Early Life

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Jean-Jacques, chevalier de Seingalt, whose other name, Casanova, would become synonymous with the bon vivant and sexually proficient man, was a sickly child who was considered mentally deficient by his parents. He suffered from debilitating nosebleeds and was so unresponsive that he did not speak until he was eight years old. His parents made no secret of their wish that he would die.

Casanova was born in Venice, Italy, the eldest son of a Venetian actor of Spanish descent and Zanetta, the leading lady in the Comici Italian troupe of comic actors. His father died when Casanova was very young, and soon after, Zanetta abandoned the young Casanova, his three brothers, and two sisters, leaving them with strangers while she toured Verona, St. Petersburg, and Dresden. After she left, she seldom saw the children, and little is known of Casanova’s siblings.

After the death of his father and in his mother’s absence, Casanova began to flourish academically and was sent to boarding school at Padua, where he studied law, although he wished to become a doctor. In his memoirs, he proudly claims that while at school, he experienced his first sexual encounter at age eleven and found his second love, the gaming tables. He soon lost his money, began gambling on credit, and wrote his grandmother for additional funds. Instead of sending the money, Casanova’s grandmother whisked him home to Venice and placed him in an abbey school in the hope that the church would alter his less than reputable passions. At age fifteen, Casanova had received three minor orders from the church, been introduced into society by his patron, and acquired the social graces that would serve him well throughout the remainder of his life. He excelled in his studies and was allowed to preach two sermons, but during the second sermon, it became obvious that he was not sober, and he was dismissed from the program. Thanks to the intercession of his patron, he was transferred to a seminary but shortly was expelled for a sexual tryst.

Because he obviously was not cut from clerical cloth, Casanova’s next foray into the professional world was the Venetian army, which he entered as an ensign. This, too, proved to be a less than ideal choice; he resigned the post in 1745. Seeking a less structured position, he began to play the fiddle in a theater orchestra. During an evening performance, one of the theater patrons became ill, and Casanova, claiming to be schooled in the medicinal arts, saved the man’s life. The gentleman was Senator Bragadin, a wealthy and influential politician, who showed his gratitude by moving Casanova into his home and his social circle and becoming his patron. After many false starts, Casanova had found his niche in the world and realized his true calling, which was to be supported and valued merely by virtue of being himself.

Life’s Work

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During his years at Bragadin’s home, Casanova’s main source of revenue was gambling, naturally with the senator’s money. He reveled in his new social position, charmed the haut monde of the region, and dazzled all he met with his rugged good looks and the high energy that seemed to radiate from his person. He was tall, unusually strong, and dark complected. His face bore several smallpox scars, and he had a high forehead, a long nose, a soft chin, large eyes, and full lips. He was a born orator, a good listener, and generous to a fault, particularly if the source of the generosity was not his own funds.

Although he was obviously educated, Casanova used his knowledge for nothing more than to sparkle in conversation in the attempt to impress the wealthy and well connected now drawn to his circle. His energy was without bounds but undirected; he was intelligent but lacked the power of concentration. Within this new social sphere, his hedonism and narcissism flourished, and although he entertained everyone he met with his wit and carpe diem philosophy, he also exploited them. In the fluid social milieu of eighteenth century Europe, knowledge was a ticket to fame and fortune, and Casanova had a demonstrable talent for always being in the right place at the right time and with the proper witticisms.

Casanova’s actions caught the attention of the police, who noted that the young man’s libertine excesses had nearly ruined Senator Bragadin. Under the noted rogue’s tutelage, the senator had acquired an interest in magic and the occult. In addition, Casanova had penned satirical and, by some accounts, atheistic poetry and was well-known for his gambling and sexual conquests. With little provocation, the police raided Casanova’s quarters, discovered books on magic, and, accompanied by forty archers, arrested him. Uninformed of the charges against him, which included bewitching Bragadin and being a corrupter of youth, and without benefit of trial, Casanova was escorted to Piombi prison under the roof of the Doges’ Palace in Venice. The inquisitors of state sentenced him to a prison stay of five years. Casanova found prison less suited to his appetites than the church or the military, and he immediately began plotting an escape. With the aid of a cellmate, a monk called Balbi, the enterprising young man dug his way out and left Venice for almost twenty years.

Employing the graces he had acquired during his time at the senator’s and his expertise as a “lover of women,” Casanova traveled extensively in Europe, floating from one patron or patroness to another and increasing his circle of influence. During this period, he conversed with Voltaire, George III, and Catherine the Great and became a favorite of the upper classes. He wrote novels, plays, and scholarly treatises and dabbled in finance, organizing a national lottery in Holland.

Although successful by his standards, Casanova longed to return to his beloved Venice. Through his connections, he gained a reprieve on the condition that he would return as a secret agent, which he did, serving from 1774 to 1782. After twenty years of traveling, the home of his youth failed to hold his interest, and soon he yearned to wander once again, this time to England. The eight years Casanova spent in England proved to be his downfall. He failed to amuse and delight British society as he had the Europeans and encountered people more adept than he at being scoundrels. Penurious, he returned to Venice to find himself barred from gaining entry to the great halls where he had enjoyed social success.

Without other recourse, Casanova accepted an invitation to become chateau librarian for Count von Waldstein in Bohemia. Unable to speak the language and thus stripped of his witty repartee, society’s once-shining star was relegated to the periphery of the social world at château of Dux. Miserable and isolated, Casanova removed himself from the milieu and began to compose his memoirs, a task that encompassed the final fourteen years of his life. He died at the château, broken and alone, in 1798.


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Casanova, Giacomo. The Memoirs of Jacques Casanova de Seingalt. Translated by Arthur Machen. 12 vols. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1959-1961. Claims to be the first complete and unabridged translation of the work that employs new scholarship.

Craig, Cynthia C. “‘A Comedy in Three Acts’: Autobiography as Theater in Casanova’s Texts.” NEMLA Italian Studies 15 (1991). Discusses Casanova’s authorial stance.

Dobree, Bonamy. Three Eighteenth Century Figures: Sarah Churchill, John Wesley, Giacomo Casanova. London, England: Oxford University Press, 1962. A rather fond rendering of the life of the man, including an overview of his encounters, travels, and lifestyle.

Flem, Lydia. Casanova: The Man Who Really Loved Women. Translated by Catherine Temerson. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997. A psychoanalytical biography that suggests Casanova was not a heartless serial seducer but valued women as intellectual equals.

Masters, John. Casanova. New York: Bernard Geis Associates, 1969. A detailed and enjoyable biography drawing heavily on Casanova’s memoirs, without extensive analysis.

Nettl, Paul. The Other Casanova: A Contribution to Eighteenth Century Music and Manners. New York: Philosophical Library, 1950. Places the man within the cultural milieu of his era by discussing the music and other arts that he encountered and critiqued.

Parker, Derek. Casanova. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 2002. A thorough biography.

Symons, Arthur. “Casanova at Dux.” In The Memoirs of Jacques Casanova de Seingalt, Venetian Years. Vol 1. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1959. The preface to this edition of the memoirs is worthy of note as an independent source because it examines in detail the omission of the bawdy sections in the French translation and the process by which the materials were rediscovered and reincorporated.

Zweig, Stefan. Casanova: A Study in Self-Portraiture. Translated by Eden Paul. London: Pushkin, 1998. A biography that relates Casanova’s self-created myth to the nature of the city of Venice itself.