The Great Lover
The case of Giacomo Casanova, the libertine-librarian.
Mar 3, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 24 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
History of My Life
Everyone knows what the word Casanova means--according to taste, and often depending on one's sex, either an enviable ladies' man or a snake-bellied creep--but few are familiar with Giacomo Casanova himself (1725-1798). Casanova's memoir, Histoire de ma vie, or History of My Life, was not published in its original form until the 1960s, and although the English translation by Willard R. Trask, which was completed in 1971, is generally acknowledged as masterly, the daunting length and considerable cost (six volumes, well over 2,000 pages) surely put off a good many readers.
A new abridgement in this single Everyman's Library volume, which has deftly pared away over half the original, makes Casanova more accessible. And Judith Summers's Casanova's Women, which recapitulates several of the more significant entanglements, and provides salient facts where the memoir is sketchy, provides an excellent summary and commentary. So the way is clear for the general reader who wishes to trace this morally slippery term to its source in a particular man's legendary sexual career.
But first, context must be taken into account, for the culture wars over sexual mores were underway long before the 1960s. The 18th century was a veritable erotic battleground, where the forces of virtue conducted a brave rearguard action against a legion of free-thinking rakehells and auxiliary squadrons of respectable gentlemen out for a good time.
Whoredom, Judith Summers tells us, was a thriving industry. In London and Paris, publications such as the Whoremonger's Guide and the Almanack des Adresses des Demoiselles informed the consumer where to find prostitutes, what they will do for you, and how much they charge. In England, Summers goes on, the Hellfire Club indulged the diabolical sportiveness of bold aristocrats with no fear of damnation; its motto, taken from Rabelais--Fay ce que voudres, Do what you please--was carved on the walls of Medmenham Abbey, a Gothic monastery where club members dressed as monks and threw the lewdest orgies in the civilized world.
And there is much that Summers doesn't tell. Lord Chesterfield (1694-1773), in his famous letters advising his illegitimate son on the behavior proper to a gentleman, makes the nice distinction between a rake and "a man of pleasure, [who,] though not always so scrupulous as he should be, and as one day he will wish he had been, refines at least his pleasures by taste, accompanies them with decency, and enjoys them with dignity." In the name of taste, decency, and dignity, Chesterfield suggests the young man, who happened to be courting his future wife at the time, contract sexual liaisons with two Parisian beauties at once, the first for "an attachment," the other for "mere gallantry."
In the epistolary novel Julie, or the New Heloise (1761), Jean-Jacques Rousseau teaches aristocrats and bourgeois alike how they ought to live and love. Rousseau's head-over-heels young lovers, Saint Preux and Julie d'Etange, sorrowfully renounce each other when her father, a baron, finds the suitor, who possesses all the virtues but noble blood, altogether unfitting. Under the sage tutelage of the middle-aged friend of her father's whom Julie marries (Monsieur de Wolmar), the impetuous hearts get over their lacerating youthful passion, recover their purity, and learn the true ends of an estimable marriage: Lessons in home economics, child-rearing, and the prudent rationing of pleasure furnish sterling moral exemplars for the preservation and perpetuation of what is best in the social order.
The novel sometimes reads like the work of a member of the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, who happens to have overdeveloped tear ducts, but it is nevertheless an eloquent testimonial to natural sentiment refined by civilized earnestness.
Choderlos de Laclos takes the epigraph for his own epistolary novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782), from Rousseau's preface to The New Heloise: "I have observed the manners of my times, and I have published these letters." There is no edifying behavior in Laclos's world, a sexual mire in which the vicious gambol and drown the innocent. The blackguard Vicomte de Valmont is a man who lives in accordance with his nefarious principles, which derive from Machiavelli and underwrite a career of sexual pillage. As one disabused woman writes, "He can calculate to a nicety how many atrocities a man may allow himself to commit, without compromising himself; and, in order to be cruel and mischievous with impunity, he has selected women to be his victims. I will not stop to count all those whom he has seduced: but how many has he not ruined utterly?"
The body count is more closely tallied in Mozart's opera Don Giovanni (1787). As Giovanni's servant Leporello sings in his catalogue aria, his master has had 640 women in Italy, 231 in Germany, 100 in France, 91 in Turkey, and 1,003 in Spain. Despite his prowess in the bedroom, Giovanni is a fatally slow learner. He invites to dinner the animate memorial statue of the Commendatore, whom he has killed in a brawl and whose daughter he has raped. When the stone guest grips his hand and threatens him with damnation, Giovanni refuses to repent, and is hauled off to hell.
One is hesitant to wish for another's sake that there really is a hell, lest one happen to meet the standards for admission oneself, but surely that is a risk worth taking in the case of the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814). The studied inversion of Rousseauan virtue is the Marquis's unclean aim, to be achieved by the defilement and sexual torture of innocents. His books are intended to inflict moral damage on the reader, to infiltrate and corrode normality with nightmare fantasies that will not leave the mind.
And so one comes to Casanova, the most famous, and the most notorious, lover of his, or perhaps any other, time. His very name, depending on whom you ask, has become a synonym for the cavalier gallant or for the sex-addicted hellion. And if you ask someone who has actually read the History of My Life, he (maybe even she) will likely tell you that Casanova is both gallant and hellion, a charming rapscallion who loved, after his own fashion, many of the women he slept with, and a heartless reprobate who loved only himself.
Casanova's mother, a beautiful Venetian actress widowed when her son was nine, Summers writes, made it hard for Casanova to love another or himself, leaving him to the care of strangers while she hit the theatrical road. "So they got rid of me," Casanova bitterly recalls, and a lifetime could not efface the pain of this original abandonment. He made a point thereafter of leaving women before they could leave him.
The youth studied for the priesthood, taking a degree in civil and ecclesiastical law at the University of Padua, and becoming an abate, a novice priest, in 1741. In the heat of the moment, however, clerical garments came off as readily as a secular pair of trousers, and the odor of sanctity only made it easier to get over on young beauties. Even so, the churchly career did not last long: Casanova joined the Venetian army in 1744, and left that in short order to become a hack violinist with a theater orchestra.
A rare piece of luck changed his life's course. He helped save the life of a Venetian patrician, Matteo Bragadin, who suffered a stroke in his presence, then beguiled the brilliant but credulous man with his professed knowledge of cabbalistic lore and occult practice. Bragadin was so smitten with Casanova that he unofficially adopted him as his son. Wild times ensued. A Grand Tour of Europe fed his innate cosmopolitanism, and some literary work got done: An Italian translation of an opera libretto and a parody of Racine made it to the Dresden stage.
Then, in 1755, someone must have traduced Casanova, for without being told why, he was arrested and confined in the Leads, Venice's hell-hole prison. The ceiling of his cell was so low he could not stand up, and the summer heat and winter cold were torture. No one had ever escaped from the Leads, but Casanova did, after a year-and-a-half inside. The account of his getaway is swashbuckling stuff, and the story made him the raconteur of the moment in Paris, where he fled and where he made his fortune by starting up a state lottery.
He undertook to increase that fortune by hoodwinking the preposterously wealthy and alchemically gullible Marquise d'Urfe, whom he promised to reincarnate in a newborn boy. The Marquise bankrolled Casanova's extensive travels, but not even her addled generosity could keep him from winding up poor again. In London, Vienna, and Madrid he fell afoul of the authorities--shady dealings, sexual malfeasance--and had to leave town. Hoping to make a literary splash, he began an Italian translation of the Iliad and a history of Poland, but the printer cut both projects short in 1778 when Casanova could not pay his fees. Magazine publishing, a civil service job, and spying for the Inquisition all failed to bring in the cash he needed for his Eurotrash way of life.
A provocative booklet, in which he assaulted the Venetian patriciate and claimed he was the bastard son of a Venetian grandee, got him expelled from Venice forever. He thought about heading off for Madagascar. Instead, he accepted a sinecure as librarian in the castle of a Bohemian count and fellow Freemason. In 1787, on a visit to Prague, he likely met Mozart, and served as Lorenzo Da Ponte's expert consultant on the libretto of Don Giovanni.
The Bohemian backwater of Dux did not suit him, but when he got over being suicidal he managed to do a lot of writing. From 1790 to 1797 he worked on his voluminous memoirs, never quite able to finish them. In 1798 a genito-urinary infection, exacerbated by repeated bouts of venereal disease over the years, cut him down. He is said to have declared on his deathbed, "I have lived as a philosopher and die as a Christian."
He had really lived as a sex tourist and had dressed his philosophizing accordingly. The pleasure to be had with women--and young girls and even, on rare occasions, other men--was his animating passion, which amounted to a consuming fever.
He got over the novice's jitters soon enough. At 15 he ended his virginity in the arms of two sisters, Nanetta and Marta, and their threesome became a regular thing. To the reader, these youngsters' amorous sport is a disturbing blend of innocence and corruption, like a butterscotch sundae dusted with cocaine; but for Casanova it was pure joyous sweetness.
Doing a pair of sisters in the same bed can become addictive, though Summers is reluctant to believe Casanova's tale of another such escapade, with Donna Lucrezia and Donna Angelica. It is true enough, however, that Casanova impregnated Lucrezia in 1744, and that 17 years later he became engaged, quite unwittingly, to his own daughter, Leonilda. The marriage was called off when he met his prospective mother-in-law, but he did wind up in bed with mother and daughter together: There are, after all, things you just don't do and things you just can't pass up. As Casanova writes, "Incestuous relations, the eternal subjects of Greek tragedy, instead of making me weep make me laugh."
Kinks within kinks abound in the memoirs; some of them are amusing, others less so. The opera singer Bellino, whom Casanova met at 19, was apparently a castrato, but Casanova was sure there was, in fact, a beautiful woman disguised here, for he felt deep stirrings of love toward this creature. A comic pursuit followed and nearly ended when Casanova's groping hand discovered a distressingly masculine appendage where he had expected paydirt. Although Bellino was appalled by Casanova--he had procured the services of the singer's two pubescent sisters, and had brutally taken a Greek slave girl while Bellino was watching--she fell in love with him, revealed that her penis was a prosthesis, and so enchanted him that he proposed marriage.
Wedded bliss never came off, for he was poor, and living off her earnings would have been a humiliation. Dreams of making it big overrode true love, suggesting that love might not have been so true after all: "The reflection that now, at the fairest time of my youth, I was about to renounce all hope of the high fortune for which I considered that I was born gave the scales such a push that my reason silenced my heart."
More often it was his groin that silenced his heart. At 28 he seduced with a proposal of marriage the virginal 14-year-old C.C. (Of the roughly 130 women he recorded sleeping with, 22 were not women at all but girls between 11 and 15, and another 29 were between 16 and 20. His tastes were not aberrant, by the standards of the time: The legal age of consent in England was 10.) Her merchant-father would not hear of her marrying an actress's son, and placed her in a convent. When Casanova visited the convent church to get a glimpse of her, another nun, M.M., propositioned him in a letter. Casanova would meet M.M. in an elegant apartment for sexual assignations, which M.M.'s other lover, the French ambassador to Venice, watched from a secret chamber.
Charm goes a long way, but even Casanova ran short of it in the end. At 38, in London, he fell for the 16-year-old La Charpillon, who came from an illustrious line of whores: "It was on that fatal day at the beginning of September 1763 that I began to die and ceased to live."
Balked longing ravaged him. He was learning the sexual humiliation that comes with age. La Charpillon confounded him at every turn. She teased him, took his money, and turned her back. He caught her making love with her hairdresser. When he finally got her into bed, she still refused him. The caressing lover turned rampaging brute: He beat her mercilessly, put a knife to her throat, tried to rape her. Soon, Casanova approached the verge of suicide, and only a chance encounter with a cheering acquaintance saved him.
The end comes hard for the man who has always relied on the charms of youth to win the pleasures of young flesh--"cultivating whatever gave pleasure to my senses was always the chief business of my life; I have never found any occupation more important"--and the sexually unexciting life is not worth living, by Casanova's lights. The problem is that once sexual pleasures are hard to come by, life becomes unendurably barren. Thirty-eight is terribly young to begin to die.
How are we to judge Casanova? To imagine the response of the literary figures of his own century might be a way in. Lord Chesterfield would think him a rake and an upstart with no hope of being taken for a gentleman. Rousseau would find him a sinister rogue who embodied the worst of vain social ambition and sexual license. Choderlos de Laclos would concur--and though his Valmont would appreciate Casanova's energy and address, he would find him wanting in blackness of soul. Don Giovanni would recognize himself in Casanova, but in diminished form. And the Marquis de Sade would deem him rather too much of a sentimentalist, who said his own pleasure derived largely from the pleasure he gave, when in fact the richest pleasures come from the pain one inflicts.
To the virtuous, then, Casanova was a scoundrel; to the villainous, he was insufficiently evil to be really interesting. For all his talent and winsomeness, Casanova was a moral mediocrity, whose vitality ran out when his looks were gone, and whose relentless pleasure-seeking ended in despondency. One has to assume that he is now a member of the Hellfire Club in perpetuity, but one can also imagine him in the circle of the contemptible and disgusting rather than among the more malign. His memoirs are the dismal record of wasted gifts and misdirected energies.
No serious man will envy Casanova's life, and women will only shudder.
Algis Valiunas is a writer in Florida.