Tips from the master's own 12 volumes of memoirs for aspiring 21st-century Casanovas.
By Bill Beuttler (for Playboy, not yet published)
Priest; lawyer; soldier; scholar; poet; gambler; violinist; lottery director (for King Louis XV of France); Freemason; spy; acquaintance of Voltaire, Rousseau, and Catherine the Great; prisoner (and daring escapee) of the Inquisition -- Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798) was all these things and more, but it was his legendary prowess as a seducer of women that got him into Webster's.
Casanova: LOVER; esp: a man who is a promiscuous and unscrupulous lover.
"Unscrupulous," it turns out, is something of a bum rap. As Lydia Flem pointed out a few years ago in her Casanova: The Man Who Really Loved Women, our man Giacomo was a strict practitioner of the Golden Rule where his romantic conquests were concerned. Casanova was a libertine but he was no cad. "Never to harm a mistress, never to arouse her anger or disappointment, never to make her suffer from their affair in any way -- this is what he consistently aspires to," writes the Belgian psychoanalyst.
The payoff was that Casanova's women loved him back. As Flem notes, "Giacomo showers his lovers with discreet care, kind attentions, elegant gifts, joyful surprises, and in his memoirs he respectfully gives the best-known among them anonymity. Generous, indeed prodigal, he gives without counting; he gives more than he owns. He likes to cause surprise, wonder, and happiness ... . He will do anything to fulfill a woman's expectations, certain of making her pleased with him if he can make her pleased with herself. This is perhaps the most reliable way he has found of obtaining a lady's favors."
The most reliable, perhaps, but surely there were others. As a public service, we went hunting for some of them, in the same place Flem gleaned her insights: Casanova's own 12-volume History of My Life. If anyone could offer aspiring Casanovas tips on how it's done, we reasoned, it is the master himself. Here's what our search turned up.
1) Carpe Babeum
"The lover who is not ready to take Fortune by the forelock is lost," writes Casanova. This was a man who claimed carpe diem as his motto and who consistently seized every willing babe whom chance threw his way. That meant hundreds of them: Wherever he lodged in his frequent travels, Casanova's hosts always seemed to have a teenaged daughter or servant girl (or two) ripe for the plucking. Actresses, nuns, other men's wives -- fortune brought beauties of all kinds to Casanova, and he generally found a way to bed them.
When he couldn't literally get them into bed, shared carriage rides proved as much opportunities for seducing married women as they were a form of transportation. Casanova first has sex with Donna Lucrezia Castelli, for instance, while they are riding in a carriage. Then there is the young bride he meets on a trip to Pasiano. This woman's oafish husband is rudely ignoring her and flirting with her prettier sister, and Casanova suggests that she give the husband something to be jealous of himself. She agrees to play along, but she does so unconvincingly, and when Casanova presses her to make the infidelity real, she refuses to do anything so abominable with a priest (our hero, still a teenager, hadn't yet been drummed out of the seminary). Casanova makes no further headway with her until they share a carriage ride during a fierce sudden storm:
"There is a flash of lightning, then another, thunder rumbles, and the poor woman is shaking all over. The rain comes down. I take off my cloak to use it to cover us both in front; and, heralded by an enormous flash, the lightning strikes a hundred paces ahead. The horses rear, and the poor lady is seized by spasmodic convulsions. She throws herself on me and clasps me in her arms. I bend forward to pick up the cloak, which had fallen to our feet, and, as I pick it up, I raise her skirts with it. Just as she is trying to pull them down again, there is another flash of lightning, and her terror deprives her of the power to move. Wanting to put the cloak over her again, I draw her toward me; she literally falls on me, and I quickly put her astride me. Since her position could not be more propitous, I lose no time, I adjust myself to it in an instant by pretending to settle my watch in the belt of my breeches. Realizing that if she did not stop me at once, she could no longer defend herself, she makes an effort, but I tell her that if she does not pretend to have fainted, the postilion will turn and see everything. So saying, I leave her to call me an impious monster to her heart's content, I clasp her by the buttocks, and carry off the most complete victory that ever a skillful swordsman won."
2) Thou Shalt Not Lie (With Certain Exceptions)
Read a dozen volumes of memoirs and you get to know a guy. We know Casanova, Casanova is a friend of ours, and Bill Clinton is no Casanova. For one thing, Casanova's take on lying might have spared the prevaricator-in-chief's impeachment. Casanova found that fessing up to his misadventures was the surest way to get him out of trouble. "The trick I used to accomplish this," he explains, "was to relate the facts truthfully, not omitting certain circumstances which it takes courage to reveal. Therein lies the secret, which not everyone can apply, for the greater part of the human race is made up of cowards; I know from experience that truth is a talisman whose charms are unfailing, provided that it is not wasted on fools. I believe that a guilty man who dares admit his guilt to a just judge is more likely to be absolved than an innocent man who equivocates."
On the other hand, neither did Casanova claim, as legend says his contemporary George Washington did, an inability to lie. Casanova, in his words, "had no scruples about deceiving nitwits and fools when I found it necessary. As for women, this sort of reciprocal deceit cancels itself out, for when love enters in, both parties are usually dupes."
With women, Casanova was capable of telling preposterously bold whoppers -- and of having them be believed. None is more outlandish than the one he tells the woman he calls "Miss XCV." This beautiful young woman's lover has gotten her pregnant and skipped town, and her mother is trying to marry her off to an older man she despises. Casanova immediately falls in love with her, but, despite Casanova's entreaties, she wants only to be friends. Casanova is the only person she confides her pregnancy to, and she asks him, as a trusted friend, to help her obtain an abortion.
Casanova eventually asks an older woman with an interest in alchemy if she knows of any sure method of bringing on an abortion without endangering the pregnant woman. She recommends the use of aroph, a medicine advocated by the 16th-century alchemist Paracelsus.
Casanova describes the procedure thus: "The woman who hoped to empty her womb was to put a dose of this opiate on the end of a cylinder of the proper size and insert it into her vagina in such a way as to stimulate the round piece of flesh at the top of her such-and-such. The cylinder must at the same time stimulate the channel leading to the closed door of the little house which sheltered the little enemy whose departure was sought. This procedure, repeated three or four times a day for six or seven days, so weakend the little door that it finally opened and the fetus tumbled out.
"Laughing heartily at the prescription," he continues, "whose absurdity was instantly apparent to common sense, I gave Madame back her precious manuscript and I spent two hours reading the always astonishing Paracelsus and then Boerhaave, who discusses aroph like a reasonable man."
His finding the procedure ridiculous, however, doesn't prevent Casanova from passing it on to Miss XCV, along with an imaginative twist of his own. "It was on the spur of the moment," he informs us, "that it occurred to me to tell her that the aroph had to be mixed with sperm which had not lost its natural heat for a single instant." That is, Miss XCV, her lover unavailable, would be required to borrow some friend's penis for use as the cylinder needed to apply the aroph, a loan which the ever-gallant Casanova happily volunteered to make. She eventually, albeit skeptically, agrees. Casanova's play-by-play of the start of their weeklong aroph-application regimen follows:
"In our utter seriousness we appeared to be a surgeon getting ready to perform an operation and the patient who submits to it. Miss was the operating surgeon. She sets the open box at her right, then lies down on her back, and, spreading her thighs and raising her knees, arches her body; at the same time, by the light of the candle, which I am holding in my left hand, she puts a little crown of aroph on the head of the being who is to convey it to the orifice where the amalgamation is to be accomplished. The astonishing thing is that we neither laughed nor felt any desire to laugh, so engrossed were we in our roles. After the insertion was completed, the timid Miss blew out the candle, but two minutes later she had to let me light it again. The thing had been done to perfection so far as I was concerned, but she did not feel sure about herself. I obligingly said that I did not mind repeating the performance. My formal tone made us both laugh ... ."
3) The Importance of Being Ardent
The extravagant praise Casanova always lavished on the objects of his desire feels out-of-place in our own irony-steeped times. But Casanova learned early on that it is impossible to praise a woman too much, and all to easy to squander an opportunity for sex by not praising her enough.
In fact, Casanova lost his own virginity at age 15 in a threesome with two sisters because of all the praise he'd been heaping on a friend of theirs. As he put it, "Not being conceited enough to suppose that the two girls could fall in love with me from listening to my complaints, not only did I not restrain myself in their presence, I confided my troubles to them when Angela was not there. I often spoke to them with an ardor far greater than that with which I addressed the cruel girl who quelled it in me. The genuine lover is always afraid that the object of his love will think he is exaggerating; and fear of saying too much makes him say less than is the case."
Casanova never does bed Angela, but it is not long before he finds himself sleeping between the Savorgnan sisters, at the start of a three-way relationship that would continue off-and-on for several years afterward:
"I began with the one toward whom I was turned, not knowing whether it was Nanetta or Marta. I found her curled up and covered by her shift, but by doing nothing to startle her and proceeding step by step as gradually as possible, I soon convinced her that her best course was to pretend to be asleep and let me go on. Little by little I straightened her out, little by little she uncurled, and little by little, with slow, successive, but wonderfully natural movements, she put herself in a position which was the most favorable she could offer me without betraying herself. I set to work, but to crown my labors it was necessary that she should join in them openly and undeniably, and nature finally forced her to do so."
He then "turned the other way to do the same thing with her sister" but "at the moment of crisis she no longer had the strength to keep up her pretense. Throwing off the mask, she clasped me in her arms and pressed her mouth on mine."
The second conquest, it turns out, is Nanetta, as Casanova discovers when Marta rises from bed and lights a candle.
"When I saw Nanetta in my arms on fire with love, and Marta holding a candle and looking at us, seeming to accuse us of ingratitude for not saying a word to her, when, by having been the first to yield to my caresses, she had encouraged her sister to imitate her, I realized all my good fortune."
"'Let us get up,' I said, 'and swear eternal friendship and then refresh ourselves.'
"Under my direction the three of us made an improvised toilet in a bucket of water, which set us laughing and renewed all our desires; then, in the costume of the Golden Age, we finished the rest of the tongue and emptied the other bottle. After our state of sensual intoxification had made us say a quantity of those things which only love can interpret, we went back to bed and spent the rest of the night in ever varied skirmishes."
4) Eat Your Oysters (Dietary Law)
As with men, Casanova's memoirs suggest, the way to a woman's heart is through her stomach. Whenever he could possibly afford it, Casanova threw lavish feasts when wooing women. He loved mixing them rum or champagne punches as part of the seduction. And he especially enjoyed fooling around with woman and oysters.
Here, for instance, is a snippet of an assignation with the gorgeous libertine nun M.M., whom Casanova has fallen for while visiting his previous love, C.C., at the convent she has been exiled to after Casanova got her pregnant: "After making punch we amused ourselves eating oysters, exchanging them when we already had them in our mouths. She offered me hers on her tongue at the same time that I put mine between her lips; there is no more lascivious and voluptuous game between two lovers, it is even comic, but comedy does no harm, for laughter is only for the happy. What a sauce that is which dresses an oyster I suck from the mouth of the woman I love! It is her saliva. The power of love cannot but increase when I crush it, when I swallow it."
Maybe it is something about convents, but many years later Casanova introduces a beautiful teenaged resident of another convent, and the girl's only slightly elder governess, Emilia, to the oyster game. These two young ladies are no libertines, but they both take an immediate liking to oysters. The trio consumes 100 of them their first evening dining together, with a full meal in between the first 50 and the last, and the girls enjoy the oysters so much that the three of them get together for a repeat performance several days afterward. This time, Casanova pushes his luck too far, and suffers a temporary setback:
"It was by chance that a fine oyster which I gave Emilia, putting the shell to her lips, dropped into her bosom; she made to recover it; but I claimed that it was mine by right, and she had to yield, let me unlace her, and gather it with my lips from the depth to which it had dropped. In the course of this she had to bear with my uncovering her bosom completely; but I retrieved the oyster in such a way that there was no sign of my having felt any pleasure except that of having recovered, chewed, and swallowed it. Armellina watched the whole procedure without smiling, surprised that I appeared to show no interest in what I must have seen. Four or five oysters later I gave one to Armellina, who was sitting on my lap, and I cleverly dropped it into her bosom, which brought a laugh from Emilia, who at bottom was annoyed that Armellina had escaped a test of an intrepidity such as she had shown me. But I saw that Armellina was delighted by the mishap, though she refused to give any sign of it.
"'I want my oyster,' I said.
"I unlace her whole bodice, and, the oyster having dropped down as far as possible, I complain that I shall have to bring it up with my hand. Good God! What torment for a man in love to have to hide the excess of his delight at such a moment! Armellina had not the slightest pretext to accuse me of anything, for I did not touch her beautiful breasts, hard as marble, except in searching for the oyster. After retrieving and swallowing it, I took hold of one of her breasts, demanding the liquid from the oyster which had spilled on it; I seized the rosebud with my avid lips, surrendering to all the voluptuous feelings inspired in me by the imaginary milk which I sucked for a good two or three minutes. I saw that she was surprised and moved; but when I let her go, it was only to recover my soul, which my great pleasure had made to exhale where I did not know if she could suspect it. But when she saw me fix my eyes on hers as if in a stupor, she asked me if I had very much enjoyed imitating the babe at the breast.
"'Yes, for it is an innocent game.'
"'I do not believe so, and I hope you will say nothing about it to our Superioress; what you did is not innocent for me, and we must retrieve no more oysters.'"
5) Three's Company
Nanetta and Marta, C.C. and M.M., Armellina and Emilia -- threesomes are a recurring theme in Casanova's life, and he makes it clear that this is no accident, while offering parents a counterintuitive tip on how to keep their daughters chaste.
During a stay in Geneva, Casanova manages to turn a theological discussion into a lakeside game of doctor with the cousins Hedwig, 22, and Helena, 16. Three days later, the girls have arranged to sneak a night in bed together with him. As Casanova the lover hides in a closet awaiting their arrival, Casanova the memoirist interrupts his narrative to debunk the effectiveness of chaperones.
"In my long career as a libertine, during which my invincible inclination for the fair sex led me to employ every method of seduction, I turned the heads of several hundred women whose charms had overwhelmed my reason; but what was always my best safeguard is that I was always careful not to attack novices, girls whose moral principles or whose prejudices were an obstacle to success, except in the company of another woman. I early learned that what arouses resistance in a young girl, what makes it difficult to seduce her, is lack of courage; whereas when she is with a female friend she gives in quite easily; the weakness of the one brings about the fall of the other. Fathers and mothers believe the contrary, but they are mistaken. They commonly refuse to entrust their daughter to a young man, whether for a ball or a walk; but they yield if the girl has one of her friends as a chaperone. I repeat for their benefit: they are mistaken; for if the young man knows how to go about it their daughter is lost. A false shame prevents both girls alike from offering an absolute resistance to seduction, and as soon as the first step has been taken the fall comes inevitably and quickly. If the friend permits the theft of the slightest favor in order to save herself from blushing, she will be the first to urge her friend to grant a greater one, and if the seducer is skillful the innocent novice will, without realizing it, have gone too far to turn back. Then, too, the more innocent a girl is, the more unacquainted she will be with the methods and the end of seduction. Without her being aware of it, the lure of pleasure draws her on, curiosity enters in, and opportunity does the rest.
6) Never Say Never
Many guys let practical considerations -- women's boyfriends, geographic distance, and suchlike nuisances -- block their way to romance. Casanova, renowned in his day for his breakout from the Inquistion's "escape-proof" Leads Prison, would be appalled at such spiritless surrenders. After all, when he met the greatest love of his life, the mysterious Henriette, she was disguised as a boy and traveling illicitly with an Hungarian army officer; rather than back off, Casanova helps the couple out of a jam and sweet-talks the Hungarian into turning Henriette over to him. And it is the oyster-eating nun M.M who first initiates him as a libertine, at a time when, besides being sequestered in a convent, she is already carrying on an affair with a French ambassador.
In his fighting prime, Casanova even managed once to overcome two apparently "impossible" situations almost simultaneously.
First comes the Greek slave girl Casanova spots while under a 28-day quarantine at Ancona. The Greek girl is free to come and go in a garden beneath the balcony outside his room, and they soon contrive a way to raise half her body through a hole in the balcony's floor. During a third such rendezvous, Casanova is on the verge of pulling her up to him in her entirety when a guard comes up behind him, grabs the naked, hunched-over Casanova by the shoulders, and demands to know what is going on. The slave girl flees, Casanova's quarantine ends the next day, and that looks to be the end of that.
A few months later, after trips to Naples and Rome, Casanova returns to Ancona, where he is introduced to the castrato Bellino. "This anomalous being," he writes, "had some of Donna Lucrezia's features and certain gestures reminiscent of the Marchesa G. The face seemed to me feminine And the masculine attire did not prevent my seeing a certain fullness of bosom, which put it into my head that despite the billing, this must be a girl. In this conviction, I made no resistence to the desires which he aroused in me."
Despite much pleading, Bellino refuses Casanova's advances, and Casanova makes due with one-night dalliances with the castrato's two sisters. Bellino does, however, ask Casanova to let him travel with him to the town of Rimini, where Bellino is scheduled to sing. He agrees, and the day before they are to depart, Casanova decides to host a dinner party for the Spaniard who had introduced him to Bellino. Casanova takes Bellino with him on a walk to the Ancona port, where he buys a small barrel of oysters for that night's party. Their walk soon takes them to a Turkish vessel making ready to sail for Alexandria.
"Scarcely aboard, the first person I see is the beautiful Greek girl whom I had left in the lazaretto at Ancona seven months earlier. She was beside the old captain. I pretend not to see her and ask him if he has any fine merchandise to sell. He takes us to his cabin and opens his closets. I read in the Greek girl's eyes her joy at seeing me again. Nothing that the Turk showed me having suited me, I told him that I would be glad to buy something pretty, such as might please his fairer half. He laughs, she speaks to him in Turkish, and he goes off. She comes running and throws herself on my neck, and, clasping me to her bosom, says: 'Fortune gives us this one moment.' My courage being no less than hers, I sit down, accommodate her to my position, and in less than a minute do what her master had never done to her in five years. I plucked the fruit, and I was eating it; but to swallow it I needed another minute. The poor Greek girl, hearing her master coming back, left my arms and turned her back to me, thus giving me time to set myself to rights without his seeing my disordered state, which could well have cost me my life, or all the money I possessed, to bring to an amicable settlement. What amused me in this really serious situation was to see Bellino struck motionless by surprise and shaking with fear."
Two days later, after one more failed attempt by Casanova to prove Bellino a woman, the two of them leave for Rimini. Overnighting together at an inn en route, Bellino surprises Casanova by agreeing to share his room. They no sooner get into bed together than they begin a lengthy session of lovemaking, during which Casanova's suspicions about Bellino being a woman are finally vindicated.
7) Avoid Marriage
Casanova never did marry, though he did propose marriage several times, including once to Bellino/Teresa. Typically, the proposals were sincere when he was making them, but quickly cast aside once he'd made his conquest, as with the pretty country girl Cristina. Casanova shares a gondola ride with Cristina and her uncle, a priest, who has brought her to Venice on a two-week trip to hunt for a husband. On the ride, Casanova lists the reasons he'd had for rejecting a series of potential wives: One was "intolerably vain," another couldn't give him children, another was "too pious," and others were a know-it-all, gloomy, a prude, had bad breath, and wore makeup. Cristina has none of these faults, and Casanova soon works around to proposing to and seducing her.
"No later than the next day I decided to make Cristina happy without marrying her. I had had the idea when I still loved her more than myself. After I enjoyed her, the scales swung to my side so far that my self-love proved to outweigh the love her charms had inspired in me. I could not bring myself, by marrying, to give up all the hopes which depended on my staying in my state of freedom."
A much less typical proposal is the one the 35-year-old Casanova makes to a beautiful 17-year-old named Leonilda he meets on a trip to Naples after an absence of 18 years. This one he renegs on immediately when he learns that, well, Leonilda is his daughter -- by Donna Lucrezia Castelli. Casanova doesn't marry Leonilda, but the very night Donna Lucrezia startles him with the news that she is their daughter, the three go to bed together:
"... it was Leonilda who undressed her mother, while, after wrapping my hair in a kerchief, I threw my clothes into the middle of the room. She tells her daughter to get into bed beside her.
"'Your father,' she says, 'will confine his attention to your mother.'
"'And I,' she replies, 'will give mine to you both'; and, on the other side of the bed she undresses completely and gets in next to her, saying that as her father I was at liberty to see all my handiwork. Her mother is proud of her, she praises her, and she rejoices to see that I find her beautiful. It sufficed her that she was in the middle and that it was only upon her that I extinguished the fire with which she saw that I was burning. Leonilda's curiosity delighted me to the soul.
"'So is that what you did,' she asked me, 'when you engendered me eighteen years ago?'
"But the moment which leads Lucrezia to the death of love has come, just when, to spare her, I feel it my duty to withdraw. Moved to pity, Leonilda sends her mother's little soul on its flight with one hand and with the other puts a white handkerchief under her gushing father."
8) Caveat Emptor
Love can be dangerous, and sometimes rules are meant to be broken. Avoid marriage? Casanova has some second thoughts on that one himself late in life, as when he pauses here to reflect on a favorite old flame:
"Madame Lebel is one of the ten or twelve women whom I loved the most fondly in my happy youth. She had everything one could ask to make a happy marriage if it had been my destiny to enjoy that felicity. But with my character I may have done well not to bind myself irrevocably, though at my present age my independence is a sort of slavery. If I had married a woman intelligent enough to guide me, to rule me without my feeling that I was ruled, I should have taken good care of my money, I should have had children, and I should not be, as now I am, alone in the world and possessing nothing."
The only things certain about love, Casanova suggests, are its uncertainty, and that anyone pursuing it must be prepared to take the bad with the good.
"What is love? For all that I have read every word that certain self-styled sages have written concerning its nature, for all that I have philosophized on it myself as I have grown older, I will never admit that it is either a trifle or a vanity of vanities. It is a kind of madness over which philosophy has no power; a sickness to which man is prone at every time of life and which is incurable if it strikes in old age. Inexpressible love! God of nature! Bitterness than which nothing is sweeter; sweetness than which nothing is more bitter! Divine monster which can only be defined by paradoxes!"
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