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Giacomo Jacopo Girolamo Casanova de Seinglat
1725 - 1798
 


The Italian adventurer Giacomo Jacopo Girolamo Casanova de Seingalt is best known for his memoirs, which are a most revealing record of 18th-century European society.
 

 

The first child of an actor and actress, Casanova was born in Venice. He set out to play the comedy of life with a short role as an ecclesiastic but was expelled from the seminary in 1743. He found refuge in Rome with Cardinal Acquaviva, the first of his many powerful protectors. By 1745 he had returned to Venice, where he practiced magic. Forced to flee prosecution for engaging in the black arts, Casanova drifted from city to city. In Lyons in 1750 he joined the Free Masons, an allegiance that gave him support in the noble, free thinking circles of cosmopolitan Europe. Gambling, profiteering, and amorous activities marked his first stay in Paris (1750-1753). His luck held until 1755, when he was imprisoned in Venice for "black magic, licentiousness, and atheism." His spectacular escape is chronicled in the only portion of his memoirs to appear during his lifetime (1788).

The years 1756-1763 brought Casanova his most brilliant successes in a society dedicated to games of love and chance. Voltaire, whom he met briefly, judged him to be a "mixture of science and imposture," a suspect combination which nevertheless brought Casanova in contact with Frederick II and Catherine the Great.

Casanova himself divided his life into "three acts of a comedy." The second, which he thought of as lasting from 1763 to 1783, was less droll than the first. Protectors were less willing, and as the adventurer's brilliance faded, his charlatanism became more evident. From 1774 to 1782 Casanova added to his repertoire the role of "secret agent" for the Republic of Venice, but he was less a spy than an informer.

Again obliged to leave Venice, Casanova began the third act of his comedy penniless and on the road. But in 1785 he gained the protection of the Count of Waldstein, in whose château at Dux (Bohemia) he stayed until his death in 1798. There he wrote his celebrated History of My Life, ending with the events of 1774, after which he had "only sad things to tell." Written in sometimes imperfect French, this work moves rapidly and frankly through vast amounts of personal and social detail. Besides tales of the 122 women whose favors he claims to have enjoyed, Casanova offers a chronicle of social extravagance and decline and a vision of Europe as complex and colorful as the bawdy, elegant, naively rational, desperately pretentious, and comic figure of "Seingalt" himself.

Casanova's writings also include miscellaneous gallant verse, several treatises on mathematics, a three-volume refutation of Amelot de la Houssaye's history of Venetian government (1769), a translation of the Iliad (1775), and a five-volume novel of fantastic adventure to the center of the earth, Icosameron (1788).
 


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Casanova, Giacomo Girolamo (Jean-Jacques, Chevalier de Seingalt; 1725–1798), Italian adventurer, bon vivant, and author. Giacomo Girolamo Casanova, sometimes known as Giovanni Giacomo Casanova, was born in Venice to an actress mother. There is some question as to whether his father was her actor husband or her protector, a member of the patrician Grimani family. After being sent to Padua at an early age to prepare for legal studies, Casanova embarked on the adventurer's life. He was funded by wealthy patrons and questionable endeavours, particularly gambling, for which he showed a marked talent. Espousing a libertine philosophy, he pursued amorous encounters of every variety that eventually broke even the strictest taboos. He travelled widely in the Mediterranean, the Italian peninsula, and the Continent, often finding high-ranking patrons and employers. While in Switzerland he joined the Freemasons.

For a number of years Casanova succeeded in avoiding punishment for his transgressions. However, his use of occult practices to gain the favour and funds of Venetian patricians resulted in his arrest on suspicion of heresy by the Venetian Inquisition. In 1755 he was imprisoned in the dreaded Leads, cells so named for their location under the lead roof of the Ducal Palace. Despite their virtually impregnable location, he effected a harrowing escape in 1756 by studying the structure of the building and ruthlessly manipulating his jailer and cellmate to obtain their assistance. As he recognized, the confinement made him less sure of himself; it also made him more tyrannical and more cruel.

Fleeing the reprisal of the Venetian state, he travelled to the capitals of Europe and endeavoured to have himself introduced to the ruling class. Instrumental in these efforts were the title Chevalier de Seingalt, which he conferred upon himself, and his familiarity with occult practices. As he made clear in his autobiography, he did not believe in such practices, but he found many aristocrats who sought his assistance in projects such as being reborn. In spite of some successes in aristocratic circles, he was expelled from host countries as a result of both true and false accusations of shady practices.

Eager to return to his homeland, Casanova wrote a defense of the Venetian system of governance that helped him achieve this goal in 1774. Hired as a spy for the Venetian Inquisition, he also cultivated the literary career to which he had long aspired. When a member of the Grimani family failed to support him in a dispute over money in 1782, he was unable to curb his pen. He wrote a fable (Nè amori nè donne ovvero la stala ripulita [Neither love affairs nor women, or the cleansing of the stable]) satirizing the vanity and weakness of the patriciate in general and the Grimani in particular; this resulted in his definitive exile.

Casanova passed his final years as the librarian to Count von Waldstein in Bohemia. His works include treatises on such matters as the troubles of the Polish state; poems; and a translation of the Iliad (1775). Some hold that he collaborated with Lorenzo da Ponte (1749–1838) on the libretto for Mozart's Don Giovanni (1787), or that he served as an inspiration for the Don. His twelve-volume autobiography, Histoire de ma vie, provides a densely detailed account of life in the Old Regime, including the privileges of powerful aristocrats, which he supported and appropriated as his entitlement, the expediencies by which many survived, the unpredictable disruptions wrought by disease and death, and the impulsive grasping of consolatory pleasures. Fascination with his life has given rise to Casanova Societies in many countries. Casanova's love affairs and adventures inspired numerous films, perhaps the most famous of which is Fellini's Casanova (1976). His surname has become a byword for the man who practices amorous license.


 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 21 December, 2008