Casanova : actor, lover, priest, spy

by Ian Kelly

Paperback, 2011




New York : Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2011.


"Giacomo Casanova was one of the most beguiling and controversial individuals of his or any age. Braggart or perfect lover? Conman or genius? He made and lost fortunes, founded state lotteries, wrote forty-two books, and 3600 pages of memoirs recording the tastes and smells of the years before the French Revolution - as well, of course, as his affairs and sexual encounters with dozens of women and a handful of men. His energy was dazzling." "Historian Ian Kelly draws on previously unpublished documents from the Venetian Inquisition, by Casanova, his friends and lovers, which give new insights into his life and world. His research spans eighteenth-century Venice, Paris, St Petersburg, Moscow, Rome, Prague and the Czech castle where Casanova lived, wrote and died. This is the story of a man, but also of the book he wrote about himself. His own memoirs have brought him two centuries of notoriety."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member chuck_ralston
“[. . .] Ma vie est ma matiere [et] ma matiere est ma vie,” reports Jacques Casanova de Seingalt (1725—1798) in his autobiographical memoir, Histoire de ma vie, comprising 6000 pages in a dozen volumes, and now considered one of the most detailed description of ‘life and times’ in Eighteenth-century Europe. Casanova deserves comparison with Montaigne and Plutarch in this regard. Ian Kelly’s Casanova: Actor, Lover, Priest, Spy is a close reading of the Histoire coupled with research into the archives of Venice, Paris, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Rome, Prague, where Casanova traveled and lived, and in the Duchcov Castle in Bohemia (today’s Czech Republic), where Casanova spent his last years as librarian for Count Waldstein.

Known principally as a womanizer par excellence (Kelly estimates his ‘bedpost notches’ at between 122 and 136, mostly with women but including also a half dozen men), Casanova was not in the same league with his imaginary contemporary Don Giovanni (some 1800 conquests in the game of love and seduction). Born in Venice, the son of actors, Casanova grew up amidst the theater and at one time studied to become a priest. His travels took him to the capitals of Europe and to Constantinople. He met Benjamin Franklin in Paris, knew Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte (who may have considered Casanova as his inspiration for Don Giovanni), attacked in a pamphlet Voltaire just to be controversial. The Italian Commedia dell’Arte, Kelly surmises, may have been Casanova’s principel teacher in the art of seduction. Kelly reinforces this with his book’s organization into five ‘Acts’ with several ‘Scenes’ each and four ‘Intermezzi’ rather than sections with chapters.

This is a book rich in detail and anecdote, with supporting bibliography, notes on variant editions of Casanova’s Histoire, an index, and sixteen leaves of color plates. Ian Kelly’s other books include his Cooking for Kings: The Life of Antonin Careme, the First Celebrity Chef and Beau Brummell: The Ultimate Man of Style.
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LibraryThing member dpbrewster
Most of us only know the prurient myth of Casanova, many know Casanova only by his memoirs. The memoirs are valuable for their insight into 18th century society and culture and mores (and oh my, the food!), but there is always the suspicion at least some exaggeration.

Ian Kelly's tome provides a fuller picture of the real Casanova and gives us some remarkable insight into the truly amazing life of Casanova and his very real accomplishments.

Casanova was a extraordinarily complex and well traveled man, especially given the times and given the very real danger and hardship brought on by travel in the 18th century.

Casanova, born into a theatrical family, was also a diplomat, spy, intellectual, mathematician, and most surprisingly, a man of the cloth. One can only marvel at Casanova's sophistication and erudition on many of the great matters of his time.

For all his deserved reputation as a womanizer, Casanova seemed to truly love women and in many ways would be considered sophisticated, even today (and admittedly, Casanova had a few episodes that were beyond the pale then as well as now). His responsibility for the children he fathered far less so. However, the women he bedded were not merely conquests. He took an interest in their lives and maintained long-standing friendships with many, as well as being the source of many acts of kindness and generosity throughout his life.

In the end, Casanova understood how his life undermined and ultimately coarsened his soul (no doubt heightened by syphilis). That self awareness may have made his last years as a writer and librarian at Dux, the dreary castle in Bohemia, mostly tragic, but does not diminish the truly remarkable life that Casanova lived.
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LibraryThing member marc_beherec
This is a very nicely written biography of Casanova, one of the few men whose names have become an adjective. The notes sometimes are difficult to refer to, but that will matter little to the casual reader for whom this book was written. After all, if one wants a scholarly text on the great lover, one should find a book written by a scholar rather than an actor. The author shows no especial erudition about the eighteenth century. The text seems very accurate, but it should be read for the joy of reading it.… (more)
LibraryThing member anutany
Ian Kelly managed to draw a portrait of a multifaceted man instead of a usual womanizing caricature. A foodie, businessman, theater connoisseur, writer, a great story teller and overall a charming man, Casanova managed to travel more in 18th century than most people do now. While he was a gambler, crook, womanizer, and immoral individual by today’s standard, his vices were normal for his turbulent times.
There are a few factual errors that I was able to catch. While the errors are inconsequential in the big canvas of Casanova’s life and character it throws a shadow of suspicion over the rigor of author’s research overall. The author mentions at least twice that Catherine II was Peter’s daughter-in-law while in fact she married his grandson. Also I am not sure whom to blame the author or Casanova about the fact that Catherine was interested in Venice because of the upcoming trip of her son on a Grand Tour, which is historically inaccurate since at that time her son was not even a teenager, and was not allowed out of the country until he produced an heir some 16 years after Casanova’s trip to Russia. Also Ian Kelly introduced Russian princess Dachova who did not exist, probably he meant princess Dashkova(In English edition “History of My Life” that is the name mentioned). Also there were minor typos throughout the book, “though” instead of “through”, “an” instead of “as” and countless others that made me stumble over otherwise smooth prose.
Overall, it seems that there is not a great deal of detailed historical knowledge on the part of the author, but his Casanova is a flesh and blood human, and his biography made for a great read.
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LibraryThing member iruzadnal
I must admit that I had my doubts about this book. An actor writing a life of Casanova? With chapter headings following the five traditional acts of classical and Renaissance drama? The more I read of this fine, engaging biography, though, the less this structural flourish bothered me. Had I first looked at the bibliography -- heavy on primary sources, examined firsthand in the archives and special collections of the world -- I would changed my perceptions sooner. This is a well-researched, thoughtfully illustrated, thoroughly enjoyable book that illuminates its subject's times as effectively as it does the lesser-known corners of his character. Result: a dimensional portrait of Giacomo Casanova, shameless self-promoter, librarian, libertine, gambler, spiritual explorer, and man of the 18th century. Even the book's design is admirable. Highly worthwhile, strongly recommended.… (more)
LibraryThing member AdonisGuilfoyle
Casanova the man was larger than life: countlessly reinventing himself; gaining and losing fortunes; loving and leaving women (but always loving them, he was not a womaniser); as well as being thrown out of countries and escaping from prison. Ian Kelly as biographer is less than impressive, and the editor of this biography - if indeed there was one - should himself be locked up. Typos, misplaced punctuation and poor sentence construction make this a tedious and irritating book to read, despite the fascination of its subject; the presentation of the chapters, with opening quotes and illustrations, are as attractive as the cover, but the content could have done with the same attention to detail.

As a side note, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that much of Casanova's life story was accurately portrayed by the recent BBC series starring David Tennant, who captured the spirit and optimism of the man well.
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LibraryThing member stephaniechase
Engaging biography of one of history's most interesting men.
LibraryThing member amanda4242
I was so happy when I received this book through the Early Reviewers program. I have started reading Casanova’s autobiography many times, and have always been mesmerized by the depth and richness of his work. Unfortunately I have never had the time to finish reading it. I suppose this is forgivable since is 12 volumes long. Ian Kelly does a wonderful job in catching the spirit of Casanova’s life and writing and, amazingly, manages to do it in only about 400 pages. I would happily recommend this book to anyone interested in Casanova.… (more)
LibraryThing member BigJoel55
Calling a man a Casanova means that he's a seducer both charming and arrogant. Less known is the original Casanova. In addition to the aforementioned attributes, he was also an intellectual, actor, priest, and politician who embodied the age in which he lived.

A Ventitian by birth, Giacomo Casanova came from a family of actors performing in one of the most decadent cities in Europe. He trained for the priesthood, received an excellent education, and displayed a formidable intellect. His sexual life began early and continued with abandon, and, although increasingly difficult in the eighteenth century, he maintained a career in the Church. His quick wit and self-confidence charmed the elite of Italy, France, England, Russia, and Spain, to name the more prominent places he lived. He slept his way across Europe and met rulers like Louis XV, Frederick the Great, Catherine the Great, and several popes. His intellect made and lost him fortunes. Despite contracting gonorrhea and syphilis, Casanova lived to be seventy-three, spending his final years writing his memoirs.

Ian Kelly's life of Casanova is set up in five acts with several intermezzi, appropriate for describing so theatrical a life and suggesting the self-fashioned nature of Cassanova's life. There's quite a bit of bawdy humor, and even more sentiment, particularly in Kelly's presentation of Cassanova's his final years. This biography serves as not only one man's life, but also a history Enlightenment Europe.
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LibraryThing member kanadani
An entertaining read and a good introduction and companion to Giacomo Casanova's autobiography "The Story of My life." Delivered in an easy to read and entertaining manner the book helped put some of the interesting facets of Casanova's life into historical context. In particular, I was intrigued about his analysis as to why Casonova wrote his autobiography in French rather than Italian or Venician Italian. All in all, the book was easily digestible and while I would recommend reading the autobiography, this was a great companion book and it really showed how interesting Kelly found his subject.… (more)
LibraryThing member bookishbunny
I loved this book! The historical figure of Casanova is one shrouded in myth and titillation. This book explores the life of Casanova and his libertine ways in context of his times and provides some perspective on the man and his image in today's culture. A host of other vibrant and beautiful people parade through these pages, as well. Casanova's breathy era is brought o us through rich, well-researched storytelling.… (more)
LibraryThing member jotoyo
What I expected from a biography on Casanova was something I was unsure of, but I was pleasantly surpised by Ian Kelly's handling of the life and times of the renowned lover. I particularly admire the physical book itself, which is well put together with attractive art at the beginning of each chapter (or act and scene as Mr Kelly has it). The life of Casanova held my interest although it flagged a few times, suffering as many historical biogaphies do, when the passage of time is indicated by a recitation of cities Casanova traveled through, and people he met. Aside from this, the book was enjoyable and well worth the read. Even for me, where historical biographies are almost impossible to finish, this was an easy read. Maybe it was helped by the subject matter? After all sex is always interesting, especially when not overdone.… (more)
LibraryThing member johnxlibris
Casanova's life was nothing but extraordinary by any standard. The son of an actress, raised to be a member of the priesthood, world traveler, violinist, fugitive of the Inquisition, soldier, playwright, pimp for Louis XV, mystical healer, and economist for the governments of Europe, contemporary writers hardly wrote better stories and characters into their fiction. Ian Kelly's primary source for his book comes from Casanova's 12-volume autobiography, La histoire da ma vie. For those without the time to read Casanova's industrial tome, Kelly's 416 page summary is a good place to start. For readers on a more scholarly pursuit, this is perhaps not the book for you. The corroborating evidence is not always cited and often left me wanting. But all in all, it was a good read having come into the work with absolutely no knowledge of Giacomo Casanova and his picturesque existence.… (more)
LibraryThing member lanceparkin
An entertaining book that's essentially a summary of Casanova's own diaries, rather than anything more academic or with more of an angle on the material. Casanova's story is a fascinating one, and through him we see a great deal of the Europe of his time. This book is probably best considered as an introduction to the man, rather than one that brings any great new insight.… (more)



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