Friday, January 28, 2011

Casanova requests the pleasure of our company for one more night . . .

Casanova's History of My Life runs to 3,700 pages in manuscript, so it doesn't seem like overkill to spend one more day on it, and on his life. And by chance, this week when I've fallen once again for Casanova's charms is the same week that Ian Kelly's acclaimed biography Casanova: Actor, Love, Priest, Spy (2009) is being published in paperback. I'm now about 100 pages in--Casanova's twenty-four years old and just coming into his own as a seducer and a roue--and it's already clear that Kelly's created a fine companion to the memoirs, corroborating a surprising number of Casanova's stories and giving useful context about the state of travel, sexual mores, Venice, and more. There's of course no substitute for Casanova's book itself--including, I'd argue, the abridged edition--but if you're not sure yet whether you want to set out on the long road with the Chevalier de Seingalt, making his acquaintance through Kelly's book would be a good test.

Some notes, then, to close out the week:

1 On Wednesday I drew the inevitable comparisons between Casanova and Don Juan, and if I'd had Kelly's book to hand, I could have shared this scene from the first page:
Casanova had preferred Don Giovanni [to Mozart's newest work, La Clemenza di Tito]. He had collaborated on the libretto and attended the premiere in the same theatre. "Seen it?" he was said to have responded to his old friend the Venetian librettist da Ponte. "I've practically lived it."
From there, it's only fair to turn to Da Ponte's own memoirs, in which he records some advice the sixty-seven-year-old Casanova gave him in 1792. Casanova, who already owed Da Ponte money, added a couple of sequins to his debt, saying,
[S]ince I can never return either these, or the others for which I am in your debt, I will give you three pieces of advice which will be worth much more than all the treasures of this world: first, my dear Da Ponte, if you would make your fortune, do not go to Paris--go to London; second, when you get to London, never set foot inside the Caffe degl' Italiani; and third, never sign your name!
Laments Da Ponte:
Happy me, had I religiously followed his advice! Almost all the ills and losses I suffered in that city . . . came from my having frequented the Caffe degl' Italiani, and from having signed my name imprudently and without understanding the consequences.
Also interesting t is the fact that, despite Casanova's age, Da Ponte's wife "had been dazed by the vivacity, the eloquence, the inexhaustible vein, and all the many ways, of that extraordinary old man." She asked for his story, and Da Ponte "entertained her pleasantly for many hours recounting to her what I knew of it." Casanova surely would have been pleased to learn that he'd made such an impression.

2 In May of 1744, the nineteen-year-old Casanova stopped off in Orsara, where he'd been briefly a few months before:
He imagined he would not be recognized, dressed splendidly as a Venetian officer, but the local barber-surgeon remembered him with unexpected clarity and unusual cause: "You communicated a certain love token [gonorrhoea] to Don Geralamo's housekeeper," he recalled, "who gave it to a friend, who shared it with his wife. She gave it to a libertine who distributed it so effectively that in less than a month I had fifty patients whom I cured for a proper fee. . . . Can I hope," he continued, "that you will remain here for a few days and give the disease a fresh start?"
Which serves, to those of us who tend to think about economics, as a reminder that GDP is a crude measure, and that not every boost to GDP is a net gain for society. The scene also calls to mind the novels of John Irving. Surely I'm not the only male who, on reading as a teenager about character after character getting the clap in Irving's books, fearfully wondered if I was being given frightening insights into inevitable side effects of adult sexuality?

3 Kelly tells how, at not quite sixteen, and seeming, as a quick-witted young man of limited means and pedigree, destined for the church, Casanova delivered his first sermon, in Venice:
Casanova delivered the sermon to some acclaim, and a collection plate that profited him "nearly fifty zecchini . . . when I was greatly in need of money . . . together with some love letters all of which made me think seriously of becoming a preacher."
It was a different era, and the combination of the church's ubiquity and relative worldliness meant that the role and expectations of a clergyman then were very different from what we associate with them now, but even knowing that, it remains hard to imagine Casanova as a priest. Make that very hard.

4 Speaking of religion, while in Constantinople as a nineteen-year-old abate, Casanova explained to a Muslim friend and patron that Catholicism offered him an important advantage in his most cherished pursuit:
He even confessed that he could be a philanderer and a good Catholic by means of frequent confession and absolution: "I am a complete man and I am a Christian. I love the fair sex and I hope to enjoy many conquests . . . for when we confess our crimes to our priests they are obliged to absolve us."
I'm no Catholic, but I don't think that's quite how it's supposed to work.

And with that, let us quietly descend the drainpipe and steal away in silence from Casanova's rooms. Next week I'll be back with . . . nuns. Not, let's be clear, nuns like Casanova's beloved M. M., with whom he ______ and _______ and ______. No, these are upstanding, twentieth-century nuns, with very human problems but very holy ambitions--and nary a Casanova in sight.


  1. Wonderful! And how have I not read--or even been aware off--da Ponte? I'm ordering his memoirs now!

  2. Same here, been meaning to read Da Ponte's memoirs. Strange how Mozart's best librettist ended up in NYC... I know he was the first Italian professor @ Columbia, but I also read somewhere that when he first arrived, he sold liquor or something?!? Is this true, L?