On April 2nd, a museum will open in Venice dedicated to the life and times of Casanova, the historical figure often described as a “seducer” or “playboy.” It’s designed to celebrate the “romantic adventures” of the “child of the Enlightenment” whose name we use today as a term for men with sexual prowess.
Will it tell the truth ― the whole truth ― about the real Casanova, a serial rapist who bought a teenage slave and impregnated his own daughter?
Giacomo Girolamo Casanova was born in 1725 in Venice, and died in 1798 in what’s now the Czech Republic. His memoirs, published in 1822, long after his death, would have likely been damning if published during his time. The actions he described were rooted in the philosophy of libertinism, which advocated amoralism. The 12 volumes of his memoirs record how one man (and former priest-in-training) interpreted amoralism and became so famous for “sexual liberty” that we still invoke his name today.
Let’s consider what it is we’re celebrating when we invoke that name, though. Casanova wrote that, in the early 1750s, he rented a room from a Madame Quinson and began a sexual relationship with her daughter, Mimi, who was “between fifteen and sixteen years of age.” After Mimi became pregnant, her mother apparently demanded that Casanova marry the teen. Casanova, who was already married, was not interested. Brought to court, he told the judge no one could prove he was the father of Mimi’s child.
At the time, no mother could definitively prove the paternity of her child, and Casanova and men like him could easily dodge the daily labor and financial responsibilities of parenthood.
During Carnival in 1745, after one of Casanova’s friends suggested it would be “a good joke,” Casanova and seven other men abducted and raped a woman.
During Carnival in 1745, after one of Casanova’s friends suggested it would be “a good joke,” Casanova and seven other men abducted and raped a woman, he wrote in his memoirs. According to Casanova, she loved it. Her husband filed a complaint to the authorities, who offered a reward of 500 ducats for information on the assailants.
In 1747, Casanova received a summons after an injured girl’s mother filed a complaint. Casanova’s declaration of defense claimed the mother had sold him her daughter’s virginity. He explained that he tried to have sex with her but that she refused and made “a violent effort” to resist him. So, he wrote:
“I got hold of a broomstick, and gave her a good lesson, in order to get something for the ten sequins which I had been foolish enough to pay in advance. But I have broken none of her limbs, and I took care to apply my blows only on her posteriors, on which spot I have no doubt that all the marks may be seen. In the evening I made her dress herself again, and sent her back in a boat which chanced to pass, and she was landed in safety. The mother received ten sequins, the daughter has kept her hateful maidenhood, and, if I am guilty of anything, it is only of having given a thrashing to an infamous girl, the pupil of a still more infamous mother.”
Casanova’s victims were, by his own account, as young as 9, and often adolescent girls. They are included in his celebrated “count” of conquests.
Was it common for European men of the time to marry children? Considering heightened adolescent maternal mortality rates, perhaps the question is moot. But in early-1700s England (one of Casanova’s many destinations), the average age of marriage was 25 or 26 for women, and 27 or 28 for men. Marriages between children and men happened, but not with the frequency some might assume.
Casanova saw women only as sex objects, even in fatherhood: “I have never been able to understand how a father could tenderly love his charming daughter without having slept with her at least once,” he wrote. Which brings us to Leonilda, the 16- or 17-year-old girl Casanova met in 1761. Upon discovering Leonilda was his daughter, Casanova decided it would be wrong to marry her but still engaged in a threesome with Leonilda and her mother. Years later, Casanova wrote that he re-engaged in a sexual relationship with Leonilda that resulted in pregnancy.
Knowing all this, let’s ask ourselves again: What exactly does it mean to be a “Casanova”?
“I have never been able to understand how a father could tenderly love his charming daughter without having slept with her at least once,” Casanova wrote.
According to Bruno Racine, director of France’s National Library, “Casanova was not a predator who exploited women. He was always tender, never cruel. A feminist.”
Perhaps Racine and others who make this claim misunderstand sex-positive feminism. A man who acted as a sexual libertine in a time before reliable birth control in an extremely misogynist society cannot be thought of as sex-positive, nor can a serial rapist or pedophile. Sexual liberty cannot be thrust upon us by Casanovas. Our sexual liberty belongs to us.
It should also not fall to feminists to reform abusers. 2005’s “Casanova,” a romantic comedy that starred heartthrob Heath Ledger, failed to mention the incest and pedophilia. But it did alter the story so that Casanova abandons his womanizing after he marries — wait for it — a feminist writer. Was this Hollywood’s attempt at a feminist spin on Casanova? Unclear. What is clear is that the movie wholly and irresponsibly ignores Casanova’s many abuses. Apparently, our culture wants the womanizer archetype without the abusive patterns.
But as we are beginning to collectively acknowledge, they are usually a package deal. Take this Men’s Health article instructing men on how to replicate Casanova’s mechanized charisma and get women to “surrender” their bodies.
Writers tend to focus on Casanova’s “count.” You know, the age-old frat question, “How many women has he slept with?” ― not “How did he treat his partners and how did they feel about the experiences?” Asking the first question without the second makes it easy for abusers to pass themselves off as merely promiscuous.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with a man sleeping with a lot of women. But there is something wrong if he abuses his power to do it, or if he tricks, forces or manipulates them.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with a man sleeping with a lot of women. But there is something wrong if he abuses his power to do it, or if he tricks, forces or manipulates them. In 2018, we’re grappling with the ways we’ve dismissed abuse as promiscuity.
One means to confront that is to examine Casanova’s legacy. Unfortunately, even today, men are not usually taught to respect women’s desire, boundaries, pleasure, and comfort. Casanova didn’t draw any distinction between enthusiastic consent and rape. As a libertine, it was all sex to him ― and to those who celebrated his virility and sexual prowess.
“Casanova” is far from the only term we have that celebrates predatory behavior. Consider “Don Juan,” a reference to a fictional character ― a serial rapist who killed the father of one of his victims. There there’s the old term “skirt-chaser,” or the more modern “player,” or the seemingly harmless phrase “in like Flynn.” That last one is a reference to actor Errol Flynn, who stood trial for the statutory rape of two girls in 1942, and went on to rape 15-year-old Beverly Aadland in 1957. Flynn detailed his womanizing in his memoir, My Wicked, Wicked Ways ― which he had wanted to title In Like Me.
It shouldn’t surprise us that “Casanova” crept into our lexicon as a compliment. It didn’t surprise me: Too many adult men made passes at me as a child. Too many men have behaved abusively toward me during my adulthood, have looked at me as a conquest, whether sexually or psychologically, or have passionately defended idols like Woody Allen. Too many women I know have stories similar to mine. We all learned to pretend these things didn’t happen. Like Casanova’s own easily accessible history, the abuse hides in plain sight.
Casanova is an accurate name for an amoral womanizer, but our culture has erased the immorality and lauded the womanizing.
The Casanova problem isn’t that we’ve been calling amoral womanizers “Casanovas.” The problem is, “Casanova” is an accurate name for an amoral womanizer, but our culture has erased the immorality and lauded the womanizing.
You can tell a great deal about a culture through its language. Lauding Casanova’s promiscuity and ignoring his abuses signals that we value men like him ― men who fit toxic archetypes of masculinity. That’s why his name became a word, an archetype, in and of itself.
In lauding him, we erase the stories of women throughout history who were not empowered to write memoirs of their experiences, and haven’t had museums dedicated to their memory. They became footnotes in his story, their perspectives warped through the eyes of an abuser. Outside of court documents, we will never hear their real stories. But when we restore the full meaning of Casanova’s name ― when we remember the truth about his abuses ― we begin to give the women who survived them the recognition they deserve.
Amy Collier is a writer who lives in Boston.