The dynamic world of 18th-century Europe was filled with energy, new ideas, elegant royal courts, luxury, and intrigue. The masqueraders in this Venetian gambling establishment give a hint of the era’s elegance, merriment, and mischief: mirrors reflect the grand surroundings—its paintings and glittering fabric-covered walls—as well as the festive company. The revelers are clothed in sumptuous costumes and have concealed their identities with masks. Their dress and demeanor reveal the period’s fascination with theatricality and artifice. How best to unmask this intriguing century of fast-growing cities, increasing geographical and social mobility, and artistic excellence? We need a guide . . . and Giacomo Casanova, a representative par excellence of the moment, would be delighted to step in.
Why Casanova? He was sharply intelligent, an ambitious author and playwright, a financial opportunist, and a spy. A social climber by virtue of his wit, he was able to fit in just about anywhere and eager to make connections with those who could further his desires. He went everywhere, knew everyone, and wrote it all down. His twelve-volume autobiography—The Story of My Life—provides an unrivaled account of 18th-century society as well as his personal exploits. As we follow in Casanova’s footsteps from his native Venice to some of the great cities of Europe, we tread a path through this era’s life and culture that nobody else walked in quite the same way. There is no denying, however, that he is also a problematic anti-hero – the very definition of a womanizer, con man, and a fraudster.
Venice plays a key role in Casanova’s story. Born there in 1725, he was raised in this most splendid and storied of cities and returned to it again and again. To understand Casanova, we need to explore the city that shaped him. The seat of its own republic and once at the center of a mighty trading empire, Venice was, by the 18th century, no longer a major political power. It had become a “city of pleasure,” as one visitor wrote, where wealthy Europeans flocked to enjoy theater, lavish balls, and the famous carnival.
Venetian views by the painter known as Canaletto (Giovanni Antonio Canal, 1697–1768) were favorite souvenirs of those undertaking the grand tour—the famous European itinerary traveled by young men (and some women) as a means of broadening their education. This example shows the Grand Canal, Venice’s main thoroughfare, lined with aristocratic palaces whose plain facades conceal sumptuous interiors. The canal bustles with water traffic, including merchants’ boats and a private black gondola with oarsmen in colorful uniforms.
The man of the world is wholly his mask. What he is, is nothing. What he appears to be, is everything.
Masks are everywhere in this painting by the Venetian artist Francesco Guardi. In the complex social environment of 18th-century Venice, identity could be invented and performed by anyone, as an actor performs on the stage, and masks played a significant role. Fanciful masks were worn for balls and the magnificent carnival season that preceded Lent, but white half-masks were also worn daily for half the year, from October until Lent. They were a perfect way to circumvent Venice’s strict social hierarchy, enabling interaction between people of different classes. And they offered anonymity, allowing lower-class citizens—so long as they were suitably dressed—to mingle with the wealthy at the public gambling hall or the theater, to become “equal” for a few hours, at least.
Casanova was born into a theatrical Venetian family and grew up immersed in a world of theater and all that entailed: fluid identities, mysterious entrances and exits, flamboyant costumes, and comedy and drama, all intended to delight and enthrall, inviting viewers to suspend belief. This background no doubt trained him well as he worked to overcome his lowly beginnings by continually refashioning his identity.
These figurines, including the familiar Harlequin in his checkered costume, portray characters from the commedia dell’arte, a form of Italian theater made popular across Europe by traveling actors.
The interiors of Venetian palaces, or palazzi, were richly appointed with elaborately carved furnishings, delicate gilded stucco plasterwork, sumptuous damask walls, frescoed ceilings, and paintings by the masters of the day. In addition to grand ballrooms, Venetian palazzi also contained smaller, intimate spaces, still richly decorated but specifically designed for more private encounters, such as courtship. In this painting by Venetian artist Pietro Longhi, set in closer quarters, there’s more going on than a simple music lesson. Music itself, involving harmony and emotion, often symbolized love or romance. And the pianist certainly seems more interested in the young woman than in his keyboard. Similar paintings by Longhi hang in the small but regal interior of the Ca’Rezzonico, shown below.
Casanova’s memoirs are filled with accounts of his experiences in such lush environments which he enjoyed both in Venice and later in Naples and Rome. Constantinople, now Istanbul, was the first of Casanova’s many journeys abroad, which would add up to 40,000 miles over his lifetime—an extraordinary achievement at a time when travel was difficult, dangerous, expensive, and time-consuming. Even just the 140 miles between Rome and Naples took six days by coach.
[I was raised] at one bound from the base role of a fiddler to that of a nobleman.
Back in Venice and penniless, Casanova took a job playing violin in a theater orchestra. But good fortune awaited. One night, he caught a ride in the gondola of a Venetian aristocrat, senator Matteo Bragadin. On the way, Bragadin almost died of a seizure. After rushing him to medical help, Casanova challenged the doctor’s advice, prompting Bragadin to believe the young man saved his life. For the next three years, Casanova lived in luxury at Bragadin’s palazzo, receiving an allowance and using the senator’s social status to mix with the uppermost levels of Venetian society.
Casanova used his elevated position to engage in behavior that soon got him into trouble. Uncomfortable and suspicious that a lowly “son of a comedian” had risen so far, spies acting on behalf of Venice’s rulers, both in the government and in the church, reported on his gambling, love affairs, and association with cardsharps and courtesans. In 1755, Casanova was arrested and taken across the Bridge of Sighs into the prison within Doge’s Palace, there to serve a five-year sentence. A little over one year later Casanova succeeded in a daring prison escape and fled to Paris.
A Young Man Abroad
The French royal palace of Versailles was built to dazzle, and its court set the tone for fashion and culture throughout Europe. As in Venice, Casanova here found ways to bypass the barriers to social mobility. He arrived in France in 1750, at age 25, and immediately connected with Italian actor friends who worked in Paris. These actors introduced him not only to the French theatrical scene, but also to the court of Louis XV. Versailles was considered one of the most lavish courts in Europe exemplified by the Hall of Mirrors shown below.
This engraving shows a masked ball given in 1745 in the Hall of Mirrors. This ball—at which king Louis XV first met his mistress-to-be Madame de Pompadour—took place five years before Casanova arrived in Paris. Nevertheless the image provides an excellent example of the extraordinary spectacle of the French court. All of the attendees are in costume. Notice the figures dressed in giant heads and others disguised as clipped topiary bushes! When Casanova arrived five years later, he quickly befriended Madame de Pompadour who championed Casanova to the King.
The panels below once decorated a room in a luxurious Paris mansion. Painted by François Boucher, they plunge us into a world of classical mythology, seen through the lens of the Rococo style, characterized by playful, sensuous themes and light-drenched, pastel colors. The Rococo emerged in France around the 1730s as a reaction against the heavy grandeur of the Baroque style. Full of graceful curves, Rococo decorative arts were inspired by natural forms like leaves, shells; and rocks; the name in fact derives from the French rocaille, or rockery, referring to the elaborate ornamentation with pebbles and shells sometimes seen in grottos and fountains.
Fashionable Rococo interiors integrated decorative arts, furnishings, and architecture with paintings such as the Boucher panels into a single design scheme, and were designed for smaller gatherings such as literary salons and, of course, lovers’ trysts. Amorous paintings created an effect of sensuous unity between objects and, in turn, between people.
Courtiers dressed in finery that rivaled the splendor of their surroundings. Court costumes like this embroidered velvet suit and brocade silk dress were custom made, labor intensive to create, and extremely expensive. Women wearing such dresses needed several servants to help them dress and undress.
Casanova was acutely aware of clothing’s transformative powers. In Paris, he immediately set to outfitting himself as an elegant gentleman, knowing that presenting a strong image would allow him to enter society and profit from it. The ever-cunning Casanova also frequently ingratiated himself with women by giving them clothing, often carefully choosing it himself.
This was the era of the libertine, a freethinker who rejected polite society’s conventions regarding love and sex. Libertines challenged the constraints of marriage and the condemnation of adultery. More broadly, the 18th century was a period in which notions of personal liberty expanded, ushering in new thinking about both sexual promiscuity and the ideal of romantic love. Within this environment women at times found more freedom, but they also ran greater risks. Bearing children during this period remained dangerous, with 1 out of 10 women dying during childbirth. For women in society, a baby born out of wedlock meant scandal for her family. For a female servant, it could spell complete ruin.
Before the 18th century, mythological images of the gods displayed heroic conquest and were restrained in their nudity. But by the time of Casanova, themes of love proliferated. In this French painting of 1770, Venus, the goddess of love, and her paramour, Mars, god of war, appear as naked mortals, in a bed rumpled by the night’s activities. The language of mythology gave many artists license to explore overtly erotic themes that reflected the era’s permissive attitudes toward sex. But not everyone was persuaded; the French philosopher and critic Denis Diderot deplored such displays of flesh, writing that he was tired of so many images of “tits and asses.” Symbols associated with classical mythology provide a veneer of respectability to this racy scene. Doves build a nest in Mars’s armor, signaling the peace brought about by the sensual reconciliation between the deities of love and war.
Manon Balletti, painted here at age 17, was the daughter of Silvia and Mario Balletti, the theatrical family who befriended Casanova when he first arrived in Paris. After having an affair with Silvia, Casanova fell deeply in love with her daughter. His relationship with the younger Balletti was a tumultuous one, and their affair came to an unhappy resolution for Casanova: Manon eventually rejected him and married another.
Although Casanova was unable to retain the affections of Manon, his time in France proved financially successful. In an astonishingly audacious endeavor, he successfully pitched French officials on establishing the first national lottery—taking ownership of the idea after hearing it explained and using his own masterly powers of persuasion to make it happen. The lottery built Casanova’s reputation as a financial wizard, and endless credit was extended to him. He set up an expensive textile workshop, but squandered huge amounts of money on it. Eventually, the market collapsed and Casanova lost almost all of his fortune. Loveless and penniless, Casanova was forced to move yet again, this time to England.
The Challenge of Seduction
By 1763, when Casanova began a nine-month visit to London, it was the biggest city in Europe. Its growing wealth was based on international trade, banking, and insurance. Casanova found British society very different from the Venetian and Parisian environments he had become adept at negotiating. In London, there was no glittering court, and his deficient English limited his opportunities. Nevertheless, the London chapters of his memoirs are crowded with accounts of places he went and people he met.
Londoners of all social classes went to Vauxhall Gardens for fireworks, music, and people-watching. In this print, well-dressed patrons stroll among the octagonal orchestra pavilion, Turkish dining tent, and supper boxes. Vauxhall was the place to see and be seen.
She could only speak English, and I liked to have all my senses, including that of hearing, gratified.
Kitty Fisher, London’s most celebrated courtesan, was one of the world’s first celebrities. Similar to reality television stars today, Kitty was an astute businesswoman and famous simply for being famous, illustrating the emerging influence of mass media on public opinion. Artists frequently reproduced portraits of beautiful women in prints and spread their images near and far, multiplying their fame. In this portrait Kitty is shown in a grand setting, with fine clothing and jewelry earned by her profession. The painter plays on her name with the little kitten fishing in the glass bowl. Naturally, an assignation with London’s foremost courtesan was irresistible to Casanova. Yet nothing sparked between the two. Casanova’s English was not up to the witty banter he liked to employ with women, and, as he put it, “love without language is an ugly business.” His lack of English marred his enjoyment of London, and shady financial dealings eventually forced him to flee back to France to avoid arrest.
The painting below by Bernardo Bellotto shows Dresden, which Casanova visited in 1752 and where he wrote an extremely successful play. The city was one of the many political and intellectual centers Casanova journeyed to during his extensive travels throughout his lifetime, hoping to find fresh adventures, valuable connections, and opportunities to make a new fortune. In Berlin, he tried and failed to persuade Frederick the Great, king of Prussia, to start a national lottery. In Saint Petersburg, Russia, he met Queen Catherine the Great. He also journeyed to Germany, Flanders, France, and Spain, hobnobbing along the way with people on all levels of the social ladder, from scoundrels to royalty.
It was in central Europe that Casanova befriended Lorenzo Da Ponte who, along with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, created Don Giovanni, an opera that seems to reflect Casanova and his own life. It is even rumored that Casanova had a hand in putting the final touches on the libretto.
Once a glorious butterfly, transformed into a worm.
Casanova’s biography abruptly ends in 1774, when the more adventurous chapters of his life had passed. In 1785, at age 60, he became librarian to Count Josef Karl von Waldstein at Duchcov Castle, Bohemia (now the Czech Republic). Casanova complained of the lack of excitement in letters to friends, but his years there were productive. He completed Icosameron, a sprawling science-fiction novel that did not bring him the anticipated fame and livelihood he had hoped for. Turning to his own sensational recollections, he wrote The Story of My Life. “Writing my memoirs was the only remedy I found to avoid going mad or dying of grief,” he wrote in a grim aside to his usually sunny narrative. Casanova remained at Duchcov until his death, in 1798, at age 73.
Truth & Reality
Benjamin Franklin, Frederick the Great, Voltaire, Catherine the Great, Madame de Pompadour, King George III, King Louis XV, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Samuel Johnson, and more than one pope—these are just the headliners in Casanova’s list of acquaintances. Casanova seems to have met every luminary and social butterfly of the mid-18th century—frequently dazzling them with his wit and charm, as he was quick to point out in The Story of My Life.
Imagine if Casanova were around today. He’d surely be on every form of social media. Would he be busy projecting a carefully constructed identity, astutely calculating how to increase his followers? We can only speculate. The story of Casanova compels us to ask—as we do in our daily encounters with constructed narratives and personalities on our personal screens—what is truth and what is reality?