Profile - History’s Greatest Lover . . . a Soldier?
Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798) is remembered largely because of his autobiography, which recounts his erotic adventures with an enormous number of women (he mentions 122 by name, but notes encounters with many more, often in some detail). In the course of his long life Casanova was at various times a lawyer, spy, priest, embezzler, librarian, industrialist, diplomat, author, musician, merchant, functionary, and, once, for a time, even a soldier.
In the Spring of 1744, the young Giacomo Casanova, technically a clergyman, having just lost track of the beauteous Therese Imer, one of the great loves of his life, decided to leave his native Venice for Bologna. Now this occurred in the middle of the War of the Austrian Succession (1743-1748), Thus, getting to Bologna required that he pass through the lines of an Austrian Army intent on recovering the Kingdom of Naples from Carlo IV, son of the King of Spain and the Duchess of Este, who had seized it in 1734. By the time he reached Bologna, Casanova had discovered how impressively the uniform garnered respect. He decided to take a stab at the military life. So he secured the services of a good tailor, who made him a rather Spanish-looking officer’s uniform in white with a blue vest, and gold and silver shoulder-knots, to which the newly self-minted officer added a sword with a gold and silver sword-knot and appropriate headgear with a jaunty cockade. Then, walking stick in hand, Casanova sallied forth into the city, exuding arrogance and authority.
Now it seems that there had just appeared in a local newspaper a little tidbit from Persaro, where the Austrian Army was camped. It read,
M. de Casanova, an officer in the service of the queen [of Hungary – the famous Maria Teresa, who was also Archduchess of Austria], has deserted after having killed his captain in a duel; the circumstances of the duel are not known; all that has been ascertained is that M. de Casanova has taken the road to Rimini, riding the horse belonging to the captain, who was killed on the spot.
Now, of course, the officer in question was not Giacomo but someone else named Casanova. But people assumed it was Giacomo, and as a result were even more deferential to him than might otherwise have been the case.
After a short time in Bologna, during which he basked in the admiration of the local folks, Casanova secured a commission from Pasquale Acquaviva. Acquaviva, a papal diplomat who had known Casanova when he was a priest, hired the young man to carry dispatches to Constantinople. To do so, Casanova had to go to Venice and take ship for the East. Getting to Venice was somewhat difficult, since a Neapolitan-Spanish Army had by this time succeeded in driving off the Austrians and was now ensconced between Bologna and Venice. In addition, he also had to take circuitous route in order to avoid spending time in quarantine once he reached the watery city. Casanova traveled under the pretense of being a Spanish officer en route to meet the Duke of Modena on urgent military business. This got him military honors everywhere he went, without the need for pesky formalities, such as health certificates.
Reaching Venice, Casanova found that no ship would be available for a month, and so he proceeded to look up some friends and cultivate new ones, especially of the female variety, renewing his acquaintance of a pair of sisters with whom he’d had a fling once before. Meanwhile, he found time to call at the Ministry of War, where he encountered an old friend, one Major Pelodoro, who gave him a gracious welcome. Pelodoro, who commanded the important Fortress of Chiozza, wielded considerable clout, and arranged for Casanova to travel in a warship as part of the entourage of the Venetian ambassador to Constantinople. Poldoro also advised Casanova to join the Venetian Army, which had need of officers in the East, and observed that there was an ailing young lieutenant who would gladly sell his commission for a relatively modest sum, provided the Secretary of War approved.
The Secretary did approve, and at the end of April, Casanova found himself commissioned in the Bala Regiment, stationed at Corfu, though for his 100 ducats, today easily $4,000, he was only commissioned an ensign, rather than a lieutenant. In compensation, however, Casanova was made regimental adjutant, which held out the promise of certain financial perks, such as tips and bribes, and was promised a lieutenancy within the year.
Casanova sailed for Corfu on May 5, 1744. His voyage was broken at Corfu, where he spend a few weeks awaiting a ship for Constantinople. The first available vessel was the 72-gun ship-of-the-line Europa, flagship of the Captain General of the Venetian Fleet. The voyage East was uneventful, and Casanova delivered the dispatches with no difficulty. While at Constantinople, he enjoyed the pleasures of the city, and was even offered the hand of the daughter of a high-ranking Pasha, a convert from Christianity, if he would convert to Islam, an offer he declined. Casanova spent several pleasant weeks in Constantinople, pursuing, and sometimes catching attractive women, despite purdah, though the Pasha’s daughter eluded him. He also purchased some trade goods, on which he later turned a considerable profit. Soon afterwards Casanova took ship again, and arrived at Corfu within a few days, where he took up his military duties.
As it turned out, Casanova’s duties were by no means onerous. He spent a great deal of time in idle pursuits, such as playing cards, at which he made a fair profit, dining with friends, and pursuing the wives and daughters of his comrades and various local officials, often successfully. All in all, Casanova did an excellent job of posing as an officer, though not half as good as the job his soldier-servant did. Named La Valeur, this man shortly fell ill. To everyone’s amazement, when apparently near death, La Valeur produced documents that indicated he was actually Francois VI Charles Philippe Louis Foucaud, the Prince de la Rochefoucault.
No mean charlatan himself, Casanova quickly realized that the man was a fake, but most of the senior officials on Corfu believed him. Casanova went along with the joke for a while. When La Valeur recovered the governor gave him splendid quarters and the royal treatment. This seems to have gone to his head, and he began putting on airs even with Casanova. After a few days of this, Casanova decided to give the bogus prince a beating, for which he was ordered to place himself under arrest.
Not desiring to be chained up in a galley, Casanova escaped with a few hundred ducat (a fair sum, as the relative purchasing power of the ducat was about $40 in modern currency) in his pockets, taking a boat a few miles to a nearby island. Finding himself on a relatively wild part of the Greek coast, Casanova managed to recruit a bodyguard of two dozen mountaineers. He devoted himself to training these troops, while enjoying the rustic pleasures available in his isolated little community. It was, in many ways, a pleasant life, though Casanova found his lack of Greek a handicap in the pursuit of the local women. Nevertheless, his success in this endeavor was such that the local priest tried to put a curse on him for debauching so many young women the local men were having trouble finding virgins to marry.
Around the beginning of 1745 the long arm of military authority finally caught up with Casanova. An armed vessel appeared off shore and put a boat into the water. As the boat rowed ashore, Casanova mustered his bodyguard and had them present arms at the beach. When the boat landed an officer stepped ashore, to be received by Casanova’s bodyguard with full military honors. The officer turned out to be one of Casanova’s friends from Corfu, and the two quickly renewed their friendship.
Naturally the officer had come to arrest Casanova. The latter demurred. Over dinner they discussed the matter. After failing to convince Casanova to come along, the officer revealed that the pseudo-Prince de la Rochefoucault had been unmasked and fled rather than face the consequences. Nevertheless, there were still charges pending against Casanova, for he had violated an order (i.e., to place himself under arrest). In the end, Casanova agreed to return to Corfu. Sure enough, as soon as they reached Corfu, Casanova was chained in a prison ship. Within minutes, however, the governor appeared. He reminded Casanova that he should “be more prudent for the future, and to learn that a soldier's first duty was to obey, and above all to be modest and discreet,” and then released him.
Casanova’s little adventure made him all the more attractive to some of the women of Corfu, and he pursued them with a good deal of skill and success (the higher the class, the greater the skill required), while engaging in gambling, theater, and other pass times, and very occasionally performing military duties.
Apparently the only serious military duty which Casanova performed while on Corfu was to serve in the annual expedition to Butintro, in Albania, with a squadron of four galleys that was dispatched to harvest timber and remind the local folks that Venice was still boss. The skipper of one of the galleys made Casanova his adjutant. Casanova referred to this officer as “Captain F_____,” probably to avert legal problems when he returned to Venice, as the man was a member of the one of the noblest Venetian families, the Foscarini. Now this appointment was at least partially engineered by Madame Andreana Foscarini, the captain’s wife, who was being wooed by Casanova, not unwillingly.
By chance, following dinner one evening in June of 1745, Captain Foscarini informed his wife that he had to take care of some business before retiring for the night. As the other guests had already departed, this left Andreana alone with Casanova, who, conveniently, was rooming with the Foscarinis. In Casanova’s words, “The moment he had left the room we looked at each other, and with one accord fell into each other's arms.” The two spent some time in passionate embrace, though apparently not consummating their ardor. This occurred on several other occasions; apparently Andreana was a very skilful tease.
Meanwhile, one of the most notable courtesans on Corfu, Melulla of Zante, “of rare beauty,” was herself pursuing Casanova. Melulla eventually managed to get him up to her room. Casanova naturally did what came naturally, and spent several hours with her, in what he termed “the vilest debauchery.” Alas, soon after this tryst, Casanova learned that Melulla had a reputation for giving her lovers a little souvenir of their encounters, namely a dose of gonorrhea. Within a few days Casanova, who’d already had a few bouts with the clap, felt a familiar twinge.
This put him between a rock and a hard place; he still wished to pursue the beauteous Andreana, but certainly didn’t want to pass on the disease.
Unfortunately, everyone in Corfu soon knew of Casanova’s adventure with Melulla. People began wondering aloud about when Casanova’s health would begin to deteriorate, but he pretended to be fine. He did, however, have to confess his “problem” to Andreana, who broke off their quasi-affair. Rather than face the embarrassment, and apparently in the hopes of seeking a cure, Casanova decided to return to Venice. On November 25, 1745, after a month’s quarantine, Casanova once more set foot in his home town.
Casanova reported to the Ministry of War, and there met his old friend Major Pelodoro. When he announced that he wished to resign from the army. As the promised promotion to lieutenant had not materialized, Casanova was still an ensign, but Pelodoro arranged for the sale of his commission, for the same 100 ducats that he had paid for it; although he hadn’t turned a profit on his commission, Casanova had made some hundreds of ducats in profit on his trade goods, so he still came out well ahead.
Just 20 years old, Casanova, already having failed as a lawyer, a priest and, now as an officer, was ready to find new worlds to conquer.
And the beauteous Therese? Well, during his tour of duty at Corfu, Casanova had been assigned to round up some entertainment for Carnivale. He sailed over to Otranto, on the heel of Italy to hire some players, and chanced to encounter her brothers. They filled him in on her activities. She had established a very comfortable arrangement with an elderly Neapolitan duke, and was rolling in cash. She also retained a fondness for Casanova, and remained his friend for life, often bailing him out when he ran into problems with money.