If your name is famous or infamous enough, or if it fills some sort of lexical need, it can get used as a term of description on its own. We have been hearing a lot lately about people who are supposed Mavericks, for instance. If you call someone a Benedict Arnold, everyone will know you are paying no compliment. For centuries, lotharios have been called Casanovas, meaning a libertine who has made plenty of sexual conquests. It is only part of the picture Casanova himself gives in his massive twelve-volume autobiography, and most readers (like, admittedly, your present reviewer) have contented themselves with looking for the naughty bits and ignoring the rest. This leaves the stage open for a biographer to take the massive work, decide what can be chipped away to make for a full but accessible life story, and examine confirmatory contemporary texts to inform the reader of context. This is just what Ian Kelly has done in Casanova: Actor Lover Priest Spy (Tarcher / Penguin). Kelly includes “lover” in that subtitle, but he does not include plenty of other categories in which the multi-talented Casanova excelled and which are included in this exciting biography: violinist, soldier, alchemist, cabalist, con-man, prisoner, fugitive, traveler, and the list goes on. Casanova was not always admirable, but he was always enthusiastic, and was a model for living life bravely, if excessively. He thus makes a fascinating subject, and a theatrical one in both senses of the word. Kelly is himself an actor, and successfully concentrates on the theatricality of Casanova’s life. Indeed, his book is divided into operatic acts and scenes rather than chapters, with intermezzi between the acts to explain details about the eighteenth century versions of travel or sex habits.
The theatricality starts right at the beginning; Casanova was born in 1725 to an actress in Venice, a city literally of masks, for citizens were required to wear them from October into Ash Wednesday. All his life, if he was not himself on the stage, he was hanging out with actors, making love to actresses, or traveling with a troupe. His family thought the boy was an imbecile, but an uncle realized that the nine-year-old Casanova had a voracious mind, and arranged for him to be schooled in Padua, where he was a sharp scholar and became a doctor of laws at age seventeen. He thought the church would be a good arena for his ambitions and his aim to travel, and as an abate he delivered his first sermon in the church of San Samuele, which earned him some money in the collection plate “together with some love letters all of which made me think seriously of becoming a preacher.” It is not surprising that he did not eventually find the church a perfect career. He was eventually to make money, a lot of it, as a lottery tycoon; he set up the first lottery in France, to the satisfaction of the government and to his own coffers. He had mathematical skills which were an asset in such work, but they did not help him retain his fortune, which was blown on food, wine, and fun. He was to have less success in efforts in businesses of silk dyeing, tobacco sales, or soap manufacturing, but his mathematical skills served him in his cabalistic efforts. Kelly gives a short explanation of the cabala, the “fusion of Gnosticism, Egyptian mathematics, neo-Platonism, Judaic mysticism and personal revelation” that was to intrigue Casanova all his life. It remains unclear how much Casanova really believed the occult system worked; he was dabbling in it late in his life when it could gain him no fortune, but he had been able to make it pay. This was especially the case in the notorious episode of the Marquise d’Urfé, a rich and mystically-inclined widow who thought she could get her soul reincarnated into the body of a young boy, and that Casanova was just the magus to make it happen. Preposterous ceremonies ensued, involving Casanova performing coitus with the aged Marquise and having to fake two of the three orgasms the ritual required while a naked girl danced around the couple to pique his ardor. He did get his share of the widow’s fortune, but he was always better at spending money than making it. He was to end his days as a librarian at Dux Castle in Bohemia; he did always love books, and it was the time when, slowed by age, he enjoyed his more active days by writing about them. “He became addicted to writing,” says Kelly, “as he had once been to adventure, travel, and sex.” There has always been a question of how much he padded his memoir and how much was sexual braggadocio, but Kelly finds corroborations for many of the episodes, including some that have previously been deemed questionable. It is likely that any errors in the memoir are due to simple and excusable lapses of memory more than to deliberate exaggeration.
There would have been little need to exaggerate, anyway. Someone has toted up that between age sixteen, when he lost his virginity to a pair of sisters, and age around forty-five when he lost his potency, he slept with about 130 women, or at least he wrote about that many. This is not a heroic number, if you consider that it works out to be an average of four a year. What he describes in his memoir is guilt-free enjoyment, and the stories of pleasure resonate for us more than routine porn from the time for a couple of reasons. Casanova knew of men who got pleasure from inflicting pain on their partners, but this disgusted him; he had no interest in this sort of kink, or in being on the receiving end. He had little interest in coercion and almost as little in conquest. He did have some interest in homosexual encounters, but is subdued about describing them. He was repeatedly attracted to women dressed as men, and had a spectacular affair with a girl who was passing herself as a man so she could perform as a castrato on stage. He realized that he had a compulsive interest in sexual adventure, but that the thrill was only partly physical. He was sincere rather than cynical. He liked (theatricality again) the performance, the act of bringing joy and pleasure by seductive play and then moving on. His accounts of his amours are playful and affectionate: “He was a libertine on the cusp of being a romantic,” says Kelly. He did not like sex unless it were linked with laughter, food, and joy. He liked intelligent women, and he liked pleasing them; he much preferred affairs to one night stands, and even his connections with prostitutes were long-term. He remained on good terms with many of the ladies after he had traveled away, sometimes leaving them pregnant. He was careful to keep their identities hidden in his memoir, although researchers have at least in some cases been able to give a name and personal history of some of the women he lists. He did not count himself handsome or well endowed, and he was frank about how he feared disappointing a lover, or losing an erection, or ejaculating prematurely.
In all, Casanova was one of the most fascinating characters in history, and we do him a disservice to use his name as a quick synonym for a mere “lover”. There was far more to him. He talked with Dr. Johnson about etymology, for instance, and stayed with Voltaire, and visited Rousseau, the Pope, Ben Franklin, Catherine the Great, Frederick the Great, and Mozart. He might have contributed lyrics to Mozart’s Don Giovanni; he certainly had a box at the premiere. He enjoyed food, and may have been the fellow who started off the folklore that oysters are aphrodisiacs; Kelly points out that we should appreciate Casanova as a food writer. He made his own way, had an enjoyable time of it, made it enjoyable for others, and then turned out a memoir that is known by everyone, even if not everyone has read it. Kelly’s wonderfully sympathetic but unfawning picture is full of enthusiasm for its irrepressible subject, and it gives a fascinating account of the ways of life and love throughout eighteenth-century Europe.
© 2008 Rob Hardy. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.