A wonderful example of Casanova’s love of intrigue and his skill at improvisation, especially if it involved a pretty woman, occurred when he was travelling to meet up with Antonio Baletti, a friend who was going to accompany him to Paris. On his way to Reggio Emilia, where he was to meet up with Baletti, he stopped off for dinner and lodgings for the night at Albergo San Marco in Ferrera. There he came across a dancer called Catinella who, as soon as he entered the hotel, introduced him to everyone as her cousin. Without hesitation, despite never having met the woman before, he went along with what he immediately realised was a scam of some sort. It transpired that Catinella had been living at the hotel for two months without paying, having seduced the landlord’s son into believing she wanted to marry him and was waiting for her mother to arrive from Venice with a very substantial dowry to clinch the deal.
Here’s Casanova’s account (he was twenty-five at the time):
I was following the waiter up the stairs, when a joyful uproar, which suddenly burst from a room the door of which was open, made me curious to ascertain the cause of so much mirth. I peeped into the room, and saw some twelve persons, men and women, seated round a well-supplied table. It was a very natural thing, and I was moving on, when I was stopped by the exclamation, “Ah, here he is!” uttered by the pretty voice of a woman, and at the same moment, the speaker, leaving the table, came to me with open arms and embraced me, saying,
“Quick, quick, a seat for him near me; take his luggage to his room.”
A young man came up, and she said to him, “Well, I told you he would arrive to-day?”
She made me sit near her at the table, after I had been saluted by all the guests who had risen to do me honour.
“My dear cousin,” she said, addressing me, “you must be hungry;” and as she spoke she squeezed my foot under the table. “Here is my intended husband whom I beg to introduce to you, as well as my father and mother-in-law. The other guests round the table are friends of the family. But, my dear cousin, tell me why my mother has not come with you?”
At last I had to open my lips!
“Your mother, my dear cousin, will be here in three or four days, at the latest.”
I thought that my newly-found cousin was unknown to me, but when I looked at her with more attention, I fancied I recollected her features. She was the Catinella, a dancer of reputation, but I had never spoken to her before. I easily guessed that she was giving me an impromptu part in a play of her own composition, and I was to be a ‘deus ex machina’. Whatever is singular and unexpected has always attracted me, and as my cousin was pretty, I lent myself most willingly to the joke, entertaining no doubt that she would reward me in an agreeable manner. All I had to do was to play my part well, but without implicating myself. Therefore, pretending to be very hungry, I gave her the opportunity of speaking and of informing me by hints of what I had to know, in order not to make blunders. Understanding the reason of my reserve, she afforded me the proof of her quick intelligence by saying sometimes to one person, sometimes to the other, everything it was necessary for me to know. Thus, I learnt that the wedding could not take place until the arrival of her mother, who was to bring the wardrobe and the diamonds of my cousin. I was the precentor going to Turin to compose the music of the opera which was to be represented at the marriage of the Duke of Savoy. This last discovery pleased me greatly, because I saw that I should have no difficulty in taking my departure the next morning, and I began to enjoy the part I had to play. Yet, if I had not reckoned upon the reward, I might very well have informed the honourable company that my false cousin was mad, but, although Catinella was very near thirty, she was very pretty and celebrated for her intrigues; that was enough, and she could turn me round her little finger.
The future mother-in-law was seated opposite, and to do me honour she filled a glass and offered it to me. Already identified with my part in the comedy, I put forth my hand to take the glass, but seeing that my hand was somewhat bent, she said to me,
“What is the matter with your hand, sir?”
“Nothing serious, madam; only a slight sprain which a little rest will soon cure.”
At these words, Catinella, laughing heartily, said that she regretted the accident because it would deprive her friends of the pleasure they would have enjoyed in hearing me play the harpsichord.
“I am glad to find it a laughing matter, cousin.”
“I laugh, because it reminds me of a sprained ankle which I once feigned to have in order not to dance.”
After coffee, the mother-in-law, who evidently understood what was proper, said that most likely my cousin wanted to talk with me on family matters, and that we ought to be left alone.
Every one of the guests left the room.
As soon as I was alone with her in my room, which was next to her own she threw herself on a sofa, and gave way to a most immoderate fit of laughter.
“Although I only know you by name,” she said to me, “I have entire confidence in you, but you will do well to go away to-morrow. I have been here for two months without any money. I have nothing but a few dresses and some linen, which I should have been compelled to sell to defray my expenses if I had not been lucky enough to inspire the son of the landlord with the deepest love. I have flattered his passion by promising to become his wife, and to bring him as a marriage portion twenty thousand crowns’ worth of diamonds which I am supposed to have in Venice, and which my mother is expected to bring with her. But my mother has nothing and knows nothing of the affair, therefore she is not likely to leave Venice.”
“But, tell me, lovely madcap, what will be the end of this extravaganza? I am afraid it will take a tragic turn at the last.”
“You are mistaken; it will remain a comedy, and a very amusing one, too. I am expecting every hour the arrival of Count Holstein, brother of the Elector of Mainz. He has written to me from Frankfort; he has left that city, and must by this time have reached Venice. He will take me to the Fair of Reggio, and if my intended takes it into his head to be angry, the count will thrash him and pay my bill, but I am determined that he shall be neither thrashed nor paid. As I go away, I have only to whisper in his ear that I will certainly return, and it will be all right. I know my promise to become his wife as soon as I come back will make him happy.”
“That’s all very well! You are as witty as a cousin of Satan, but I shall not wait your return to marry you; our wedding must take place at once.”
“What folly! Well, wait until this evening.”
“Not a bit of it, for I can almost fancy I hear the count’s carriage. If he should not arrive, we can continue the sport during the night.”
“Do you love me?”
“To distraction! but what does it matter? However, your excellent comedy renders you worthy of adoration. Now, suppose we do not waste our time.”
“You are right: it is an episode, and all the more agreeable for being impromptu.”
I can well recollect that I found it a delightful episode. Towards evening all the family joined us again, a walk was proposed, and we were on the point of going out, when a carriage drawn by six post-horses noisily entered the yard. Catinella looked through the window, and desired to be left alone, saying that it was a prince who had come to see her. Everybody went away, she pushed me into my room and locked me in. I went to the window, and saw a nobleman four times as big as myself getting out of the carriage. He came upstairs, entered the room of the intended bride, and all that was left to me was the consolation of having seized fortune by the forelock, the pleasure of hearing their conversation, and a convenient view, through a crevice in the partition, of what Catinella contrived to do with that heavy lump of flesh. But at last the stupid amusement wearied me, for it lasted five hours, which were employed in amorous caresses, in packing Catinella’s rags, in loading them on the carriage, in taking supper, and in drinking numerous bumpers of Rhenish wine. At midnight, the count left the hotel, carrying away with him the beloved mistress of the landlord’s son.
No one during those long hours had come to my room, and I had not called. I was afraid of being discovered, and I did not know how far the German prince would have been pleased if he had found out that he had an indiscreet witness of the heavy and powerless demonstrations of his tenderness, which were a credit to neither of the actors, and which supplied me with ample food for thoughts upon the miseries of mankind.
After the departure of the heroine, catching through the crevice a glimpse of the abandoned lover, I called out to him to unlock my door. The poor silly fellow told me piteously that, Catinella having taken the key with her, it would be necessary to break the door open. I begged him to have it done at once, because I was hungry. As soon as I was out of my prison I had my supper, and the unfortunate lover kept me company. He told me that Catinella had found a moment to promise him that she would return within six weeks, that she was shedding tears in giving him that assurance, and that she had kissed him with great tenderness.
“Has the prince paid her expenses?”
“Not at all. We would not have allowed him to do it, even if he had offered. My future wife would have felt offended, for you can have no idea of the delicacy of her feelings.”
“What does your father say of her departure?”
“My father always sees the worst side of everything; he says that she will never come back, and my mother shares his opinion rather than mine. But you, signor maestro, what do you think?”
“That if she has promised to return, she will be sure to keep her word.”
“Of course; for if she did not mean to come back, she would not have given me her promise.”
“Precisely; I call that a good argument.”
I had for my supper what was left of the meal prepared by the count’s cook, and I drank a bottle of excellent Rhenish wine which Catinella had juggled away to treat her intended husband, and which the worthy fellow thought could not have a better destination than to treat his future cousin. After supper, I took post-horses and continued my journey, assuring the unhappy, forlorn lover that I would do all I could to persuade my cousin to come back very soon. I wanted to pay my bill, but he refused to receive any money.
(Casanova’s memoirs, To Paris and Prison, Chapter V)
‘The Prologue’, and chapters 1 to 4 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.
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