Friday, 9 February 2018

Casanova & Friends - A Venice Carnival Seduction

Outside the Caffè Florian - Venice Carnival 2018 - Photo: Cat Bauer
(Venice, Italy) Giacomo Casanova is Venice's most famous hometown boy. In addition to his notorious reputation as a lover, he was also a prolific and gifted author, as well as a spy, cleric, violinist, alchemist, Freemason, financier, gambler, traveler, adventurer and prison escapee. He met everybody who was anybody in nearly all of Europe, including Catherine the Great and Benjamin Franklin. Even today, during Carnival, the wild, wonderful, seductive spirit of Casanova permeates the air. You can still sip a hot chocolate in Caffè Florian with your lover, just as Casanova did about 275 years ago.

Creatum: Civitas Ludes is the theme of this year's Carnival. Chosen by Marco Maccapani, the artistic director, it sort of translates to "Creativity: City of Games." Now, what Venice considers games might not be everyone's definition. It can include games of seduction, gambling, pranks and mischief -- even exotic animals. And there are masks involved.

Playing cards printed by Antonio Moro (1841)
The other day I went over to the Archivio di Stato to see what their offerings were for Civitas Ludes. The Venice State Archive is one of the largest in Italy, and preserves more than 1000 years of Venetian history covering about 80km (50 miles) of shelves. It is enormous, and located inside the former convent of Santa Maria dei Frari.

The Archive has dug up some intriguing official documents regarding the behavior of its citizens -- it is as if the FBI, the CIA and the US State Department released their files for public consumption under the Freedom of Information Act. In 1310, Venice created the Council of Ten to overcome the revolt against the Doge and the Republic by Bajamonte Tiepolo. It was supposed to be a temporary body, but became a permanent fixture by 1334. Over the centuries, its powers grew greater until it had almost unlimited authority over all governmental affairs, including Venice's diplomatic and intelligence services.

The ten individuals, who were limited to a term of one year, became Venice's spy chiefs -- and Venice had a vast network of spies, one of whom was Casanova. In 1539, an additional, even smaller unit was created: the State Inquisitors -- three super-secret judges who wore masks and had as much authority as the entire Council of Ten, and could independently try and convict those accused of treason -- they could sentence people to exile, or even death. Needless to say, being called in front of the Council of Ten or the State Inquisitors was a terrifying prospect.

Council of Ten prohibiting all lotteries whatsoever under penalty of 500 ducats
On display at the State Archive is a document dated 1776 from the State Inquisitors by a confidant named Camillo Pasini, who reported on the gambling habits of the nobility. Another is dated 1580 from the Heresy Magistrates regarding the card-playing manner of the renowned courtesan, Victoria Franco.

But the most interesting document is one dated 1754 from the State Inquisitors about Casanova, who is called a card player and a "hyperbolate." Casanova had returned to Venice the year before from his own Grand Tour, and was under surveillance due to his wild escapades, and association with Freemasonry and secret rites. The next year, on July 26, 1755, at age 30, he would be arrested for affront to religion and common decency, and thrown into the Piombi prison in Palazzo Ducale, from which he would make a daring escape.

We know a lot about Casanova because he wrote a terrific erotic memoir called, The Story of my Life, which you can read for free in English as an ebook thanks to Project Gutenberg. Because Casanova is such a clever writer, I thought my readers might enjoy an excerpt from the man himself.

Casanova describes an adventure that he and his gang-of-eight had during Carnival 1745 -- ten years before his imprisonment -- when they snatched a pretty young woman away from her husband and his two friends and seduced her -- much to her enjoyment. She did file a complaint with the Council of Ten -- not because of the orgy, to which, according to the complaint, she had willingly succumbed, but because she was frightened about the welfare of her husband.

Here's Casanova, in his own words, translated into English by Arthur Machen:


We were seven, and sometimes eight, because, being much attached to my brother Francois, I gave him a share now and then in our nocturnal orgies. But at last fear put a stop to our criminal jokes, which in those days I used to call only the frolics of young men. This is the amusing adventure which closed our exploits. 

In every one of the seventy-two parishes of the city of Venice, there is a large public-house called ‘magazzino’. It remains open all night, and wine is retailed there at a cheaper price than in all the other drinking houses. People can likewise eat in the ‘magazzino’, but they must obtain what they want from the pork butcher near by, who has the exclusive sale of eatables, and likewise keeps his shop open throughout the night. The pork butcher is usually a very poor cook, but as he is cheap, poor people are willingly satisfied with him, and these resorts are considered very useful to the lower class. The nobility, the merchants, even workmen in good circumstances, are never seen in the ‘magazzino’, for cleanliness is not exactly worshipped in such places. Yet there are a few private rooms which contain a table surrounded with benches, in which a respectable family or a few friends can enjoy themselves in a decent way. 

It was during the Carnival of 1745, after midnight; we were, all the eight of us, rambling about together with our masks on, in quest of some new sort of mischief to amuse us, and we went into the magazzino of the parish of Santa Croce to get something to drink. We found the public room empty, but in one of the private chambers we discovered three men quietly conversing with a young and pretty woman, and enjoying their wine. 

Our leader, a noble Venetian belonging to the Balbi family, said to us, “It would be a good joke to carry off those three blockheads, and to keep the pretty woman in our possession.” He immediately explained his plan, and under cover of our masks we entered their room, Balbi at the head of us. Our sudden appearance rather surprised the good people, but you may fancy their astonishment when they heard Balbi say to them: “Under penalty of death, and by order of the Council of Ten, I command you to follow us immediately, without making the slightest noise; as to you, my good woman, you need not be frightened, you will be escorted to your house.” When he had finished his speech, two of us got hold of the woman to take her where our leader had arranged beforehand, and the others seized the three poor fellows, who were trembling all over, and had not the slightest idea of opposing any resistance. 

The waiter of the magazzino came to be paid, and our leader gave him what was due, enjoining silence under penalty of death. We took our three prisoners to a large boat. Balbi went to the stern, ordered the boatman to stand at the bow, and told him that he need not enquire where we were going, that he would steer himself whichever way he thought fit. Not one of us knew where Balbi wanted to take the three poor devils. 

He sails all along the canal, gets out of it, takes several turnings, and in a quarter of an hour, we reach San Giorgio where Balbi lands our prisoners, who are delighted to find themselves at liberty. After this, the boatman is ordered to take us to Saint Genevieve, where we land, after paying for the boat.
We proceed at once to Palombo Square, where my brother and another of our band were waiting for us with our lovely prisoner, who was crying. 

“Do not weep, my beauty,” says Balbi to her, “we will not hurt you. We intend only to take some refreshment at the Rialto, and then we will take you home in safety.” 

“Where is my husband?” 

“Never fear; you shall see him again to-morrow.” 

Comforted by that promise, and as gentle as a lamb, she follows us to Do Spade. We ordered a good fire in a private room, and, everything we wanted to eat and to drink having been brought in, we send the waiter away, and remain alone. We take off our masks, and the sight of eight young, healthy faces seems to please the beauty we had so unceremoniously carried off. We soon manage to reconcile her to her fate by the gallantry of our proceedings; encouraged by a good supper and by the stimulus of wine, prepared by our compliments and by a few kisses, she realizes what is in store for her, and does not seem to have any unconquerable objection. Our leader, as a matter of right, claims the privilege of opening the ball; and by dint of sweet words he overcomes the very natural repugnance she feels at consummating the sacrifice in so numerous company. She, doubtless, thinks the offering agreeable, for, when I present myself as the priest appointed to sacrifice a second time to the god of love, she receives me almost with gratitude, and she cannot conceal her joy when she finds out that she is destined to make us all happy. My brother Francois alone exempted himself from paying the tribute, saying that he was ill, the only excuse which could render his refusal valid, for we had established as a law that every member of our society was bound to do whatever was done by the others. 

After that fine exploit, we put on our masks, and, the bill being paid, escorted the happy victim to San Giobbe, where she lived, and did not leave her till we had seen her safe in her house, and the street door closed.

My readers may imagine whether we felt inclined to laugh when the charming creature bade us good night, thanking us all with perfect good faith! 

From the Archives 1754: State Inquisitors re: Giacomo Casanova
Two days afterwards, our nocturnal orgy began to be talked of. The young woman’s husband was a weaver by trade, and so were his two friends. They joined together to address a complaint to the Council of Ten. The complaint was candidly written and contained nothing but the truth, but the criminal portion of the truth was veiled by a circumstance which must have brought a smile on the grave countenances of the judges, and highly amused the public at large: the complaint setting forth that the eight masked men had not rendered themselves guilty of any act disagreeable to the wife. It went on to say that the two men who had carried her off had taken her to such a place, where they had, an hour later, been met by the other six, and that they had all repaired to Do Spade, where they had spent an hour in drinking. The said lady having been handsomely entertained by the eight masked men, had been escorted to her house, where she had been politely requested to excuse the joke perpetrated upon her husband. 

The three plaintiffs had not been able to leave the island of San Giorgio until day-break, and the husband, on reaching his house, had found his wife quietly asleep in her bed. She had informed him of all that had happened; she complained of nothing but of the great fright she had experienced on account of her husband, and on that count she entreated justice and the punishment of the guilty parties. 

That complaint was comic throughout, for the three rogues shewed themselves very brave in writing, stating that they would certainly not have given way so easily if the dread authority of the council had not been put forth by the leader of the band. The document produced three different results; in the first place, it amused the town; in the second, all the idlers of Venice went to San Giobbe to hear the account of the adventure from the lips of the heroine herself, and she got many presents from her numerous visitors; in the third place, the Council of Ten offered a reward of five hundred ducats to any person giving such information as would lead to the arrest of the perpetrators of the practical joke, even if the informer belonged to the band, provided he was not the leader. 

The offer of that reward would have made us tremble if our leader, precisely the one who alone had no interest in turning informer, had not been a patrician. The rank of Balbi quieted my anxiety at once, because I knew that, even supposing one of us were vile enough to betray our secret for the sake of the reward, the tribunal would have done nothing in order not to implicate a patrician. There was no cowardly traitor amongst us, although we were all poor; but fear had its effect, and our nocturnal pranks were not renewed. 

Three or four months afterwards the chevalier Nicolas Ferro, then one of the inquisitors, astonished me greatly by telling me the whole story, giving the names of all the actors. He did not tell me whether any one of the band had betrayed the secret, and I did not care to know; but I could clearly see the characteristic spirit of the aristocracy, for which the ‘solo mihi’ is the supreme law. 

Venice Carnival 2018 - Photo: Cat Bauer
So the crime was not the orgy, which the woman had apparently enjoyed, but that she was caused unnecessary fright because she thought her husband had been arrested by the Council of Ten. Luckily for Casanova and the gang the accusation took place during Carnevale, when conventions are flipped on their heads. Otherwise, I think the Council of Ten would not have been amused that they had been impersonated by Balbi, a young member of the aristocracy, nor that Casanova went along for the ride. 

Go to the official site for the program of Carnevale di Venezia 2018.

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

1 comment:

  1. Giacomo Casanova is Venice's most famous hometown boy. In addition to his reputation as a notorious lover, he was also a prolific and gifted author, as well as a spy, cleric, violinist, alchemist, Freemason, financier, gambler, traveler, adventurer and prison escapee. He met everybody who was anybody in nearly all of Europe, including Catherine the Great and Benjamin Franklin. Even today, during Carnival, the wild, wonderful, seductive spirit of Casanova permeates the air. You can still sip a hot chocolate in Caffè Florian with your lover, just as Casanova did about 275 years ago.

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Ciao from Venice,
Cat