by Roderick Conway Morris

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Hermitage, St Petersburg
The Stolen Kiss by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, late 1780s

The World of Casanova

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 21 November 1998


It is ironic that of all figures in Venetian history the most universally renowned, other than perhaps Marco Polo, should be Giacomo Casanova. During his lifetime this adventurer, rake, social climber, charlatan and sometime litterateur was not especially prominent either in his native city or those in Europe he frequented at various times, but he won posthumous fame by leaving behind him 3,600 manuscript pages of unreliable and self-aggrandizing memoirs.

The bicentennial of the death of this proverbial seducer at Dux Castle in Bohemia is the occasion for an exhibition, 'The World of Giacomo Casanova: A Venetian in Europe 1725-1798,' at Ca' Rezzonico on the Grand Canal (which continues until Jan. 10).

The main source for Casanova's career is his own 'Story of My Life,' and where his version can be cross-checked with others he is often found being economical with the truth. He misrepresents his own importance, falsely claims intimacy with the great and at least some of his amorous adventures seem exaggerated if not fabricated. A show following the course of his career would inevitably be a blend of fact and fiction - an interesting proposition, but not one attempted here. An additional problem is that, apart from books published during his lifetime, which include a translation of the 'Iliad' and an excursion into mathematics, almost nothing remains directly associated with him. Even certain, rather than presumed, portraits of him are few and far between, a rare authentic one from Moscow, by his brother Francesco, duly appearing here.

The show, therefore, turns out to be very much more about the world Casanova inhabited than the man himself. Given that Casanova traveled extensively in Europe, repeatedly having to move on to escape the consequences of his dissolute and shady activities, this gives the organizers ample scope to offer through paintings a tour d'horizon of the Europe of the Old Regime. The details of the privileged existence to which Casanova aspired are further filled out by examples of contemporary dress, accessories and the paraphernalia of gambling with which the age was obsessed.

Casanova's peregrinations at one point took him to St. Petersburg, where he unsuccessfully tried to persuade Catherine the Great to reform the Russian calendar and institute a lottery. Catherine's great monument, the Hermitage, has been particularly generous with its loans to the show. Like much here, their connection with Casanova is somewhat tenuous, but it is pleasing to have the chance to see some of these pictures, particularly Fragonard's delightful 'The Stolen Kiss.'

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023