The Magazine

The Great Lover

The case of Giacomo Casanova, the libertine-librarian.

Mar 3, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 24 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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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.