Meeting Henriette

The first of four blogs on Casanova’s greatest love.

Casanova found himself particularly attracted to strong and unorthodox women.  One such woman was Henriette, a French ‘adventuress’ whom he first encountered dressed as a soldier and who became his greatest love.  Their affair was to last three months.  He was twenty-three and she was significantly older, perhaps by up to ten years.  At the time, Casanova’s behaviour in Venice had brought upon him the unwanted attentions of the Venetian inquisition and so he had decided to make himself scarce.  In January 1748, he had left Venice to tour northern Italy.  Henriette’s background was, and remains, somewhat mysterious.  She was an aristocrat and highly educated who, when Casanova encountered her, was fleeing to Parma from an unhappy marriage.  She described her husband and father-in-law as ‘monsters’.  Many years after the affair they were to make contact with each other again (although they would not meet face-to-face) and regularly corresponded.  Unfortunately, the forty letters that she sent to him, referred to by Casanova in his autobiography and which would have undoubtedly revealed much more of her story, have not been located.  His relationship with Henriette was to follow a fairly typical, but by no means universal, pattern: Casanova comes across a woman in trouble; he helps her out; she is grateful to him; they become lovers; they have a short affair; his passion satisfied, he loses interest and moves on.  In the case of Henriette, however, it is she who finishes the relationship and moves on

Casanova came across Henriette at Cesena, a small town north of Rimini and south of Ravenna, in a boarding house.  One morning, several days into his stay at Cesena and shortly before he was about to travel on to Naples (where he was hoping to be reunited with Teresa Lanti – see Bewildering Bellino) there was some commotion in the corridor close to his room.

I see a troop of ‘sbirri’ at the door of a chamber, and in that chamber, sitting up in bed, a fine-looking man who was making himself hoarse by screaming in Latin against that rabble, the plague of Italy, and against the inn-keeper who had been rascally enough to open the door.  
(Casanova’s memoirs)

The inn-keeper, along with several sbirri (police) under the authority of the local bishop, were making their way into a room occupied by a Hungarian military officer and his companion who also purported to be a military officer.  Local regulations forbade any man to sleep with a woman who was not his wife, and the inn-keeper was pretty sure that the companion was neither a man nor his wife.  Casanova quickly discovered that the actions of the inn-keeper and the police, however, were not so much motivated by religious scruple but the opportunity to extort money.  For a few sequins, the inn-keeper would have a word with the chief of police and the matter would be resolved.

Indignant at this stitch-up of a foreigner and having an ingrained dislike of sbirri, coupled with his love for a good drama (especially one which offered him the possibility of indulging in a bit of intrigue of his own) Casanova allied himself with the Hungarian.  Advising the officer to stay put, he set off to see the bishop, not so much to resolve the matter but to be so unpleasant as to stoke the fires further.  Having, as planned, been rebuffed by the bishop, the next morning he visited one General Spada, whose acquaintance he had recently made.  Casanova, with a certain amount of embellishment, recounted the tale of how disgracefully the Hungarian officer had been set up and how the bishop had refused to intervene.

I told him that, unless he settled the matter himself, the Hungarian captain was determined to send an express to the cardinal [Cardinal Alexander of Rome] immediately. But my eloquence was unnecessary, for the general liked to see priests attend to the business of Heaven, but he could not bear them to meddle in temporal affairs.
(Casanova’s memoirs)

In short order, the matter was resolved.  The bishop apologised and agreed to pay damages for the way the officer had been so grossly insulted, while the inn-keeper and the sbirri had to beg for pardon on their knees.

There was, however, another motive behind Casanova’s interest in the affair.  He had become intrigued by the Hungarian captain’s bedfellow.  What kind of adventuress was this woman (and very quickly he had realised that it was, indeed, a woman) who was prepared to pass herself off as a man in order keep the company of a military officer?  She was taking huge risks, particularly if the Inquisition got wind of it.  In the middle of all his activity, Casanova had taken the opportunity to return to the Hungarian’s room to find out some more:

“From what country,” I asked him, “is your travelling companion?”
“From France, and he only speaks his native language.”
“Then you speak French?”
“Not one word.”
“That is amusing! Then you converse in pantomime?”
“Exactly.”
“I pity you, for it is a difficult language.”
“Yes, to express the various shades of thought, but in the material part of our intercourse we understand each other quite well.”
“May I invite myself to breakfast with you?”
“Ask my friend whether he has any objection.”
“Amiable companion of the captain,” I said in French, “will you kindly accept me as a third guest at the breakfast-table?”
At these words I saw coming out of the bed-clothes a lovely head, with dishevelled hair, and a blooming, laughing face which, although it was crowned with a man’s cap, left no doubt that the captain’s friend belonged to that sex without which man would be the most miserable animal on earth.
(Casanova’s memoirs)

‘The Prologue’, and chapters 1 to 5 of ‘Casanova in Paris: The Shadows of the King’ are now freely available here.

6 long form articles on Casanova’s life and times are freely available here.

#adventuress #casanova #cesena #henriette #gender #love #lover