Adventurer: The Life and Times of Giacomo Casanova by Leo Damrosch

The scene: an Italian garden. The players: Giacomo Casanova, the married Lucrezia and a snake who watches from the grass. Casanova and Lucrezia have just made love. Just is the word. Only moments after the lovers have finished, Lucrezia’s husband and her mother arrive. Seconds to spare. Later, Casanova asks Lucrezia what she would have done had they been caught. “Nothing,” she replies. “Don’t you understand that in those divine moments, one is nothing but in love? Can you believe you weren’t possessing me entirely?”

Well, hello, Giacomo! The rascal’s rascal, the roué’s roué, the Signor Loverman of the Venetian lagoon. Not so fast, says Leo Damrosch in Adventurer: The Life and Times of Giacomo Casanova. This charming seducer, whose name has become shorthand for a particular sort of insatiable, irresistible rake, wasn’t that charming at all. “His career as a seducer, already notorious in his own time, is often disturbing and sometimes very dark,” Damrosch writes. “It challenges any reader today, and still more it challenges a biographer. Casanova aspired to a life of freedom from restraints — but freedom at whose expense?”

What we know of Casanova comes mostly from Casanova, recorded in his autobiography, Histoire de ma vie. Damrosch, an emeritus professor of literature at Harvard and biographer of Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, reminds us that histoire can mean “history” and “story”. Previous biographers have taken Casanova at his word; Damrosch is tougher. “Proud of being a bad boy, Casanova was self-serving in every aspect of his life, not just the sexual, but the erotic encounters in the Histoire vary greatly. Sometimes his behavior was abusive in ways that are not just disturbing today, but would have seemed disturbing to many people in his own day. At other times he convincingly describes experiences of deep mutual enjoyment.”

Here we go, I thought. Casanova for the age of #MeToo and toxic masculinity. Can’t we keep the Casanova myth as it is? Can’t sex ever be fun? Why not let sleeping rogues lie? The more I read of Damrosch’s biography, however, the more uneasy I felt about Giac the Lad. For every unsatisfied wife only too happy to cuckold her husband, there were a dozen orphans with no recourse but prostitution, or daughters pimped out by desperate or unscrupulous parents. Some of the girls were very young: 13, 12, 11 …

Casanova fathered children he didn’t meet until many years later. He revisited one old flame, Lucrezia, and went to bed naked with their 18-year-old daughter, Leonilda. A fantasy? Or did the family threesome really happen?

Casanova aspired to a life of freedom from restraints — but freedom at whose expense?

Histoire de ma vie runs to more than 3,000 pages. The Johns Hopkins University Press edition comes in six volumes. Line up the spines and they form a picture of a reclining Venus wearing nothing but her pearls. A long life, but not a complete one. Casanova broke off his story in 1774 when he was 50. He still had 24 years to live. As Damrosch writes: “When he was no longer young and charismatic, he was no longer Casanova.”

Casanova’s own account opens as follows: “I begin by declaring to my reader that in everything I’ve done, good or bad, in my life, I’m sure that I’ve gained either merit or disapproval, and I must therefore believe myself to be free.” In his stylish, insightful and, yes, one must admit, sexy biography, Damrosch gives us the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly.

Casanova was a scholar, a lawyer, a philosopher, a man of letters, a dancer, a swordsman, a mathematician and a magician. He could speak French, Italian and Latin. He knew reams of Horace and Ludovico Ariosto by heart. He was also a trickster, a liar, a con man, a gambler, a pick-up artist and a master of scams. He was a spy, an informer, an abuser and a rapist. He was imprisoned — repeatedly — and exiled from Venice, Warsaw, Vienna, Paris and London. (He hadn’t liked the beer there, anyway.) The story of his breakout from a Venetian jail is worthy of The Great Escape. He was good in bed, but very bad news.

Casanova’s parents — Gaetano Giuseppe Giacomo Casanova and Giovanna Farussi, known as “Zanetta” — were actors at the San Samuele theater in Venice. When Casanova was born on April 2, 1725, Gaetano was 28, Zanetta 17. He remembered his mother as “beautiful as the day”.

In boyhood he was dull, feeble and gloomy. His mouth hung open and he suffered from nosebleeds. His school was a place of Dotheboys horror where he was tortured by rats, bedbugs and fleas. He was kept in a state of “canine” hunger. But under a sympathetic tutor, he became quick-witted and cheeky.

For every unsatisfied wife only too happy to cuckold her husband, there were a dozen orphans with no recourse but prostitution, or daughters pimped out by desperate or unscrupulous parents.

Aged 12, he enrolled at the University of Padua to study law, to which he felt “an invincible aversion”. He fell in with a fast crowd. “The most famous,” he later wrote, “were libertines, gamblers, frequenters of places of ill repute, drunkards, débauchés, ruiners of virtuous girls, violent, false, and incapable of the slightest feeling of virtue.” He got into cards and ran up debts. There were plans — ha! — for Casanova to become a priest. A bishop gave him a tonsure, which Casanova, already a peacock, hated. He curled and perfumed what remained of his hair. He was always vain. A later inventory of his possessions included a blue suit lined in ermine and another of four-colored velvet. He managed two sermons, the second delivered while drunk — and that was that for his priestly career.

Better to love and laugh. At ten, he was kissed and cuddled by his tutor’s teenage sister. By 11, she was washing his legs in a way that provoked “a voluptuous pleasure”. There were crushes on country girls and encounters with a cross-dressing courtesan. There were Bettina, Lucia, Giulietta, Angelica and the sisters Nanetta and Marta, participants in the first of many ménages à trois. There was a tryst in a coach in a storm. There were the “living rosebuds” Cecilia (12) and Marina (11) and their “brother” Bellino the castrato who turned out not to be a boy after all.

He attended “Orgies” with a capital O and took part in the abduction and gang rape of a woman. Casanova claimed she enjoyed it, laughing as the men took their turns and thanking them when they took her home. He didn’t do condoms — he refused “to envelop myself in a dead skin” — and he would beat a girl who didn’t give him his way. He had multiple bouts of gonorrhea and at least one attack of syphilis. He called marriage “the tomb of love”.

The dull little boy had grown into a striking man. His contemporary, the Prince de Ligne, said: “He would have been a very handsome man if he hadn’t been ugly; he’s tall and built like Hercules, but with a dark complexion.” He was 6ft 1in, some say 6ft 3in, when the average man stood at 5ft 6in. He loved women — “I was in love almost to madness”, “I was in love to perdition”, “[I was] so much in love that I knew it was incurable” — and at least some of them loved him. He wished to give pleasure and, in his youth, could keep going for hours. Sadomasochism left him cold.

Reading Damrosch’s stern but measured book, I went from fancying Casanova, to hating him, to pitying him. There’s no fool like an old fool and no man so lonely as the Priapus who can’t get it up. Good, bad, in flight or in flagrante, Giacomo Casanova, scourge of 18th-century husbands, is never less than compelling.

Laura Freeman is a U.K.-based book-and-art critic and the author of The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite