Casanova and Voltaire – part 1

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The first of four blogs on the relationship between Casanova and Voltaire.

One of the most significant individuals in Casanova’s life was Voltaire.  Casanova aspired to be recognised as a serious man of letters and it was Voltaire, the Enlightenment’s great Patriarch, against whom he sought to match himself.  To get some idea of the magnitude of this aspiration it is worth considering Voltaire’s legacy.  He produced over a hundred volumes of published works across a wide range of topics, genres and forms (literary, historical, political, scientific and philosophical), various of them having been acclaimed as masterpieces, and over a hundred volumes of correspondence.  Almost single-handedly he set the Enlightenment agenda of the eighteenth century and shifted the focus of attention from abstract philosophical debate to practical actions that would benefit mankind (it was because of Voltaire that religious toleration came to be regarded as a virtue rather than a vice).  He played a large part in the popularisation of Newton and the English philosophical empirical traditions on the continent.  He was hugely influential in undermining the credibility of the Old Regime and paving the way for the French Revolution (for which reason his body was exhumed in 1791 and moved to the Pantheon of heroes).  His opinions were actively canvassed by Europe’s most powerful men and women.  On the surface, therefore, it might appear absurd to the point of delusional for Casanova to seek to rival this European colossus.  Yet if he did fail to match Voltaire it was because Voltaire achieved so much not because Casanova achieved so little.  By any other standard he was a considerable intellectual and literary figure.

Like Voltaire, Casanova was an accomplished writer across a wide range of genres, styles and topics including autobiography, poetry, drama, science fiction, parody, essay writing, literary criticism, satire, philosophy, religion, mathematics, technology and history.  Like Voltaire, he was a pamphleteer and avid letter writer.  In his last period of stay in Venice (1774-1783) he also wrote his own monthly journal (Opuscoli miscellanei). He did not match the industrial scale of Voltaire but his output was pretty impressive nonetheless, in terms of both quantity and quality.  He is most famous for his autobiography History of my life which is now recognised as one of the great works of European literature.  At almost one and a quarter million words, it is twice the length of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, skilfully crafted, and full of intelligence, wit and psychological insight.  It is also a philosophical work: an examination of libertinism.  In this respect it resembles Voltaire’s philosophical tales, such as Candide, which make use of character and narrative to explore profound questions on the nature of reality and the human condition.  Another monumental work (also a philosophical tale) was Casanova’s five-volume science-fiction novel Icosameron (1788): ‘With an imagination comparable to Jules Verne’s, Casanova foresaw the motorcar, the airplane, television and several other inventions that were not realised for more than a century’ (Mattia Begali, Encyclopedia of Italian Literary Studies, 2006).  In addition, he composed philosophical dialogues (Le Philosophe at le théologien).  He had his own European blockbuster, History of my escape from the prisons of the Republic of Venice which made him a minor international celebrity and, according to Mattia Begali, was ‘one of the most engaging and suspenseful texts of eighteenth-century literature’.  Like Voltaire, Casanova wrote histories, (notably History of the Polish troubles, 1774) and in terms of the use of original sources and objectivity was closer to the standards of modern historical scholarship than Voltaire, who found it difficult to avoid the urge to convey his own vision of the past.  Polish historian Maciej Forycki (Casanova: Enlightenment philosopher, 2016) describes Casanova as ‘a refined observer of political culture and the daily life of Polish elites in the 1760s … an incontestable erudite and philosopher, going completely against the current of widespread contemporary opinions on the subject of Poland’ and that included the opinions of Voltaire.  He translated much of Homer’s Iliad (although a lack of financing meant he was unable to complete it) and, it would appear, he played a small part in the writing and first production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

As well as their intellectual and literary interests the lives of the two men also overlapped in other ways.  Although Voltaire (1694 to 1778) was considerably older than Casanova (1725 to 1798) they were contemporaries whose lives most fruitful period coincided with the high Enlightenment (1730 to 1780).  They were both exceptionally long-lived by the standards of their day.  Neither were born into privilege, although Voltaire’s family were very comfortably well off in comparison to Casanova’s far poorer and more humble background.  They were both very much self-made men.  Both were regularly in trouble with the authorities and spent the majority of their adult lives in exile from their places of birth.  The worlds of both men, Old Regime France and the Republic of Venice, were destroyed as a consequence of the French Revolution.  Both were extraordinarily well travelled and kept the company of the great and the good throughout Europe (including Frederick the Great and Catherine the Great).  Both were jealous of their own reputations as scholars although neither was averse to ingratiating themselves to those in power as it suited their own ends.  Both made fortunes from Paris lotteries: Voltaire through manipulation, Casanova by helping to establish what at that time was the most successful lottery in European history.  Both were businessmen and entrepreneurs (Casanova a far less successful one, for the most part, than Voltaire).  In terms of free-thinking and challenging the social and religious norms of the time both were advocates of libertinism (see God’s Anarchist articles – here), although the Frenchman wasn’t quite such a dedicated practitioner as the Venetian.

‘Casanova in Paris: The Shadows of the King’ are now freely available here.

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

#voltaire #casanova #enlightenment #libertinism #philosophy[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]