Why you should care

Because lotharios are not always what they seem.

A little after midnight, armed with a hunting knife and a vengeful mood, the opera singer’s son sneaked into a cemetery and dug up a freshly buried body, hacking off an arm for a prank. It was all part of Giacomo Casanova’s plan to get payback for a trick an enemy had played on him earlier that day: A bridge he’d walked over was purposely weakened so that he’d fall, landing “up to the chin in stinking mud,” according to one translation of his 3,682-page memoirs.

Casanova later hid under the bed of his victim, ready to frighten him with the “ghost” of a corpse — a far cry from the polished lothario, Iliad translator and escapee from Doge’s Palace we think of today. But the famed womanizer, in fact, led a troubled life and was plagued by countless sexually transmitted diseases, probably including gonorrhea and syphilis. He was tainted by scandals at every job he took and had police records of public controversies, fights and blasphemies against churches.

Casanova gained consent from and sought pleasure for his partners, which has not exactly been the standard throughout history.

Beth Jarosz, demographer

The Venetian’s greatest feat, in fact, was to shrewdly market himself through his autobiography, reeling readers into a great story and getting them to sympathize despite a handful of unforgivable incidents. Some of his more lecherous acts included forcing a peasant woman to have sex with him, and bedding a girl he most probably knew was his own daughter. “He’d clearly be convicted of rape in a court of law today,” says Beth Jarosz, a demographer who has done in-depth research on Casanova and the times in which he lived. “That said, Casanova gained consent from and sought pleasure for his partners, which has not exactly been the standard throughout history.”

When the corpse prank backfired and caused his victim, a Greek spice dealer named Demetrio, to have what historians now believe was a stroke — he fell back on his bed in shock and remained spasmodic for the rest of his life — Casanova was quick to defend his actions. “I felt deeply grieved, but I had not intended to injure him so badly,” he wrote, noting how he drew consolation from the fact that the earlier bridge prank could have caused Casanova himself serious harm. The arm, although “disgusting,” was not meant to injure the man, says Jarosz: “Casanova intended to scare the daylights, not the life, out of Demetrio.”

The prank was quickly forgotten, but bad luck dogged Casanova. He was forced to flee Venice and his job as a legal assistant to a revered senator after a young girl accused him of rape. According to his memoir, he used a broomstick to give “her a good lesson” when she refused to sleep with him, despite his having paid her. He was later acquitted owing to a lack of evidence, but he had already vacated the city.

While scholars have come to terms with Casanova’s ghoulish past, choosing instead to gush over his 12-volume autobiography, delighting at his writings as “perhaps the most valuable document” from the 18th century, according to Arthur Machen, an early translator of the manuscript, others have taken a more skeptical view. “Was he that unique or was he just a great self-publicist?” asks British director Neil Rawles, who made a film about Casanova in 2003. “I’m sure there were other men in that era who were great lovers and treated their women with respect, but never kept diaries of their conquests.”

While Casanova was driven by his “constant quest for intimacy,” he allowed those desires to cross into the “dark side” and become immoral, Rawles says, referring to the man’s encounters with prostitutes and his daughter. He also didn’t know much about sexual health — not uncommon for the time but perhaps surprising for a man who reputedly slept with at least 132 women, including at least one nun. Instead of using condoms, which were available, Casanova relied on partners’ visible symptoms, which led him to be incapacitated for close to a year — and to father eight illegitimate children.

Ultimately, Casanova spent his final years as a poor outcast, bored and dissatisfied with life. He even considered suicide, according to John Master’s 1969 biography, but instead decided to record his memoirs. In the end, it’s unclear whether he regretted his actions, but he did issue a warning: “Though I do not repent of my amorous exploits, I am far from wishing that my example should serve for the perversion of the fair sex, who have so many claims on my homage.” He hoped his written words — in his final PR push — would secure him posterity’s esteem.

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