In 1763, the young James Boswell finished his “London Journal,” one of the frankest accounts of high and low life in the eighteenth century. The following year, he embarked on a Grand Tour. In a Berlin tavern, he encountered a certain Neuhaus. This voluble personage of thirty-nine, unusually tall, with a dark complexion and affected manners, was an Italian who “wanted to shine as a great philosopher,” Boswell wrote, “and accordingly doubted of his own existence and everything else. I thought him a blockhead.”
The “blockhead” had also been travelling around Europe, although not on a patrician’s leisurely inspection of art and ruins. Giacomo Casanova, whose surname means “new house,” practiced many trades—violinist, gambler, spy, Kabbalist, soldier, man of letters—but his main line of work, he later admitted, was deceiving fools. Many of them were gulls at a card table, though he had recently convinced an elderly marquise, a widow with a vast fortune and an obsession with the occult, that he could arrange for her rebirth as her own son. How would this work? Casanova’s mystically enabled sperm would impregnate her with a male fetus endowed with her soul. A casket of jewels was involved, along with a comely young accomplice posing as a naked water nymph. When his ardor flagged, the nymph’s task was to rekindle it.
Casanova had a sideline, of course, which has earned him eponymous immortality; most of us, I’d venture to say, have met “a real Casanova.” But his conquests in the boudoir, not to mention those in carriages, in bathhouses, or behind park shrubbery, have eclipsed his accomplishments while fully dressed. He translated the Iliad into Italian; he published a utopian novel; he grappled with problems in classical geometry; he traded bons mots with Voltaire. He even charmed his way into the French court, posing as a financier, and sold Louis XV on the concept of a national lottery.
Having earned a fortune as a result, he led a princely life for a while, but lost much of it investing in a silk factory that went bankrupt. Now he was back on the road, hustling other crowned heads. Frederick II of Prussia had received him warmly in Potsdam, though they hadn’t struck a deal. Casanova’s next stop was St. Petersburg, to woo Catherine the Great with a proposal for calendar reform. (Russia still used the old Julian system, which was out of synch with the solar cycle.) As the years passed, though, none of his forays bore much fruit except to enrich his journals, the only treasure he never squandered.
Casanova—a.k.a. Neuhaus, di San Gallo, the Chevalier de Seingalt, and Count Farussi—was a priapic precursor of Zelig. Some of his history can be verified, but much of it seems fantastical. Few of the great diarists among his contemporaries, Boswell aside, bothered to mention him, though police records did. Before there was a Wiki culture, a community of “Casanovists,” amateurs united by obsession, doggedly vetted his writings and established the reality of certain exploits. Yet most of what we know, or think we know, about Casanova is what he tells us in his epic, twelve-volume memoir, “Histoire de Ma Vie” (“Story of My Life”).
Of all his adventures, producing “Histoire” may have been the most brazen. It was also his last. Casanova spent his final years writing for thirteen hours a day, or so he said. He ultimately mislaid or destroyed his sources—the voluminous journals he had shuttled from place to place. His latest biographer, Leo Damrosch, the author of “Adventurer: The Life and Times of Giacomo Casanova” (Yale), is a prolific scholar of the eighteenth century who deftly flags a lie here, deflates a boast there, and corrects errors in chronology. But he sidesteps an essential question that he himself poses: To what extent was Casanova “re-creating the past” rather than inventing it?
Casanova was born in Venice on April 2, 1725. He describes himself as a “gloomy” little boy, “not the least bit amusing,” who suffered from hemorrhagic nosebleeds: “Everyone felt sorry for me and left me in peace; they thought my time on earth would be brief. My father and mother never spoke to me at all.”
His mother was a beautiful actress, Giovanna Farussi, who was a muse of the great dramatist Carlo Goldoni and achieved stardom playing the ingenue in his comedies all over Europe. She was known in the Venetian dialect as Zanetta, and, on the stage, as La Buranella. (She came from the island of Burano.) Acting was then a disreputable profession, and Zanetta’s parents, a pious cobbler and his wife, had been horrified when she eloped at seventeen with a fellow-player, Gaetano Casanova, who was eleven years her senior. His talents were mediocre, according to Damrosch, and he needed a day job to support the family: working with optical instruments.
Giacomo was the eldest of their six children (two of whom, Giovanni and Francesco, became notable artists, the latter a court painter renowned for his battle scenes). Casanova later chose to believe the rumor that his real sire was a nobleman, Michele Grimani, an owner of the theatre where his parents met. One might note that the rogue in literature is often a bastard whose sense of grievance against society drives him to subvert it by seducing its patriarchs’ wives and daughters.
The couple’s firstborn was a year old when they left for an engagement in London, parking him with Zanetta’s mother, who doted on him. Seven years later, as his nosebleeds worsened, she took her grandson to an old “witch” on Murano, who did some hocus-pocus and predicted that he’d soon meet a “charming lady” upon whom his “happiness depended.”
That very night, a woman emerged from the chimney, dressed like a queen, and ministered sweetly to him: “I have always thought it was a dream, unless a masquerade had been staged for my benefit,” Casanova writes (in Stephen Sartarelli and Sophie Hawkes’s translation). He dates “the beginning of my existence as a thinking being” to that experience, which is to say, it marked his birth as a cynic. “Sorcerers have never existed”—the witch’s magic didn’t cure him—“but their power has, for those who have had the talent to make others believe they were sorcerers.” He had glimpsed his vocation.
When Gaetano died, months later, Grimani and his brother became guardians of Zanetta and her children. But the widow turned to another noble friend—Giorgio Baffo, a Venetian senator—for advice on her son’s malady. A change of climate was recommended, so Giacomo was sent to Padua, on the mainland, where the air was healthier.
Casanova never forgave his mother for an exile that his siblings didn’t suffer. “Thus was my family rid of me,” he writes. But he treasured his connection to Baffo: “I owe him my life.” It’s worth pausing to consider what else he owed to a man he called a “sublime genius.” Baffo wrote pornographic sonnets in the Venetian dialect that were admired by his libertine contemporaries and condemned by the Inquisition—a badge of honor that Casanova would one day be proud to wear. A quatrain will give you their flavor: