”I have loved women to a frenzy,” the 18th-century writer and adventurer Giacomo Casanova wrote in his huge memoir, ”History of My Life.” And indeed he did. By one count, Casanova made love to 132 women during his life, a large number, at least by the preinflationary standards of the day.
His amorous pursuits made his reputation for the next 200 years, and the name ”Casanova” became synonymous with a male neurosis. In popular culture, he has often been portrayed as something of a buffoon. In the 1954 film ”Casanova’s Big Night,” Bob Hope masquerades as Casanova pursuing the lovely Joan Fontaine through Venice. In Fellini’s ”Casanova,” with Donald Sutherland, and in ”La Nuit de Varennes,” with Marcello Mastroianni, Casanova is irredeemably dissolute.
But the popular portrayal has obscured Casanova’s exploits as a magician, a spy, a translator of the ”Iliad” and possibly, a co-author of the libretto for Mozart’s ”Don Giovanni.” Casanova was said to be the only person ever to escape from the Doges’ Palace in Venice. And he was a monumental egomaniac, able to find enough interesting material about himself to fill 12 volumes of writings.
But for the most part it has been nearly impossible to read Casanova’s memoirs in English. They have long been out of print and difficult to obtain. Now, for the first time in over 25 years, they are available once again, in an attractively bound six-volume edition of a 1966 translation by Willard R. Trask, published in May by Johns Hopkins University Press. Next month, Farrar, Straus & Giroux will publish ”Casanova, the Man Who Really Loved Women,” written by a Belgian psychoanalyst, Lydia Flem. As much a meditation as a full-scale biography, Ms. Flem’s book asserts that Casanova was something of a feminist.
It looks as if Casanova is on his way to rehabilitation.
”Having him available in translation makes it possible for people to discover he’s a wonderful writer,” said Jay Caplan, a professor of French literature at Amherst College.
For Robert Darnton, a professor of history at Princeton and an authority on French literature of the Revolutionary period, Casanova was not the usual Don Juan. ”Casanova is a worldly-wise figure who rises above the defeats of his later life through the sheer power of his literary imagination,” he said. ”Sex is a part of the story, but only the vehicle for a deeper knowledge of the human condition.” But who was the historical Casanova? How much of what he wrote was true? J. Rives Childs, a diplomat and author of a 1988 biography of Casanova, combed archives across Europe in an attempt to track down the facts behind Casanova’s assertions. ”Much has been made,” Childs wrote, of ”the occasional discrepancies found in the narrative.” But most of these lapses, Childs said diplomatically, occur because ”Casanova was of exemplary punctiliousness in protecting the identity of women of any social standing with whom he had liaisons.”
He was born Giacomo Casanova in Venice in 1725, of Spanish ancestry. In his memoir, he claims that one of his ancestors sailed with Christopher Columbus. Casanova’s parents were actors, considered a lowly class by Venetians, but were nonetheless immensely popular. Young Giacomo was a sickly child, given to nosebleeds. When he was only a year old, his mother, Zaneta, abandoned him to the care of his grandmother so that she could pursue her acting career. It could be argued that the rest of his life was a search for the maternal warmth that was abruptly taken from him when he was a baby.
Judging from Casanova’s own account of his early exploits, he was a beautiful boy, androgynous in appearance, with curly hair that young girls liked to run their fingers through. When he was 11, Casanova was sent to Padua to study for the priesthood under the tutelage of an Abbe Gozzi. It was there that Casanova seems to have found his real calling, when he was seduced by the priest’s sister, Bettina.
Shortly thereafter he returned to Venice in his priestly robes, and seduced two sisters simultaneously. He also came under the protection of the first of a series of rich patrons, a Senator Malipiero, who, Childs speculates, might have been his real father.
From then on, Casanova’s life appears to have followed a pattern. There would be a rich patron. Casanova would get involved in a scheme. He would seduce someone. There would be a scandal, and he would have to leave town in a hurry. His feverish travels through France, Poland, Germany and Italy provide a panoramic history of 18th-century Europe, a landscape with few cultural boundaries.
In 1760, he met Voltaire. Casanova described their meeting thus:
”This,” I said to him, ”is the happiest moment of my life. I have a sight finally of my master; it is for 20 years, sir, that I have been your pupil.”
Voltaire’s reply, Casanova writes, was: ”Honor me with another 20, but promise me also to come and bring my fees at the end of that time.”
The two argued about poets — including Ariosto, who was Casanova’s favorite — and Casanova told Voltaire he disagreed with some of his writings.
Casanova’s memoirs are also a chronicle of 18th-century music. In 1784, by one account, he met Da Ponte. In Childs’s biography of Casanova, he quotes an eyewitness to the encounter as recalling that Da Ponte asked Casanova to help with the libretto for ”Don Giovanni,” an opera that somewhat resembles his own autobiography.
Equal-Opportunity Approach to Women
Casanova seduced women of all classes, including a number of nuns. He also seemed to like underage girls. He never married, though he had children. In one precipitous episode, he almost married his own daughter, Leonilda. He actually went to bed with her and her mother, though he said that he left the child ”intact.”
Still, Dr. Flem argues in her new book: ”Casanova never breaks up with a woman. Separation is always by mutual consent.” And when he breaks up with a woman, there is ”no rancor, no heartbreak, no revenge, no heartache. At most a bit of sadness.”
Sometimes, Casanova writes, he liked women to dress him up as a girl. He appears to have had some homosexual experiences, though he preferred women to men.