When, many years ago, I complained to Gustav Leonhardt that the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini was full of lies, he laughed and said, “That’s the best part!” I have regularly recalled his words in recent months while reading Giacomo Casanova’s notorious Histoire de ma vie in the first unexpurgated and unabridged translation into English, by Willard R. Trask of Johns Hopkins University (1968; National Book Award). I had bought the paperback edition after citing Casanova in a book I recently completed. The quick look I then had into his massive autobiography, combined with a little research, convinced me – rather to my surprise – that it was much more than a catalog of amorous escapades. It’s one of the most valuable records of 18th-century life in existence. Edmund Wilson called it the most interesting memoir ever written.
I’m presently about halfway through the 2200 pages of small print. Our hero has just left Stuttgart, where Naoko and I happened to visit the art museum recently. Casanova describes what he calls the most brilliant court in Europe and the doings of the scandalous Duke Carl Eugen, before recounting a meeting with him at the ducal opera house on the writer’s first evening on the town. A work by the excellent court composer Niccolò Jommelli is being performed in the recently rebuilt Neues Lusthaus (of which some ruins still stand in the Schlosspark). Casanova applauds after an aria, and is informed brusquely by an official that since the duke is present, applause is not allowed. Casanova replies that, being Italian, he can’t help applauding an aria which pleases him, and that he will therefore leave the house. On the way out he is stopped by the duke, who asks if he is Monsieur Casanova and how long he will stay in Stuttgart. His Grace grants Casanova special permission to applaud in his presence. After the next aria, Durchlaucht applauds vigorously, but his guest doesn’t. When asked why not, he replies, “I didn’t like the aria.”
Next day Casanova gets drunk at a brothel and, gambling with three officers, loses more money than he can pay. Placed under house arrest and threatened with impressment in the duke’s army, he escapes with the help of several women from a window high above the city walls. Once outside Württemberg, he sends challenges to his persecutors for duels to the death, but when he hears they are on their way, he flees again. Stories like these make the reading worthwhile, whether embellished or not. And having seen autograph scores of Jommelli operas at the Landesbibliothek in a city I have frequently visited brings the Stuttgart episode nicely into focus.
After the opera Casanova had gone backstage to watch the ballerinas undress when he met an old friend from Venice, the violinist Andreas G. J. M. Kurz (1718 - after 1774). They had played together in the orchestra of the Teatro San Samuele, the only honest, salaried job Casanova had ever held until then, and that only during a brief time in his youth when he was down on his luck. Back at that point in the first of seven thick volumes, I thought about collecting all of Casanova’s references to music, as I did for Titon du Tillet (article 49). The harpsichord had already been mentioned in various contexts, but as I progressed it became clear that the instrument was usually just a prop in the hands of the most recent divine goddess whom the author promised to love forever – so I shelved the idea.
Then a footnote put me on the trail of what must be the most perspicacious portrait of the fellow to have come down to us. The abate* Pietro Chiari, prolific playwright, poet and novelist, was on the wrong side of a vicious Venetian cabal organized by a rival and publicized by Casanova. Chiari got his revenge in the novel La Commediante in Fortuna – “the fortunate actress”. The lovely and talented lady is speaking here of a coterie she encounters in Milan:
“Among others there was a certain Signore Valesio of unknown, but according to some, of illegitimate ancestry, a well-made person of olive complexion, affected manners, and unspeakable impertinence, who attempted to make himself my lover; but he lacked the first principles to make himself amiable. He was one of those phenomena of the civic skies, the brightness whereof one cannot understand – I mean to say, how he was able to live, and live like a lord, not possessing any land under the sun, nor an employment, nor any ability which could give him honorable sustenance, which was to be expected judging from his wardrobe. Possessed by a fanaticism for all things from north of the Alps and foreign, he spoke of nothing except London and Paris, as if the world didn’t exist outside these two illustrious metropolises. He had in fact spent some time there, I know not in what capacity or with what outcome. London and Paris had to enter into every discourse of his; London and Paris were the norms of his life, of his attire, of his studies, and it is worth saying in a single word: of his foolishness. Always as polished as a Narcissus, always as inflated and swollen as a ball, always in motion like a mill, he made it his occupation to be constantly on the hunt, to play the galant towards every female, and to adapt himself to every favorable circumstance which could furnish him some means of living or make him some money, or which could bing him luck in matters of love. With the miser he played the alchemist, with beauties he played the poet, and with the great he played the politician – he played everything to everybody: but, in the opinion of sensible people, only succeeded thereby in making himself ridiculous. As voluble as the air which filled his head, in the brief course of a day he was the friend for life and the sworn enemy of the same person. After having praised me to my face and placing me above the stars, as soon as I turned my back he was capable of sending me to the abyss. In sum, if his system was to be all things to all men, and the nature of everyone being different, he could logically speaking not be a true friend to anyone.”
In his memoir Casanova pretends not to have paid any attention to the book when it came out in 1755, but in fact at the time he announced his intention of murdering the author. Unfortunately, Chiari had powerful friends in the government of the Serenissima, and the incident may have been the drop that caused a bucket of charges against Casanova to overflow. He was arrested and sent to “The Leads”, the rat-infested, stifling prison under the leaden roof tiles of the Doge’s palace. His incredible escape after more than a year kept him in dinner conversation for the rest of his life and was the subject of a book he published in 1788, Histoire de ma fuite des prisons de la République de Venise qu'on appelle les Plombs.
Every word of what Chiari says about Casanova rings true, but he leaves out much that would have been positive if used to better ends. The great womanizer was extremely intelligent, resourceful, well-read, well-spoken and charismatic. Otherwise he could never have so successfully lived the life of what is called an “adventurer”, one that brought him into contact with the highest levels of European society and provided the material for one of history’s great memoirs. He was also an all-too-familiar, Trumpian type – a despicable, corrupt, manipulative, utterly egocentric lying monster; and, as Mr. Leonhardt would have said, that’s the best part.
*A person who has taken lower orders in the Roman Catholic church in preparation for possible priesthood – as had Casanova himself before becoming thoroughly corrupted, as well as the Abbé Franz Liszt and countless others who never were ordained.