Painting by Francesco Narici on Wikimedia Commons

The Challenge of Casanova

Leo Damrosch—

Everyone knows that Casanova was a seducer. He belongs to that rare company of mortals whose personal names have floated free from history, and we know what a Casanova is even if we know nothing about the man who bore that name. He was Giacomo Casanova, a gifted and complicated Venetian who lived from 1725 to 1798, and his story is a fascinating one. But although he was more than his myth, the myth is grounded in truth. His career as a seducer, already notorious in his own time, is often disturbing and sometimes very dark. It challenges any reader today, and still more it challenges a biographer. Casanova aspired to a life of freedom from restraints—but freedom at whose expense?

There have been a number of biographies of Casanova, but the time is overdue for a biography of a different kind. He was the first to tell his own story, in a massive autobiography entitled Histoire de Ma Vie. Fluent in French, he wrote in that language since unlike Italian it was understood throughout Europe. The word histoire can mean “story” as well as “history,” and a story it certainly is. Previous biographers have tended to retell it as he told it, adopting his own point of view with only occasional queries. Some have betrayed a vicarious investment in his tales of seduction, just as many readers clearly have; it’s interesting that men with great political power, such as Winston Churchill and François Mitterrand, have been especially warm admirers of Casanova.

In fiction such a character might be a charming rogue, but in real life Casanova’s behavior was often far from charming, and this is evident even when all we have to go on is his own narrative. In 2006 Judith Summers published a book entitled Casanova’s Women: The Great Seducer and the Women He Loved. In describing a dozen of his relationships over the years, she emphasizes his interest in the individuality of his partners: “Just as Casanova the lover once kissed their dewy skin with breathless abandon, Casanova the writer breathes life into their shadows.” But at one point she calls him, almost in passing, “a seducer who, if he was operating today, might well be in prison for breach of promise, incest, fraud, pedophilia, grievous bodily harm, and rape.” That shocking catalogue is entirely true, and will be addressed frankly throughout this book.1

Proud of being a bad boy, Casanova was self-serving in every aspect of his life, not just the sexual, but the erotic encounters in the Histoire vary greatly. Sometimes his behavior was abusive in ways that are not just disturbing today, but would have seemed disturbing to many people in his own day. At other times he convincingly describes experiences of deep mutual enjoyment.

Casanova did value his partners’ individuality, and he genuinely wanted to share mutual pleasure with them. But the balance of power was always unequal, and every one of his relationships was short-lived—sometimes only a single encounter, and never lasting more than a couple of months. Not until very late in life did he live with a woman for more than a brief time. And although he occasionally considered marriage, or claims he did, he made sure that it never happened.

With only two or three of his many partners—and he names over a hundred—was Casanova really what most people consider “in love.” What he calls “love” usually began with excited infatuation, and sometimes it developed into passion, but it always burned out fast. The psychoanalyst Lydia Flem claims, “There is not a trace of misogyny in Casanova; in the great book of life, women are his masters.” But if his technique of seduction sometimes gave women a feeling of power, that feeling never lasted.2

To hear him tell it, desire was always mutual and relationships always ended amicably. But even in his own telling, it’s obvious that some women got involved with him against their better judgment, and were regretful or bitter afterward. Even if relationships did end amicably, what would that mean? Casanova saw it as evidence of his generosity of spirit, but it can also be seen as invincible narcissism. The critic François Roustang provides an insight that goes much deeper than Casanova’s rationalizations: “He is incapable of making the women he deceives suffer—not so much for their sakes as for his own, because he cannot stand the thought that they might no longer love him. Each breakup must result in happiness for the other, so that he can preserve all of his self-esteem and lightheartedness.” But as another writer says dryly, “He was always in love with his prey.”3

  1. Judith Summers, Casanova’s Women: The Great Seducer and the Women He Loved (London: Bloomsbury, 2006), 21–22.
  2. 2. Lydia Flem, The Man Who Really Loved Women, trans. Catherine Temerson (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997), 76, 72.
  3. 3. François Roustang, The Quadrille of Gender: Casanova’s Memoirs, trans. Anne C. Vila (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988), 84; Angelo Mainardi, Casanova: L’Ultimo Mistero (Rome: Tre Editori, 2010), 187.

From Adventurer: The Life and Times of Giacomo Casanova by Leo Damrosch. Published by Yale University Press in 2023. Reproduced with permission.

Leo Damrosch is the Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature Emeritus at Harvard University. His many books include The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age and Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World, winner of the National Book Critics Circle award and Pulitzer finalist for biography. He lives in Newton, MA.

Recent Posts

All Blogs