Spare some pity, even this late in history, for Giacomo Casanova. Has any talented citizen of the Republic of Letters been so often abused? It was bad enough when he was alive (1725-1798), what with the incessant demands of his creditors, the anger of cuckolded husbands and the eagerness of Venetian authorities to jail him for allegedly practising magic. But the fate of his posthumous reputation has been worse.
The most recent outrage, a dead-in-the-canal movie called Casanova, transforms bits of his story into farce. There's nothing wrong with farce, but farce as unfunny as this constitutes a crime against nature. The director, Lasse Hallstrom, delivers about five intentional laughs and another five that he provokes when trying to handle jokes he hasn't mastered. The actors range from limp (Heath Ledger as a simpering Giacomo) to camp (Jeremy Irons, a purple-clad Inquisition bishop, scowling like a pantomime villain).
The bishop arrives in Venice to hang Casanova for the crimes of heresy and fornication, but he would have been better advised to hang the maliciously playful designer who made his wig out of ginger-coloured Brillo pads. The city of Venice as usual gives a gorgeous performance as itself but gets little help from Hallstrom. He avoids photographing any church, bridge or square that hasn't already appeared on several thousand postcards; as a visual artist, he would be happier at Disneyland.
Casanova deserves more respect. This is the 13th film since 1918 titled simply Casanova, the 14th if we count the egotistically named Fellini's Casanova, made in 1976. That one followed the pattern established by earlier distortions of Casanova's life. Federico Fellini, like many moralists, felt impelled to show him as a scoundrel. Of course he couldn't be charged with promiscuity in 1976, since it had ceased to be sinful (at least in movies) some years earlier. Fellini instead became a born-again feminist and depicted his protagonist (played with grotesque intensity by Donald Sutherland) as a male chauvinist. This Casanova ended up having sex with a life-size mechanical doll because, you see, he treated women like objects and (fill in appropriate 1970s cliches here).
His name appears in the titles of 52 other films, from Casanova's Big Night (1954), with Bob Hope seducing women by impersonating him (played briefly by Vincent Price) to The Return of Casanova (1991), with Alain Delon playing him as an expert duellist. I can recall only one sympathetic treatment, in Ettore Scola's 1982 film, La Nuit de Varennes. In the summer of 1791, Louis XVI is making a dash for the border, with the revolutionaries in pursuit. Another coach, following the same route, encounters Casanova (Marcello Mastroianni).
He's 66 years old, dead broke, rather tired of life but still vain and still anxious to please women. Here the musical score incorporates a passage from Don Giovanni, a reference to the story (which is almost authenticated) that Casanova helped his old friend, Lorenzo da Ponte, write the libretto of that great Mozart opera.
That anecdote hints that he was more substantial than his later reputation would have us believe. He was a narcissist, to be sure, and his sexual tastes were unorthodox if not perverse. But even in bed he wasn't the archetypal seducer/predator. A history of sexuality might well name him the first articulate modern lover; he believed, as Lydia Flem writes in her Casanova biography, The Man Who Really Loved Women, that we find "sensual pleasure only when it is shared." (Commendably, he practiced safe sex with a "little garment of very fine, transparent skin, eight inches long, closed at one end, but resembling a purse and having at its open end a narrow pink ribbon.") But there was more to him than his affairs.
He was a playwright, a poet, a spy, a publisher, a theatrical entrepreneur and a manager of the French lottery corporation -- a job that somehow left him briefly rich. In one of his books, Icosameron, he borrowed from Jonathan Swift while anticipating Jules Verne: Two shipwrecked brothers descend to the centre of the Earth in a bathysphere and come upon a race of small, brightly coloured people called the Megamicrons.
Late in life a patron hired Casanova as librarian at his castle in what is now the Czech Republic. There Casanova realized his exploits were over and decided to relive them on paper. He discovered yet another new version of himself, a superb memoirist who could expertly convey the texture of a world he had known at every level.
From this distance he looks like a new European type, the parvenu, a poor boy who became at least a marginal figure among the eminent and rich. In London he was presented to George II. In Paris he knew Benjamin Franklin. In St. Petersburg he discussed calendar reform with Catherine the Great, who said that if she ordered Russia to adopt the Gregorian calendar, thereby erasing 11 days, she would be accused of atheism because millions of people would be deprived of their saints' days. He dined with Voltaire and accused the great man of failing to recognize the genius of Ariosto. Casa nova was a real-life version of the young man Stendhal later brought into literature as Julien Sorel in The Red and the Black.
Working 11 hours a day for years, Casanova covered 3,500 manuscript pages, ending his life story in 1774. A generation after he died, editorial vandals began attacking his work. They cut the first published version to fit the morality of the day; other editors added fresh material to make the author seem less hedonistic. As Gilberto Pizzamiglio says in his introduction to the 532-page paperback condensation of The Story of My Life (Penguin Classics), there were so many corrupt editions that they contaminated each other.
Amazingly, no one brought out a true version of his text until the 1960s, when it was issued in several languages. Willard Trask's English version, published over the period 1966-1972, ran six volumes. To read it is to feel the beat of the 18th century, hear the gossip and even think 18th-century thoughts. Casanova brought his age to life on the page -- along with, of course, 122 women, their numbers carefully counted by several scholars. He lived the fly-by-night life of a reckless adventurer and he had his faults; but he was a first-class chronicler of his era.