Casanova, by Ian Kelly

Lovers galore – and good meals
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The Independent Culture

'I am insatiable," wrote Giacomo Casanova in a letter: "always questioning, curious, demanding, intolerable." He could not get enough; could not stay still. The legendary 18th-century Venetian libertine lived life "at a gallop", as Ian Kelly puts it in his sparkling biography. Even when he did run out of libido and sexual opportunities, he had plenty of energy left for writing, producing the 4,000 handwritten pages of rip-roaring memoir which would one day make him famous.

These days, Casanova is a brand name, synonymous with serial seduction in the way that Hoover is with dust-sucking. Yet it would surprise him to learn that he is only remembered for his sex life. He was also a traveller, an alchemist, a cabbalist, a librarian, a confidence trickster, a librettist, a poet, a translator, a science-fiction novelist, a spy and the founder of a state lottery. He even started out as a trainee priest, though he abandoned this after forgetting his lines and fainting the first time he tried to deliver a sermon.

As that episode suggests, Casanova was inept and shy in youth. That changed once he discovered that an attitude of bold charm could open doors, as well as purses and legs. All you needed to seduce a woman, he learned, was to give her your undivided attention. So rare was this experience that no woman could resist.

It helped that his interest was real. In most cases, Casanova seems genuinely to have fallen in love, or at least a sort of affectionate lust. He liked to remain friends after an affair ended, and was more interested in giving pleasure than taking it. He did not carve notches on his bedpost.

The number of women he made love to was not exceptionally high: somewhere between 122 and 136, depending on how you count, plus a few men. This is a tenth of the body count achieved by his fictional counterpart, Don Giovanni. What made Casanova extraordinary was not the statistics, but how he integrated his sexual voracity into a general attitude to life, and how well he wrote about it afterwards.

Kelly has a fine way with libertines and dandies: his last book was about Beau Brummell, and he also presents TV programmes about food history. He approaches his new subject with a healthy appetite, and provides a fresh angle on Casanova as gastronome: a man whose memoirs described over 200 meals, who loved Neapolitan oysters, and who once ate a lock of a lover's hair inside a sugared sweet, flavoured with "essences of ambergris, angelica, vanilla, alkermes and styrax".

No writer on Casanova can avoid getting slightly crowded out by the subject: the 12-volume History of My Life leaves biographers with little more to contribute than a side-salad and a finger-bowl. But Kelly keeps his main source under control, nudging the History aside to bring on period details and archival titbits. He structures the story as a play, complete with four intermezzi on travel, food, sex and the Cabbala. This breaks up the long parade of women – and of cities, for Casanova spent his life pinballing between Venice, Naples, Constantinople, Paris, Amsterdam, London, St Petersburg and innumerable other places. Kelly turns these cities into characters, especially the extraordinary, theatrical Venice – a place where, for almost half of each year, people still wore carnival masks whenever they left their houses.

Venice's masks and veils festoon the story, as do curtains, keyholes, subterfuges, disguises, cross-dressers and peeping toms. There are nuns; there are threesomes; there are virgins aplenty. As Casanova gets older, the virgins get younger, and his behaviour becomes more exploitative – often disturbingly so.

Sometimes he met his match. One Frenchwoman in London reduced him to such despair that he tried to throw himself off Westminster Bridge. He was stopped by a friend who suggested he write his memoirs instead. This idea returned to him when he had become a lonely, cantankerous man given to muttering "Scum!" after the youngsters who laughed at his outmoded clothes and dancing style. His life of sensuous joy gave him his raw material; his unhappy old age gave him the desire to write about it. The autobiography emerged from a balance between exuberance and misery – and we are the richer for it. As Kelly writes, Casanova's story asks us all "to live a little more fully".

Sarah Bakewell's 'The English Dane' is published by Vintage