From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
“This arm-chair has five springs, which come into play all at once as soon as anyone sits down in it. Two springs catch the two arms and hold them tightly, two others separate the legs, and the fifth lifts up the seat.”
Casanova (1725 – 1798) was a Venetian adventurer and author. His main book Histoire de ma vie (Story of My Life), part autobiography and part memoir, is regarded as one of the most authentic sources of the customs and norms of European social life during the 18th century.
He was so famous as a womanizer that his name remains synonymous with the art of seduction. He associated with European royalty, popes and cardinals, along with luminaries such as Voltaire, Goethe and Mozart. He spent his last years in Bohemia as a librarian in Count Waldstein's household, where he also wrote the story of his life.
In spite of him being a historical character and Don Juan being a legend, Casanova is often associated with him.
The isolation and boredom of Casanova’s last years enabled him to focus without distractions on his Histoire de ma vie, without which his fame would have been considerably diminished, if not blotted out entirely. He began to think about writing his memoirs around 1780 and began in earnest by 1789, as “the only remedy to keep from going mad or dying of grief”. The first draft was completed by July 1792, and he spent the next six years revising it. He puts a happy face on his days of loneliness, writing in his work, “I can find no pleasanter pastime than to converse with myself about my own affairs and to provide a most worthy subject for laughter to my well-bred audience.” His memoirs were still being compiled at the time of his death. A letter by him in 1792 states that he was reconsidering his decision to publish them believing his story was despicable and he would make enemies by writing the truth about his affairs. But he decided to proceed and to use initials instead of actual names, and to tone down its strongest passages.
The memoirs open with:
I begin by declaring to my reader that, by everything good or bad that I have done throughout my life, I am sure that I have earned merit or incurred guilt, and that hence I must consider myself a free agent. ... Despite an excellent moral foundation, the inevitable fruit of the divine principles which were rooted in my heart, I was all my life the victim of my senses; I have delighted in going astray and I have constantly lived in error, with no other consolation than that of knowing I have erred. ... My follies are the follies of youth. You will see that I laugh at them, and if you are kind you will laugh at them with me.
Casanova is clear about the purpose of his book:
I expect the friendship, the esteem, and the gratitude of my readers. Their gratitude, if reading my memoirs will have given instruction and pleasure. Their esteem if, doing me justice, they will have found that I have more virtues than faults; and their friendship as soon as they come to find me deserving of it by the frankness and good faith with which I submit myself to their judgment without in any way disguising what I am.
He also advises his readers that they “will not find all my adventures. I have left out those which would have offended the people who played a part in them, for they would cut a sorry figure in them. Even so, there are those who will sometimes think me too indiscreet; I am sorry for it.” And in the final chapter, the text abruptly breaks off with hints at adventures unrecorded: “Three years later I saw her in Padua, where I resumed my acquaintance with her daughter on far more tender terms.”
Uncut, the memoirs ran to twelve volumes, and the abridged American translation runs to nearly 1200 pages. Though his chronology is at times confusing and inaccurate, and many of his tales exaggerated, much of his narrative and many details are corroborated by contemporary writings. He has a good ear for dialogue and writes at length about all classes of society. Casanova, for the most part, is candid about his faults, intentions, and motivations, and shares his successes and failures with good humor. The confession is largely devoid of repentance or remorse. He celebrates the senses with his readers, especially regarding music, food, and women. “I have always liked highly seasoned food. ... As for women, I have always found that the one I was in love with smelled good, and the more copious her sweat the sweeter I found it.” He mentions over 120 adventures with women and girls, with several veiled references to male lovers as well. He describes his duels and conflicts with scoundrels and officials, his entrapments and his escapes, his schemes and plots, his anguish and his sighs of pleasure. He demonstrates convincingly, “I can say vixi (‘I have lived’).”
The manuscript of Casanova’s memoirs was held by his relatives until it was sold to F. A. Brockhaus publishers, and first published in heavily abridged versions in German around 1822, then in French. During World War II, the manuscript survived the allied bombing of Leipzig. The memoirs were heavily pirated through the ages and have been translated into some twenty languages. But not until 1960 was the entire text published in its original language of French. In 2010 the manuscript was acquired by the National Library of France, which has started digitizing it.
The art of seduction
For Casanova, as well as his contemporary sybarites of the upper class, love and sex tended to be casual and not endowed with the seriousness characteristic of the Romanticism of the 19th century. Flirtations, bedroom games, and short-term liaisons were common among nobles who married for social connections rather than love. For Casanova, it was an open field of sexual opportunities.
Although multi-faceted and complex, Casanova's personality was dominated by his sensual urges: “Cultivating whatever gave pleasure to my senses was always the chief business of my life; I never found any occupation more important. Feeling that I was born for the sex opposite of mine, I have always loved it and done all that I could to make myself loved by it.” He noted that he sometimes used "assurance caps" to prevent impregnating his mistresses.
Casanova’s ideal liaison had elements beyond sex, including complicated plots, heroes and villains, and gallant outcomes. In a pattern he often repeated, he would discover an attractive woman in trouble with a brutish or jealous lover (Act I); he would ameliorate her difficulty (Act II); she would show her gratitude; he would seduce her; a short exciting affair would ensue (Act III); feeling a loss of ardor or boredom setting in, he would plead his unworthiness and arrange for her marriage or pairing with a worthy man, then exit the scene (Act IV). As William Bolitho points out in Twelve Against the Gods, the secret of Casanova's success with women “had nothing more esoteric in it than [offering] what every woman who respects herself must demand: all that he had, all that he was, with (to set off the lack of legality) the dazzling attraction of the lump sum over what is more regularly doled out in a lifetime of installments.”
Casanova advises, “There is no honest woman with an uncorrupted heart whom a man is not sure of conquering by dint of gratitude. It is one of the surest and shortest means.” Alcohol and violence, for him, were not proper tools of seduction. Instead, attentiveness and small favors should be employed to soften a woman’s heart, but “a man who makes known his love by words is a fool”. Verbal communication is essential—“without speech, the pleasure of love is diminished by at least two-thirds”—but words of love must be implied, not boldly proclaimed.
Mutual consent is important, according to Casanova, but he avoided easy conquests or overly difficult situations as not suitable for his purposes. He strove to be the ideal escort in the first act—witty, charming, confidential, helpful—before moving into the bedroom in the third act. Casanova claims not to be predatory (“my guiding principle has been never to direct my attack against novices or those whose prejudices were likely to prove an obstacle”); however, his conquests did tend to be insecure or emotionally exposed women.
Casanova valued intelligence in a woman: “After all, a beautiful woman without a mind of her own leaves her lover with no resource after he had physically enjoyed her charms.” His attitude towards educated women, however, was typical for his time: “In a woman learning is out of place; it compromises the essential qualities of her sex ... no scientific discoveries have been made by women ... (which) requires a vigor which the female sex cannot have. But in simple reasoning and in delicacy of feeling we must yield to women.”
Casanova and gambling
Gambling was a common recreation in the social and political circles in which Casanova moved. In his memoirs, Casanova discusses many forms of 18th century gambling—including lotteries, faro, basset, piquet, biribi, primero, quinze, and whist—and the passion for it among the nobility and the high clergy. Cheaters (known as “correctors of fortune”) were somewhat more tolerated then than today in public casinos and in private games for invited players, and seldom caused affront. Most gamblers were on guard against cheaters and their tricks. Scams of all sorts were common, and Casanova was amused by them.
Casanova gambled throughout his adult life, winning and losing large sums. He was tutored by professionals, and he was “instructed in those wise maxims without which games of chance ruin those who participate in them”. He was not above occasionally cheating and at times even teamed with professional gamblers for his own profit. Casanova claims that he was “relaxed and smiling when I lost, and I won without covetousness”. However, when outrageously duped himself, he could act violently, sometimes calling for a duel. Casanova admits that he was not disciplined enough to be a professional gambler: “I had neither prudence enough to leave off when fortune was adverse, nor sufficient control over myself when I had won.” Nor did he like being considered as a professional gambler: “Nothing could ever be adduced by professional gamblers that I was of their infernal clique.” Although Casanova at times used gambling tactically and shrewdly—for making quick money, for flirting, making connections, acting gallantly, or proving himself a gentleman among his social superiors—his practice also could be compulsive and reckless, especially during the euphoria of a new sexual affair. "Why did I gamble when I felt the losses so keenly? What made me gamble was avarice. I loved to spend, and my heart bled when I could not do it with money won at cards."
Casanova's fame and influence
Although best known for his prowess in seduction for more than two hundred years since his death, Casanova was also recognized by his contemporaries as an extraordinary person, a man of far-ranging intellect and curiosity. Casanova was one of the foremost chroniclers of his age. He was a true adventurer, traveling across Europe from end-to-end in search of fortune, seeking out the most prominent people of his time to help his cause. He was a man of contradictory traits—generous and mean, honest and deceptive, fawning and aloof, skeptical and gullible, superstitious and rational. He was a servant of the establishment and equally decadent as his times, but also a participant in secret societies and a seeker of answers beyond the conventional. He was religious, a devout Catholic, and believed in prayer: “Despair kills; prayer dissipates it; and after praying man trusts and acts.” But he also believed in free will and reason and clearly did not subscribe to the notion that pleasure-seeking would keep him from heaven, if heaven did indeed exist.
He was, by vocation and avocation, a lawyer, clergyman, military officer, violinist, con man, pimp, gourmand, dancer, businessman, diplomat, spy, politician, mathematician, social philosopher, cabalist, playwright, and writer. He wrote over twenty works, including plays and essays, and many letters. His novel Icosameron is an early work of science fiction.
Born of actors, he had a passion for the theater and for an improvised, theatrical life. But with all his talents, he frequently succumbed to the quest for pleasure and sex, often avoiding sustained work and established plans, and got himself into trouble when prudent action would have served him better. His true occupation was living largely on his quick wits, steely nerves, luck, social charm, and the money given to him in gratitude and by trickery.
Prince Charles de Ligne, who understood Casanova well, and who knew most of the prominent individuals of the age, thought Casanova the most interesting man he had ever met: “there is nothing in the world of which he is not capable.” Rounding out the portrait, the Prince also stated:
The only things about which he knows nothing are those which he believes himself to be expert: the rules of the dance, the French language, good taste, the way of the world, savoir vivre. It is only his comedies which are not funny, only his philosophical works which lack philosophy—all the rest are filled with it; there is always something weighty, new, piquant, profound. He is a well of knowledge, but he quotes Homer and Horace ad nauseam. His wit and his sallies are like Attic salt. He is sensitive and generous, but displease him in the slightest and he is unpleasant, vindictive, and detestable. He believes in nothing except what is most incredible, being superstitious about everything. He loves and lusts after everything. ... He is proud because he is nothing. ... Never tell him you have heard the story he is going to tell you. ... Never omit to greet him in passing, for the merest trifle will make him your enemy.
“Casanova”, like “Don Juan”, is a long established term in the English language. According to Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed., the noun Casanova means “Lover; esp: a man who is a promiscuous and unscrupulous lover”. The first usage of the term in written English was around 1852. References in culture to Casanova are numerous—in books, films, theater, and music.
“I am writing My Life to laugh at myself, and I am succeeding.”
"Man is a free agent; but he is not free if he does not believe it, for the more power he attributes to Destiny, the more he deprives himself of the power which God granted him when he gave him reason."
"I often had no scruples about deceiving nitwits and scoundrels and fools when I found it necessary. ... We avenge intelligence when we deceive a fool, and ... deceiving a fool is an exploit worthy of an intelligent man. What has infused my very blood with an unconquerable hatred of the whole tribe of fools from the day of my birth is that I become a fool myself whenever I am in their company."
"I have concluded that my conduct has depended more on my character than on my mind, after a long struggle between them in which I have alternately found myself with too little intelligence for my character and too little character for my intelligence."
"The cruelty of boredom! It can only be because they had forgotten it that the inventors of the pains of hell did not include it among them."
"The story she had told me was possible, but it was not believable."
"Cheating is a sin, but honest cunning is simply prudence. It is a virtue. To be sure, it has a likeness to roguery, but that cannot be helped. He who has not learned to practice it is a fool."
"For lost courage there is no remedy. It cannot be recovered. The mind succumbs to an apathy against which nothing avails."
"The man fit to make a fortune in this ancient capital of Italy must be a chameleon sensitive to all the colors which the light casts on his surroundings. He must be flexible, insinuating, a great dissimulator, impenetrable, obliging, often base, ostensibly sincere, always pretending to know less than he does, keeping to one tone of voice, patient, in complete control of his countenance, cold as ice when another in his place would be on fire; and if he is so unfortunate as not to have religion in his heart he must have it in his mind, and, if he is an honest man, accept the painful necessity of admitting to himself that he is a hypocrite. If he loathes the pretense, he should leave Rome and seek his fortune in England."
"To reason rightly one must be neither in love nor in anger; for those two passions reduce us to the level of animals; and unfortunately we are never so much inclined to reason as when we are agitated by one or the other of them."
"The same principle which forbids me to lie does not allow me to tell the truth."
- 1752 - Zoroastro, tragedia tradotta dal Francese, da rappresentarsi nel Regio Elettoral Teatro di Dresda, dalla compagnia de' comici italiani in attuale servizio di Sua Maestà nel carnevale dell'anno MDCCLII. Dresden.
- 1753 - La Moluccheide, o sia i gemelli rivali. Dresda
- 1769 - Confutazione della Storia del Governo Veneto d'Amelot de la Houssaie, Amsterdam (Lugano).
- 1772 - Lana caprina. Epistola di un licantropo. Bologna.
- 1774 - Istoria delle turbolenze della Polonia. Gorizia.
- 1775 - Dell'Iliade di Omero tradotta in ottava rima. Venice.
- 1779 - Scrutinio del libro "Eloges de M. de Voltaire par différents auteurs". Venezia.
- 1780 - Opuscoli miscellanei - Il duello - Lettere della nobil donna Silvia Belegno alla nobildonzella Laura Gussoni. Venezia.
- 1781 - Le messager de Thalie. Venezia.
- 1782 - Di aneddoti viniziani militari ed amorosi del secolo decimoquarto sotto i dogadi di Giovanni Gradenigo e di Giovanni Dolfin. Venezia.
- 1782 - Né amori né donne ovvero la stalla ripulita. Venezia.
- 1786 - Soliloque d'un penseur, Prague chez Jean Ferdinande noble de Shonfeld imprimeur et libraire.
- 1787 - Histoire de ma fuite des prisons de la République de Venise qu'on appelle les Plombs. Ecrite a Dux en Boheme l'année 1787, Leipzig chez le noble de Shonfeld.
- 1788 - Icosaméron ou L'Histoire d'Édouard, et d'Élisabeth qui passèrent quatre vingts un ans chez les Mégamicres, habitants aborigènes du Protocosme dans l'intérieur de notre globe, traduite de l'anglois par Jacques Casanova de Seingalt Vénitien Docteur ès loix Bibliothécaire de Monsieur le comte de Waldstein seigneur de Dux Chambellan de S.M.J.R.A. A Prague à l'imprimerie de l'école normale.
- 1790 - Solution du probleme deliaque démontrée par Jacques Casanova de Seingalt, Bibliothécaire de Monsieur le Comte de Waldstein, seigneur de Dux en Boheme e c., Dresden, De l'imprimerie de C.C. Meinhold.
- 1790 - Corollaire à la duplication de l'Hexaèdre donné à Dux en Bohème, par Jacques Casanova de Seingalt, Dresden.
- 1790 - Démonstration géometrique de la duplication du cube. Corollaire second, Dresden.
- 1794 - Histoire de ma vie, first fully published by F.A. Brockhaus, Wiesbaden and Plon, Paris. 1960
- 1797 - A Leonard Snetlage, Docteur en droit de l'Université de Göttingen, Jacques Casanova, docteur en droit de l'Universitè de Padoue.
- Gentleman thief
- Histoire de ma vie ("Story of My Life"), Casanova's autobiography and memoir.
- Manon Balletti, Casanova's "one that got away".
- Don Juanism
- Casanova in popular culture
- Fellini's Casanova, a 1976 feature film by Federico Fellini, starring Donald Sutherland