Whenever mention is brought up of the world’s “greatest lover,” the name of Giacomo Casanova inevitably tops the list, his last name synonymous with the phrase (sorry, Wilt Chamberlain). But he was more than that, however impressive that claim to fame might be. He was a polymath: a travel writer, violinist, soldier, alchemist, faith-healer, librarian, actor, priest, and a spy. He made and lost a couple of fortunes at various enterprises:
“founded a state lottery, wrote forty-two books, along with plays, philosophical and mathematical treatises, opera libretti, poetry and works on calendars, canon law and cubic geometry.” He also translated Homer’s Iliad into Italian, among his other accomplishments. He even “wrote a five-volume science-fiction novel.”
Casanova was perhaps his own best publicist, though his international fame was largely posthumous and, as author Ian Kelly notes, “attributable to one work: his Histoire de ma vie (The History of my Life), which lay unpublished in any form for a generation after his death, and has not been available in its entirety until recent years.” This autobiography is in ten volumes, and at times while he was writing it, Casanova was torn between publishing it and burning it all. Though sometimes Casanova got dates wrong when he did certain things or were at certain places, Ian Kelly and others now consider Casanova’s autobiography to be by and large accurate. It’s an important record of his times, as well as his life and accomplishments.
Kelly used the autobiography and attempted to verify the claims and history that Casanova wrote about by checking against other sources. He has done an excellent (and I would guess quite time-consuming) job. His “Notes on Sources” and Bibliography show that a great deal of hard work went into this biography and reexamination of Casanova’s life. That Kelly has written a scholarly biography yet made it extremely readable and accessible to anyone interested in biographies in general and Casanova in particular is a testament to his skill as a writer and journalist.
The biography is divided up like a play, into acts and scenes, with Intermezzos in-between in which the author discusses Casanova’s life in relationship to diverse topics - for example, Intermezzo: Casanova and Travel in the Eighteenth Century, Intermezzo: Casanova and Sex in the Eighteenth Century, and Intermezzo: Casanova — Food-write. In Act I, we read about Casanova’s early life and wonder how a child who seemed to have been rather slack-jawed developed into an intellectually brilliant teenager and adult. How can a person who stated of himself that “I was never attractive. I simply had an unbridled belief that I was capable of anything” then become one of the most famous lovers the world has ever known?
That is question that both Casanova’s autobiography and Kelly’s biography, Casanova: Actor, Lover, Priest, Spy, attempt to answer. Kelly’s superb account is fascinating, and Casanova’s life remains as readable and gripping now as it likely did whenever Casanova’s autobiography was first published and attracted readers around the world.