Zanetta Farussi – a small, fiery and unconventionally beautiful comedienne, according to contemporary critics – was a stage professional in an age when to be such implied, for a woman, a dual career. Though not all actresses were whores and courtesans, it was certainly assumed that women willing to subject themselves to voyeuristic regard onstage would favour their public in more intimate spaces, for the right terms and billing (Ian Kelly, ‘Casanova: Actor, Spy, Lover, Priest’).
This was Casanova’s mother.
At 16, Zanetta had eloped with, and married, a penniless actor-dancer called Gaetan-Joseph-Jacques Casanova (her shoe-maker father subsequently dying of a broken heart). By the age of 26, Zanetta was a widow with 6 children and a mother to support. You did not have to look far to see the motivation underlying her pursuit of a ‘dual career’. In a battle between clear-sighted pragmatism and moral niceties there was only ever going to be one winner. From the perspective of a young boy, however, this needs-must world wasn’t a particularly warm and welcoming one. He was a sickly, reserved child whose parents had little to do with him. They were, apparently, of the view that he was an imbecile and at the age of 9-years-old Zanetta packed him off to a miserable lodging house near Padua (she was shortly to pursue her stage career abroad). ‘In this way did my mother get rid of me’, Casanova notes in his memoirs in old age.
This Zanetta Farussi, then, is very much the same Zanetta that we have portrayed in ‘Casanova in Paris’ and although the audience encounters her directly only through flashbacks and a monologue she is clearly an important figure in the shaping of Casanova’s outlook, personality and relationship with women such as Gabrielle, Marie and D’Urfe.
Our Casanova demonstrates a troubled insecurity as he veers from bravado and supreme self-confidence the one moment to self-doubt and depression the next. His mother’s betrayal and rejection of him have left him with conflicting emotions. On the one hand, he yearns for a stable and loving relationship, the kind of relationship his mother failed to provide for him, yet on the other, deep down, he fears a repetition of the betrayal and rejection that commitment to such a relationship might expose him to. ‘Love’, for Casanova, thus becomes a sort of chimerical quest. As Marie says to Giuseppe: ‘…it’s the idea of love, and the idea of being in love, which transfixes him’. At the same time, Zanetta’s promiscuity breached the conventional moral norms and ‘prejudices’ (as Casanova would refer to them) of the time, explaining to some extent his own less constrained attitude towards sexuality, the place of men and women in society, and what constitutes right and wrong.
Of course, the complexity of Casanova’s personality, ours and the real Casanova, was shaped by many things and it would be trite to try to explain everything about him by reference to his relationship with his mother. Zanetta played (and plays) an important part in the formation of who he was and, in ‘Casanova in Paris’, who he is, but only a part.
‘Casanova in Paris: The Shadows of the King’ is now freely available here.
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