CASANOVA: THE WORLD OF A SEDUCTIVE GENIUS
By Laurence Bergreen
Simon & Schuster, $32.50, 519 pages
There was never another country quite like the Venetian Republic, and there was never another Venetian quite like Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798). Con artist, poet, spy, philosopher, polymath, librarian, lecher and proud owner of one of the most indestructible egos of all time, Casanova the man is largely forgotten today while his name lives on as a generic label for chronic Don Juanism.
By the time Casanova was born, the great days of the Venetian Republic were behind it. Once the proud capital of a mighty maritime trading empire, the Serene Republic had ceased to count for much as a politico-economic power, even as it continued to attract pleasure-seeking aristocrats and adventurers — 18th century precursors of today’s Eurotrash — to its theaters, casinos and carnival revels. You could say that Venice was to the Europe of its day what the decadent, pleasure loving city of New Orleans was to affluent Americans in search of good times and naughty nights in the early 1900s, only writ much larger and with beautiful music, palaces, churches, canals and seascapes thrown in.
As for Casanova — the son of an actor father (who died while he as a small child) and an actress mother (who visited him infrequently between continental tours, but left his upbringing to an illiterate grandmother, a few gentleman “patrons” and, most of all, sheer chance) — from a sickly childhood he grew into a strapping physical specimen who was also equipped with a first-rate brain. The great tragedy of his life was that, thanks to deeply flawed character and judgment, he never managed to parlay his considerable talents into any lasting successes. Enduring fame would only come a generation after his death when the 4,543 manuscript pages of his memoirs, the obsessive work of his lonely old age, were acquired by the German publishing house of Brockhaus.
Casanova had written them in French, the “universal” language of Enlightenment Europe, rather than his native Italian. Ironically, they were first published in German translation and the earliest French edition of his memoirs was actually a retranslation of the German version into a new French text differing in many ways from the true original. The first accurate, complete and skillfully annotated English translation from the French original, by Willard R. Trask, would not appear until 1966. It is great reading for scholars, period enthusiasts and students of human nature but it runs to 12 volumes.
Most casual readers will probably be more than willing to settle for a good biography that skims the cream off the memoirs and fills in some of the period blanks. While John Master’s 1969 “Casanova,” a rather attractive coffee table volume written in an engaging style, remains the best over-all introduction, Laurence Bergreen’s lengthier but more episodic new biography has much to commend it. Mr. Bergreen — whose love affair for things Venetian may have begun when he was working on his acclaimed biography of Marco Polo, another citizen of the Serene Republic who led a colorful life and was not above exaggerating from time to time — organizes his book into individual chapters named after a few of the long list of ladies Casanova made love to over the years, although making love is not necessarily the same thing as actually loving. As Casanova hops from bed to bed and engages in brag after amatory brag, the conviction grows that, despite hundreds of seductions, shackups and affairs, there was really only one great love in Casanova’s life: Himself.
And, even by his own account, he seems to have been more interested in quantity than quality when it came to the ladies. How else to explain affairs like the one he carried on with a Roman landlady’s teenage daughter who, “despite her rather too dark complexion, would have been very pretty if she had not been deprived of one eye,” which he remedied by buying her a matching glass one before seducing and abandoning her?
Mr. Bergreen builds his narrative around Casanova’s love life but many of his non-bedroom accounts of the kings, queens, courtiers, men of letters and bohemian characters he met in his peregrinations throughout Europe, from Italy, France, Spain and Switzerland, to Germany, Russia and England, are at least as interesting as his frantic couplings. You could even argue that the most efficient way to enjoy any account of Casanova’s multifaceted life is to fold down the “clean” rather than “dirty” pages and concentrate on them. They’re much less boring and repetitious.
• Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.