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

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Giacomo Casanova (1725–1798)

THE UNIQUE figure of Giacomo Casanova (Jean Jacques Casanova de Seingalt) stands out as a type of all that was most vicious and most brilliant in the eighteenth century. The pre-revolutionary philosophies, filtering through society, were weakening religious restraints and producing a hypocritical conformity to tradition and a new uncertainty which inclined people to present enjoyment and epicureanism. But even the court aristocracy, to whom self-indulgence was the rule of life, were astounded at the unrestraint of Casanova’s pleasure-seeking. He professed himself a Christian, but during all his vicious career was never influenced by a conscientious scruple. In a period when social graces were extolled above all others, when conversation was cultivated as a fine art, and when the salon was perhaps the greatest power in France, he was pre-eminent for talent and charm. His physical beauty fascinated both men and women; his fearlessness, often running into a mad bravado which lost no chance to fight, won him the respect of men. He could be witty in many tongues; he was an adept in fashionable fads of the day; was supposed to have a gift for mesmerism, and to be something of a sorcerer.

He could adapt himself to any society, appearing both as the idol of European courts and a boon companion in low taverns. He had countless duels and love affairs, and concluded one after another with the same cynical heartlessness: always a gay soldier of fortune, experimenting with his various talents; now a diplomat, now an abbé or popular preacher, and now a writer of political essays.

When Casanova’s father, a man of gentle birth, became an actor and married a pretty actress, Zanetta Farusi, the daughter of an Italian shoemaker, he hopelessly alienated his family. Jean-Jacques, their first child, was born in Venice, and during their professional travels was left there with his grandmother. Her earnest desire was to educate the beautiful and precocious child; and she economized from her scanty means until she was able to send him to the Seminary of Saint Cyprian in Venice. He passed his entrance examinations, and studied there for a time, exhibiting unusual ability. Then at sixteen he was expelled for a disgraceful intrigue, which would have consigned him to prison but for his mother, whose influence secured him the protection of Cardinal Acquaviva and a position in his household, which the boy soon resigned for a gayer life.

After this came a long series of adventurous years, during which he visited Rome, Naples, Constantinople, and other places, and was admitted to many orders of chivalry. During these wanderings he became acquainted with Rousseau and Voltaire; visited the court of Frederick the Great; went to Russia, where he was smiled upon by the Empress Catharine II. At Versailles, where he was a familiar figure, Louis XV. honored him with a personal interview. But even in a society disposed to be lenient to any one who was amusing, Casanova incurred disgrace. After becoming notorious over Europe as a trickster at cards, and for his dissipations, he returned to Venice in 1755.

There he was as gay and as dissolute as ever, but in his intervals of spare time he wrote a refutation of a work by Amelot de la Houssaye upon the condition of the Republic. He had hoped it would reinstate him in public opinion, but it failed to do so, and before long he was denounced to the government as a spy and thrown into prison. In the ‘Récit de sa Captivité’ (1788) he himself has told the dramatic story of his confinement in the garret of a ducal palace, and of his wonderful escape. The hot Italian sun beating down on the leaden roof added to his discomfort, and he was too daring and too ingenious to suffer long in patience. With the aid of an iron bolt which he had sharpened, he bored a hole through the wall of his cell and gained access to another prisoner, Father Balbi. For a long time they plotted together, and at last after many efforts and dangers they extricated themselves by way of the roofs.

This feat added greatly to his fame. He was fêted and courted everywhere, and his extravagances set the fashions for years. But in spite of the admiration he excited, he was too dangerous a citizen to be allowed long in a place. He was expelled from Varsovia in consequence of a duel. Then Paris, and later Madrid, drove him away.

His life of excesses had broken his health, when in 1782 he attached himself to the Count of Waldstein, a German prince whom he followed into Bohemia. Soon after, he began the famous ‘Memoires,’ his chief literary achievement. He wrote several historical works, a translation in verse of the Iliad, and many political sketches. Others of his writings, such as ‘Eighty Years Spent among the Inhabitants of the Interior of the Globe,’ show him possessed of a lively imagination. But he evinced especial zest in the preparation of the ‘Memoires.’ In a style as audacious as his life, strong and sparkling with wit, he told the strange story of his career. He reflects the social habits of his time, the contemporary point of view.

He lived on in Bohemia until he was seventy-eight, and then he died at Dux, retaining to the end what Janin terms “his marvelous instinct for vice and corruption.”