Baffo accompanied Giacomo and his mother to Padua. During the trip, the boy noticed that the trees seemed to “walk” as the boat sailed. From this phenomenon, he deduces that “the sun does not move either, and it is we who roll from west to east”. His mother laughed at his “foolishness”, but Baffo, Casanova later boasted, was stunned: an uneducated nine-year-old had guessed at a theory of which the Vatican had a low opinion, heliocentrism. “Always draw logical conclusions from your reasoning,” he says, “and let the others laugh.
Casanova’s intellect was central to his sense of worth, and he believed it would have been stunted “by the cowardice of credulityif Baffo hadn’t come to his defense. The emphasis is hers, and she emphasizes a horror that generates drama in her life and work: of the gullibility of fools; of himself as “a perfect dupe” of women; and a blind faith in authority, divine or temporal, reinforced by the fear of perdition. Enlightenment deism shaped Casanova’s philosophy and helped rationalize his predations. “Fools are those who think that the Supreme Being will never be able to benefit from the sorrow, pain and abstinence they offer him in sacrifice,” he wrote. “He never gave us anything except to make us happy.” But “History” contains the seed of a modern concern: that no link we hold sacred is trustworthy.
During three thousand five hundred pages, “History” has its lengths. But the first chapter is a marvel of psychological economy. All the seeds of the narrator’s character are planted there. The children of indifferent mothers grow up doubting their own existence; they can never satiate their voracity for love and approval. The charmless little boy becomes a flamboyant showboater. He dodges abandonment by escaping attachments. Each time he feels suffocated, he seeks a new climate.
Giacomo’s stay in Padua was among his longer stays in the same place. His grandmother rescued him from a vermin-infested boarding house where his landlady had starved him and took him in with a young priest, Antonio Gozzi, whom he would later remember with gratitude. Gozzi taught him Latin and nurtured his love of study, preparing him for a law degree. The clergyman also had a sister, Bettina, a beauty in her early teens. Bettina took care of the boy’s toilet. She gave him a sponge bath every morning – and his first erections.
Bettina’s trysts with an older man inflamed Giacomo’s jealousy, we are told in “History,” and she salted the wound with wayward teasing. One of his schemes was to dress him up as a girl so they could attend a ball together. Androgyny has always tickled Casanova; a few years later, in Ancona, he fell madly in love with “Bellino”, a young soprano of uncertain gender. Unlike Venice, the Papal States prohibited women from accessing their stages, so aspirants Divo— the daughter of a poor man — was being castrated using a prosthetic penis.
In 1742, at age sixteen, Casanova defended his thesis at the ancient University of Padua, having learned more about vice from his classmates than about right from his professors. He returned to Venice with a doctorate but also with a penchant for delinquency. Eventually, Zanetta, who was performing in Warsaw, asked for a favor. She arranged for her wayward son to become private secretary to a Franciscan monk who, through his machinations with the Queen of Poland, had been appointed to a bishopric in Calabria.
Casanova left cheerfully for southern Italy, expecting to live well there. Instead, he found himself in a squalid backwater among the “animals.” After three days in the service of the bishop, he decamped for Rome. Stopping in Naples, he met an aristocrat who was also called Casanova and convinced him that they were related. His namesake endowed him with an expensive wardrobe.
“History” is quick to say that the author’s relationships with older men were often transactional. Rome, he notes dryly, “forces all mankind to become pederasts, but will not admit it.” Yet one of his most memorable seductions took place there. Her lover was a married woman, Donna Lucrezia Castelli, and their clandestine fornication, some of it outdoors, produced a child. Casanova would not discover the existence of his putative daughter Leonilda for about eighteen years, when he fucked her mother while she shared their bed. A decade later, he knocked out Leonilda as a favor, he claimed, to her helpless husband. Incest, he suggests, is a consummate delight: “I could never conceive how a father can tenderly love his lovely daughter without having slept with her at least once.
Plotted on a map of Europe, Casanova’s advances and retreats resemble those of Napoleon. During his travels, writes Damrosch, he traveled forty thousand miles. At twenty, he was back in Venice from Corfu, after serving in the Venetian army. Without any glamorous outlook, he plays the violin at weddings and at the theater where his parents met. Soon after, however, 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 servant and frequented a notorious brothel. An Italian friend invites him to the opera house in Fontainebleau. Madame de Pompadour, he claims, took it down from his box, and he entertained her with a little quirky wit in his stilted French. One of the many erotic discoveries in this chapter of his “learning” was a teenage 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 is said to have inspired “Resting Girl,” François Boucher’s famous nude portrait. She seduces the King of France who adds 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, MM, who was herself a licentious prodigy. The Inquisition watched his game; on the pornographic poetry he wrote; on his rumored “devil worship”; and perhaps, suggests Damrosch, on his entanglement with a foreign diplomat, the illustrious Abbé de Bernis, his future facilitator at the court of France, with whom he shared the favors of MM.
In July 1755, unaware of the charges against him, Casanova was locked in a rat-infested cell in the Ducal Palace – an infamous attic prison whose tin roof gave it its name, the Leads. No one had ever escaped it, but he had resolved to do so. He improvised a chisel and used his bed to hide the progress of his excavations. But then he was transferred to another cell. As the months passed, his prospects for release seemed to dim. A fellow prisoner, a monk imprisoned for corruption of virgins, joins him. They punched holes in their ceilings, and when they had pierced the roof, they climbed its mist-smooth slope. Casanova nearly plunged to his death after successfully breaking a window, but they gained access to an office suite. A guard who discovered them the next day assumed they were lost revelers. (Casanova had the foresight, he tells us, to bring a change of clothes: “my elegant coat,” a lace shirt, a feathered Spanish hat.) They left the palace by its grand staircase and rented a gondola that rows to freedom on the mainland.
The Knight dined on this story all over Europe and eventually published it as an illustrated chronicle which made him famous. WG Sebald is among the writers who have presented him as an enemy of censorship and despotism. He himself, however, casually told an admirer of Voltaire that “the Republic of Venice has acted justly”. After his banishment ended eighteen years later, he volunteered as an informant for the Inquisition, plying his basic trade under an alias.
The escapee heads for the City of Light where, in 1757, he pulls off his big hit in the French lottery and finds himself with a fortune to dissipate. (Gastronomy was one of his expensive passions.) Months later, he met the gullible Marquise and tapped into her obsession with the occult. When she finally understood his scam, she had him kicked out of France. He then tried his luck in the London of George III but, unable to speak English, he did not have much. He failed with an adventuress, and in 1764 had to flee England to avoid a possible death sentence for forgery.
Then there was Germany, where he failed to impress Boswell or the King of Prussia. His courtship of Empress Catherine proved equally useless. In Poland, King Stanisław tipped him two hundred ducats for reciting Horace – one of Casanova’s favorite festive tricks – although he later ordered him to leave Warsaw. (His misdeeds in Paris had caught up with him.) Florence expelled him, suspected of cheating at cards. He was driven out of Vienna and Madrid.
Two of his siblings were established in Dresden, where their mother, the great Buranella, was a retired idol. She and Giacomo had been estranged for decades, but he claims she was thrilled 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 returned to Gozzi, her former tutor, who was now archpriest in Padua . The ruined Bettina lived with her brother; her marriage to a “wretch” had left her “poor and unhappy.” She died a day after Giacomo arrived, as he sat by her bedside.
Age is not kind to those who live off their charms. At the age of sixty, Casanova was compelled by misery to accept a modest sinecure as librarian of a castle in Bohemia, owned by a noble admirer who was rarely in residence. He had lost his teeth, and his trusty 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 probably caused it.