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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Casanova’s Escape from the Ducal Palace

By Giacomo Casanova (1725–1798)

From ‘The Escapes of Casanova and Latude from Prison’

THE GREATEST comfort to a man in suffering is the hope of a speedy release. He sighs for the moment when he shall see the end of his woes; he fancies that his wishes can hasten it on, and would do anything on earth to know what hour is fixed for the cessation of his misery: but no one can tell at what moment an event will happen which depends on the determination of another, unless that person has announced it. But the sufferer, who is weak and impatient, is predisposed to be superstitious. “God,” says he, “must know the very moment when my pain will cease; and God may permit that it should be revealed to me, never mind how.” When he has once fallen into this train of argument, he no longer hesitates to try his fortune by any means his fancy may dictate, if he is more or less inclined to believe in the revelations of the oracle he happens to select. This frame of mind is not conspicuously unlike that of the greater number of those who were wont to consult the Pythia, or the oaks of Dodona, or of those who, even in our own day, study the Cabbala, or seek the revelation they hope for in a verse of the Bible or a line of Virgil;—this indeed has made the Sortes Virgilianæ famous, of which many writers tell us; or finally, of those who are firmly convinced that their difficulties will all be solved by the fortuitous or premeditated arrangement of a mere pack of cards.

I was in this state of mind. But not knowing what means to employ to compel Fate to reveal through the Bible the end in store for me—that is to say, the hour at which I should recover the incomparable blessing of liberty—I resolved to consult the divine poem of Messer Ludovico Ariosto, ‘Orlando Furioso,’ which I knew by heart, and in which I delighted up in my cell. I worshiped the genius of that great poet, and thought him far better fitted than Virgil to tell my fortune. With this idea I wrote down a question addressed to the imaginary intelligence, asking in which canto of Ariosto’s poem I should find the day of my deliverance prophesied. Afterwards I composed an inverted pyramid of the numbers derived from the words in the question, and by subtracting nine from each pair of figures I had nine for a remainder. I concluded that the prophecy I sought must be in the ninth canto. I pursued the same method to arrive at the line and stanza containing the oracle, and I found seven as the number of the stanza, and one for the line.

I took up the poem, my heart beating as though I really had the most entire confidence in this oracle. I opened it, turned over the leaves, and read these words:—

  • “Fra il fin d’Ottobre e il capo di Novembre.”
  • The perfect appropriateness of the line struck me as so remarkable that, though I cannot say that I altogether believed in the oracle, the reader will forgive me if I confess I did my utmost to verify it. The curious part of the matter is, that between the last of October and the beginning of November there is but the one instant of midnight; and it was exactly as the clock struck midnight on the 31st of October that I quitted my prison, as the reader will presently learn….

    The hour strikes. Hark! the angel!

    Soradaci was about to fall on his face, but I assured him that this was superfluous. In three minutes the hole was pierced through; the board fell at my feet, and Father Balbi slid into my arms.

    “Your task is done,” said I, “and now mine begins.”

    We embraced, and he gave me my crowbar and a pair of scissors. I desired Soradaci to trim our beards, but I could not help laughing as I saw the creature, open-mouthed, staring at this strange angel, who looked more like a demon. Though utterly bewildered, he cut our beards to perfection.

    Being impatient to survey the locality, I desired the monk to remain with Soradaci, for I would not leave him alone, and I went out. I found the hole rather narrow; however, I got through. I got above the cell in which the Count lay; I went down and cordially embraced the venerable gentleman. I saw a man of a figure ill suited to surmount the difficulties of such an escape over a steep roof covered with sheet lead. He asked me what my plan was, and told me that he thought I had been rather heedless in my action.

    “I only want to go on,” said I, “step by step to liberty or death.”

    “If you imagine,” said he, “that you can pierce the roof and find a way along the leads,—from which, too, you must get down,—I do not see how you can possibly succeed unless you have wings. I have not courage enough to accompany you. I shall stay where I am and pray to God for you.”

    I left him to inspect the outer roof, getting as close as I could to the outer side of the loft. Having succeeded in touching the inside of the rafters at the part where it was lowest, I perched myself on a beam, such as are to be found under the roof of every large palace. I poked at the rafters with the end of my bar, and to my joy found them half-rotten; at each touch the wood fell in dust. Being sure, therefore, that I could make a large enough opening in less than an hour, I returned to my cell and spent the next four hours in cutting up sheets, counterpanes, and mattress covers, to make ropes of. I took care to tie all the knots myself, to be sure of their firmness, for a single knot badly tied would have cost us our life. When all was done I found we had about a hundred yards of rope. There are certain things in every great enterprise which are of the highest importance, and for which a leader worthy of the name trusts no one.

    When the rope was finished, I made a bundle of my coat, my silk cloak, some shirts, stockings, and handkerchiefs, and we all three went into the Count’s cell. This worthy man first congratulated Soradaci on having been so lucky as to be put in the same room with me, and being so soon enabled to recover his freedom. The man’s stupid amazement almost made me laugh. I no longer attempted any concealment, for I had thrown off the mask of Tartuffe, which I had found most inconvenient while this villain had compelled me to wear it. I saw that he was convinced I had deceived him, but he could not understand how; for he could not imagine how I had communicated with the sham angel so as to make him come and go at fixed hours. He was listening eagerly to the Count, who declared we were rushing on our fate; and, coward that he was, he was revolving in his mind a scheme for avoiding the perilous attempt. I told the monk to collect his things while I went to make the hole in the roof of the loft.

    At two hours after sunset the hole was finished; I had worked the rafters to powder, and the opening was twice as large as was needful. I could touch the sheet of lead outside. I could not raise it single-handed, because it was riveted; the friar helped me, and by pushing the crowbar between the gutter and the sheet of lead I detached it; then raising it on our shoulders, we bent it up high enough to allow of our squeezing through the opening. Putting my head out to reconnoitre, I saw with dismay how bright the moon was, now in the first quarter. It was a check which we must endure with patience, and wait till midnight to escape, when the moon would have gone to light up the Antipodes. On such a glorious night all Venice would be out on the Piazza below, and we dared not venture out on the roof; our shadows cast on the ground would have attracted attention; our extraordinary appearance up there would excite general curiosity, and above all, that of Messer Grande and his spies, the sole guards of Venice. Our fine scheme would soon have been disturbed by their odious interference. I therefore decided positively that we were not to creep out till the moon had set….

    It was time to be off. The moon had set. I hung half the rope round Balbi’s neck on one side and his bundle of clothes on the other shoulder. I did the same for myself; and both, in our waistcoats with our hats on, went to the opening in the roof.

  • “And issuing forth we then beheld the stars.”—DANTE.
  • I crept out first; Balbi followed me. Soradaci, who had accompanied us to the roof, was ordered to pull the sheet of lead down again and then to go and pray to his saint. Crawling on my knees on all fours, I clutched my crowbar firmly, and stretching as far as I could, I slipped it obliquely between the points of the sheets; then, grasping the end of the sheet I had turned up, I dragged myself up to the ridge of the roof. The friar, to follow me, inserted the fingers of his right hand into the belt of my breeches. Thus I had the double task of a beast which drags and carries both at once, and that on a steep roof, made slippery by a dense fog. Half-way up this dreadful climb, Balbi bid me stop, for one of his parcels had fallen, and he hoped it might not have gone further than the gutter. My first impulse was to give him a kick and send him after his bundle; but God be praised, I had enough self-command not to do this, for the punishment would have been too severe for both of us, since I alone could never have escaped. I asked him whether it was the packet of ropes, but as he replied that it was only his bundle, in which he had a manuscript he had found in the loft, and which he had hoped would make his fortune, I told him he must take patience; for that a step backwards would be fatal. The poor monk sighed, and clinging still to my waist-band, we climbed on again.

    After having got over fifteen or sixteen sheets of lead with immense difficulty, we reached the ridge, on which I perched myself astride, and Balbi did the same. We had our backs to the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, and two hundred yards in front of us we saw the numerous cupolas of the church of Saint Mark, which is in fact part of the Ducal Palace; for the church of Saint Mark is, properly speaking, no more than the Doge’s chapel, and certainly no sovereign can boast of a finer one. I began by relieving myself of my load, and desired my companion to follow my example. He tucked his bundle of ropes under him as best he might, but wanting to take off his hat, which inconvenienced him, he managed so badly that it rolled from ledge to ledge, and went to join the bundle of clothes in the canal. My poor comrade was in despair.

    “A bad omen!” he exclaimed. “Here I am at once without a shirt, without a hat, and bereft of a precious manuscript containing a most curious and unknown history of the festivals at the Ducal Palace.”

    I, less disposed to be fierce than I had been when I was climbing, calmly assured him that these two little accidents had nothing so extraordinary about them as that a superstitious spirit should regard them as ominous; that I did not think them so, and that they did not in the least discourage me.

    “They should serve you, my good fellow,” said I, “as a warning to be prudent and wise, and to suggest to you that God certainly protects us; for if your hat, instead of tumbling to the right, had slipped off to the left, we should have been lost. It would have fallen into the courtyard, where the guards must have found it, and it would of course have told them that there must be some one on the roof. We should have been recaptured at once.”

    After sitting some minutes looking about me, I desired the monk to remain motionless till I should return, and I made my way forward, shuffling along astride on the roof without any difficulty, my bolt in my hand. I spent above an hour going about the roof, examining and observing every corner, but in vain; nowhere did I see anything to which I could attach a cord. I was in the greatest perplexity. I could not for a moment think of the canal, nor of the palace courtyard, and among the many cupolas of the church I saw nothing but precipitous walls leading to no open space. To get beyond the church to the Canonica I should have had to surmount such steep slopes that I had no hope of achieving it, and it was natural that I should reject as impossible everything that did not seem feasible. The situation in which I found myself required daring, but absolutely no rashness. It was such a dilemma as I imagine can have no parallel for difficulty in any moral question.

    However, I had to come to some conclusion: I must either get away or return to my cell, never probably to leave it again; or again, throw myself into the canal. In this predicament a great deal must be left to chance, and I must begin somewhere. I fixed my eyes on a dormer window on the side towards the canal, and about two-thirds of the way down. It was far enough from the spot we had started from to make me think that the loft it lighted was not connected with the prison I had broken out of. It could light only an attic, inhabited or vacant, over some room in the palace, where, when day should dawn, the doors no doubt would be opened. I was morally certain that the attendants in the palace, even those of the Doge himself, who should happen to see us, would be eager to favor our escape rather than place us in the hands of justice, even if they had recognized us as the greatest of state criminals; so horrible was the inquisition in their eyes.

    With this idea I decided on inspecting that window; so, letting myself slip gently down, I soon was astride on the little roof. Then resting my hands on the edge, I stretched my head out and succeeded in seeing and touching a little barred grating, behind which there was a window glazed with small panes set in lead. The window did not trouble me, but the grating, slight as it was, seemed to me an insurmountable difficulty, for without a file I could not get through the bars, and I only had my crowbar. I was checked, and began to lose heart, when a perfectly simple and natural incident revived my spirit….

    It was the clock of Saint Mark’s at this moment striking midnight which roused my spirit, and by a sudden shock brought me out of the perplexed frame of mind in which I found myself. That clock reminded me that the morning about to dawn was that of All Saints’ Day; that consequently of my saint’s day—if indeed I had a patron saint—and my Jesuit confessor’s prophecy recurred to my mind. But I own that what tended most to restore my courage, and really increased my physical powers, was the profaner oracle of my beloved Ariosto:—

  • “Between the end of October and the beginning of November.”
  • If a great misfortune sometimes makes a small mind devout, it is almost impossible that superstition should not have some share in the matter. The sound of the clock seemed to me a spoken charm which bade me act and promised me success. Lying flat on the roof with my head over the edge, I pushed my bar in above the frame which held the grating, determined to dislodge it bodily. In a quarter of an hour I had succeeded; the grating was in my hands unbroken, and having laid it by the side of the dormer I had no difficulty in breaking in the window, though the blood was flowing from a wound I had made in my left hand.

    By the help of my bar I got back to the ridge of the roof in the same way as before, and made my way back to where I had left my companion. I found him desperate and raging; he abused me foully for having left him there so long. He declared he was only waiting for seven to strike to go back to prison.

    “What did you think had become of me?”

    “I thought you had fallen down some roof or wall.”

    “And you have no better way of expressing your joy at my return than by abusing me?”

    “What have you been doing all this time?”

    “Come with me and you will see.”

    Having gathered up my bundles, I made my way back to the window. When we were just over it I explained to Balbi exactly what I had done, and consulted him as to how we were to get into the loft through the window. The thing was quite easy for one of us; the other could let him down. But I did not see how the second man was to follow him, as there was no way of fixing the rope above the window. By going in and letting myself drop I might break my legs and arms, for I did not know the height of the window above the floor. To this wise argument, spoken with perfect friendliness, the brute replied in these words:—

    “Let me down, at any rate, and when I am in there you will have plenty of time to find out how you can follow me.”

    I confess that in my first impulse of indignation I was ready to stab him with my crowbar. A good genius saved me from doing so, and I did not even utter one word of reproach for his selfishness and baseness. On the contrary, I at once unrolled my bundle of rope, and fastening it firmly under his arm-pits I made him lie flat on his face, his feet outwards, and then let him down on to the roof of the dormer. When he was there, I made him go over the edge and into the window as far as his hips, leaving his arms on the sill. I next slipped down to the little roof, as I had done before, lay down on my stomach, and holding the rope firmly, told the monk to let himself go without fear. When he had landed on the floor of the attic he undid the rope, and I, pulling it up, found that the height was above fifty feet. To jump this was too great a risk. As for the monk, now he was safe after nearly two hours of anguish on a roof, where, I must own, his situation was far from comfortable, he called out to me to throw in the ropes and he would take care of them. I, as may be supposed, took good care not to follow this absurd injunction.

    Not knowing what to do, and awaiting some inspiration, I clambered once more to the ridge; and my eye falling on a spot near a cupola, which I had not yet examined, I made my way thither. I saw a little terrace or platform covered with lead, close to a large window closed with shutters. There was here a tub full of wet mortar with a trowel, and by the side a ladder, which I thought would be long enough to enable me to get down into the attic where my comrade was. This settled the question. I slipped my rope through the top rung, and dragged this awkward load as far as the window. I then had to get the clumsy mass into the window; it was above twelve yards long. The difficulty I had in doing it made me repent of having deprived myself of Balbi’s assistance. I pushed the ladder along till one end was on the level of the dormer and the other projected by a third beyond the gutter. Then I slid down on to the dormer roof; I drew the ladder close to my side and fastened the rope to the eighth rung, after which I again allowed it to slip till it was parallel with the window. Then I did all I could to make it slip into the window, but I could not get it beyond the fifth rung because the end caught against the inner roof of the dormer, and no power on earth could get it any further without breaking either the ladder or the roof. There was nothing for it but to tilt the outer end; then the slope would allow it to slide in by its own weight. I might have placed the ladder across the window and have fastened the rope to it to let myself down, without any risk; but the ladder would have remained there, and next morning would have guided the archers and Lorenzo to the spot where we might still be hiding.

    I would not run the risk of losing by such an act of imprudence the fruit of so much labor and peril, and to conceal all our traces the ladder must be got entirely into the window. Having no one to help me, I decided on getting down to the gutter to tilt it, and attain my end. This in fact I did, but at so great a risk that but for a sort of miracle I should have paid for my daring with my life. I ventured to let go of the cord that was attached to the ladder without any fear of its falling into the canal, because it was caught on the gutter by the third rung. Then, with my crowbar in my hand, I cautiously let myself slide down to the gutter by the side of the ladder; the marble ledge was against my toes, for I let myself down with my face to the roof. In this attitude I found strength enough to lift the ladder a few inches, and I had the satisfaction of seeing it go a foot further in. As the reader will understand, this diminished its weight very perceptibly. What I now wanted was to get it two feet further in, by lifting it enough; for after that I felt sure that by climbing up to the roof of the dormer once more, I could, with the help of the rope, get it all the way in. To achieve this I raised myself from my knees; but the force I was obliged to use to succeed made me slip, so that I suddenly found myself over the edge of the roof as far as my chest, supported only by my elbows.

    It was an awful moment, which to this day I shudder to think of, and which it is perhaps impossible to conceive of in all its horror. The natural instinct of self-preservation made me almost unconsciously lean with all my weight, supporting myself on my ribs, and I succeeded—miraculously, I felt inclined to say. Taking care not to relax my hold, I managed to raise myself with all the strength of my wrists, leaning at the same time on my stomach. Happily there was nothing to fear for the ladder, for the lucky—or rather the unlucky—push which had cost me so dear, had sent it in more than three feet, which fixed it firmly. Finding myself resting on the gutter literally on my wrists and my groin, I found that by moving my right side I could raise first one knee and then the other on to the parapet. Then I should be safe.

    However, my troubles were not yet over, for the strain I was obliged to exert in order to succeed gave me such a nervous spasm that a violent attack of painful cramp seemed to cripple me completely. I did not lose my head, and remained perfectly still till the spasm was over, knowing that perfect stillness is the best cure for nervous cramps—I had often found it so. It was a frightful moment. A few minutes after, I gradually renewed my efforts. I succeeded in getting my knees against the gutter, and as soon as I had recovered my breath I carefully raised the ladder, and at last got it to the angle where it was parallel with the window. Knowing enough of the laws of equilibrium and the lever, I now picked up my crowbar; and climbing in my old fashion, I hauled myself up to the roof and easily succeeded in tilting in the ladder, which the monk below received in his arms. I then flung in my clothes, the ropes and the broken pieces, and got down into the attic, where Balbi received me very heartily and took care to remove the ladder.

    Arm in arm, we surveyed the dark room in which we found ourselves; it was thirty paces long by about twenty wide. At one end we felt a double door formed of iron bars. This was unpromising, but laying my hand on the latch in the middle it yielded to the pressure, and the door opened. We first felt our way round this fresh room, and then, trying to cross it, ran up against a table with arm-chairs and stools around it. We returned to the side where we had felt windows, and having opened one, by the dim starlight we could see nothing but steep roofs between domes. I did not for an instant think of escaping by the window; I must know where I was going, and I did not recognize the spot where we were. So I closed the window, and we went back to the first room, where we had left our baggage. Quite worn out, I let myself drop on to the floor, and putting a bundle of rope under my head, utterly bereft of all power of body or of mind, I fell into a sweet sleep. I gave myself up to it so passively, that even if I had known that death must be the end of it I could not have resisted it; and I remember distinctly that the pleasure of that sleep was perfectly delicious.