Giacomo Casanova was born in Venice on 2 April 1725, Easter Day. He is the son of an untalented actor, but will pass himself off as the bastard son of one of the Most Serene Republic’s highest patricians, Sebastien Grimani.
His mother, Zanetta, has more talent than his father. Her son later says of her that she was a
“perfect beauty at the age of sixteen”.
She shines on stages all over Europe and, if we can believe Giacomo, she brings a bastard back from London, son of the future George III.
Francois, Casanova’s brother, is a painter of famous battles, but is covered in debt. His prodigality is such that only Giacomo will surpass it. Although, it is true that Jean, born in 1730, comes in a close second, and is also a very good painter. His needs oblige him to paint a few fakes, but he ends up as a real Director of the Academie des Beaux-Arts in Dresden, having escaped ten years of penal servitude on the galleys. There is a sister who dances remarkably, and another brother, a subdeacon, who swindles better than he preaches, to complete the family photo of this tribe of strolling players.
The least gifted of them all seems, at first glance, to be Giacomo. Until the age of eight-and-a-half, he passes for “clearly retarded”, as he says, himself. His jaw hangs down a bit, probably because his nose bleeds all the time. To cure him, an old witch locks him in a coffer, deafens him with incantations, caresses him all over, using mysterious balms, and promises him the apparition of a fairy for the following night, as the price of his silence. He is, however, cured of his nose-bleeds.
His love life starts very early. In those days, love follows an obligatory pathway via mature-age people – mothers, confidantes, protectors – who are the only ones who can give access to the distant chambers where young beauties sit embroidering.
Mr de Malipiero is one of these. He no longer has any teeth, but his appetite for young virgins is still intact. This shocks no-one in the libertine XVIIIth Century. Casanova, who is now fifteen and has quite a good talent for preaching, quickly becomes his confidant. The palace is well-frequented, and soon the young Lucia partly abandons herself, while Angela resists, soon to be followed by two sisters, Nanette and Marton, who prove for the first time to our young seminarist that pleasure is greater in a threesome.
Theresa, who is presented to Mr de Malipiero by her mother, is a virgin. As is the custom, he has to pay a few sequins for the pleasure of embracing her.
Malipiero, who pays immediately, goes into furious rages each time that the young lady refuses herself to him, encouraged by her mother, even though she has been paid. Casanova gives advice to the old man, and some caresses to Theresa. He writes that, one day:
“we had the idea of verifying the fundamental differences in our conformations”.
At the most interesting part of the exercise, while they are seated next to each other at a little table, blows from Malipiero’s cane start to rain down heavily, and Casanova, thrown out, loses his protector.
This is the beginning of a flight that will last as long as his life, and the beginning of adventures rich in mystery. Necessity then gives this little low-born Venitian a mind so lively that, soon, he will find himself propulsed into the company of ministers and financiers, princes and kings. Into the beds of marquises and duchesses as well, without neglecting scullery-maids and prostitutes.
His intelligence does not explain everything. He also has a physique, and luck, which are so extraordinary that they are almost like fairy spells. For example, after going to Rome, then Naples, on foot, he comes across a dupe who gives him his first fortune in payment for a fairly worthless secret: how to increase mercury by adding lead and bismuth.
Protected by Cardinal Acquaviva, appreciated by the Pope, he compromises himself – for the last time through inexperience – by serving the interests of a young mistress disguised as an abbot. Acquaviva has to get rid of him. When he is asked his destination, so as to facilitate his trip, he answers the first thing that comes into his head: Constantinople.
He then becomes a soldier, and experiences at Corfua one of the only great, unconsummated love affairs of his life. Madame F., whom he doesn’t name out of discretion, inspires him with waves of sincere love. His passion lasts, and is so strong that it gives him nausea. When Madame F. asks him to wait longer, the waves crash down one night into froth, and land him on the couch of the impure Mellula.
He curses his weakness, but it is too late. The seductress has innoculated him with a disease which keeps him in bed for two months, with no solid foods, drinking herbal teas. Worse, the next day, he only has to look at Madame F. to read his betrayal in her eyes.
He returns sadly to Venice, has himself demobilised, and for the first time, tries his hand at cards. But luck is against him, and he is obliged to find employment in an orchestra, playing the violin.
For consolation, he teases his compatriots, having the bells tolled at two o’clock in the morning, untying all the gondolas on the Grand Canal. One Carnaval night, he even kidnaps a lady – with the help of eight companions – for they had to debark the husband and one of his friends on an island, and row back to a safe hiding-place. Silencing her scrupules and fears, like a true Venitian, the lady consents to allow herself to be deliciously outraged by the band. Fury of the husband. The Grand Inquisitor intervenes, and the little band has to disperse.
To be continued.