This monumental unabridged audio production of Casanova’s memoir The Story of My Life in three volumes covers his first 49 years. He was born in 1725 into a struggling theatre family in Venice, the carnival centre of Europe, and masks, masquerades and music were so much in Casanova’s blood that a glorious, effervescent theatricality lights up these 125 hours. The narrator, Peter Wickham, is so convincing that he must surely have had difficulty re-assuming his own identity after the final recording session.
Constantly seeking pastures new, Casanova travelled through France, Russia, Spain, Constantinople, Poland and England, transported by sedan chair, sleigh and felucca, but mainly by hideously uncomfortable carriage (74 changes of horses between Moscow and St Petersburg). A charmed life provided him with patrons in each country, enabling him to live extravagantly in aristocratic circles, dining and gambling, frequently on the edge of legality. He narrowly avoided the gallows when he presented false bills of exchange in Holland, and he escaped from Poland after seriously wounding a duke in a duel, in which an injury to his own hand nearly cost him his arm. Venetian spies landed him in a tiny cell beneath the roof of the Doge’s palace and his outrageously perilous escape nearly a year later over the roofs and then by gondola and donkey had him banned from Venice for 18 years. Shady deals of espionage in France and Holland, however, earned him enormous sums.
An essential ingredient of the dazzling excess was food, lovingly detailed throughout. Whether in brothels or high society, dinners included many fine wines (20 bottles of champagne served with the oysters alone), game birds, freshly killed pig, and in Naples a dozen varieties of aphrodisiac shellfish.
Casanova’s fascination with the teachings of the Kabbalah, codes and zodiacal mysticism allowed him to exploit the outlandish beliefs of the credulous rich, and extract serious amounts of money from them. He also accumulated considerable wealth from the lotteries he established, using his mathematical genius (though he failed to interest Catherine the Great in such a scheme in St Petersburg). Meeting many of the great figures of the age, he discussed opera buffa with Voltaire and presented Louis XV with a 13-year-old candidate for his entourage, whose virginity was confirmed by the royal hand before purchase.
His inquiring intellect is shown in his published histories of Venice, Poland and Russia and in his music and his translation of the Iliad. But inevitably it is for his sexual adventures that he is remembered. They are indeed staggering in their candid detail, even though one suspects that, writing the memoir to amuse himself when dogged by syphilis and melancholy towards the end of his life, he embroidered the more salacious episodes.
From the time of his initiation into carnal pleasures at the age of 11 by the 14-year-old sister of his tutor in Padua, Casanova went from strength to libidinous strength. Whether it was with Teresa under his greatcoat while her husband made them hot chocolate, or in his carriage ‘comforting’ a country bride frightened by a raging storm, he never missed an opportunity to play the ‘game of love’, with women as eager as himself. But believing ‘matrimony to be the grave of love’, he constantly moved on, leaving disappointed partners behind. Casual encounters — such as ‘the cup of pleasure’ savoured with the Greek slave girl through the filigree of a balcony — fed his voracious appetite, but parting from the many women he truly loved left ‘scars on his heart’. The lure of intrigue was magnetic. Finding a woman’s ‘temple’ beneath the military breeches of a transvestite adventuress was a rich reward.
In an age of sexual extravagance girls of 13 or 14 (their ‘globes tipped with coral’) readily responded to the advances of this charming, perfumed libertine in his rose-coloured velvet suit, often with the encouragement of their mothers. Having newly met the 16-year-old who turned out to be his own daughter and finding her longing for a child but yoked to an impotent duke, he left her pregnant. He also fathered a child on one of the young ‘ambrosial angel’ sisters in Paris to whom he repeatedly returned for ‘transports of bliss’; and his much loved convent ‘nun’ nearly died giving birth clandestinely. There were dark times for him too: when his ‘steed’ failed him or when, despite the English sheep-gut condoms tied on with a pink ribbon, that ‘serpent from hell’, venereal disease, ravaged him once again.