In Casanova's Footsteps
Preface to Seductive Venice
“Here is the house of Casanova, the Italian sex machine,” my gondolier said, as we coasted through Cannaregio. He pointed to a crumbling white palazzo. “Casanova had many lovers, so he had many houses.” I stared at the windows of the house, wondering at the exploits of the man whose own hedonism, romance, and refinement seem to personify this city, which he called his home.
But after several gondola rides, I noticed that every gondolier was pointing to a different house, whether we were starting at Piazza San Marco, perusing San Polo, or gliding down the Grand Canal, claiming this was Casanova’s birthplace or house or trysting spot. A survey of YouTube videos featuring other tourists on gondola rides only confirmed my experience. I did not know what to think. I was baffled, then incredulous, then amused by this phenomenon—until I was inspired to investigate on my own.
After researching over ninety sites associated with Casanova, I can tell you that few corresponded with the gondoliers’ pointing fingers. Are the gondoliers all fooling us? What would Casanova, himself a masterful manipulator, have said about these falsehoods? Where are the real houses of Casanova? And what really went on in them? Now you can discover for yourself!
Did you know that Casanova lost his virginity to a pair of sisters? Or that he met his greatest benefactor after playing fiddle at a wedding? Casanova’s memoir The History of My Life takes us through his many exploits in Venice: committing pranks at night, saving a duped beauty, frequenting the ridotto to win and lose fortunes, meeting a nun at his casino, escaping from prison, exacting revenge on an enemy.
Sadly, Casanova isn’t remembered so much for his translation of the Iliad, his mathematical calculations, or his conversations with scholars and monarchs. Few know that he made millions founding the French Lottery (or that he spent those millions on a team of pliant seamstresses) or the irony that after he was spied on, arrested, and imprisoned by the Venetian State Inquisitors, he returned to Venice only to be hired as a spy himself. No, Casanova is best known as the great lover of women. His friend the Prince de Ligne once described him thus: “He would be a good-looking man if he were not ugly; he is tall and built like Hercules, but of an African tint; eyes full of life and fire, but touchy, wary, rancorous—and this gives him a ferocious air” (qtd. in Masters 257). Apparently it wasn’t merely Casanova’s looks that lured his lovers.
You can skulk or meander or saunter or cavort in Casanova’s footsteps with this walking guide in your hands—or perhaps read while sipping a spritz! These pages are peppered with Casanova’s own words, culled from his reports and mostly from his memoirs; originally in French, quotations here come from the 1966 translation by Willard R. Trask, with citations showing volume and page number.
Casanova wrote his memoirs in the last thirteen years of his life when he lived as librarian in a castle in Dux, near Prague. Of course, many readers are skeptical when they hear his stories; the wide range of experiences, the hyperbole, the audacity of his exploits certainly defy belief. Yet Casanovists—those who have devoted years to studying the man—have combed the archives, letters, and documents in numerous cities to find proof supporting Casanova’s claims. Perhaps some details are exaggerated and some dates are off, and Casanova did change names to protect the identities of many of his lovers, but the substance of each story is true.
Casanova’s memoirs comprise one of the greatest historical documents of eighteenth century Europe, detailing daily life across countries and social strata. He was a gifted writer and storyteller, and his skill as an adept conversationalist, much prized in his era, was his ticket into the courts, salons, and palaces of the wealthy and well-connected. Never published in his lifetime, these twelve volumes survived atrocious translations and bastardization, consignment to a basement, and a tricky truck ride during WWII, finally to be purchased in 2010 by the French National Library. Their 2011-2012 exhibit was the single largest collection of Casanoviana yet shown.
Many of his letters survive as well, along with others’ letters to or about him, copiously documenting his life. The Venetian archives, too, contain reports he wrote plus papers about him, as well as information about his contemporaries. It took some digging and a lot of reading, but the traces of Casanova’s sojourns in Venice were just waiting to be found. I’ve done the research so you can see the sites and enjoy the stories.
Casanova’s memoirs are rather confessional; in fact, he often tells us the unflattering truth. While he prized honor and trust, abhorred stealing and taking a woman by force, he also had no scruples about using trickery in the name of magic or convincing a lovely woman to give herself to him with the promise of marriage to come. He was a scoundrel and an egoist, a seducer and addicted gambler, a libertine and a prankster. Yet he was also a protector and a gentleman, a loyal friend and a generous spender, a writer and a master storyteller. He’s endlessly fascinating.
While he lived and traveled all around Europe, Venice was his birthplace and the home of his heart. Giacomo Casanova never actually owned a house in Venice, but he did frequent a number of the houses that the gondoliers like to point out. His adventures in this city of canals, alleys, and palaces include exploits of every color. Don’t rely on a gondolier—launch out on your own to discover the houses of Casanova. This is the place to find him, still seducing us after 250 years.
How to Use this Guide
These seven walks are arranged geographically rather than chronologically. Giacomo Casanova had most of his adventures in the Cannaregio and San Marco districts, all on the east side of the Grand Canal. So I begin at the farthest point away from that, in the San Polo sestiere, and lead you toward the Piazza San Marco, where you can end your walking tour by gazing at the place where Casanova left his beloved city. Or you may wish to read the walks out of order, based on where you are that day; however, reading a walk from the beginning works best since much background information is provided to connect the stories behind the locations you will be visiting. In case the timeline of events becomes confusing, I listed a chronology at the back of this guide.
Furthermore, this book is nearly as much about Venice as it is about Casanova, so there are times when I may send you on the less direct route in order to show off a hidden architectural detail or disclose a little-known historical aside. I followed the spelling used on the walls of Venice, which doesn’t always agree with modern maps but should be more helpful as you find your way around. If you’re tired or the weather turns, there are worse ways to spend your time than to stop for a drink, rest your feet, and let Casanova entertain you for a few moments. Anyone who completes all seven sojourns will indeed have accomplished a feat—not only traversing scores of Venice’s back alleys, but also learning in-depth about more famous Venetian sites.