Such a Casanova

Every chapter – or rather: cultural icon –in Made in Europe is complemented by a relevant entry usually directly related to the main subject. In the case of Don Giovanni it is Casanova, the master seducer who was Mozart’s contemporary. Here it is, in an English translation by Stacey Knecht.

Casanova painted by Anton R. Mengs

Casanova painted by Anton R. Mengs

When Don Giovanni was first performed, in the present-day Estates Theatre in Prague, Giacomo Casanova was sitting in the audience. The reaction of the 62-year-old adventurer, who, according to some, had collaborated on the libretto, went unrecorded. If he had, in fact, assisted Da Ponte, as “hands-on expert”, he wouldn’t have felt any jealousy – under the motto ‘it’s just an opera.’ Otherwise, it must’ve been painful: Casanova himself had a reputation to uphold as a Don Juan, but the hero of Mozart’s opera was a frolicking Spaniard who had seduced 2,065 women. Maybe the premiere of Don Giovanni gave Casanova just the push he needed to start work on his Story of My Life. From 1790 onward he chronicled his 122 conquests in twelve volumes (which, incidentally, appeared only after his death, censored, in 1798). For Casanova, it was the quality of the seduction that counted; not, as was the case with Don Juan, the quantity.

Poster for Fellini's Casanova (1975)

Poster for Fellini’s Casanova (1975)

Casanova, the only writer ever to become a common noun, was born in Venice, the son of a domineering actress. After an adventurous life – priest-in-training (kicked out of the seminary), soldier, traveling violinist, prisoner of the Doge (for possession of forbidden books), organizer of the first French state lottery, spy for Louis XV – Casanova began his memoirs as a librarian in Bohemia. He is prone to exaggeration, yet at the same time highly critical of his own escapades. The unfinished Story of My Life is not only one of the most famous and still readable erotic picaresques, but also a comprehensive and intimate morality sketch of the 18th century in Europe.

 

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