Giacomo Casanova

Giacomo writes on the frontispiece of his Memoires, the Latin words:  “Fata viam inveniunt”  [“Destiny finds its way”].  For him, destiny ends amongst the 40,000 books of a faraway Bohemian castle.  Right to the end, he will have protectors who appreciate his way with words, his culture and his spells.  The sweetness of a few former mistresses who have not forgotten and will write to him, too.

And, he will remember.  His will be the most prodigious of stories.  Relatively recent work has shown the authenticity of certain details which had previously been contested, and everyone agrees that the Memoires are a capital piece in the decisive comprehension of the History of men.

So, was Casanova a fiction writer, an historian, or a magician?  He was probably all of these things, and more.  He was a friend, a companion, and a magician who only really becomes one at the end of his Memoires; “a magician from the other side of the grave” as G. Bauer puts it.

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Is his story true?  Casanova has had a lot written about him, and all of his biographers have been careful to verify the things that he says.  In all of the Chancelleries of Europe, and in a number of public and private archives, there is an almost unending mass of documents concerning the Venitian’s life.  A lot of these documents have been compiled and examined very closely.  There are very few flagrant inexactitudes or inventions.  There are a few exaggerations, some errors in dates, and some “embellishments”, which are compatible with the romanesque nature of the hero.

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There are fervent Casanovians who place their hero’s literary accomplishments above those of Stendhal.  Stefan Zweig, the admirable biographer of Mary Stuart and Marie-Antoinette, says of the Venitian that he is “an unique success in universal literature, who has surpassed all of the great Italian writers, since Dante and Boccace…”  His admirers have given this place to Casanova because of his gift for evoking life and imposing on the reader, whatever his degree of culture, a sort of irresistible presence, which is truly magic.

Written in French, the Memoires alone would have been sufficient for his renown.  But he also wrote a lot of other works, notably the troubling Icosameron or Histoire d’Edouard et d’Elisabeth qui passerent quatre-vingt-un ans chez les Megamicres, habitants aborigenes du Protocosme dans l’interieur de notre globe.  This enormous book is much more difficult to understand than the Memoires.  It is a synthesis of Jules Verne, of Robida, and of Wells, and is in all points a successful ancestor of our science-fiction books.  Above all, it shows the author’s very serious and wide knowledge of the state of science at his epoch.

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Casanova cites around one hundred and twenty-two feminine conquests in thirty-nine years.  This is not at all exaggerated for a man of his physique and intelligence.  Without counting his celebrity, which facilitated his enterprises.  It is certain that his conquests would have been even more numerous if he hadn’t often been so fussy.  He did sometimes jump at the first one to pass, but in a lot of cases, he took senseless risks to conquer a woman.  He went as far as financial ruin, and used gentleness, gallantry and perseverance, which are completely unknown to today’s seductors.

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Casanova was born into a family of artists, and will never deny his origins.  He pretended to be the son of Michel Grimani to venge himself for an insult inflicted on him by this Venitian patrician.  That his younger brother, Francois, was the bastard of George III seems just as contestable.  At least, we have no proof of this illustrious paternity.  The Casanovas were born poor, and Giacomo will die poor.

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At 15, Casanova took one of the few paths that an adolescent with no money, no nobility and no protector could take:  that of ecclesiastic.  He took to the pulpit in his native parish of Saint-Samuel in Venice.  He was a success, and the curate asked him to do a panegyric for the festival of Saint Joseph, on 19 March 1741.  Too confident, he prepared the grand lines of his sermon, and thought he could improvise it.  He had a good meal, washed down with copious quantities of wine, just before mounting to the pulpit, and of course rapidly lost track of what he was saying.  The church was packed, and the faithful started to laugh, or to leave.  Casanova did the only thing left to do:  he pretended to faint.

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He also studied Law.  Everyone said that he had almost universal culture.  The Prince de Ligne, who was certainly not naive, assures us that he was “a well of science”.  The greatest monarchs of the century, Catherine II, Frederic of Prussia, the King of Poland, ask him for advice, or for information.  Voltaire houses him for three days, and revises in depth some of his views on Italian literature.

The reason that he didn’t continue with Law after his doctorate, was because there were already too many lawyers (around 250 of them) in Venice, most of whom had trouble making a living.  His taste for women and his frankness were too pronounced for him to hope for a career in the Church.  As for the sabre, he tried, but in spite of the dispositions which he showed, when it came time for a promotion, a young patrician was preferred over him.

The only other thing that he could do to make money rapidly was to gamble.  He tried, and failed.  So, he was reduced to “begging” in an improvised orchestra.

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Casanova only has some success when he meets his first protector.  He is in the palace of the very rich Giovanni Bragadin.  The doctor who is caring for him leaves in the middle of the night, and two very alarmed friends, the nobles Dandolo and Barbero, arrive.  They try to get rid of him.  He refuses to leave.  He says that, if he leaves, Bragadin won’t recover.  He is right.  Using only his good sense and a bit of experience gleaned in military hospitals, he removes the cataplasm which is suffocating the patient.

To be continued.

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