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Book Review: Adventurer: The Life and Times of Giacomo Casanova

Yale University Press

If you look up “Casanova” you’ll find it’s an eponym for “an unscrupulous and promiscuous lover,” but as the award-winning cultural critic, Leo Damrosch shows in his entertaining and informative chit-chat scholarly history – Adventurer: the Life and Times of Giacomo Casanova – there was much more to this iconic bad boy of the 18th century than most people know and much more about the so-called Age of Reason that might suggest it could well have been called the Age of Pornography.

It was a time of freewheeling sexual encounters, including nuns and priests, despite recurring venereal disease. Adultery, pederasty, incest, rape, gang rape, lesbianism, breach of promise – Casanova, by the way, despised marriage — the “tomb of love,” he called it. He was an occasional participant in threesomes with siblings, orgies — gender optional — and the prostitution of children by their own families — ten was the legal age of consent.

He wasn’t conventionally handsome but had an abundance of charm, intelligence, predatory skill, and persistence. He was determined to use it all to get ahead in the aristocracy where he believed he belonged and to live well in all the countries he slipped in and out of, after being exiled from his beloved Venice. Twice. He was a master performer, con artist, and pleasure seeker.

A lot of this is not new, so what does Damrosch contribute? For one, new material in the original French or Italian, that doesn’t contradict the record but adds to it, confirming or not Casanova’s claims. Damrosch has done a lot of his own translation but is generous in citing researchers before him. The illustrations are many and priceless. So are most of the anecdotes of Casanova’s adventures, which include an ingenious account of his escape from an Inquisition prison.

Damrosch is aware his book “is appearing at a cultural moment when the story of a notorious seducer needs to be addressed frankly and critically.” He does so, significantly noting that “men with great political power, such as Winston Churchill and François Mitterand, have been especially warm admirers of Casanova.”

Casanova’s dates are 1725-1798, a time the ancient regime was yielding to revolution and social change, and though his head was with the free-thinking philosophes — he adored Voltaire — his heart and his body was with the upper class. His Histoire de Ma Vie, his autobiography,  on which Damrosch and others rely — over 3,000 pages today — is the first autobiography that unlike St.Augustine’s, Rousseau’s or Boswell’s is neither confession nor euphemistic apology.

Casanova knew languages and tricks. He was a mason, a lawyer, and a Venetian through and through, “a man of masks”. He lived as though life were a festival, joying in women’s pleasure as much as his own until it wasn’t. Some 20 years before he died, worn out by his carousing and by disease, he spent most of his days and nights on his autobiography, becoming a voyeur of his own imaginative recollections. Fascinating reading, especially today.

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.