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The little death in Venice: Casanova was forced to flee his beloved home town twice (the San Cassiano Canal). (Francesco Lastrucci)

Who Was Casanova?

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

“The castle is a mystical place for a sensitive person,” Hochel said. “I have heard noises. One night, I saw the light turned on—in Casanova’s bedroom.”

Before leaving, we went back to a humble souvenir store, where I purchased a coffee mug with a photograph of two actors in 18th-century garb and a logo in Czech: “Virgins or widows, come breakfast with Casanova!” Well, you can’t break a 200-year-old cliché overnight.

My last stop was the chapel of St. Barbara, where a tablet embedded in the wall bears Casanova’s name. In 1798, he was buried in its cemetery beneath a wooden marker, but the location was lost in the early 19th century when it was turned into a park. The tablet was carved in 1912 to give admirers something to look at. It was a symbolic vantage point to reflect on Casanova’s posthumous fame, which reads like a parable on the vagaries of life and art. “Casanova was a minor character while he was alive,” Vitelli says. “He was the failure of his family. His two younger brothers [who were painters] were more famous, which galled him. If he had not written his marvelous memoir, he almost certainly would have been forgotten very quickly.”

The few Czechs who know about Casanova’s productive years in Bohemia are bemused that his manuscript has been proclaimed a French national treasure. “I believe it is very well placed in the National Library in Paris for security and conservation,” said Marie Tarantová, archivist at the State Regional Archive in Prague, where Casanova’s reams of letters and papers, which were saved by the Waldstein family, are now kept. “But Casanova wasn’t French, he wasn’t Venetian, he wasn’t Bohemian—he was a man of all Europe. He lived in Poland. He lived in Russia. He lived in Spain. Which country the manuscript ended up in is in reality unimportant.”

Perhaps the memoir’s online presence, accessible from Mumbai to Melbourne, is his best memorial. Casanova has become more cosmopolitan than ever.

Tony Perrottet is the author of The Sinner's Grand Tour: A Journey Through the Historical Underbelly of Europe.

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