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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In 1774, at the age of 49, Casanova finally obtained a pardon from the Inquisition and returned to his beloved Venice—but increasingly querulous, he wrote a satire that offended powerful figures and was forced to flee the city again nine years later. This second and final exile from Venice is a poignant tale of decline. Aging, weary and short of cash, Casanova drifted from one of his former European haunts to the next, with rare high points such as a meeting with Benjamin Franklin in Paris in 1783. (They discussed hot-air balloons.) His prospects improved when he became secretary to the Venetian ambassador in Vienna, which took him on regular journeys to Prague, one of the most sophisticated and cosmopolitan cities in Europe. But when his patron died in 1785, Casanova was left dangerously adrift. (“Fortune scorns old age,” he wrote.) Almost penniless at age 60, he was obliged to accept a position as librarian to Count Joseph Waldstein, a young nobleman (and fellow Freemason) who lived in Bohemia, in Castle Dux, about 60 miles north of Prague. It was, to say the least, a comedown.

Today, if anywhere in Europe qualifies as the end of the world, it may be Duchcov (pronounced dook-soff), as the town of Dux in the Czech Republic is now known. A two-hour train journey took me into the coal mining mountains along the German border before depositing me in what appeared to be wilderness. I was the only passenger on the decrepit platform. The air was heavy with the scent of burnt coal. It seemed less a suitable residence for Casanova than Kafka.

There was no transportation into town, so I trudged for half an hour through desolate housing projects to the only lodgings, the Hotel Casanova, and had coffee at the only eatery I could find, the Café Casanova. The historic center turned out to be a few grim streets lined with abandoned mansions, their heraldic crests crumbling over splintered doors. Drunks passed me by, muttering to themselves. Old women hurried fearfully out of a butcher’s shop.

Castle Dux, set behind iron gates next to the town square, was a welcome sight. The Baroque chateau, home to the Waldstein family for centuries, is still magnificent despite decades of Communist-era neglect. A wooden door was answered by the director, Marian Hochel, who resides in the castle year-round. Sporting a ginger goatee and wearing a duck-egg-blue shirt and green scarf, he looked more like an Off Broadway producer than a museum chief.

“Casanova’s life here in Duchcov was very lonely,” Hochel told me as we shuffled through the castle’s unheated rooms, wrapped in our overcoats. “He was an eccentric, an Italian, he didn’t speak German, so he couldn’t communicate with people. He was also a man of the world, so Duchcov was very small for him.” Casanova escaped when he could to the nearby spa town of Teplice and made excursions to Prague, where he could attend the opera and meet luminaries such as Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, and almost certainly Mozart himself. But Casanova made many enemies in Duchcov, and they made his life miserable. Count Waldstein traveled constantly, and the ill-tempered old librarian fought with the other staff—even over how to cook pasta. Villagers taunted him. Once he was struck while walking in town.

It was a dismal last act for the aging bon vivant, and he became depressed to the point of contemplating suicide. In 1789, his doctor suggested that he write his memoirs to stave off melancholy. Casanova threw himself into the task, and the therapy worked. He told his friend Johann Ferdinand Opiz, in a 1791 letter, that he wrote for 13 hours a day, laughing the whole time: “What pleasure in remembering one’s pleasures! It amuses me because I am inventing nothing.”

In this enforced solitude, the old roué mined his rich seam of experience to produce the vast Story of My Life while maintaining a voluminous correspondence to friends all over Europe—an enviable output for any writer. His joie de vivre is contagious on the page, as are his darker observations. “His goal was to create an honest portrait of the human condition,” says Vitelli. “His honesty is unsparing, especially about his loss of powers as he ages, which is still rare in books today. He is unstinting about his disappointments, and how sad his life became.” As Casanova put it: “Worthy or not, my life is my subject, and my subject is my life.”

The manuscript ends in mid-adventure—in fact, mid-sentence—when Casanova is 49 and visiting Trieste. Nobody knows exactly why. It appears that he planned to end his narrative before he turned 50, when, he felt, he ceased enjoying life, but was interrupted when recopying the final draft. Casanova had also received news in Duchcov in 1797 that his beloved Venice had been captured by Napoleon, which seemed to rekindle his wanderlust. He was planning a journey home when he fell ill from a kidney infection.

Hochel views his remote chateau as a literary shrine with a mission. “Everyone in the world knows the name of Casanova, but it is a very clichéd view,” he said. “It’s our project to construct a new image of him as an intellectual.” Using old plans of the castle, his staff has been returning paintings and antique furniture to their original positions and has expanded a small Casanova museum that was created in the 1990s. To reach it, we followed echoing stone corridors into the “guest wing,” our breath visible in the icy air. Casanova’s bedroom, his home for 13 years, was as cold as a meat locker. Portraits of his many famous acquaintances adorned the walls above a replica of his bed. But the prize exhibit is the frayed armchair in which, Waldstein family tradition holds, Casanova expired in 1798, muttering (improbably), “I lived as a philosopher and die as a Christian.” A single red rose is laid upon it—sadly artificial. The elegiac atmosphere was somewhat diluted in the next room, where a book-lined wall electronically opened to reveal a dummy of Casanova dressed in 18th-century garb hunched over a desk with a quill.

“Of course, this is not where Casanova actually wrote,” Hochel confided. “But the old library is off-limits to the public.” As darkness fell, we climbed over construction poles and paint cans on the circular stairs of the South Tower. In the 18th century, the library had been a single large chamber, but it was broken up into smaller rooms in the Communist era and is now used mainly for storage. As the wind howled through cracks in the walls, I carefully picked my way through a collection of dusty antique chandeliers to reach the window and glimpse Casanova’s view.


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