April 02, 2015

Casanova

n. a man who is a promiscuous and unscrupulous lover
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition

The original Casanova died today in 1798.

Some would surely argue that an accepted record of seducing scores of partners should be a sterling achievement, but it seems rather a shallow legacy for an extraordinary man with extraordinary talents. Though nowhere near basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain’s purported bedding of twenty thousand women, the man known today simply as Casanova still put up some eyebrow-raising numbers. Casanova’s spectacular exploits may have been lost to history were it not for Histoire de ma vie (Story of My Life)his 1.5-million-word, twelve-volume memoir chronicling his 120-plus sexual conquests (both female and male)and his extraordinary travels across eighteenth-century Europe. As a result, Casanova will forever be remembered as a great lover, but this is mere overshadowing of the fact that he was also a great intellectual, businessman, and con artist.

Giacomo Casanova de Seingalt was born in Venice in 1725 to an actress and any one of several possible men. He was a sensitive child, prone to nosebleeds, who was raised primarily in the care of a priest and his family. He had his first sexual experience at the age of eleven, earned a law degree by the age of seventeen, and began and abandoned careers as a priest, soldier, gambler, and violinist all by the age of twenty-one.

By the age of thirty, he had lived in Venice and then Paris, was imprisoned and had escaped. He became a prominent alchemist and spy and sold tickets for France’s first state lottery and then French bonds to support the Seven Years’ War (see silhouette and sadism). He made a fortune and quickly lost it maintaining his extravagant and promiscuous lifestyle. He attempted to restore his wealth in England by proposing a state lottery system there but succeeded in acquiring nothing but venereal disease and an understanding that the English “have a special character . . . which makes them think they are superior to everyone else. It is a belief shared by all nations, each thinking itself the best. And they are all right.”

Casanova likewise failed to convince Frederick the Great in Germany and Catherine the Great in Russia (see Potemkin) that state lotteries were their ticket to greater prosperity. He continued his travels and conquests while publishing plays, essays, and a three-volume translation of the Iliad, contemplating balloon travel with Benjamin Franklin, and debating theology with Voltaire, but his health began to wane and he took up a position as a librarian. Unaccustomed to a sedentary lifestyle, he briefly considered suicide but opted instead to pen his life story, which unapologetically reveled in its introduction, “I have delighted in going astray and I have constantly lived in error, with no other consolation than that of knowing I have erred.”
He died in 1798 at the age of seventy-three, and his last words would seem at odds with his cultural legacy as a sexual conquistador: “I have lived as a philosopher and I die as a Christian.”