During his lifetime Casanova will have witnessed a sea-change in Europe in terms of its attitudes towards crime and punishment. Largely because of the influence of Enlightenment ideas, the fate awaiting felons at the start of the eighteenth-century was very different to that awaiting them at the end. Fortunately for Casanova, who was imprisoned on at least two occasions in Venice in the early part of his life (once at the behest of his guardians, and once at the behest of the Venetian authorities), Venice had long been far more civilised compared to the rest of Europe.
For most of the rest of Europe up until the mid-eighteenth century the outlook was gruesome. Someone condemned to death, for example, might be burned, drowned, hanged, quartered, flayed, boiled, broken on the wheel, impaled, crushed, decapitated, buried or flung from a cliff. For less serious crimes there was mutilation (such as blinding, castration, the loss of the nose, the ears, a limb or an extremity), flogging, public humiliation, imprisonment and fines. And the trials themselves could be pretty brutal. Torture to obtain confessions was common alongside ordeals by water, hot iron or combat to obtain divine proofs of innocence or guilt.
Interestingly, however, much of the demand for such grisly systems of punishment arose not from the tyrannical governments but from the ordinary people themselves. At a time before organised police forces crime was an ever-present menace and there was a general belief that the harsher the punishment, the more effective the deterrence. Religion and superstition were also important motivations, including, paradoxically, concern for the spiritual well-being of the culprit. Physical pain was believed to have purifying properties that would allow a soul to ascend to heaven.
An article written by Dave on Casanova’s imprisonment by the Venetian authorities and eighteenth-century attitudes towards crime and punishment is available to members on the site (entitled ‘Il Piombi’). In due course, there will also be a Pinterest page freely available to everyone.
‘The Prologue’, and chapters 1 and 2 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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