Who was Casanova? It’s an interesting question and one whose answer is often gleaned from the mines of popular culture. The name has, in the many years since the death of the 18th-century Venetian, become synonymous with the sexual confidence and success of the playboy. But, whether it be through the cinematic reimaginings of Lasse Hallström or Fellini, both directors who have tried to tell Casanova’s story, it has never been properly told. The unwavering truth is that the real Casanova was, in fact, more than the notches on his bedposts. A complicated man, whose sexual exploits, while saucy, explicit, and, as with all things lewd, interesting to read, were only an entry point into a truly fascinating character.
So, rather than attempt to define a man who chronicled his life in a mammoth 3,682-page autobiographical manuscript, A History of My Life, I feel, instead, it would be better to present moments that offer up a taste beyond just the boot-knocking.
We begin, as with everyone, at birth. Giacomo Casanova was born in 1725 in the heady, debauched carnival that was 18th-century Venice
. His parents were actors, a profession viewed as lowly by the Venetian nobility. The young Casanova was in, all likelihood, an illegitimate child and, in absolute fact, a sickly boy prone to nosebleeds. The eldest son of five, he was cast aside by his mother, who favored her four other sons, and at the age of nine shipped off to school in Padua. He was never to live at home again. And, it is here that quite possibly we find the crux of Casanova’s being.
Later in life, as he wrote the “Casanova memoirs,” he would put to paper, “I have loved women to a frenzy.” To this, one can’t help, but wonder whether if one woman, his mother, had perhaps loved him to a frenzy, Casanova would have turned out a different man. As it goes, there is room to argue that the fire that drove Casanova, and his inability to settle, may well stem from the lack of maternal warmth he received in his early years.
While in Padua, Casanova shed his skin and eagerly proved his worth as more than the runt of the family. He studied chemistry, maths, and medicine, eventually graduating from university with a degree in law. However, it is also here that he developed a taste for gambling. And, later, the pleasures of the fairer sex, losing his virginity to two sisters.
Studying law stood Casanova in good stead in his pursuit of priesthood. The young man’s ambition was to go into medicine. But, his family believed that a position in the church would be more respectable. And, in 1749 he became an Abbot. However, Casanova’s licentious behavior and appetite for the pleasures of the flesh eventually led him away from a life of the cloth, and the church expelled him.
The Adventures Begin
Life after the priesthood saw Casanova embark on a whirlwind of adventure. He would travel extensively throughout Europe constantly flitting between careers. His personal wealth would rise and fall with the same consistent guarantee as the tide. And, as he made his way through Italy, Germany, Poland, and France Giacomo Casanova would take hundreds of lovers. He would meet the Pope. Try to sell a lottery scheme to Russia’s Catherine the Great. And, take commune with some of the greatest intellects of the time. We may never know the real Casanova. But, we can see that though he was a restless soul, the sweet thrill of life drove him.
Perhaps the most famous of the young seducers tales, one thoroughly described in the memoirs of Casanova was his escape from prison.
In 1756 Casanova faced imprisoned for the publication of an anti-clerical poem. At the time anything that demonstrated opposition or questioned the clergy was a serious, punishable offense. Convicted he landed in “the Leads,” the inescapable top floor prisons of the Doge’s Palace. The prison derived its name from their location directly under the Palace’s lead-lined roof.
Facing a prison sentence of 5 years in solitary confinement, Casanova endeavored to make a break for it. And, one afternoon while on “yard time,” he was fortunate enough to discover a length of disused metal. Sneaking it back to his cell, Casanova sharpened it to a point and then began to secretly and painstakingly scratch away at his floorboards. Suddenly moved to a new cell when he was, but an inch from through, Casanova's hopes of escape crumbled.
But, fortune favored the young man. And, new hope came in the form of a priest, Father Balbi, in the cell above his. The two conspired to escape together. Casanova smuggled the tool from his previous cell to the priest tucked in the spine of a Bible. When Father Balbi broke through to Casanova’s cell, they managed to lift one of the lead plates lining the roof and escape into the night. Casanova fled to France, promising to change his ways. He, of course, would not.
French Lottery and École Militaire
Arriving in France and in need of money, Casanova set about establishing himself. And, it was with his idea to establish a French lottery that he did so. The École Militaire, a military school for cadet officers from poor noble families, was struggling financially. So, Casanova put forward to French ministers that they established a numbers lottery to help support the school. It was a tremendous success. Casanova received support from the King and was able to line his pockets with the franchise fees from his lottery sales offices. Once again, the serial seducer was able to return to his wily ways and life leisure.
In an interesting historical aside, this was the school Napoleon Bonaparte would later graduate from in 1785. And, seventeen short years later in 1797, the Venice Republic would fall to the French under Bonaparte’s rule. It might be stretch to make such a claim, but it is worth considering. Could Casanova propping up the École Militaire with his lotteries have resulted in the fall of Venice?
Casanova, Occultism and The Marquise d’Urfé
One of the more outrageous of Casanova’s adventures, again, documented thoroughly in the “Casanova memoirs,” was his foray into occultism.
While in France he struck up a relationship with The Marquise d’Urfé, Jeanne Camus de Pontcarré. Madame d’Urfé was an eccentric French aristocrat and widow, and one of the wealthiest women in France. No surprise then that Casanova took a fancy!
The fact remains that one side of the real Casanova was exploitative. He often sought, when and where possible, ways he could take advantage of a situation or person for personal gain. Whether financial or sexual.
Madame d’Urfé, in her home, held a salon where she would explore the occult. Casanova ingratiated himself with the woman, who was 63 at the time, by claiming that he had occult powers. Furthering his claim, he went on to state that he could reincarnate the Marquise as herself in the form of a child. All that he needed to do was to impregnate her with three ejaculations. The catch, each would come at a cost, and a big one.
Casanova simulated two of the three ejaculations. And, of course, Madame d’Urfé failed to give birth to anyone, let alone a reincarnation of herself. Caught in a lie, he hightailed it, abandoning the Marquise and making for London, England.
The Greatest Love of his Life
Arguments put forward suggest Casanova may have been a proto-feminist, with ideas and attitudes about women far ahead of his time. In the boudoir, he believed firmly in an equal exchange of pleasure. And, was tenacious in his pursuit of the female orgasm. La jouissance, as it was so referred, an experience often forgone in the bedrooms of the time. This stood him in excellent stead with his lovers and most certainly proliferated his reputation as a great lover. Beyond that though, Casanova also enjoyed the company of intelligent women. He believed “that without speech, the pleasure of love is diminished by at least two thirds.”
Although there is much about Casanova and his sexual conquests, there is little on the passions and love he felt for those he partnered with. As already established, there is no denying the man was a con. And, often used his looks, charm, and way with words to seduce in the most calculating and predatory way. But, as documented in the Casanova memoirs, he wrote: “I do not conquer, I submit.” And, submit he did when he met Henriette.
Casanova met Henriette in 1749 later describing her as his greatest love. She was a noblewomen and texts suggest that she may also have been a cross-dresser. When they were to finally part ways, she would scrawl on the window of their Geneva room, using a diamond ring gifted her by Casanova, “You will forget Henriette, too.”
Opening its doors earlier this year in April, Venice now boasts
the first museum dedicated entirely to Giacomo Casanova
. Working from the premise “who is Casanova?” the Casanova Museum and Experience goes beyond the myth and looks at the real Casanova. In the rooms of the Palazzo Papafava exhibits tell the story of the man through the documents he wrote, the clothes he wore and a phenomenal virtual experience. So, if you’re in Venice and looking for an opportunity to delve deep into Casanova’s life check out the Casanova museum.
Venice Casanova Museum Tickets
Secret Canal and Gondola Tour Venice
Venice Doge's Palace Tickets with Fast Track Access