Escape from ‘Il Piombi’

On 26th July 1755 Giacomo Casanova exchanged the pleasures of the life of a Venetian libertine for that of an inmate in ‘Il Piombi’ (‘The Leads’).  His cramped, backache-inducing cell was larchwood-lined, measured eight feet by ten feet and was five feet in height (Casanova was himself over six feet).  The entrance was a lofty three feet in height.  He did not receive a trial, was not told of the charges against him (on the record as ‘a question of religion’) and was kept in ignorance as to the length of his sentence.

He remained incarcerated for over fifteen months, subject to extreme heat in the summer and extreme cold in the winter, was terrorised by large, noisy rats, tormented by flea bites and deafened by the chimes of St Marks.  The conditions of his imprisonment combined with poor diet led early in his captivity to agonising bouts of constipation and haemorrhoids and at one point he became dangerously ill with a fever (for which he underwent bloodletting).  It was nine months before he was allowed out of his cell for regular exercise.  For much of the time he was in solitary confinement about which he comments:

I discovered that a man imprisoned by himself can have no occupations. Alone in a gloomy cell where he only sees the fellow who brings his food once a day, where he cannot walk upright, he is the most wretched of men. He would like to be in hell, if he believes in it, for the sake of the company. So strong a feeling is this that I got to desire the company of a murderer, of one stricken with the plague, or of a bear. The loneliness behind the prison bars is terrible, but it must be learnt by experience to be understood, and such an experience I would not wish even to my enemies.

Initially, he was convinced that there had been some terrible miscarriage of justice and that he would be released once the Inquisition realised that they had made a mistake.  As several months passed, however, without any indication that he was going to be set free, his mood changed.  He began, instead, to believe that they intended to keep him a prisoner for life and convinced himself that if he was ever going to leave he was going to have to organise his own escape, a feat which no-one had ever managed before.

His break came when he was allowed out of his cell to exercise, which he did in the undercroft above the senators’ loggia, and found an iron spike.  Helped by the spike, he worked through the floor of his cell and by August 1756 was close to being able to break out.  At the last minute, however, he was moved to another cell (ironically, owing to a favour won for Casanova by his patron Senator Bragadin).  His attempt was uncovered although not before he was able to hide the spike in his chair and shrewdly insinuate to his gaoler that it was his neglect that allowed the attempt to take place.  Consequently, the gaoler didn’t the report the incident.

Casanova’s new cell contained a prison mate, a spy, with whom he did not get on.  He did, however, by dint of secret messages, manage to join forces with a prisoner in another cell who was also interested in escaping.  He was a renegade priest called Marino Balbi.  The plan this time was not to go down but to go up.  Casanova smuggled the spike to Balbi who hacked through the ceiling (at night-time there were no guards on duty), concealing the damage with one of the religious canvases with which the authorities had allowed Balbi to decorate his cell.  The night they chose to escape was November 1st, All Saints Day, a religious holiday when most of the staff were away.  Balbi escaped his cell then went across and broke through into Casanova’s.  From the roof void above the ceiling they peeled back the leading (hence the prison was called ‘Il Piombi’, or ‘The Leads’) and scrambled onto the roof itself before dropping down through a skylight back into the palace and the locked offices of the Inquisition.  It was now that fortune came to their rescue.  A nightwatchman spotted them and assumed they were courtiers who were accidentally locked in, Casanova having previously changed into the fine suit and hat (‘my exquisite hat trimmed with Spanish lace and adorned with a white feather’) that he had been wearing on his arrival at the prison.  They were thus released and made good their escape from the Doge’s palace via Antonio Rizzo’s spectacular Giants’ Staircase.  News of Casanova’s escape made him something of a celebrity throughout out Europe, a celebrity he cashed in on by writing a bestselling book: The Story of my Escape: from the prisons of the Republic of Venice otherwise known as “The Leads”.

‘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.

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