‘Casanova’s Life & Times: Living in the Eighteenth Century’ – extracts



1   A different country

2   Giacomo Casanova: 1725-1798

3   Connections

4   The gambler, the duellist and the gentleman

5   The political landscape

6   The Seven Years War: 1756-1763

7   Religious Life

8   The Public Sphere

9   Men and Women

10 The Meaning of Love

11  Casanova’s Lovers

12  What Kind of Man was Casanova?



‘I will leave it to others to decide if my nature is good or bad.’  Giacomo Casanova, History of My Life

This book is part of a two-book project that is centred on Casanova’s wonderful History of My Life, a life woven unlike any other into the story of eighteenth-century Europe. Although Casanova’s Life and Times ranges much further than the memoirs, it has been shaped by the events, ideas and concerns that impinge upon them. The second book explores his intellectual development in the context of the Enlightenment.

Casanova opens a window onto the daily life and mindset of European society, but for a modern audience, at a distance of over 200 years, to understand the man and the place he inhabited requires more than History of My Life alone can provide. European culture; the social networks by which society operated; the Enlightenment; the public sphere; key events such as the Seven Years War; the position of women in society; the political environment—these were aspects of the times that Casanova did not need to explain to his contemporaries. Likewise moral values. Attitudes that seem reasonable today can be misleading when applied to a different era. On-screen fictional representations are in reality people of today dressing and behaving according to the historical assumptions of the twenty-first century. Actions that we may find odious but which were regarded as acceptable or even virtuous by our forebears are unlikely to be legitimised in modern portrayals of character motivation. In order not to offend, the past becomes sanitised.

Running to almost 1,250,000 words and written in French, History of My Life is twice the length of Tolstoy’s War and Peace and covers Casanova’s life to the year 1774. He began writing it around 1789 or 1790 when he was in his mid-sixties, ostensibly to cheer himself up during a period of illness, and was still writing it when he died. It is a record not just of his love life but of what he ate; what he read; how he dressed; how he travelled; his gambling; his duelling; his business and financial dealings; medical treatments; the theatre; the Church; the political, intellectual and cultural preoccupations of the time; and morality. Casanova was an accomplished writer and a tremendous storyteller who loved to entertain his audience, which make his memoirs a joy to read.

1  A different country

‘I have written my history…but am I wise to give it to a public about whom I know only that which is to its discredit?’ Giacomo Casanova, History of My Life

History of My Life supplies the reader with a great deal of information, particularly on the minutiae of eighteenth-century life. Casanova drew upon a voluminous stock of notes, correspondence and administrative records that he had accumulated since his teens, supplemented by an impressive memory. Early scepticism about the credibility of the memoirs has markedly softened. Sufficient corroboration has been unearthed to suggest that we should accept Casanova’s references to particular events unless we have reason to believe otherwise. Fundamentally supporting Casanova’s account are letters; court records; police reports; newspaper articles; advertisements; receipts; passports; descriptions of people, places and happenings confirmed by other travellers. The ageing Venetian is a man who is making an honest attempt to record his life, albeit subject to his own biases and agenda. Indeed it is astonishing the degree to which he is willing to expose the intimate corners of his past to the judgement of others, including incidents which he knows are liable to reflect upon him badly. The old librarian is himself frequently critical, if forgiving, of the younger adventurer. Casanova was an historian and philosopher who treats his life as the subject of rational examination. As his memoirs are a study of human behaviour and morality, it made sense for him to describe in detail his relationships with women.

Nonetheless, dangers do lie in wait for the reader despite Casanova’s openness. As touched upon in the introduction, we may know that the past is a different country but unless we know in what ways it is different, we are likely to apply a modern bias to what we read. To guard against this presentism as best we can, it is worthwhile exploring some of the differences between how Europeans in the eighteenth century experienced life compared to today. Typically we live in societies where our economic and social well-being has been transformed. Few of us have direct experience of scarcity of food, war or the death of a young child – commonplaces for people during Casanova’s time. Life and livelihoods were precarious for the majority of the population; small misfortunes could leave families facing heart-rending decisions. It is important for us to understand what choices people faced. Inevitably we will be guided by values we hold today. However, not only have the material conditions of our lives changed but so have our ethics. We also need to be sensitive to changes in the meaning of language. We may think we know what the implications are of words such as ‘devotion’, ‘honour’, and ‘love’ but there are contemporary subtleties which can mislead us.

We will take a brief look at nine areas in which the conditions, attitudes and perceptions of the time were different to today: making ends meet; pragmatism; law enforcement; violence; superstition; personal freedom; sexuality; medicine; and taboos.

2 Giacomo Casanova: 1725-1798

 ‘At dawn the following day Messr Grande came into my room. Waking up, seeing him and hearing him ask me if I was Giacomo Casanova was the business of just a moment.’ Giacomo Casanova, History of My Life

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

Early life

Giacomo Casanova arrived on 2 April 1725 in Venice. Just over one year earlier his then 16-year-old mother, Zanetta Farussi, had eloped with a penniless actor-dancer called Gaetano Joseph Jacques Casanova whom she later married. Giacomo was the product of this union, according to the official family version handed down to him by his mother. But as far as our adventurer-to-be was concerned, the origins of his paternity were less clear-cut; the beautiful Zanetta was known to have had influential admirers. Pointedly, Casanova refers to his father as ‘my mother’s husband’. That said, his suspicions may have been nothing other than wishful thinking; he would have found the idea that he was the son of an aristocrat rather appealing, and illegitimacy did not carry the stigma in Venice that it did elsewhere in Europe. Zanetta went on to have five more children while carving out a successful stage career. The responsibility for looking after Giacomo was handed over to Marcia, his maternal grandmother, shortly after his first birthday. Casanova’s mother’s husband died when Casanova was 8, and at the age of 26, Zanetta was a widow and the family’s sole breadwinner. Gaetano had worked for the Grimani brothers, Alvis, Zuane and Michele, members of Venice’s powerful patrician class, and had arranged for them to become protectors of his family after his death.

Casanova was born at a time when the 1,000-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 Habsburg Monarchy but the current of history was running against it. Spain, France, England and the Dutch were the dominant players at sea, including in the Adriatic. The Venetian navy and its legendary shipyards, upon which the glory of the Serenissima had been built, were out of date. Their ships were slow and more vulnerable to the Barbary pirates compared to the modern but far more expensive galleons of the northern and Atlantic nations. Merchants abandoned oared galleys, preferring foreign sailing ships, although the military persevered: the deficiencies of old-fashioned galleys were less exposed over the shorter distances and more benign sailing conditions of the Mediterranean. Venice did attempt to update its fleet through hire, purchase and manufacture but the number of modern warships at their disposal remained small.

But Venice was still wealthy, and in some ways thriving. ‘For the greater part of the century,’ notes John Julius Norwich, ‘Venice was enjoying a period of unusual commercial prosperity and economic growth.’1 In terms of trade, more tonnage was going through the city in 1783 than in its entire history.2 The aristocrats of Europe were also going through the city in larger numbers than ever before. 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 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. It was not far from the bustle and noise of the Grand Canal, and was part of the fashionable district of San Marco. When his mother was abroad Casanova lived with his grandmother in the miserable Corte della Munghe, located in the rather less reputable parish of San Samuele. Close by was San Samuele theatre. Casanova was a sickly, introverted child whose parents, it would seem, had little to do with him. They were of the view that their son was an imbecile destined for an early grave. Casanova’s first memory was that of his grandmother taking him to Murano to see a witch to cure his worryingly persistent and profuse nosebleeds. A few months later 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. ‘That was how they got rid of me,’ he reflects, the hurt lingering even into old age.3

3  Connections

‘It was then that the pope laughed so much that he had a coughing fit, and after spitting he laughed some more. “We shall be pleased to know the outcome of this story without the world being informed of our simple curiosity”.’ Giacomo Casanova, History of My Life

So here is our Venetian adventurer amusing Pope Clement XIII. One of the astonishing aspects of Casanova’s life is the extent to which he was able to interact on a personal level with the most important figures of his time, whether rulers, philosophers, cardinals, soldiers, artists, writers or, indeed, anyone of note. He was born the son of an actress at a time when the acting profession was regarded as disreputable and actresses little better than prostitutes. How did Casanova pull this off?

Social networks

Much of the explanation for Casanova’s success in this regard lies in the nature of the society inhabited by men and women of high status. Once you gained entry to its social circles you could move around it with a certain degree of ease. It was a more personal, less institutionalised world, where reputation and codes of respect, honour and reciprocity were important. Proof of who you were and what you did were carried by word of mouth and letters of recommendation. Formal qualifications such as degrees did exist but not on the scale of today. As with all more closely-knit societies, friend-of-a-friend relationships operated as a powerful mechanism through which an individual could obtain initial acceptance into any particular group which, in turn, might open up further opportunities elsewhere. An extraordinary feature of the period was the accessibility of even the most exalted individual. A ball at Versailles in 1745 to celebrate the Dauphin’s marriage was open to the public as long as they were properly dressed. Some years later Robert Damiens was able to stab Louis XV by pushing forward from a small crowd of onlookers. Casanova requested a meeting with Frederick II simply by writing a letter to him. The King of Prussia’s secretary responded two days later telling him when and where. Matters were even less formal with the Empress of Russia. Casanova took a morning stroll in the Summer Garden where she went for walks, and was able to catch her eye (although it is true that his freemason friend Count Panin was accompanying her).

Ironically, Casanova’s first connection with this elite world may have derived from the rather shady origins of his birth. It is possible that his true father was Michele Grimani, a theatre owner and member of one of the most prestigious families in Venice. Casanova’s supposed father, Gaetano, was able to secure the protection for his children of the three Grimani brothers, Alvise, Michele and Zuane before he died. Gaetano is reputed to have been one of the Venetian nobility’s favourite performers, so that might also have been the reason for the Grimanis’ involvement irrespective of whether Michele was Casanova’s actual father. Whatever the truth behind his paternity and guardianship, it does demonstrate a paradox which went back to antiquity: the fascination of aristocrats for public performers despite their contemptible status. Emperor Nero performed as a poet, actor and singer before the masses, and tried his hand at charioteering, much to the disgust of the senatorial class.

Given the high esteem in which actors are generally held today, it is perhaps worth pausing to consider why the reverse was the case. As early as St Augustine in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, acting was regarded as morally suspect by Christians despite the fact that theatrical performance was a part of Church culture. Deliberate falsification was at the core of acting: pretending to be someone you were not, expressing emotions you did not feel, asserting ideas you did not believe. The purpose of the theatrical experience was to give pleasure to the audience, something else with which Christian theology was not comfortable (Christ never laughed, it was pointed out). Instead of inculcating Christian virtues, the theatre promoted lust and envy, inflaming passions that were best kept under lock and key. It subverted respectable social norms, most notably sexual ones. It encouraged prostitution. It offered the degenerate spectacle of men dressed as women and vice versa, behaviour forbidden in the bible. It created celebrities and inspired hero worship, displacing God from the centre of people’s devotions. It could undermine the established social order through unflattering representations of those of high rank. Theatres themselves were castigated for being places of disorder and uninhibited fraternising between men and women. Criticism was directed at rulers who lavished resources sponsoring this iniquitous business, money that could have been better spent elsewhere. It was a long list of charges.

4 The gambler, the duellist and the gentleman

‘I loved gambling … morning and evening I played at the Ridotto and lost.’ ‘I craved a duel.’ Giacomo Casanova, History of My Life

Gambling and duelling were widespread throughout Europe, and although they were practiced by commoners and nobility alike, they were of particular importance to the latter. For the aristocracy they embodied two key values: the rejection of money as a way of reckoning social worth; and honour. Both activities featured prominently in Casanova’s life.

For Venetian noblemen as well as European aristocrats generally, willing submission to the vagaries of chance, in both gambling and duelling, became entwined with character and identity. It became a test of a man’s honour, his honesty, and his self-control, in the face of catastrophic loss. Parallels were drawn with war and codes of chivalry, notably by the controversial sixteenth-century writer Pietro Aretino, a writer with whose works Casanova was familiar. Referring to Aretino’s The Talking Cards (1543) Jonathan Walker notes: ‘a man could gain reputation as much by playing cards as by taking part in battle; card players might resemble duellists as well as soldiers; the vicissitudes of the gambler’s life and fortune were similar to those of the soldier’s.’1 A nobleman’s studied indifference to the outcome of a wager would demonstrate his independence from material possessions. Likewise, his ability to remain composed in the face of death by sword or pistol rather than tolerate an insult would mark his superiority of character to that of commoners. What mattered was blood, not money. The more heavily one lost at cards, and lost with equanimity, the more one’s reputation was enhanced. ‘Debts of honour’ that were incurred when a gambler played on trust rather than with ready funds, needed to be paid promptly if their reputation was not to be tainted. On the other hand, their reputation would be strengthened if they were generous towards their debtors. While losses incurred through the honest application of the rules of the game would be treated stoically, it was not the case if they were incurred through cheating. A nobleman’s honour might impel him to challenge the perpetrator to a duel. That said, there was a relatively relaxed attitude towards cheating. It was treated more as a hazard than a crime, and it was up to the players to have their wits sufficiently about them not to be duped.

5 The political landscape

‘It is a fancy common to all nations; each one believes itself the first. They are all right.’ Giacomo Casanova, History of My Life

 Casanova was immersed in Europe’s political life, mainly as a close-up observer but on occasion as a participant. He seems to have spied for the French government after fleeing to Paris in 1757. Residing in Trieste in 1773 while friends lobbied for him to be allowed to return to Venice, Casanova worked to support Venice’s trading interests and was involved in trying to resolve a dispute between the Venetian Inquisition and a community of unhappy Armenian monks. He had a junior but nonetheless significant role in diplomatic negotiations to avert a war between Venice and the Dutch Republic in 1784. He met the most important rulers, ministers, diplomats and ecclesiastics of his time. He wrote an authoritative political history, History of the Troubles of Poland (1774), and in 1769 a refutation of Amelot de la Houssaye’s critical History of the Government of Venice (1676). As an inveterate traveller he had to contend with the religious and political complexion of the continent. Its shifting boundaries, diplomatic tensions and wars, with all their intended and unintended consequences, were likely at some point to intrude. He used the distraction of a night-time skirmish between Austrian and Spanish troops in Marino in 1744, during the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48), to make a move on the wife of a travelling companion with whom he was lodged. The same Austrian-Spanish hostilities lead to him being separated from his lover Bellino the following year at Pesaro, putting an end to their affair. Travelling to Cologne in 1760, five army deserters fired their muskets at him in an attempt to waylay his carriage.

6  The Seven Years War: 1756-1763

‘The last struggle had exhausted her. I made her do the straight tree and in this position I lifted her up to devour her cabinet of love which I couldn’t otherwise reach, wanting her to devour in turn the weapon which wounded her to death without depriving her of her life.’ Giacomo Casanova, History of My Life

On 29 May 1753, 28-year-old Casanova returned to Venice having spent three years abroad, quickly falling in love with the young and innocent CC. When he approached her family with a view to marriage her father refused. For all his sophistication, high-society contacts and extravagant life-style, Casanova had few solid prospects. CC’s father preferred to wait until his teenage daughter was older and Casanova had established a career. He had CC confined to a convent for four years, to be on the safe side. There she began a romance with 22-year-old MM, a libertine nun of patrician stock. MM became aware of Casanova, who continued to write to CC and would make visits to her church for mass so that she could see him. A passionate affair ensued after MM expressed her interest in Casanova through clandestine messages. MM would escape the convent for an evening, and the pair would meet up at a luxurious casino. Eventually CC joined in.

But there was another party in this mix, a hidden presence who had in all likelihood orchestrated their meeting and who, on the occasion Casanova described above, had watched the two of them make love from a concealed room. This was MM’s influential patron, the man who was later also to be Casanova’s patron, the recently-appointed French ambassador to Venice, 38-year-old Abbé François-Joachim de Pierre Bernis, destined to become one of the most powerful men in France and, ultimately, a cardinal.

De Bernis was the younger son of a noble family that had fallen on hard times. He was educated at the prestigious Louis-le-Grand college in Paris, before moving on to study for the priesthood at Saint Sulpice (hence abbé, referring to his tonsure and black gown) but who had to leave when he was 19 due to the family’s finances. Nonetheless, his noble birth, intelligence, ready wit and affable nature opened doors for him. He acquired some celebrity as a poet, was befriended by Voltaire and was elected to the Académie Française in 1744. The following year, de Bernis joined the entourage of Madame de Pompadour, newly promoted to the position of Louis XV’s chief mistress, de Bernis becoming one of her favourites. At this time the War of the Austrian Succession was in full flow.

Establishing himself in court circles as a promising talent, albeit lazy, de Bernis was awarded the position of French Ambassador to Venice on which to cut his teeth, taking up the post in August 1752. His primary aim was to enhance his reputation in Versailles. De Bernis was a pleasure-seeker like Casanova. Contrary to his claim in his memoirs that ‘the Venetians were astonished after a time to find me insensible to the charms of women’, there is evidence from more than one source to suggest the opposite.1, 2 Given his position, it might not be unreasonable to speculate that his willingness to become Casanova’s patron was in part motivated by a desire to ensure the Venetian’s discretion.

Prelude to war

The key European figure in both the Seven Years War and the War of the Austrian Succession was Frederick II of Brandenburg-Prussia. In the mid-seventeenth century it was one of the larger entities of the Holy Roman Empire and under the rule of the Hohenzollern dynasty. Brandenburg-Prussia was larger than the Electorate of Saxony, on the Electorate of Brandenburg’s southern border, although less wealthy. Like Saxony, its ruler was one of the Imperial electors. It was a composite of territories spread across northern Europe, ducal East Prussia residing outside the Empire in the north of Poland, and separated from Brandenburg by West Prussia. Starting with Frederick William (the Great Elector, 1640-1688) a series of effective Hohenzollern rulers consolidated its political, military and fiscal position. In 1701, as a reward for supporting the emperor with 8,000 Brandenburg soldiers, Elector Frederick III (1688-1713) was allowed to give himself the royal title of Frederick I, King in Prussia (not ‘of’ Prussia because West Prussia was a province under the sovereignty of Poland). Elevation to royal status was an important goal for princes of the Holy Roman Empire, for reasons of power, not merely appearance. In the dynastic interplay of the time, the two were intimately connected. When 28-year-old Frederick II inherited the throne in May 1740, his father had bequeathed to him one of Europe’s best-trained armies and a healthy war chest, both of which the new king intended to make full use. Frederick’s long-term objective was to turn Prussia into the dominant German power.

7 Religious life

‘However it acts, Providence is at work, and in spite of everything else those who worship it can only be good souls, even if guilty of transgressions.’ Giacomo Casanova, History of My Life

Religion is prominent in Casanova’s memoirs. Its rituals, routines and moral exhortations were the warp and weft of ordinary life: baptism, communion, confession, cults, exorcism, festivals, holy days, last rites, marriage, mass, penance, pilgrimage, prayer, processionals, sermons. It was not a surprise that the family of a well-educated young man of precarious means would direct him to a career in the Church; it was respectable and offered solid prospects. But the highest offices were reserved for men of noble pedigree, as much political appointments as religious – men such as de Bernis, who became a cardinal and was awarded the archbishopric of Albi for his services as a diplomat and minister.

The wealth of the Catholic Church was immense and the lion’s share of its profits were diverted into the pockets of aristocratic clergymen, many of whom rarely set foot in the dioceses they governed. The Archbishop of Paris received over 500,000 livres annually (a priest might earn 300 livres a year).1 Unlike people, the Church did not die. Bequests of land and other assets accumulated generation upon generation, century upon century. The Church owned one-tenth of the arable land of France and not only did it collect rents and taxes from its own property but it also benefitted from tithes on all other cultivated land, sometimes as high as 7 per cent.2, 3

It was, of course, the priests on the ground who were the face of the Church for the vast majority of the population. It was they who administered the sacraments, kept the parish records, dealt with civil authorities, organised charity for the needy and oversaw the schoolmaster and the midwife. Priests would often have been amongst the few literate members of the community and thereby an important link to the wider world. Despite frequently being little better off than their parishioners, they were figures of some status who would be sought out for help and guidance in matters secular as well as spiritual. They were amongst those who were the most sympathetic to the plight of ordinary people, spending their lives amongst them and witnessing at first hand the challenges that they faced.

8  The public sphere

‘The true man of letters must be the friend of all who love letters.’ Giacomo Casanova, History of My Life


One of the features of ancient city states such as the Athens of Pericles or the Roman Republic, was the involvement of the citizen body in their governance. They were not democratic in a modern sense but there were mechanisms such as popular assemblies which allowed substantial numbers to have a voice in how they were governed. Through such means, government acquired legitimacy and a degree of transparency. If we contrast this with the relationship between the ruler and ruled that dominated much of Europe in the early seventeenth century, the role of subjects was more passive. The processes of decision-making took place out of sight of all but a select few. Monarchs sought to establish their legitimacy as a thing in and of itself, closed off from the rest of society.

From this emerged what has been described by the influential cultural scholar, Jürgen Habermas, as ‘representative publicness’, in which a ruler ‘presented himself as an embodiment of some sort of “higher” power.’1 This authority was displayed through forms of language, conduct, dress, ceremony, ornament, architecture and other cultural trappings. It was largely through the court and Church that products of scholarship and high culture were patronised and regulated: music, painting, poetry, philosophy, history, theatre. There did not exist other significant independent social spaces in which it was possible to explore human experience, to critique power or to scrutinise how society was organised and managed. Even when theatres were not directly attached to the court, they were places of ‘representative publicness’ where the high born presented themselves as separate from the people.

From the mid-seventeenth century we witness examples of society opening up. This was accelerated in the eighteenth century as the impact of new economic and financial forces helped to expand political and cultural activity outside the court and the Church into what has become known as the public sphere. The global exploitation of commercial markets led to greater demands for capital and for increasing military and political involvement to safeguard investments. In addition, European rulers were engaged in costly wars on the continent. To supply the necessary resources meant going beyond traditional taxation and borrowing arrangements. It required better systems of tax collection to ensure a reliable source of income which, in turn, required professional bureaucracies. On top of this was the impulse amongst monarchs to centralise power more generally. The character of government consequently became less aristocratic and territorial. Much control over matters such as finance, administration, employment practices, the law and the military were previously embodied in rights held locally by nobles, the Church, town corporations, trade guilds or people who owned offices purchased from the crown. The resulting more depersonalised state apparatus constituted a public authority, with the public defined as those citizens who were subject to the power of state officials. It also signalled the emergence of the state as an entity separate from the person of the ruler, and the notion of the law as separate from the authority of the ruler. These changes facilitated the development of the public sphere and its institutions, such as the press and voluntary associations, which evolved independently from the state and the Church. In short, the public sphere grew out of the relationships between private individuals, whose number and importance increased as economies expanded, in part stimulated by overseas trade.

9  Men and women

‘Sorrow and joy kill more women than men. This shows that women are more sensitive than us but also weaker.’ Giacomo Casanova, History of My Life

Casanova’s life was about more than his relationships with women but nonetheless they were a central part and form the bulk of his memoirs. He details at length how those relationships unfolded, alongside his intentions, regrets, emotions, rationalisations and psychological insights. But before moving on to describe them, it would be useful to outline something of the experience of men and women in the eighteenth century. This should give us a better insight into the nature of those relationships generally, as well as into the perspective of women in particular.

Gendered beliefs and values

Most women lived under the authority of a male guardian (father, husband, brother, master, patron) who had the power to confine them to their own houses or incarcerate them in madhouses and convents. During their lifetime they would have to adjust to this authority being passed from one man to another, a transfer that no doubt reinforced the sense that they were an object to be owned. It is worth remembering that in eighteenth-century Europe people could, in fact, be owned. The idea of women as property was not an abstract one.

Casanova purchased a girl he named Zaire when he visited Russia. She was a peasant girl he bought from her parents for 100 roubles after checking with his hand that she was still a virgin. Checking a girl’s virginity in this way was a practice Casanova records several times in his memoirs (and not only with girls of the lowest status). He notes that Louis XV did the same when meeting O-Morphi for the first time. O-Morphi was a girl Casanova claims he was instrumental in introducing to Louis, and she was the subject of a well-known painting by François Boucher called Resting Girl (1752). Having bought Zaire, as well as her becoming his servant, Casanova records that it gave him the right to go to bed with her.

This selling of daughters was not restricted to Russia. Jean-Jacques Rousseau and a friend bought a girl called Anzoletta from her mother in Venice. She was 11 or 12. Their plan was to use her for sex when she matured. For destitute families who were half-starved for most of the time, prostituting their daughters, or even selling them, was not unusual. In England, there existed the custom of wife sales, when a husband would auction his spouse at a market, and in this way publicly dissolve their marriage. While we have to be cautious when teasing apart emotional, sexual and metaphorical meanings in his memoirs, Casanova does at times refer to women in a manner that conveys an impression of physical ownership and rightful entitlement.

Despite the major changes that were taking place in European society, there were dominant continuities in attitudes regarding men and women and their expected roles. Anomalies existed, of course, and some contested the beliefs and practices of the time but there was a pattern of gendered difference that remained broadly unchanged from prior to the eighteenth century and beyond. Men dominated the formal structures and institutions of society and were the final authority in families and households. They were the artisans, bureaucrats, courtiers, managers, politicians, priests, professionals and scholars. The identity of men was more closely tied to their occupation than that of women. Men populated the better paid jobs and this tended to be the case even in sectors dominated by women or where men and women did the same work. Women were perceived to be driven more by their emotions, to be more sensitive and intuitive, and, although imaginative and quick-witted, less capable of profound thought. Qualities associated with the female ideal included among other things compassion, chastity, humility, tenderness, devotion and agreeableness. Men, on the other hand, were considered not only physically superior but mentally superior. Defining positive characteristics for men included courage, ambition, determination and gravitas, with male strength contrasted against female fragility. Women’s primary functions as wives and mothers shaped what activities were deemed the most appropriate for them in the wider socio-economic world. Attending to the health and well-being of other members of their household legitimised their place in society as domestic servants, textile workers, medical practitioners, nurses, teachers and providers of charity and poor relief. It was also the case that the household responsibilities of women were more varied than was to be the case after the eighteenth century. They might include brewing, spinning and caring for livestock.

10  The meaning of love

‘As regards to women…when love gets involved, both sides are usually dupes.’ Giacomo Casanova, History of My Life

 What did Casanova understand by the word ‘love’? He describes it as ‘a kind of madness’, ‘a sickness’, ‘incurable’, ‘a divine monster which can only be defined by paradoxes!’1 This is something but it does not really take us very far. What was it for him to ‘love’ a woman? Did he understand romantic love to mean the same thing as it does for us? This is an important question if we are to avoid oversimplifying and perhaps becoming unduly cynical about his relationships with women.

First of all, let us start by getting an idea of what we are dealing with. Casanova had romantic and sexual encounters with scores of women, recorded and unrecorded. His memoirs refer to more than 130. Many of these are entirely anonymous, such as the twenty or more workers at his silk fabric workshop or the seamstresses at Casopo. The majority of women are identified with a name or label of some sort, such as Miss XCV (his code for Giustiniana Wynne). But we still have to be cautious. Casanova names five Hanoverian sisters with whom he had affairs. It turns out that two of the siblings were male. Make of that what you will. Then there is his undeclared love for the Duchess de Chartres. Should she be counted? Bearing that caveat in mind, by my estimation we are dealing with a ballpark figure of around 100 named or pseudo-named women who make up relationships which included those most significant to him in some way or other. Of these, he claims to the reader (as distinct to what he declared to the women themselves) to have been in love with just under half. On at least half-a-dozen occasions this love was unconsummated.

Other information worth having is how long these relationships lasted. Again, the answer is not precise. In the very large majority of cases, Casanova provides enough information to make it possible to work out the approximate length of his affairs but not always. A small number of the relationships were intermittent and extended over a period of years; brief resurrections as a result of chance. This was the case with Bellino, Donna Lucrezia and Teresa Imer. That said, just over a third of Casanova’s encounters lasted a week or less; just under a third were one to four weeks; about a dozen were one to two months; half-a-dozen were two to three months, and a similar number were three to four months. Outliers included Mimi in Paris (six months), Miss XCV (six months), MM (a year) and Manon (two and a half years). For relationships that lasted a week or less, Casanova does not claim to have been in love (perhaps with the exception of the Greek slave girl in Ancona). Beyond that there are plenty of relationships of less than two or three weeks for which Casanova does claim to have been in love, such as with the caretaker’s daughter, Lucia, or the peasant, Cristina.

11  Casanova’s lovers

‘My housekeeper was too attractive and too intelligent. It was impossible for me not to fall in love with her.’ Giacomo Casanova, History of My Life

Eighteenth-century Europe was a world of prerogatives, ones defined by your position in society. Nobles protested against the government’s attack on ‘liberties’ in the political tensions prior to the French Revolution. These nobles were not referring to broad liberties as we might understand them today, such as freedom of expression, movement or association, but specific privileges, such as tax exemptions. This mentality of exceptional rights extended to a sense of male sexual entitlement over women. In the case of husbands, this was legally enshrined. In the case of the unmarried Casanova, it took the form of a strong expectation, and one which seems to have been covertly endorsed by much of society—men and women—at least in the circles Casanova frequented.

Women as a form of property and sex as a form of transactional exchange, no doubt fed into this mentality. Casanova’s new housekeeper at Soleure, Madame Dubois, complains about Casanova’s manservant Leduc: ‘He wanted to kiss me, I refused, and he, believing it was his right, became a little insolent.’1 Casanova records several instances of high-status men who were perplexed and indignant when women of lower status declined to go to bed with them. The beautiful daughters of an impoverished aristocratic family living in London were regarded as ‘fanatics’ (excessively pious) for refusing to sleep with wealthy noblemen. In Avignon, the wealthy Marchese Grimaldi bemoans his failure to make headway with an adventuress called Madame Stuard: ‘Given her poverty her attitude astounds me…it’s a phenomenon that I can’t explain.’2 For Casanova, the strength of his sense of sexual expectation was strongly influenced by the status of the woman concerned. It shaped the manner of his initial overtures and the nature of the on-going relationship. An illuminating case study is Casanova’s affair with Henriette.

12 What kind of man was Casanova?

‘As far as I am concerned, always recognizing myself as the principal cause of all the misfortunes that have befallen me, I have congratulated myself on being my own pupil and acknowledging my duty to love my teacher.’ Giacomo Casanova, History of My Life

Few of us are able to remain consistent as we manoeuvre through life, our behaviours and beliefs occasionally falling out of tune with each other in the face of events. The best that most of us can do is set ourselves broad parameters that we try to respect, but even those parameters shift as we age, change, recognise our insuperable biases, and encounter the unanticipated. There is, of course, a temptation to use our powers of rationalisation and selective memory to gloss our more egregious inconsistencies, especially ones that might trouble our conscience or our sense of who we are. This is a temptation to which autobiographers and writers of memoirs are prone, sensitive to projecting a coherent and defensible portrayal of who they are and how they came to be that person. They search for forks in the road and explain why they chose to travel one way rather than the other. Those explanations will incorporate their own agency, the agency of others, of society, its institutions, as well as of God and the metaphysical. Autobiographers, like all story-tellers, will construct lines of narrative through which this agency will flow. Chance will also play a part but this feels less satisfactory. Humans are meaning seekers, alert to intentions. With chance, the trail goes cold. This preference for narrative and agency encourages people to look deeper and further, and to diminish the significance of coincidence.

It is one of the striking features of Casanova, in contrast, that he is able to resist this temptation. Casanova refers to fate but so little does he read into it that it is no more than a synonym for chance. Likewise, although Casanova does not rule out notions of destiny and providence, he regards them, if they do exist, as inscrutable. He believes he has a daemon that at times has kept him out of trouble (and, more rarely, gets him into it) but in the grand scheme of his life its significance was minor. Casanova embraces a qualified form of free will, rejecting the idea that the course of his existence is pre-determined.



Casanova’s Life & Times

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