New light on history's infamous lover

By Kim Willsher

Giacomo Casanova as painted by Anton Raphael Mengs. Photo / Supplied
Giacomo Casanova as painted by Anton Raphael Mengs. Photo / Supplied

Bored and exiled in the pine forests of rural Bohemia, far from the cities and the women he had loved and left, the ageing Giacomo Casanova spent his final years writing his memoirs.

The Venice he grew up in no longer existed. The Paris he loved was riddled with revolution. Writing was, he declared in the preface to the work, "the only remedy I could think of to keep me from going mad or dying of grief".

The book, Histoire de Ma Vie (Story of My Life), published two decades after his death in 1798, would ensure that the man whose name was to become synonymous with womanising did not vanish into obscurity.

But the detail of Casanova's sexual exploits have been veiled, first by German puritanism, then in the haze of what modern experts describe as careless, even "faulty", transcription of his writings.

However, a new book from French publisher Laffont, to be released later this month, aims to reveal Casanova in his full glory. It is based on the original 3682-page manuscript, which was acquired by the Bibliotheque Nationale de France in 2010 for about €7.5 million ($11.4 million) - paid for by an anonymous donor.

Jean-Christophe Igalens, a lecturer at Nice University and a specialist on Casanova, who co-produced the book, said it reveals the notorious libertine as "a much more complex character than the cliche he has become. Yes, he was a seducer, but he was also seduced. He loved women, the women he had affairs with. He wasn't just a superficial character who took a woman to bed then left her. He had rich relationships with women," Igalens said.

In 1821, 23 years after Casanova died, the manuscript of Histoire de Ma Vie was sold by his nephew to a German editor who was interested in 18th-century Italian writers. Reading through the documents, however, Friedrich Arnold Brockhaus judged the work unpublishable because of its immorality and the fact the French text was peppered with Italian.

It was published only after the text was cleaned up and passages considered too coarse had been removed, and for the next 140 years it was to be the only available version, while the original remained under lock and key.

Even so, it seduced French writers, among them Henri Beyle, better known as Stendhal, and Alfred de Musset, the poet and dramatist. "In the 19th century, when Casanova was effectively discovered, it was a very bourgeois period, and for those writers like Stendahl and Musset who read him he represented a moral order, a moral age that was less constrained and restrictive than the one they lived in," said Igalens.

The original manuscript was almost lost when the offices of Brockhaus took a hit from an Allied bomb in 1943. Winston Churchill is reported to have inquired as to its fate. It emerged unscathed and was rushed to a bank security vault.

In 1960 it was published in its entirety in the original French, followed by an English version in 1966.

"The problem was that it [the French version] was published in a hurry and there were many errors and faults in the transcription," Igalens said.

"This edition is more serious. There is no shock discovery that will change our image of Casanova, but what makes this new and special are the variants and pages that are completely different."

Igalens cites the account of Casanova's first visit to Paris in 1750, when he writes about visiting a maison de plaisir called the Hotel de Roule, run by a certain Madame Paris.

"In the new transcription we have much more detail; it is more precise. Casanova describes the women in the maison - a brothel - how they looked, how they were paid, and is precise about what happened ..."

Casanova opens his memoirs with: "I begin by declaring to my reader that in all that I have done throughout my life, good or bad, I am sure that I have earned merit or blame, and as a consequence I believe myself free.

"Man is free, but he is only free if he believes himself to be ... The only system I have had ... is that of letting myself go where the blowing wind took me."

Life of a libertine

Giacomo Casanova was born in Venice on April 2, 1725, the son of an actor and a dancer. He trained as a clerical lawyer but soon dropped that to become a dandy. His introduction to the opposite sex was said to be when his tutor's young sister "fondled him" at the age of 11. In a long and wanton career, he was variously a charlatan, gambler, freemason, adventurer, spy, prisoner, silk manufacturer and relentless libertine. Whenever scandal caught up with him, as it often did, he would move to another country, change his name and reinvent himself. He ended his days as the penniless librarian to a Bohemian noble. Casanova died on June 4, 1798 aged 73. His last words were reportedly: "I have lived as a philosopher; I die as a Christian."

- Observer

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