The word Casanova is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “a man known for seducing women and having many lovers.” However, the real Giacomo Casanova was a much more multifaceted character. While young, he was also a member of the clergy, and later, he became an inveterate gambler, a military officer, a musician, a prankster, a seasoned traveler, and more. Dozens of accounts of his relations with the opposite sex fill his memoirs, but his self-penned book is also full of anecdotes of dramatic adventures and exploits.
The Early Years of Giacomo Casanova
Giacomo Casanova was born in Venice in the then Republic of Venice on April 2, 1725. At the time of his birth, Venice was considered the pleasure capital of Europe, where social vices were tolerated and tourism was encouraged. Casanova’s grandmother took care of him while his mother toured Europe in theater productions. His father died when he was eight. On his ninth birthday, Casanova was sent to live in a boarding house in Padua, ostensibly for health reasons (Casanova suffered from nosebleeds, and “the density of Venice’s air” was blamed for them).
At the boarding house, Casanova found the conditions intolerable. He asked to be placed under the care of his main instructor, Abbé Gozzi. From Gozzi, he learned to play the violin in addition to the more typical academic studies of the time. Casanova moved in with the priest and his family and stayed there for much of his adolescence.
He was introduced to the wiles of the opposite sex when he was just 11. Gozzi’s younger sister Bettina (who was just 15 herself) “kept him in a continual state of excitement while withholding satisfaction of his passion.” Bettina went on to marry someone else, but Casanova remained a family friend to Bettina and the Gozzis for the rest of his life.
Casanova: The Teenage Years
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Giacomo Casanova showed himself to be highly intelligent, inquisitive, and quick-witted. He entered the University of Padua at 12 and graduated with a degree in law five years later. His guardian hoped that Casanova would become an ecclesiastical lawyer, while Casanova himself later wished he had taken his studies of medicine further. At university, Casanova acquired a gambling habit that caused his grandmother to recall him to Venice when he ran into debt. He continued to travel to Padua to finish his studies, but before he had even graduated, he embarked on a short ecclesiastical career.
Still 14 years old, Casanova became an abbé (a lower-ranking member of the clergy) in February 1740, and eleven months later, he received the four minor orders. In March 1741, Casanova was supposed to deliver a panegyric, but he had “dined so well” that when he was in the pulpit, he forgot his carefully prepared text. Casanova then fainted, was carried to the sacristy, and when he recovered, he escaped.
Giacomo Casanova first learned the ways of high society in the home of Senator Alvise Malipiero in Venice. He was kicked out of Malipiero’s house when Malipiero discovered that Casanova had been taking liberties with a young female named Thérèse. Not long afterward, he had a sexual encounter with two teenage sisters, whom he would later write about in his autobiography, describing how he lost his virginity.
After the death of his grandmother, Casanova later spent a brief amount of time in a seminary. However, soon afterward, gambling debts landed him in prison for the first time. Casanova’s mother tried to obtain an ecclesiastical position for her son with Bishop Bernardo de Bernardis in the Calabrian see, but Casanova rejected this after a brief trial.
Casanova then found employment as a scribe with Cardinal Acquaviva in Rome. When Casanova met the Pope, he asked for a dispensation to read forbidden books, and at a second meeting, he asked the Pope for a dispensation from eating fish.
Despite his holy orders, Casanova continued his liaisons with young women. (He was hardly the only man in the Church embarking on sexual relationships.) When a young lady of his acquaintance (with whom Casanova was not romantically involved) came to the Cardinal’s palace because her plan to elope had gone awry, Casanova directed her to the Cardinal. She was allowed to escape, but Cardinal Acquaviva felt that he had to sacrifice someone so that the Pope and his police wouldn’t refuse a favor that Acquaviva might want in the future. The Cardinal effectively ended Casanova’s ecclesiastical career by telling him that he must leave the Cardinal’s service and, indeed, the city of Rome. The Cardinal said he would give Casanova money and introductions wherever he wanted to go, and Casanova replied that he wanted to go to Constantinople.
In need of a new profession, Casanova bought a commission to become an officer in the Republic of Venice’s military. He was stationed at Corfu, from where he managed to visit Constantinople, supposedly to deliver a letter on behalf of the Cardinal who had formerly employed him. Casanova found military life boring and opportunities to advance too slow. He lost most of his money playing the card game faro and soon decided to quit the military and return to Venice.
Wine, Women, and Song
Still only 20, Casanova tried to become a professional gambler, but after losing all the money left from the sale of his military commission, he was forced to find another source of employment. Using one of the many connections he had made over the years, he found work as a violinist in the San Samuele Theater. Casanova wrote in his autobiography that he and his fellow musicians played pranks on the solid citizens of Venice, but fate intervened when Casanova saved the life of a Venetian patrician after he had played at a ball the patrician had attended.
The patrician was Senator Matteo Giovanni Bragadin, and when Casanova saw the red-robed senator drop a letter after the ball, Casanova returned it to him. By way of thanking him, Bragadin offered to share his gondola with Casanova to wherever he wanted to go. Just after setting off, Bragadin complained of feeling unwell, and Casanova recognized the signs of a stroke. Casanova made the gondoliers stop and found a surgeon onshore. The surgeon bled Bragadin, and the senator was sent home.
At Bragadin’s palace, a surgeon later applied an ointment of mercury to the senator’s chest. This resulted in a fever and increased breathing difficulties for Bragadin. A priest was even summoned for the last rites. Seeing the effect the mercury had on the senator, Casanova ordered that the mercury be removed, and Bragadin’s chest was washed with cool water. Bragadin later recovered from his stroke with rest and a good diet. Bragadin and two of his patrician friends believed Casanova to be wise beyond his years – even in possession of occult knowledge – and Bragadin invited Casanova into his home. Bragadin even became Casanova’s lifelong patron.
For the next three years, while Giacomo Casanova’s official job title was legal assistant, he led the life of a nobleman. He dressed extravagantly and spent much of his time gambling and pursuing women. On a visit to the countryside, one of Casanova’s acquaintances played a joke on him by half-sawing through a wooden plank bridge that Casanova sometimes used. After falling into the muck, smelling like it, and being ridiculed by all who were present, Casanova decided to exact his revenge.
A Practical Joke Gone Wrong
Giacomo Casanova dug up a recently buried corpse, cut off the arm, and hid with it under the prankster’s bed. When the man was in bed, Casanova tugged at the bedclothes. The prankster laughed it off, saying he didn’t believe in ghosts. Casanova tugged at the bedclothes again, and when the prankster reached out to grab the person responsible, Casanova gave him the dead hand to grab hold of. The man screamed and then fell silent and motionless. Thinking he’d had the last laugh, Casanova returned to his room.
Unfortunately for Casanova, the fright caused the prankster to suffer a stroke that nearly killed him and left him paralyzed for life. The religious authorities didn’t care much about the paralyzed man but digging up a grave was blasphemy. The local priest laid an indictment for Casanova at the bishop’s chancellery. Casanova denied all knowledge of the incident, but around the same time, a young woman of dubious background sued Casanova for battery and rape. Bragadin and his two friends advised Casanova to leave Venice. He was later acquitted of the battery and rape charges for lack of evidence.
On the Road Again
Casanova left Venice for Milan and Mantua in January 1748. He had intended to continue on to Naples, but he met a Frenchwoman whom he called “Henriette” who was heading for Parma. Henriette may have represented the deepest love affair Casanova ever had. She chose to end the three-month affair in Geneva, slipping five hundred louis (worth 10,000 francs) into his pocket, a “mark of her evaluation of him.”
When his romance with Henriette ended, Casanova returned to Venice. After having some luck with gambling, he decided to set off for Paris in June 1750. Casanova continued to get into romantic scrapes, and while in Lyon in August, he also entered the society of Freemasonry. Casanova started as an apprentice; later, in Paris, he became a Master Mason.
Giacomo Casanova stayed in Paris for two years. He studied French, met people of note, such as the Marquise de Pompadour and the Duke of Richelieu, and spent time at the theater and watching the ballet. Casanova’s prolific amorous liaisons came to the attention of the French authorities in Paris and cities beyond. In 1752, Giacomo and his brother Francesco moved to Dresden, where their mother and sister were living. A play that Casanova had written, La Mollucheide, was performed at the Dresden State Theater in February 1753. Casanova continued on to Prague and Vienna (where he found the atmosphere oppressive) before returning to Venice before the end of the year.
Trouble Finds Casanova in Venice
Back in Venice, Casanova continued his escapades, gaining enemies and attracting attention from the Venetian inquisitors. His police record grew, including allegations of religious corruption, blasphemy, sexual assault, and public controversy. The Venetian authorities used spies to try to entrap Casanova. When he was meeting with Senator Bragadin at the latter’s palace, on the advice of the inquisitors, the police raided Casanova’s lodgings. Once again, Senator Bragadin advised Casanova to leave Venice.
There was no time for Giacomo Casanova to escape from Venice. At dawn on the following morning, July 26, 1755, Casanova was arrested in his lodgings by a force of 40 police. Not even aware of what he was being charged with, Casanova was taken to a prison known as the Leads. On September 12, Giacomo Casanova was sentenced to five years imprisonment despite the fact that there was no trial, and he was still ignorant of what the charges against him were.
Escape from Prison
Casanova was placed in solitary confinement, although five months later, he was given better food, a monthly stipend for books, and warm winter bedding thanks to an appeal from Senator Bragadin. During the exercise walks allowed in the prison garret, Casanova found a piece of black marble and an iron bar that he smuggled back to his cell.
During a period when he had no cellmates, Casanova spent two weeks or more using the marble to sharpen the iron bar into a spike. He used the spike to start gouging a hole in the floor beneath his bed, cognizant of the fact that his cell was directly above the chief inquisitor’s chamber. Three days before his intended escape, Casanova was informed that he would be transferred to a new, more spacious cell with a view. Casanova tried to protest that he was perfectly happy where he was, but this was to no avail.
Despondent at first, Casanova began to hatch a new plan of escape. He had used his armchair as a hiding place for his spike, and luckily for him, the armchair was moved into the new cell. A renegade priest, Father Balbi (himself imprisoned for fathering three children with three girls), was in the cell next door to Casanova’s. The jailers sounded the walls (but not the ceiling) of Casanova’s cell daily, but they neglected to check Balbi’s cell this way. Using a folio Bible with an overflowing plate of pasta on top of it to disguise the fact that the spike was hidden in the Bible, Casanova managed to pass his spike to Father Balbi. Balbi made a hole in the ceiling of his own cell and then climbed across and bored a hole in the ceiling of Casanova’s cell.
Casanova had a cellmate who was also a spy, but Casanova was able to play on the man’s superstitions to frighten him into silence. Once out of their cells, Casanova and Balbi pried their way through the prison’s lead roof plates and onto the roof. They were aided by a heavy fog, although they found that the drop to the nearby canal was too far. Casanova opened a grate over a dormer window and then broke the window to enter. Using a rope Casanova had made of bedsheets and a tall ladder they found on the roof, the two men lowered themselves some six meters into the room. There they rested until the morning.
In the morning, the two men changed clothes, broke a small lock on an exit door, and managed to convince the guard on duty that they had accidentally been locked inside the palace overnight after attending an official function. At 6 a.m. on November 1, 1756, the two men walked out of the prison. Casanova shouted a destination at a gondolier, and the two men got into the gondola. Once they were some distance from the prison, they changed gondolas for a different destination so that pursuers would be thrown off their trail. Casanova managed to escape Venice, his home city that he wouldn’t return to for another 18 years. Casanova was 31 at the time.
History of My Life by Giacomo Casanova
Casanova’s part autobiography and part memoir is filled with dozens of accounts of romantic conquests. It has been reported that Giacomo Casanova caught venereal disease eleven times throughout his life. However, to focus only on his love life is to ignore his various other achievements. In addition to being a libertine, Casanova was also a clergyman, a gambler, a traveler, a musician, a Freemason, a writer, and a prison escapee. Later in life, he would also become a national lottery salesman who rubbed elbows with nobility and royalty, an occultist, and even a spy.
The manuscript of Casanova’s autobiography, Histoire de ma vie (History of My Life), written in French, wasn’t sold to a publisher until 1821, 23 years after Casanova’s death. Parts of it were first published in German in 1822, and it was soon translated into French. Between 1838 and 1960, all editions of Casanova’s memoirs derived from these early editions. The original manuscript was stored in Leipzig until 1943, still in the possession of the original 19th-century publishing house. Fortunately, it was moved to a bank just before the 1943 bombings of Leipzig during the Second World War. A collaboration between the German publisher, Brockhaus, and a French editor led to the publication of the first modern edition of Casanova’s autobiography in 1960.