Casanova bio has irresistible charms of its own

Author and journalist Laurence Bergreen is the accomplished biographer of a long list of famous people, ranging from Columbus and Marco Polo to Al Capone and Louis Armstrong. His latest book, however, introduces us to a man whose life remains obscure even though his name long ago entered the dictionary as a generic term for “a man who is a promiscuous and unscrupulous lover.”

“Casanova: The World of a Seductive Genius” (Simon & Schuster) is the surprising life story of Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798), whom Bergreen describes as “the Venetian adventurer, spy, duelist, gambler, escape artist, and the author of nearly one hundred novels, poems, and treatises.” Although Casanova has long been eclipsed by what his name has become synonymous with, he was known by Rousseau, Voltaire, Mozart, Catherine the Great and Benjamin Franklin. Indeed, he was so celebrated during his lifetime that Bergreen insists the 18th century was not only the Age of Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment, but also “the Age of Casanova, the Venetian arriviste who incarnated its passions and pleasures.”

The flesh-and-blood Casanova started out as an inauspicious figure. The son of an actress who also was a courtesan, he was “neither handsome, nor well-educated, nor well-born.” At 6 feet 2 inches in height, with a broad forehead and a big nose, he resembled “a giant goose.” “Awkward [and] slow-witted” in childhood, according to Bergreen, the Scottish biographer James Boswell later dismissed the grown-up Casanova as “a blockhead.” And yet Casanova’s charm was somehow irresistible: “He slept with one hundred and twenty-two women, by his own count, and perhaps with a few men,” Bergreen reveals. 

As we learn in Bergreen’s fascinating biography, Casanova was much more than a highly successful seducer. Fatefully, he was diverted from his studies for the priesthood by an opportunity to become the protégé of a prominent Venetian senator. He voyaged to far-flung courts and great houses and acquainted himself with princes and pashas, thereby acquiring the social and intellectual shine that concealed his humble origins and — at the same time — enabled him to gather intelligence and put it to good use. Ever curious and adventurous, he fell afoul of the Inquisition by reason of his devotion to both kabbalah and Freemasonry.

Of course, Casanova was even more devoted to the pleasures of the flesh. His first conquest in adolescence was the 13-year-old sister of the priest who was his tutor: “It was she who little by little kindled in my heart the first sparks of a feeling which later became my ruling passion,” Casanova wrote. To his credit, Bergreen describes the numerous flirtations, seductions and love affairs for which Casanova is famous with both elegance and an appropriate touch of eroticism. Indeed, the book reminded me at moments of the more decorous literary erotica of the 19th century just as Casanova’s real-life adventures are faintly reminiscent of Henry Fielding’s “Tom Jones” or William Thackeray’s “Barry Lyndon.”

Bergreen enriches the narrative with his asides on the elaborate mechanics of seduction in Casanova’s world. “By one estimate, [Venetian women] spent seven hours a day at their toilette, much of it with their hairdressers, who applied a rainbow of dyes to make their hair shimmer like spun gold,” he writes. As a result, they became “confidants, confessors, and at times lovers of the ladies they attended.” We discover, by the way, that 18th century condoms were “fashioned from linen or the intestine of an animal.” And he reveals that the elaborate social rituals of the age were charged with sexual opportunity: “In a society consisting of arranged marriages based on lineage and wealth, husbands and wives went their separate ways after fulfilling their duty to produce heirs.”

Now and then, the erotic adventures take some very strange turns. Casanova falls in love with a famous castrato named Bellino, so feminine in appearance that Casanova insists on a physical inspection to satisfy his doubts about Bellino’s gender. “My dear Bellino,” cries Casanova, “I am sure that you are not of my sex.” When Bellino puts him off, the seducer satisfies himself with not one but both of Bellino’s sisters. Relentless and undeterred, Casanova continues his quest, and the denouement is a genuine shocker.

Bergreen finds Casanova to be worthy of the dictionary definition that is now attached to his famous name. “Giacomo Casanova, dilettante and dandy, had at last found his vocation: he would be the philosopher pimp, the emperor of Eros, the impresario of ecstasy.” But the author fills in the missing details of Casanova’s rich and strange life with a certain passion of his own. “Love is three-quarters curiosity,” Casanova once quipped, and Bergreen proves himself to be a worthy biographer by satisfying ours.

JONATHAN KIRSCH, author and publishing attorney, is book editor of the Jewish Journal.