The seductive city of Venice was home to the great seducer, Casanova. Yet just as Venice only slowly gives up her secrets to reveal the real city behind the image, so too does the man himself. For Casanova was no Casanova. His reputation as a legendary lover is only a part of his story, and not an accurate part at that. He was no selfish seducer, but showered his partners with gifts, treated them well, and rarely ended a relationship himself. Indeed, one of his lovers, a Frenchwoman named Henriette, described him as ‘the most honourable man I have known in this world.’
Love was only a part of his life – though a major part, of course. But he was also a spy, a soldier, a doctor, a traveller, a musician, a writer, a millionaire and even, at one time, a priest. He declared that he had only ever wasted one day of his life, and that was when he slept for 27 hours after attending a ball in St Petersburg.
Visit Venice and you will probably find only one reference to Casanova: his daring rooftop escape from the prisons of the Doge’s Palace. Take a tour of the Palace and you will cross the Bridge of Sighs (left), so-called from the sighs of the prisoners who were getting their last glimpse of freedom as they walked from the courts to the cells. You can even see the cell that held Casanova for 15 months as a prisoner of the State, who were worried by his seemingly occult activities and his regular contacts with foreign ambassadors.
On the night of October 31st, 1756, Casanova escaped from his cell. Indeed, he was only imprisoned so long because of the time it took him to dig a hole in his cell, concealed by his bed, to the room beneath… only to have this plan thwarted. He then recruited fellow prisoners, one of whom dug a hole down through the ceiling of Casanova’s cell. Using ropes and a ladder they found, Casanova made his way across rooftops and through windows, till he was back inside the Palace part of the building complex. He found the clothes that he had been wearing when arrested, and looked through a window to plan his next moves. It was now six in the morning, and a passer-by aroused the Palace doorkeeper – but not to raise the alarm. Seeing Casanova in his finery, though a little bedraggled, he assumed a nobleman had been accidentally locked in the Palace overnight, after a night on the town. The doorkeeper therefore let Casanova back out into his native city, from where he went to Paris to avoid the consequences of his daring escape.
Casanova had been born in Venice on April 2nd, 1725, in a house on the Calle della Commedia, which no longer exists though it was near the Campo San Samuele in the San Marco district. His parents were actors, and he later dabbled with the theatre himself, as occasional musician and entrepreneur.
At the age of 15, and rather surprisingly given his later reputation, he entered the church and hoped to become a preacher. But after only one year he was expelled from a seminary for misconduct: Casanova claimed that another young seminarian had climbed into his bed uninvited, but nothing sexual occurred. After studying in Padua, he returned to Venice where he worked for a lawyer but also continued his studies in science and philosophy. He still lived in the Calle della Commedia, but studied at the Santa Maria della Salute. This 17th century Baroque church is one of Venice’s most famous landmarks, standing across the Grand Canal from the waterfront of San Marco.
It was soon after this, as he entered his 20s, that Casanova began to lead the wild life for which he would be remembered… and which brought him into conflict with the authorities. In 1749 he left Venice for four years, apart from a brief return, but he came back to live in 1753. He began an affair with Caterina Capretta, known in his memoires as CC, and relieved her of her virginity on the island of Giudecca. But when he let her father know that he wanted to marry the girl, he has her put into a convent rather than wed the notorious Casanova.
By 1755 he was in prison, by 1756 he had escaped and by 1757 he was a millionaire thanks to his involvement in the setting up of the state lottery in Paris. The Treasury there had the age-old problem of how to raise money without raising taxes. Casanova persuaded them to adopt what was known as the ‘Genoa Lottery’, as it was based on the way that magistrates were chosen in Genoa, with the people betting on the outcome. In Paris each player would withdraw between one and five numbered tickets from an urn, according to his stake. One correct number would mean a small prize, three would earn him back 8000 times the stake, and all five would make him, just like today, a multi-millionaire. The long-term odds, however, were firmly in favour of the Treasury, and Casanova made his millions by acquiring several sales offices and raking in his share of the profits. He also raked in his share of female admirers.
Casanova had to wait 18 years before the Venetian authorities pardoned him for his alleged crimes and his escape from prison. He returned in 1774 and wrote several books including two volumes of a lengthy history of Poland he had been working on. He also translated the Iliad into Italian verse – much more the Renaissance man than he is ever given credit for. He acted as a spy for the state Inquisitors who had previously imprisoned him, but this didn’t help him when, in 1783, he was forced into exile again after a financial dispute with a nobleman and a resulting brawl.
Casanova never saw Venice again. He died in 1798, at the age of 73, in Bohemia. In the intervening years he had written his notorious multi-volume Story of My Life. His dying words were: ‘I have lived as a philosopher, and die as a Christian.’ Philosopher? Christian? Millionaire? Priest? Casanova was indeed far from being just a Casanova.
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