Adventurer: The Life and Times of Giacomo Casanova
“a page-turning account that penetrates the character of a most exceptional human being who was both a product of his age and an astute observer of its mores.”
In the popular mind, Casanova is an iconic figure, an archetype of a certain kind of rascal—licentious, decadent, destructive. His name has passed into our language as a noun, defined as “a man who is a promiscuous and unscrupulous lover.”
But as we learn in Leo Damrosch’s beautifully conceived and shaped biography, this definition of him is a gross oversimplification that vastly understates his far-reaching accomplishments and significance as both a historical personage and a writer. In fact Casanova was the most cosmopolitan of men, his eventful life an emblem of his age as he circled through the major cities of 18th century Europe on an endless merry-go-round of pleasure, posturing, and deceit.
He was born a commoner in 1725 in Venice, the son of professional actors who performed at the San Samuele Theater, whose owners, Michele and Alvise Grimani, were wealthy noblemen. Before he was ten years old, Casanova was displaced from his family and set adrift, establishing a pattern of continuous dislocation he would follow for most of his life.
When he was eight his father died at age 36. A year later his mother moved to Dresden, taking with her two of Casanova’s four siblings. He was placed in the care of his grandmother Marzia and under the guardianship of the Grimani brothers, who sent him away to Padua to be schooled. There, at age 12, he had his first sexual experience, with the 15-year-old sister of his tutor. He matriculated to the University of Padua, from which he received degrees in law and ecclesiastics.
When he was 18 his grandmother died, and Casanova went to Rome to pursue a career in the church. He was not a religious man, skeptical of dogma and church ritual, and considered the church a respectable occupation, not a calling. In his daily life, his chief preoccupation was pleasure—good food and wine, fine clothing, the thrill of gambling at cards, and, above all, sexual conquest.
Over the course of his life he made love in every conceivable situation, and with any available partner, be they fellow passengers in a carriage, nuns in a convent, the wives of noblemen and dignitaries near their sleeping husbands, even his illegitimate daughters, of which there were several. He was averse to long-term relationships, never remaining with the same partner longer than three months, and regarded marriage as “the tomb of love.” What drew him on was the chemistry of fresh love, the excitement of seduction, the bliss of consummation. As novelty wore off, he sought new partners and, charming as he was, easily found them.
Casanova lived in an age of widespread promiscuity among the aristocracy, whose arranged marriages were frequently loveless. Husbands took mistresses and wives had lovers. Casanova, though not himself a nobleman, understood the codes governing aristocratic social behavior and exploited them for his own advantage. But he enjoyed risk taking, and the range of his adventures often took him beyond the boundaries of social propriety. As he wandered aimlessly around Europe in search of pleasure, he left a trail of scandals and scams that eventually closed in on him and overtook him. Toward the end of his life he reached the endgame of libertinism, absurdity.
Casanova’s early ecclesiastical ambitions came to a quick end when he was forced to leave Rome because of a sexual scandal. His guardians arranged a position for him with the Venetian ambassador to Constantinople. Thus his wanderings began. Over the course of the next 40 years he crisscrossed Europe, visiting most of its major cities, charming his way into government appointments and patronage from wealthy members of the nobility whom he either befriended or scammed. When necessary he supported himself by gambling.
Over time his way of life made him a pariah and forced him to keep on the move. When he was 30 and living lavishly in Venice under the patronage of a wealthy nobleman whose life he had saved, Casanova was reported to the city’s Inquisitors by an informant, arrested, and imprisoned in the Piombi dungeon of the Ducal Palace.
As Damrosch explains in one of the numerous discourses that illuminate the historical context of Casanova’s life, Venice was governed by a code of laws that was not known to the public. Venetians were expected to live in a way that did not disturb the public order. Three men on the city’s Council of Ten formed the Inquisitors, who could arrest and imprison citizens without making formal charges. Casanova had transgressed Venice’s social code by “publicly disrespecting the Holy Religion.” He was not told the term of his sentence.
Casanova’s imprisonment led to perhaps his most legendary exploit, his escape from Piombi, a feat never before accomplished. On one of his daily exercise walks in the dungeon Casanova found a metal bar and a piece of marble and brought them back to his cell. With the use of these implements and the help of an accomplice, Casanova opened a hole in the ceiling of his cell, entered the palace, and left by the front door after persuading the night watchman to unlock the gate. Subsequently he wrote a letter to the Council of Ten, explaining that while it had been their duty to imprison him, it had been his duty to escape.
Twenty years later, through the intervention of friends, Casanova obtained a safe conduct document that allowed him to return to Venice. But his patron had died, and in order to support himself Casanova took on the humiliating role of an informer for the Inquisitors. This led him to write an essay attacking Venetian aristocracy, and when it was published, he was forced to leave Venice again, this time for good.
Over the course of his many adventures Casanova found himself persona non grata in Paris, London, Madrid, Barcelona, Warsaw, Vienna, and Florence. Damrosch’s accounts of these episodes make for compelling and often amusing reading.
In 1785, when he was 60 years old, Casanova settled in Dux, a provincial town in Bohemia whose residents spoke only Czech. (Casanova was fluent in Italian, Veneziano—the Venetian dialect—French, and Latin. He spoke some Spanish, too, but disdained the non-Romance languages, including English.) He was the guest of Count Joseph Karl Emmanuel von Waldstein at his hunting castle. The count installed him as the castle librarian, paying him a generous salary, and accommodating him with a pleasant apartment, a servant, and the use of horses and a carriage. There, in 1789, his sexual powers waning, his appetite for adventure sated, Casanova began to write Histoire de Ma Vie, the epic autobiography on which Damrosch’s book is based, and which critics consider one of the greatest works of 18th century literature.
The book tells the story, in the manner of a picaresque novel, of Casanova’s innumerable love affairs, his friendships with famous men such as Voltaire and Frederick the Great, his ever shifting identities and changes of role, and his eager embrace of the Epicurean philosophy of life (“carpe diem”) that guided him as the supreme libertine of his age.
Throughout the narrative Damrosch provides both historical background and commentary on the factuality of Casanova’s account based on the extensive scholarship performed since his death in 1798. The result is a page-turning account that penetrates the character of a most exceptional human being who was both a product of his age and an astute observer of its mores.
Casanova, nearing death, summed up his life as follows: “I have loved, I’ve been loved, I felt well, I had plenty of money and spent it; I was happy and I said to myself that I was, laughing at the stupid moralists who claim that there’s no happiness on earth . . . as if one could seek it anywhere else.”