…the witch having received a silver ducat from my grandmother, opened a box, took me in her arms, placed me in the box and locked me in it, telling me not to be frightened—a piece of advice which would certainly have had the contrary effect, if I had had any wits about me, but I was stupefied. I kept myself quiet in a corner of the box, holding a handkerchief to my nose because it was still bleeding, and otherwise very indifferent to the uproar going on outside. I could hear in turn, laughter, weeping, singing, screams, shrieks, and knocking against the box, but for all that I cared nought. At last I am taken out of the box; the blood stops flowing. The wonderful old witch, after lavishing caresses upon me, takes off my clothes, lays me on the bed, burns some drugs, gathers the smoke in a sheet which she wraps around me, pronounces incantations, takes the sheet off me, and gives me five sugar-plums of a very agreeable taste. Then she immediately rubs my temples and the nape of my neck with an ointment exhaling a delightful perfume, and puts my clothes on me again.
(Casanova’s Memoirs, Venetian Years, Chapter I)
This was Casanova’s earliest memory. He was eight-years-old and his grandmother, Marcia Farussi, had taken him to Murano on a clandestine visit to a witch to cure a severe nosebleed. Casanova’s world, despite it being the Age of Enlightenment and the dawn of scientific progress, was one in which religion, superstition and the mystical still held sway over the minds of the overwhelming majority, even the most rational. In his memoirs he records various examples of superstitious beliefs and practices such as the old woman who feared for the body of her dead sister ‘lest witches, under the form of cats, should come and tear her limb from limb’ or the Spanish countess who employed a sorceress to fashion a wax effigy of Casanova in order to lay a curse on him (‘It was lucky for me that she believed in sorcery; otherwise she would have had me assassinated’). Of the various occult and mystical doctrines swirling around Venice and Europe at the time, such as astrology, freemasonry, and rosicrucianism, cabbala was particularly popular, especially amongst commedia actors. For Casanova, it was to become a lifelong pursuit.
…the origins of his interest and possible belief in cabbala may have been deep-rooted and familial…Brought up by a folk-healer, Marcia Farussi, within an extended family of commedia actors in eighteenth-century Venice, Casanova would almost certainly have ingested cabbalistic mantras and subsumed cabbalistic imagery with his mother’s milk.
Ian Kelly, ‘Casanova: Actor, Spy, Lover, Priest’)
Cabbala sprang from Judaism and sought to explain the nature of creation and existence and, in particular, its relationship with its creator. Cabbalists investigated classical Jewish literature to find concealed inner meanings, using a range of esoteric mathematical and linguistic techniques. Inevitably, different schools and off-shoots evolved with contrasting aims: to understand and describe the divine; to become one with God; to control the forces underpinning the universe. Then from the Renaissance onwards these ideas moved beyond the confines of Jewish society and began to root themselves in the Christian world, albeit illicitly. In the eighteenth century, of course, progress in science and mathematics led to curiosity in cabbalistic formulas and codes, the former lending legitimacy and credence to the latter. There was, after all, no clear division between the invisible forces of nature and those of the divine, between the spiritual and the material. If men such as Isaac Newton could successfully use the methods and tools of mathematics and natural philosophy (ie science) to understand and manipulate the one why couldn’t equivalent methods and tools be applied to the other? Eighteenth-century cabbalists, however, did not restrict their interest to spiritual enlightenment but sought tangible benefits in the here and now, whether that be knowledge of the future direction of the bond market, a cure for a bad back or, more ambitiously, as in the case of the Marquise D’Urfè, reincarnation.
A typical cabbalistic technique might involve taking a word or phrase from a religious text and giving each letter a numerical value. These numbers could then be organised into the form of a pyramid comprising several rows. This would be the oracle that enabled the cabbala master to decipher the hidden meaning, usually the answer to a question which had been put by the cabbala master on behalf of another. The pyramid numbers could be worked in various ways according to the judgement of the cabbala master, for example, by subtraction or addition, and the resulting numbers constructed into new letters and words. This would be the answer, often a rather ambiguous one, to the supplicant’s query. Clearly, somebody with the mathematical and linguistic skills of Casanova, who possessed a quick-witted intelligence, a love of word-play and an ability to improvise on the spot, could pretty much come up with any response they fancied. On a trip to the Dutch bond markets Casanova stayed with a financier he refers to in his memoirs as M. d’O. M.d’O had a very attractive daughter, Esther, with whom Casanova quickly became besotted. In order to impress her, he gave a demonstration of the cabbala:
I told her to ask a question in writing, and assured her that by a certain kind of calculation a satisfactory answer would be obtained. She smiled, and asked why I had returned to Amsterdam so soon. I shewed her how to make the pyramid with the proper numbers and the other ceremonies, then I made her extract the answer in numbers, translating it into French, and greatly was she surprised to find that the cause which had made me return to Amsterdam so soon was—love. Quite confounded, she said it was very wonderful, even though the answer might not be true, and she wished to know what masters could teach this mode of calculation.
“Those who know it cannot teach it to anyone.”
“How did you learn it, then?”
“From a precious manuscript I inherited from my father.”
“Sell it me.”
“I have burnt it; and I am not empowered to communicate the secret to anyone before I reach the age of fifty.”
“I don’t know; but I do know that if I communicated it to anyone before that age I should run the risk of losing it myself. The elementary spirit who is attached to the oracle would leave it.”
“How do you know that?”
“I saw it so stated in the manuscript I have spoken of.”
“Then you are able to discover all secrets?”
“Yes, or I should be if the replies were not sometimes too obscure to be understood.”
(Casanova’s Memoirs, The Eternal Quest, Chapter V)
Casanova first refers to his use of cabbala in his memoirs when recounting his relationship with the Venetian Senator Metteo Giovanni Bragadin. Bragadin was himself something of a sorcery aficionado and, when his life was saved by Casanova from the misdiagnosis of a physician, he was quick to pronounce that Casanova’s medical expertise, as he was only twenty-one-years old, must have its source in some sort of ‘supernatural endowment’. To Bragadin’s delight and astonishment, Casanova, sure-footed as ever, was quick to confess that he did indeed possess some cabbalist skills, which he had acquired from an old hermit and that, in fact, his oracle had predicted his meeting with the Senator. From that point onwards the Senator and his two close friends, Marco Dandolo and Marco Barbaro, were in his thrall:
Thus I became the hierophant of those three worthy and talented men, who, in spite of their literary accomplishments, were not wise, since they were infatuated with occult and fabulous sciences, and believed in the existence of phenomena impossible in the moral as well as in the physical order of things. They believed that through me they possessed the philosopher’s stone, the universal panacea, the intercourse with all the elementary, heavenly, and infernal spirits; they had no doubt whatever that, thanks to my sublime science, they could find out the secrets of every government in Europe.
(Casanova’s Memoirs, Venetian Years, Chapter XVII)
Regularly, thereafter, Casanova exploited his reputation and skill as an occultist and cabbala master for his own ends, either as a harmless party trick to amuse, entertain and seduce, as with Esther, as an entrée into elite social circles or as a way of fleecing the gullible rich, spectacularly so in the case of the Marquise D’Urfè, one of the richest women in France and a woman deeply fascinated by the occult. On his first visit to Paris, for example, his reputation earned him an audience with a young Bourbon princess and cousin of Louis XV, the Duchess de Chartres, who wished him to use his powers to cure her acne. Casanova succeeded, ascribing the success to his oracle, although the treatment he decreed was down to his own medical knowledge and common sense. His reputation as a cabbala master soared even higher. Moreover, the same year, 1750, he became a Mason, there being quite a lot of overlap between Freemasonry and cabbala. On his return to Paris in 1757, using nothing more than showmanship and gibberish, he successfully treated the nephew of the Marquise D’Urfè for a bout of sciatica. Having already achieved some celebrity for his magical powers and having escaped from an impregnable Venetian prison, this latest evidence of his expertise in matters supernatural merely confirmed to the credulous mind of the Marquise that he was the real deal. She invited him to meet her and, as with Bragadin, was promptly snared. Another time, he cured the sore throat of Countess du Rumain, also a believer:
… I resolved on prescribing a ceremonial worship to the sun, at an hour which would insure some regularity in her mode of life. The oracle declared that she would recover her voice in twenty-one days, reckoning from the new moon, if she worshipped the rising sun every morning, in a room which had at least one window looking to the east. A second reply bade her sleep seven hours in succession before she sacrificed to the sun, each hour symbolizing one of the seven planets; and before she went to sleep she was to take a bath in honour of the moon, placing her legs in lukewarm water up to the knees. I then pointed out the psalms which she was to recite to the moon, and those which she was to say in the face of the rising sun, at a closed window.
(Casanova’s Memoirs, To London and Moscow, Chapter VI)
In his memoirs Casanova often gives the impression that he was sceptical about supernatural forces and that his interest in cabbala was purely cynical and self-interested:
We know, as a matter of course, that there never have been any sorcerers in this world, yet it is true that their power has always existed in the estimation of those to whom crafty knaves have passed themselves off as such. ‘Somnio nocturnos lemures portentaque Thessalia vides’. Many things become real which, at first, had no existence but in our imagination, and, as a natural consequence, many facts which have been attributed to Faith may not always have been miraculous, although they are true miracles for those who lend to Faith a boundless power.
(Casanova’s Memoirs, Venetian Years, Chapter I)
It does appear, however, that to some extent at least, he was a believer. He notes on one occasion, for example, how his knowledge of cabbala had not helped him win at cards, suggesting that he was open to the possibility that it might have, while in old age, when alone and not in a position to dupe anyone, his interest in cabbala continued. Ian Kelly also records how Casanova’s papers include thousands of cabbalistic calculations.
He laughed in his writings at his attempts to discover the Philosopher’s Stone, but also credited his faith in a cabbalistic fatality with weighting the die at every gambled moment of his life. Cabbala, its associated disciplines as well as its attachment to atavistic faith and personal self-fulfilment suffused Casanova’s pleasure-principle in living, delineating a path from cradle-side folk medicine to Enlightenment metaphysics.
(Ian Kelly, ‘Casanova: Actor, Spy, Lover, Priest’)
Note: references to Casanova’s memoirs relate to the unabridged London edition of 1894 (Gutenberg project)
Dave Thompson (2017)