The Early Life of Casanova

Next morning at day-break who should enter my room but the awful Messer-Grande. To awake, to see him, and to hear him asking if I were Jacques Casanova, was the work of a moment. At my “yes, I am Casanova,” he told me to rise, to put on my clothes, to give him all the papers and manuscripts in my possession, and to follow him.
“On whose authority do you order me to do this?”
“By the authority of the Tribunal.”
(Memoirs of Casanova, To Paris and Prison, Chapter XXV)

It was July 26th, 1755.  For the next fifteen months Casanova was to be held in ‘Il Piombi’ (‘The Leads’), the prison of ‘The Council of Ten’, before engineering his dramatic escape to Paris and exile.  He was 30 years old.

Giacomo Casanova was born in Venice, 2nd April, 1725.  Just over a year earlier, his then 16-year-old mother, Zanetta Farusi, had eloped with, and married, a penniless actor-dancer called Gaetan-Joseph-Jacques Casanova (her shoe-maker father subsequently dying of a broken heart).  According to the official family version handed down to him by his mother, Giacomo was the product of this union.  In reality, the origins of his paternity were somewhat less clear-cut: the beautiful Zanetta was known to have had various admirers.  Casanova himself referred to his father as ‘my mother’s husband’.  Zanetta went on to have five more children while simultaneously carving out for herself a very successful stage career. Shortly after his first birthday, the responsibility for looking after Giacomo was handed over to his maternal grandmother, Marzia, while, at the age of 26, Zanetta herself became a widow and the family’s sole breadwinner.  Ian Kelly (‘Casanova: Actor, Spy, Lover, Priest’) notes, however: ‘…before he died, Gaetano had secured for his children an oath of protection from the theatre-owning Grimani brothers, Alvis, Zuane and Michele, Giacomo’s supposed natural father’.

Casanova was born at a time when the thousand-year-old, sea-borne empire that was Venice was no longer the political, military and commercial powerhouse that it had once been. By the end of the seventeenth century it was managing to hold its own against the existential threats of the Ottoman Turks and the Austrian Empire but the current of history was running against it.  At sea, Spain, France, England and even the Dutch were the dominant players, including in the Adriatic.  The Venetian navy and its legendary shipyards, upon which the glory of the Serenissima had been built, were hopelessly out of date.  Their ships were slow and more vulnerable to the Barbary pirates compared to the modern, and far more expensive, galleons of the northern and Atlantic nations. Unsurprisingly, merchants abandoned oared galleys, preferring foreign sailing ships, although the military persevered: the shortcomings of old-fashioned galleys were less exposed over the shorter distances and more benign sailing conditions of the Mediterranean.  From the mid-seventeenth century, Venice did attempt to update its fleet, through hire, purchase and manufacture, but the number of modern warships at their disposal remained relatively small.

Nonetheless, eighteenth-century Venice was still wealthy and, in some ways, thriving.  In 1783, in terms of trade, more tonnage was going through the city than in its entire history, while also going through the city in larger numbers than ever before were the aristocrats of Europe.  This centre of tolerance and sophistication was the destination par excellence in the age of the Grand Tour. Whether it be music, art, theatre, books, churches, sculpture, gambling or the pleasures of the flesh, Venice catered for the most demanding of tastes. If you had money, Venice would help you to spend it.  The state was politically stable and the population as a whole was broadly content despite some internal tensions caused by disgruntled minor nobility.  Most importantly of all, in the eighteenth century it managed pretty much to stay out of the wars that were depleting the treasuries of the rest of Europe.

Casanova grew up surrounded by women in a tiny house in the Calle della Comedia, not far from the bustle and noise of the Grand Canal and part of the fashionable district of San Marco or, when his mother was abroad, the squalid Corte della Munghe where his grandmother lived, in the shadow of San Samuele theatre.  He was a sickly, introverted child whose parents, it would seem, had little to do with him.  Apparently, they were of the view that he was an imbecile destined for an early grave.  His closest relationship was with his grandmother.  He claims to have had no memories of his childhood until he was eight-years-old: ‘The organ of memory began to develop itself in me at the beginning of August, 1733’.  The occasion was his grandmother taking him to Murano to see a witch to cure his worryingly persistent and profuse nosebleeds.  A few months later, on his ninth birthday, his mother packed him off to a miserable lodging house in nearby Padua (a city that was part of the Venetian empire) where the air was regarded as healthier than that of Venice.  In his memoirs, written in old age, he comments, ‘In this way did my family get rid of me’, indicative, even after all those years, of the bitterness he felt towards his mother over the way he had been treated.

In Padua, Casanova received tuition from Abate Antonio Maria Gozzi, a priest, musician, and doctor in canon and civil law who lived with his parents and pretty younger sister, Bettina.  Under Gozzi, Casanova’s hitherto unsuspected intellectual talents flourished.  Then, after almost six months, he got word to his grandmother about how unhappy he was with his lodgings and very quickly she arranged for him to stay with the Gozzi family instead.  For the next two years Giacomo became part of the family, experiencing his first crush into the bargain (with Bettina, who was several years older than him).

The quiet imbecile turned into a quick-witted boy, street-wise and with an inexhaustible thirst for knowledge.  At 12 he enrolled at Padua University to study Law.  Casanova claims to have graduated at 16 but this is disputed.  Historian Federico di Trocchio argues that it is certain that he never graduated whereas Ian Kelly, a more recent biographer, supports Casanova: ‘The Paduan records make clear that he graduated in 1741’ (‘Casanova: Actor, Spy, Lover, Priest’).  In addition to Law, Casanova studied Philosophy, Chemistry, Mathematics and Medicine.  It was also during this time he began what was to be a life-long interest in gambling.

Casanova wished to follow medicine (the grandmother who he loved so dearly was herself a ‘healer’) but was, instead, pushed towards canon law and a career in the Church, which was deemed more respectable, especially for a child from a theatrical background.  Thus, in 1740, dividing his time between Padua and Venice, he became an abate.  This was the first rung on the ladder towards the priesthood and gave him an enhanced status which allowed him access to more elevated social circles, including seventy-year-old Senator Alvise Malipiero.  Malipiero was a grandee and wealthy bachelor who had enjoyed the high life.  It’s worth noting that well over half of the Venetian nobility were unmarried.  This was to prevent the dispersal of their family’s wealth.  It was the custom for only one son to marry and produce heirs, a strategy which sometimes backfired as possibly was the case with the Malipieros as by 1770 the family line had come to an end.  The Senator took the 15-year-old abate under his wing and revealed to him a world of elegance, luxury and privilege that was very much to the young man’s taste. Casanova’s friendship with Malipiero was to end when the Senator, besotted with a sixteen-year-old impresario’s daughter called Teresa Imer, discovered that his young confidante had plans similar to his own.

Upon achieving his law degree in 1741, Casanova returned to Venice ready to continue his church career.  At this point, which was prior to his Malipiero disgrace, his virginity was still intact.  Unsurprisingly, this striking, intelligent and witty young man who had kept company with the cream of Venetian society had not been without offer or opportunity.   At the age of seventeen, his struggle between priestly duty and carnal desire, highlighted by his refusal to take advantage of a fourteen-year-old caretaker’s daughter, was finally resolved in favour of the latter through the intervention of two sisters.   Nanetta and Marta Savorgnan, sixteen and fifteen respectively, were friends with a girl called Angela, with whom Casanova was enamoured.  Using the pretext of meeting up with Angela, who never appeared, the girls invited Casanova to a sleepover where a threesome duly ensued and he was set on his path to becoming a womaniser and sexual opportunist.

In March 1743, Casanova’s beloved grandmother died and the Grimanis enrolled him into San Cipriano seminary where he was expelled after being found in bed with another boy.  Shortly afterwards he was imprisoned in the fortress of Sant’Andrea (where he contracted his first bout of gonorrhoea), probably on the orders of his Grimani protectors to try to shock some sense into him.  Meanwhile Zanetta Farussi, who was working in Poland, looked to advance her son’s church career by pulling some strings in high places.  Her desire was for him eventually to become a bishop and she managed to obtain employment for him as secretary to Bernardo de Bernardis, bishop of Martirano in southern Italy.

After the Grimanis freed him from prison, he left Venice to meet up with Bernardis in Rome.  Journeying to Ancona by ship and then much of the rest of the way by foot, he paired up with a Franciscan monk called Brother Stefano.  Stefano was coarse and loutish and the two frequently quarrelled but, nonetheless, the monk was a seasoned traveller who knew how to obtain supplies and shelter for free.  After an eventful journey Casanova arrived at Rome in November 1743 to discover that he had missed Bernardis who had travelled on ahead.  When eventually he did arrive at Martirano he encountered a see that was impoverished and backward.  It was immediately clear to him that this was not going to be the route to success he had expected.  Fortunately, Bernardis was willing to release him from his service.

During his return journey to Rome from Naples he met the sexually emancipated Anna Maria d’Antoni Vallati, one of the great loves of his life and who was to bear him a daughter, Cecilia Giacoma.  In Rome, a letter of introduction secured him a position under the powerful Cardinal Acquaviva and during this period he even met Pope Benedict XIV.  However, his affair with Anna Maria had not gone unnoticed and he was advised by Acquaviva to leave the Eternal City.  Casanova chose to make his way to Constantinople via Venice, the nineteen-year-old falling in love with a castrato called Bellino en route.  Such ‘musici’ were highly paid opera singers who had been castrated before puberty to retain their unique prepubescent vocal range.  ‘He’, in fact, turned out to be female. There were significant financial incentives for female singers to take the extremely risky course of disguising themselves as men.  Such was Bellino’s effect upon Casanova that he had been tempted to marry her.  Although the relationship soon faded, it did convince Casanova that he wasn’t suited for a career in the Church.  Nonetheless, he was still ambitious and continued with his plan to travel to Constantinople but now, instead of in the service of the Church, he decided to pass himself off as a military officer armed with introductions from the Grimanis.  In Constantinople, his cultured intelligence and education impressed all those around him, to the extent that one wealthy Turk, Yussuf Ali, offered Casanova his fifteen-year-old daughter in marriage, which he reluctantly declined.  His sexual education continued apace, including one homosexual encounter with a man called Ismail.  He discovered that within this otherwise orthodox Muslim society the members of certain social circles enjoyed a freedom of sexual license that matched Venice.

He left Constantinople rich with experiences but little in the way of a career.   After a short and unrewarding stay at Corfu he returned back home to Venice in November 1745.  He was twenty-years-old, broke, and had acquired a reputation for being immoral and irreligious.  In short, he was a disappointment.  He knew how to play the violin and obtained the poorly paid position of fiddler in San Samuele’s little theatre orchestra.  This was a humiliating reversal of fortune for a young man who had had such high ambitions.  Less than a year later, however, fortune smiled upon him in the form of Senator Matteo Giovanni Bragadin.  The middle-aged senator was a wealthy and influential Venetian but also, and even more importantly as far as Casanova’s prospects were concerned, a cabbalist and staunch believer in the occult.  During the period of the Carnival, Casanova had been offered a lift home in a gondola by the Senator.  On the journey, he suffered a stroke and Casanova was at hand to take care of him, organising a surgeon and getting him back home.  The surgeon, however, misdiagnosed what was wrong with Bragadin’s condition and his prescription, bloodletting and a mercury poultice, only made matters worse.  Seeing Bragadin deteriorating, Casanova, a young nobody, audaciously countermanded the surgeon’s orders and Bragadin recovered.  The nobleman immediately hailed him as a natural healer, a part Casanova was only too happy to play, and in a very short time he convinced Bragadin and his two close friends, Marco Dandolo and Marco Barbaro, that he possessed occult powers.

The money and influence of his three wealthy patrons transformed Casanova’s life.  Once again he found himself rubbing shoulders with the great and the good and enjoying the best that Venice could offer whether that be fine foods, clothes, the theatre, women, gambling dens, or books of the most esoteric and illicit kind.  Questions about the nature of his relationship with the three men have inevitably been raised, and were raised at the time, particularly given Casanova’s insalubrious reputation.  Ian Kelly writes: ‘The Inquisition files are pregnant with a couched but pointed insistence that at this time Casanova was something between a free-loader, a social climber and a rent-boy’ (‘Casanova: Actor, Spy, Lover, Priest’).  In fact, it may well be that when Casanova met Bragadin the night of his stroke it was for purposes of prostitution.  Venice, while very tolerant by the standards of the eighteenth-century, nonetheless liked to keep a close watch on its citizens and employed an army of informants to help it do so.  Of greatest concern to the authorities were not so much issues relating to religion or morality, although they were of interest, but of social status, in particular, anything that might adversely affect the standing of the ruling families.  Inevitably they kept a close watch on this young man of questionable reputation who was so dramatically catapulted into the upper regions of Venetian society, noting his various transgressions and dubious company.

Over the next ten years Casanova enjoyed life to the full: gambling, swindling, duelling, conducting numerous affairs and contracting more bouts of gonorrhoea.  He found himself particularly attracted to strong and unorthodox women such as Henriette, a highly intelligent, French ‘adventuress’ whom he first encountered dressed as a soldier and who became his greatest love.  He toured around northern Italy and then, in 1750, visited Paris where he met Madame de Pompadour, immersing himself in the city’s intellectual sophistication, cultured cynicism and sexual freedom.  Returning to Venice in 1753 he met Teresa Imer for the first time since their Malipiero dalliance.  They spent the night together and she became pregnant.  This was while he was having an affair with another girl, Caterina, who also became pregnant.  Too late, Caterina was confined to a convent (where she miscarried, much to Casanova’s horror) and during an attempt to visit her there found himself embroiled in a ménage-a-trois involving a nun, from an important noble Venetian family, and Abbé de Bernis, the then French ambassador to Venice.  For the authorities matters were getting out of hand.  His affairs, his gambling (he was heavily in debt), his cabbalistic meddling, his public mocking of respectable figures, and fears that he was a corrupting influence upon aristocratic youth were all weighing against him.  Eventually the Inquisition took action.  Even then he could have saved himself if he had heeded Bragadin’s warning to flee Venice but stubbornly he chose to ignore his advice.

I was moved to see M. de Bragadin weeping, and perhaps I might have granted to his tears that which I had obstinately refused to his arguments and entreaties. “For Heaven’s sake!” said I, “spare me the harrowing sight of your tears.” In an instant he summoned all his strength to his assistance, made some indifferent remarks, and then, with a smile full of good nature, he embraced me, saying, “Perhaps I may be fated never to see you again, but ‘Fata viam invenient’.”
I embraced him affectionately, and went away, but his prediction was verified, for I never saw him again; he died eleven years afterwards.
(Memoirs of Casanova, To Paris and Prison, Chapter XXV)

(from portrait of Giacomo Casanova by Anton Raphael Mengs, 1760)

Note: references to Casanova’s memoirs relate to the revised unabridged Arthur Machen English translation (Gutenberg project)

 Dave Thompson (2017)

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