‘I was all my life the victim of my senses; I have delighted in going astray and I have constantly lived in error… 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’
Giacomo Casanova – soldier, preacher, gambler and quintessential scoundrel – tore a swathe across the courts and capitals of 18th-century Europe. Using a bible, a rope of knotted blankets and a dish of macaroni he escaped the clutches of the Venetian inquisition – the only man to do so. He matched wits with Voltaire in word-play as thrilling as a fencing match. And when finally defeated in the battle for the heart of teenage strumpet La Charpillon, he ended up in Bow Street Magistrates Court. Frances Wilson has selected Casanova’s most formative and brilliant adventures, each a triumph of story-telling and redolent with his exuberant wit and charm. Accompanied by over two dozen 18th-century paintings, here are the highlights of one of the most entertaining autobiographies ever written.
Ian Kelly, author of Beau Brummell: The Ultimate Dandy, whose biography of Giacomo Casanova appears next year, salutes Casanova's most famous work and examines modern attitudes to a figure whose achievements have been obscured by a scandalous reputation.
Casanova would be bemused today to find that he is remembered almost exclusively for his sexual odyssey. He was a fiercely proud intellectual and polymath who worked at different times as a violinist, soldier, mathematician, writer, doctor and even librarian, and who originally trained to be a priest. The memoirs that lay unpublished at his death in 1798, however, have brought him not the fame he sought but two centuries of notoriety. Lorenzo Da Ponte, the poet and librettist of Mozart’s operas, remarked in 1828 that 'Casanova has said everything. Perhaps too much. And sometimes what he has said is not quite the truth'. Casanova’s candour about his private life has tended to overshadow the many other vital insights the memoirs contain. Some of them, such as his fascination with food–writing and with the cabala, for instance, are only now finding resonance with modern readers. But how much of the History of My Life is true? Or rather, what truths does it reflect? The thing, after all, as Casanova said, is to 'dazzle'.
Casanova was the son of an actress, brought up for the priesthood in the decadent city–state of Venice. But most of his life was spent on the road, at multiple ‘careers’ from London to St Petersburg to Prague and even Istanbul. Along the way he travelled over forty thousand miles, made and lost a couple of fortunes, founded two state lotteries, wrote forty–two books, along with plays, philosophical and mathematical treatises, opera libretti, poetry and 3,600 pages of memoirs, whilst recording hundreds of meals as well as – famously – his affairs and encounters with dozens of women and a handful of men. His energy was, indeed, dazzling.
The History of My Life has traditionally been rubbished in Anglo–American culture. Mauled by Harold Nicolson and traduced by Hollywood, Casanova has become an adjective without being an advert for anything anyone but a teenage boy might aspire to. Why this should be so is worthy of a book in itself. His memoirs are only now emerging from several decades of resuscitative academic work, since the final publication of the unabridged original in the 1960s, as a vital historical testament and one of the most important – and alluring – documents in the history of modern Europe. Empresses and gamblers, princes and prostitutes, nuns and impostors, opera stars and thieves; all received Casanova's intense, warm but sardonic gaze, all equal objects of his curiosity, his pen, and often more intimate attentions. Which is what made him – as well as seemingly a one–man public health–risk – such an unsurpassed social historian. The truth, he wrote, is in the detail. Yet by allotting his love life equal prominence in his writings to his many other passions, Giacomo Casanova assured his infamy.
His many works of a philosophical, mathematical and economic character are virtually unknown. So too his translation into modern Italian of Homer's Iliad, his poetry, drama, his five volume science–fiction novel and his works on calendars, canon law and cubic geometry. All these are in the shadow of his voluminous History of My Life, written between 1790 and his death in 1798. The story of its publication, its slow 'unveiling' – in effect between 1822 and 1962 – is the story of Casanova's gradual evaluation and re–evaluation. And only now is it slowly dawning on the wider world that most of what Casanova wrote is almost certainly true. This may not sound like a glowing testimonial to his reliability, but Casanova’s reputation has come a long way.
The history of the memoirs themselves began twenty–two years after Casanova’s death, when Herr Frederick Gentzel offered to the publishing house of Brockhaus in Leipzig the French–written original in the possession of Casanova's nephew–in–law. It appeared first in print thence in a German translation, between 1822 and 1828. The first French edition was re–translated from the German. As with the historiography of Shakespeare's plays, there are various 'originals' of the History of My Life, some of them only to be glimpsed via the later translations or editions. The one full 'original' that does exist is held in the vaults of the Brockhaus bank to this day. Having survived World War II air attacks, it was conveyed to Wiesbaden in 1944 where no less a person than Winston Churchill immediately enquired whether it was amongst surviving treasures from Dresden. But it was not published in its entirety in English until the sixties.
The story of Casanova's rubbishing in English is in part a tale of mistranslations. Cited among his 'lies' and discrepancies was his height: given as 5 feet 9 inches by one calculation from the memoirs, 6 feet 2 inches by another, 1.86 metres by a third translation. On examination, the first figure turns out to be a miscalculation, based on the old measure of feet, which was a tenth longer than the present. All three figures then fall within a wig–curl of 6 feet 1½ inches. But the damage to Casanova’s trustworthiness – and supposed vanity – endured.
Casanova frequently elides dates and places; sometimes as any of us might when recalling events from decades ago, sometimes through a less honourable but forgivable intention to streamline his narrative. Why, though, did Casanova write at such length and with such apparent frankness? Is there not something inherently untrustworthy about a memoir that details trysts, seductions and adventures that run suspiciously close to the favoured narrative styles of contemporary fiction and erotica? It should not be assumed that Casanova initially or consistently wanted publication for his memoirs. He admitted that he was writing for the sake of his mental health as much as anything else. Casanova was certainly a devoted writer, writing up to eleven hours a day, seven days a week in his bleak grace–and–favour residence in Duchov castle. The History of My Life grapples with memory and with rendering both sense and anecdote – not at all the same things – out of a life, with the clock ticking on Casanova’s ability to do either. He died with twenty–four years of his tumultuous life still unrecorded.
There is no question that at latter stages of his writing the memoirs, when he was showing drafts to the Prince de Ligne (who said he could not read a single chapter without envy, astonishment or an erection), Casanova had every intention of some sort of publication. Yet at other times, he appears to be writing for himself. He was fully aware that the entire text of the memoirs presented a completely unrealistic prospect to any contemporary publishing house, and that even in serial form they would not and could not be published as a money–making scheme for him. It seems inconceivable that Casanova – a man with the gift of application to many fine–detailed tasks but also mercurial, variegated, passionate – should have spent all eight years writing the memoirs with the same thoughts in mind as to what to do with them. The individuality of his spirit keeps hijacking his attempts to stake a claim on respectability as a travel–writer, historian or philosophe; he can be risibly pretentious at times, and all the more human for it. He also lies. Unnoticed by many readers over the years, however, is the redemptive extent to which he chronicles heartbreaking failures and misadventures as well as his 'conquests'.
Though in context his sexual odyssey no longer seems exceptional, what he chose to do with his memories of it in his dying years turned out to be so. Perhaps his claim on posterity is to be the first – or the most consequential – memoirist to posit sexuality as primary to an understanding of self. And in telling, just as in being in love – as Casanova is keen to admit – there is self–delusion, there are lies to lovers and there are lies to oneself. The truth the History reflects is less an historical one than a recognisably human one: self–knowledge, like love, is not so much blind as self–deluded.