Giacomo Casanova Biography

Webster's Dictionary defines the noun "Casanova" as "Lover, especially a man who is a promiscuous and unscrupulous lover." The word was first used in this fashion in 1852, but its inspiration can be traced back to the previous century and the life of Giacomo Casanova.

Famous for loving and leaving members of the opposite sex, the legends of Casanova have endured thanks to his 12-volume account of his exploits titled Story of My Life. Clocking in at a total of 3,500 pages, it provides a great deal of insight into both the author and the social customs and norms of 18th century Europe. In 2010, the complete manuscript was purchased by the National Library of France for a hefty 7 million euros.

In addition to his exploits as a womanizer, Casanova also had a lifelong romance with gambling. We'll discuss both in this biography, as well as providing overall details about his life.

Casanova and Women

Casanova loved women. In his own words, "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."

While most contemporaries would have been satisfied with sleeping with a woman any way they could, Casanova took his romantic conquests to new heights. He preferred relationships that mimicked a play, with himself cast as the dashing hero. These often took the following form:

  • Casanova would become acquainted with a women suffering through an unhappy relationship with another man.
  • Whether through his wits, intelligence, connections, or physical prowess, Casanova would assist the woman in her predicament.
  • Once the problem was solved, the emotionally vulnerable woman would be grateful. In turn, Casanova would seduce her and initiate a passionate affair.
  • Once the relationship had run its course, he would attempt to match the woman with a suitable replacement and then move on.

While he was attracted to intelligent and wealthy women, Casanova also has a fetish for young girls. In fact, he would be considered a pedophile by modern standards. His memoirs talk of purchasing a 13-year-old Russian sex slave, as well as engaging in carnal activities with the nine-year-old daughter of a former lover.

The Life of Casanova

Giacomo Girolamo Casanova was born in 1725 to well-known Venetian performers Zanetta Farussi and Gaetano Casanova. The eldest of six children, he became the man of the house at the age of eight when his father died from an infected abscess of the ear. This was short-lived however, as his mother's frequent travels led him to be raised by his grandmother. He was later sent to a boarding house before winding up-at his own request-in the home of a priest named Abbe Gozzi.

Casanova spent many of his teen years in the Gozzi household, and the priest's younger sister introduced him to the pleasures of the flesh by fondling him at the age of 11. One year later, he enrolled at the University of Padua and eventually obtained a degree in law.

Nearing the end of his teen years, Casanova developed a love for gambling, and his mounting debts resulted in him being called back to Venice to live with his grandmother. He began a law practice during this period, while also studying to become a clergyman. Not long after, he officially lost his virginity to a pair of sisters (one 16 and the other 14).

His tried to become a professional gambler, but he once again found himself in debt. An acquaintance secured him a job as a violinist, and he later became the personal legal assistant of a noble after saving the man's life. This much older patron, Alvise Malipiero, schooled Casanova in the ways of society and the arts, at least until the young man became rivals for the affections of an actress.

Casanova was never shy about flaunting conventions of the day, and he soon drew the attention of the authorities. Between engaging in duels, gambling, and seducing various women, it wasn't long before he was arrested and sentenced to five years in solitary confinement. Luckily, he and another prisoner managed to escape, and Casanova fled to Paris.

This marked a long period of adventure and exploration, as Casanova journeyed from one end of Europe to the other, rubbing elbows with kings, popes, and celebrities of the day. He continued to make his living primarily as a gambler, and his list of female conquests grew by leaps and bounds.

In the 1770s, Casanova was finally allowed to return home to Venice. He worked as a spy for the authorities, but his adventurous lifestyle had taken a toll on both his appearance and personal finances. He published an Italian-Tuscan translation of the Iliad, but it did little to improve his wealth.

Following the death of his mother, Casanova began a relationship with a seamstress. He was eventually expelled from Venice again in 1783, following the publication of a satire poking fun at the noble class.

He settled in Vienna for a few years, obtaining a job with the Venetian ambassador. However, when his employer died in 1785, he once again went looking for work. He found it in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) at the Castle of Dux, where he gained a position as the librarian for Count Joseph Karl von Waldstein.

Casanova's health was failing, and he found himself unpopular with most of the inhabitants of the castle. Therefore, he decided to turn his energy towards writing down his life's story, an effort that resulted in the 12-volume Story of My Life.

The famous lover and adventurer passed away on June 4th, 1798, at the age of 73. His final recorded words were, "I have lived as a philosopher, and I die as a Christian." While he might otherwise have faded into obscurity over the centuries, his autobiography ensured a certain level of immortality. 

Casanova the Gambler

As he spent time moving through the high society of 18th century Europe, Casanova played numerous games of chance. Anyone who's glanced at his memoirs should know that he had a passion for gambling, and these pursuits included the following: faro, whist, quinze, biribi, primero, piquet, lotteries, and basset. While he would've no doubt been smitten with poker, it should be noted that today's most popular card game didn't debut in its current form until the century following his death.

At the age of 20, he chose to pursue the life of a professional gambler. According to his memoirs, "I had to earn my living in one way or another, and I decided on the profession of gamester."

During this time, he sought out the teachings of both professional gamblers and cheats, as both could be found in casinos and upscale gatherings of the time. As Casanova wrote, he was "instructed in those wise maxims without which games of chance ruin those who participate in them."

Over time, however, the famous lover found that he did not have the necessary temperament to be a professional gambler. Sometimes his losses resulted in thunderous tirades, while other times it ended in a duel. As he once stated, "I had neither prudence enough to leave off when fortune was adverse, nor sufficient control over myself when I had won."

While Casanova often suffered through cold streaks (especially while playing faro), he always managed to land on his feet thanks to a combination of luck and charm. The latter often resulted in assistance from various lovers, such as the time a penniless Casanova was bailed out by a noble paramour, "I played on the martingale, but with such bad luck that I soon left without a sequin. I was obliged to tell [the lady] of my losses, and it was at her request that I sold all her diamonds, losing what I got for them. I still gamed, but for small stakes, waiting for the slow return of good luck."

In the 1760s, Casanova started a French lottery with the support of King Louis XV. The goal was to raise enough money (20 million francs) for a military school and prevent the nation's monarch from having to raise taxes. As an added bonus, both Casanova and King Louis planned to fill their personal coffers with some of the excess profits.

According to his memoirs, it was a rousing success, "The total receipts [from the first day of the nation's lottery] amounted to two million, and the administration made a profit of 600,000 francs, of which Paris alone had contributed 100,000 francs. This was well enough for a first attempt."

And so it went. Whether he was flush with money or just barely scraping by, the legendary figure kept up his love affair with gambling until the end of his life.

Casanova on the Screen

For those who desire to see a visual depiction of Casanova's life instead of just reading about it, you'll be happy to hear that a number of stories have been brought to both the big and small screens. This section discusses both, including casting details and basic plotlines.

Please note, however, that you won't find a great deal of time devoted to Casanova's life as a gambler. Since he's synonymous with romance and seduction, these are the subjects that are focused on.

  • Casanova (1918)

    A silent Hungarian film starring future horror icon Bela Lugosi in the title role.

  • The Loves of Casanova (1927)

    This is categorized as a silent French historical drama, although many who worked on the project were Russian immigrants who'd fled the events of the Russian Revolution. As with most films on this list, the movie provides an overview of the life of Casanova. Ivan Mozzhukhin stars in the title role.

  • The Mysterious Rider (1948)

    This Italian film places Casanova is the role of a heroic adventurer. Directed by Riccardo Freda, it stars Vittorio Gassman in his first role as a leading man.

  • The Last Rose from Casanova (1966)

    A Czech film starring Felix Le Breux in the title role. An older Casanova is spending the final years of his life writing his memoirs, but he's not too decrepit to accept a wager that involves the love of a younger woman.

  • Giacomo Casanova: Childhood and Adolescence (1969)

    An Italian comedy that depicts the libertine (Leonard Whiting) as a young noble studying to become a priest. However, when he falls in love with a countess, he decides to abandon his religious pursuits and seek a life of pleasure.

  • Casanova (1971)

    A BBC serial somewhat drawn from Casanova's Story of My Life. Frank Finlay had the leading role, for which he received a Best Actor nomination at the 1972 BAFTA awards.

  • Fellini's Casanova (1976)

    This highly symbolic Italian film was directed by Federico Fellini and went on to win the Academy Award for Best Costume Design. Many of the situations are taken from the subject's original works, including orgies, women dressed as nuns, and even stranger fare. Donald Sutherland plays the lead.

  • That Night in Varennes (1982)

    A French drama based on the novel by Catherine Rihoit, it tells the story of a chance meeting in a coach between Casanova (Marcello Mastroianni), Thomas Paine, Restif de la Bretonne, and Sophie de la Borde.

  • Casanova (1987)

    This made-for-television American film offers a watered-down version of Casanova's life. Richard Chamberlain stars in the title role, while Faye Dunaway heads up the supporting cast.

  • The Return of Casanova (1992)

    A French comedy starring Alain Delon as the title character. Middle-aged and broke, Casanova attempts to return to Venice, receive a pardon, and seduce a much younger woman.

  • Casanova (2005)

    This American romance stars Heath Ledger as the famous lothario, although it's only loosely based on his life. The strong supporting cast includes Sienna Miller, Jeremy Irons, and Oliver Platt.

  • Casanova (2005)

    This 3-episode BBC television serial tells the life story of Casanova, with Peter O'Toole and David Tennant playing older and younger versions of the character, respectively. 

  • The Story of My Death (2013)

    Directed by Albert Serra and originally released in France, this bizarre, low-budget film stars Vicenc Altaio as a past-his-prime Casanova who journeys to Transylvania and makes the acquaintance of Count Dracula (Eliseu Huertas).

  • Casanova Variations (2014)

    Starring John Malkovich and featuring a cast filled with trained opera singers, this lavish production tells several lewd stories from the life of Casanova. The actor also appears as himself, interacting with both a "fan" and producer in-between the events on the stage.

  • Zoroastro, lo Casanova (2016)

    An Italian concert film that combines the tragic lyrics of Jean-Philippe Rameau's Zoroastre with the Italian translation and writings of Giacomo Casanova. Directed by Gianni Di Capua and starring Galatea Ranzi as the world-famous lover.

Conclusion

Giacomo Casanova would have been considered an exceptional man in any age. He produced over 20 works of literature in his time, as well as working as a spy, politician, military officer, lawyer, and clergyman. His autobiography remains a vivid snapshot of the times, and his famed love of women was rivaled only by his seeming obsession with gambling.

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