It was November 1763 and Giacomo Casanova was on Westminster Bridge, his pockets full of lead shot, gazing into the swirling grey water and preparing to jump. He was 38 and in the grip of a mighty – and most unusual – depression. As he was nerving himself for the fatal leap, up trotted Sir Wellbore Ellis Agar, the boorish playboy son of an insignificant MP. Noticing that the chap seemed a bit glum, he suggested a drink, a woman and some roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.
It did the trick. Down came Casanova and off they went to Cockspur Street where the drink was welcomed but not the beef – for there was no soup and his stay in Paris had convinced Casanova that every meal should begin with soup. Unless it was oysters. He ate some oysters, but chose to leave the naked dancers to Wellbore’s eager attentions. He departed, having postponed his suicide.
It was Wellbore’s finest hour. Casanova never sank so low again, living on until 1798, by which time he had completed the History of My Life, probably the longest and most entertaining autobiography ever written.
Ian Kelly’s account of this supremely theatrical life takes the form of a five-act drama interspersed with intermezzi. His style is delightful. Take the business of the oysters: Casanova is credited with discovering their aphrodisiac properties, largely because his preferred method of consumption involved eating them from his companion’s breasts. “This,” says Kelly gravely, “isnot to be tried in restaurants.” Elsewhere he writes of Casanova’s frequent linking of sex, food and smell. He enjoyed the smell of sweat and maggoty cheese but “it was a different olfactory age,” explains Kelly, “richly, or revoltingly, more vivid than our own.” Similarly Venice is noisy or noisome, foetid or fecund: Kelly offers you either option and takes both.
His affection for his subject never falters. Though he acknowledges that for many of his exploits (such as incest or under-age sex), Casanova would today be considered a criminal, excuses can always be found: besides, the man’s charm was irresistible. He seems to have been an incorrigible romantic and a kind man, more a serial monogamist than a vile seducer, and he stayed friends with most of his old girlfriends: many kept in touch with him all their lives. Though his name is synonymous with sexual prowess, when compared with many of his contemporaries, his recorded conquests are few Solemnly, Kelly adds them up: 122 to 136, depending on your accounting method, an average of three or four a year. Numerically, James Boswell and William Hickey left him standing, while Byron boasted of many more in a couple of years than did Casanova in a lifetime.
What he seemed to enjoywas not so much lust as seduction: for him sex was, ideally, prompted by true love. “Alas,” he wrote, “for anyone who thinks the pleasure of Venus is worth anything unless it comes from two hearts which love each other and are in perfect concord.” He had that rare gift, the ability to concentrate exclusively on the woman he was with. No wonder few could resist him.
Casanova was the son of a pretty Venetian actress. He was destined for the church and graduated as a doctor of law at 16, having written a thesis on the rights of Jews to build synagogues. He preached one brilliant sermon, passed out in the pulpit during thesecond and – while never abandoning his faith – thereafter became a soldier, a gambler, a fiddler, a philanderer and a prisoner under the roof of the Doge’s Palace, whence he escaped using a spike originally employed to support a vast Tintoretto ceiling. Subsequently he became an inveterate traveller, making and losing fortunes and meeting everyone of any significance in Europe, from Catherine the Great to Dr Johnson.
Scholars generally question or refute many of his more rococo anecdotes but Ian Kelly’s great achievement, the fruit of meticulous and wide-ranging research, proves his hero’s autobiography was accurate in most important respects.
Casanova was a friend of Mozart’s librettist, the Venetian Lorenzo da Ponte. Kelly proves that they collaborated on the librettofor Don Giovanni. It makes sense: after the opening night in Prague, Casanova was asked if he’d seen the opera. “Seen it?” he replied incredulously. “I’ve practically lived it.”