Gian Giacomo Girolamo Casanova (April 2, 1725 in Venice – June 4, 1798, in Dux, Bohemia, now Duchcov, Czech Republic) was a famous Venetian adventurer, writer, and womanizer. He used charm, guile, threats, intimidation, and aggression, when necessary, to conquer women, sometimes leaving behind children or debt. According to his autobiography Histoire de ma vie (Story of My Life), regarded as one of the most authentic sources of the customs and norms of European social life during the 18th century, he slept with 122 women during his lifetime.
Although he is often associated with Don Juan because both seduced many women, Casanova is in fact very different from his fictitious counterpart. While Don Juan is a legend, Casanova is a historical character.
Casanova was born in Venice in 1725 to actress Zanetta Farussi, wife of actor Gaetano Giuseppe Casanova. His biological father is generally believed to have been Michele Grimani, a member of the patrician family who owned the San Samuele theatre where Zanetta and Gaetano worked for a time. Casanova was the first of six children. Giovanni Alvise (1730–1795), Faustina Maddalena (1731–1736), Maria Maddalena Antonia Stella (1732–1800) and Gaetano Alvise (1734–1783) were likely fathered by Gaetano, while Francesco (1737–1803) may have been the son of another man. Neither parent paid much attention to any of the children, and Casanova never had a chance of developing a close bond with either of them. Casanova would himself sire many children outside of wedlock, but like his own parents he never paid them any serious attention.
Before Gaetano died in 1733 he appealed to the Grimanis to take care of his family, which resulted in Casanova being sent to boarding school in Padua to be educated, something which at this time only a son of a middle or upperclass family could have expected. He showed great promise as a student and quickly became his teacher's favourite, naturally quick-witted, with an intense appetite for knowledge and a perpetually inquisitive mind. It was also here that he came into contact with the opposite sex for the first time when his teacher's younger sister apparently gave him his first orgasm at the age of 11. At the age of 16 he obtained his doctorate in Law from the University of Padua, where he had studied moral philosophy, chemistry, mathematics, and law. He was keenly interested in medicine and later in life regretted not having made a career out of it, although he became an eager and often instinctively good amateur doctor.
In 1740 Casanova was back in Venice where he started his clerical law career in the church as an abate. By now he had become something of a dandy — tall and dark, his long hair powdered, scented, and elaborately curled. He quickly ingratiated himself (something he was to do all his life) with a 76-year old Venetian senator, Alvise Gasparo Malipiero. Malipiero moved in the best circles and taught young Casanova a great deal about good food and wine and how to behave in society. He never spent much time on his church career, due to his restless nature and preoccupation with sex. According to his memoirs, he lost his virginity at the age of 16 in a threesome.
His career in the church was short and tainted by scandals. After he left the church, he bought a commission to become a low ranking military officer for the Republic of Venice, and went to Constantinople after which he was stationed a short period on Corfu. He found his advancement too slow and boring and soon abandoned his military career. Back in Venice, he became a violinist in the San Samuele theatre, which was still owned by his probable biological father Michele Grimani. At the age of 21, he saved the life of a Venetian nobleman from the Bragadin family, who became his life-long patron and raised Casanova to the status of a wealthy gentleman. Due to another scandal, this time about a freshly buried corpse dug up in order to play a practical joke — the victim went into a coma never to recover — and charges of rape against a young girl, of which he was later acquitted, Casanova left Venice in 1748.
Having spent time in Paris, Dresden, Prague, and Vienna, he returned to his home town of Venice in 1753. In July 1755, at age 30, he was arrested and convicted for his interest in magic (witchcraft) by the Inquisitori di Stato in Venice, and imprisoned in "I piombi" ("The Leads"), a famous prison attached to the Doge's palace. Casanova was sentenced to five years but was informed of neither trial nor sentence. On the first of November 1756, he managed an extraordinary escape from what was one of the most secure prisons of his time. No inmate before Casanova had managed to escape. He fled to Paris, where he arrived on the same day (January 5, 1757) that Robert-Francois Damiens made an attempt on the life of Louis XV — some sources say literally minutes afterwards, though others argue the time of day.
In Paris he became one of the trustees of the first state lottery, an enterprise that allowed him to gather a large fortune. A protege of Marquess Jeanne d'Urfé, he pretended to be a Rosicrucian and an alchemist, a role that allowed him to meet some of the most prominent figures of the epoch. Among them were Madame de Pompadour, Count of St Germain, d'Alembert and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In 1758 he was entitled with a mission of selling the state bonds in Amsterdam. He succeeded and the following year was rich enough to found a silk manufactory. However, much of his wealth was lost on constant affairs with his female workers. For his debts Casanova was imprisoned at Fort-l'Éveque, but was liberated four days afterwards, on insistence of Marquess d'Urfé. He sold the rest of his belongings and acquired another mission to Holland. This time however he failed and he had to flee to Stuttgart, where he lost the rest of his fortune. On one night he lost 4000 Louis, that is roughly 1 million Euro by modern standards.
He was yet again arrested for his debts, but managed to escape to Switzerland, where he initially intended to become a Catholic monk. However, he changed his mind and instead visited Albrecht von Haller and Voltaire. In 1760, Casanova started styling himself the Chevalier de Seingalt, a name he would increasingly use for the rest of his life. On occasion, he would also call himself Count de Farussi (using his mother's maiden name). When Pope Clement XIII presented Casanova with the Papal Order of the Eperon d'Òr, Casanova was overjoyed that he could at last honestly call himself a Chevalier. In 1761, Casanova represented Portugal at the Augsburg Congress, which France had organized in an attempt to end the Seven Years' War.
During his lifetime, Casanova travelled extensively over Europe and managed to visit all its capitals, from many of which he was expelled due to various scandals. In 1766, he was expelled from Warsaw due to a duel with Count Colonel Franciszek Ksawery Branicki with pistols over an Italian actress, a ladyfriend of theirs. Both were wounded. It was not the first duel Casanova had fought, neither would it be his last.
Casanova was permitted to return to Venice in 1774 after 18 year's exile; but was expelled again in 1783 after having fallen afoul of a son of that same nobleman, Grimani, whom he believed to be his own father.
Casanova retired in 1785 and became the librarian to Count Joseph Karl von Waldstein, a chamberlain of the emperor, in the Castle of Dux, Bohemia (now Duchcov Castle, Czech Republic) where he died in 1798 at age 73. It was at the Castle of Dux that he wrote his autobiography. His last years were dull, painful, boring, and frustrating for Casanova. Although he got on well with the Count, the Count had his own preoccupations and had little time for his librarian, often ignoring him at meals and failing to introduce him to important visiting guests. Casanova was thoroughly disliked by most of the other inhabitants of the Castle of Dux and the servants were often spiteful to the old man.
Judith Summers’ biography Casanova's Women: The Great Seducer and the Women He Loved explains that Casanova was attracted to very young girls as well as women and was not averse to incest. He tried to seduce 10-year-old Sophia Williams, his own daughter by London's first nightclub owner, the Venetian opera singer, Teresa Cornelys. "In modern Times", Summers writes, "he would certainly be branded a paedophile". He was bisexual, and had known sexual liaisons with at least four men, and throughout his life he had an interest in transvestism.
Although best known for his prowess in bed, he was recognised by his contemporaries as an extraordinary person. Prince Charles de Ligne, a great Austrian statesman who knew most of the prominent individuals of the age, thought that Casanova was the most interesting man he had ever met and said of him, "there is nothing in the world of which he is not capable". Count Lamberg wrote that he knew "few persons who can equal him in the range of knowledge and, in general, of his intelligence and imagination".
During Casanova's numerous travels he encountered notable figures such as Pope Clement XIII, Catherine the Great, Frederick the Great (who afterwards commented on his good looks), Madame de Pompadour, Crebillon, who was also his French teacher, Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, and many others. He was present at the premiere of Mozart's Don Giovanni and possibly made last minute revisions to Lorenzo Da Ponte's libretto. Although Casanova took the role of businessman, diplomat, spy, politician, philosopher, magician, and writer, with over 20 books and several plays credited to his name (including a translation of the Iliad and a history of Poland — "Istoria della turbolenze della Polonia") — most of which were generally admired — for the greater part of his life he was a stranger to work, living largely on his quick wits, luck, social charm, and the money freely given to him by others. Few who gave him money regretted their benevolence.