Monday, February 14, 2011

Lorenzo Da Ponte in New York

In a comment to the last in my recent string of posts about Casanova, noxrpm asked how Casanova's friend Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart's librettist, came to move to New York, where he finished out life as the first professor of Italian literature at Columbia University. Turning to Da Ponte's Memoirs, I learn that it was all about money. Or lack thereof: having failed to heed Casanova's advice to stay away from London, Da Ponte found himself there, owing everyone in sight. A lunch with a number of men who owed him money was inconclusive (perhaps because together they put away twelve bottles of wine?), and the next night Da Ponte was awakened by a knock:
I knew it was a constable of the court; but since he was the only one among so many whom I believed to be honest, sincere, and capable of charity and friendship, I went at once to open to him. It was then that he told me, with tears in his eyes, that by ten o'clock on the following morning he would have eleven writs against me; that my creditors (twelve in all) had promised him a fine gratuity if he had me in his house of detention before noon; but that the cruelty of those treacherous wretches had so moved his heart, that he had come to warn me and advise me to leave London.

I thanked him as he deserved, and offered him several guineas, which he refused disdainfully, even insisting that I accept a few of him! I need not describe the confused emotions that assailed me at that moment. He embraced me, and went away. It was not yet midnight. I dressed hurriedly and ran to see Gould, who was then managing the Opera.
After some hurried discussion--and a 100-guinea loan--Da Ponte went looking for a ship and within days was off to America to join his wife and children, who had been living there for some months with some of her family. They settled in New York, where he continued to be reliably insolvent until chance brought a meeting in a bookstore with Clement C. Moore, future author of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" and then-current trustee of Columbia:
I approached [the] counter and asked [the owner] if he had any Italian books in his store.

"I have a few," he replied, "but no one ever asks for them."

While we stood chatting, an American gentleman approached and joined in our conversation. I was soon aware from his remarks that he was admirably red in a variety of literature. Coming by chance to allude to the language and literature of my country, I took occasion to ask him why they should be so little studied in a country as enlightened as I believed America to be.

"Oh, sir," he replied, "modern Italy is not, unfortunately, the Italy of ancient times. She is not that sovereign queen which gave to the ages and to the world emulators, nay rivals, of the supreme Greeks."

He was then pleased to inform me that "five or at the most six" were the writers of fame, of whom the country of those great men could boast over the past six centuries. I asked him, not without a sarcastic smile, to name those authors; and he: "Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Ariosto, Tasso, . . . " And he stopped: "To tell the truth, I cannot recall the sixth."
Despite that inauspicious beginning, a friendship was struck, and from there the American infatuation with Old World high culture took over. As Arthur Livingston writes in his introduction to the NYRB Classics edition of Da Ponte's Memoirs, the Da Pontes "were the find of the social season of 1807," and, as society rallied 'round this perpetually broke novelty, Moore soon wrangled him the position at Columbia.

Unlike his friend, Casanova seems never to have seriously considered shifting his perpetually mobile life to America. According to Ian Kelly, in his biography of Casanova, we can blame the pox:
Oddly he eschewed a trip to America for exactly this reason the disease was widely and correctly assumed to have originated there, and it was thought it attacked the body more efficiently west of the Azores.
Alas! Imagine the havoc Casanova could have wreaked in the high society of Colonial America! Casanova taking up arms against the British! Cuckolding the Founding Fathers! Oh, history, how you've let us down!


  1. Casanova in New York! The Meatpacking District would have been more a scene, MUCH earlier.

  2. How interesting.

    P.S. The link to his Memoirs links to Indian Summer.