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How Casanova came to his unlikely place as 18th century playboy

Casanova: The World of a Seductive Genius
By Laurence Bergreen
Simon & Schuster
502 pages, $32.50

Giacomo Casanova (1725–1798), was more than a Venetian seducer. To his compeers in 18th century Europe, he was “a spy, duelist, gambler, escape artist, and author of nearly one hundred novels, poems, and treatises.”

This according to Laurence Bergreen, American historian and author of best-selling “Columbus: The Four Voyages,” and “Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu.”

But first, Casanova was an outcast.

In his early years, he was mostly mute: some thought him an imbecile. His father, Gaetano, a penniless dancer and actor, fell in love with his mother, a 16-year-old girl named Zanetta, in the household of Girolamo Farussi, and his wife, Marzia. Zanetta and Gaetano wed within the year, on Feb. 27, 1724, at the Church of San Samuele.

But Zanetta wasn’t a stay-at-home mom. She began touring with a musical company and lived in London, Dresden and Prague, performing with her beautiful voice. She had a second child, Francesco, in 1727, her favorite. His beleaguered father Gaetano died of an abscess in his head a few years later.

Readers may ask how Casanova, raised largely by his illiterate maternal grandmother, Marzia, did as much as he did with his life. Ineluctably, he made successes by rebounding from a series of hurts and slights.

Our author documents what he calls Casanova’s going from perceived dullard to supple trickster.

He describes Casanova’s acquisition of intellect. It seemed to develop with an accompanying sense of deception. Later generations would call his “the age of reason.” I’m not so sure about that; more an age of opportunity. Giacomo himself tells a story of his pilfering a watch in an optician’s studio. He writes, “How enchanting to hold it … seeing that no one was watching me, I seized the opportunity to slip it into my pocket” while falsely claiming he knew nothing.

Another later instance of Casanova’s mind developing: he wrote in his diary of being unwell and being moved to Padua for treatment with a blood ailment when about 10 years of age. In his journal Casanova writes, “He decided that it was possible ‘that the sun does not move, and that it is we who turn from West to East.’ ”

His mother excoriates his stupidity, but a knowledgeable family friend, Signor Baffo assures him, “You are right my child …”

About being told that he was right, Casanova wrote: “The affirmation of the power of reason meant a great deal to the afflicted child: This was the first real pleasure I enjoyed in my life.” And more than that, he wrote, “To it alone I owe all the happiness I enjoy when I commune with myself in solitude.”

Clearly this epiphany meant a lot to him, if it was a bit precocious at the time. But the result seems to be that Casanova sustained similar acts of self-invention all his life, basically to help him to feel as if he were “somebody.”

Time and again in life, Casanova overcame obstacles. For example, Casanova’s inability to read was remedied by a priest, Dr. Gozzi. It was he who helped him learn while he lived with him as a student in Padua.

We’re told that Casanova progressed to the point that he considered the priesthood. He enrolled at the age of 12, training and receiving his doctorate in civil and canon law at the age of 16. This transposition may seem incredible to us now, but Padua was a strong university from medieval times.

But with puberty, Casanova realized that his sensual disposition was inimical to the clergy. He enjoyed the carnal life and different young girls took his interest. They began with Bettina, a young maid not so innocent, then another servant girl named Lucia with “fetchingly loose hair…”, then a night with two young sisters, Nanetta and Marta; well you get the picture.

Casanova confessed to having bedded 120 women and a few men: seemingly piker’s numbers, as compared to a now deceased basketball legend who bragged about 20,000 “conquests.”

Why would any sensible reader care about sexual exploits of historical figures?

I’m not sure that there are many sensible readers anymore. People want to know all the sordid details. The world seems to run on prurient curiosity, an affliction that affects many of us. To his credit, Laurence Bergreen is a subtle scholar who casts a cocked eye over these indelicacies. It would be strange if he did not – given their notice in history – and then moves on.

Instead, Bergreen gives us a brilliant Baedeker of Europe, Venice in particular, in the 18th century. Visitors to Venice will recognize some of the geography in this vivid bio of a self-destructive genius.

A few instances: What was Venice like when Casanova was a young man? Venice in 1725 was thought to be the most debauched city in Europe.

First, observe how men and women dressed. Bergreen explains that men of the time wore a powdered wig, tight silk breeches, a tricorn black hat and a tabarro, or cloak, generally black, running over the shoulders and decorated with frills.

More striking, our author describes the bauta, or rigid white mask, worn almost always by true Venetians. Nobility wore masks in public and often in private. “Patricians meeting with ambassadors … wore them, as did envoys. The entire costume was the face that Venice presented to the world and to itself.”

Venetian women, we are told, hid behind the “eerie black moretta” (derived from the word moro, meaning the color black), a velvet mask held in place with a button in the front teeth, preventing the wearer from talking. All these elements of dress were not just for Carnival or balls, Bergreen notes; Venetians wore this clothing all year round.

The clothing, which we might call costumes, helped Casanova escape a more mundane existence. In fact, when James Boswell, Dr. Johnson’s biographer, met Casanova, he noted, “I thought him a blockhead.”  A rival of Casanova, Pietro Chiari, exclaimed: “He is a dandy full of himself, blown up with vanity like a balloon and fussing about like a watermill.”

As a reader, one wonders why Casanova chose the path he trod, as a “seductive” genius? Part of the question answers itself when you view the Venetian duplicitous environment. It attracted its share of charlatans and frauds, as they were so easily hidden underneath the human carapace of costume. (Indeed books have been written about the importance of costume in history.)

Bergreen fills in Casanova’s picture even more: “He was neither handsome, nor well-educated, nor well-born. He lacked position and power. Somehow this impoverished son of an actress made himself into the most celebrated libertine of all time and a major literary figure of his era. His desire knew no bounds: this was a man who claimed to seduce his own daughter.”

Throughout, Casanova was riven by the sense that his apparent father, Gaetano, wasn’t his real one. In his old age Casanova wrote satirically that Michele Grimani, an upper-class Venetian, was his true father. Casanova felt he was denied aristocratic status because of the law and tradition against bastardy.

Thus, at the end of his life as well as at the beginning, Casanova remained a fragile narcissist, as Bergreen tells us, an outrageous character that spent almost 20 years in the Doges Palace prison. Whatever the impediment put in front of him, he worked around it, acquiring the ability “to become a literary, psychological, and mathematical genius, a dedicated cardsharp, con artist, and escape artist who also invented the French lottery still in use today.”

In the end, why are some drawn to read a book about Casanova? I suppose it’s a fascination to understand an individual who’s part tabloid fluff and the other pure genius.
Bergreen’s bio is an able offering of both.

Michael D. Langan is a frequent reviewer of books for The Buffalo News.

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