pair one night sharing two bottles of wine and a feast of smoked meat, bread and Parmesan cheese, and innocent adolescent games escalated into a long night of “ever varied skirmishes.” The romantic triangle continued for years, beginning a lifelong devotion to women. “I was born for the sex opposite to mine,” he wrote in the preface of his memoir. “I have always loved it and done all that I could to make myself loved by it.” His romantic tales are spiced with marvelous descriptions of food, perfumes, art and fashion: “Cultivating whatever gave pleasure to my senses was always the chief business of my life,” he wrote.

For a more evocative glimpse of Casanova’s Venice, one can visit the last of the old bàcaros, or bars, Cantina do Spade, which Casanova wrote about visiting in his youth, when he had dropped out of both the clergy and the military and was eking out a living as a violin player with a gang of loutish friends. Today, Do Spade is one of the most atmospheric bars in Venice, hidden in an alley that is barely two shoulders wide. Within the dark wooden interior, elderly men sip light wine from tiny glasses at 11 on a Sunday morning and nibble cicchetti, traditional delicacies such as dried cod on crackers, stuffed calamari and plump fried olives. On one wall, a page copied from a history book discreetly recounts Casanova’s visit here during the carnival celebrations of 1746. (He and his friends tricked a pretty young woman into thinking that her husband was in danger, and that he could be saved only if she shared her favors with them. The document details how the group “conducted the young lady to Do Spade where they dined and indulged their desires with her all night, then accompanied her back home.” Of this shameful conduct, Casanova remarked casually, “We had to laugh after she thanked us as frankly and sincerely as possible”—an example of his willingness to show himself, at times, in the worst possible light.)

It was not far from here that Casanova’s life was transformed, at age 21, when he saved a wealthy Venetian senator after an apoplectic fit. The grateful noble, Don Matteo Bragadin, virtually adopted the charismatic young man and showered him with funds, thus allowing him to live like a playboy aristocrat, wear fine clothes, gamble and conduct high society affairs. The few descriptions and surviving portraits of Casanova confirm that in his prime, he was an imposing presence, over six feet tall, with a swarthy “North African” complexion and a prominent nose. “My currency was an unbridled self-esteem,” Casanova notes in his memoir of his youthful self, “which inexperience forbade me to doubt.” Few women could resist. One of his most famous seductions was of a ravishing, noble-born nun he identifies only as “M.M.” (Historians have identified her as, most likely, Marina Morosini.) Spirited by gondola from her convent on Murano Island to a secret luxury apartment, the young lady “was astonished to find herself receptive to so much pleasure,” Casanova recalls, “for I showed her many things she had considered fictions...and I taught her that the slightest constraint spoils the greatest pleasures.” The long-running romance blossomed into a ménage à trois when M.M.’s older lover, the French ambassador, joined their encounters, then to à quatre when they were joined by another young nun, C.C. (most likely Caterina Capretta).

Which palazzo Casanova occupied in his prime is the subject of spirited debate. Back in Paris, I paid a visit to one of Casanova’s most ardent fans, who claims to have purchased Casanova’s Venetian home—the fashion designer Pierre Cardin. Now age 89, Cardin has even produced a musical comedy based on Casanova’s life, which has been performed in Paris, Venice and Moscow, and he has created an annual literary prize for European writers—the Casanova Award. “Casanova was a great writer, a great traveler, a great rebel, a great provocateur,” Cardin told me in his office. “I have always admired his subversive spirit.” (Cardin is quite a collector of real estate related to literary underdogs, having also purchased the Marquis de Sade’s chateau in Provence.)

I finally found Cardin’s Ca’Bragadin on the narrow Calle della Regina. It certainly provides an intimate glimpse of the sumptuous lifestyle of Venice’s 18th-century nobility, which lived in grandeur as the Republic’s power gradually waned. The elderly caretaker, Piergiorgio Rizzo, led me into a garden courtyard, where Cardin had placed a modern touch, a plexiglass gondola that glowed a rainbow of colors. Stairs led up to the piano nobile, or noble level, a grand reception hall with marble floors and chandeliers. In a darkened alcove, Signor Rizzo produced a rusted key and opened the door to a musty mezzanino—a half-floor that, Cardin had told me, Casanova often used for trysts. (Cardin says that this was confirmed by Venetian historians when he purchased the palazzo in 1980, though some scholars have recently argued that the mansion was owned by another branch of the illustrious Bragadin family, and that its use by Casanova was “somewhat unlikely.”)

Casanova’s charmed life went awry one hot July night in 1755, just after his 30th birthday, when police burst into his bedroom. In a society whose excesses were alternately indulged and controlled, he had been singled out by the Venetian Inquisition’s spies for prosecution as a cardsharp, a con man, a Freemason, an astrologer, a cabbalist and a blasphemer (possibly in retaliation for his attentions to one of the Inquisitor’s mistresses). He was condemned for an undisclosed term in the prison cells known as the Leads, in the attic of the Doge’s Palace. There, Casanova languished for 15 months, until he made a daring break through the roof with a disgraced monk, the only inmates ever to escape. Today, the palace’s dismal interior chambers can be visited on the so-called Itinerari Segreti, or Secret Tour, on which small groups are led through a hidden wall panel, passing through the Inquisition’s trial and torture rooms before reaching the cells that Casanova once shared with “rats big as rabbits.” Standing in one of these cells is the most concrete connection to the writer’s life in the shadowy world of Venice.

His escape made Casanova a minor celebrity in the courts of Europe, but it also heralded his first exile from Venice, which lasted 18 years. Now his career as a traveling adventurer began in earnest. One dedicated Casanovist has tracked his movements and discerned that he covered nearly 40,000 miles in his lifetime, mostly by stagecoach along grueling 18th-century roads. Styling himself the “Chevalier de Seingalt” (Casanova was the ultimate self-invented man), he made his fortune by devising a national lottery system in Paris, then squandered it frequenting the gambling houses of London, the literary salons of Geneva and the bordellos of Rome. He conducted a duel in Poland (both men were wounded) and met Frederick the Great in Prussia, Voltaire in Switzerland and Catherine the Great in St. Petersburg, all the while romancing an array of independently minded women, such as the philosophy-loving niece of a Swiss Protestant pastor, “Hedwig,” and her cousin “Helena.” (Of his fleeting passions, he observes in his memoir, “There is a happiness which is perfect and real as long as it lasts; it is transient, but its end does not negate its past existence and prevent he who has experienced it from remembering it.”)

The approach of middle age, however, would take its toll on Casanova’s dark good looks and sexual prowess, and the younger beauties he admired began to disdain his advances. His confidence was first shattered at age 38 when a lovely, 17-year-old London courtesan named Marie Anne Genevieve Augspurgher, called La Charpillon, tormented him for weeks and then scorned him. (“It was on that fatal day...that I began to die.”) The romantic humiliations continued across Europe. “The power to please at first sight, which I had so long possessed in such measure, was beginning to fail me,” he wrote.


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