Casanova arrived in Paris on 5th January, 1757 following upon his escape from Venice. Coincidentally, this happened to be the day of an attempt upon the life of Louis XV by Robert Damiens a lowborn malcontent. His majesty received only a minor wound (a ‘pinprick’ according to Voltaire) thanks to the heavy layers of clothing that he was wearing at the time. Nonetheless, the retribution exacted by the state for this act of lese-majesty was savage and medieval (quite deliberately so as it was modelled upon the execution of François Ravaillac in 1610, assassin of Henry IV).
The attempted murder took place at a time when Louis XV’s popularity was distinctly on the wane. The Seven Years War was going badly and accounts of his debauched and extravagant lifestyle circulated merrily in the public domain. The would-be regicide had lived a rather unsettled existence, moving from job to job, and indulging in petty acts of criminality. Accounts of his behaviour suggest some sort of mental instability. It’s not clear precisely what motivated Damiens. Possibly there was a religious aspect to it linked to a heretical sect called the Jansenists. He had also served members of the Parliament of Paris who had been very critical of the king and this may have influenced him.
The judges’ intention in passing a sentence as brutal as that inflicted upon Damiens was to repress symbolically, through his body, the threat to the established order represented by his act:
The said Damiens is sentenced to pay for his crime in front of the main gate of the Church of Paris. He will be taken there in a tipcart naked and will hold a burning wax torch weighing two pounds. There, on his knees, he will say and declare that he had committed a very mean, very terrible and very dreadful parricide, and that he had hurt the king…He will repent and ask God, the King and Justice to forgive him. When this will be done, he will be taken in the same tipcart to the Place de Grève and will be put on a scaffold. Then his breasts, arms, thighs, and legs will be tortured. While holding the knife with which he committed the said Parricide, his right hand will be burnt. On his tortured body parts, melted lead, boiling oil, burning pitch, and melted wax and sulfur will be thrown. Then four horses will pull him apart until he is dismembered. His limbs will be thrown on the stake, and his ashes will be spread. All his belongings, furniture, housings, wherever they are, will be confiscated and given to the King. Before the execution the said Damiens will be asked to tell the names of his accomplices. His house will not be demolished, but nothing will be allowed to be built on this same house.
(Source: Anonymous, Pièces originales et procédures du procès, fait à Robert-Françoise Damiens – Paris: Pierre Guillaume Simon, 1757)
Casanova witnessed the gruesome execution of Damiens for himself. What follows is an extended extract from his memoirs. The passage gives an insight not only into execution as a public spectacle but the libertinism and cynicism typical of Paris at the time. In the extract Casanova had agreed to provide several companions with the equivalent of a front row seat (a first floor window he rented especially for the occasion for three louis). His companions included an innocent, young virgin Casanova was in the process of seducing, her aunt, an Italian gigolo (Conte Eduardo Tiretta of Treviso) and the aging Angelica Lambertini (a wealthy widow famous for her sex life).
On March the 28th, the day of Damiens’ martyrdom, I went to fetch the ladies in good time; and as the carriage would scarcely hold us all, no objection was made to my taking my sweetheart on my knee, and in this order we reached the Place de Grève. The three ladies packing themselves together as tightly as possible took up their positions at the window, leaning forward on their elbows, so as to prevent us seeing from behind. The window had two steps to it, and they stood on the second; and in order to see we had to stand on the same step, for if we had stood on the first we should not have been able to see over their heads. I have my reasons for giving these minutiae, as otherwise the reader would have some difficulty in guessing at the details which I am obliged to pass over in silence.
We had the courage to watch the dreadful sight for four hours. The circumstances of Damiens’ execution are too well known to render it necessary for me to speak of them; indeed, the account would be too long a one, and in my opinion such horrors are an offence to our common humanity.
Damiens was a fanatic, who, with the idea of doing a good work and obtaining a heavenly reward, had tried to assassinate Louis XV.; and though the attempt was a failure, and he only gave the king a slight wound, he was torn to pieces as if his crime had been consummated.
While this victim of the Jesuits was being executed, I was several times obliged to turn away my face and to stop my ears as I heard his piercing shrieks, half of his body having been torn from him, but the Lambertini and the fat aunt did not budge an inch. Was it because their hearts were hardened? They told me, and I pretended to believe them, that their horror at the wretch’s wickedness prevented them feeling that compassion which his unheard-of torments should have excited. The fact was that Tiretta kept the pious aunt curiously engaged during the whole time of the execution, and this, perhaps, was what prevented the virtuous lady from moving or even turning her head round.
Finding himself behind her, he had taken the precaution to lift up her dress to avoid treading on it. That, no doubt, was according to the rule; but soon after, on giving an involuntary glance in their direction, I found that Tiretta had carried his precautions rather far, and, not wishing to interrupt my friend or to make the lady feel awkward, I turned my head and stood in such a way that my sweetheart could see nothing of what was going on; this put the good lady at her ease. For two hours after I heard a continuous rustling, and relishing the joke I kept quiet the whole time. I admired Tiretta’s hearty appetite still more than his courage, but what pleased me most was the touching resignation with which the pious aunt bore it all.
At the end of this long session I saw Madame turn round, and doing the same I fixed my gaze on Tiretta, and found him looking as fresh and cool as if nothing had happened, but the aunt seemed to me to have a rather pensive appearance. She had been under the fatal necessity of keeping quiet and letting Tiretta do what he liked for fear of the Lambertini’s jests, and lest her niece might be scandalized by the revelation of mysteries of which she was supposed to know nothing.
(Casanova’s Memoirs, To Paris and Holland, Chapter I)
Note: references to Casanova’s memoirs relate to the unabridged London edition of 1894 (Gutenberg project)
Dave Thompson (2017)