The Duel

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The Duel

by Giacomo Casanova


A novella set in eighteenth-century Europe (primarily in Venice and Warsaw); published in Italian (as II duello) in 1780, in English in 2003.


A misunderstanding between a rival and Casanova over his intentions toward a ballerina results in a duel to redeem Casanova’s honor. Illegal in Warsaw, it takes place outside the city and wounds both duelists before one emerges victorious.

Events in History at the Time of the Novella

The Novella in Focus

Two Versions of “The Duel”—The Inflammatory Spark

For More Information

Giacomo Casanova was born April 2, 1725, in Venice to a family’s of stage dancers and actors, professions then considered so lowly they were often equated with pimping and prostitution. Though his mother, Zanetta Farussi, was married to Gaetano Casanova (who died when Giacomo was eight years old), there is some question as to who his biological father was—Gaetano or the patrician Michele Grimani, who took on the responsibility of rearing Giacomo. Whether out of noblesse oblige or paternal devotion, Grimani and his two brothers (all unwed) provided Casanova with a noble connection and thus an entrance into upper-class European society. While his mother pursued her “acting” career in various great cities of Europe, Casanova attended school in Padua, where he started to serve in the Roman Catholic Church and earned a Doctor of Law degree at the age of 17. Unsuited for the clergy, Casanova tried his hand at several other professions, becoming a soldier and a violinist before finding his true calling as a lover and court favorite. Drawing on his keen wit, charm, good looks, and noble connections, Casanova “comforted” women—and men—of the aristocracy throughout Europe and earned a living through financial schemes and government intrigues. Not surprisingly, these intrigues and his amorous adventures frequently landed him in prison or drove him into exile. In flight from one place or another throughout his life, Casanova wandered from city to city, always able to ingratiate himself with the aristocracy but never truly able to become a part of it. His final years found him virtually unknown and in poor straits in Bohemia, taken on as librarian to Count Waldstein. Seemingly at odds with his public persona, Casanova produced a formidable body of substantial literary work throughout his adventurous life. He composed and translated histories, satirical and political pamphlets, math treatises, plays, novels, and, finally, his highly acclaimed autobiography, The Story of My Life (L’histoire de ma vie), begun in 1789 in Bohemia but never completed or published during his lifetime. He published only two original works of fiction (autobiographical adventures): the first, the story of his escape from the Leads prison in Venice and the second, The Duel—both also recounted in his autobiography. The Duel details an episode in Warsaw involving a rival who impugns Casanova’s honor as a man and a Venetian—a significant attack on a man who struggled his whole life for respect and honor in a highly stratified society.

Events in History at the Time of the Novella

Venice and vice

By the beginning of the eighteenth century, Venice was a republic in decline. No longer a major player in the world as master of the Adriatic and Mediterranean, the republic’s power was at perhaps its weakest point in its thousand-year history. Its citizens could at least take comfort in the fact that they lived in relative peace. No longer was war being waged against the Turks (or anyone else), which gave Venetian society and culture—particularly the arts and leisure activities—a chance to flourish. Indeed Venice did flourish, thanks in large part to its status as a tourist attraction. The eighteenth century saw the rise of a phenomenon known as the Grand Tour, in which tourism in continental Europe became all the rage, with Venice as a primary destination. Aristocrats from Great Britain to Russia flocked to Venice and its neighboring states in droves to visit the remains of classical antiquity and to indulge in sensual activities. Gambling, Venice’s celebrated Carnival season, theater, and prostitution made it the “sin city” of this era; its relatively relaxed moral climate and an abundance of single women in the city only added to its appeal. As John Masters describes it, “Mountebanks tumbled, harlequins pranced with dominoes, charlatans cajoled, herb doctors cried quackish cures: and everywhere there was the smell of fish, of water, of over-ripeness of history, a city of the sea, settling under the weight of past riches, vivid, beautiful, morbida, a queen turned courtesan” (Masters, p. 59).

A unique aspect of Venetian society was its preponderance of unmarried aristocrats. Of the 42 noble houses that now ruled the republic, 66 percent of eligible bachelors remained single in the eighteenth century for one simple reason: to conserve what remained of the family’s wealth (Norwich, p. 594). The eldest son of each family’s was required to marry to keep the noble line going but other sons were denied marriage, in order to prevent the dispersal of wealth that no longer accumulated the way it once had, when Venice controlled all trade through the Adriatic Sea. The result of this policy was twofold: first, many noble lines went extinct because no male heirs survived; and second, the city swelled with noblemen bachelors. This new demographic produced a thriving community of courtesans and cicisbeo (male gigolos), who operated either openly or secretly. Unable to find suitable husbands, many aristocratic women were forced into the nunnery—women who had no calling or inclination to take the veil. This coercion led to many of the convents in Venice becoming little more than thinly disguised brothels. Aristocratic women who did manage to marry commonly took a cicisbeo to serve as companions while their husbands occupied themselves with their own bevy of courtesans—all of which was tolerated in a society tired of the strict morals of previous generations. A true product of this hedonistic environment, Casanova not only found his calling as a cicisbeo extraordinaire, but benefited from the single status of the noble Grimani brothers, who, with no children of their own to help, served throughout his life as surrogate fathers (though, as noted, Michele Grimani may have actually been his biological father).

Venetian government

The Republic of Venice had long figured among the most liberal of Catholic Europe; of the Catholic republics this one alone could claim that it never burned a heretic. Unlike other Roman Catholic political entities, this one tolerated various sects and religions: Greek Orthodox and Armenian Christian, Jewish, and Muslim. Venice was a city-state, an independent republic that was subject to no sovereign authority; it differed in this way from other former Italian city-state republics, like Florence


Both Freemasonry and Kabbalism promised to land its practitioners in jail while the Inquisition ensued (1231–1800). An association of gentlemen, politicians, and professionals, the Freemasons formed an official union in 1717 for the purpose of bringing order, reason, and brotherhood into the world. They set out to advance the purpose of the Almighty and, with this in mind, practiced religious toleration. Anyone who believed in a supreme being could be a member. In 1738, the Freemasons were banned by the Catholic Church under pain of excommunication. Despite the ban, Masonic temples sprang up throughout Europe and the future United States. The temples became centers for socio-political networking and free thinking. Freemasonry “attracted some quacks and freaks and crooks, but its chief appeal at the time was to men of intelligence and curiosity, because it recreated a free society. Here Catholic could talk to Protestant, tradesman to aristocrat, Spaniard to German, merchant banker to master builder” (Masters, p. 80).

Kabbalah, also spelled Cabala, is a mystical Jewish tradition that by Casanova’s day had been in existence for more than 500 years. It is based on the Zohar, a book of mysterious or esoteric commentary on the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. In the Zohar are texts that one could purportedly use to prevent sickness, defeat enemies, and alter physics. The Catholic Church banned the book and the practice of its secrets. Defying the ban, and getting caught, led to charges of heresy, which was punishable by imprisonment or burning at the stake.

Casanova indulged in both Freemasonry and Kabbalism. While people studied the Kabbalah in earnest, he used it as a means to a selfish end. On the road and in prison Casanova learned some basic charlatanry based on the Kabbalah, and he used the little he knew to swindle nobles out of money, which landed him in Jail on more than one occasion (including in 1755). He became a Freemason to improve his social connections, in the mid-eighteenth century, European society was flirting with the idea of democratization, a flirtation that would simmer and then boil over into the French Revolution soon after The Duel was released. Becoming a Freemason in his day was therefore a prudent move; it “would serve to open a thousand barred doors” (Masters, p. 81). Casanova, without money and of low birth, desperately needed this association in order to work his way up the social ladder. Ironically, then, he used a democratic form to promote an elitist aspiration.

(which had succumbed to princely rule under the Medici) or Milan (which had been conquered and absorbed into the Habsburg empire). Venice relied on a founding group of 480 patrician families, so designated in 1297, for its rule. They formed the Great Council, which, in turn, appointed the Council of Ten (in charge of internal security in the state); the ruling Doge (head of state); and the much feared Inquisitors of State, who were empowered to investigate and secretly arrest, imprison, and torture those identified as enemies of Venice. By the eighteenth century the Inquisitors still existed but were much less vigorous than they had been in past centuries, having fallen out of favor with both society and the ruling succession of Doges. The old instruments of torture served as “elegant curiosities” more than anything else, and the Inquisitors had not used their famous poison for close to a hundred years (Hibbert, p. 166). Arrests, however, were often made for both moral and legal violations, as Casanova discovered. He was jailed for immoral activities in his youth and then again in 1755, this last time without formal charge. The authorities held him for over a year, ostensibly because of occult activities (practicing Jewish mysticism, generally known as the Kabbalah) but actually the arrest may have been for spying. At any rate, he escaped and the authorities retaliated by exiling him from Venice, which led to his stay in Warsaw, the scene of the duel.

Eighteenth-century Europe

The map of Europe in the eighteenth century was an amalgam of competing colonial powers: in the west, France, Great Britain, Spain, and the Netherlands; in the southeast, the Ottoman and Habsburg empires; in the northeast, Russia and Sweden; and on the Italian peninsula, about a dozen independent states, of which Venice was one. These powers vied for economic, political, and social control, resorting to everything from war to strategic marriages to attain it. Meanwhile, political, social, and economic changes transpired, some of them emanating from a new variety of rule.

The concept of “enlightened absolutism” emerged from Frederick II of Prussia (1740–85). Absolute monarchs had long been claiming they ruled by divine right and were answerable only to the Almighty. Enlightened rulers justified their claim to absolute authority by identifying themselves as servants of the state or society, leaders charged with wiping out inequality and preserving the rights of their subjects. People started to debate the meaning of noble—was it an inherited quality or one earned by virtue and talent? In keeping with this debate, there was some movement across social ranks; in Italy, as in the rest of Europe, noble titles were sometimes sold. The fact that one’s education, achievements, and social connections made some difference is evident from Casanova’s own social rise. But society in general remained divided between the haves and havenots. While other European leaders followed Frederick’s example, “no such ruler … had any idea of establishing an equality of rights between middle class and nobility,” much less the lower classes (Anderson, p. 126). The masses still lived under the thumb of the elite. In Eastern Europe, where The Duel takes place, a small minority—the 2 to 3 percent that comprised the upper class—controlled virtually all the wealth, land, and laws for the largely illiterate, agrarian majority. The nobility—enlightened or not—retained power.

Nobles dressed in finery that distinguished them from other groups. They could brandish a sword and govern. While some of their privileges were enjoyed by non-noble army officers and government officials, the nobles generally monopolized the positions of highest command. In keeping with the advent of enlightened rule, however, as the century progressed, society began to consider the negative consequences of policies invoked by the nobles. An educated few started to question the social inequities around them. Advances in science and thinkers such as Locke, Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot, and Montesquieu helped shape a newly emergent concept of human rights and democracy. The winds of change were stirring, though not until the century’s end would a real revolution occur.

Noble in name only

In general, European society was sharply divided between the nobility and the rest of the population. Theoretically the nobility consisted of greater and lesser nobles, all protected from prosecution under most laws and entitled to special privileges. By the eighteenth century, although many lesser nobles were doing well, others, especially in Eastern Europe, where The Duel takes place, had little to boast of except for these privileges. These nobles were virtually bankrupt. In Poland—the site of Casanova’s duel—the family’s of the king (Stanislaus Lubomirski) owned 31 towns and 776 villages, but thousands of poor, uneducated squires had neither the material goods nor the cultural training generally associated with the class. Yet the bankrupt aristocrats refused to work, viewing such activity as not only beneath them but as a stain on their name and social rank. In a society where the appearance of nobility won a person privilege and respect but the occupation of worker did not, a person who wanted to maintain a position in society had few “acceptable” ways to earn a living. One could own land or hold a governing post, but without either, the options narrowed to almost none. A man could become a professional soldier and buy a commission; he could become a clergyman and engineer a powerful posting; or he could do what most did: secure patronage. Patrons, who were the greater nobles, paid to have lesser nobles in their debt, ready and willing to execute deeds, from conducting court intrigues to concocting revenue schemes, to providing political support and showering a patron with flattery. A man who all his life wanted to be respected by society, Casanova tried all three—soldiering, the clergy, and patronage—eventually settling on this last means of survival.

The custom of dueling

Though officially illegal, the custom of dueling remained an honorable way to settle disputes in eighteenth-century Europe. Originating in the medieval era, dueling had by this time evolved into the gentleman’s way to settle disputes and questions of honor, while simultaneously proving bravery. It was widely held that God would grant victory to the duelist who was in the right. There was an understood standard of behavior with respect to dueling: “If you disagree with someone, it is your responsibility to your own word, and your opponent’s to theirs, to bring it to a duel, because only when facing death against live steel is your commitment truly tested (God, of course, will grant victory to the one who is right, and what self respecting and angry nobleman would believe God wasn’t with them?)” (Hodges, p. 1).

The rules of the duel were the same throughout Europe. As in Casanova’s case, however, they were not always stringently followed, in large part because dueling was an illegal activity. Duels generally transpired according to the following “rules”:

  1. The offended party issues a challenge to the offender.
  2. The offender accepts and both parties agree to meet in a timely manner—usually the same day the challenge is issued. The parties name their “seconds,” or witnesses, who are to issue the weapons and ensure the fairness of the fight (in Casanova’s case, he does not have a second and Branicki’s—far from ensuring the fairness of the fight—tries to kill Casanova after he has injured Branicki).
  3. The challenger can name the place of the duel but the challenged has the right to choose weapons. Swords can only be used if the challenger swears he is not an expert fencer. (As in Casanova’s case, most duelists didn’t know or trust each other so they chose other weapons, usually pistols.)
  4. When using pistols, each duelist stands a fixed distance from the other and fires one shot, with the challenged firing first. If no one is killed, the duel can end at this point. However, if agreed beforehand, the duelists can reload and fire again until one or the other is killed.
  5. All participants in the duel—the duelists and seconds—swear secrecy concerning the duel, both before and after it takes place.

The primary “rule” was that both participants had to be of the same class and social standing for the fight to be an honorable one. It has been said that the duelists entered into the fight to demonstrate their sense of honor rather than to win. This idea of honor demanded the foes be of the same social standing because only men of comparable status could impugn each other’s reputation. It was not necessary for a noble to fight a commoner. Attacks from men of lesser ranks could be punished in court or the noble could have them beaten. But if a noble refused a direct challenge from a fellow noble, chances are he would suffer a worse fate than if he had fought. He risked being labeled a coward, publicly humiliated, and ostracized from polite society—an outcome worse than death among most of the aristocracy. So keenly does Casanova feel the loss of honor that it threatens to ruin his life. So he reaches for the remedy of the duel to restore his honor.

The Novella in Focus

Plot summary

“A man born in Venice to poor parents, without worldly goods and without any of those titles which in cities distinguish the families of note from the common people, but, by the grace of God, brought up like one destined for something different” (Casanova, The Duel, p. 3). So the narration—in third person—introduces us to Casanova, a would-be man “of note.” At the age of 27 he has a run-in with the government of Venice and at 28 he manages to escape a penalty he is unwilling to pay. Preferring exile to imprisonment, Giacomo Casanova, now a fugitive, embarks on yet another adventure in his action-packed life.

Just escaped from the Leads, the famous political prison under the Doge’s palace in Venice, Casanova sets out for France and various courts of Europe in search of patronage. He is on the run, exiled from his beloved homeland after his daring jail break, and ready to wheedle money from the nobles of Europe and Russia, as is his custom. En route to Russia, Casanova explains,

He only is certain of being employed and given a fat salary who arrives at that Court after having had the skill to introduce himself in some European court to the Russian ambassador, who, if he becomes persuaded of that person’s merit, informs the Empress, who gives the order to send him to her, paying the expenses of his journey. Such a person cannot fail to succeed, because no one would be able to say that money has been thrown away on the travel expenses of someone with no ability.

(The Duel, p. 5)

Casanova well understands the politics of impressing the ruling nobility and puts his knowledge to good use as he tries to make his fortune in the world. Though of lowly birth, Casanova has managed, through aristocratic friends and education (in school and on the street), to elevate his status by now, and he is not about to lose any part of it.

Casanova’s quest for lodging and riches eventually brings him to Warsaw, then allied with both the court of Louis XV and Russia. Armed with a letter of introduction, he is accepted into the court of Prince Adam Czartoryski, the Prince Palatine (a court position) to Russia. One night they attend a ballet that features, among others, a Venetian ballerina. Though they are compatriots, Casanova and the ballerina do not get along well. In fact, Casanova prefers the other prima ballerina in the production. Viewing this as an affront, the Venetian ballerina more or less forces Casanova to congratulate her on her performance after the show.

Unfortunately, as Casanova is paying tribute to the Venetian ballerina in her dressing room, her paramour, Ksawery Branicki, Podstoli (a court official) to the Polish Crown, enters the room. Spying Branicki, Casanova takes his leave but instead of letting him go, Branicki follows the Venetian and demands he state his intentions. Casanova, honestly uninterested in the ballerina, jokes to Branicki that he loves her but is willing to yield her to “a fine knight like you” (The Duel, p. 14). Outraged, Branicki calls him a Venetian coward. Casanova responds, “A Venetian coward will shortly send a brave Pole to the next world” and proceeds outside to face him mono a mono (hand to hand) (The Duel, p. 15). But Branicki does not take the bait.

Later, as Casanova is lying in bed, he cannot sleep. He turns over and over in his mind the affront, the attack on his honor. He reasons, “If to the word ’coward,’ which was rude enough in itself, that man had not added the word ’Venetian,’ the other might have borne the affront. But there is, I believe, no man who can stomach a word which vilifies his nation” (The Duel, p. 15). With that, he dashes off a letter challenging Branicki to a duel.

Branicki responds by letter, accepting the challenge and allowing Casanova to choose the weapons. Casanova picks swords but wants the duel postponed to the following day. To his surprise, Branicki shows up at his house and demands that the duel take place that afternoon. They agree to a place outside the city limits (since dueling is illegal in Warsaw) but when they arrive, Branicki switches weapons. He insists they use pistols instead of swords, fearing that Casanova may be a master fencer (which he is not). Casanova reluctantly agrees and the opponents, with Branicki’s “friends” in tow, assume their positions.

The two men fire their pistols simultaneously—Branicki is struck in the ribcage, Casanova in the hand. Branicki falls to the ground and his friends immediately rush Casanova and try to finish him off. As Casanova notes, “this was an outrage, because if the Podstoli had been killed, those friends would have killed his killer” and that is against the rules of the duel. But Branicki calls his avengers off (The Duel, p. 41). He is rushed to a doctor, and Casanova flees the scene, fearful that Branicki will die and he will be held accountable. The Venetian holes up in a monastery where his wounds are treated.

Luckily for Casanova, Branicki survives, and, though word of the incident has spread, the king pardons both men for dueling. The Venetian resumes public life in Warsaw, now more popular than ever. However, his new fame inspires jealousy in others, who throw forth threats and circulate vicious rumors about his exile from Venice and “from almost all the countries of Europe: from one for robbing banks, from another for treachery, for theft, for infamous acts of wickedness” (The Duel, p. 55). Casanova says these are all lies but then adds suggestively, “do not calumnies have the same effect as accusations which are based on the truth?” (The Due, p. 55). At this point, Casanova decides to again move on, promising to one day recount his lifetime of adventures, which he ultimately does. Thus ends the story, with Casanova on the road once more, searching for a new home and another opportunity to make his mark on the world.

From novella to autobiography

When Casanova penned his monumental History of My Life, he was writing in what is now considered “the classical age of autobiography.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau, William Wordsworth, and Goethe, among many others, produced and published their monumental works during this era, recording not simply personal experiences like the one in The Duel, but exploring fundamental questions concerning the meaning of life. In confessions, memoirs, histories, and more, writers famous and not so famous recounted their trials and triumphs in a socially cathartic exercise that allowed readers to share in their common humanity. Then, as now, the autobiographies also afforded readers vicarious thrills, allowing them to experience the extraordinary adventures their ordinary lives would not.

Casanova’s autobiography was perhaps the most daring of all, its tone set by his two preceding autobiographical novellas—The Duel and History of My Flight from the Prison of the Republic of Venice. They set the tone for an autobiography filled with the intrigue, sex, and scandal that would cement Casanova’s reputation and make his name a household word.

Penned in French because the language was more widely known than Italian, Casanova’s History of My Life reveals an adventurous man at the end of his life trying to make sense of society and his small role in it. He begins by declaring himself a Christian as well as a believer in philosophy (he was, after all, living in the Age of Reason) but then, true to his self-deprecating nature, confesses, “Despite an excellent moral foundation, the inevitable fruit of the divine principles which were rooted in my heart, 1 was all my life the victim of my senses” (Casanova, History of My Life, vol. 1, p. 27). He also states that he “had no scruples about deceiving nitwits and scoundrels and fools” and gains nothing but pleasure by recalling his amorous affairs. Though he realizes that his exploits may shock readers, he shows no remorse for any of his actions—in this memoir he is certainly not repentant! Instead he invites readers to laugh at his follies with him. “My follies are the follies of youth,” he says, “… and if you are kind you will laugh at them with me” (History of My Life, vol. 1, p. 27).

The most memorable aspects of Casanova’s autobiography are his seemingly unending series of amorous trysts with young girls, married women, and even boys. So matter-of-factly does he declare his desires—and the effect of them—that he clearly does not see anything immoral about his behavior. For example, while staying with a married couple, he begins an affair with the wife (as is his custom)—even pursuing her while the husband is in the same room:

He [the husband] having gone to the table by the window—and the maid having gone to fetch some linen, I asked her [the wife] if there were any hard lumps in the calf of her leg and if the redness went up in streaks as far as her thigh; as I asked these questions it was natural that I should accompany them with my hands and my eyes; I neither felt lumps or saw redness; but the sensitive patient laughingly dropped the curtain at once, yet not without letting me reap from her lips a kiss of whose sweetness, after four days of abstinence, I sorely needed to refresh my memory. After the kiss, I licked her wound, firmly believing that my tongue would be the balm for it; but the maid’s return forced me to give over this sweet remedy, which my love as doctor made me believe infallible at the moment.

(History of My Life, vol. 1, p. 164)

Of course, Casanova was not a doctor, but he would play whatever part was required to attain his and his lovers’ desires.

In the tradition of the great Italian autobiographies—from Dante’s Vita nuova (c. 1292) to Petrarch’s Secretum (1353) to Cellini’s Vita (1728)—Casanova’s memoirs are replete with controversy and social commentary (see Cellini’s My Life , also in WLAIT 7: Italian Literature and Its Times). Casanova was not a famous artist like Cellini, or a renowned writer in his lifetime like Dante, but his autobiographical stories compel readers, perhaps precisely because he is penning the life of an extraordinary “common” man. He struggles all his life to gain honor and respect (preoccupations of Cellini as well) and distinguishes himself by unabashedly detailing the folly of the aristocracy and of his own exploits to sustain himself within that strange community. The Duel sets the stage for the autobiography with respect to straight-shooting insights and observations about society and himself. For example, in St. Petersburg “he who has the air of needing nothing can easily make money, and it is not difficult there to have that air, just as it is most difficult to have it in Italy, where there is no one who supposes that a purse is full of gold until he has first seen it open” (The Duel, p. 6). Casanova’s autobiographical stories are at once a survival guide to eighteenth-century Europe and a stinging critique of society. The Duel specifically describes his encounter in Warsaw with Branicki, but it clearly shows the absurdity of this custom and questions the social structure that demands such activity in order for citizens to keep their place in society. In his autobiography, he indicates his contempt for certain so-called “pious” clergymen and tells of the common practice of young girls who sleep naked with priests. He notes, tongue firmly planted in cheek, “So the charming Christina, who would turn Xenocrates himself from the path of virtue, was in the habit of sleeping undressed with the priest of her uncle, an old man, it was true, pious, very far from anything which could make the arrangement improper” (History of My Life, vol. 1, p. 246). Here Casanova shows a talent for witty understatement, which makes his social commentaries all the more palatable. He likewise recounts real historical events he finds ridiculous. When the queen of France declares there is no better dish than chicken fricassee (a gourmet chicken dish), for months afterward it is the only dish served by all the courts of Europe: “Every day in every house where I dined, I found chicken fricassee,” writes Casanova, who does not like the dish but will not say so, “because, now that the Queen had composed a eulogy to it, they would have booed me” (The Duel, p. 13).

From humorous jabs to serious condemnation, Casanova critiques society and pokes fun at himself. His stories reveal a multifaceted man who both loathes and loves figures of authority, who decries and defies the morals and laws of his time yet seeks to be accepted by society. Unafraid of exposing what he sees as the hypocrisy of even “men of cloth” Casanova describes a monk he meets on the road as “a lazy lout” who “had become a monk only so that he could live without tiring his body” (History of My Life, vol. 1, pp. 220, 221). Every bit as scathing in his critique of himself, Casanova blames himself for being too passionate: “Having observed that I have all my life acted more on the force of feeling than from my reflections, I have concluded that my conduct has depended more on my character than on my mind … I have alternately found myself with too little intelligence for my character and too little character for my intelligence” (History of My Life, vol. 1, p. 31).

Portraying himself as part of the very fallible human race, Casanova leaves it to the reader to decide if his character is good or bad, and sees it as his duty to file this report of his life so that others may profit by it: “A member of the universe, I speak to the air and I imagine I am rendering an account of my stewardship as the majordomo does to his master, before vanishing” (History of My Life, vol. 1, p. 29). Ultimately he concludes that though he has acted “more on the force of feeling than from my reflections,” his character is sound: “I believe that, without offending against modesty, I can apply [to] myself these words from my beloved Virgil: ’I am not such a monster; lately 1 saw my reflection by the shore when the sea was calm’” (History of My Life, vol. 1, p. 31). Indeed, through his monumental autobiography and his two preceding tales, one of the Western world’s most infamous figures emerges not as a monster but as a complex, clever, and perpetually fascinating member of the human race.

Sources and literary context

The Duel is based on a real event in Casanova’s life, which occurred just after he was exiled from Venice for escaping from the Leads prison in 1755. Scholars have verified the times and places detailed in his memoirs, including the account of the incident that inspired The Duel. According to biographer John Masters, the account is reasonably credible—distorted only by memory and poetic license. It differs from the account in Casanova’s History of My Life (his memoirs) in that it is written in the third person. Otherwise, it is largely the same, as indicated by this comparison of the offense that incites Casanova to fight:

Two Versions of “The Duel”—The Inflammatory Spark

From The Duel: “While the Venetian was going away very slowly, the Podstoli (Branicki) said in a loud voice, so that it could be heard by two officers who were not very far away: ‘The Venetian coward has made the right decision in going away. I was going to send him off to f*** himself.’ To these words the other, without turning round, replied: ’A Venetian coward will shortly send a brave Pole to the next world’”

(The Duel, p. 15).

From History of My Life: “I had not gone four steps away from the dressing room when I heard myself honored with the title of ‘Venetian coward’; I turned and said to him that outside the theatre a Venetian coward might well kill a brave Pole, and I went down the main staircase leading to the door which gives onto the street”

(History of My Life in The Duel, p. 70).

Publication and reception

Published on the heels of Casanova’s The History of My Flight from the Prison of the Republic of Venice, The Duel caused a sensation throughout Europe. The story of the duel was recounted in many European newspapers, including the Vossische Zeitung in Berlin, the Zeitung Diarium in Vienna, and The Public Advertiser in England. The tale also surfaced as a popular topic of conversation in contemporary correspondence. But by Casanova’s death in 1798, the book itself had gone out of print.


The last thing Casanova penned before his death was the Preface to his autobiography. In a humorous passage, he seeks to justify his often immoral behavior:

They will find that I have always loved truth so passionately that I have often resorted to lying as a way of first introducing it into the minds which were ignorant of its charms. They will not condemn me when they see me emptying my friends’ purses to satisfy my whims. They were possessed by chimerical projects, and by making them hope for their success, I at the same time hoped to cure them of their folly by opening their eyes. I deceived them to make them wise; and I did not consider myself guilty, because what I did was not prompted by avarice. I was simply paying for my pleasures with money allotted to acquiring possessions which nature makes it impossible to obtain. I should consider myself guilty if I were a rich man today. I have nothing; whatever I had I squandered; and this consoles and justifies me. It was money which was to be spent on follies; I merely changed its application by making it pay for mine.

(History of My Life, vol. 1, p. 35)

The autobiography containing the incident—the original text of History of My Life—was republished in 1960 and “created a sensation in the literary world. … [It was] the literary event of the century” (Trask in Casanova, History of My Life, p. 17). Upon publication J. Rives Childs wrote in Arts magazine, “There is hardly an example in the history of literature of a work of the importance of the Memoirs having been withheld … for more than 160 years” (Childs in Casanova, History of My Life, vol. 1, pp. 17–18). In 2003 Hesperus Press republished the novella


Casanova died in 1798 before his autobiography was completed or published. The manuscript vanished until the 1820s, at which time a German publisher produced a translated version in 12 volumes, from 1822 to 1828. Offended by the graphic content, French professor Jean LaForgue produced his own heavily edited 8-volume version in 1826–38 that was published in both German and French. He altered significantly Casanova’s sexual exploits as well as his attitude toward the nobility and the Church. Thereafter, the autobiography went out of print until the early twentieth century (when a 1932 translation appeared, purportedly based on a 1925 translation of the 8-volume French edition). During World War II, the text met with near destruction. Luckily, Casanova’s original manuscript was discovered by United States soldiers in Germany in 1945 in the bunker of the bombed-out Brockhaus Publishing House. The original was transported to a bank in Leipzig for safekeeping and was finally reprinted in French and in English in 1960, to high acclaim. Nearly 150 years after his death, Casanova became an overnight sensation.

Casanova’s History of My Life, in addition to being the longest literary autobiography ever written (12 volumes), is the text from which sprang the legend of Casanova as the quintessential playboy and adventurer. Examined by scholars since its publication, the autobiography has been the subject of intense debate about its truthfulness. Some doubt that Casanova even existed, opining that another writer invented the character and created “Casanova” as a nom de plume (pen name). However, most agree that indeed he did exist and, as a child of actors and dancers, lived larger than life “as though he were on the stage” always wanting “to be the star performer” (Kesten, p. xiv).

version of The Duel, bound together with the excerpt from Casanova’s memoirs. Praised by scholars and readers, The Spectator called it “fascinating to read the fictional next to the factual version—each illuminating and illuminated by the other” (The Spectator). Tim Parks, writing for The Guardian says, “The remarkable thing about Casanova is that not only did he have a bewilderingly eventful life, not only was he a thinker of wide reading and great shrewdness, but he also knew how to tell a tale as well as the cleverest of novelists; knew, above all, how to wring out of it the maximum tension and irony” (Parks).

—Diane R. Mannone

For More Information

Anderson, M. S. Historians and Eighteenth-Century Europe, 1715–1789. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979.

Black, Jeremy. Eighteenth Century Europe: 1700–1798. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990.

Casanova, Giacomo. The Duel. London: Hesperus Press, 2003.

——. History of My Life, Vols. 1 & 2. Trans. William Trask. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Frevert, Ute. Men of Honour: A Social and Cultural History of the Duel. Cambridge: Polity, 1995.

Hibbert, Christopher. Venice: The Biography of a City. New York: W. W. Norton, 1989.

Hodges, Gareth. “Duels and Honor in History.”

Kesten, Hermann. Casanova. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1955.

Masters, John. Casanova. New York: Bernard Geis Associates, 1969.

Norwich, John Julius. A History of Venice. New York: Vintage Books, 1982.

Parks, Tim. “For Dear Life.” The Guardian, March 22, 2003.,12084,918487,00.htm.

The Spectator. Review of The Duel, by Giacomo Casanova. April 12, 2003.

Wheeler, Bonnie. “The History of Dueling.” Southern Methodist University,