He was so famous as a womanizer that his name remains synonymous with the art of seduction and he is sometimes called "the world's greatest lover". He associated with European royalty, popes and cardinals, along with men such as Voltaire, Goethe and Mozart; but if he had not been obliged to spend some years as a librarian in the household of CountWaldstein of Bohemia (where he relieved his boredom by writing the story of his life), it is possible that he would be forgotten today.
Giacomo Girolamo Casanova was born in Venice in 1725 to actress Zanetta Farussi, wife of actor and dancer Gaetano Giuseppe Casanova. Giacomo was the first of six children, being followed by Francesco Giuseppe(1727–1803),Giovanni Battista (1730–1795), Faustina Maddalena (1731–1736), Maria Maddalena Antonia Stella (1732–1800), and Gaetano Alvise (1734–1783). Because of his mother's profession, it is suspected that some or all of these were fathered by men other than her husband. Casanova himself suspected his biological father to have been Michele Grimani, a member of the patrician family that owned the San Samuele theatre where Zanetta and Gaetano had worked. Lending support to this, Grimani’s brother, Abbé Alvise Grimani, became Casanova’s guardian. In his memoirs, however, Casanova provides an elaborate paternal genealogy to explain his birth, beginning in Spain in 1428.
The Republic of Venice during Casanova’s time was past its peak as a naval and commercial power. Instead Venice thrived as the pleasure capital of Europe, ruled by political and religious conservatives who tolerated social vices and encouraged tourism. It was a required stop on the Grand Tour, traveled by young men coming of age, especially Englishmen. The famed Carnival, gambling houses, and beautiful courtesans were powerful drawing cards. This was the milieu that bred Casanova and made him its most famous and representative citizen.
Casanova was cared for by his grandmother Marzia Baldissera while his mother toured about Europe in the theater. His father died when he was eight. As a child, Casanova suffered nosebleeds, and his grandmother sought help from a witch: “Leaving the gondola, we enter a hovel, where we find an old woman sitting on a pallet, with a black cat in her arms and five or six others around her.” Though the unguent applied was ineffective, Casanova was fascinated by the incantation. Perhaps to remedy the nosebleeds (a physician blamed the density of Venice’s air), Casanova, on his ninth birthday, was sent to a boarding house on the mainland in Padua. For Casanova, the neglect by his parents was a bitter memory. “So they got rid of me,” he proclaimed flatly. Conditions at the boarding house were appalling so he appealed to be placed under the care of Abbé Gozzi, his primary instructor, who tutored him in academic subjects as well as the violin. Casanova moved in with the priest and his family and lived there through most of his teenage years. It was also in the Gozzi household that Casanova first came into contact with the opposite sex, when Gozzi’s younger sister Bettina fondled him at the age of eleven. Bettina was “pretty, lighthearted, and a great reader of romances. … The girl pleased me at once, though I had no idea why. It was she who little by little kindled in my heart the first sparks of a feeling which later became my ruling passion.” Although she subsequently married, Casanova maintained a life-long attachment to Bettina and the Gozzi family.
Early on, Casanova demonstrated a quick wit, an intense appetite for knowledge, and a perpetually inquisitive mind. He entered the University of Padua at twelve and graduated at seventeen, in 1742, with a degree in law (“for which I felt an unconquerable aversion”). It was his guardian’s hope that he would become an ecclesiastical lawyer. Casanova had also studied moral philosophy, chemistry, and mathematics, and was keenly interested in medicine. (“I should have been allowed to do as I wished and become a physician, in which profession quackery is even more effective than it is in legal practice). He frequently prescribed his own treatments for himself and friends. While attending the university, Casanova began to gamble and quickly got into debt, causing his recall to Venice by his grandmother, but the gambling habit became firmly established.
Back in Venice, Casanova started his clerical law career and was admitted as an abbe after being conferred minor orders by the Patriarch of Venice. He shuttled back and forth to Padua to continue his university studies. By now, he had become something of a dandy—tall and dark, his long hair powdered, scented, and elaborately curled. He quickly ingratiated himself with a patron (something he was to do all his life), 76-year-old Venetian senator Alvise Gasparo Malipiero, the owner of Palazzo Malipiero, close to Casanova’s home in Venice. Malipiero moved in the best circles and taught young Casanova a great deal about good food and wine, and how to behave in society. When Casanova was caught dallying with Malipero’s intended object of seduction, actress Teresa Imer, however, the senator drove both of them from his house. Casanova’s growing curiosity about women led to his first complete sexual experience, with two sisters Nanetta and Maria Savorgnan, then fourteen and sixteen, who were distant relatives of the Grimanis. Casanova proclaimed that his life avocation was firmly established by this encounter.
For Casanova, as well as his contemporary sybaritesa of the upper class, love and sex tended to be casual and not endowed with the seriousness characteristic of the Romanticism of the 19th century. Flirtations, bedroom games, and short-term liaisons were common among nobles who married for social connections rather than love. For Casanova, it was an open field of sexual opportunities.
Although multi-faceted and complex, Casanova's personality was dominated by his sensual urges: “Cultivating whatever gave pleasure to my senses was always the chief business of my life; I never found any occupation more important. 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.”
Casanova’s ideal liaison had elements beyond sex, including complicated plots, heroes and villains, and gallant outcomes. In a pattern he often repeated, he would discover an attractive woman in trouble with a brutish or jealous lover (Act I); he would ameliorate her difficulty (Act II); she would show her gratitude; he would seduce her; a short exciting affair would ensue (Act III); feeling a loss of ardor or boredom setting in, he would plead his unworthiness and arrange for her marriage or pairing with a worthy man, then exit the scene (Act IV). As William Bolitho points out in Twelve Against the Gods, the secret of Casanova's success with women “had nothing more esoteric in it than [offering] what every woman who respects herself must demand: all that he had, all that he was, with (to set off the lack of legality) the dazzling attraction of the lump sum over what is more regularly doled out in a lifetime of installments.”
Casanova advises, “There is no honest woman with an uncorrupted heart whom a man is not sure of conquering by dint of gratitude. It is one of the surest and shortest means.” Alcohol and violence, for him, were not proper tools of seduction. Instead, attentiveness and small favors should be employed to soften a woman’s heart, but “a man who makes known his love by words is a fool”. Verbal communication is essential—“without speech, the pleasure of love is diminished by at least two-thirds”—but words of love must be implied, not boldly proclaimed.
Mutual consent is important, according to Casanova, but he avoided easy conquests or overly difficult situations as not suitable for his purposes. He strove to be the ideal escort in the first act—witty, charming, confidential, helpful—before moving into the bedroom in the third act. Casanova claims not to be predatory (“my guiding principle has been never to direct my attack against novices or those whose prejudices were likely to prove an obstacle”); however, his conquests did tend to be insecure or emotionally exposed women.
Casanova valued intelligence in a woman: “After all, a beautiful woman without a mind of her own leaves her lover with no resource after he had physically enjoyed her charms.” His attitude towards educated women, however, was typical for his time: “In a woman learning is out of place; it compromises the essential qualities of her sex ... no scientific discoveries have been made by women ... (which) requires a vigor which the female sex cannot have. But in simple reasoning and in delicacy of feeling we must yield to women.”
Gambling was a common recreation in the social and political circles in which Casanova moved. In his memoirs, Casanova discusses many forms of 18th century gambling—including lotteries, faro, basset, piquet, biribi, primero, quinze, and whist—and the passion for it among the nobility and the high clergy. Cheaters (known as “correctors of fortune”) were somewhat more tolerated then than today in public casinos and in private games for invited players, and seldom caused affront. Most gamblers were on guard against cheaters and their tricks. Scams of all sorts were common, and Casanova was amused by them.
Casanova gambled throughout his adult life, winning and losing large sums. He was tutored by professionals, and he was “instructed in those wise maxims without which games of chance ruin those who participate in them”. He was not above occasionally cheating and at times even teamed with professional gamblers for his own profit. Casanova claims that he was “relaxed and smiling when I lost, and I won without covetousness”. However, when outrageously duped himself, he could act violently, sometimes calling for a duel. Casanova admits that he was not disciplined enough to be a professional gambler: “I had neither prudence enough to leave off when fortune was adverse, nor sufficient control over myself when I had won.” Nor did he like being considered as a professional gambler: “Nothing could ever be adduced by professional gamblers that I was of their infernal clique.” Although Casanova at times used gambling tactically and shrewdly—for making quick money, for flirting, making connections, acting gallantly, or proving himself a gentleman among his social superiors—his practice also could be compulsive and reckless, especially during the euphoria of a new sexual affair. "Why did I gamble when I felt the losses so keenly? What made me gamble was avarice. I loved to spend, and my heart bled when I could not do it with money won at cards."