Why Casanova Continues to Seduce Us

My cock is so stiff that it hurts;
The glans is tingling and I can’t hold on;
It’s as hard as a bone or an iron spike;
Right now, it’s bursting, right now, it’s spurting.

Baffo accompanied Giacomo and his mother to Padua. On the journey, the boy noticed that the trees seemed to “walk” as the boat sailed along. From this phenomenon, he deduced that “the sun doesn’t move either, and it is we who roll from West to East.” His mother mocked his “silliness,” but Baffo, Casanova later boasted, was amazed: an untutored nine-year-old had intuited a theory of which the Vatican took a dim view, heliocentricity. “Always draw the logical conclusions of your reasoning,” he said, “and let the others laugh.”

Casanova’s intellect was central to his sense of worth, and he believed that it would have been stunted “by the cowardice of credulity” had Baffo not risen to his defense. The emphasis is his, and it stresses a horror that generates the drama in his life and work: of the credulity of fools; of his own as “a perfect dupe” of women; and of blind faith in authority, divine or temporal, enforced by the fear of perdition. Enlightenment Deism shaped Casanova’s philosophy—and helped to rationalize his predations. “Mad are those who think the Supreme Being could ever enjoy the sorrow, pain and abstinence they offer up to Him in sacrifice,” he wrote. “He never gave us anything except for the purpose of making us happy.” But “Histoire” contains the germ of a modern anxiety: that no bond we hold sacred is reliable.

In the course of thirty-five hundred pages, “Histoire” has its longueurs. But the first chapter is a marvel of psychological economy. All the seeds of the narrator’s character are planted there. Children of indifferent mothers grow up to doubt their own existence; they can never slake their voracity for love and approval. The charmless little boy becomes a flamboyant showboater. He dodges abandonment by escaping from attachments. Whenever he feels suffocated, he seeks a new climate.

Giacomo’s stay in Padua was among his longer sojourns in one place. His grandmother rescued him from a vermin-ridden boarding house where his landlady had starved him, and lodged him with a young priest, Antonio Gozzi, whom he would later recall gratefully. Gozzi tutored him in Latin and nurtured his love of study, preparing him to earn a law degree. The clergyman also happened to have a sister, Bettina, a beauty in her early teens. Bettina took charge of the boy’s toilette. She gave him a sponge bath every morning—and his first erections.

Bettina’s trysts with an older swain inflamed Giacomo’s jealousy, we’re told in “Histoire,” and she salted the wound with capricious teasing. One of her schemes involved dressing him as a girl so they could attend a ball together. Androgyny always titillated Casanova; a few years later, in Ancona, he fell deliriously in love with “Bellino,” a young soprano of uncertain gender. Unlike Venice, the Papal States barred women from their stages, so the aspiring divo—a poor man’s daughter—was passing as a castrato with the help of a prosthetic penis.

In 1742, at sixteen, Casanova defended his thesis at Padua’s ancient university, having learned more about vice from his classmates than he had about law from his professors. He returned to Venice with a doctorate but also with a penchant for delinquency. Eventually, Zanetta, who was performing in Warsaw, called in a favor. She arranged for her wayward son to become the private secretary of a Franciscan monk who had, through her machinations with the Queen of Poland, been appointed to a bishopric in Calabria.

Casanova gaily set off for southern Italy, expecting to live well there. Instead, he found himself in a squalid backwater among “animals.” After three days in the bishop’s service, he decamped for Rome. Stopping in Naples, he met an aristocrat who was also named Casanova and convinced him that they were related. His namesake endowed him with a costly wardrobe.

“Histoire” doesn’t shy away from the fact that the author’s liaisons with older men were often transactional. Rome, he dryly notes, “obliges the whole human race to turn pederast, but won’t admit it.” Yet one of his most memorable seductions took place there. His lover was a married woman, Donna Lucrezia Castelli, and their clandestine fornication, some of it alfresco, produced a child. Casanova wouldn’t discover the existence of his putative daughter Leonilda for some eighteen years, at which point he fucked her mother while she shared their bed. A decade later, he knocked Leonilda up as a favor, he claimed, to her impotent husband. Incest, he suggests, is a consummate delight: “I have never been able to conceive how a father can tenderly love his charming daughter without at least once having slept with her.”

Plotted on a map of Europe, Casanova’s advances and retreats resemble Napoleon’s. In the course of his travels, Damrosch writes, he covered forty thousand miles. At twenty, he was back in Venice from Corfu, having served in the Venetian Army. Without any glamorous prospects, he played the violin at weddings and at the theatre where his parents met. Shortly thereafter, though, he was forced to flee La Serenissima after an alleged rape, not for the last time. He ended up in Paris, where he acquired a manservant and patronized a famous brothel. An Italian friend invited him to the opera in Fontainebleau. Mme. de Pompadour, he claims, took note of him from her box, and he amused her with some off-color wit in his stilted French. One of many erotic discoveries from this chapter of his “apprenticeship” was a teen-age beauty from a family of prostitutes, Marie-Louise O’Murphy. They didn’t go all the way, but Casanova commissioned a miniature of her, which supposedly inspired “Resting Girl,” the famous nude portrait by François Boucher. It captivated the King of France, who added Marie-Louise to his harem.

After various adventures in Prague and Vienna, Casanova returned to Venice in 1753, living in luxury as the “adopted son” of an elderly senator and cavorting with a beautiful nun, M.M., who was herself a licentious prodigy. The Inquisition was keeping tabs on his gambling; on the pornographic poetry he wrote; on his rumored “devil worship”; and perhaps, Damrosch suggests, on his entanglement with a foreign diplomat, the illustrious Abbé de Bernis, his future enabler at the French court, with whom he shared M.M.’s favors.

In July, 1755, without being informed of the charges against him, Casanova was clapped into a rat-infested cell in the Ducal Palace—an infamous attic prison whose metal-plated roof gave it its name, the Leads. No one had ever escaped it, but he resolved to. He improvised a chisel and used his bed to hide the progress of his excavations. But then he was moved to a different cell. As the months passed, his prospects for release seemed to grow dimmer. A fellow-inmate, a monk incarcerated for corrupting virgins, joined forces with him. They bored holes in their ceilings, and, when they had breached the roof, they climbed onto its fog-slicked slope. Casanova nearly plunged to his death after managing to smash a window, but they gained access to a suite of offices. A watchman who discovered them the next day assumed that they were lost revellers. (Casanova had the foresight, he tells us, to have brought a change of clothes: “my elegant coat,” a lace chemise, a plumed Spanish hat.) They exited the palace by way of its grand staircase and hired a gondola that rowed them to freedom on the mainland.

Le Chevalier dined out on this story all over Europe and eventually published it as an illustrated chronicle that made him a celebrity. W. G. Sebald is among the writers who have cast him as a foe of censorship and despotism. He himself, however, casually told an admirer of Voltaire’s that “the Republic of Venice acted justly.” After his banishment ended, eighteen years later, he volunteered as an informer for the Inquisition, plying his base trade under a pseudonym.

The escaped prisoner made a beeline for the City of Light, where, in 1757, he scored his great coup with the French lottery and found himself with a fortune to dissipate. (Gastronomy was one of his expensive passions.) Months later, he met the credulous marquise, and exploited her obsession with the occult. When she finally got wise to his scam, she had him run out of France. He later tried his luck in the London of George III but, unable to speak English, he didn’t have much. He came to grief with an adventuress, and, in 1764, had to flee England to avoid a potential death sentence for forgery.

Next up was Germany, where he failed to impress Boswell or the Prussian king. His courtship of the empress Catherine proved equally unavailing. In Poland, King Stanisław tipped him two hundred ducats for reciting Horace—one of Casanova’s favorite party tricks—though he subsequently ordered him to leave Warsaw. (His misdeeds in Paris had caught up with him.) Florence expelled him on suspicion of cheating at cards. He was run out of Vienna and Madrid.

Two of his siblings were established in Dresden, where their mother, the great Buranella, was an idol in retirement. She and Giacomo had been estranged for decades, yet he claims that she was overjoyed to see him. (He says nothing of his own feelings about seeing her.) She died in 1776, a year after Michele Grimani, and a year before Casanova revisited Gozzi, his old tutor, who was now an archpriest in Padua. The ruined Bettina was living with her brother; marriage to a “miserable wretch” had left her “poor and unhappy.” She died a day after Giacomo’s arrival, as he sat by her bedside.

Age isn’t kind to those who live by their charms. At sixty, Casanova was forced by destitution to accept a modest sinecure as the librarian of a castle in Bohemia, owned by a noble admirer who was rarely in residence. He had lost his teeth, and his faithful steed no longer reared at his command. “Luck,” he wrote, had “become a stranger” to him. The servants, irritated by his pretensions, tormented him. So did a lifetime of venereal infections, which was probably what did him in.

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