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Lock up your daughters (1st Oct 2006)

Helen Brown reviews Casanova’s Women by Judith Summers

Telegraph, 1st October 2006

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In her latest biography, Casanova’s Women, Judith Summers relays all the most succulent scandals from the life of the famous womaniser. She opens, like any good gossip, by conceding that much of what she passes on is conjecture: letters from Casanova’s lovers might not contain the whole truth of their senders’ emotions, and his own memoirs, even if they are to be believed, do not always divulge everything. He’s too much of a gentleman to name some of his greatest amours. But in his literary bedpost-notching Histoire de ma Vie, he claims to have made love to about 150 women. Summers has been selective and in this book covers just “those women who were most important to him or most colourful, and those who achieved something in their own right”.

She begins with his mother, a selfish actress who opened up an emotional “void” in her son that could probably not have been filled by the attentions of a thousand devoted conquests. Zanetta Casanova “got rid of” her little boy when he was just nine – sending him off for schooling in Padua (a rare luxury at that time for an actress’s son). Casanova never forgot his sense of rejection, but Summers doesn’t paint Zanetta as all bad. The performer had eight mouths to feed on a perilous income. And besides, young Giacomo was ill. In his autobiography, he admits: “I was very weak, lacked an appetite, was incapable of concentrating on anything, and appeared to be an imbecile.”

His jaw hung slack, he was lanky and frail and prone to terrible nosebleeds. In an attempt to staunch this debilitating blood loss, his grandmother sent him to consult an elderly witch on the island of Murano. The wizened witch’s idea of a cure involved locking him into a chest, which she beat with a stick, then undressing him and stroking him all over. She told him that if he were to divulge what had happened, he would die, and said his future happiness would depend on a beautiful woman.

Cataloguing his liaisons with a succession of nuns, slaves, aristocrats, prostitutes, wives, virgins, cross-dressers and performers, Summers reveals a contradictory character who relished every challenge and tilted at taboos – he made love through a hole in a balcony floor and through the iron bars of a convent grating. On the one hand, he truly loved and understood women. Unlike most men of his time, he cared very much about pleasing his lovers sexually. He was a good listener who would nurse his old loves on their sickbeds. He could be extravagantly generous, and desperately romantic. But he could also be cruel, violent, petty and stupid. He ruined reputations, shattered hopes and left children scarred for life. As our biographer observes, if Casanova were operating today, he “might well be in prison for breach of promise, incest, fraud, paedophilia, grievous bodily harm and rape”.

The cases of fraud are fun to read. They sit alongside his daring prison breaks as the actions of an adventurer and we snicker at the gullibility of his dupes. Most credulous, perhaps, was the 50-year-old Marquise d’Urfé, who believed her Italian toyboy had the power to transfer her soul into that of a young boy who was the union of a mortal and an immortal. Over five years, she handed him a glittering fortune in exchange for a lot of flirtatious mumbo-jumbo. He finally promised to make her pregnant and (while the lover he stole from his brother pranced about naked) Casanova was responsible for the first faked male orgasms of literary history.

But the tales of Casanova’s pederasty and the sexual pawings of his illegitimate children are more sobering. You just need to flick through to the colour plate of his sad-eyed daughter Sofie to feel a pang of distress. “I have never been able to conceive,” he wrote, “how a father could tenderly love his charming daughter without having slept with her at least once.” When modern men boast of being “a bit of a Casanova”, I doubt they realise that the great lover sired his own grandchild. It is difficult not to feel a sense of justice as Summers’s subject begins to experience impotence in his thirties, and by his forties has lost his looks and become the tormented suitor of a London strumpet. We are not especially sympathetic when Casanova ends his days sharing a cold bed with his bitch terrier.

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