Casanova and Voltaire – part 3

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

At the age of thirty-five, Casanova had the opportunity to meet the great man.  In 1759 (the year, incidentally, that Voltaire had published Candide) Casanova was rich, a consequence of the Paris lottery he had helped to found, subsidies from the Marquise d’Urfé and financial transactions in Holland.  However, an extraordinarily lavish life-style combined with some poor business dealings meant that he was quickly burning through much of this fortune.  His social standing in Paris and Holland had also begun to fall, his position made worse when his powerful protector, Abbé de Bernis, was sacked by Louis XV and packed off to Rome.  Consequently, in 1760, after a failed attempt in Amsterdam to raise a loan for the French government, he decided to leave Paris and try his luck in Germany, which is where he visited Voltaire.  He was at this time living at Les Délices, his home in protestant Geneva from 1755 to 1760, beyond the reach of French authorities.  For several years prior, he had resided in Prussia at the invitation of Frederick the Great, but his relationship with Frederick had turned sour and in 1754 he left to return home.  Louis XV, however, banned him from returning to Paris and so he ended up in Geneva.  It doesn’t appear that Casanova had any difficulty in getting access to Voltaire even though at this time Casanova was a young man who had produced very little of scholarly or literary interest.  In his memoirs he comments that, ‘Everybody would give me letters of introduction’.  The precise date of Casanova’s visit is unclear.  Casanova claims it was August 1760 but evidence from Voltaire’s correspondence suggests it was probably May.

“M. de Voltaire,” said I, “this is the happiest moment of my life. I have been your pupil for twenty years, and my heart is full of joy to see my master.”
“Honour me with your attendance on my course for twenty years more and promise me that you will bring me my fees at the end of that time.”
(Casanova’s memoirs, ‘The Eternal Quest’, Chapter XV)

So went the opening salvo between the two men as recorded by Casanova.  Over the following few days he went to dine with Voltaire and Voltaire’s niece and lover, the widow Madame Marie-Louise Denis, along with a range of other guests, while at night cavorting with ‘three nymphs’ thanks to an unnamed ‘amiable friend’.  The picture painted of Voltaire was of an incredibly erudite man who could recite from memory lengthy passages of poetry and who was a witty, generous and hospitable host.   Casanova notes approvingly: ‘He kept up a notable establishment and an excellent table’.  He was astonished at Voltaire’s ability at no notice to recite his beloved Ariosto (Ariosto was Casanova’s favourite Italian poet, and literary historian Marie-Francoise Luna has proven that Histoire de ma vie uses Ariosto’s Orlando furioso as its model):

The great man began to recite the two fine passages from the thirty-fourth and thirty-fifth cantos, in which the divine poet speaks of the conversation of Astolpho with St. John and he did it without missing a single line or committing the slightest fault against the laws of prosody. He then pointed out the beauties of the passages with his natural insight and with a great man’s genius. I could not have had anything better from the lips of the most skilled commentators in Italy. I listened to him with the greatest attention, hardly daring to breath, and waiting for him to make a mistake, but I had my trouble for nothing.
(Casanova’s memoirs, ‘The Eternal Quest’, Chapter XV)

Curious about the world and eager to obtain information from his visitors, Voltaire quizzed Casanova about people he knew such as the Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni.  There is also evidence in Casanova’s account of Voltaire’s voluminous letter-writing:

Voltaire opened a door, and I saw a hundred great files full of papers.
“That’s my correspondence,” said he. “You see before you nearly fifty thousand letters, to which I have replied.”

Casanova, however, also depicts a less flattering side to Voltaire, a man who is ‘greedy for praise’, who loves playing to his audience, who can be fault-finding, sarcastic and disingenuous.  At one point, Voltaire, to a couple of English visitors, claims he wishes he were English.  Casanova notes: ‘I thought the compliment false and out of place; for the gentlemen were obliged to reply out of politeness that they wished they had been French, or if they did not care to tell a lie they would be too confused to tell the truth. I believe every man of honour should put his own nation first’.

Perhaps the most striking feature of Casanova’s account is the exchanges between the two men and a sense of incessant point scoring.  He seems to go to great pains to demonstrate to his audience that he was a match for the great man’s wit and learning, at times even correcting him.  He describes them both being equally capable of moving their listeners to tears through their renditions of Ariosto and several times they have lively discussions on the merits of various literary works and forms.  Here’s an example of Casanova putting Voltaire right on a translation into Italian of the work of the Frenchman Claude Crebillon:

“Read it? I always read prefaces, and Martelli proves there that his verses have the same effect in Italian as our Alexandrine verses have in French.”
“Exactly, that’s what’s so amusing. The worthy man is quite mistaken, and I only ask you to listen to what I have to say on the subject. Your masculine verse has only twelve poetic syllables, and the feminine thirteen. All Martelli’s lines have fourteen syllables, except those that finish with a long vowel, which at the end of a line always counts as two syllables. You will observe that the first hemistitch in Martelli always consists of seven syllables, while in French it only has six. Your friend Pierre Jacques was either stone deaf or very hard of hearing.”
(Casanova’s memoirs, ‘The Eternal Quest’, Chapter XV)

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

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


#voltaire #casanova #enlightenment #ariosto #lesdelices