Casanova: the man and the myth
A new biography highlights the legendary lover’s brilliant mind, plus lots of juicy details
Donald Trump’s ego doesn’t have anything on Casanova’s. The legendary lover, however, owes biographer Laurence Bergreen a debt of thanks for shining a light on his intellectual brilliance instead of only playing up the Venetian’s tales of love and sex. Bergreen will speak about his ninth book, the multi-dimensional “Casanova: The World of a Seductive Genius” (Simon & Schuster) at CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College on Dec. 5 and the mid-Manhattan Library on Jan. 23.
Bergreen, 66, who lives on the Upper East Side, originally wanted to write about Hugh Hefner. After deciding that a Hefner biography would be “just a terrible idea,” Bergreen filled that void with a biography of a man with 122 girlfriends. “Casanova” was sparked by the $9.6 million purchase of Giacomo Casanova’s original 4,000 page manuscript by the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in 2010. “In Europe, Casanova is considered a major figure of the Enlightenment,” Bergreen says. “But in the U.S., he’s sort of a joke. He has this folklorish reputation like Paul Bunyan. I decided to look into this guy and was on the next flight to Paris in rainy November to look at his manuscript in his handwriting. It was like a time machine. It was tactile. Some of the descriptions of his girlfriends were in gruesome detail.”
Bergreen describes writing “Casanova” as “vicarious fantasy fulfillment” because his subject’s life was so outrageous. Casanova had no boundaries and Bergreen verified details of escapades through numerous manuscripts and letters, including those from Casanova’s lovers, to get the other side of the story. Casanova was a narcissist, a gambler, and a libertine. He befriended and held court with Empress Catherine the Great after inventing the French lottery (which is still used today) following his escape to France as a fugitive. Casanova was the only person ever to escape jail in the Doges Palace in Venice, digging his way out. But Casanova was also a tragic and dark man with a craving for love and sex, possibly stemming from abandonment by his mother, the Italian actress Zanetta Farussi. Bergreen suggests that “Casanova was semi-aware of not receiving his mother’s love. This sets up an insatiable craving for love, sex, and intimacy, but Casanova had something ferocious driving this.”
Some earlier biographies and memoirs avoided the elements of his sexual escapades, but that fueled Casanova’s drive for life. Fantasy and indulgence permeated 18th century Venice. “Casanova was outside the normal realm,” says Bergreen. “This seemed like an idea that said ‘I dare you.’ I wanted a fun, juicy version that other books didn’t do. A lot of the other books leave out sex, but that’s what made him go.” Delving into those details while writing Casanova in his 94th street office, Bergreen even named each chapter after a woman, starting with Casanova’s mother.
Ironically, Casanova wasn’t an attractive lady-killer; he was a gawky and funny-looking fellow. Casanova was seductive because of his mind, and his legacy lives on because of his brilliance and achievements. The orgies were the cherries on top. Bergreen’s Casanova is an exciting escape into 18th century Europe when seducing nuns and then writing about it was a sport.
Bergreen’s current project is co-writing a young adult, non-fiction book on Magellan with his daughter, Sara, to follow his award-winning and bestselling biography “Over The Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the World.”
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