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Casanova, Giacomo 1725–1798

Casanova, Giacomo

It is hard to distinguish between the writer Giacomo Casanova, born in Venice in 1725, and the protagonist of his monumental Story of My Life ("neither the story of a famous man nor a novel"), the multi-volume source of his fame as a symbol of unabashed, libertine sexuality; and it is harder still to neglect the countless other books and films that have contributed to fashioning his sexual persona, a carnival mask that has taken on a life of its own.

Ever since the Histoire (written from 1785 until his death in Bohemia, where he worked as the Count of Waldstein's librarian) was acquired by the publisher Brockhaus of Leipzig in 1821, another history has unfolded, that of its publication in various editions and languages: Only from 1960 to 1962 was the original French text released in its entirety (Casanova 1960–1962). Marie Françoise Luna has provided the best reconstruction to date of Casanova's "autobiographical project": not simply the confessions of a libertine and free thinker, but the self-portrait of a writer mining his own memory. The result is an original Franco-Italian mixture of styles and genres: epic and erotic, picaresque and sentimental, in a literary tradition stretching back to Boccaccio, Ariosto and Aretino.

Casanova was allegedly the illegitimate son of Michiel Grimani, the aristocratic owner of the theater where his parents, both actors, worked. Entrusted by his absentee mother at age eight to his grandmother after the death of his actor father, he had a memorable encounter with magic: a "witch" in Murano "cured" him of a chronic bleeding nose. François Roustang links Casanova's earliest childhood recollections to a precocious identification with archetypical women—the witch and the bedeviled madwoman, the latter Casanova's first seducer, Bettina (he was twelve and she seventeen). Prone to "hysterical fits," Bettina was repeatedly exorcised and diagnosed with a uterine ailment. Yet, she was neither crazy nor possessed, Casanova writes. This formative episode remained with him: In 1772, in a dispute with two professors at the Medical School of Bologna, he came to the ironic defense of the so-called "thinking uterus": he wrote, "Woman has a uterus and man has sperm, that's all the difference … why incriminate the uterus and not the sperm?… The education and the condition of the woman are the two causes that make her different…" (Lana Caprina). As Marta Cavazza (2003) has written: "Casanova's playful and impertinent little book is one of the first to pose indirectly, though clearly, the distinction between sex and gender" (p. 256). From women, Casanova learns "how superior the eloquence of nature is to that of the philosophical mind" (Casanova 2000, p. 81).

His formative years were spent mainly in Italy, between Venice and Padua, with intervals in Corfù and Constantinople. As the protégée of several substitute father figures, he studied literature, violin and the law, between sexual escapades and short-lived stints in the clergy and the army. With his first trip to Paris in 1750, Casanova's horizons dramatically widened. He became (and remained for much of his life) a nomad, a strolling player of Eros in the cosmopolitan Europe of his times, joining the Freemasons, trying his hand at diplomacy (as an envoy of the King of France), entrepreneurship (managing a lottery), scholarship (writing historical works), all while pursuing numerous sexual adventures with women of all social stations (the written catalogue stops at one hundred and twenty-two). Finally, in 1774 (the year his memoirs end) he made his way back to a diminished Venice, only to be forced to flee once more, this time for good, after a dispute over a debt with his bastard half-brother, Giovan Carlo Grimani. He spent his final years in exile in Bohemia, writing obsessively, publishing a novel (the Icosameron, a sort of utopian fantasy) and leaving behind, in addition to the Histoire, a trove of unpublished manuscripts.

Philosopher or charlatan, magician or trickster, confidant or spy, seducer or seduced, Casanova's life contains multitudes. He crossed paths with legendary figures on both sides of the Enlightenment: Voltaire, Cagliostro, and Saint Germain. His fame as a cabalist gained him the patronage of powerful Venetians and, later in Paris, of old Madame d'Urfé, who wanted him to impregnate her with her own masculine reincarnation. These practices landed him in the Piombi (Leads), the infamous jail under the roof of the Doge's palace (1755). The story of his escape (like that of a duel he fought in Poland) became legendary throughout Europe: He wrote his own account of both episodes to set the facts straight (or fuel his legend). Yet, his free-thinking attitude toward superstition was ambivalent: The pleasure he took in duping fools, husbands, and lovers (deception that cut both ways: "… when love has a hand in things, each party usually dupes the other," he writes, adding "I continued to be the dupe of women until I reached the age of sixty"), may well hide a deeper level of repressed belief and sexual anxiety (Casanova 2000, pp. 3, 42). This ambivalence provides the ground for Casanova's flexible (and modern) philosophy: "To be a chameleon, a Proteus, a Tartuffe, an impenetrable comedian, to behave lowly, feign everything, appear cool…" (Mangini, p. 155; Casanova 1966–1971, vol. 1, pp. 257-258).

As a sex symbol, the comparison with Don Juan is unavoidable—and overplayed. Both are old-fashioned serial lovers, ancien régime. Yet, classical Spain and romantic Venice are distant worlds: For Don Juan, a rich aristocrat, "sex is an anarchic power that challenges order in all forms: social, moral, and especially religious" (Tournier 1998, p. 9); for Casanova, a poor commoner who can rely only on his personal charm, sex is a passport that opens many doors. Indeed, Casanova (a friend of Mozart's librettist Da Ponte) likely provided the inspiration for that "aura of joy" that pervades Mozart's dramma giocoso: "The famous odor di femmina (scent of a woman) was his creation" (Tournier 1998, p. 9). Casanova claimed that four-fifths of his pleasure lay in making women happy, even though at least one affair ended so unhappily as to drive him close to suicide.

Casanova's name, unlike those of Sade or Sacher Masoch, does not designate a "perversion," but a sort of old-fashioned, exuberant sexual "normalcy," or "depravity" (Thomas 1985, p. 75). "Happy are those who can achieve pleasure without harm to anyone," he writes. When "he encounters a tender, erotic bond between two women," he accepts his role as "alternately a complicit instigator, a voyeur, and an ambiguous victim" (Thomas 1998, p. 179). This picture is somewhat complicated by recent findings about homosexual encounters (self)-censored from the memoirs. Revealingly, in one episode of the memoirs he is madly inflamed by the ambiguity of a woman disguised as a castrato (a castrated male singer).

Master and slave of dissipation (Abirached 1961) or disguise (Roustang 1988), soulless sexual athlete (Fellini 1976) or reincarnation of the "pagan cheerfulness of love" (Zweig 1998, p. 100), as a modern heroic-comic symbol of masculinity, Casanova is inseparable from his melancholy double: a priapic, carnivalesque ghost who lived a life on the run, a consummate conjurer in the profane cabbala of sex.



Casanova, Giacomo. 1960–1962. Histoire de ma vie, ed. Angelika Hübscher. Wiesbaden-Paris: Brockhaus-Plon.

Casanova, Giacomo. 1966–1971. History of My Life, ed. and trans. Willard R. Trask. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World

Casanova, Giacomo. 1986. "Icosameron," or, The Story of Edward and Elizabeth: Who Spent Eighty-OneYears in the Land of the Megamicres, Original Inhabitants of Protocosmos in the Interior of Our Globe, ed. and trans. Rachel Zurer. New York: Jenna Press.

Casanova, Giacomo. 1993. Histoire de ma vie, ed. François Lacassin. Paris: Laffont.

Casanova, Giacomo. 1999. Lana Caprina. Une controverse médicale sur l'Utérus pensant à l'Université de Bologne en 1771–1772, ed Paul Mengal. Paris: Champion.

Casanova, Giacomo. 2000. Story of My Life, ed. Gilberto Pizzamiglio, trans. Stephen Sartarelli and Sophie Hawkes. New York: Marsilio.

Casanova, Giacomo. 2003. The Duel, trans. J. G. Nichols. London: Hesperus.


Abirached, Robert. 1961. Casanova; ou, la dissipation. Paris: Grasset.

Cavazza, Marta. 2003. "Women's Dialectics, or the Thinking Uterus: An Eighteen-Century Controversy on Gender and Education." In The Faces of Nature in Enlightenment Europe, ed. Lorraine Daston and Gianna Pomata, 237-257. Berlin: BWV.

Childs, Rives J. 1961. Casanova: A Biography Based on New Documents. London: Allen and Unwin.

Childs, Rives J. 1988. Casanova, a New Perspective. New York: Paragon House Publishers.

Ellis, Havelock. 1898. Affirmations. London: Walter Scott.

Fellini, Federico. 1976. Casanova. Motion Picture.

Luna, Marie-Françoise. 1998. Casanova memorialiste. Paris: Champion.

Macchia, Giovanni. 1989. "Casanova e il Don Giovanni di Mozart." Tra Don Giovanni e Don Rodrigo, 147-163. Milan: Adelphi.

Mangini, Nicola. 1960. "Giacomo Casanova." Dizionario biografico degli italiani. Roma: Istituto della Enciclopedia italiana.

Pizzamiglio, Gilberto, ed. 2001. Giacomo Casanova tra Venezia e l'Europa. Firenze-Venezia: Olschki.

Roustang, François. 1988. The Quadrille of Gender. Casanova's Memoirs. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Thomas, Chantal. 1985. Casanova. Un voyage libertin. Paris: Dénoel.

Thomas, Chantal. 1998. "The Role of Female Homosexuality in Casanova's Mémoirs." In Libertinage and Modernity. Yale French Studies, ed. Catherine, Cusset (94) 179-183.

Tournier, Michel. 1998. "Don Juan and Casanova." In The Mirror of Ideas, trans. Jonathan F. Krell, 8-9.

Zweig, Stefan. 1998. Casanova. A Study in Self-Portraiture. London: Pushkin Press. (Orig. pub. 1928.)

                                                  Massimo Riva

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