Everyone thinks that they know about Casanova, the legendary lover who proceeded from one romantic conquest to another, but almost no one really does. They believe that he was handsome, distinguished and practised in the arts of love, a virtual Zorro of the boudoir. That he was a wealthy member of the upper class, and celebrated in his lifetime for his exploits. So runs the fable of the great lover.
In reality, Giacomo Girolamo Casanova was a far more complex and intriguing figure, a libertine, to be sure, but so much more. And – in case there is any doubt – he was a real person. Born in Venice on 2 April 1725, he was the obscure son of a somewhat famous actress and courtesan named Zanetta Farussi and a forgotten actor, Gaetano Casanova. If anyone in this modest family qualified as a ‘Casanova’, it was his mother Zanetta with her love affairs and wiles and penchant for abandoning him. At the start of 1726, the New Theatre in the Haymarket in London hired his parents along with an ensemble of Italian comedians; Zanetta and Gaetano left Giacomo in the care of his grandmother Marzia. A little more than a year later, Gaetano and Zanetta’s second child, Francesco Giuseppe, was born, and baptised on 1 June. Rumours described him as the bastard child of King George II.
In Venice, meanwhile, young Giacomo suffered from nosebleeds that he said affected his ability to think. His environment was equally problematic. The Republic of Venice, as it was known, was extremely hierarchical, and ruled by 400 families registered in the Libro d’Oro, or Golden book, a directory of Venetian nobility. This rigid structure was destined to collapse under its own weight but, at the time, Venice thrived on sin; it was the Las Vegas of its day. Tourists came from across Europe to sample its gambling dens and its courtesans, and other illicit pleasures. Some convents functioned as harems for the daughters of wealthy families who did not want the girls to marry or to bear children. Under cover of religious vocation, they entertained well-heeled admirers and staged orgies. In time, a ‘nunnery’ became a synonym for a ‘brothel’, as Hamlet said to Ophelia.
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