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Who Was Casanova?

Updated on July 26, 2013

Refer to someone as Casanova and we all know exactly what that means – a bit of a ladies’ man. Yet from where did this name originate? Just who was Casanova, and how on earth did he earn his womanising reputation?

Giacomo Girolamo Casanova (1725 –1798) was, in brief, a smooth-talking Italian social climber, someone who knew how to play people, to use social connections and who had a love of mysticism and rituals. He was a freemason and a charlatan, who scammed the rich by claiming to have psychic powers, when actually all he had was an excellent memory. He was also a lottery entrepreneur who travelled constantly around Europe, a hedonist, a gambler and an inveterate lover, who claimed to have indulged in no fewer than one hundred and twenty sexual conquests, both male and female. He got himself thrown out of numerous cities and countries, and went to prison at least once. He was also a writer, whose memoirs are widely regarded as one of the best portrayals of European life of that period.

The following is a brief overview of his extraordinary life, and his legendary appeal for members of the opposite sex.

Definitions of Casanova: ‘A man who is a promiscuous and unscrupulous lover’ (Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary); ‘A man who engages in promiscuous love affairs’ (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary).

Casanova the Student

Casanova was born in Venice in 1725, to an actor and actress, the first of six children. At that time Venice, or The Republic of Venice as it was known, was an important stop on The Grand Tour, widely regarded as a pleasure capital, where gambling houses and prostitutes thrived.

Casanova’s father died when he was eight and his mother spent much time away touring, so Casanova was brought up mainly by his grandmother, and then sent to a boarding house in Padua. He spent his teenage years living with his tutor and family. A bright, inquisitive boy, he went to the University of Padua where he studied law, moral philosophy, chemistry and maths. It was during his university years that he developed his lifelong passion for gambling. He got into debt and was brought back to Venice by his grandmother, where he started a career in clerical law.

Fellini's Casanova (1976)
Fellini's Casanova (1976)

Casanova the Social Climber

No doubt as a result of his unsettled upbringing, Casanova understood that an easy way to get on in life was to find someone well-connected, rich and powerful, and to make good use of them and their connections. This was something he was to do all his life.

His first patron was a Venetian senator who moved in high society and who taught Casanova about the finer things in life, including how to behave in society. Casanova’s womanising got the better of him, however, and he was discovered flirting with an actress who had caught the senator’s eye, and was thrown out.

Following brief spells in the church and military, Casanova’s next benefactor was a Venetian nobleman. For the next three years Casanova led the high life, dressing well, gambling and seducing a variety of women. During this time, however, two things went badly wrong – a practical joke Casanova played resulted in his victim’s paralysis, and he was falsely accused of rape. He fled Venice and wasn’t to return for another eighteen years.

In his own words: ‘Cultivating whatever gave pleasure to my senses was always the chief business of my life…Feeling that I was born for the sex opposite of mine, I have always loved it and done all that I could to make myself loved by it.’

Casanova the Lottery Entrepreneur

In Paris Casanova became a trustee of the first state lottery, not to mention one of its best salesmen. He made a fortune, and this enabled him to move in high circles and, of course, to seduce many women. He decided to take this lottery success elsewhere: in England he got as far as an audience with King George III, but the plans didn’t take off, and he left broke and with VD. He recovered in Belgium, before travelling across Europe and Russia, trying unsuccessfully to sell his lottery scheme. In 1766, he was expelled from Warsaw following a pistol duel over an Italian actress. He went to Spain, where he made use of his well-placed contacts, but the lottery idea still didn’t take off.

Casanova by The Divine Comedy (1996)
Casanova by The Divine Comedy (1996)

Casanova the Charlatan

Casanova became a Freemason in the French city of Lyon, attracted by the secret rites this involved, not to mention the chance to meet influential people and contacts. With his love of gambling, he had to keep money flowing in, and so used his knowledge of the occult to separate wealthy people from their money. In Venice his police record included reported blasphemies, seductions, fights and public controversy, and at the age of thirty, he was arrested and imprisoned, managing later to escape. In Paris he hit the gambling salons, while taking advantage of his excellent memory to dupe socialites with his occultism. In Casanova’s view: ‘deceiving a fool is an exploit worthy of an intelligent man’. Eventually these scams got him expelled by the king.

Casanova (2005) directed by Lasse Hallström and starring Heath Ledger and Sienna Miller
Casanova (2005) directed by Lasse Hallström and starring Heath Ledger and Sienna Miller

Casanova the Lover

In his memoirs, Casanova describes over 120 sexual counters with women and girls, also implying that he had had male lovers as well. He also refers to using assurance caps – condoms made out of very fine leather – as a form of contraception.

Casanova was attentive and went out of his way to be the ideal escort – witty, charming and helpful. His conquests tended to be experienced, albeit insecure women, and he developed a tactical seduction routine. First he’d find a beautiful woman in trouble, perhaps with a jealous lover. Then he’d smooth things over for her, thus winning her gratitude, before seducing her. They’d have a brief but passionate fling, but he was careful never to talk of love: ‘A man who makes known his love by words is a fool’. Once he grew bored, however, he’d claim that he wasn’t good enough for her, set herself up with someone more suitable, and move on – no harm done..

He valued intelligence: ‘A beautiful woman without a mind of her own leaves her lover with no resource after he has physically enjoyed her charms,’ but he was less keen on education: ‘In a woman learning is out of place; it compromises the essential qualities of her sex.’

In his own words: ‘As for women, I have always found that the one I was in love with smelled good, and the more copious her sweat the sweeter I found it.’

Casanova had his first sexual experience at the age of eleven, with his tutor’s daughter, Bettina. They stayed in touch and many years later he was heartbroken when she died in his arms. His first full-on sexual experience was with two sisters, Nanetta and Maria, aged fourteen and sixteen. He did enjoy true love – once. This happened in Parma, where he had a three-month affair with a beautiful Frenchwoman. She, however, was less smitten than he was, and, underwhelmed by his lack of social background and precarious finances, she dumped him.

While in England trying to sell his lottery idea, Casanova wasn’t going to let his lack of connections stop him from finding lovers. Ingeniously, he placed an ad in the paper for an apartment to rent, and used this as a way of meeting young women. He settled on a Mistress Pauline, moved into her home and, you guessed it, seduced her.

In his later years things didn’t go so well for Casanova. By the time he was 49, he was back in Venice, broke, bored and had lost his looks. He met the seamstress Francesca, and she became his housekeeper and live-in lover…until he was expelled for writing a satire that poked fun at nobility.

Casanova TV miniseries (2005) starring Rose Byrne, David Tennant and Peter O'Toole
Casanova TV miniseries (2005) starring Rose Byrne, David Tennant and Peter O'Toole

Casanova the Writer

Having written plays throughout his life, Casanova ended up in the Czech Republic (then known as Bohemia), where he became the librarian to Count Joseph Karl von Waldstein in the Castle of Dux. Casanova found his life there dull, and was disliked by the other residents. He settled down to write his memoirs, calling them: ‘the only remedy to keep from going mad or dying of grief.’

Written in French, Histoire de ma Vie (The Story of my Life) is widely considered one of the most authentic portrayals of European social life of its time. Had he not written it, the chances are Casanova would never have been remembered, and the name he’s given to the English language wouldn’t exist.

Casanova died on June 4, 1798, at the age of 73, and was buried at the Castle of Dux.


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    • Viva Jones profile image

      Viva Jones 4 years ago from UK

      Hi bydojo, thanks for your comment, glad you enjoyed the article.

    • bydojo profile image

      Ramona Jar 4 years ago from Romania

      Excellent article. I knew about him, but not in such great detail.