Great Italians of the Past: Giacomo Casanova
- WTI Magazine #128 Jun 20, 2020
Giacomo Casanova. We all know who he has been, we all are well aware of the meaning of “Casanova” nowadays. I’m also pretty sure that we met at least one of them during our life and that we have been enchanted. But who was the real Giacomo Casanova?
He was an Italian adventurer and author, a poet and a witness of the most authentic sources of the customs and norms of European social life during the 18th century.
Born in Venice in 1725, Casanova was a sharp child. He entered the University of Padua at the age of 12… I mean, do you even remember what were you playing with at that age?!
After graduating, he took up some of the vices that would make him a name Europe-wide. Gambling, for one. Women, for another. Whether it was his wit, his charm, or his style (or maybe just his hair, which he powdered, scented, and curled), they simply loved him. Of course, the rumors behind him are more that we could report in this article. It’s been said that his passion stained him with the shame of having two affairs in the same moment, one of them with his 14-years old sister. But none of these blames were actually demonstrated. Everything that we know is that he was a truly, passionate lover and a very smart man.
At the time, Casanova worked as a church cleric. It didn’t last long. His gambling debts landed him in prison, and after a couple of other false starts in the Church, he had to start over. His new career? As a soldier. “I bought a long sword, and with my handsome cane in hand, a trim hat with a black cockade, with my hair cut in side whiskers and a long false pigtail, I set forth to impress the whole city,” Casanova writes in his memoirs. But, finding military life boring (and too manly, I guess), Casanova quit the military.
At the age of 21, Casanova tried the musician career and he started to play the violin. There, he caught the eye of a senator, being in the right place at the right time and saving his life certainly helped, who invited Casanova into his house and became his patron. But since our Casanova couldn’t stay away from problems, he ran into trouble again.
Forced to leave Venice, he went to Parma, where of course, he seduced dozens of women starting the “Casanova career”. He became a Freemason, wrote a play, and finally, on 1753, returned to Venice. At the age of 25, he was just getting started!
News of Casanova’s affairs with everyone from married women to nuns to virgins, his gambling, his association with Freemasonry, all his crazy life gave him more power that he could even have imagined.
At 30 years old, Casanova was arrested by the Venice Tribunal, “primarily,” the Tribunal said, for his “public outrages against the holy religion.”
He was imprisoned in “The Leads” and sentenced to 5 years of imprisonment.
The cell was so dark that Casanova couldn’t even stand up straight, it was located on the top floor (of five) of the Doge’s Palace. Like the rest of the prisons, it was heavily guarded. Escaping seemed impossible. Escaping and not being seen on the roof of the most famous building in Venice… or not being heard while clattering down the lead tiles? Even more so.
Casanova remained in “The Leads” for 13 months. His patron, Count Bragadin, finally convinced his keepers to move him.
But again, he was so close to a break out that being saved was quite an offence. Instead, just three days before he planned to escape, he was moved into his new, larger, and more lit cell. But he didn’t languish in despair for long. It was time for Plan B.
A priest lived in the cell right above Casanova. The two started writing back and forth and Casanova told the priest he planned to escape asking for his help. All he had to do, he said, was break through his floor into Casanova’s cell. Then Casanova would spirit them both away.
The priest, Balbi, agreed. After weeks of work, the priest actually broke through. But Casanova had a new cellmate and he was a spy for the Doge’s Council of 10, something he immediately told Casanova. Ever the trickster, Casanova played on his new cellmate’s extreme faith. It had been revealed to him in a dream, Casanova told the man, that an angel was going to come deliver him from prison. When the two of them heard the priest digging away, Casanova told him that was an angel. Fun fact: he actually believed him!
Our two brave adventurers escaped at the sunrise (soo romantic) by a gondola. “Thus,” Casanova wrote, “did God provide me with what I needed for an escape which was to be a wonder if not a miracle. I admit that I am proud of it.”
Even if he’s been so close to the death, even if he had more enemies that friends to trust, even if he was getting old, Casanova didn’t take it as a sign that he should give up the game and retire to something a little more staid.
Instead he fled to Paris and pretended to be an alchemist (what else)?! Every patrician wanted a piece of Casanova. He told them that he was 300 years old, that he could create diamonds from scratch. One of his missions was to sell state bonds in Amsterdam. But still, between his debts, and his many enemies, he found himself on the lam again.
In 1760, completely penniless, Casanova’s schemes became wilder and wilder. He made up a new personality for himself: He was now the “Chevalier de Seingalt.” He went back to Paris and convinced a noblewoman he could make her a young man, using occult means if she paid him enough. He traveled to England and scammed his way into an audience with King George III. He met with Catherine the Great, trying to sell her the idea for a Russian lottery scheme. He dueled a colonel in Warsaw over an Italian actress.
At the end, in 1774, after 18 years of exile, Casanova won the right to return to Venice. Just nine years later, he wrote a vicious satire of Venetian nobility that got him expelled once more. I mean, I really would have met him! If I think that I’ve been overwhelmed by the sense of guilt for signing my own report card when I was 10.
In his later years, Casanova slowed down just a little bit. He became the librarian to Count Joseph Karl von Waldstein in Bohemia, a position Casanova found so lonely and boring he considered suicide. He resisted the temptation, but only in order to record his memoirs.
Venice was seized by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1797. Casanova died the following year. He was 73 years old. Cheers to a brave, extremely fascinate man!
“I have always loved truth so passionately that I have often resorted to lying as a way of introducing it into the minds which were ignorant of its charms”