The first encounter between Casanova and one of the most powerful women of the eighteenth century took place, appropriately enough given their theatrical backgrounds, at the first night of a Lully opera in October 1750. Louis XV had moved to Fontainebleau for the hunting season along with the numerous members of his court plus the many singers, actors, artists and musicians that would be employed to keep them entertained. Casanova had arrived in Paris in the summer of 1750 with the Balletti family, a well-connected Italian theatre troupe, and through them had been invited to Fontainebleau. Unbeknownst to himself (or so he claims), Casanova was seated below the private box of Madame de Pompadour when he was ticked off by another member of the audience for his inappropriate laughter. His sharp riposte made Pompadour laugh and she began speaking to him, his combination of self-confidence, ready wit and poor French quickly making him an object of curiosity.
By 1750 Madame de Pompadour’s influence with Louis XV had made her, after the King himself, the most significant figure in France at the time both politically and culturally. Her favour or disfavour could make or break a minister’s career. It was her patronage, for example, that put the relatively obscure Francois-Joachim de Pierre de Bernis on the road to becoming French ambassador in Venice in 1751 and then, in 1757, Louis XV’s secretary for foreign affairs and it was her displeasure that lead to his banishment from court in 1758. Such was the perception of the extent of her political influence that the blame for France’s disastrous involvement in the Seven Years War was placed at her door.
But it was not primarily in the political sphere that the impact of the king’s chief mistress could be felt. Her interests embraced the decorative arts, architecture, fashion, painting and the theatre, into which she poured huge sums of money. In fact, it was de Bernis’ attempt to curb some of her spending in the light of the ruinously expensive Seven Years War that led to his fall from grace. Her motivation, however, wasn’t purely a matter of personal indulgence and vanity. She was keen to promote French manufacturing. Her spending power and social influence, for example, gave a massive boost to Sevres porcelain and the Gobelins tapestry works.
Pompadour was born Jeanne Antoinette Poisson on 29th December, 1721. Her mother was Madeleine de la Motte and her father, a financier, Francois Poisson (although there is a suspicion that her real father was a tax collector called Charles le Normant de Tournehem). This meant, of course, that the future king’s mistress was not derived from noble stock. She received an excellent and very expensive education thanks to the Convent of the Ursuline Order, private tutors (including famed singers and actors, such as Pierre Jélyotte) and Club de l’Entresol. At 19 she was married off to Charles-Guillaume le Norman d’ Étiolles, bringing with her a considerable dowry, including an estate at Étiolles. It was at Étiolles that she founded her own salon and drew to her a circle of writers, artists and intellectuals including Voltaire. The couple had two children: a son, born in 1741 who died a year later, and a daughter, born in 1744.
Louis XV had been made aware of Pompadour, already a noted beauty in fashionable Paris society, before they were formally introduced at a masked ball in 1745, where she was dressed as a shepherdess (the king of France was a tree) and determined to catch his interest. Within a month, aged 23, she was the king’s mistress and had received an apartment at Versaille and a couple of months after that she was officially separated from her husband. Although Pompadour’s royal wooing and ambition to climb the social ladder was a natural outcome of her education and the expectations of the time, it does appear that she had a genuine affection for the king. They remained close until Pompadour’s death from tuberculosis in 1764 at the age of 43 even though since around 1750 their relationship had been a platonic one.
The paths of Casanova and Madame de Pompadour crossed again in 1757, but this time it was not coincidence. Casanova’s ‘prodigious’ escape from Il Piombi made him something of a celebrity in Paris where he was continually asked to recount it.
Wherever I went I had to tell the story of my escape from The Leads. This became a service almost as tiring as the flight itself had been, as it took me two hours to tell my tale, without the slightest bit of fancy-work; but I had to be polite to the curious enquirers, and to pretend that I believed them moved by the most affectionate interest in my welfare. In general, the best way to please is to take the benevolence of all with whom one has relation for granted.
(Memoirs of Casanova, Under the Leads, Chapter XXXII)
Abbé de Berni encouraged Casanova to write up his account and, after he had done so, passed a copy on to the king’s mistress and organised an invitation for him to meet her. Casanova’s meeting with Pompadour at Versaille was also coupled with an introduction to Jean de Boulogne, the king’s comptroller-general in charge of the treasury, an introduction which was to make Casanova a fortune. Ian Kelly (‘Casanova: Actor, Spy, Lover, Priest’) writes:
When Giovanni Calzabigi suggested a lottery to de Boulogne in Casanova’s presence, Casanova pounced on the idea, added some mathematical calculations of his own, and found himself hired as director of a French national lottery.
It also happened that the lottery would be used to fund one of Pompadour’s projects for a French military cadet school, another reason for her to take an interest in this enterprising Venetian. Casanova recounts this first formal introduction:
At noon Madame de Pompadour passed through the private apartments with the Prince de Soubise, and my patron (de Berni) hastened to point me out to the illustrious lady. She made me a graceful curtsy, and told me that she had been much interested in the subject of my flight.
“Do you go,” said she, “to see your ambassador?”
“I shew my respect to him, madam, by keeping away.”
“I hope you mean to settle in France.”
“It would be my dearest wish to do so, madam, but I stand in need of patronage, and I know that in France patronage is only given to men of talent, which is for me a discouraging circumstance.”
“On the contrary, I think you have reason to be hopeful, as you have some good friends. I myself shall be delighted if I can be of any assistance to you.”
As the fair marquise moved on, I could only stammer forth my gratitude.
(Memoirs of Casanova, Under the Leads, Chapter XXXII)
Note: references to Casanova’s memoirs relate to the unabridged London edition of 1894 (Gutenberg project)
Dave Thompson (2017)