The Great Seducer

  • by Sura Wood
  • Wednesday February 21, 2018
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As if being known as the most notorious libertine in history weren't enough, Giacomo Casanova was also a gambler, a social climber and a spy; a prolific literary figure who penned the first science-fiction novel (a failure); and an unreliable reporter who aggrandized his sexual exploits in a 3,500-page autobiography, a romp through the boudoirs and salons of 18th-century society considered so racy that its unabridged version wasn't published until 1960. He was one of the creators of France's first state lottery, presumably reaped its benefits, and oh yes, he translated Homer's "The Iliad" into Italian in his spare time. He saw everything, met everyone who was anyone in the Age of Enlightenment, and as a voracious traveler, logged over 40,000 miles in Europe's pleasure capitals, Russia and Constantinople. Blessed with an uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time, he was a perpetual if itinerant guest, a compulsive seducer and dissembler who charmed his way into the best houses and the company of the most brilliant minds of his time, rubbing shoulders with Catherine the Great, Benjamin Franklin, Voltaire and Rousseau, when he wasn't pursuing sexual conquests and gratifying his carnal lust. The lavish milieu in which he circulated for nearly six decades is now the subject of "Casanova: The Seduction of Europe," a collaborative new show put together under the auspices of no less than three major museums.

With one minor exception, however, images of the man himself are mysteriously absent. The imaginatively conceived art and history exhibition, which opened recently at the Legion of Honor, is less a full-fledged memoir than a gilded grand tour that attempts to recreate the shimmering, decadent environs inhabited by a fellow of insatiable appetites. While not entirely seamless, the illusion is seductive, in keeping with its source of inspiration.

The show's 200 objects include a model of a gondola fashioned from walnut polished to a high sheen and decorated with sculpted gold; a procession of gold-encrusted furnishings, ornate luxury items, and paintings, like the sublimely lit, amorous scenes by the French master Jean-Honore Fragonard, and "Resting Girl," Francois Boucher's sumptuous portrait of an alabaster-skinned odalisque lounging prone on a divan. Together they evoke a candlelit, opulent world ripe with romantic possibility, glittering masquerade balls, 12-course banquets and splendid palaces. Aside from a metallic-glazed earthenware tureen in the shape of an angry-faced boar's head, a favorite objet is sure to be the sedan chair (ca. 1750), a means of conveyance that instantly denoted the status of its passenger as a person of quality. Hand-carried by servants, it was designed for those who wanted to travel around town or within the confines of a palace without soiling their fine clothes or mingling with riff-raff. The excellent specimen on view, made in Naples, the 18th century's Motown of elegant transport, has exterior panels painted with scenes from Virgil's "Voyage of Aeneas," and is embellished with shells and golden ornamental scrollwork; the interior's pink silk upholstery assured a plush journey. Casanova recalled riding in a similar vehicle while ascending the Alps.

Born into an impoverished theatrical family in Venice, a city where grand fetes and masked partygoers regularly spilled into the plazas at night, Casanova was a natural chameleon, his greatest performance being the life he led cavorting with the rich. A pair of Rococo Venetian throne chairs on display, trimmed with carved gilded wood, and covered in a shiny floral-patterned velvet, would've been ideal for a Grand Canal palazzo he might have frequented.

Among several paeans to the beauty of Venice painted by Canaletto is one depicting the Island of Murano in the Venetian Lagoon, where a convent gleaming in fading afternoon sun, cast against a slate-gray sky, floats on the water like the Land of Oz. If wealthy parents of the period assumed their daughters' virtue would be safe within the confines of this or any nunnery, as many did, they'd have been mistaken. Paramours outfitted in finery would romance the chaperoned women in an area called the Parlatorio, a scene echoed in Francesco Guardi's 1746 painting of the same name in which the flirtatious female boarders eschewed nun's habits for fashionable clothing, as was the custom. An adjacent staged tableau features mannequins dressed in elaborate costumes like the three-piece, black-velvet suit of a male visitor whose coat is embroidered with gold threads and embedded with tiny shards of glass to reflect the flickering candlelight. The narrative was inspired by a young woman whose father dispatched her to a convent to protect her from the lascivious Casanova, who, despite those efforts, connived his way into secret visits with his forbidden virginal quarry.

Although these clandestine meetings required resourcefulness and guile, the most thrilling escapade detailed here is Casanova's incredible escape from the Palazzo Ducale prison complex in 1756. A freewheeling gambler whose extravagant lifestyle made him a target, he was incarcerated by Venetian authorities, one of numerous brushes with the law across the Continent that further burnished his mystique and infamous reputation. Undeterred by bars and guards, he and a fellow inmate pried open a lead plate from the prison roof, and descended to a maze of lower floors where a turn down the wrong corridor could have resulted in apprehension. Having saved the expensive duds he was wearing when captured, he changed into them, assumed the identity of a mistakenly arrested, indignant aristocrat, and persuaded a guard to release them. The duo hailed a gondola and fled to France, where he began another picaresque chapter. Casanova wouldn't return to Venice for 18 years.

Like the comedian who wants to play Hamlet, Casanova yearned to be remembered as a cultivated intellectual. More than that, he simply wished to be remembered, a feat he achieved beyond measure.

Through May 28;