Georgian Celebrities – Be the Flame not the Moth
‘I loved, I was loved, my health was good, I had a great deal of money, and I spent it, I was happy and I confessed it to myself.’
With a name that is synonymous with the art of seduction, his amorous adventures are legendary. Casanova befriended royalty, popes and cardinals, as well the celebrities of his day including Voltaire, Goethe and Mozart. So, how did the world’s first playboy start out in life?
At the time of Casanova’s birth, the Republic of Venice was the pleasure capital of Europe. It was a favourite haunt of young Englishmen taking part in the Grand Tour. The glittering Carnival, abundant gambling houses, and beautiful courtesans were powerful attractions. This was Casanova’s world and he was to become its product, and most famous citizen.
Giacomo Girolamo Casanova was born in Venice in 1725, in the San Samuele neighbourhood. His mother was actress Zanetta Farussi, who was married to actor and dancer Gaetano Giuseppe Casanova. Giacomo was the first of six children. Because of his mother’s profession, it is suspected that some, or all, were fathered by men other than her husband. In his memoirs, Casanova stated his conviction that his real father was Michele Grimani, a member of a noble family and owner of the San Samuele theatre where Zanetta and Gaetano performed.
Casanova was brought up by his grandmother Marzia Baldissera while his mother toured Europe. His father died when he was eight. On his ninth birthday, Casanova was sent to a boarding house on the mainland in Padua. ‘So they got rid of me,’ he said.
He was then placed in the care of Abbé Gozzi, who tutored him and taught him to play the violin. It was in the Gozzi household that Casanova first encountered the opposite sex. He described Bettina, Gozzi’s sister, as ‘pretty, lighthearted, and a great reader of romances. … The girl pleased me at once, though I had no idea why. It was she who little by little kindled in my heart the first sparks of a feeling which later became my ruling passion.’
Casanova was quick witted, with an intense appetite for knowledge and a perpetually inquisitive mind. He entered the University of Padua at twelve and graduated at seventeen with a degree in law ‘for which I felt an unconquerable aversion’. He had also studied moral philosophy, chemistry, and mathematics, and was keenly interested in medicine ‘I should have been allowed to do as I wished and become a physician, in which profession quackery is even more effective than it is in legal practice’. While at university, Casanova developed his loved of gambling and quickly got into debt.
Back in Venice, Casanova was admitted as an abbé. By now, he had become something of a dandy. He was tall and dark, and wore his long hair powdered, scented, and elaborately curled. He quickly befriended a 76-year-old Venetian senator Alvise Gasparo Malipiero. Malipiero moved in the best circles and taught the young Casanova a great deal about good food and wine, and how to behave in society. When Casanova was caught dallying with the actress Teresa Imer – for whom the senator himself had a fancy – the senator threw them both out of his house. Casanova’s growing curiosity about women led to his first sexual experience, with sisters Nanetta and Maria Savorgnan. Casanova proclaimed that his life’s direction was set by their encounter.
Casanova’s church career was tainted by scandal. After his grandmother’s death, he entered a seminary, but debts landed him in prison for the first time. He found employment with Cardinal Acquaviva in Rome. But, when Casanova became involved in a scandal involving a pair of star-crossed lovers, Cardinal Acquaviva dismissed him.
In search of a new profession, Casanova bought a commission and became a military officer. His first step was to look the part:
‘Reflecting that there was now little likelihood of my achieving fortune in my ecclesiastical career, I decided to dress as a soldier … I inquire for a good tailor … he brings me everything I need to impersonate a follower of Mars. … My uniform was white, with a blue vest, a shoulder knot of silver and gold… I bought a long sword, and with my handsome cane in hand, a trim hat with a black cockade, with my hair cut in side whiskers and a long false pigtail, I set forth to impress the whole city.’
He found promotion too slow and his duties boring, and managed to lose most of his pay playing faro. Casanova soon abandoned his military career and returned to Venice.
At the age of 21, Casanova decided to become a professional gambler. When he had lost all the money that was left from the sale of his commission, he turned to his old benefactor Alvise Grimani for a job. Casanova embarked on his third career, as a violinist in the San Samuele theater, ‘a menial journeyman of a sublime art in which, if he who excels is admired, the mediocrity is rightly despised. … My profession was not a noble one, but I did not care. Calling everything prejudice, I soon acquired all the habits of my degraded fellow musicians.’ He and some of his friends, ‘often spent our nights roaming through different quarters of the city, thinking up the most scandalous practical jokes and putting them into execution … we amused ourselves by untying the gondolas moored before private homes, which then drifted with the current’.
Good fortune came his way when Casanova saved the life of a Venetian nobleman, who had a stroke while riding with Casanova in a gondola. The senator and his friends thought that Casanova was wise beyond his years, and that he must have knowledge of the occult. The senator invited Casanova into his household and became a lifelong patron.
‘I took the most creditable, the noblest, and the only natural course. I decided to put myself in a position where I need no longer go without the necessities of life: and what those necessities were for me no one could judge better than me…. No one in Venice could understand how an intimacy could exist between myself and three men of their character, they all heaven and I all earth; they most severe in their morals, and I addicted to every kind of dissolute living.’
For the next three years, under the senator’s patronage, Casanova led the life of a nobleman, dressed magnificently, and as was natural to him, spent most of his time gambling and engaging in amorous pursuits. His patron was a tolerant man, but he warned Casanova that one day he would pay the price for his lifestyle. ‘I made a joke of his dire Prophecies and went my way.’ However, not long after this warning, Casanova dug up a freshly buried corpse in order to play a practical joke on an enemy. The victim went into paralysis and never recovered. At the same time, a young girl accused Casanova of rape. He was later acquitted of this crime because of lack of evidence, but Casanova decided it was time to leave Venice.