Weird Wednesdays: Europe’s legendary ladies man

The “Weird Wednesday” column is brought to you by a staff writer who is obsessed with factoids, history bits and freaky information to get you over the weekday hump.

The man, the myth, the legend had his likeness captured in Anton Raphael Mengs's painting "Giacomo Casanova" in 1760. (Anton Raphael Mengs/Wikimedia Creative Commons)

The man, the myth, the legend had his likeness captured in Anton Raphael Mengs's painting "Giacomo Casanova" in 1760. (Anton Raphael Mengs/Wikimedia Creative Commons)

He’s a lover. He’s a Mason. He’s rubbed elbows with the likes of Benjamin Franklin, George III and Madame Pompadour. He’s escaped from prison and slept with royalty. And you need a moderately complicated flow chart to fully appreciate his life story.

Yep, Giacomo Casanova was a hell of a guy.

Most people remember him for his romantic exploits, but few learn of Casanova’s philosophical and political sides. While, yes, he got it on with a lot of women [counting to over 120], he also toured Europe and participated in many historical events, sort of like a scandalous Forrest Gump.

We’ll begin at the beginning, which in this case is April 2, 1725 in the city of Venice. His parents were more or less absent from his life, his mother off touring Europe as an actress, and his father dying when Casanova was eight. Thus, he was raised by his grandmother, who sent him off to a boarding school.

When it turned out that boarding school wasn’t his jam, Casanova instead stayed with his priest and tutor Abbe Gozzi, who schooled him on various useful subjects including violin, Bible scripture and French.

It was also there that Gozzi’s younger sister, Bettina Gozzi, introduced him to the wonder of the opposite sex. While I won’t go into detail about it, Bettina did for Casanova what ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ does for a lot of innocent-minded teenagers.

At the age of seventeen Casanova graduated from university (they started ‘em young back in the day) with a degree in law. He also discovered the joys of sex from the high-born sisters Nanetta and Marta Savorgnan, which began a lifetime of promiscuity for the young man.

After dabbling around in various careers, including a foray into clerical law that ended in scandal, a brief venture with the Venetian military and an interlude as a professional gambler, Casanova found himself a job playing the violin in the opera house Teatro San Samuele, where he would often play practical jokes in public with his fellow musicians.

One day, while riding horses with the nobleman Don Matteo Bragadin, the senator fell from his steed while having an apoplectic fit. While doctors at the time tried to bleed him out and apply mercury ointment to his chest (it was basically the equivalent to Vicks rub back then) Casanova displayed an unusually modern perspective and defied the doctors, removing the ointment and helping Bragadin recover fully.  

In return, the young noble pretty much made it rain for Casanova, who was able to live the high playboy life funded by Bragadin. He had clandestine affairs with the wives and lovers of rich politicians and spent his time gambling and socializing.

While the loathsome creatures known as pickup artists often cite Casanova as an inspiration, the way the socialite went about his affairs would put any neggers to utter shame. Casanova would go through each romance in an almost operatic fashion, with all the ups, downs and drama of such.

First, he would find himself an attractive lady with a particularly unromantic or clingy partner, offer his condolences and then seduce her. Afterwards, he would arrange the woman’s marriage to a rich guy and abscond, assuring that there were no hard feelings upon his exit. As well, he heavily emphasized the role of consent, and used sheepskin condoms (called ‘assurance caps’) to prevent pregnancies.

After about three years of scandal in Venice (including a prank involving a freshly-exhumed corpse), Casanova was forced to flee his home city, off to greater exploits. The playboy went on the Grand Tour of Europe, visiting Paris, Dresden and other European highlights, taking up Freemasonry and ‘spreading the love’ (so to speak) as he went along.

Eventually, his egregious reputation caught up to him, and Casanova was imprisoned in Venice for being an “affront to common decency” in 1755. He was thirty at the time.

Though his sentence was for five years, Casanova decided to make his grand exit early. With the help of a rogue priest in the cell next to him, Casanova crafted an iron spike and passed it to his partner-in-crime in a plate of pasta. The priest carved out a tunnel for the two, and they made their escape in 1756, climbing down the side of the palace with a rope made of bedsheets and hijacking a gondola.

Casanova returned to Paris shortly afterwards, making a fortune selling state lottery tickets and getting himself into even more amorous affairs. After a business venture went sour, however, he was forced to flee again, wandering around Italy and visiting notables such as Voltaire. Eventually, after trying (and failing) to tour Europe selling more lottery tickets, taking up alchemy and catching a venereal disease in England, he returned to Venice once more in 1774.

There, he took part in some spy work and met Benjamin Franklin at a convention about air transport. He would often travel, staying in the Castle Dux in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) with a count who he befriended. There, he wrote much of his biography ‘Histoire de ma vie’ (‘Story of My Life’)

In 1797, word arrived that Napoleon Bonaparte had seized Venice during his conquests. Heartbroken, unable to return home and riddled with syphilis, Casanova died a year later at the age of 73, in the Castle Dux.

This only scratches the surface of the life and times of the legend Casanova, and I encourage you to read up about him. But for now, if you ever hear anyone complain about how promiscuous college students are, just tell them that old school outdoes it by miles.


Marlese Lessing is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.