Colin B. Bai­ley

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Colin B. Bai­ley

Casanova’s Europe: Art, Plea­sure, and Power in the Eigh­teenth Cen­tury an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Mu­seum of Fine Arts, Bos­ton Casanova: The Se­duc­tion of Europe cat­a­log of the ex­hi­bi­tion edited by Fred­er­ick Ilch­man and oth­ers

Casanova’s Europe: Art, Plea­sure, and Power in the Eigh­teenth Cen­tury an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Kim­bell Art Mu­seum, Fort Worth, Au­gust 27–De­cem­ber 31, 2017; the Le­gion of Honor, San Fran­cisco, Fe­bru­ary 10–May 28, 2018; and the Mu­seum of Fine Arts, Bos­ton, July 8–Oc­to­ber 8, 2018

Casanova: The Se­duc­tion of Europe Cat­a­log of the ex­hi­bi­tion edited by Fred­er­ick Ilch­man, Thomas Michie, C. D. Dick­er­son III, and Es­ther Bell. Mu­seum of Fine Arts, 344 pp., $45.00

“He would have been a very hand­some man had he not been so ugly,” noted Casanova’s friend and fel­low bel es­prit Prince Charles-Joseph de Ligne, who knew him only at the end of his life. “He is large, as well-built as Her­cules, but with the col­or­ing of an African.” This is con­firmed in the pass­port is­sued to the thirty-two-year-old Jac­ques Cazanua (sic) by the French govern­ment on Au­gust 27, 1757, re­quest­ing per­mis­sion for him to travel freely in Flan­ders for two months. Here he is de­scribed as “ap­prox­i­mately five pieds 10 and a half pouces in height [6 feet, 2 inches]; with a long, swarthy face and a long, large nose; and a big mouth with brown, bulging eyes.” The of­fi­cial de­scrip­tion doesn’t quite con­form to the por­trait draw­ing of him, made around 1751 by his younger brother Francesco, one of only two au­then­tic like­nesses of Casanova to have sur­vived.

The life and times of Gi­a­como Casanova (1725–1798)—per­haps the most rec­og­niz­able his­tor­i­cal fig­ure of eigh­teenth-cen­tury Europe, Mer­ri­amWeb­ster’s archetype of the “pro­mis­cu­ous and un­scrupu­lous lover”—are the sub­ject of “Casanova’s Europe: Art, Plea­sure, and Power in the Eigh­teenth Cen­tury,” a ter­rific ex­hi­bi­tion or­ga­nized by the Mu­seum of Fine Arts, Bos­ton, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Kim­bell Art Mu­seum and the Fine Arts Museums of San Fran­cisco.1 Fol­low­ing the French Na­tional Li­brary’s ac­qui­si­tion of the 3,700-page man­u­script of Casanova’s mem­oirs in 2010 for $9.6 mil­lion, there have been two new schol­arly edi­tions of this en­joy­able, self-ag­gran­diz­ing, and—for the most part—ac­cu­rate ac­count of the first fifty years of the au­thor’s life. A Pléi­ade edi­tion was pub­lished by Gal­li­mard be­tween 2013 and 2015; the in­dis­pens­able three-vol­ume Bouquins edi­tion, first pub­lished by Robert Laf­font in 1993, has been re­vised and reis­sued, the last vol­ume ap­pear­ing in April of this year. There has yet to be a new English translation, and an­glo­phone read­ers must still rely on Wil­lard R. Trask’s sixvol­ume His­tory of My Life, which ap­peared be­tween 1966 and 1970.2

Casanova’s His­toire de ma vie, writ­ten be­tween 1790 and 1794, ends abruptly with the au­thor in Tri­este in 1774, just be­fore he re­turns to Venice af­ter an ex­ile of eigh­teen years. The au­to­bi­og­ra­phy records sev­eral decades of travel through­out Europe, as well as two vis­its to Con­stantino­ple, in which Casanova cov­ered an es­ti­mated 70,000 kilo­me­ters in con­veyances that ranged from an ox­cart to a six-horse lux­ury Sch­lafwa­gen. (In­creas­ingly, his travel was mo­ti­vated by the need to es­cape cred­i­tors.) Casanova may have vis­ited as many as 134 cities and lived in at least twenty of them. He is es­ti­mated to have slept with be­tween 122 and 136 women and a hand­ful of men; to have sired at least eight chil­dren (and to have com­mit­ted in­cest with one of his daugh­ters); and to have con­tracted vene­real dis­ease eleven times. He fought at least five du­els; was im­pris­oned in Venice, Paris, Madrid, and Barcelona; at­tempted sui­cide in Lon­don; and avoided as­sas­si­na­tion twice in Spain. His mem­oirs con­tain de­tailed de­scrip­tions of two hun­dred meals and twenty dif­fer­ent wines.

In 1785 the newly un­em­ployed sixty-year-old Casanova had been in­vited by young Count Joseph Karl Emanuel von Wald­stein, whose brother was one of Beethoven’s early pa­trons, to be­come the li­brar­ian at his cas­tle in Dux (Duch­cov), at an an­nual salary of 1,000 florins. Un­happy in this re­mote Bo­hemian out­post, de­spised by Wald­stein’s house­hold staff, and in­creas­ingly dis­mayed by the po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in France, in the spring of 1789 Casanova was treated by James Columb O’Reilly, an Ir­ish doc­tor who ad­vised him to stave off de­pres­sion and ill­ness by writ­ing his mem­oirs. By Jan­uary 1791 he was work­ing full throt­tle on an au­to­bi­og­ra­phy en­ti­tled His­toire de mon ex­is­tence. “I write thirteen hours a day which passes like thirteen min­utes,” he told a friend. “I am writ­ing my ‘Life’ to make my­self laugh and I am suc­ceed­ing... I en­joy my­self be­cause I am not mak­ing any­thing up.”

Casanova’s life has in­spired pop­u­lar bi­ogra­phies, films, and tele­vi­sion se­ries. A few years ago the Max Planck In­sti­tute for Or­nithol­ogy iden­ti­fied a “Casanova gene” in fe­male ze­bra finches, which show a pre­dis­po­si­tion for in­fi­delity un­re­lated to their evo­lu­tion­ary needs. In April 2018 the first “Casanova Mu­seum and Ex­pe­ri­ence”—an aug­mented re­al­ity in­stal­la­tion in six rooms—opened in Venice’s Palazzo Pe­saro Pa­pafava. Gen­er­a­tions of “Casanovaists” have been at work col­lect­ing, edit­ing, and pub­lish­ing the au­thor’s vo­lu­mi­nous writ­ings. Their re­search fo­cuses pri­mar­ily on ver­i­fy­ing the events of his mem­oirs and iden­ti­fy­ing (and doc­u­ment­ing) the per­son­al­i­ties in them. As it turns out, Casanova was a gen­er­ally re­li­able his­to­rian of his own life and times. As he wrote his mem­oirs, he had re­course to notes and records that he re­ferred to as “his ca­pit­u­lar­ies”— none of which sur­vived among his drafts and pa­pers at Dux or Prague. We learn from a re­port filed to the Vene­tian In­qui­si­tion on July 21, 1755, that Casanova car­ried “three small pieces of pa­per with him at all times, which al­lows him to write com­fort­ably wher­ever he de­sires.” Casanova also took con­sid­er­able pains to con­ceal the iden­ti­ties of sev­eral of his mis­tresses, such as “C.C.” (Ca­te­rina Capretta), daugh­ter of a di­a­mond mer­chant, and the plea­surelov­ing nun “M. M.” (Ma­rina Maria Morosini), the fu­ture abbess of the con­vent of Santa Maria degli An­geli in Mu­rano. Above all, he pro­tected the aris­to­cratic “Hen­ri­ette,” the great­est love of his life, with whom he was pas­sion­ately in­volved dur­ing the au­tumn and win­ter of 1749–1750. When she and Casanova parted com­pany in Geneva, she used her di­a­mond ring to etch “Tu ou­blieras aussi Hen­ri­ette” (You will also for­get Hen­ri­ette) on a win­dow of their ho­tel. At least three Provençale no­ble­women had been pro­posed for this en­chant­ing fig­ure. By the most re­cent con­sen­sus, she was Anne Adélaïde de Guei­dan (1725–1786), the mu­si­cal daugh­ter of a cul­ti­vated and very wealthy mag­is­trate in the Par­lement of Aix-en-Provence and an un­hap­pily mar­ried mother of three, who was re­stored to her fam­ily in Fe­bru­ary 1750.

Gi­a­como Giro­lamo Casanova was born in Venice, in the par­ish of San Sa­muele, on April 2, 1725, to Zanetta Farussi (1707–1776), an ac­tress who went by the stage name La Bu­ranella, and Gae­tano Casanova (1697–1733), an ac­tor, vi­o­lin­ist, and dancer. He was the el­dest of six chil­dren—four boys and two girls—five of whom sur­vived into adult­hood. Both par­ents left Venice to per­form in Lon­don the fol­low­ing year, and Casanova was raised by his lov­ing (and il­lit­er­ate) grand­mother, the wife of a shoe­maker. One of his ear­li­est mem­o­ries was of her tak­ing him to Mu­rano when he was eight to visit a witch who stanched his nose­bleed. Af­ter mov­ing to Padua to study with An­to­nio Maria Gozzi, a doc­tor of canon and civil law, Casanova flour­ished. He mas­tered Latin by the age of eleven, taught him­self Greek and He­brew, en­rolled at the Col­le­gio legista at the Univer­sity of Padua, and was awarded a doc­tor­ate in law in 1742.

In line with his mother’s ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal am­bi­tions for him, Casanova re­ceived the ton­sure and the four mi­nor or­ders in Fe­bru­ary 1740 and preached his first ser­mon at San Sa­muele on Christ­mas Day that year, aged fif­teen. Un­sat­is­fied by his prospects as a “je­une abbé sans con­séquence,” he took any op­por­tu­nity that af­forded it­self to travel and im­prove his ed­u­ca­tion, learn­ing French in Rome in 1744 on the ad­vice of Car­di­nal Ac­qua­viva, and be­ing ex­pelled from that city for bed­ding the daugh­ters of his teacher. (Casanova would per­fect his French in Paris six years later as a stu­dent of the eighty-four-year-old poet and trage­dian Pros­per Cré­bil­lon, with whom he took lessons three times a week.)

De­spite his pro­fi­ciency in the law, his mas­querad­ing as a mil­i­tary of­fi­cer in Bologna, and mod­est op­por­tu­ni­ties for cler­i­cal ad­vance­ment, Casanova found him­self back in Venice in 1746 work­ing as a vi­o­lin­ist in the orches­tra of the San Sa­muele The­ater. Dis­gusted by this “vile métier,” he en­joyed a piece of ex­cep­tional good luck late one even­ing in March 1746 in shar­ing a gon­dola with Se­na­tor Mat­teo Gio­vanni Bra­gadin (1689–1767), scion of one of Venice’s most dis­tin­guished fam­i­lies (and a con­firmed bach­e­lor). Bra­gadin ex­pe­ri­enced a stroke en route and was min­is­tered to by a doc­tor who ap­plied a mer­cury poul­tice, which Casanova im­me­di­ately re­moved, thereby sav­ing the se­na­tor’s life. Ac­claimed as a med­i­cal ge­nius, an or­a­cle, and a cab­bal­ist of high stand­ing, Casanova was more or less adopted by Bra­gadin and his cir­cle, who pro­vided him with the trap­pings of a pa­tri­cian life­style—gon­dola, lodg­ings, cloth­ing—and a monthly al­lowance. Bra­gadin would con­tinue to sup­port Casanova fi­nan­cially for the next twenty-one years.

An ad­ven­turer and gam­bler in search of ad­vance­ment, but liv­ing pri­mar­ily for plea­sure, Casanova came to the

at­ten­tion of Venice’s In­qui­si­tion as early as 1749. His li­cen­tious and lib­er­tine be­hav­ior was care­fully mon­i­tored. Most of­fen­sive was his friend­ship with prom­i­nent young aris­to­crats, Venice’s so­cial hi­er­ar­chies be­ing among the most re­stric­tive in Europe. Lu­cia Pisani, mother of the Memmo brothers, claimed that Casanova had cor­rupted her three sons—all in their mid-twen­ties—by preach­ing athe­ism to them. The In­qui­si­tion’s files noted Casanova’s lack of re­spect for the Catholic re­li­gion, his de­ter­mi­na­tion “to sat­isfy his plea­sures,” and, most egre­gious of all, “his at­tempts to el­e­vate him­self in so­ci­ety.”

Ig­nor­ing his friends’ pleas that he leave Venice for Florence, on the morn­ing of July 26, 1755, Casanova was ar­rested at his lodg­ings by the Vene­tian In­qui­si­tion on charges that in­cluded be­ing in pos­ses­sion of con­tra­band salt. Six weeks later he was sen­tenced to five years’ im­pris­on­ment and con­fined to a small cell in the at­tic story of the Doge’s Palace di­rectly above the Sala del Mag­gior Con­siglio. Casanova’s ac­count of his fif­teen-month im­pris­on­ment and his es­cape via the roof of the palace is told in his mem­oirs with a brio wor­thy of Wes An­der­son’s The Grand Bu­dapest

Ho­tel. Af­ter months of dig­ging through the floor of his cell with a twenty-inch iron pike, in late Au­gust 1756 he was trans­ferred to more com­modi­ous quar­ters with a view over half of Venice. He de­vised a new plan of es­cape, en­list­ing Marin Balbi, a fel­low pris­oner from Genoa, to whom he con­veyed the pike in the bind­ing of a large Bi­ble that was used as a tray, on which one of the jail­ers car­ried a plate of steam­ing mac­a­roni to Balbi’s cell. For the next month, Balbi used the pike to bore into the ceil­ing of his cell, break through the brick wall above, and cut a hole into the ceil­ing of Casanova’s cell wide enough for the pris­oner to hoist him­self through. Mak­ing their way onto the roof on the night of Oc­to­ber 31, 1756, Casanova and Balbi even­tu­ally low­ered them­selves into the ducal chan­cellery, only to find the doors lead­ing to the Royal Stairs locked. The op­por­tune ar­rival of an of­fi­cial with a set of keys, whom they knocked to the ground, al­lowed the pris­on­ers to exit via the Gi­ants’ Stair­case and cor­ral the first gon­dola they en­coun­tered into tak­ing them to Mestre (and there­after to free­dom be­yond the con­fines of the Vene­tian Repub­lic). Casanova dined out on this story for years to come—his ren­di­tion of it might take two hours— wrote it up in Dux, and pub­lished it as His­toire de ma fuite in 1787. At more than thirty years’ dis­tance, his mem­oirs still con­vey the ex­ul­ta­tion of step­ping into the gon­dola at day­break as a free man:

I looked be­hind me at the beau­ti­ful canal, with not a sin­gle boat in sight, ad­mir­ing the loveli­est day imag­in­able, the first rays of the mag­nif­i­cent sun ris­ing from the hori­zon, our two young gon­do­liers row­ing at top speed .... My soul was over­come with such feel­ing to­wards our mer­ci­ful God, fill­ing me with grat­i­tude and hum­bling me with such ex­tra­or­di­nary force, that my tears poured forth in or­der to re­lieve my heart, which was burst­ing with joy.

In the years fol­low­ing his ex­ile from Venice, Casanova sought to es­tab­lish him­self through fi­nan­cial and diplo­matic ser­vice to the French crown. Re­turn­ing to Paris in 1757, he joined forces with the Calz­abigi brothers from Livorno in pro­mot­ing a state lot­tery to a group of court fi­nanciers charged with rais­ing funds to com­plete the con­struc­tion of the École mil­i­taire, founded in 1750 by Louis XV to train the sons of in­di­gent no­bil­ity. With his knowl­edge of math­e­mat­ics and pas­sion for gam­bling, Casanova was the ideal in­ter­me­di­ary. He was ap­pointed di­rec­tor of the lot­tery, over­saw the first draw in April 1758, and pros­pered from its prof­its. (Casanova’s bi­og­ra­pher Ian Kelly es­ti­mates his in­come in 1758 to have been as much as 120,000 livres.) “He now has a car­riage, manser­vants, and dresses mag­nif­i­cently,” noted an em­bit­tered for­mer lover, Gius­tini­ana Wynne—Miss XCV in the mem­oirs— in Jan­uary 1759. “How he has man­aged to insert him­self into the best house­holds in Paris, heaven only knows.” Casanova was less suc­cess­ful in his ef­forts to set up a cot­ton and silk dye­ing fac­tory in Paris’s Tem­ple dis­trict (the present-day Marais) in 1758. A work­force of twenty nu­bile seam­stresses was em­ployed to paint the cot­ton in imi­ta­tion of Chi­nese silks, but the ven­ture failed. Al­though the French lot­tery con­tin­ued to thrive, be­com­ing the Lo­terie Royale de France in 1776, Casanova was un­able to re­peat its suc­cess else­where. In the 1760s his lot­tery schemes were turned down in Lon­don, Ber­lin, Riga, and War­saw. Projects to es­tab­lish scar­let cloth man­u­fac­ture in Venice, snuff-mak­ing in Spain, and a soap fac­tory in War­saw also came to naught.

In Paris, Casanova en­joyed greater suc­cess as a cab­bal­is­tic shaman to gullible aris­to­crats. In 1751 his or­a­cle pro­vided the young duchesse de Chartres with a rem­edy for her dis­fig­ur­ing fa­cial rash, as well as ad­vice on the state of a friend’s can­cer. On his re­turn in 1757, Casanova mirac­u­lously cured the comte de La Tour d’Au­vergne’s sci­at­ica by paint­ing the five-pointed star of David (“le tal­is­man de Solomon”) on his thigh, wrap­ping it in three tow­els, and or­der­ing bed rest for the next twenty-four hours. This led to an in­tro­duc­tion to La Tour d’Au­vergne’s ec­cen­tric aunt, the fifty-two-year-old Jeanne Ca­mus de Pont­carré, mar­quise d’Urfé (1705–1775)—“a great chemist, an in­tel­lec­tual, ex­tremely wealthy and mis­tress of her en­tire for­tune.” Casanova was in­vited to the lab­o­ra­tory in her hô­tel on the Quai des Théatins, where the two dis­cussed alchemy, magic, and the Philoso­pher’s Stone.

Claim­ing to be in com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the ele­men­tary spir­its, Casanova se­cured d’Urfé’s trust and af­fec­tion, gained ac­cess to her purse and jew­els, and agreed to as­sist in her project of hy­posta­sis— the pas­sage of d’Urfé’s soul into the body of a young man. The cer­e­mony of re­birth was fi­nally per­formed in Mar­seilles in April 1763, which en­tailed mak­ing love three times to the mar­quise in a bath (Casanova was as­sisted in his ef­forts by his young Vene­tian mis­tress, Mar­col­ina). Un­sur­pris­ingly, the hoped-for preg­nancy in which Urfé would be re­born as a young boy did not ma­te­ri­al­ize, but the mar­quise re­mained in thrall to Casanova un­til her fam­ily took ac­tion in Novem­ber 1767 and se­cured a let­tre de ca­chet to ex­pel him from France.

As he ac­knowl­edged—though not with­out spe­cial plead­ing— this decade-long af­fair did Casanova lit­tle honor. “Ab­sorbed in my lib­er­tine ways, lov­ing the life I was lead­ing, I prof­ited from the mad­ness of a woman who, had she not been de­ceived by me, would most cer­tainly have been de­ceived by some­one else.” Pro­mis­cu­ous he most cer­tainly was, but not, per­haps, en­tirely un­scrupu­lous. In his ac­count of their first meet­ing, Casanova notes, “From that day on, I was the ar­biter of her soul and I abused my power. Ev­ery time I think about it, I am af­flicted and ashamed; the obli­ga­tion to tell the truth in the Mem­oirs is my way of mak­ing amends.”

A ro­man­tic for­tune-hunter in search of rank and sta­tus, Casanova also sought recog­ni­tion as a man of let­ters. Voltaire, whom he ini­tially ven­er­ated, dis­missed him as “un plaisant qui voy­age.” Boswell met him in Ber­lin in Septem­ber 1764 and de­scribed him as “a block­head . . . [who] wanted to shine as a great philoso­pher.” Born in a city where the gon­do­liers chanted Tasso as they rowed, Casanova knew his Ho­race by heart and claimed to have read Ariosto three times a year since the age of fif­teen. (His mem­oirs are lib­er­ally pep­pered with Latin quo­ta­tions from the an­cient Ro­man po­ets and philoso­phers.)

In 1769, he sought to re­turn to the good graces of the Vene­tian au­thor­i­ties as a po­lit­i­cal his­to­rian with his three­vol­ume Confu­tazione della Sto­ria del Governo Veneto d’Amelot de la Hous­saie, which re­futed a no­to­ri­ous late-seven­teenth-cen­tury French polemic as well as more re­cent crit­i­cisms of the Vene­tian sys­tem of govern­ment. In 1774 he pub­lished a three-vol­ume study of mod­ern Pol­ish his­tory, Is­to­ria delle tur­bolenze della Polo­nia, and be­gan work­ing the fol­low­ing year on a translation into Ital­ian of Homer’s Iliad. (It was never fin­ished; only three vol­umes ap­peared, be­tween 1775 and 1778.) Fol­low­ing his au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal His­toire de ma fuite, in 1788 Casanova pub­lished his first novel, the utopian Icosaméron; ou His­toire d’Édouard et Élis­a­beth, a ram­bling, seven­teen-hun­dred page ac­count of a brother and sis­ter’s so­journ in the in­ner-earth king­dom of the Megami­cres. The lat­ter are, in the words of the sci­ence-fic­tion scholar Peter Fit­ting, “big-lit­tles: tiny, an­drog­y­nous, multi-colored hu­mans, peace­ful and vegetarian, whose pri­mary nour­ish­ment is the milk they drink at their life-part­ner’s breast.” The novel is un­read­able to­day; Casanova be­lieved it would im­mor­tal­ize him. In­stead, it was the His­toire de ma vie, the ex­pan­sive story of a most unil­lus­tri­ous life, that brought Casanova en­dur­ing lit­er­ary fame. De­spite his ob­jec­tions to the con­trary, he did in­deed fol­low Pliny’s ad­vice to Tac­i­tus: “If you have not done things that are wor­thy of be­ing writ­ten about, at least write about them in a man­ner that is worth read­ing.” As a sen­su­al­ist and a lib­er­tine—as well as a Chris­tian and a monar­chist who died de­spis­ing the new French repub­lic—Casanova’s pri­mary goal was the pur­suit of hap­pi­ness:

To cul­ti­vate the plea­sure of the senses has been the prin­ci­pal ob­ject of my life; I have never con­sid­ered any­thing more im­por­tant... I have also adored the plea­sures of the ta­ble, and been pas­sion­ate about any ob­ject that could stim­u­late my cu­rios­ity.

Casanova’s minute at­ten­tion in his mem­oirs to the cul­ture of ap­pear­ance—the rit­u­als of rank and pro­to­col—pro­vides the in­spi­ra­tion for the ex­hi­bi­tion now at the Mu­seum of Fine Arts, Bos­ton, of some 250 paint­ings, sculp­tures, fur­ni­ture, dec­o­ra­tive arts, cos­tumes, draw­ings, and prints, pri­mar­ily from museums and pri­vate col­lec­tions in North Amer­ica (with the lion’s share com­ing from the MFA it­self). The ex­hi­bi­tion fol­lows Casanova from Venice to Paris, Dres­den, and Lon­don, il­lus­trates the de­lights of love, sex, gas­tron­omy, and ap­parel—as well as the de­spair of im­pris­on­ment—and in­tro­duces some of the rulers, writ­ers, and lovers dis­cussed in his mem­oirs. As Es­ther Bell notes in her cat­a­log es­say on Casanova in Paris, the writer “never ex­pressly men­tions his im­pres­sions of spe­cific paint­ings, sculp­ture, and dec­o­ra­tive arts of the pe­riod.” In­deed, he scarcely dis­cusses the fine arts in any de­tail at all. If, dur­ing his many vis­its to “M.M.” at Santa Maria degli An­geli in Mu­rano, Casanova ever no­ticed the com­mand­ing re­li­gious paint­ings by Veronese—ex­hib­ited at New York’s Frick Col­lec­tion ear­lier this year—he makes no ref­er­ence to them in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, nor in­deed to any paint­ings by Veronese in Venice. This is the more sur­pris­ing since two of his younger brothers, Francesco (1727–1803) and Gio­vanni Bat­tista (1730–1795), were suc­cess­ful painters. Francesco, a bat­tle painter, en­tered the French Acad­emy in 1761, the year of his me­te­oric de­but at the Paris Sa­lon, which as­sured him an in­ter­na­tional clien­tele and a re­mu­ner­a­tive ca­reer. Two of his en­er­getic, if rather bom­bas­tic,

land­scapes, from a se­ries called Dan­gers of Travel, painted around 1770, are in­cluded in the ex­hi­bi­tion. Gio­vanni Bat­tista, a neo­clas­si­cal his­tory painter, as­sumed the codi­rec­tor­ship of the Acad­emy of Fine Arts in Dres­den in 1776.

In Casanova’s mem­oirs there is not a sin­gle ref­er­ence to his Vene­tian con­tem­po­raries such as Gio­vanni An­to­nio Canaletto, Bernardo Bel­lotto, Pi­etro Longhi, Francesco Guardi, Gio­vanni An­to­nio Guardi, Gio­vanni Bat­tista Tiepolo, or Gio­vanni Domenico Tiepolo. Nor does he men­tion any of their Parisian coun­ter­parts— Ni­co­las Lan­cret, François Boucher, or Jean-Honoré Frag­o­nard, for ex­am­ple. Each of these artists is rep­re­sented by out­stand­ing ex­am­ples in the ex­hi­bi­tion. The only con­tem­po­rary French artist to merit dis­cus­sion in the His­toire de ma vie was the sev­enty-year-old court por­traitist Jean-Marc Nat­tier (1685–1766), whom Casanova ad­mired for the “im­per­cep­ti­ble char­ac­ter of beauty” that he brought to “the per­fect re­sem­blance of his sit­ters.” “Where does this magic come from?, I once asked Nat­tier, af­ter he had painted the ugly Mes­dames de France (Louis XV’s daugh­ters) as beau­ti­ful as heav­enly bod­ies.” Casanova met the painter dur­ing his sec­ond so­journ in Paris (1757–1759), likely in­tro­duced by the Vene­tian ac­tress Zanetta Bel­letti, “Made­moi­selle Sil­via,” the mother of his friend An­to­nio Bal­letti, and of the seven­teen-yearold Manon, whose rav­ish­ing por­trait Nat­tier painted in 1757. Casanova was briefly—and un­of­fi­cially—af­fi­anced to Manon, who, af­ter break­ing with him in 1760, mar­ried a fifty-five-year-old ar­chi­tect (bring­ing a dowry of 24,000 livres to the union). In­vited by the wife of the painter Carle van Loo to a din­ner where the new­ly­wed cou­ple would be present, Casanova, still en­am­ored of Manon per­haps, could not bear to see her again.

The mea­gre doc­u­men­tary ev­i­dence for Casanova’s in­ter­est in the art of his time should not ob­scure the affini­ties—most ob­vi­ously in sub­ject mat­ter, but also in style—be­tween his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy and high Ro­coco paint­ing. As an ex­am­ple, take Francesco Guardi’s Par­la­to­rio (1746), a view of the ex­pan­sive vis­it­ing room at the con­vent of San Zac­caria. This is a so­cial space where aris­to­cratic chil­dren are be­ing en­ter­tained by a com­me­dia dell’arte pup­pet show, while their pa­tri­cian el­ders—some masked, some in long gray wigs—en­gage in con­ver­sa­tion with the novi­tiates be­hind the grilles. A splen­didly at­tired ma­tron, in a hooped skirt and fur-lined bodice, of­fers a cir­cu­lar dog bis­cuit to a tiny spaniel, adorned with a pink silk bow. At the mar­gins of the can­vas, ap­pro­pri­ately enough, are mem­bers of a less priv­i­leged world: a beg­gar on crutches, with ban­dages on his head and legs, re­quest­ing alms; a woman de­liv­er­ing food (or laun­dry) in a bas­ket at far right, dis­creetly be­yond the purview of the el­e­gant com­pany.

It was in such a set­ting—in a con­vent on the is­land of Mu­rano—that Casanova em­barked upon an un­abashedly car­nal af­fair with the pa­tri­cian novi­tiate Ma­rina Maria Morosini, in 1753. He was amazed at the ease with which these “holy vir­gins” could es­cape their clois­ters, and noted that at Car­ni­val the con­vents were even per­mit­ted to host masked balls: “There is danc­ing in the vis­it­ing room and the nuns re­main in­side, en­joy­ing the fes­tiv­i­ties be­hind the am­ple grille.” Casanova at­tended such a ball, in the par­la­to­rio in Mu­rano, dis­guised as Pier­rot.

Jo­hann Zof­fany’s Self-Por­trait in the guise of a Ca­puchin friar, in­scribed “il 13 Marzo, Parma 1779” and painted to cel­e­brate the artist’s forty-sixth birth­day, matches Casanova in rib­aldry and ir­rev­er­ence. On the ta­ble to the left are the tools of Zof­fany’s prac­tice (palette, brushes, and flasks of oil); on the ledge above him, a wine glass, bot­tle, skull, and pack of cards (well-known sym­bols of Van­ity). A rosary hangs from the wall, its beads graz­ing the edge of an en­grav­ing af­ter Ti­tian’s Venus of Urbino. Two con­doms are ar­rayed to the left of the rosary, with pink rib­bon at the open end. A third sheath, easy to over­look—and iden­ti­fied by one his­to­rian as a piece of pa­per—is sus­pended from above the print and can just be seen cov­er­ing the god­dess’s lower body at the right edge of the panel. (Zof­fany is hardly sub­tle).

Fash­ion­able from the 1750s on, es­pe­cially in Eng­land, con­doms were made from ren­dered sheep gut, de­signed for re­peated use, and worn to guard against vene­real in­fec­tion as well as to pre­vent preg­nancy. (Casanova re­ferred to them as “English rid­ing coats.”) He re­called find­ing a group of con­doms at his dis­posal in “M.M.’s” casino in Mu­rano; to spare the car­pet, she in­sisted that he use them.

Casanova begged his read­ers’ in­dul­gence as they turned the pages of his mem­oirs: “Those who be­lieve I am too much of a painter when I re­count cer­tain of my love af­fairs in de­tail, are wrong to think so un­less they find me to be a bad painter.” The edi­tors of the new Pléi­ade edi­tion of the His­toire de ma vie dis­cern a vis­ual equiv­a­lence to Casanova’s man­ner in Pi­etro Longhi’s sym­pa­thetic con­ver­sa­tion pieces. Writer and painter in­habit the same uni­verse and share “a touch which might seem heavy and rough, but which is ex­cep­tion­ally well-suited to give the il­lu­sion of life.”

Tak­ing this in­sight a lit­tle fur­ther, I sug­gest that it is in cer­tain erotic paint­ings by a slightly younger French con­tem­po­rary—also a great ad­mirer of Ariosto—that Casanova’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the af­fairs of the heart are matched in paint. Frag­o­nard’s scenes of sex­ual aban­don­ment and in­ti­macy be­hind closed doors con­vey an ex­al­ta­tion and ar­dor that are com­pa­ra­ble to Casanova’s in­spired de­scrip­tions of love­mak­ing. A paint­ing such as The De­sired Mo­ment (see illustration on page 88), of around 1770, con­jures Casanova’s most scin­til­lat­ing rec­ol­lec­tions. In both text and im­age, the youth­ful lovers ap­pear “in a state of na­ture, prey to sen­sual plea­sure and love”; they share agency (and ur­gency), and con­sum­mate their pas­sion as equals.

Jean-Honoré Frag­o­nard: The De­sired Mo­ment, circa 1770

Francesco Casanova: Por­trait of Gi­a­como Casanova, circa 1751

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