Brooklyn Bugle Book Club: “Casanova: Actor, Lover, Priest, Spy” by Ian Kelly

March 28, 2014

Giacomo Casanova has a reputation as a debauched libertine, the model for Don Giovanni, someone who deserved a punishment as dreadful as the Don’s death. But as Ian Kelly makes clear in this eminently readable biography (based on Casanova’s memoirs, of which there are 3600 manuscript pages and several versions) Casanova was a far more complex, and engaging, character than that. As Kelly says:

Casanova would be bemused to discover that he is remembered today almost exclusively for his sex life. He was a fiercely proud intellectual and polymath, who worked at different times as a violinist, soldier, alchemist, faith-healer and even librarian, and originally trained to be a priest.

You read that right. Born in Venice in 1725, Casanova was the son of an actress and – well, it’s likely Casanova’s father wasn’t her husband. Casanova earned a doctorate in law at the age of 16 and had already, at the wishes of his family, started the process of becoming a priest. He preached one very good and memorable sermon (Kelly quotes someone who heard it as saying it “was not entirely Christian”) and then one very poor but equally memorable one (Casanova either fainted or pretended to and was carried out with a gash in his head). He was not cloistered, and in fact his rank gave him access to young girls in convents – where he began his other career as a seducer. But Kelly’s central point is that Casanova was as much a product of the theater as of the church or university, and he depended on all three elements in his long career.

Casanova spent much of his life living abroad, traveling between the great cities of Europe: Naples, Rome, London, Paris, St. Petersburg. He spent many years exiled from Venice – the Inquisition was interested in him because of his beliefs (atheism), esoteric interests (cabala and astrology) and bad behavior (gambling, seduction). He spent several months in the prison behind the Doge’s Palace in Venice, and then made a spectacular escape from it. He lived by his wits. Often, when he came to a new city, Casanova found someone he knew in the theatrical world, and worked his way up to the highest political (and social) spheres.

Oh, and yes, Casanova wrote about his sexual life in his memoirs. He was quite sexually liberal, but so were many others in Europe in the 18th century. He did have a couple of relationships that lasted for several years, but he never married. Casanova was as interested in his partners’ (and sometimes there were multiple) pleasure as he was in his own, and beyond that he was interested in who the women (and occasional men) he slept with were. Many retained happy memories of their time with him, and several rescued him from tight spots later in life. Most important, they trusted him with their secrets. Casanova was a friend to many women – he spirited away several to secluded areas so they could have out-of-wedlock babies, he kept their secrets, he cared about their pleasure, sexual and otherwise. So while he may have been an old reprobate, Casanova was not the lecherous Don Giovanni. Interestingly, and perhaps typically, there’s a twist: Casanova was a friend of Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist, who was also a Venetian, and may have collaborated with him on “Don Giovanni.”

Casanova ended his days as the librarian at the castle of Dux, in Bohemia (near Dresden). His papers and many manuscript pages survived, and are the source for this excellent biography. That’s only one of the many unexpected turns in Casanova’s life story. Which surprised you the most? Let us know in the comments.

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