No trip to Venice would be complete without sparing a thought for the Jack of Hearts himself. The infamous, erudite and relentlessly charming eighteenth century adventurer: Giacomo Casanova. Loved by women and admired by men he is a fitting symbol of the earliest signs of the emergence of a liberal society from under the wing of the Inquisitors and the Tyrannical Church of the middle ages. To his fans he is still the greatest of libertines and the inventor of rock and roll. To his knockers he was nothing but a talented liar. To this criticism, he would of course have replied:
"I have always loved truth so passionately that I have often resorted to lying as a way of introducing it into the minds which were ignorant of its charms. When you fool a fool you strike a blow for intelligence."
Most of what we know about Casanova comes from his own highly entertaining memoirs and he excelled at representing himself as the romantic hero. In Eighteenth century society eloquence, wit and reason were king and conversation had reached the level of high art. Those who could talk the talk could always get the right invitations and Casanova's fantastic stories had made him a celebrity in his own lifetime. He loved the attention.
"I have always felt a great desire to receive praise and applause from polite society"
He was born a Venetian in April 1725. Of course it seems fitting that he was born of the union between two theatre actors. His early life was dominated by strong women. His mother was a very beautiful actress and when she and her husband went to work in London he was placed in the care of his maternal grandmother. He was a sickly child who suffered from terrible nosebleeds and his mother paid a witch to cure him with magic. Apparently it worked, Casanova didn't quite believe it but he did keep an interest in magic ever after, an interest that eventually brought unwelcome attention from the Inquisitors. His father died in 1733 but his mother resolutely refused to take another husband and raised the six children alone on an actress's wages. So his early life must have been a bit of a struggle to say the least and he was by no means born into high-society.
"Whether it is happy or unhappy, a man's life is the only treasure he can ever possess."
He was given a good education and he had a natural aptitude for learning, he was curious and very good with words. On the strength of this he was accepted to study at the University of Padua and like many intellectual young men of his time he trained for the priesthood. Fortunately for history this was not to be his fate, he was expelled amid scandals involving young ladies and wine. The precedent was set!
Although it may seem odd that he wanted to be priest in the first place, there is evidence throughout his memoirs that he was a true believer. But that's not to say he was a moralist or ever felt he was guilty of sin. On the contrary he believed that God wanted human beings to have pleasure. A dangerously modern view even then.
"Happy are those who know how to obtain pleasures without injury to anyone; insane are those who fancy that the Almighty can enjoy the sufferings, the pains, the fasts and abstinences which they offer to Him as a sacrifice, and that His love is granted only to those who tax themselves so foolishly."
Out of the priesting game Casanova had a go at serving in the Venetian army. Tiring of that he tried his hand as a professional Violinist without much success. He worked as a legal secretary and apprentice to the lawyer Manzoni and graduated from a doctorate at Padua University. He used his education to get a job as a secretary to the Cardinal Acquaviva in Rome. He was fired amid scandals involving young women and wine.
Returning to Venice jobless and frustrated it seems he just mucked about and had a good time. A good time that was increasingly funded by small-scale con jobs, fast-talking and magic tricks. Although popular he was already making powerful enemies. In 1755 he was arrested without warning, marched through St Marks Square and into the Doge's palace. He found himself crossing the infamous bridge of sighs and thrown into the Leads. Prison cells so called because they were roved with lead. He was imprisoned without any trial or formal list of charges and never even stood before the Inquisitors.
He did manage to argue his case with the Inquisitors in the end. He left them a note in his cell the night he escaped. The note explained that he wasn't going to give any excuse for leaving as the Inquisitors had given him no excuse for keeping him there. This daring escapade marked the end of his 388 days of imprisonment. It also made him an overnight conversation topic in every Salon in Europe. He told the story again and again and eventually put it into his memoirs. No one is exactly sure how much of the details are true and how much embellished. But he did affect an escape.
In his memoirs he tells it like this. He managed to arrange clandestine communication with an imprisoned priest in the cell above him. This was done by the two lending each other books and writing inside the sleeves. Casanova had spent some time sharpening a piece of metal he found in the attic during exercise and he passed it to the priest. He persuaded the priest to cut through the floor and one night he climbed up into the cell above him and using rope made from bedding clambered onto the roof of the doges palace. He and the monk endured several hours of exploring the roof until they eventually found a way back into another part of the palace. They managed to negotiate their way through several locked doors and ended up sat at the foot of the Scala D'Oro at dawn. Servants came to open the front door and Casanova ran for it.
Legend has it that Casanova went down to Florian's for a quick espresso before he set off. But the man himself doesn't mention this in his biography. His year in the Leads may have depressed him but Casanova had an amazing capacity to raise his own spirits in hard times. His personal philosophy was very positive and he couldn't stand the self-pity of others such as the Priest, whose character he records with distaste.
"As for myself, I always willingly acknowledge my own self as the principal cause of every good and of every evil which may befall me; therefore I have always found myself capable of being my own pupil, and ready to love my teacher."
And life had many more lessons to teach. At the age of 32 Casanova's life really kicked off when he went to France and capitalized on his reputation by successfully making himself into a star. The story of his life that follows is a succession of dizzying highs and abysmal lows as he moved from country to country, inventing the national lottery, dining with the emperor of Russia, befriending Voltaire, Rousseau, Mozart and even the Pope. Despite being hounded by creditors, cuckolded aristocrats and worst of all the inquisition he even found time to translate Homer's Odyssey into Italian. All of this gives Casanova the right to say with absolute conviction:
"Those who do not love life do not deserve it."
And of course there was Casanova the lover, who claimed himself to have had over a hundred women and had left behind a trail of broken hearts when he finally retired to pass his pipe and slippers years as a librarian in Hungary.
He claimed however that he had been no womanizer and that he fell deeply in love with all of his conquests. But for all that he never got over the mysterious Mademoiselle Henriette. They fell in love in 1749 and what started out as:
"People who believe that a woman is not enough to make a man equally happy all the twenty-four hours of a day have never known an Henriette."
Ended up as.
"The blame lies entirely with the female sex for bewitching his mind and enslaving his heart. Oh, seducing sex! Source of pain! Let a poor innocent person go in peace."
But it is a credit to Giacomo Casanova that many of his old lovers, including Henriette, remained friends in correspondence with him until the end of his life and there were times when he would aid them and at other times they would come to his rescue.
So when you are wandering around the back streets of Old Venice or spending an hour walking hand in hand along canals and through campos, see if you can catch a glimpse of Casanova's world. A corner where he may have laughed with a friend. A spot he may have walked with a lover. And wish the old rogue well.