Bewildering Bellino

[vc_row][vc_column 0=””][vc_column_text]Casanova’s teenage years were ones of enormous change and revelation.  His family wanted him to forge a respectable career for himself in the church and so in 1737, at the age of 12, he enrolled at Padua University to study Law (which included Canon Law), graduating when he was 16.  At 15, dividing his time between Venice and Padua, he became an abate, the first rung on the ladder towards the priesthood.  At the same time, he struck up a friendship with a seventy-year-old Senator called Alvise Malipiero, a grandee and wealthy bachelor, thrusting him into the social whirl of Venetian high society (something which he found suited him down to the ground). During this period, he also developed a taste for gambling.  At 17 he lost his virginity.  At 18 his beloved grandmother died.  The same year, 1743, he was expelled from San Cipriano seminary, after being discovered in bed with another boy, and was imprisoned for a short time in the fortress of Sant’Andrea (where he contracted his first bout of gonorrhoea).  His mother, meanwhile, who was working in Poland, was using her influence to salvage a career for him in the church, resulting in him leaving Venice and travelling to Rome.  Further scandal ensued and he was forced to depart the Eternal City, deciding to pursue his Church career in Constantinople, of all places.

He was 19 at this point and that was when he met Bellino for whom he fell passionately in love.  However, Bellino was a castrato.

In a practice that can be traced back many centuries, and at least to the early Byzantine Empire, prepubescent boys had been castrated in order to preserve their soprano voices.  By the eighteenth-century, there had been established in Italy a tradition of supplying castrated boys to the choirs of the Catholic Church for two centuries, partly because women weren’t allowed to sing in church, and partly because the quality of a castrato male soprano was deemed superior to that of a female soprano.  With the development of opera from the late sixteenth century, new opportunities for castrati grew.  By the end of the seventeenth century the fashion for castrati was such that they began to dominate lead male roles, a position of supremacy that they were to retain for a hundred years.  The castrati became the superstars of their day and the most successful amongst them could earn huge sums.  One such was Farinelli (1705 – 1782) who was feted throughout Europe and who Casanova met in Bologna when the illustrious singer was in old age.  For one London season alone Farinelli earned 2,000 guineas, the equivalent today of around £750,000.

Casanova came across Bellino at an inn in Ancona on 25th February, 1744 along with his mother, a brother (Petronio, ‘the first female dancer at the opera’ i.e., a female impersonator) and two sisters, Marina and Cecilia.  The family were performers and, at that moment, somewhat down on their luck.  Bellino entertained them by singing and playing on a harpsichord and immediately Casanova was convinced that he was female:

I fancied that the so-called Bellino was a disguised beauty, and, my imagination taking at once the highest flight, I became thoroughly enamoured.
(The memoirs of Casanova, Venetian Years, Chapter XI)

That Bellino was a woman was not an unreasonable supposition for Casanova to make.  Despite heavy penalties if discovered, the career of a castrato was so profitable that it wasn’t uncommon for women to disguise themselves as such.  The next morning Casanova set about to confirm his suspicions.  First of all, he attempted to bribe the mother to confess that Bellino was a woman.  The mother, however, stuck to the story that Bellino was a castrato and, when pushed, pointed out that he had undergone tests by a chaplain.  Then Casanova confronted Bellino in person:

… his half-open ruffle attracting my hand, I ventured and went in without resistance. The chisel of Praxiteles had never carved a finer bosom!
“Oh! this is enough,” I exclaimed; “I can no longer doubt that you are a beautifully-formed woman!”
“It is,” he replied, “the defect of all castrati.”
“No, it is the perfection of all handsome women. Bellino, believe me, I am enough of a good judge to distinguish between the deformed breast of a castrato, and that of a beautiful woman; and your alabaster bosom belongs to a young beauty of seventeen summers.”
(The memoirs of Casanova, Venetian Years, Chapter XI)

Later, he tried to bribe Bellino’s sister Cecilia but like her mother she insisted that Bellino was male. The following day (and he had, by this time, slept with Cecilia and Marina, and rebuffed the advances of Petronio) he persisted with his efforts.  After enjoying a brief moment of intimacy as a result of a coincidental meeting with an old flame (unfortunately interrupted by her husband and in the company of an astonished Bellino), Casanova took a more direct approach:

I extended my hand, but I drew back terrified, for I fancied that I had recognized in him a man, and a degraded man, contemptible less on account of his degradation than for the want of feeling I thought I could read on his countenance. Disgusted, confused, and almost blushing for myself, I sent him away.
(The memoirs of Casanova, Venetian Years, Chapter XI)

Overnight, however, Casanova’s mood changed.  His conviction that Bellino was a woman had resurfaced and he confronted him yet again.  Finally, after various histrionics on both sides, Bellino revealed that ‘he’ was, in fact, a ‘she’ and that what Casanova had felt the day before was a fake penis.  She went on to explain how she had come to play the role of a castrato, which she had been doing for a number of years.

Bellino’s true name, according to Casanova, was Teresa Lanti, the daughter of a poor clerk.  The family had lived in Bologna and at one time let an apartment in their house to a castrato called Salimberi who took a liking to the 12-year-old Teresa.  He taught her music and she, willingly according to Casanova’s memoirs, became his adoring lover. Salimberi was also a tutor to a boy in Rimini, 70 miles away, who was the same age as Teresa.  The boy’s name was Bellino.  He was from a large but poor family whose father was dying and, with a view to providing for the family, planned for his son to become a castrato.  A year later Salimberi was making plans to travel to Rome, news which left the besotted Teresa devastated.  Shortly afterwards, to make matters much worse, her father died leaving her orphaned.  Salimberi decided to take her to Rimini and made arrangements for her to lodge with Bellino’s family.  Now tragedy struck the family in Rimini.  Bellino died.  It was then that Salimberi had the idea of transforming Teresa into a castrato.  He arranged for the mother of the deceased Bellino to travel to Bologna with Teresa as her son and made arrangements for her to continue her musical education.  Teresa recounts Salimberi’s instructions:

All we have to do is to represent you as Bellino, and it is very easy, as nobody knows you in Bologna. Bellino’s mother will alone know the secret; her other children have seen their brother only when he was very young, and can have no suspicion. But if you love me you must renounce your sex, lose even the remembrance of it, and leave immediately for Bologna, dressed as a boy, and under the name of Bellino. 
(The memoirs of Casanova, Venetian Years, Chapter XI)

The plan was that in four years she would go to live with him in Dresden where the two could be lovers without it causing any scandal.  Unfortunately, Salimberi himself died before the two could be reunited.  After listening to her story, Casanova commented:

Her emotion, an inexpressible charm which seemed to flow from her lips and to enforce conviction, made me shed tears of love and sympathy. I blended my tears with those falling from her beautiful eyes, and deeply moved, I promised not to abandon her and to make her the sharer of my fate.
(The memoirs of Casanova, Venetian Years, Chapter XI)

Needless to say, this whole episode was tailor made to appeal to Casanova: a beautiful and talented young woman disguised as a man; the stratagems and subterfuge to discover the truth; the quest to conquer her resistance and make her his lover; the verbal parrying and melodramatics; the social transgression; Bellino’s backstory. It was pure theatre guaranteed to inflame his interest and desire.

There’s little doubt that at the time Casanova was completely smitten by Bellino, so much so that he was determined he was going to marry her, ‘to give to our union the sanction of religion and of law’.  Until fate intervened.  The couple tried to elope but Casanova lost his passport and they were separated on their way to Constantinople, via Rimini: Casanova being held under arrest at Pesaro, and Bellino continuing on to Rimini to a theatre engagement.  They planned to meet up again in ten days.  A bizarre sequence of events then took place, starting with Casanova’s inadvertent escape from custody and ending in Bologna where he had gone to get a new passport.  There he made the decision to abandon his plans for a career in the Church in favour of one in the military.  He designed a uniform for himself, had a tailor make it up and began to pass himself off as an officer.  It was then he received news that Bellino, now Teresa, having renounced her status as a castrato, had been made a lucrative offer as prima-donna at the San Carlo Theatre at Naples, an offer she would accept only if Casanova agreed.  Torn, Casanova did in the end agree (‘my head had conquered my heart’) and the two went their separate ways.  They continued to correspond but the relationship had ended. Later that year, Teresa bore Casanova’s child.

According to Casanova’s biographer, Ian Kelly, although there are some inconsistencies in Casanova’s story, evidence exists to corroborate it. There does, however, remain some uncertainty about precisely who Bellino was.  Ian Kelly, in ‘Casanova: Actor, Spy, Lover, Priest’, notes:

The fake castrato he names as Teresa Lanti may have been Teresa Landi, born in Bologna in 1731, as Casanova says, whose portrait hangs to this day at La Scala, Milan.  Alternatively, she may have been Artemesia Lanti, or even Angiola Calori, who later achieved fame and fortune in London in the 1750s and 1760s.

Dave Thompson (2018)

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