Giacomo Casanova lived from 1725 to 1798. He was born and raised in Venice, later moved to Paris, and lived the last 15 years of his life in Dux – Duchcov in today’s northern Czech Republic. He is famous for his escape from the prison in Venice, but more so for his erotic adventures. His name has become synonymous with ladykiller, and he’s one of the most famous Italians of all time.
An old man, disregarded by the world and the men and women in it.
The last years of the 18th century. In the Castle in Duchcov in modern-day’s northern Czechia, on the border to Germany, an old man sits at a wooden desk. The room is of considerable size but dark, and the walls are covered with bookshelves from floor to ceiling… It’s the library. The desk is lit by a single candle.
Wrinkled fingers protrude from under the heavy fabric. They’re holding a pen. The man is writing. To his left, full-written pages pile up, and to his right, a stack of white papers are eagerly awaiting the continuation of the story. Despite the crooked shape, and the tired posture, the figure is vital and energic. The pen moves quickly and the words fill up the sheets… A river of stories, tales, and myths.
The man is Giacomo Casanova, and what he is writing is his memoirs… A 3700 pages giant book in 12 volumes… Histoire de ma vie – The story of my life. And this book will make his name live forever. He will be remembered as the greatest lover and the most successful seducer of women of all time.
But let’s leave him there in the library before arthritis gets too painful, and the memory fails him, and go back to Venice, where this extraordinary story begins…
Casanova in Venice 1725 – 1734.
Giacomo Girolamo Casanova was born on April 2, 1725, in Venice. His father was Gaetano Casanova, and his mother was Zanetta Farussi. They were both actors, and little Giacomo’s first years were probably quite interesting with many playful people hanging out with his parents. Remember that at the time, Venice was Europe’s undisputed center for art, music, theater, and every other entertainment morally acceptable or not.
His mother was the more successful of the two parents, and Giacomo would later claim that his real father was not Casanova, but Michele Grimani, who was a very rich and powerful patron of theaters in Venice.
Grimani was also a nobleman, and that would have made a huge difference for Giacomo. The last century before the French revolution was a general manifestation of noble power. Louis XV in France had inherited an immensely rich, and powerful (and corrupt) state from his grandfather the Sun King Louis XIV, and in Venice, everything from politics, economics to justice and religion was in the hands of the nobles. With the title that Michele Grimani could have given him, many of the misfortunes that lay ahead could have been avoided.
Anyway, his official father, Gaetano, died in 1733, and with his mother often away touring with theater companies, the stability and guiding hand in the boy’s life became his grandmother, Marzia Baldissera in Farussi. She was his true caregiver much more than his parents.
Studies in Padova 1734 – 1741.
At nine, he was sent to Padova for further studies. The boarding house where he lived, was not to his liking.
– I was always hungry, he writes.
So instead he was accepted as a lodger with his primary instructor, Abbé Gozzi. As Gozzi, as well as Casanova’s mother, had hopes for Casanova to become an ecclesiastical lawyer, Giacomo studied law. Although his passion was much more towards medicine and science, he still pursued the path that was chosen for him. And maybe his most important quality was just that, the capacity to make himself liked by others. He was not only handsome, well educated, and amiable, he also did and said what was expected of him at the right time. He knew how to please.
He definitely knew how to please his tutor’s young sister, Bettina. She was a beautiful adolescent girl, and she immediately became young Giacomo’s preferred playmate. He later described her as his first love, as well as the one who lightened his passion for erotic adventures. He was only 11, and Bettina was older, so we don’t really know how ready he was for the occasion. He was, in fact, rejected. But he still treasured his relationship with both Bettina and her older brother for many years to come.
Casanova back in Venice, but sidetracked to Greece.
At only 16, he took his Bachelor’s degree in law (They learned quickly back then…). At that time, he was already well educated in Christian teachings, tonsured, and ready for a carrier as a cleric, a job that definitely wasn’t suited for him.
So he came back to Venice, and his beloved grandmother. His mother, Zanetta, was of less importance to the boy if we can trust his memoirs. But before beginning a structural and scheduled mature life, he decided to stop by at Corfu, an island close to the border between Albania and Greece. Corfu was a Venetian province so he was still within the Republic.
There he got into a fight with a French nobleman and had to flee head over heels in a small rowboat. On the open sea, he was picked up by a ship and brought to the town of Kassiopi on the northern side of the island. One could imagine that the situation would cause a certain degree of distress, being 16 years, without money, in a strange place, wanted by the police, and without friends or family within reach. But Casanova showed his extraordinary talent for survival by tieing bonds and making friends.
Within a few months, he had his own place at Kassiopi, a new extravagant wardrobe, important companions, and a beautiful fiancè.
One early morning, a French officer showed up to arrest the young rogue, take him back to Corfu Town and bring him to justice. Casanova was able to discover some irregularities in the Frenchman’s background though. Once back in Corfu Town he exposed him and was suddenly treated as a hero instead of a young scoundrel. He was pardoned and could continue his journey to Constantinople before he went back to Venice.
… Why Casanova wouldn’t have made a good priest.
His first experience as a preacher in the church of San Samuele didn’t go well. For the occasion, he chose to base his preaching on the Roman poet Orazio, a master of elegance and style, but unfortunately very much a pagan writer.
His second attempt was on March 19, 1741. At 4 p.m. he was to preach at the feast of Saint Joseph, the spouse of Saint Mary. That same day he was invited to have lunch with the very rich and influential Count of Montreal.
Casanova was very well prepared for the sermon, remembering his failure the last time. He had studied his text and he had memorized it perfectly. But being as nice and accomodating as he was, he didn’t reject any of the many dishes he was offered at the Count’s palace. Nor did he curb his taste for the delicious wine.
At 4.08 he came running in through the front door of San Samuele. He stumbled as he climbed the steps to the pulpit and once there he couldn’t reorganize his discourse. His wine-soaked brain didn’t respond, and his first phrases were incoherent. In front of him, the parishioners looked more amused for every tentative he made, and when he finally realized that he couldn’t remember one word of what he had memorized so thoroughly, they were giggling loudly.
He panicked, and fainted, half simulated, half true. They took him to the sacristy where he had to contemplate his future. Then and there he decided that the priesthood wasn’t for him.
Life in Venice and the death of his grandmother 1743 – 1746.
There are many stories about Casanova’s youth in Venice. Most of them include love and young women, married and not. But even away from romantic adventures, he seemed to have lived a life of a playboy, without any real path to follow.
In 1943 his beloved grandmother died, and his mother moved to a less luxurious flat with Giacomo and his four siblings. This had a profound impact on him, as it deprived him of his tutor and only real stability in Venice.
In 1743 he was also imprisoned for the first time accused of immoral conduct. He served just a few months at Forte di Sant’Andrea.
In 1744 he went to Calabria, then to Naples and Rome.
In Ancona he fell in love with a Castrato, one of the male castrate singers who were much appreciated in Europe in the 1600s and 1700s. The Castrato in question was Bellino. He was from Bologna and Casanova offered him a passage to Rimini. Bellino accepted and during the trip, our young hero used every trick in the book to seduce him. When the fires of passion became unstoppable Casanova reached down to caress his lover’s genitals. The secret was revealed and just as he had expected, Bellini was no man, but a woman. Her name was Teresa, and the reason for her disguise was that the church didn’t accept female singers at its theaters. And the church was a very wealthy and powerful employer.
Meeting Matteo Bragadin 1746 – 1749.
On a very cold evening in January 1746, during Carnival, Giacomo saw a man in distress in a Gondola not too far from his. He didn’t hesitate but ordered the Gondolier to get closer, and with common efforts, they managed to stop the man from falling overboard. Casanova, who was somewhat knowledgeable in medicine helped him regain his consciousness and brought him safely to his home. Once there the man introduced himself as Matteo Bragadin, a nobleman, and politician of importance in the Republic.
– You have saved my life. What can a do to compensate you, my young friend? he asked.
– All I have done is help a man in need, Casanova responded. It’s no more than any gentleman is required to do. To see you healthy and well is compensation enough.
Bragadin would become a sort of patron to Casanova. Their deep friendship would introduce him to many high society contexts and help him from dangers when those same contexts turned against him.
For example, he warned him about the State Inquisition in 1749 and suggested he leave Venice for a while to let things cool down.
Casanova was regarded as a depraved individual, especially by the church. Although the Republic didn’t always agree with the dogmatic Catholic church in matters of personal conduct, when it came to Casanova, they were definitely on the same page. Venice was a very depraved city in the 1700s, but Casanova stood out. And there were probably many powerful men who wanted him out of the way as he was a strong competitor for the ladies’ attention. Furthermore, he was a threat to their own wives and daughters. Better to keep him away or locked up.
Meeting Adelaide de Gueidan in 1949.
Also in 1749, he met the love of his life. Yes, Casanova was a true lover. He was not just a seducer and collector of broken hearts. He respected and admired women, and he fell in love with just as much passion as if had been the one and only almost every time. This experience was different though and it had a profound effect on him as a man and as a human being.
He called her Henriette, but later historians have concluded that her real name was Adelaide de Gueidan, a french noble lady from Aix-en-Provence. They spent three months together, but she was destined to marry another man and couldn’t do anything to change that. When she left him, she wrote on the window with a diamond given to her by Casanova:
– You will forget Henriette too.
… But he never did.
His most famous achievement – The escape from Venice prison 1749 – 1756.
So, Casanova left Venice in 1749 but returned the year after. His restless soul wouldn’t submit to a normal, and stationary life in his hometown though. Almost immediately he set out again. This time to Paris, a city that was to become his second home. He stayed for two years in the French capital. Then he went to Vienna, then to Dresden, Prague, Milan, and almost every other reasonably important European city, before he foolishly return to Venice once again in 1755.
On arrival, he was placed under arrest, accused of the usual immoral behavior, and dishonoring the church. But this time, instead of the Garrison at Sant’Andrea he was sent to the “Piombi”.
The name means lead as it refers to the lead-covered roof of the Doge’s palace. The small prison cells were situated on the top floors with only the lead sheet between them and the burning sun. In winter they were dead cold, and in summer they were like an oven.
On top of that, Casanova’s cell was so tiny that he, with his 1,90 meters (6’2”) couldn’t stand straight. And there were rats as big as rabbits, and various unpleasant insects. But the worst of it all was that, according to Venetian praxis, nor the length of the sentence, nor the accusations were communicated to the prisoner. For all he knew, he could be there for life.
In his desperation, he immediately started working out a plan to escape. Having found a long door bolt and being able to sharpen it to a chisel with a piece of marble, he slowly and methodically worked his way through the floor. It took him a full year and when he finally was ready to flee, he was suddenly transferred to another cell. Someone had betrayed him.
The new cell was bigger, lighter, and not on the top floor. But it was searched every day by the guards, so he couldn’t continue his digging. Instead, he again used his persuasive ways and made friends with a companion in the cell above his. He managed to send his metal tool to him inside a big illustrated bible with a plate of pasta on top to compensate for the added weight. and to prevent the messenger from opening the book.