Who was Casanova, the living legend? He was born in Venice in 1725 to a pair of actors and grew up to be a man who embodied the spirit of the Enlightenment. He was charming, curious, directionless, and usually fell for intelligent, talented women over the course of outlandish games of the heart – and these women seduced him just as often as he seduced them. Some of his stories are troubling; others are entertaining. But they were never without intrigue.
But there is a lot more to this noted lothario than his numerous love affairs, however scandalous. He was actually more prolific with the pen than he was with the heart, and at the end of his life he had the good sense to write down his memoirs in one of the most scandalous autobiographies ever written, The Story of My Life. Historians have since used this text to uncover facts about Casanova and piece together his marvelous life.
Casanova’s biography reveals a man of the world who dabbled, schemed, swindled, supported, and encouraged a long list of notable and forgotten European men and women. Though some stories might appear too ridiculous to be true, they are also revelatory glimpses into the life of Casanova, a man who has become a legend.
He Impregnated His Own Daughter Because She Wanted A ChildThough Casanova never married, he had a handful of illegitimate sons and daughters littered across Europe. One of whom was Leonilda, his daughter from an affair with Lucrezia Castelli.
Casanova had unwittingly nearly taken Leonilda as his lover in 1761 when he visited Naples. But, when he learned that she was in fact his own flesh and blood, he wisely decided not to sleep with her.
But things took a bizarre twist many years later. Leonilda had been married off to a marchese, and Casanova’s old flame Lucrezia invited him to visit them at their grand new home. Lucrezia seems to have confessed to Casanova that their daughter was unhappy, for her husband was not giving her the child she so desperately wanted. So Casanova agreed to Lucrezia’s plan: he would impregnate her himself.
The unholy union indeed had its desired effect – Casanova was both father and grandfather to Leonilda’s son/brother.
He Had A Torrid Affair With A Venetian NunIn 1753, the 27-year-old Casanova impregnanted the 14-year-old Caterina Capretta. Capretta’s father quickly sent her off to a Venetian convent, but that did nothing to keep the notorious lothario away from her. He enlisted the help of nuns at the convent to pass letters between the lovers.
Meanwhile, in the course of coming and going to the convent, Casanova had piqued the attention of Marina Morosini, a beautiful nun who was already engaged in an affair with Abbé Joachim de Bernis, a French diplomat in Venice. Morosini was so beguiled by Casanova’s figure that she wrote him a letter straightaway, and the two soon began a passionate affair. At one point, the couple actually put on a sex show for de Bernis, who watched their lovemaking from a secret room.
To add another twist to the story, Morosini and Caterina Capretta were engaged in their own torrid affair within the convent walls.
Casanova Became A Celebrity for His Daring Prison BreakCasanova’s lifestyle attracted attention wherever he went, and police organizations across Europe meticulously recorded his activities – he was, for all intents and purposes, an outlaw who routinely escaped one city for another.
In 1755, his scandals caught up with him and Casanova was arrested by Venice’s infamous Coucil of Ten on a charge of indecency and blasphemy. Without trial, Casanova was unceremoniously thrown into prison. Though he was fortunate enough to be imprisoned in the Doge’s palace, Casanova had no intention of serving his full five-year sentence. So, he flew the coop.
After weeks of labor, he filed an iron bar into a spike. He used it to create a hole through the roof or floor of his cell and escaped with the help of his prison-mate, a monk. They fled Venice in a gondola on the canal. Casanova sought refuge in Paris. He would not return to his beloved Venice for 18 long years.
It was said that Casanova and his accomplice’s prison-break was the first time anyone had escaped from the Doge’s Palace. His escape from prison brought him small fame, which no doubt served him well during his long exile from Venice.
He Tried to Help A Young Woman Get An Abortion And Then Seduced HerIn 1759, Casanova had come to Paris, where he was up to his usual scheming and merriment amongst high society. While there, he re-acquainted himself with the intelligent, beautiful Guistiniana Wynne, a young Venetian woman who was caught up in a passionate affair with his friend, Andrea Memmo, son of one of Venice’s leading families. Wynne reached out to her lover’s friend because she had a problem: she was five months pregnant with Memmo’s baby, and such a fact would ruin her reputation. Since marriage between them was out of the question – Memmo’s patrician family vehemently opposed the match – Wynne felt she had no choice but to terminate the pregnancy. So she turned to Casanova to help her with the act.
Abortion was illegal and dangerous in 18th-century France, and so both Casanova and Wynne took on a great risk. But they forged ahead with their plans. They met at a masquerade, so as not to arouse suspicion, and left the ball for a few hours to visit the midwife who would assist. To Wynne’s frustration, the attempt did not work. She pleaded with Casanova to find another way.
After reading of an ointment that would bring on an abortion, Casanova then convinced Wynne to have sex with him – he claimed he would apply a special ointment to his penis, and through intercourse it could be applied directly inside her vagina. Unsurprisingly, this method did not work either.
Without any other options, Guistiniana Wynne had no choice but to flee to a convent, where she discreetly gave birth to her child.
While In London, Casanova Advertised For Female CompanionshipIn 1763, Casanova arrived in London. He quickly became lonely in the British capital and longed for female companionship. So, he put out an advertisement to find young ladies to rent apartments in the house where he was staying. The advertisement caused quite a stir in British society, and it was even reprinted in one of the city newspapers. He wanted a woman who would, as Casanova claimed, “satisfy my natural desires […] I wished for someone whom I could love.”
It achieved its purpose: Casanova found a woman known as Pauline to inhabit the space, and a love affair soon followed. They lived an odd imitation of an idyllic domestic life, taking dinners and walks together.
He Claimed To Be A MysticCasanova claimed to be an expert in the mystical cabbala – a claim that no doubt provided him with a way to manipulate a variety of occult-minded people. To be fair, he was deeply interested in it. But his claims of mysticism usually accompanied questionable motives.
One such individual whom Casanova would manipulate was Jeanne Camus de Pontcarré, the Marquise d’Urfé. The marquise was a noble and very wealth Frenchwoman who bonded with Casanova over their shared love of the occult. He took advantage by reveling in his proximity to the marquise’s wealth and social connections.
In 1763, she implored Casanova to put his mystical knowledge to good use: the marquise wanted him to reincarnate her soul into the body of a baby. For years, Casanova strung the old widow along, until she finally caught on to his schemes and they parted ways.
He Lost His Virginity To A Pair Of SistersWhen Casanova was 17 he was in the process of studying to join the Church. But his nocturnal activities were anything but appropriate for a future man of the cloth. He lost his virginity one night to two Venetian sisters, 16-year-old Nanetta and 15-year-old Marta Savorgnan, themselves virgins.
Though Casanova remembered his first tryst with fondness for the rest of his life, that fondness was not shared with at least one of the sisters. Marta entered a convent instead of marrying and prayed for Casanova’s salvation.
He Fell Head Over Heels For An Actress Who Pretended To Be A CastratoAround 1745, Casanova attended a dinner in which a young castrato was performing. A castrato was essentially a young male singer whose testicles had been removed to preserve his high voice. This castrato was called “Bellino,” and he captivated Casanova. The young Venetian mused that Bellino was actually a woman – and after a game of identity revelation, he was proven correct.
Bellino was actually a young actress in disguise. She claimed to disguise herself as a contralto to get roles on stage that were not available to women. Though Casanova refers to her as Teresa Lanti, historians guess that she might have been Teresa Landi, Artemesia Lanti, or Angiola Calori, all of whom ended up on the London stage. Casanova and his Bellino began an affair that ultimately produced a child, Casanova’s illegitimate son Cesarino.
He Assumed A New Identity To Escape His Creditors In ParisWhile in exile in France in 1757, Casanova introduced a lottery system to France. The scheme – which relied on his first-rate mathematical abilities – netted Casanova wealth and access to the upper echelons of French society. He met everyone from Madame de Pompadour – the principal royal mistress at the court of King Louis XV – to Voltaire and other luminaries of the Enlightenment. But Casanova was nothing if not unsnobbish with his company – at the same time, he cavorted with prostitutes, dancers, and actresses. Soon, Casanova had squandered his wealth and drifted into debt.
In 1760, he fled Paris to escape his creditors and began to roam around Europe under a new name: Chevalier de Seingalt. He would spend the next 14 years jumping from one scandal to the next as he roved his way across the continent, from London to St. Petersburg.
Casanova Saved A Nobleman’s Life And Was Rewarded With Wealth And PrestigeCasanova’s life dramatically changed course in March 1746. While he was about town celebrating carnival, he noticed Senator Matteo Giovanni Bragadin collapse in his gondola, suffering a stroke. Casanova took charge, immediately directing Bragadin’s gondoliers to a surgeon. The surgeon’s methods – bleeding Bragadin and rubbing a mercury-based ointment on his chest – might have killed the poor noble had Casanova himself not intervened. He saved Bragadin’s life, and the bystanders claimed the young Venetian surely must have wielded supernatural powers to have pulled it off. Indeed, Casanova himself claimed to have the ability to wield cabbalistic powers.
As a show of thanks, Bragadin supposedly became a patron for Casanova, who suddenly had the wealth and connections he so long craved.
He Fought A Duel With A Count Over A Card GameIn 1746, Casanova was in Padua where he met a woman he calls Ancilla, a local courtesan. Ancilla ran a gambling den, and Casanova spent time, money, and affection on the woman. He quickly learned he wasn’t her only lover: Count Medina was known as Ancilla’s favorite lover, and he also excelled at cards. Casanova felt the two had conspired to cheat him – he demanded satisfaction, so Medina returned the young Venetian’s money and then challenged him to a duel by swords. Though Casanova escaped the duel unharmed, he wounded Medina and gained an enemy for the rest of his life.
Casanova would go on to have at least one more duel over the course of his adventurous life.
His Landlady Brought A Suit Against Him For Impregnating Her DaughterCasanova spent two years in Paris. From 1750-1752, he devoted himself to learning French, meeting important people, and getting himself into one scrape after another in one of the most debauched cities in Europe.
Casanova – probably unwisely – was having a brief affair with the daughter of his landlady, Madame Quinson. The teenaged Mimi would come to Casanova’s room on her own volition, he emphasized, and they would pass the time in one another’s embrace. When Mimi became pregnant, her mother brought a suit against the young Venetian. The court ultimately dismissed the charge.
Casanova May Have Collaborated On A Mozart OperaCasanova spent his final years in Prague and had access to variety of notable people passing through the city. Among them was Lorenzo da Ponte, who had written the libretti for Mozart’s The Magic Flute and The Marriage of Figaro. While da Ponte was in Prague, so the story goes, he introduced Casanova to the maestro himself, who had come to the city with his wife in 1787.
Casanova took advantage to his proximity to these two geniuses by helping them with the libretto of their newest opera, Don Giovanni, which centered on the romantic exploits of the legendary Don Juan. Needless to say, it was a subject about which Casanova could speak from experience.
He Was The Original Sexy LibrarianCasanova was nothing if not a polymath, and his diverse interests and seemingly boundless energy led him down a number of career paths. In his 73 years, Casanova had jobs ranging from monk-in-training to gambler, musician, spy, and soldier. Casanova also considered himself a philosopher, and his intellectual pursuits were just as central to his life as his amorous ones. But perhaps the most surprising career for the world’s most famous lothario was his final one: librarian.
In 1785, the aging Casanova apparently had had enough of his adventurous life and settled down as the official librarian to Count Joseph Charles von Waldstein, a Bohemian nobleman. Though this was not the happiest time of Casanova’s life, the job itself provided Casanova with a steady income and his own quarters in the Count’s castle in the Bohemian countryside. It also gave him time to write his masterpiece, the 12-volume memoir of his incredible life.