Laurence Bergreen is an award-winning biographer and historian. His books have been translated into twenty-five languages worldwide. Among his books are biographies of Christopher Columbus, Giacomo Casanova, Marco Polo, Ferdinand Magellan, Louis Armstrong, Al Capone, and Irving Berlin. He lives in New York City.
Nowadays, Giacomo Casanova signifies the archetypical Latin lover, and there’s a bit of Casanova in nearly everyone. But to his eighteenth-century contemporaries, the name Casanova meant something else—the Venetian adventurer, spy, duelist, gambler, escape artist, and author of nearly one hundred novels, poems, and treatises. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, Catherine the Great of Russia, Benjamin Franklin, Mozart, and Lorenzo Da Ponte—the librettist for Mozart’s Don Giovanni and a flamboyant figure in his own right—all were friends and correspondents. To them, Giacomo Casanova personified the spirit of liberation and, more than that, libertinism—unrestrained sexual pleasure. We think of Europe in the eighteenth century as the Age of Revolution or the Age of Enlightenment, but it was also the Age of Casanova, the Venetian arriviste who incarnated its passions and pleasures. And we think of Casanova as a great narcissist, yet he played many other roles in society as he sought to find a place to match his exalted yet fragile self-image. He was a genuinely outrageous figure who also happened to be a literary, psychological, and mathematical genius; a master of self-invention and self-promotion; a dedicated cardsharp, con artist, and escape artist who devised the French lottery (still in use today); and made himself into one of the first celebrities of the modern era.
Why are we still fascinated by this upstart more than two hundred years after his death? He was neither handsome, nor well-educated, nor well-born. He lacked position and power. Somehow, this impoverished son of an actress made himself into the most celebrated libertine of all time and a major literary figure of his era. His was a life lived in letters no less than in the boudoir. Casanova is legendary for personifying an archetype of the endlessly romantic, promiscuous, seductive male, yet his lesser known but equally remarkable accomplishments in mathematics and literature have received belated and only partial recognition. He broke hearts from Venice to Paris to Prague. Casanova exalted women even as he exploited them. He preferred to make love (the more romantic the better), not war, as he lived out his sexual and romantic fantasies. His desire knew no bounds; this was a man who claimed to seduce his own daughter and lured her into watching him make love to her mother. How did this reckless nobody wind up consorting with the most beautiful women and the greatest minds of his day? How did he come to write the consummate erotic memoir? How did this least-loved, cast-off child become the most celebrated lover in history?
The real-life Casanova (in a portrait by his brother Francesco) bore scant resemblance to the popular image of the fabled seducer. He was tall, at least six feet two inches, swarthy, angular, with a large forehead and prominent nose that caused him to resemble a giant goose. He generally wore a powdered wig in the fashion of the time, tight silk breeches, tricorn black hat, and a tabarro, or cloak, generally black, cascading over the shoulders, and decorated with frills. Most strikingly of all, true Venetians, and only Venetians, wore the bauta, or rigid white mask, at all times, or close to it. The nobility, men and women alike, wore masks in public and often in private. In theaters, ushers made sure that masks were in place, although patricians could remove them once the play had begun. Patricians meeting with ambassadors for official reasons had to wear the bauta, as did the envoys. The entire costume was the face that Venice presented to the world, and to itself.
Giacomo Casanova in profile, c. 1750, by his brother Francesco Giuseppe
Women of the Republic hid behind the eerie black moretta, a velvet mask held in place with a button in the front teeth, preventing the wearer from talking. (The named derived from the word moro, Venetian for the color black.) It was also known as the servetta muta, or “silent mask,” and it was, if anything, even more stylized and sinister than the bauta. These costumes were not just for Carnival or for balls. With few exceptions, Venetians wore them year-round, and Venetian laws specified severe punishments for those who violated the code.
Men often found Casanova off-putting and pompous. “I thought him a blockhead,” wrote the biographer James Boswell after they met. “He is a dandy, full of himself, blown up with vanity like a balloon and fussing about like a watermill,” said the Venetian playwright Pietro Chiari, a bitter rival. But women responded to his charm, attentiveness, and agile cunning. Although he was reluctant to admit it, Casanova was not completely heterosexual; he was attracted to men disguised as women, and women disguised as men. Everything about him was ambiguous, both disconcerting and alluring.
He slept with one hundred and twenty-two women, by his count, and perhaps with a few men. In a society devoted to excess and indulgence, many Venetians boasted of more conquests, but unlike those other libertines, he recorded every last detail of his exploits in vivid, at times pornographic, detail. In this Kama Sutra of Venice, he revealed, with surprising accuracy and meticulousness, the exploits of a lifetime, relishing his peccadilloes, his conquests, reversals, and carnal indulgences. Seeking revenge for his lack of status at birth, he embarked on a lifelong quest to right this wrong by putting himself out to stud. He would use sex as a weapon of class destruction, siring eight children out of wedlock, each with a different woman whom he refused to marry. At times he behaved like a cad, at other times like a genius. He was the archetypal bad boyfriend: irresistible, dangerous, amoral. Casanova wasn’t the only dedicated hedonist of his day nor the most brilliant literary figure, and certainly not the only rogue, but he was unique in playing all three roles to the hilt.
Although Casanova’s place in the history of sensuality and the lore of love is secure, it comes as a surprise to many that he was a flesh-and-blood person, an outstanding figure of the Englightenment. His twelve-volume Histoire de ma vie, written in French, represents the most important source of information about his life and loves and a kaleidoscopic view of his times. Its three thousand seven hundred pages, in Casanova’s beautiful, steady hand, repose at the Bibliothèque national de France in Paris. They are a recent addition. After a French commission declared the work a national treasure, the BnF paid nine million dollars to acquire the manuscript: the most expensive acquisition in the library’s history. Casanova, nothing if not vain, would have been extremely proud of this confirmation of his central place in French letters and the intellectual life of his era.
If his epic of seduction, espionage, and social climbing had been published during his lifetime, it would have shocked his contemporaries and compromised the lives and reputations of the prominent Venetians and other important persons whose foibles and escapades make for such enjoyable reading. Sexual transgressions, even the seduction of his illegitimate daughter, who might have become pregnant with Casanova’s child—his son and grandson—were revealed here in a world as regimented as it was amoral.
Casanova did publish extensively in his lifetime. He completed a multivolume science-fiction novel; a history of Poland, also in several volumes; translated the Iliad into French; composed four hundred poems; devised a polemic refuting Voltaire; penned nearly two thousand letters on any idea that came into his head; and left another three thousand pages of unfinished literary projects, all the while pursuing ardent love affairs and elaborate intrigues. He was hyper-sexed and hyper-literary.
Superstition ruled Casanova’s Venice. It was believed that magic and the devil caused people to lose their way in the city’s labyrinthine streets or even to go mad. Venetians routinely acknowledged the existence of ghosts. To this day some Venetians swear that when they place their fingertips on the wall of a house, they can feel the presence of the departed and hear their voices.
The Republic straddled one hundred and eighteen small islands in a lagoon, or marsh, settled by desperate refugees from Rome, Padua, and other cities ransacked by invaders in the early centuries of Rome’s Christian era. Rebelling against prelates and generals, they established the first Doge—a title derived from dux, Latin for leader—in AD 726, and appropriated the trappings of empire. Venetian merchants spirited away relics of Mark the Evangelist, one of the Disciples, from Alexandria in 828 and brought them to Venice, where they remain today in St. Mark’s Basilica, the city spiritual center.
Beyond the confines of the lagoon, the Englightenment—dedicated to social reform, the advancement of knowledge, and sexual freedom—circulated invigorating new ideas across Western Europe, but Venetians stubbornly rejected external influences. The educated, multilingual Casanova roundly criticized Voltaire and Rousseau, two of the Enlightenment’s leading figures. Yet it might have been Casanova whom Voltaire had in mind when, in 1770, he proclaimed that the perfect is the enemy of the good. Casanova was as far from perfect as could be; his message is one of rejoicing in sexual exploration as the path to fulfillment and englightenment. Nevertheless, he kept his allegiance to the old, familiar, corrupt order; he preferred the thrill of escape to the responsibility of freedom. He believed devoutly in God, and pitied those who did not. But as a libertine, Freemason, epicurean, and devotee of the Kabbalah, he was always trying to burst the bounds of Venetian institutions to exalt the self—and one’s sexuality. He believed in everything that came his way: religion, philosophy, magic, science, and especially love. He spiked the Age of Enlightenment with sex, and more sex. He exploited women shamelessly. At the same time, he gave himself to the women he possessed. “I don’t conquer, I submit,” he explained. He exalted women beyond reason. Each love affair was, for him, a meeting of the mind and spirit, a glimpse of eternity and ecstasy.