Laurence Bergreen is an award-winning biographer and historian. His books have been translated into twenty-five languages worldwide. Among his books are biographies of Christopher Columbus, Giacomo Casanova, Marco Polo, Ferdinand Magellan, Louis Armstrong, Al Capone, and Irving Berlin. He lives in New York City.
Casanova Chapter 1
Of all the women in Giacomo Casanova’s life, his flamboyant, elusive mother, Zanetta Farussi, came first. She was known to the public by her stage name, La Buranella, a tribute to her ancestral home in the Venetian lagoon’s cheerful miniature island of Burano, dotted with houses daubed with fuchsia, teal, yellow, green, lime, olive, and other whimsical hues. From her, Casanova imbibed a beguiling blend of artifice, whimsy, and deception.
The daughter of a cobbler, Zanetta transformed herself into a fêted actress and courtesan, the heroine of a fairy tale for adults. She came into the world on August 27, 1707, the illegitimate daughter of Girolamo Farussi and the widowed Marzia Baldissara, and was baptized on September 4 at the ancient Church of San Giacomo dell’Orio, in the center of Venice. Within months, the little family settled in the Parish of San Simeone Grande, and on January 31, 1709, her father and mother married, and moved again, this time to the Calle delle Muneghe, a crowded, boisterous conduit in the Parish of San Samuele.
That winter was reportedly the coldest in five hundred years. The Venetian lagoon became a block of ice. Livestock perished, combs of chickens froze and fell off, burst in the frigid air, and travelers perished. Famine was ubiquitous. Venetians endured, as always. Much of the stage-struck Venetian populace found employment as hairdressers, ticket takers, singing and acting coaches, stagehands, and lighting specialists. Their ranks swelled with the stage-door Johnnies, hangers-on, and would-be performers. Playwrights yearning for attention read their scripts to indifferent listeners, and secret admirers of actresses maneuvered to peek at their idols. Carlo Goldoni, a Venetian student studying for the priesthood, tried his hand at adapting Greek and Roman comedies for the stage, and he transformed the improvised knockabout comedy known as commedia dell’arte. Audiences felt thoroughly at home with the genre’s stock figures—Pantalone, Pulcinella, Columbina—and their madcap routines. Everyone knew what Harlequin would say before the words were out of his mouth, so Goldoni gave characters new words. Actors came to rely on his dialogue and stage directions. To feed the hunger for novelty, he cobbled together his scripts in a matter of days. Copyrights and royalties were unknown. When Goldoni delivered sixteen full-length plays to his manager in one season, he collected no bonus for his efforts—“Not a penny over the year’s salary, nothing at all.” He did receive plenty of praise, but, he observed, “one needs more than glory to live on.”
Amid the ferment, a young actor named Gaetano Casanova became enamored of an actress known as La Fragoletta—a diminutive of “strawberry.” In reality, this voluptuous creature was Giovanna Benozzi. In about 1713, Gaetano abandoned his native Parma to join her in Venice, where she managed two theaters, San Luca and San Samuele, on behalf of the powerful Grimani dynasty. Much later, Giacomo claimed that he’d heard that Gaetano, his father, had begun his career as a dancer, and later turned to acting, “becoming even more highly regarded for his probity than for his talent”—a tactful way of saying that he lacked aptitude.
Something went awry with Gaetano’s pursuit of La Fragoletta, and she fled to Paris with another theater troupe. Remaining behind in Venice, Gaetano became a fixture at the Theatre San Samuele, performing in farces and pantomimes and lodging at the Calle degli Orbi in a house owned by shoemakers who rented rooms to actors. In Giacomo’s telling, the little household included Girolamo Farussi, his wife, Marzia, and their sixteen-year-old daughter, Zanetta.
Gaetano fell in love with Zanetta in 1723, and immediately met resistance. “Being an actor,” Giacomo explained in his memoirs, “[Gaetano] could not hope to obtain her by gaining the consent of Marzia her mother, still less that of Girolamo her father,” who “thought an actor an abomination.” When Girolamo died the following year, Marzia salvaged the right to live out her life in the Calle delle Muneghe in a house owned by a charity, and the chief obstacle to the union of Zanetta and Gaetano was removed. On February 27, 1724, they wed in the Church of San Samuele.
In Casanova’s heightened rendition, the lovers eloped, with Marzia “protesting loudly,” and her father “dying of grief” shortly after the marriage, not before. In less operatic reality, the newlyweds moved in with Marzia, Gaetano’s widowed mother-in-law, who welcomed their companionship and honorable arrangement. For a time, life was as normal as could be for a couple of struggling young actors in Venice. Gaetano kept his job at the theater and Zanetta occasionally took on small roles, despite her vow to renounce the theater after her marriage. The lively young soubrette caught the eye of the theater’s owner, Michele Grimani, who belonged to one of the ruling families of Venice, a tightly knit caste of about four hundred families. This was an august personage indeed. Gossip about their carrying on never ceased, especially when Zanetta became pregnant—in all likelihood by Gaetano.
Casanova writes that he was “born of this marriage nine months later, on April 2, 1725,” and was baptized three days later. So ran his official account of his origins. In his declining years, he revisited the subject of his paternity by writing and publishing a long satirical account, Nè amore, nè donne, claiming that Michele Grimani, not the beleaguered Gaetano Casanova, was his true father. So much of Casanova’s identity and legacy as the gallant, seductive, learned seducer, is bound up in the enigma of his paternity. If his father was indeed the humble, good-natured actor from Parma, the flamboyant persona his son fashioned for himself was one of the most successful and sustained acts of self-invention of the era, a lifelong performance that outdid anything either of his parents could have imagined. But if his father was the aristocratic Grimani, his parents could never wed. Venetian nobility frequently had children out of wedlock even as the rules of their society barred marriage to outsiders. If Giacomo Casanova was actually Grimani’s illegitimate son, he joined a large but unacknowledged class of children, and Zanetta’s marriage served to cover her indiscretion. Either way, the child would always be an outcast, denied access to the rigid, privileged world of Venetian nobility. So long as he stayed in Venice, he would be reminded of his lack of status on a daily basis. Was he an illegitimate prince or a pauper? This identity crisis animated, teased, and tormented him throughout the years. He would spend his life trying to cajole and on occasion force his way into the circle from which he believed he’d been excluded.
Restless and ambitious, Zanetta brought herself to the attention of Goldoni, who modeled himself on the great French comic voice of the previous century, Molière. But this was Italy. “In France,” a theater director once advised him, “you can try to please the public, but here in Italy it is the actors and actresses whom you must consult.” That was as true in life as it was onstage; in Venice, personalities prevailed over customs, and among the most alluring whom Goldoni encountered was Zanetta. She struck him as “beautiful and very talented,” and won a singing part in his musical interludes, charming audiences with her “taste, perfect ear, and execution.”
While on tour in London, Zanetta gave birth to her second child, Francesco, in 1727. Giacomo was the child she left behind in Venice; Francesco the infant she kept at her side in London. He became her favorite, the one most likely to succeed in life. And what of Giacomo? He slipped into the role of the forgotten, inconvenient offspring. Yet this least-loved, cast-off child became the most famous lover in modern times, as well as a mathematical and literary genius. And Francesco? He became an esteemed artist in his day; his fame far surpassed that of his scapegrace older brother.
As he grew into adulthood, Giacomo became familiar with the outlines of his mother’s theatrical career, and her attempt to forge her own identity; she bequeathed to her son the drive to create his own. Years later, he traveled to London and Dresden and Prague, the cities where she had lived and loved and performed, as if trying to capture her faded glory. Wherever he went, he sought his young mother’s face, arms, lips, eyes, and scent in every lover he encountered. In his mind, they were all manifestations of Zanetta, so he seduced them into seducing him.
The story of how this disadvantaged ugly duckling metamorphosed into the sleek Venetian swan known as Casanova is remarkable. As a child he never spoke, and was considered something of an imbecile, destined for anonymity. Giacomo, who eventually wrote twelve volumes of memoirs recalling people and events of his life in exquisite and engaging detail, maintained he had no memories of the first eight years of his life.
In August 1733, everything changed as his “organ of memory developed.” And behold: “I was standing in the corner of a room, leaning against the wall, holding my head, and staring at the blood that was streaming to the floor from my nose. My grandmother Marzia, whose pet I was, came to me, washed my face with cold water, and, unknown to anyone in the house, boarded a gondola and took me to Murano. This is a densely populated island about half an hour from Venice. 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. She was a witch.”
Marzia conversed with the witch in the Friulian dialect, incomprehensible to Giacomo, and gave her a silver ducat, whereupon “she opened a chest, took me up in her arms, put me into it, shut it, and locked the lid on me, telling me not to be afraid.” As he lay in the darkness, holding a handkerchief to his bloody nose, he listened to “alternate laughter and weeping, cries, singing, and sundry thumps on the chest.” The witch rescued him, and subjected him to “numberless caresses.” She then wrapped him in a sheet, recited incantations, released him, and finally gave him food, then resumed caressing him with a soothing unguent, and dressed him as she cautioned that his bleeding would diminish so long as he told no one about this treatment. Otherwise, he would bleed to death. Ultimately, a “charming lady” would visit him, and his “happiness would depend upon her.”
He went home with his grandmother, and at that point, “I saw, or thought I saw”—he added carefully—“a dazzlingly beautiful woman come down by the chimney . . . with a crown on her head with a profusion of stones that seemed to be sparkling with fire.” She sat on his bed, and opened several small boxes. “After delivering a long discourse, of which I understood nothing, and kissing me, she left as she had entered.”
At the time Giacomo never spoke to anyone of this mystical incident. He kept it sealed “in the most secret corner of my budding memory,” to be opened years later, when he wrote his memoirs. It was his first and most powerful recollection, his origin myth, telling of the frail, suffering Giacomo brought back to health by a benign, ravishing woman. “The remedies for the worst diseases are not always found in pharmacy,” he advised; they might be found in the furthest reaches of the cosmos, or the heart. Despite this manifestation of a feminine sensuality that both saved his life and revived his hibernating intellect, he remained more of a skeptic than a mystic. “There have never been wizards on this earth,” he explained, only those “able to cajole [others] into believing them as such.”
After the treatment Giacomo appeared as hopeless as before, “very poor company,” in his words. “People felt sorry for me and left me alone; everyone supposed I would not live long. My mother and father never spoke to me.” Nevertheless, he miraculously came to life. The bleeding subsided. His mind began to churn, and “in less than a month I learned to read.”
With intellect came deception. Three months later, Giacomo remembered with a shudder, he and his younger brother Francesco were observing their father, having given up acting, at work in his optician’s studio. “On the table I noticed a large round crystal cut in facets.” How enchanting to hold it to his eyes and behold “everything multiplied.” The next moment, “seeing that no one was watching me, I seized the opportunity to slip it into my pocket.” As his father searched for the valuable object, Francesco truthfully claimed he knew nothing about it, and Giacomo falsely claimed the same thing.
Gaetano threatened to beat the culprit. Young Giacomo made a show of searching for the crystal before transferring it to the pocket of his unsuspecting brother. “I was instantly sorry,” he admitted, “but the crime was already committed. My father, exasperated by our fruitless efforts, searches us, finds the crystal in my innocent brother’s pocket, and inflicts the promised punishment.” Giacomo couldn’t hold his tongue: “Three or four years later I was stupid enough to boast to my brother that I had played this trick on him. He has never forgiven me and has taken every opportunity to avenge himself.” Francesco would be the first of many men to take Giacomo to task.
Six weeks later, a far greater disaster occurred. In Giacomo’s telling, “My father was attacked by an abscess inside his head at the level of the ear, which brought him to the grave in a week.” The remedies applied by a physician only made matters worse.
Two days before he died, Gaetano summoned his family and closest friends; their ranks included Signor Grimani, the Venetian nobleman reported to be Zanetta’s lover. Gaetano made them vow to protect his children, and as tears flowed, asked for more. “He made our mother, who dissolved in tears, swear that she would bring none of his children up for the stage, on which he would never have appeared if he had not been driven to it by an unfortunate passion. . . . She took the oath.”
Zanetta, who needed the income from her stage career to feed her children, was six months pregnant. She never remarried—“beautiful and young as she was, she refused her hand to all who sued for it.” As for Giacomo, “I was extremely weak, had no appetite, was unable to apply myself to anything, and looked like an idiot.”
He was still losing copious amounts of blood, more, it seemed to his family, than his small body could produce. Doctors arrived, grim-faced; one advised him to breathe with an open mouth to keep his lungs full. A friend of his father, a poet and aristocrat by the name of Signor Baffo, determined that the boy should be sent to Padua for treatment “and to whom, in consequence, I owe my life.”
A priest known to the family located a boardinghouse in Padua for the boy. “On April 2, 1734, the day on which I completed my ninth year, I was taken to Padua in a burchiello,” which, he explained, “may be considered a small floating house. It has a saloon with a cabin at either end, and quarters for servants at the bow and stern.” They served as floating parties, and inspired an outpouring of literary appreciation. Goldoni, Byron, Goethe, Montaigne, and eventually Casanova all wrote in praise of the vesse...