History has been unkind to Giacomo Casanova, reducing his contribution to Western culture to the use of his name as a synonym for womanizer and philanderer.
Casanova has particularly fallen out of favor today, in a world where safe sex, women’s liberation and political correctness have made pariahs of men who pride themselves, as Casanova did, on having seduced more than 100 women.
But that may soon change. A recent purchase by the French government of the handwritten manuscript of his monumental autobiography may be the beginning of a rehabilitation of Casanova’s reputation.
France paid a whopping 7.2 million euros ($9.75 million), for the 3,700-page manuscript, and the Ministry of Culture intends to publish a critical edition of the work and to mount an exhibition around it.
The exhibition will be shown in Paris in 2011, and then likely move on to Venice and perhaps Berlin. If it is done well, it will reveal a man who was far more reasonable and philosophical than his reputation would have one believe. And that the story of his life is more than a mere kiss-and-tell memoir.
“I always willingly acknowledge my own self as the principal cause of every good and of every evil which may befall me,” he wrote in the autobiography, which was published in English under the title “Story of My Life.”
Casanova was born in Venice on April 2, 1725, the eldest of six children of actor parents. His father died when he was a boy and his mother devoted herself more to her theater career than to her children.
Ironically, his first career choice was that of a priest, but that notion was eventually abandoned, thanks largely to a priest.
It was while living with his primary instructor, the Abbe Gozzi, that the 11-year-old Casanova discovered his love for women. As he tells it, the abbe’s younger sister, Bettina, fondled him when he was 11 years old.
“The girl pleased me at once, though I had no idea why. It was she who, little by little, kindled in my heart the first sparks of a feeling which later became my ruling passion,” he wrote.
After repeated scandals ruled out any possibility of a career within the Church as a lawyer, Casanova became in quick succession a soldier, gambler and a violinist. This dissolute lifestyle ended when he saved the life of a senator and was admitted into his household. “I took the most creditable, the noblest, and the only natural course,” he wrote. “I decided to put myself in a position where I need no longer go without the necessities of life.”
But he could not resist practical jokes, gambling and love, and was finally forced to leave Venice because he had dug up a corpse to play a joke on an enemy, who was so startled that he went into paralysis.
Casanova then traveled to all the great cities of Europe — Paris, Dresden, Prague and Vienna — returning to Venice in 1753, where he was arrested two years later for “public outrages against the holy religion.”
He engineered a daring escape with a renegade priest and made his way back to Paris. Of his escape he wrote, 30 years later, “Thus did God provide me with what I needed for an escape, which was to be a wonder if not a miracle.”
In Paris, he claimed to be a Rosicrucian and alchemist, and soon moved in powerful circles, becoming a spy, a bond salesman and an entrepreneur.
For the rest of his life, he was constantly on the move, looking to earn a living in any way possible. In England, he tried to sell his idea of a state lottery. Of the English, he wrote, “The people have a special character, … which makes them think they are superior to everyone else. It is a belief shared by all nations, each thinking itself the best. And they are all right.”
Casanova spent the last 12 years of his life in exile, isolated and bored, in a castle in what is now the Czech Republic. It was there that he wrote his autobiography.
“The reader of these memoirs will discover that I never had any fixed aim before my eyes, and that my system, if it can be called a system, has been to glide away unconcernedly on the stream of life, trusting to the wind wherever it led,” he wrote.
In his busy life, he was a lawyer, clergyman, military officer, violinist, con man, pimp, dancer, businessman, diplomat, spy, politician, mathematician, social philosopher and cabalist. He also wrote over 20 literary works, including plays, essays and an early work of science fiction.
He admits candidly that he “never knew anything of greater importance” than the cultivation of pleasure.
“I felt myself born for the fair sex, I have always loved it dearly and I have been loved by it as often and as much as I could.” Which, according to his own count, amounted to 122 women.
However, he also makes the contradictory claim that accusations that he was an irresponsible profligate are off-target. “Should anyone bring against me an accusation of sensuality he would be wrong, for all the fierceness of my senses never caused me to neglect any of my duties.”
Casanova died on June 4, 1798. His last words reportedly were: “I have lived as a philosopher and I die as a Christian.”