The Extraordinary Life of Casanova

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Say the name Casanova, and everybody thinks of love, lust, seduction, thrills.

And well they should. In the 18th century, the great Italian ladies’ man Giacomo Casanova cut a swath through hearts and petticoats from Venice to St. Petersburg. He was irrepressible, irresistible, unashamed — and a very busy man.

And in more than just the boudoir. Casanova left a detailed record of his life and conquests that captures Europe’s life before revolution, and one man’s life with many women, like nothing before.

This hour, On Point: A new biography of the great lover — and chronicler — Casanova.

You can join the conversation. What do you picture when you think: Casanova?


Joining us from London is Ian Kelly, actor, writer and now biographer of Casanova. His new biography is “Casanova: Actor Lover Priest Spy.” London’s Sunday Telegraph calls it “A great blast of a book… rippling with enthusiasm right down to the final footnote.” He's also the author of "Cooking for Kings: The Life of Antonin Careme, The First Celebrity Chef" and "Beau Brummell: The Ultimate Man of Style."


What was he like? Casanova, Kelly writes, was "an attractive man," yet "he did not conform to ideals of sexual allure." He paints a vivid portrait of his subject in this paragraph from "Casanova":

He paid for sex from time to time throughout his life but did so considerably less than seems to have been the norm at this period for many urban men. Nor did he put himself in the first rank of sexual athletes, some of whom he encountered and witnessed, any more than he accounted himself handsome, well endowed or of abnormal libido. He was aware that his singular interest in humankind, and womankind in particular, was considered unusual and attractive, and until his late thirties he proceeded in life and love in the unquestioning faith that for him, anything and anyone was possible; a credo that transubstantiates its own reality. That he was an attractive man has the witness of figures from the Prussian king Frederick the Great to Madame de Pompadour, connoisseurs of masculine beauty both. Yet he did not conform to ideals of sexual allure of that or any age. He had a large, beaked nose and bulbous, heavily lidded eyes, thick dark eyebrows and a swarthy complexion, minuses all in the lexicon of eighteenth-century ideals of beauty. He looked almost a caricature of an Italian, was uncommonly tall and unusually muscular for a man who never laboured at anything; there are also references to the thickness of his neck and the prominence of his Adam’s apple, which suggest a solid man; a manly man for all he swathed himself in lace. Despite his bulk he moved, it was said, like a dancer; unsurprising, when his family were all in the theatre. At his prime, his only boast was that he was convinced he – or any man – could conquer any woman, if she was the sole object of his undivided attention. He focused completely on those he was with, a sort of charm in itself, and perhaps an unusual experience for women in the eighteenth century.

(Quoted with permission from "Casanova: Actor Lover Priest Spy," copyright 2008 by Ian Kelly, published by Tarcher/Penguin.)

This program aired on November 25, 2008.


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