The action of ‘Casanova in Paris: the Shadows of the King’ takes place between 1757 and 1759. Casanova was only in his mid-thirties but already had enough material to fill several biographies. However, what strikes any reader of his life is not only its incredible variety and richness but its improbability. It was woven through with the most unlikely and curious events, some down to chance, others down to the skill and opportunism of the man himself. For instance, in 1746 a wealthy and influential Senator, Matteo Giovanni Bragadin, had what seems to have been a stroke. Casanova was at hand and summoned a doctor who wrongly diagnosed a heart-attack and treated it as such (with bleeding and ‘a mercurial ointment’) but the Senator’s condition, unsurprisingly, worsened. Despite being a mere orchestral musician, the twenty-one year-old Casanova took charge and countermanded the doctor’s prescription whereupon the Senator recovered and Casanova was acclaimed a natural physician. Bragadin, henceforth, became the young man’s patron and his fortunes were transformed. On his first trip to Paris, young and relatively unknown, he found himself in conversation at the opera with Madame de Pompadour (the most powerful woman in France). During that same visit he commissioned a nude portrait of the thirteen year-old sister (“a pretty, ragged, dirty, little creature”) of a common prostitute which ended up, along with the sister, in the hands of Louis XV. In 1753, Casanova’s love affair with a girl packed off to a Venetian convent for safe-keeping lead him to a ménage a quatre involving the French ambassador, Abbe’ de Bernis. De Bernis shortly thereafter was promoted to foreign secretary and was to be Casanova’s protector in Paris. Casanova was the first man ever to escape from the prison of the Venetian Inquisition, becoming something of a celebrity throughout Europe as a result. Moreover, during his escape, he ended up staying overnight at the home of the local police chief who was out hunting for him. On 5th January, 1757, he arrived in Paris on the day of an assassination attempt upon the king and was present some months later at the assassin’s execution. In the same year he was instrumental in the establishment of what was, up to that date, the largest lottery in the history of Europe and made himself one of the swiftest fortunes in the eighteenth century. And so the list goes on. Cross-dressing, disguises, pseudonyms, duels, espionage, all this was pretty much standard fare for our Venetian adventurer.
Clearly, it is not difficult to draw comparisons between Casanova’s exploits and the theatre. However, surface parallels – the intrigues, the close shaves, the romantic escapades – belie a significance which is both far more profound and more subtle. It was the stage that very much shaped who Casanova was and his perspective of the world and the people in it. Like Casanova’s life, the theatre was a space dominated by the improbable. It is, after all, the unlikely, the unexpected, and its possibility, that fascinates and that creates the tension which is ultimately resolved through comedy, melodrama, tragedy or farce. Without it you wouldn’t have an audience. Within the theatre, of course, improbability is carefully manipulated to generate interest. In everyday life we find the opposite. Predictability is king and most of our energies are spent making sure things stay that way. That is how we keep ourselves and our loved ones secure. Surprises, by their nature, are the exception. The unpredictable brings with it risk.
Casanova’s upbringing, combined with his precocious intelligence, gave him a powerful understanding of these worlds (the fictional world of the improbable and the predictable, real world) and how to draw on that understanding to further his own ends. This is not to say that Casanova in some way stood outside the worlds he inhabited. He was very much a man of his times, albeit a man more of the Enlightenment than the Ancien Regime, as much a man of intuition as of cold calculation, although in Casanova’s case his intuitions tended to be particularly fine-honed. He could be a genuine believer in the cabbala and its powers of mystical revelation while simultaneously using his expertise in its arts to fleece those who believed as he did.
Casanova was the son of an actress (his paternity is unclear) called Zanetta Farussi. She became quite well-known as the leading lady of San Samuele Theatre Players and performed across Europe. She was widowed at twenty-six and to help support her family exchanged favours with men of rank and quality (including the Prince of Wales) – a not uncommon practice amongst the actresses of the time. When his mother was abroad, which was the case even in his earliest years, he was cared for by his grandmother in a poor dwelling close to the Theatre of San Samuele. His life would have been populated by actors, theatre owners, impresarios, singers, musicians, artists, dramatists, writers, costumers, wig-makers, craftsmen, dancers. He would have been witness to the entire art and artifice of the stage, with all its tricks, devices, subterfuges and sleights of hand. He would have seen into the minds of the audience, what moved them, what they believed and what they were prepared to believe. Then, of course, there was Venice. The tourist capital of Europe, with a theatre in almost every parish, with its carnivale, its never-ending festivals (religious and secular), its balls, its masks, its concerts, its operas, its casinos, its magnificent and sumptuous palazzos. Venice itself was very much a world of make-believe, a city without roads, a place of light and reflection, where reality and fantasy could mingle indistinguishably, a place of tolerance and the disarmingly exotic. For Casanova, theatricality was in his blood and in the very air that he breathed. Although he was never an actor he was always very much a performer. It was his instinct to entertain and seduce his company with his charm, intelligence and wit. He did not fear but embraced what was extraordinary or unconventional. At times, of course, he acted recklessly but more often than not actions which to outsiders may have seemed reckless where in fact grounded on a shrewd understanding of risk. Far better than most, he was able to distinguish between dangers that were real and those which only appeared to be so.
In a country in which privilege was part of the social fabric, with an absolute, divinely appointed King at its apex, it was to be expected that the theatres of Paris that operated at the beginning of the eighteenth century had been established on the basis of royal monopoly. In 1680, Louis XIV granted three monopolies: the Comedie-Italienne, the Comedie-Francaise and the Academie Royale de Musique (for opera). Their overt purpose was to glorify the French state although this was in a broad cultural sense rather than specifically political propaganda. The theatres were subsidised by the monarchy who controlled their day-to-day running. Although actors were seen as servants of the crown and expected to entertain at court, nonetheless the profession was still regarded as somewhat disreputable, certainly in the eyes of the powerful First Estate, the Catholic Church. Amongst the various rules and regulations imposed by the state, playwrights required approval for their works from the Lieutenant-General of Police. Plays could not mock the Church, the Crown or people of rank or incite political fervour. That said, plays which were banned did have other avenues open to them beyond the three theatres above. They could be performed by provincial playhouses or, from the second half of the eighteenth century, private boulevard theatres. They could also be consumed privately, especially in salons. One of the most successful and incendiary plays of the eighteenth century, ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ by Beaumarchais was originally banned by Louis XVI in 1778 but became widely circulated nonetheless. It must be remembered that this was a period of increasing literacy. By the time of the revolution half of men and a third of women could read and this would have been greater in the cities.
Despite royal restraints Parisian theatre was hugely popular. From 1750 to 1774 the Comedie-Francaise attracted almost 170,000 spectators a year. The audience would be made up from all walks of life, albeit segregated. Most paid twenty sous (a day’s wages for a labourer) to stand in an open area in front of the stage (the parterre – the groundlings or, literally, ‘on the ground’). Those of higher rank and wealth occupied the boxes at the sides. Inevitably, given the power and patronage of the nobility generally and the French court in particular, dramatists tended to pander to the tastes of the aristocracy, producing classical tragedies and comedies of manners. However, economic development, fuelled by colonial trade, boosted consumerism further down the social scale and loosened the grip of aristocratic patronage. Writers could derive an income and build reputations based upon the tastes of a broader metropolitan audience. Realism, sentimentality, contemporary settings, characters drawn from across the social spectrum were features increasingly exploited to relate to this audience. Some, such as Diderot and Mercier, in this age of the Enlightenment, saw the theatre as a place of education and looked to impart beliefs and a vision of society than ran counter to the rigid doctrines of privilege and inequality. Unlike the respectful audiences of today, Parisian audiences of the eighteenth century were far more voluble, especially the parterre. Bribes to members of the parterre were sometimes paid (by the author) to applaud or (by a rival) to heckle a production. The parterre also acquired a subversive political significance. Their shouted responses to a particular line could highlight some or other contemporary concern and thereby question the authority or actions of the state. Attempts were made to dampen down the tumultuous spirits of the parterre through the use of guards and seating but this received a mixed reception. Diderot commented: ‘Today, they arrive coldly, they listen coldly, they leave coldly’. Similarly Mercier: “No sooner was the audience made to sit down during performances, than it fell into a lethargy…the electric contact between stage and pit has been broken…”.
Casanova and the Theatre of Paris
The generosity of Bragadin coupled with his own business acumen (he set up as a banker at a private casino) meant that by 1750 Casanova had become a relatively affluent young man. Despite this, however, the theatre lured him away to Paris. The famous acting parents of a friend invited him to join them in Paris at the celebrations of the birth of an heir to the French throne. The Balletti family, as part of the Comedie-Italienne, were to play a key role in the entertainment. Casanova couldn’t resist so in June, with a theatre troupe for company, he set off for Paris. He was in his element. Straight away, in Ferrara, we see how easily Casanova could manouevre between the realms of mundane reality and the chimerical theatrical world of deception and make-believe. A dancer convinced him to pretend to be her cousin (for the purposes, unbeknown to Casanova at the time, of defrauding an inn-keeper). He agreed, naturally, and drawing upon his considerable skills of improvisation carried off the role with aplomb.
The centrality of theatre to Paris and the Royal Court and the fame of the Ballettis gave Casanova easy entry into French society. It was the perfect time to visit the decadent capital of one of the largest and most prosperous countries in Europe. Madame de Pompadour was at her peak and the troubles of the French Revolution were still some way off. Casanova charmed all he met. The theatre was an ideal place to socialise and make connections. Noblemen and women, ministers of state, influential courtesans, wealthy bourgeoisie, ambassadors, poets, painters, ballet-masters all became part of his French milieu. At a performance of ‘Cenie’ by Madame Graffigny he struck up a friendship with M de Beauchamp, Receiver-General of Taxes and his wife who immediately invited him to their home:
…we drove to their mansion in a magnificent carriage. There I found the abundance or rather the profusion which in Paris is exhibited by the men of finance; numerous society, high play, good cheer, and open cheerfulness.
(Casanova’s Memoirs, To Paris and Prison, Chapter VII)
The next day he met ‘a celebrated actress of the opera, Mademoiselle Le Fel, the favourite of all Paris, and member of the Royal Academy of Music’. His connection with the Ballettis, his wit and self-assurance quickly got him noticed in court circles. In October 1750 the Ballettis took him to Fontainebleu where Louis XV resided for the hunting season and here, at the opera, he was able to make the acquaintance with Madame de Pompadour herself:
I had a seat in the pit precisely under the private box of Madame de Pompadour, whom I did not know. During the first scene the celebrated Le Maur gave a scream so shrill and so unexpected that I thought she had gone mad. I burst into a genuine laugh, not supposing that any one could possibly find fault with it. But a knight of the Order of the Holy Ghost, who was near the Marquise de Pompadour, dryly asked me what country I came from. I answered, in the same tone,
“I have been there, and have laughed heartily at the recitative in your operas.”
“I believe you, sir, and I feel certain that no one ever thought of objecting to your laughing.”
My answer, rather a sharp one, made Madame de Pompadour laugh, and she asked me whether I truly came from down there.
“What do you mean by down there?”
“I mean Venice.”
“Venice, madam, is not down there, but up there.”
(Casanova’s Memoirs, To Paris and Prison, Chapter VII)
Note: references to Casanova’s memoirs relate to the unabridged London edition of 1894 (Gutenberg project)
Dave Thompson (2017)