Casanova and the affair of Giustiniana Wynne – part 1

 

The first of four posts on Casanova and the affair of Giustiniana Wynne.

One of the various adventures in which Casanova embroiled himself during his second stint in Paris involved Giustiniana Wynne, the female half of an extraordinary eighteenth-century love story (the other half being Andrea Memmo).  It’s a fascinating drama.  On the purely human level anyone who has experienced romantic love with all the doubts, exhilaration, despair and frustrations it entails can relate to the whirlwind of emotions on display in the numerous letters that shuttled between the two lovers across Venice, Paris and London.  Moreover, it gives us a direct insight into the daily lives and preoccupations of the denizens of polite society, the centrality of status, honour and reputation and, in particular, the vulnerability of women who were deemed not to conform to socially accepted norms.  From the perspective of Casanovan scholars, the extensive correspondence between Giustiniana and Andrea, who were both friends of Casanova, allows them the opportunity to assess the accuracy of his memoirs.  In the case of Giustiniana Wynne, Casanova’s descriptions of events closely align with her own, which is pretty remarkable given that Giustiniana’s letters were contemporaneous and Casanova was putting together Histoire de ma vie (The Story of my life) three decades later.  A full account of the love story can be found in the eminently readable ‘A Venetian Affair’ by Andrea di Robilant.

Giustiniana Wynne was the eldest of three sisters and two brothers, born 21st January, 1737, the daughter of an English baronet, Sir Richard Wynne.  Prompted by the death of his wife, in 1735 Sir Richard left England and toured Europe, never to return.  In Venice he met and married Anna Gazzini, a beautiful twenty-two-year-old Venetian courtesan of Greek descent with whom he fathered Giustiniana and her four siblings.  The marriage looks to have taken place after at least several of their children had already been born.  Mrs Anna, who transformed herself into a devout Catholic and disciplinarian, saw to it that her children had a traditional education centred on music, dance and French.  In 1751, Sir Richard Wynne died and the family undertook the arduous journey to London to sort out the inheritance.

In contrast to the rather dubious lineage of Giustiniana, Andrea Memmo, born 29th March, 1729, was of a far purer breed.  Although not particularly rich, the Memmo family were part of a ruling elite, one of the twenty-four so-called apostolic families who were counted amongst the original founders of the Venetian Republic.  As early as 979 there had been a Memmo Doge.  Andrea’s uncle, also called Andrea, had been Ambassador to Constantinople early in the century and had served Venice with great distinction.  He was the family patriarch and it was anticipated that his nephew would be his successor.  Andrea himself was a highly educated and cultured young man, fully accepting of his position in the community and the expectations placed upon him, including a future career in some capacity as one of the leaders of the state.

Venice was a tolerant society in comparison to much of the rest of Catholic Europe but its traditions and institutions of government were deeply conservative.  History has demonstrated that long-term political stability has been a hellishly difficult trick to pull off.  Until modern times and the evolution of liberal democracies it was a rare generation that did not experience violent political turmoil or existential threat.  And yet the constitution of the Serenissima as it evolved from the eleventh century enabled it to survive pretty much unscathed until the intervention of Napoleon in 1797.  It is unsurprising, therefore, that it stuck with what worked.  The Republic was essentially an oligarchy in which all political power resided in the hands of a limited number of noble families.  Amongst themselves the members of this Patriciate enjoyed absolute political equality.  The day-to-day operation of government was in the hands of the Doge and various councils that narrowly circumscribed his power.  The Doge and members of the councils were selected by labyrinthine voting procedures designed to prevent any individual or faction within the Patriciate acquiring too much power.  Given the centrality of the Patriciate to the governance of the state, issues of genealogy, marriage and legitimacy were of immense importance.  Consequently, the lives of Venetian noblemen such as Andrea Memmo were closely supervised and regulated.

Casanova first met Giustiniana in 1752, in the house of the Venetian Ambassador to Paris, Alvise Mocenigo.  He was twenty-seven and it was during his first trip to Paris:

I had likewise occasion to become acquainted at the Venetian Embassy with a lady from Venice, the widow of an English baronet named Wynne. She was then coming from London with her children, where she had been compelled to go in order to insure them the inheritance of their late father, which they would have lost if they had not declared themselves members of the Church of England. She was on her way back to Venice, much pleased with her journey. She was accompanied by her eldest daughter—a young girl of twelve years [she was, in fact, fifteen], who, notwithstanding her youth, carried on her beautiful face all the signs of perfection.
(Casanova’s Memoirs, To Paris and Prison, Chapter VII)

On his return to Venice in the same year Casanova was quick to reacquaint himself with Giustiniana, claiming to have fallen in love with her.  Her mother, however, aware of his dubious reputation, was having none of it.  Mrs Anna would be keeping her girls on a very tight leash.  She was only too well aware that the chances of her daughters obtaining advantageous marriages, and thereby assuring the future security and well-being of the Wynne family, would be severely hindered by rumours of sexual impropriety.

…when I was at Padua, I fell in love with the eldest daughter, but a few months after, when we were at Venice, Madame X. C. V. [Mrs Anna] thought good to exclude me from her family circle. The insult which the mother put upon me was softened by the daughter, who wrote me a charming letter, which I love to read even now. I may as well confess that my grief was the easier to bear as my time was taken up by my fair nun, M—— M——, and my dear C—— C——. Nevertheless, Mdlle. X. C. V. [Giustiniana], though only fifteen, was of a perfect beauty, and was all the more charming in that to her physical advantages she joined those of a cultured mind.
(Casanova’s Memoirs, The Eternal Quest, Chapter VI)

It was also upon his return from Paris that Casanova befriended Andrea Memmo and his two brothers.  In 1746 Casanova had hit it lucky.  He had saved the life of an influential Venetian senator called Matteo Bragadin who believed his rescuer possessed occult powers.  At the time, Casanova’s life was rather squalid and feckless.   Now it was transformed as Bragadin and his equally gullible friends showered him with money and gifts and gave him entry to elite society.  It was an opportunity he was determined to make the most of:

I began to lead a life of complete freedom, caring for nothing but what ministered to my tastes…With enough money, endowed by nature with a pleasing and commanding physical appearance, a confirmed gambler, a true spendthrift, a great talker, very far from modest, intrepid, always running after pretty women, supplanting my rivals, and acknowledging no good company but that which ministered to my enjoyment, I was certain to be disliked…  
(Casanova’s Memoirs, Venetian Years, Chapter XVIII)

And disliked he was.  Inevitably there were rumours (probably well-founded) about the nature of Casanova’s relationship with Bragadin and his companions.  There is strong suspicion that Casanova had been something of a rent-boy.  The Venetian authorities, ever jealous of the standing of the ruling families, paid informants to keep an eye on him and over the next few years the Inquisition files that recorded his various indiscretions grew and grew.  When he became friends with the Memmo brothers, scions of one of the most prestigious families in Venice, the ice upon which Casanova was treading was becoming exceedingly thin.  Andrea’s mother, Lucia, was particularly concerned.  Convinced that he would corrupt her sons, she communicated her fears to the Inquisition, further adding to the case against him.  Eventually they decided to act and, in July 1755, Casanova was sent to prison.  He would next meet Giustiniana in 1759.  However, by the time Casanova had been packed off to Il Piombi (the prison of the Inquisition high up in the palace of the Doge) Giustiniana and Andrea were already an item, albeit a rather clandestine and tortured one.

 

‘Casanova in Paris: The Shadows of the King’ is now freely available here.

27 long form articles on Casanova’s life and times are freely available here.

 

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