2 April 2016

Giacomo Casanova – adventurer

Romantic figure escaped from prison in a gondola 

A portrait of Girolamo Casanova painted in 1760 by the German artist Anton Raphael Mengs
A portrait of Giacomo Girolamo Casanova painted in 1760
 by the German artist Anton Raphael Mengs
Author and adventurer Giacomo Girolamo Casanova was born on this day in 1725 in Venice.

He is so well known for his affairs with women that his surname is now used as an alternative word for ‘womaniser’.

But Casanova’s autobiography, ‘Story of My Life’, has also become regarded as one of the most authentic sources of information about European social life produced during the 18th century.

Casanova was widely travelled, had several different professions and was a prolific writer but he spent a lot of his time having romantic liaisons and gambling.

The Venice into which he was born was the pleasure capital of Europe, a required stop on the Grand Tour for young men coming of age, because of the attractions of the Carnival, the gambling houses and the courtesans.

Casanova graduated from the University of Padua with a degree in law and had a short career as an ecclesiastical lawyer before setting out on his adventures.

He was attractive to women, being tall and dark and wearing his long hair powdered and curled.

At various times he worked as a clergyman, military officer, violinist, businessman and spy. But throughout his life it was a recurring pattern that he embarked on passionate affairs with women, ran out of money and was imprisoned for debt.

Casanova wrote more than 20 novels, plays, and collections of essays and letters but despite his talent he was frequently distracted by his quest for pleasure and never worked for sustained periods at anything.

The Bridge of Sighs links the Doge's Palace with the prison in which Casanova was locked up
The Bridge of Sighs links the Doge's
Palace with the prison 

He would go off on his travels abroad and then return to Venice to carry on seducing women, gambling, getting into fights and making enemies.

Eventually he was arrested and imprisoned in a wing of the Doge’s Palace in terrible conditions. According to his memoirs, he hatched a daring escape plan, making a hole in the ceiling of his cell, climbing on to the roof, breaking back into the building through a window and walking out past the guard on the main entrance before making his escape in a gondola across the lagoon.

He fled to Paris, where he started the first state lottery. He was then sent on a spying mission by a Government minister and earned enough money to start his own business. But he became distracted by having affairs with his female employees, lost his money and ended up in prison for debt again.

On his return to Venice after many years he was treated like a celebrity for a while and dined out on the tale of his escape from his prison cell in the Doge’s Palace. But he was soon expelled from the city and had to set off on his travels again.

He spent his final years living in the Castle of Dux in Bohemia as librarian to Count Joseph Karl von Waldstein. There he enjoyed the time to write and produced his memoirs.

Casanova died at the age of 73 in Dux, which is now part of the Czech Republic, but the exact location of his grave is not known.

Travel tip:

Casanova’s cell in the Doge’s Palace was at the top of the building. These cells were referred to as piombi cells because of the piombo (lead) in the roof. He was better off than the prisoners left to fester in the pozzi cells, which were named after wells, because they were all dark dungeons. On a tour of the Doge’s Palace you can cross the Bridge of Sighs to the prison and see the cell from where Casanova planned his audacious escape.

Players at the gambling house had to wear masks, as depicted in Pietro Longhi's 18th century painting
The first gambling house in Venice required players to
wear masks, as depicted in this 18th century painting
Travel tip:

The streets between St Marks’ Square and the Rialto Bridge were Casanova’s stamping ground. Calle Vallaresso next to the Piazza was home to several gambling houses he frequented. Nowadays tourists flock to Harry’s Bar at the end to sample the Bellini cocktail invented by its founder, Giuseppe Cipriani. In the adjacent Calle del Ridotto, the first public gaming house in Europe was allowed to open in 1638 with the proviso that players came wearing a mask.  Casanova wined and dined his conquests at Cantina Do Spade near the Rialto Bridge, even mentioning the traditional Venetian osteria, in Calle delle Do Spade, in his memoirs.


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