Laurence Bergreen’s lively new biography “Casanova” leaves no detail unmentioned as he chronicles the life of the 18th-century erotic legend.
‘Casanova: The World of a Seductive Genius’
by Laurence Bergreen
Simon & Schuster, 519 pp., $32.50
If you’re worried that Laurence Bergreen’s “Casanova: The World of a Seductive Genius,” about the notorious 18th-century libertine, might be one of those biographies that’s well-researched but a bit dull, fear no more.
How many academic tomes include a blurb from Dr. Ruth on the back cover? Or feature the phrase “fake penis of” in the index (under the name of one of Casanova’s many mistresses, Teresa Lanti, who posed as a castrato and who quite deserves her own biography, or at least a web series)? Or have at its center a man who made up a swashbuckling life of equal parts “seduction, espionage and social climbing”?
Bergreen, the author of numerous biographies (his most recent subjects include Christopher Columbus and Marco Polo), has clearly done meticulous research — but he also seems, as all good biographers do, to have fallen a little bit in love with his subject.
Casanova was by no account a gentleman or a hero, but he lived his life — documented in his nearly 4,000-page memoir “Histoire de ma vie,” the work of his last years — with a Technicolor verve and an audacious disregard for convention. Some biographies can fall into a dry “And then he did …” pattern; this one is more like, “He did what?”
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Born in 1725 Venice, Giacomo Casanova “would spend his life as a performer on the world’s stage, trying on an endlessly changing array of roles and costumes, playing all the parts, villain and hero.” His parents were both actors; his father died young, but his mother Zanetta lived a long life as a flamboyant actress and courtesan, passing along to her son a “beguiling blend of artifice, whimsy and deception.”
Initially a scholar — and, improbably, a seminarian — young Giacomo by his teen years had quickly settled on the only two things that really interested him: books and women. Never marrying, he became a sort of scholarly, wandering rake, making his way across Europe’s great cities leaving a string of (reportedly quite satisfied) women in his wake. (One wonders, reading this book, how many of Italy and France’s current population is unknowingly descended from this prolific man’s offspring.)
It was a life of remarkable event and breadth: escape from a notorious Italian prison; the creation of a wildly successful lottery in France (still in use today); fascination with Freemasonry and the Kabbalah; mingling with many of the great figures of the century (Voltaire, Mozart, Catherine the Great and Louis XVI, among others, pop up in these pages); numerous publications, including hundreds of poems, a science-fiction novel and a history of Poland.
Throughout Bergreen’s pages, we hear his subject’s irreverent voice, such as in this note left in his jail cell: “Since you did not ask my permission to throw me in jail, I am not asking for yours to get out.”
And yes, his sexual escapades are legend, and breathlessly depicted: his three-way liaison with a pair of nuns, his (possibly) incestuous relationship with his (possible) daughter; his one great love, the mysterious “Henriette”; and the vast numbers of women — many of whose names supply chapter titles — to whom he swore undying devotion, at least for an evening. (You’ll also learn a surprising amount about 18th-century condoms.)
Though he was, without question, a scoundrel, he was also a romantic. “Each love affair was, for him,” Bergreen writes, “a meeting of the mind and spirit, a glimpse of eternity and ecstasy.”