- Casanova: Actor Lover Priest Spy
- Tarcher, 416 pp.
The Many Masks of Casanova
There now. Comfortable? Good. Just to explain again, this headpiece that you’re wearing will be monitoring your brain activity for our little psychology experiment. So for the first exercise, I’ll say a word, and you say the first word that comes into your head. Ready? Okay:
Oh dear. We seem to have blown a circuit.
Ah, Casanova. Men want to be him, and women want to be with him. Or is it the other way around? He’s Romeo with cojones, Bond without the Beretta, a man more sinned with than sinning. In the annals of sexual conquest, there has seldom been a more entertaining and knowing chronicler. Casanova, according to Casanova, was a legend.
But who was the real Casanova? Actually, let me rephrase. Was there a real Casanova? He wore many masks, but when he went home after his energetic performances did he ever bother to take them off?
Ian Kelly has his doubts, which is what makes his account of Giacomo Casanova a cut above the regular litanies of life histories. Structured in five acts, with intermezzo breaks between each act, this biography frames Casanova first and foremost as an actor.
Which is appropriate, considering his background. Born in Venice to a comedic actress and an indeterminate father (his official parent was Gaetano Casanova, but his mother had a wandering libido), Casanova was neglected and thought inordinately stupid as a young child. It was only after he began training to be a priest in the family of an Abate named Gozzi that his talents truly emerged.
Intellectual talents, that is. Casanova, like any good actor, was a quick and facile learner. He picked up languages easily, was interested in mathematics and science, and immersed himself in literature.
This desire in him grew into an appetite that could not be contained in a library. The teenage Casanova’s first sexual experience stoked not only his lust, but his lust for life. From then on, he was interested in tasting everything, seeing everything, doing everything.
But let’s get things straight, as Kelly does is in one of his intermezzos, Casanova’s conquests were not those of a glutton, but a gourmand. They tie in with his very Italian attitude toward food. Casanova savored his food, just as he savored his love affairs. The mechanical process of eating he left to aristocratic gentlemen on their Grand Tours of Europe (and European brothels).
And what a time it was to be alive. Casanova could not have wished for a gaudier, more glittering stage than the 18th century. Enlightenment ideals floated in the air above streets strewn with offal; the bosoms of painted ladies in waiting sparkled with jewelry made of paste:
Casanova’s eighteenth century had been in many senses a teatro del mundo itself – a world in thrall to the theatre. Shaped and mirrored in its lights and literature, reveling in theatrical artifice, Casanova’s life – from his dream-notes and memoirs – was structured by this idea of performance, schooled as he was in the shifting, reflective perspectives of Venice and its commedia del arte.
Abate Casanova did not last long in his chosen profession. Instead, he embarked on a series of haphazard careers that would take him from Constantinople to London, from Paris to St. Petersburg. He had a supernatural talent for making himself agreeable, and could gain access to the beau monde with one witty remark.
In Venice, for instance, young and unemployed, he made himself useful to three rich and influential patriarchs, impressing them with his medical know-how (he stepped in to save a man using only common sense) and his facility with the mystic cabbala. One of these patriarchs, Bragadin, would provide him with funds for his adventures for many years to come.
In France, he tried his hand at impressing the court of Louis XV and gaining the eye of Madame Pompadour. On the roads in Italy, he had an affair with Teresa Lanti, a female singer masquerading as a castrato and suited with a bizarre prosthesis to hide her secret. And back in Venice, he was arrested.
Kelly’s finest writing occurs in his descriptions of Casanova skittering through the small confines of this city. Here he shows us an impossibly beautiful work of art teeming with a stewy, seamy, secretive reality. Trapped between the medieval and modern, the East and the West, Venice held a contradiction in every stone. It was a place where Casanova could cavort with a nun and an ambassador, assort with actors, and gamble to his heart’s content. But it was also a place of God, and the bill collectors were about to demand the Catholic payment for his sin. His activities brought him to the attention of the Inquisition, who rightfully regarded him as a corrupting influence. For months he was confined in the prison next door to the Doge’s Palace, and it was only through the ineptitude of his jailors that he was able to make a thrilling escape through the ceiling of his cell.
From then on, he was a fugitive from his city, though his escape only had the effect of gilding his reputation amongst the glitterati. He returned to France and ran a lottery with some success. With his skill in cabbalistic practices, divining messages by translating words into numbers and back again, he swindled the mad Marquise d’Urfé into believing she could give birth to an immortal. She called him “a genuine adept under the mask of a man of no consequence.”
For years he was able to continue dancing this sprightly tune with the credulous elite, slipping behind stage at times to associate with the lower class actors and singers of the time, yet nothing could satisfy his wanderlust (or his creditors). He dabbled in spying. He went to London to visit an old lover and his bastard daughter and advertised for a mistress in the paper:
A Single…Lady may be immediately accommodated with a genteel and elegantly furnished first Floor…to which belong some peculiar Advantages.
He tried his catch-as-catch-can luck in Prussia, unsuccessfully trying to gain the favor of Frederick the Great, and then went onto to Russia to meet another with a similar moniker, Catherine. And when Lorenzo da Ponte needed input on his libretto for Mozart’s Don Giovanni, he was on hand to lend verisimilitude.
Still, he was not satisfied. His affairs, so seemingly fresh and loving in the beginning of his career, begin to acquire a sour taste. To help a pregnant woman abort her child, he administers an abortive and has sex with her. To help another pregnant woman, a nun, he helps her drug her chaperone with an accidental overdose. He sleeps with his daughter, likely siring his son and grandson at the same instant.
This begs the question, naturally, of why some woman hadn’t put a bullet in his back long before. Kelly answers it by noting that Casanova, as well as being an immoral seducer, was also an incredibly generous and kind lover. He remained in touch with many of his former mistresses throughout the years and shielded their identities in his memoirs. A freethinking Italian, he lacked the heartless menace of the Vicomte de Valmont in another famous Enlightenment tale, Les Liaisons Dangereuse.
Most surprising, perhaps, to modern readers is that it seems he did have a true love – at least according to Casanova as the nostalgic memoirist. Henriette was a woman he met on the road. On the run from a disastrous marriage, she was dressed as a man and sleeping with a Hungarian.
Smart and clear-eyed, Henriette was Casanova’s equal and they had a brief and poignant affair. This incident no doubt formed the basis of the recent film starring Heath Ledger, which built the affair into a flimsy fable about redemption. In reality, Henriette went back to her marriage, and Casanova to his tiring travels.
You can sense Kelly tiring, too, in the fourth and fifth acts of his player’s life. Recording the stops of one of the great travelers of the age can run the risk of sounding like a laundry list of cities, and as the years go on, Casanova becomes a grumpier, more self-absorbed companion. The tank is running low, and Casanova is growing old.
Eventually, of course, he had to stop. Weighed down by years and multiple bouts with venereal disease, he finds a kind of tenure at Dux, as a librarian of all things, and begins to craft his legacy. Writing about himself came fairly easily – as an actor he had the best training for such a task, being able to both act the part and at the same time regarding his activities with an audience’s eye.
There was something else, though, that I think elevated his work into the public imagination. Here is what he says in his own words:
Having lived it without ever thinking that I should take a fancy to write it, it may have an interest which it might not have if I had lived it intending to write it in my old age and, what is more, to publish it.
Casanova was indeed an actor, strutting and fretting his hour upon the magnificent stage of life, but he was more than that. He was an improvisator extraordinaire, a stand-up comedian, and his own director.
For this scintillating charlatan, life did not require the interpretation of a script; it was simply a fabulous evening open to possibility and the audience. From the first hurrah to the final curtain, while others cowered in fright in the wings, he jumped headlong into the light.
Elinor Teele is a freelance writer and photographer living in Massachusetts. In addition to reviews and essays, she writes short stories, novels and plays for children and adults. An adopted New Zealander, she holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge, England.