Escape from Venice

On 26th July, 1755 Giacomo Casanova was imprisoned in ‘Il Piombi’ (‘The Leads’).  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.  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 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.
(Casanova’s memoirs, ‘To Paris and Prison’, Chapter XXVI)

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 bar.  Turning the bar into a 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 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 spent the next two months as a fugitive making his way to Paris.  The first couple of days of freedom, however, were going to be the trickiest to negotiate.  He may have left the city of Venice but he was still in the heart of the Republic of Venice whose police forces and numerous informants were now on high alert.  Casanova and Balbi decided to split up, reckoning that it would improve their chances of eluding capture.  And now we find Casanova at his nerveless, calculating and audacious best:

As soon as I saw Father Balbi far enough off I got up, and seeing at a little distance a shepherd keeping his flock on the hill-side, I made my way-towards him to obtain such information as I needed. “What is the name of this village, my friend?” said I.
“Valde Piadene, signor,” he answered, to my surprise, for I found I was much farther on my way that I thought. I next asked him the owners of five or six houses which I saw scattered around, and the persons he mentioned chanced to be all known to me, but were not the kind of men I should have cared to trouble with my presence. On my asking him the name of a palace before me, he said it belonged to the Grimanis, the chief of whom was a State Inquisitor, and then resident at the palace, so I had to take care not to let him see me. Finally, at my enquiring the owner of a red house in the distance, he told me, much to my surprise, that it belonged to the chief of police. Bidding farewell to the kindly shepherd I began to go down the hill mechanically, and I am still puzzled to know what instinct directed my steps towards that house, which common sense and fear also should have made me shun. I steered my course for it in a straight line, and I can say with truth that I did so quite unwittingly. If it be true that we have all of us an invisible intelligence—a beneficent genius who guides our steps aright—as was the case with Socrates, to that alone I should attribute the irresistible attraction which drew me towards the house where I had most to dread. However that may be, it was the boldest stroke I have played in my whole life.
(Casanova’s memoirs, ‘To Paris and Prison’, Chapter XXXI)

Greeted by the police chief’s pregnant wife, Casanova claimed to be a good friend of her husband from which, for some mysterious reason, she deduced him to be her husband’s superior, a Signor Vetturi.  She informed him that her husband was out searching for two escaped prisoners and that she wasn’t expecting him back for three or four days.  Notwithstanding his finery, Casanova was still in something of a mess from his escape, his clothes covered in blood.  He explained this away by claiming that he had hurt himself hunting in the mountains and asked her if she could put him up.  The wife obliged, herself and her mother duly taking care of his wounds before feeding him and putting him to bed where, from exhaustion, he slept solidly until the next morning when he went on his way.

I made haste to lengthen the distance between me and the place where I had found the kindliest hospitality, the utmost politeness, the most tender care, and best of all, new health and strength, and as I walked I could not help feeling terrified at the danger I had been in. I shuddered involuntarily; and at the present moment, after so many years, I still shudder when I think of the peril to which I had so heedlessly exposed myself. I wondered how I managed to go in, and still more how I came out; it seemed absurd that I should not be followed. For five hours I tramped on, keeping to the woods and mountains, not meeting a soul besides a few countryfolk, and turning neither to the right nor left.
(Casanova’s memoirs, ‘To Paris and Prison’, Chapter XXXI)

Not long after he had set off, just before midday, he heard the sound of a bell from a small church in the valley and saw people heading to it for mass.  Casanova decided to go along to give thanks to God for his good fortune and, to his astonishment, met somebody he knew, a Signore Marc Antoine Grimani (a nephew of the state inquisitor).  Members of the Grimani family (brothers Alvis, Zuane and Michele, the latter thought to be Casanova’s true father) had given an oath to Casanova’s putative father before his death to be protectors of his children.  It was a matter of some surprise and sourness on Casanova’s part, then, when this particular member of the family rejected his appeal for help.  He writes, no doubt with a certain degree of satisfaction, ‘I heard at Paris afterwards that when his wife heard of it she reproached him for his hard-hearted behaviour’.

He had more joy later in the day when, as the sun began to set, ‘weary and faint with hunger I stopped at a good-looking house’.  The house was owned by a Signore Rombenchi who was absent at the time.   Nonetheless, he was given hospitality and allowed to stay for the night.  In the morning, he walked five hours to a Capuchin monastery where he dined and carried on to the house of a friend, an elderly stockbroker who, according to Casanova ‘was under great obligations to me’.  Not great enough, apparently, for his friend, terrified of the Venetian authorities, refused to help.  On this occasion, however, Casanova was not prepared to take no for an answer:

His inhuman refusal produced quite a different effect on me than that of S. Grimani. Whether from rage, indignation, or nature, I took him by the collar, I shewed him my pike, and raising my voice threatened to kill him. Trembling all over, he took a key from his pocket and shewing me a bureau told me he kept money there, and I had only to open it and take what I wanted; I told him to open it himself. He did so, and on his opening a drawer containing gold, I told him to count me out six sequins.
“You asked me for sixty.”
“Yes, that was when I was asking a loan of you as a friend; but since I owe the money to force, I require six only, and I will give you no note of hand. You shall be repaid at Venice, where I shall write of the pass to which you forced me, you cowardly wretch!”
“I beg your pardon! take the sixty sequins, I entreat you.”
“No, no more. I am going on my way, and I advise you not to hinder me, lest in my despair I come back and burn your house about your ears.”
(Memoirs of Casanova, To Paris and Prison, Chapter XXXI)

That night he stayed with a farmer where, he noted, he ‘had a bad supper and a bed of straw’.  The next day he bought an old overcoat, boots and hired a donkey and in this way managed to pass through a guard post unsuspected and get to Borgo de Valsugano in the foothills of the alps and beyond the Republic’s jurisdiction.  Here he found that Father Balbi, disguised by a great overcoat and hat, had already arrived.  They had previously agreed to meet up at Borgo but neither of them had expected it to happen.

Casanova had managed to navigate his way through the Republic but most of his journey still lay ahead and although he was now out of the jurisdiction of the Serenissima that did not mean he was home and dry.  He was broke and travelling any distance in the eighteenth century could always be a hazardous affair.  Moreover, there was the danger that some agency abroad working on behalf of the Republic might send him back. Thus, before he carried on, he wanted as best he could to prepare the ground (and settle his score with his stockbroker friend):

I passed the following day in the inn, where, without getting out of my bed, I wrote more than twenty letters to Venice, in many of which I explained what I had been obliged to do to get the six sequins.
(Memoirs of Casanova, To Paris and Prison, Chapter XXXI)

These, amongst other things, would have been requests for money and letters of recommendation.  By contrast, Balbi ‘wrote impudent letters to his superior, Father Barbarigo, and to his brother nobles, and love-letters to the servant girls who had been his ruin’.

Taking his leave of Borgo, selling his hat and removing the lace from his clothes in order to look less conspicuous, he made his way with Balbi to Bolzano via Pergine and Trento where he met a banker called Mensch through whom he contacted Bragadin for funds.  After about a week in Bolzano they travelled post to Munich arriving in three days, where he discovered that his prison escape had made him the talk of the town.  There he reacquainted himself with a number of old friends including the seventy-year-old Countess Coronini whom he had known in Venice and who was well connected at the Bavarian court of Maximilian III.  Coronini attempted to get the Elector to grant him asylum and although Maximilian was reasonably disposed to Casanova he was less sympathetic to Balbi.  The Countess advised Casanova to get rid of him but, as much as he disliked him, he felt a bond of loyalty.  Fortunately, another old Venetian acquaintance was able to use her contacts to organise a letter of introduction for Balbi to Canon Bassi of Augsburg and in that way get him out of Casanova’s hair.

Casanova remained in Munich for some time after Balbi’s departure.  One of the key reasons was his health which had taken something of a battering.  Another reason was that he was waiting for a bill of exchange from Bragadin that would enable him to pay his debts.  After three weeks of rest and a careful diet he felt himself to have pretty much fully recovered.  As soon as the funds arrived he made his way to Augsburg where once again, albeit briefly this time, he met Balbi who, although everything had turned out pretty well, was as ungrateful and self-pitying as ever.  But that was the last Casanova was to see of him.  Sometime later Casanova discovered that Balbi had resumed his dissolute ways and ended up back in ‘Il Piombi’ for another two-year spell.  He notes in his memoirs: ‘In 1783 he died the death of Diogenes, minus the wit of the cynic’.

From Augsburg, Casanova travelled to Strasburg where he joined up with the family of Madame Riviere who were en route to Paris.  They had previously met in Munich and had invited him to come along but at that time Casanova was still waiting for money and letters to arrive from Venice.

During the journey, I thought myself bound to the expense of making it a pleasant one, as I had not to put my hand in my pocket for other expenses. The charms of Mademoiselle Riviere enchanted me, but I should have esteemed myself wanting in gratitude and respect to this worthy family if I had darted at her a single amorous glance, or if I had let her suspect my feelings for her by a single word. In fact, I thought myself obliged to play the heavy father, though my age did not fit me for the part, and I lavished on this agreeable family all the care which can be given in return for pleasant society, a seat in a comfortable travelling carriage, an excellent table, and a good bed.
(Memoirs of Casanova, To Paris and Prison, Chapter XXXI)

Casanova arrived in Paris with the Riviere family on 5th January, 1757.  That same day, Robert Damiens attempted to assassinate Louis XV.

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

Dave Thompson (2018)

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