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 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.