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November 2022 Issue [Reviews]

The Thoughtful Prick

On Casanova
Giacomo Girolamo Casanova In Selva, by Oleksandr Roytburd, whose work is on view this month in the exhibition Painting in Excess: Kyiv’s Art Revival, 1985–1993, at the Coral Gables Museum, in Miami © The Estate of Oleksandr Roytburd

Giacomo Girolamo Casanova In Selva, by Oleksandr Roytburd, whose work is on view this month in the exhibition Painting in Excess: Kyiv’s Art Revival, 1985–1993, at the Coral Gables Museum, in Miami © The Estate of Oleksandr Roytburd


The Thoughtful Prick

On Casanova

Discussed in this essay:

Adventurer: The Life and Times of Giacomo Casanova, by Leo Damrosch. Yale University Press. 432 pages. $35.

In Adepts in Self-Portraiture, a 1928 study of the autobiographies of Casanova, Stendhal, and Tolstoy, Stefan Zweig wrote about a shady eighteenth-century class of figures known as adventurers:

They hear of a court, and in a trice they flock thither, the adventurers, in hundreds of masks and disguises. No one can tell you whence they come. . . . They bear pompous names, false as the jewels they flaunt on their shoe-buckles. They speak all languages; claim to be the familiar friends of rulers and other people of importance; have served in every army of note; and have studied at all the universities. Their pockets bulge with memoranda of schemes; their mouths are full of promises. 

From Paris to Dresden, Warsaw to St. Petersburg, Venice to Naples, a rotation of the same characters moved in procession between the European courts. These ancien régime travelers weren’t Grand Tourists, aristocratic dilettantes cruising between ancient ruins and brothels, though the routes the two groups took often overlapped. They were men and women on the make, mobile and improvisatory, seeking to win their way by swindling, seducing, or performing. They might be unacknowledged illegitimate sons (as was the Comte de Saint-Germain, a mysterious philosopher and alchemist, who claimed to be descended from Transylvanian royalty and, thanks to his magical labors, hundreds of years old); or hustlers who rose from poverty to charm royal courts, à la the Sicilian Giuseppe Balsamo, alias the Count di Cagliostro, a self-made master of the occult (or “Quack of Quacks,” according to Thomas Carlyle).

Usually, such people didn’t write about themselves. They were too busy devising schemes and escaping the clutches of the authorities to devote time to introspection, and too aware of the possible consequences of candor to risk unmasking themselves in print. But one, notably, did. The “historian of the guild,” in Zweig’s phrase, was a man who wrote enough about himself to suffice for all of them: Giacomo Casanova.

Casanova started writing his life at the point he felt he had stopped living it. Confined, by bad weather and old age, sometimes for months at a time, to the isolated castle in the forests of Bohemia where he spent his last thirteen years, he wrote almost unceasingly, organizing the messy drama of his exploits into a series of chapters and acts. His autobiography, Histoire de Ma Vie, which was left unfinished upon his death in 1798, stretches to more than three thousand pages in modern editions; to produce it, he drew on a fastidious archive of self-documentation he’d accumulated during his years on the move—notebook accounts, often scribbled down the same day, of experiences or significant conversations; preserved letters from correspondents; transcripts of letters he’d sent to others. (The sheer quantity of paper made travel complicated. In Barcelona, a customs inspector discovered that his trunk appeared to be “two-thirds filled with notebooks.”) His narrative amounted to a kind of alternative Enlightenment encyclopedia—a kaleidoscope of names (Catherine the Great, Louis XV, Madame de Pompadour, Dr. Johnson); places (almost every major city in Europe); prisons (he did time in three and came close to spells in a few more); and seduction upon seduction upon seduction (virgins, married women, pairs of sisters, other men’s mistresses, nuns, mothers and daughters, prostituted children—invariably treated, he records, to multiple orgasms).

Among biographers, seduced by the sheer bulk of this account, there’s a tendency to run the Histoire and the historical life together, helpfully renarrativizing the adventurer’s exploits. Attempts to make excuses for his predations, or to claim that the women and girls he had sex with wielded as much agency and enjoyed themselves as much as he did, are common. (Zweig, memorably, called him “an altruist in love,” able, through the sheer obviousness of his bad faith, to make women “glow without singeing them.”) In Adventurer: The Life and Times of Giacomo Casanova, Leo Damrosch takes a different tack and reads his subject against the grain, weighing the lure of the legend against a twenty-first-century assessment of its moral costs and harms. Casanova’s claims about mutual pleasure are queried; the voices of women he seduced are listened to; instances of sexual violence—assault, rape, gang rape—are frankly called out. One question is whether the intellectual aspirations Damrosch admires in his subject make things better or worse. Casanova fucked, ate, and gambled copiously, but he also thought copiously about those things, and wrote about them copiously too—sometimes interestingly, sometimes not. One of his favorite sayings, repeated in Histoire, was “the prick doesn’t want thoughts.” His, for better or worse, always did.

Giacomo Casanova, the son of two actors, Giovanna “Zanetta” Farussi and Gaetano Casanova, was born in April 1725 in Venice, in a narrow street behind the San Samuele theater where his parents worked. In Histoire, he evinces no interest in himself as a young child. “If it is true that vivere cogitare est . . . I did not live, I vegetated.” When he was eight, he began experiencing heavy nosebleeds no one knew how to cure. “Everyone supposed that I would not live long. My father and mother never spoke to me.” His grandmother, Marzia, a more affectionate figure than his often distant mother, conveyed him to the island of Murano, where an old woman “with a black cat in her arms” shut him up in a chest, burned fragrant herbs, and recited spells over him, enjoining him to secrecy. The magical cure seemed to work, but what stayed with him was the lesson about credulity that he took from the supposed witch’s ministrations.

From the age of nine, he made rapid progress as a scholar, tutored in Latin by a priest, Antonio Gozzi. Like other bright boys, he was steered toward a career in the church, studying at the University of Padua for two years in his early teens (a normal matriculation age for the period), then becoming an abate, or priest-in-training. When his mother arranged a job for him as the secretary to Bernardino de Bernardis, a newly appointed bishop in the south of Italy, Casanova traveled down to the village of Martirano, but fled in disgust when he discovered that he and Bernardis were expected to “serve a congregation of ‘animals.’ ” His fledgling ecclesiastical career collapsed when the church authorities discovered that he had been concealing his French teacher’s daughter in a cardinal’s palazzo. Half-hearted stints, in the next few years, as a legal apprentice and an army ensign proved just as abortive.

He was, after all, very busy in other ways. His early infatuation with Bettina, Gozzi’s teenage sister, ceded at sixteen to an obsession with Angela, the niece of his parish priest in Venice; when Angela proved resistant, he moved on to her friends, the sisters Nanetta and Marta, whom he penetrated, one after the other, as they lay in bed together. On the mainland, there was a young bride who tried to fend him off in a carriage; then, on his way to Rome, another married woman, Lucrezia, whom he threw himself on in the dark at a coaching inn, narrowly avoiding discovery by her husband. Intense attachments followed. In Ancona, he met a young castrato named Bellino, who turned out, to Casanova’s delight, to be a girl, equipped with a fake “white pendant” penis attachment. The only relationship that broke his heart was an affair of a few months—protracted, for Casanova—with a mysterious aristocrat called Henriette, on the run from her family, who introduced him to the arcane secret that it was possible for women to make men happy “all the twenty-four hours of a day,” rather than just in bed.

In the spring of 1746, around the time of his twenty-first birthday, he abandoned the idea of a conventional career for good. Returning home from playing the fiddle at a wedding, he happened to encounter a Venetian nobleman, Senator Matteo Giovanni Bragadin, who had been “seized by a terrifying stroke”; accompanying him to his palazzo, Casanova saved him from the dangerous mercury cure his physician applied. Bragadin, it turned out, was fascinated by the occult, and felt convinced that the young man must possess “some supernatural gift.” Dazzled by Casanova’s glib claims to wield a mysterious oracular power, Bragadin offered to adopt him as a quasi-son on the spot. Within a few months, Giacomo from the backstreets of San Samuele was installed in an apartment in the senator’s palazzo, equipped with a servant, a private gondola, and a salary in perpetuity.

The playboy dream ended abruptly in 1755, when he was thrown into prison. Spies for the government’s committee of Inquisitors had been reporting on the young upstart’s occult impostures, his frittering away of his patron’s money, his flagrantly “irreligious” behavior. Bragadin’s cash was funding heavy gambling and elaborate, impious scenes of seduction. (To seal the deal with M. M., an aristocratic nun whom he insisted on fucking in her habit, Casanova rented an opulent house near the Piazza San Marco and laid on truffles for dinner.) The conditions in I Piombi, the prison beneath the lead roof of the Ducal Palace where he was confined, were appalling. His cell contained only a bench and a bucket; at night he was preyed on by rats “as big as rabbits” and bloodsucking fleas. His intricate escape plan, which he executed fifteen months after his incarceration, involved enlisting the prisoner in the neighboring cell to carve a hole in his ceiling with a stolen iron bolt (which Casanova conveyed to him, in a quintessentially Venetian maneuver, inside a Bible balanced underneath “a big dish of macaroni filled with butter”). When he emerged into the palace courtyard, he was wearing the rose-colored silk suit, trimmed with lace, in which he had been arrested. “I looked like a man who had been at a ball and after that in a place of debauchery where he got beaten up.”

Exiled, indefinitely, from his home, he became a career adventurer. His bogus oracular abilities, in city after city, proved to be a social lubricant. In Amsterdam, where he traveled on a war-financing mission for the French government, he was offered a large chunk of money and a beautiful fourteen-year-old heiress on the strength of a lucky prediction. In Paris, he inveigled his way into the Duchess of Chartres’s private quarters in the Palais-Royal by claiming he could cure her pimples. In Grenoble, he concocted a horoscope to predict that a lowly girl, Anne, would “infallibly become the mistress of Louis XV”; years later, he learned that she had indeed become the newest member of Louis’s Parc-aux-Cerfs. His most lucrative conquest, in Paris, was of the wealthy Marquise d’Urfé, a middle-aged widow and obsessive amateur alchemist, who “already possessed,” as she believed, “the philosopher’s stone,” and told Casanova she could use it to be reincarnated with his help. Over the course of six years, he stole vast sums of money from her, cynically stringing out the reincarnation process as long as he could (not least because, according to the fiction he himself had invented, it would involve impregnating her three times).

Social mobility, especially rapid, unlikely movement up the ladder via sudden acquisitions of wealth or standing, is associated again and again in Casanova’s story with magic—an activity which, being inexplicable, is able to cut through established structures and conventions. The link he makes between mobility and a kind of magical thinking makes sense in the context of his feelings about traditional authority. Though skeptical by nature, he thrived, as Damrosch argues, in ancien régime milieus: he depended on hierarchies because they gave him something to scale, and on rules because, without them, there would be nothing to break. He adored kings and admired noblemen; he once told Voltaire that the Venetian Inquisitors “had been right to imprison [him] without the usual formalities,” since, after all, he had abused the little freedom he possessed. The kinds of “subversion” he pulled off, in this context, could never have been “more than a simulacrum,” as the critic François Roustang has argued—unreal, faked, temporary, a magical dream of mobility rather than mobility itself. Nothing shows this more plainly than the fact that the story of Anne and the horoscope might not have been true. If, as Damrosch suggests, the real order of events was that Casanova met Anne in Grenoble, heard later that she had become the king’s mistress, and subsequently invented his prediction to insert himself into her narrative, it’s not surprising that he reached for a certain kind of fiction. How could Anne, the poor daughter of a clerk, have been installed at Versailles, and even given a title, unless by magic—his magic?

Casanova was expelled from France in 1767 by Louis XV when the truth of the Marquise d’Urfé scam became known. It was one of a long list of places from which, as he ricocheted around Europe, he was either banned or forced to escape before his eventual return to Venice in 1774. In 1763, he fled London (where he disliked the food and beer and refused to speak English) to avoid imprisonment and possible execution for forgery. He had to leave Warsaw in a hurry in 1766 because rumors had begun to circulate about his various heinous activities in France. In Spain, in 1768, he was imprisoned in two separate cities, first in Madrid and then in Barcelona (the latter for carrying invalid passports, though he had also just stabbed a man). And he was expelled not once but twice from Florence.

Few, perhaps, were surprised when, after eight unfulfilling years in Venice, during which he took a job as an informant for the very Inquisitors who had once persecuted him, Casanova was forced to leave under threat of imprisonment for publishing a satire attacking “the entire body of the Venetian nobility.” He ended up in the small town of Dux in Bohemia in 1785, in the castle of his friend Count von Waldstein, holding down an improbable post as von Waldstein’s librarian, and writing, writing, writing.

Language, in Casanova’s life, was a powerful tool. Words could humiliate him (learning French, he made himself a laughing stock in Paris with unintentional double entendres); they could be the difference between a dazzling and a failed oracular prediction; they could even, as he discovered in Madrid, bust him out of prison. His essay attacking the effects of the French Revolution, My Neighbor, Posterity (1797), was framed as a critique of the evolution of language, of the violent words and meanings that had emerged to articulate France’s new reality.

When he sat down to write, words never failed him, flooding out as copiously as, in previous decades, sperm and sweat had done. But they weren’t always words people wanted to read. Much of what he produced is read only by specialists. A five-volume philosophical novel, Icosameron (1788)—more of a treatise than a work of fiction—sold few copies and was panned by reviewers. On the strength of nine months spent in Warsaw, he composed an ambitious History of the Troubles in Poland (1774), not all of whose volumes were published. He translated Homer’s Iliad into Italian ottava rima; “sales were disappointing.” While traveling, he contemplated a “dictionary of cheeses,” but “abandoned [it] when I found it was beyond my powers.” His attempts at Enlightenment philosophizing in Histoire—conventional musings on the power of reason and the unnaturalness of sexual restraint—tend to be the parts you want to skip over. “I cannot in conscience admit that I am a machine,” he says firmly at one point.

His best material, instead, was himself: a life so improbably picaresque that most fictions couldn’t match it, and which profited, translated into autobiography, from its generic proximity to fashionable novelistic forms of the period. Histoire wasn’t Casanova’s first venture into life-writing. In 1780, he published the tale of a duel he’d fought in Warsaw with a supercilious Polish nobleman; in 1787, having exhausted anyone who would listen with the story of his prison escape (he once told the Duke of Choiseul that the “very shortest version of it” would take two hours), he spun it into a narrative, admired by W. G. Sebald. Both texts employed novelistic strategies. In The Duel, Casanova projects himself as a heroic third-person character (“He placed a kiss on the other’s forehead, which was wet with perspiration”), and describes not only his own intimate thoughts and feelings but also the imagined ones of his adversaries.

In Histoire, though what he was writing was essentially a travelogue, he showed little interest in prodigies of architecture, art, or landscape. (Of the city of Moscow: “At the end of a week, I had seen everything.”) When reality could be improved upon, he improved it, embroidering in extra details or, occasionally, making things up entirely. In The Duel, when his character goes to visit his injured opponent after their encounter, he finds him merely “lying down”; in Histoire, the man has turned “pale as a corpse,” and is observed reclining on an effeminate array of “pillows with rose-colored ribbons.” Among Casanova’s larger possible fabrications was the claim that he was present in Paris at the execution of Robert-François Damiens, a servant who had attempted to assassinate Louis XV. (He liked to claim that he had witnessed major historical events when he hadn’t.) In this case he added the choice detail that, while they viewed Damiens’s agony, he and his companion took advantage of the two women seated in front of them, who were somehow, in Damrosch’s words, “too engrossed to object.” Elsewhere in Histoire, he took pains to pretend that his relationship with a beautiful nun, C. C., was sparked by a dramatic chance encounter involving a fall from a carriage, when, in reality, he had known her brother for five years.

Carriages are everywhere in Histoire. One of Casanova’s earliest sexual misdeeds, the conquest of the young bride near Venice, takes place in a carriage; in Rome, he seals the deal with Lucrezia during a carriage ride; in London, a lady offers him a lift to Whitehall and he promptly seduces her; in Aix-en-Provence, he reencounters Henriette, fourteen years after their parting, because his carriage breaks down and he seeks shelter at her château. No doubt carriages made sense as sites of seduction for Casanova because they were convenient and private, spaces for misbehavior cut off from the real world of obligations and husbands. In Histoire, though, the frequency with which they crop up also makes sense for literary reasons. During the eighteenth century, carriages and coaches of all kinds—either as settings for sexual transgression, or, per the Henriette episode, as machines that break down fortuitously—were common vehicles for plot in English and French novels. In Frances Burney’s Evelina (1778), for instance, it’s in a carriage that the rakish Sir Clement Willoughby makes his move on the heroine; in Jane Austen’s juvenile Love and Freindship (1790), the “lucky overturning of a Gentleman’s Phaeton” serves to kill off, very dramatically, the brand-new husbands of the two protagonists.

The self-consciousness with which Casanova turns to the carriage trope—even, as in the C. C. episode, inserting it at the expense of the facts—tells us something about the way he envisaged Histoire being read by contemporaries. It was to be understood not only as akin to fiction, a story as much as a history, but also as a recognizably conventional fiction: a tale that obeyed literary rules even as it flouted sexual and moral ones. At the verbal level, it looked and sounded like other eighteenth-century pornographic texts. When he described the thing he did best, Casanova leaned on the popular contemporary analogy, much favored by pen-wielding libertines, between sex and warfare. Lovemaking, in Histoire, is “combat,” composed of multiple “bouts”; the penis is a “weapon,” capable of wounding “to death”—that is, to orgasm—without killing; the vagina is a “field” of battle; venereal disease symptoms are “scars” akin to soldiers’ “wounds.” (When he mixed his metaphors, the results could be horrific: “I immolated the victim without bloodying the altar.”) Generically, too, his narrative observed certain conventions. Casanova’s tear-stained encounter in Paris with Marianna Corticelli, a former flame whom he rescues from prostitution and disease, is a recognizable version of the “seduced harlot” plot beloved of eighteenth-century sentimental novels. The multiple “bed trick” moments, in a different genre—where Casanova believes he is having sex with one woman, while, in the dark, he’s really entwined with another—supply a traditional kind of comic relief.

Casanova didn’t like the idea that future readers might judge his activities. His aim in writing Histoire was similar to Byron’s, a few years later, in publishing Don Juan: to “giggle and make giggle,” to provide a “subject for laughter” to a select, “well-bred audience,” a readership composed of libertine types who, like him, had seen the world and considered themselves unshockable. His sexual predilections, for the most part, were legal (under English common law, sex with girls as young as ten was permitted, while, in Russia, he wasn’t breaking the law by purchasing a teenage “servant” for sex), but they would have been considered extreme by most. “I would perhaps have omitted it in talking to a lady,” he comments of a long passage in his prison escape narrative about being unable to stop peeing, “but the public is not a lady.”

Damrosch, with his modern moral standards, isn’t an obvious fellow giggler. Casanova’s “career as a seducer,” he tells us in his introduction, “is often disturbing and sometimes very dark.” Given the extent and implications of what he refers to, euphemistically, as “the challenge of Casanova,” there’s a certain perversity to his choice of biographical subject. To take up, in 2022, the question of one of history’s most notorious sexual predators and frame it as a post-#MeToo reckoning would pose a challenge for anyone—and not necessarily a useful one. Beyond the problems raised by presentism, it’s not clear that moral censures and trigger warnings tell us much about eighteenth-century libertinism that we didn’t already know; and, with the exception of Manon Balletti, Casanova’s one-time fiancée, to whom Damrosch devotes an insightful chapter, we possess too little information about most of his female conquests to be able to understand them meaningfully as historical agents.

There’s a difference, however, between Casanova the man and Casanova the intellectual, and what he thought and wrote about his own sexual conduct—the arguments and fabrications of Histoire—may tell us more about what his behavior meant in context. During the late eighteenth century, ideas around sex were in flux, as Enlightenment rationalists queried the biblical basis for traditional laws prohibiting adultery and fornication, and suggested that even taboo activities such as incest were at least theoretically defensible, so long as they did not threaten the social order. Casanova, who considered orthodox morality beneath him, had little trouble in Histoire justifying most of what he—and others—got up to. “I could not help laughing,” he wrote of his reaction to a secondhand story of incest involving a man and his daughter and granddaughter. “I thought to myself . . . that all the horror that was felt for it came only from education and force of habit.” He philosophized complacently about sexual matters even while in bed, and turned to sophistry to seduce. “Her anxiety pleased me,” he wrote of an eleven-year-old prostituted out by her mother, who was worried that he would “reproach her” for not being a virgin. “I amused myself by assuring her that virginity in girls seemed to me only childish imagination, since nature had not even given most of them the tokens of it.”

What’s clear from Histoire, though, is that Casanova wasn’t capable of considering all his transgressions as straightforward laughing matters. When he realized he was on shaky ground, cracks appeared in the arguments he used to justify himself. In 1770, at the age of forty-five, he seduced one of his multiple illegitimate daughters, Leonilda, partially egged on by the girl’s mother, Lucrezia. In his telling in Histoire, the episode is characterized by hedging strategies and elisions, attempts both to claim a libertine victory and to refuse responsibility. In certain situations, Casanova maintains, incest just happens, whether or not its participants intend it to; in this case, he and Leonilda find themselves suddenly “forced,” by an “almost involuntary movement” of their bodies, to “consummate” what they know is technically wrong—but only technically. Things that are “almost involuntary” are, after all, almost natural, and only the unreasonable try to argue with nature. There’s a similar slipperiness to the way he describes taking advantage of a nun in Aix, penetrating her while she sleeps: “I consummated the sweet crime in her, and with her.” That transition from “in her” to “with her” is telling: to note merely that he ejaculated “in her” would be to admit to rape; the addition of “and with her” allows, disingenuously, the coerced to shade into the semi-consensual.

Zweig suggested that Casanova’s memoirs constituted, in their dedication to capturing almost every kind of social experience, “the most valuable record of eighteenth-century life.” Given how uninterested Casanova was in the type of detail that could be verified, and how little the life he led resembled the world most people knew, that seems a stretch. What the story of his exploits does offer, though, perhaps despite itself, is one of the fullest records of the century’s strategies for representing itself: the organizing fictions and tropes it leaned on; the arguments it employed to understand and justify its darkest impulses; the lies it periodically needed to tell.

 is a fellow of All Souls College at Oxford. Her book about poetry anthologies, The Treasuries, will be published in February by Head of Zeus.

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