“Worthy or not, my life is my subject, and my subject is my life.”
The sex lives of Errol Flynn or George Clooney are nothing compared with the rakish life of the most famous womanizer of them all, Giacomo Casanova.
He was born in Venice in 1725 to a couple of travelling actors. Being a sickly child who suffered severe nosebleeds, his parents didn’t believe that he had long for this world and callously ignored him. Casanova’s world was one of silence. They seldom spoke to him and he didn’t speak back. Because his parents took their show on the road, it meant that he was raised almost entirely by his grandmother. One hot summer day while leaning against a wall to support his head while suffering through yet another nose bleed, his grandmother took him by the hand and led him through Venice’s bright sunlit streets to a dark hovel. An old woman was inside, surrounded by 5 or 6 cats. She instructed the boy to climb inside a chest and she closed the lid telling him all-the-while to not be afraid.
He heard many strange things through the chest walls. When she opened the lid, she caressed his body with herbs and ointments. The old woman promised 2 things. 1) that he would regain his health if he told no one about this experience and 2) that a beautiful woman would visit him the following night.
The next night while lying in his bed, a fairy woman clothed in a dress of dazzling fabric sat on the edge of his bed and spoke to him in a voice that sounded like phrases of music. She bent down and gave him a gentle kiss. In less than a month, his nose bleeds stopped. He learnt to read and was filled with a thirst for knowledge. He was 8 years and 4 months old.
Overture – Bernard Haitink (Don Giovanni ROH’92)
Casanova was sent to board in Padua where he studied Law and women. He just turned 16 and decided to become a friar. The women were attracted to this fair-haired boy. Casanova wrote in his autobiography, “The History of My Life”: “In my capacity as young friar of no importance, they wanted me to accompany them when they went to see their daughters or nieces in the visiting rooms of the convents where they were being educated….I went to their homes at all hours and was admitted unannounced: I was scolded when I allowed a week to go by without going to see them….And when I entered the ladies’ apartments…I could hear them running away….but they said they were foolish as soon as they saw it was only me….I found their trust charming.”
This piece is from Johann Strauss II ‘Casanova’ The Nun’s Chorus: Laura a young nun is torn between her love for Casanova and her duty.
Joan Sutherland-Johann Strauss-(1825-1899)-Casanova-Nun’s chorus
Casanova, this “young friar or no importance” was offered the privilege of preaching the sermon the day after Christmas. He was a huge success! Casanova was pulling in the alms and love letters from the smitten ladies who had just listened to his words from the pews below. Nothing could stop young Casanova now. He believed that he was well on his way to becoming Italy’s leading preacher….until that is, his second trip up to the pulpit. When he should have been studying his notes, he lingered over his meal a little too long. He was a bit too cocky, too sure of himself. In the middle of his sermon he forgot his place and began to lose control of the congregation. He faked a swoon. It definitely lacked class. Shame drove him back to school for further studies. Before long he received his degree as a doctor of civil and canon law from the University of Padua. Though life as a clergyman wasn’t for him! His love of women was just too intense. He exchanged his bible for a sword but that didn’t fit either. In 1746 he was 20 years old and penniless. What did he do? Casanova became a violinist in the San Samuele Theatre Orchestra.
Antonio Vivaldi Concerto in D major Op. 3 No. 1 RV549
“L’estro Armonico” Performed by Tafelmusik
And then something else happened to change Casanova’s life. On April 21, 1746 Casanova had just finished playing the violin at a wedding. As he was walking home, he noticed the senator Matteo Giovanni Bradadin was getting into a gondola. An envelope fell out of the senator’s cloak. Casanova handed it to him. For his trouble, he was invited to join him. That night, the senator suffered a stroke and Casanova rushed to find a doctor who bled the man. Later, another specialist gave the senator a mercury treatment. Casanova felt that this was not the best medicine for his new friend who was lying there burning up with fever. Casanova washed him down and removed the plaster. The next day Casanova was hailed as a hero! He was given credit for saving the senator’s life. In return the senator made Casanova his unofficial adopted son giving him an endless supply of cash. Casanova lived the life of a young nobleman devoted to pleasure.
Bacchanale – Samson et Dalila – Saint Saëns , Osaka Philharmonic Orchestra; Director: Eiji Oue
Casanova’s wild life caught the attention of the State Inquisitors. On the senator’s advice he left Venice and began new adventures – many of them affairs of the heart. He met one of the greatest loves of his life, the mysterious adventuress Henriette. When she reluctantly left Casanova to return to her family, he consoled himself by travelling all over Europe seducing, loving, and enjoying the pleasures of the flesh. It is during this period that he begins to write. In 1752 he translates the opera libretto of Louis de Cahusac’s ‘Zoroastre’. This was his first published work. His mother, Zanetta, played one of the lead roles and Jean-Philippe Rameau provided the music.
Jean-Philippe Rameau: Zoroastre: Overture.
Les Arts Florissants- William Christie
While Casanova was loving his way through Europe and having a grand old-time, he was still under the watchful eye of the State Inquisitors. Not only did they believe him to possess secret knowledge of the forbidden ‘occult’, but surely this man had to be a spy. He counted foreign ambassadors, members of the Venetian government and men of wealth and power as his friends. He had to be trading state secrets over dinner or whispering more than sweet nothings as pillow talk. On July 25, 1755 Casanova was arrested at daybreak. His writings were seized as well as his books on magic and sexual positions. But Casanova held his head high. He dressed most carefully as if he were going to a wedding. He donned his best hat and an outfit of silk and lace. How could such a man be imprisoned? Well he was.
His home was now one of the cells under the lead roof of the Ducal palace. “In a dark dungeon with ceilings so low that he could not stand upright”.
O Clavis David “Come and from his cell lead forth the captive who sits in darkness and in the shadow of death.
The fourth of the O Antiphons O Clavis David -the Pontifical North American College Choir in Rome
15 months later on October 31, 1756 another miracle happened. Under the cover of night Casanova escapes. From the roof, he entered the attic. He found a narrow stairway and broke down some doors and found himself in the study of the minister of war. A guard looked up and noticed Casanova with his fine hat trimmed with lace and a white plume. The guard had long forgotten about his famous prisoner on the roof and thought that this must be a nobleman, someone locked up by mistake the night before. He opened the door and Casanova and a friar who escaped with him, took flight down the stairs and jumped into the first gondola they found. Casanova wrote in his memoirs: “I turned and looked at the entire length of the beautiful canal and seeing not a single boat…admired the most beautiful day one could hope for. The first ray of magnificent sun rising above the horizon the two young boatmen rowing at full speed; …and thinking at the same time, of the cruel night I had spent, of the place where I had been the day before…”
Gluck – Dance of the Furies, Orfeo and Euridice
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
Casanova escaped to Paris. After he participated in founding the French state lottery he became very wealthy and then he sold his interest and invested in a silk printing factory. When an employee stole most of the factory’s goods, Casanova’s partners and creditors thought he had been up to no good. Once again he was arrested but this time he only spent 4 days on the slammer. Far from making him a social outcast, Casanova’s ‘great escape” made him the toast of society. He was invited to the best dinners and shared his bed with the most desirable women.
Where did he meet these beautiful women? At the opera. He sat in a box near the orchestra, he admitted in his own words “more to see the actresses than hear the music.” Throughout his writings he wrote: “Not knowing where to go, and wanting amusement, I went to the rehearsals at the Opera.”
When in Paris he attended a performance of Andre Campa’s “Les Festes Venitiennes’ and saw two of the world’s greatest dancers. He was in his element. Not only were the woman beautiful but, “The morals of the performers seem to be freer in Paris”. When he voiced his observation, one quick-witted lady remarked: “You are in France monsieur., where the price of life is known and people try to enjoy it to the fullest. We love pleasures and we consider ourselves happy when we can initiate them.”
Campra – Les Festes Venitiennes
It is not only Casanova’s love life that kept him running. He was on secret missions for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He travelled to Holland to negotiate the sale of French bonds. In Holland, a French court found him guilty of forging bills of exchange. In Cologne he was accused of evading a debt. In Stuttgart he fell victim to professional card sharps. Unable to pay his debt he was imprisoned once again. And again he escaped, this time to Zurich. Later, in Berlin, Frederick the Great offered him a job as governor of a corps of Pomeranian cadets. Casanova refused. In Moscow he met Catherine the Great. While in Warsaw he met the King and sought a court appointment but quarreled over an actress with the Count Xavier Branicki. They fought in a duel which Branicki was gravely wounded. So much for his appointment! But this duel held Casanova in good stead with the upper crust because they reasoned if a count was willing to fight him, he must be a man of substance!
But Casanova went through some hard times. He was always running from something – creditors, irate husbands, ticked-off governments and he found the places where he could take refuge became fewer and fewer. In 1785, Count Waldstein, a Freemason like Casanova, and a man intrigued by the mysteries of the occult, offered him a position as librarian at his castle in Dux, (in what is now the Czech Republic.) Casanova hesitated but he accepted because no better offer came along. It gave him time to write.
Casanova made several trips from Dux to Prague in 1787. It is in Prague at the house of a gifted soprano and her husband, that he met Mozart. Mozart was having a blast with his friends and was not motivated to finish his opera. The rehearsals weren’t going well either. Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, had to return to Vienna for a meeting with Emperor Joseph II.
The clock was ticking and the performance date of Mozart’s opera was quickly approaching. Mozart’s friends locked him in a room so he could finish composing. Casanova arrived in Prague and met Mozart. Like, Mozart Casanova was a Free Mason too and a ‘Chevalier in the Papal Order of the Golden Spur’. He talked with Mozart about some of his adventures and set some dialogue on paper. This opera was ‘Don Giovanni‘.
Florida Grand Opera Don Giovanni Act II Scene 2 Sextet
- Who Do You Think You Are? Casanova? (thebusyteapot.com)
- Photo Coverage and Interview: John Malkovich Takes on Casanova in THE GIACOMO VARIATIONS (toronto.broadwayworld.com)
- Fellini’s Casanova (Il Casanova Di Federico Fellini) (myoldaddiction2.wordpress.com)
- Malkovich’s Casanova coming to Canada (metronews.ca)