Not many people get their names stamped on history, but Giacomo Girolamo Casanova wasn't like most people. Born in the hedonistic capital of the world, Casanova adventured his way across Europe for decades, and wherever he went, people remembered his name. But while his playful escapades are the stuff of legends, there was a chilling darkness to this debaucherous figure.
Anyone who knows an actor will tell you, they're a different breed. It should be no surprise, then, that the infamous Casanova's parents made their living on the stage. Gaetano Casanova and Zanetta Farussi ended up having six children, with our Giacomo being the first. If that already sounds like a hectic, eccentric household, just wait until you hear where they lived...
Though Casanova traveled all over Europe, his name is synonymous with one city: Venice. There was no better town for him to call home, either. While Paris was sleek and romantic, London was serious and busy, Venice was about one thing: Partying. Though the ruling class was honestly quite prudish and conservative, they tolerated their city's vices—and raked in the cash hand over fist because of it.
Venice was the pleasure capital of Europe, and young men from all over the continent would make the pilgrimage there to party, gamble, and visit the city's legendary cathouses. In that hothouse of debauchery and sin, Casanova was born.
Though Casanova had a huge family, it wasn't really a happy one. His parents were far more interested in the glamour of the stage than they were in, you know, parenting. They dumped Casanova off with his grandmother while they traipsed off across Europe. Clearly, their kids were not the most important things in their lives.
Casanova resented his parents for their absence—but tragedy struck before he got the chance to tell them.
If you saw the womanizing, gambling, degenerate man Casanova became, you might think, "That guy probably didn't have a strong father figure in his life." Well, you'd be right. His father abandoned him for the road, then went and croaked when Casanova was just eight years old. Then, as if the little rake didn't have enough problems, he began to suffer from chronic nosebleeds.
But don't you worry: His grandmother had a sinister plan to cure him.
You could find all sorts of strange folk on the back streets of Venice in Casanova's day. You could even find a witch. His grandmother brought him through the maze of canals to a small hovel. Just a boy, he entered to find a withered old woman sitting on a pallet. She held a black cat in her hands, and half a dozen more wandered throughout the small room.
Young Casanova couldn't have known it at the time, but that strange old woman was about to change his life.
The witch performed a mysterious incantation over Casanova before applying a pungent salve to his nose. She promised his nosebleeds would trouble him no further. The boy and his grandmother left in awe. Did it really matter that his nosebleeds came back almost immediately? Not to Casanova it didn't. He couldn't care less that the witch's spell hadn't worked; he was completely enthralled by her.
Thus began his lifelong obsessions with magic and the occult—something that would find him in no end of trouble before long.
If Casanova wasn't already lonely enough, it was about to get even worse. A doctor believed Venice's "dense" air caused his nosebleeds, so his family shipped him off to a boarding house on the mainland in Padua. His mother had abandoned him for the road, now she'd essentially kicked him out of the house. Casanova never forgot about it, unable to hide his bitterness even in his memoirs, written decades later.
Certainly, the horrific conditions in the boarding house didn't help matters either...
Casanova was miserable to leave his beloved Venice for a boarding house on the mainland. He was even more miserable when he arrived and saw the squalid building that was meant to be his new home. But here's the thing about Giacomo Casanova: When the going got tough, he found a way to talk himself out of it. His parents had hired a man named Abbé Gozzi as his tutor in Padua.
Casanova begged Gozzi to take him in, and the man fell for his charms hook, line, and sinker. Gozzi's place wasn't a palace, but it was a whole lot better than the boarding house. It was also where Casanova discovered his greatest vice.
I must apologize: Nine facts about Casanova, and I haven't yet mentioned his escapades with the fairer sex. Well, that's about to change. While under Gozzi's care, though only 11 years old, Casanova had his first experience with a woman. However, the disturbing truth about that first tryst highlights the underlying darkness to Casanova's tale.
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In his memoirs, Casanova recalled Gozzi's younger sister Bettina fondling him while he was still just a boy. He'd later look back on that day with delight, and it formed an obsession with Bettina that lasted for his entire life. However, it also might help explain the sinister impulses that hang over Casanova's complicated legacy like a storm cloud.
But those come later. For now, Casanova's guardians tried their best to make an honest, upstanding citizen out of the young man. Clearly, they failed miserably.
Anyone who knew the young Casanova quickly realized that he was brilliant. Gozzi got him into the University of Padua at the age of 12, and he graduated at 17 with a law degree. His family and Gozzi both hoped he was destined for a fine, respectable life as a clerical lawyer. He certainly had the smarts for it. But there's a reason you don't think of "lawyer" when you hear the name Casanova.
The kid was smart, but he learned two important things at university. 1: He absolutely hated the law. 2: He loved gambling. Neither one helped him very much as he grew older...
Casanova's gambling while at school eventually got so bad that his grandmother had to drag him back to Venice to get him away from the negative influence of his fellow students. Unfortunately for her, she was too late. Once Casanova got the gambling bug, he never looked back, and his addiction would see him fluctuate from rags to riches over and over again throughout his life.
So, which would come first?
As a teenager, Casanova found work as a clerical law clerk in Venice while finishing his degree. He was also growing into a young man with a taste for the finer things in life. You definitely wouldn't miss him on the streets, with his tall frame, handsome features, and long hair, carefully powdered, scented, and curled into intricate whorls each morning.
Even as a teen, Casanova was the kind of guy of whom people took notice—and thankfully for him, some of those people had some seriously deep pockets.
If Casanova was good at anything, it was getting people to give him money. He got started during his second stint in Venice, ingratiating himself with a wealthy patron, an elderly senator named Alvise Gasparo Malipiero. Malipero lived in one of the city's finest palaces—and in Venice, that was saying something—and he became fascinated with this quick-witted young dandy.
Malipiero funded many of Casanova's earliest adventures—but his greatest gift was something far more valuable.
From a young age, Casanova had more charm than he knew what to do with, but he was woefully unaccustomed to the intricacies of upper-class Venetian society. He was, after all, merely the son of two bohemian actors. That's where Malipiero came in. Casanova fascinated the old man, and he helped teach this burgeoning libertine about high society.
Casanova became well-versed in fine spirits, gourmet food, and the complicated web of manners and behavior expected among Venice's upper crust. Yet of course, since this is Casanova we're talking about, he managed to screw it all up in the most scandalous way possible.
Like Casanova, the septuagenarian Malipiero enjoyed the company of women—but the old man just couldn't keep up with the young playboy. When the senator caught Casanova fooling around with an actress he himself had his eye on, he flipped out. He kicked both of them out of his palace, and just like that, Casanova had lost his cash cow.
It wasn't even like Casanova had slept with his patron's crush, because he was actually still a virgin at that point. But, wouldn't you know it, that was about to change...
Casanova lost his v-card in the most "Casanova" way imaginable: His first physical experience with a woman...was with two women. And they were sisters, distant relatives of the rich and powerful Grimani family. Though this romp didn't form any lifelong attachments—he still had old Bettina to pine over—it did make him realize one thing. Years later, Casanova wrote that his experience with those two sisters convinced him his purpose in life was to sleep with as many women as possible.
But wait, wasn't he technically a cleric? Aren't those two things kinda...incompatible? The answer, of course, is yes—but don't worry. Scandal would ensure Casanova wasn't a cleric for much longer.
At least Casanova could say he gave the clerical life a decent shot. As a young man, he received some devastating news: His grandmother, the woman who'd raised him, had passed. Hoping to make her proud, Casanova entered a seminary—but he didn't last long. Best intentions or no, Casanova just wasn't cut out for the cloth. His womanizing was bad enough, but ending up behind bars over his gambling debts sealed his fate.
The seminary kicked him out, and Casanova went off in search of his next great adventure.
Being a cleric was maybe the worst profession possible for Casanova. The second worst? Probably military officer—yet he still gave it a shot. However, he didn't enlist out of any sense of patriotism or valor. Nope, he just loved the uniforms. Before he'd even joined up, he found a fine tailor and ordered an extravagant uniform, resplendent with a white coat, blue vest, gilded shoulder knots, a sword, a cane, and a hat with a long ribbon.
Casanova loved the sartorial aspect of the military. The rest? Well...not so much.
Turns out, Casanova found his latest career choice to be dreadfully boring. He ended up stationed at Corfu, but the only moments he didn't hate were when he gambled away his pay playing cards with his fellow officers. Pretty soon, he couldn't take it anymore. He flat out abandoned his post and returned to Venice. He even had an idea for a new career path—one that was definitely more up his alley.
No, Casanova didn't set out to become a gigolo—he wanted to be a professional gambler. There was just one problem. Notice how every time we've mentioned Casanova gambling, he ended up losing all his money? Turns out, the guy couldn't win a bet to save his life. Upon his return to Venice, he almost instantly lost all the money he'd saved up.
But Casanova never made his money by gambling. He made it by schmoozing with rich old men, and that's just what he did next. He reconnected with an old patron, and they even helped him get a new gig—though clearly, the straight and narrow was no longer an option.
Show business was in his blood, so after three failed careers (four if you count gambling), Casanova decided to give it a go. He started performing as a violinist—but don't go picturing him as some rock star. Most people considered musician one of the lowest professions you could have. As Casanova put it, "My profession was not a noble one, but I did not care."
It helped that his fellow musicians were maybe even more depraved than he was. It was only a matter of time before they dragged him right down into the gutter with them.
There's one thing musicians in Casanova's day had in common with those of today: They loved to party. But drinking and women were only one part of the equation. Let's not forget about the pranks. Casanova and his pals spent their nights getting loaded and pulling off any practical jokes they could dream up. This included sending doctors out on false calls or trolling the canals, untying any gondolas they could find and setting them adrift on the currents.
Mischief and merrymaking were the name of the game for Casanova at this point in his life. What he did next, then, must have surprised even him.
Casanova was a lot of things, but "hero" wasn't exactly at the top of the list. Yet, just as he was tiring of his life as a lowly musician, Casanova found himself on a gondola with yet another rich senator. Suddenly, disaster struck. The man suffered a stroke and collapsed. A doctor tried their best, but the senator seemed to be at death's door.
That's when Casanova sprang into action.
Though almost certainly quite wasted—the gondola had departed from a wedding ball—Casanova started barking orders. He ordered men to remove the doctor's ointment and wash the senator's chest with cool water. Did he know what he was doing? Not really. But even in his youth, Casanova could project confidence, so the men listened to him. Then, to everyone's shock, the senator actually recovered!
And just like that, Casanova had found his greatest cash cow yet. The senator invited him into his home and became his lifelong patron. The poor old man had no idea what he was in for...
Casanova's new sugar daddy got him a job working as a law clerk once again, but he still spent most of his time prowling Venice's nightlife. For Casanova, as long as he had the money to keep his pockets, glass, and bed full, you couldn't really get much work out of him. His new patron put up with the increasing scandals—Casanova had saved his life, after all—but he did pull the young man aside and give him a solemn warning.
He allowed Casanova to continue his escapades, but told him that he would pay the price for it one day. Oh, if only he knew how right he was...
With lots of money and no restraints, it wasn't long before Casanova crossed the line. He gained plenty of enemies in this time, and he decided to get back at one of them with his most twisted prank yet. He dug up a freshly buried corpse to scare the man with, and let's just say, it worked a little too well. The remains allegedly terrified the target so much, he became paralyzed and never recovered.
Hijinks like that were getting a little too disturbing for the authorities to put up with much longer—then a new, chilling accusation came out against Casanova.
Around the same time as the ol' corpse prank, a young woman went to the local authorities and accused Casanova of a non-consensual encounter. In Casanova's retelling, the accusation was all a part of a con she was playing on him—though the matter of the willingness of his sexual partners is subject of much debate. Certainly, the authorities took the accusation extremely seriously, and Casanova fled Venice.
Little did he know, he was about to meet his match.
Thus far, nearly all of Casanova's affairs had been fleeting things. When he fled to Parma, he found the last thing he ever expected: A woman who made him feel like a fool. A Frenchwoman we know only as "Henriette" became the most passionate love of his life. She was beautiful, brilliant, and cultured. For the first time, Casanova met a woman he judged his superior—which made it all the more painful when she broke his heart.
You know how we know Henriette was smart? She saw right through Casanova's masks for the depraved rogue that he was. Though she had her fun with him, she realized he was no man to settle down with. She wasn't about to end up in poverty, attached to some degenerate gambler. She snuck around with Casanova for a while, then dropped him like a sack of hammers.
For Casanova, it was the lowest point of his life—but don't you worry. He could sink so much lower.
Men tend to do stupid things after they get dumped, and Casanova was no different. After moping around Venice for a time, he saved up enough money to set off on a grand tour of Europe. His first major stop on the road was Paris—though he made sure to document the increasingly deviant sexual escapades he got up to along the way.
Finally, Casanova made it to France, where he quickly set off down a new, dark path.
In Lyons, France, Casanova discovered Freemasonry, and it was like a match made in heaven. He still loved the occult, dating all the way back to that witch from his childhood. He also loved rich and powerful people whom he could dupe into giving him money. The Freemasons were bursting with both. He quickly rose through the ranks and became a Master Mason.
The Masons helped Casanova infiltrate the upper echelons of French society just like he had back home. But, he was still the same old disaster—he just couldn't help getting into scandal after scandal.
Casanova stayed in France for two years, where he continued to live off wealthy patrons. But, in case you haven't been paying attention, as long as Casanova had money to party, he was going to cross the line sooner or later. Once two years were up, the Parisian authorities knew him well—countless complaints would see to that. They were just waiting for a chance to lock up the lascivious libertine.
Casanova fled Paris with law enforcement hot on his heels, as per usual.
Next, Casanova ended up reuniting with his mother, brother, and sister in Dresden. Family never meant much to him—his lonely childhood made sure of that—but he got on surprisingly well with his kin. He wrote a play and put it on at the Royal Theatre, with his own mother playing the lead role. If his story ended there, we'd have a nice, heartwarming ending perfect for a Hollywood movie.
But life in Dresden was too boring for Casanova. The steamy canals of Venice called him back—and against his better judgment, he listened.
Casanova managed to return to Venice with a clean slate—but he quickly dirtied it up again. Blasphemy, obscenity, adultery, fighting; Casanova's record with law enforcement grew longer with each passing day. He wasn't some cute young teenager anymore. He was a man, and people grew tired of his antics. Pretty soon, those in charge tried to get him off the streets once and for all.
Venetian authorities could put up with a lot, but Casanova, the occultist, philandering, predatory Freemason found their limit. They hired a state spy to dig up any dirt on him. Obviously, the man didn't have to look very hard. Casanova's remarkable streak of evading the law was about to end.
Casanova went to prison for the first time at age 30. That's right; everything we've covered here took place before he'd turned 30. Authorities charged him with affront to religion and common decency, citing his "public outrages" as evidence. They locked him up in the Doge's palace to await sentencing. He sat and prayed that one of his many rich friends might come and save him.
They did not. Five years imprisonment. For a man like Casanova, that was an eternity. And when he first saw his cell, he realized this nightmare was even worse than he'd imagined.
Authorities placed Casanova in solitary confinement. In his estimation, his was "the worst of all the cells." He vividly recalled the bitter darkness, the suffocating heat, and the countless fleas from which he'd find no respite. Had he remained there for the full five years, who knows if he would have survived—but salvation was on the way.
It pays to have friends in high places, and Casanova had a lot of friends. One of his old patrons appealed to the courts and got him moved out of solitary confinement. He gained cellmates, better clothing, better food, even an armchair and a monthly allowance for books. But that wasn't even the best part of this change of scenery. The move also gave Casanova the chance he was waiting for.
What adventurer's life would be complete without a daring prison escape? Casanova found an iron bar on a walk through the grounds and managed to stow it away in his room. He used it to slowly gouge away at his cell's wooden floor for weeks, until he'd finally created a hole big enough to crawl through. But then, just three days before he hoped to escape, his plan went terribly awry.
It usually didn't take long for the roguish Casanova to make people like him, even behind bars. Just as he was preparing his escape, his guards took mercy on him and moved him to a bigger cell with better light and even a view of the city. It was a nice gesture—except that it completely ruined his entire escape. He tried to tell the guards he was happy in his old cell, but to no avail.
But don't worry; Casanova always had a plan B.
Casanova convinced his guards to let him bring his armchair along to his new cell—knowing he'd stashed his iron rod inside. He passed the rod to a neighboring inmate, who used it to break into the ceiling. His partner in crime then gouged a hole in Casanova's cell, hauled him up with him, and the two of them raced to the canals, where they commandeered a gondola and got the heck out of there.
Forced to flee Venice for the second time, Casanova made his way back Paris. There, he planned his greatest scheme yet.
In Paris, Casanova helped found the first-ever state lottery. The plan was brilliant. The consummate salesman, Casanova sold countless tickets. Some of the money went to the winner, some went to the state, and Casanova got the rest. Not only did this make him a rich man once more, the government now had every reason to turn a blind eye to his constant scandals, as long as he was bringing in the cash.
Once again, Casanova was living the high life—and once again, he just couldn't help but screw it up for himself.
If you're as bad at gambling as Casanova, no amount of money will ever be enough. He found himself behind bars over gambling debts once again. He only stayed locked up for four days, but once he got out, he heard that his most powerful patron had a falling out with the king, Louis XV. Casanova was out of money and out of favors—and his enemies smelled blood in the water.
For the most part, Casanova knew when to hold 'em and knew when to fold 'em. Paris was too dangerous, and since he didn't want to end up in another dark, flea-infested cell, he got the heck out of there. He sold all his belongings and fled to Germany. There, he lost that money, and ran away to Switzerland before the authorities caught up with him.
I don't know about you, but all that running sounds exhausting. Well, maybe Casanova thought so too, because his next move must have surprised even him.
In Switzerland, Casanova actually considered becoming—get this—a monk! After several years running from one scandal to the next, maybe Casanova figured it was time to go the safe route. But this latest endeavor lasted exactly as long as you'd expect. After visiting a monastery, Casanova returned to his hotel...where he found a beautiful woman to distract him.
He instantly reverted back to his old, womanizing self and abandoned all plans of a monastic life. And, because he was a man of extremes, he went from almost becoming a monk, straight to the wackiest scam he ever pulled.
Casanova returned to Paris, determined to keep his head low, but he just couldn't help himself. He convinced one of his patrons, the elderly Marquise d'Urfé, that he could use the dark arts to turn her into a young man. I'm not quite sure what he was thinking, though. In the end, the Marquise did not turn into an old man, and she lost all faith in him.
She cut him off, and suddenly, without her money, Paris lost its appeal. He took everything that wasn't nailed down from the Marquise's place and hit the road. Next stop: London town.
Being one of the few places in Europe he hadn't haunted, Casanova set sail for England in 1763, hoping to pull his lottery scam there. But England presented a new problem: He still chased women as doggedly before, but he couldn't actually speak English. So, he came up with a rather unsettling plan to get his fix.
Since he couldn't use the gift of gab to woo women, Casanova tried something else. He put out an ad in the local paper to rent out his apartment. When any young women arrived to inquire, he seduced them. According to his memoirs, he found many lovers this way, including "Miss Pauline," one of his most passionate affairs since Henriette.
But while, as always, his memoirs painted his trysts as consensual, hedonistic affairs, I can't be the only one who thinks the man luring women to his apartment under false pretenses to "seduce" them might not be telling the whole truth...
Catfishing aside, England was not kind to Casanova. His lottery scheme didn't take off, and he quickly gambled through the little funds he'd gathered by selling his patron's stuff. Plus, he was getting older, and just like his old mentor had said, he was starting to pay the price for his scandalous lifestyle. He suffered from lord knows how many venereal diseases, and they were starting to eat away at his once dashing frame.
But not even that could slow Casanova down.
Even ailing as he was, Casanova just kept soldiering on. He ventured from country to country, trying to sell people on his lottery scheme—but he wasn't the handsome, charismatic man he'd once been. Wherever he went, people eventually ran him out of town; be it after a near-fatal duel in Warsaw, or a failed assassination attempt in Spain.
Then finally, the moment he'd been waiting for arrived. He received word that his record had been expunged and that he could return to Venice. After 18 years in exile, Casanova was returning home—but he didn't like what he found when he got there.
At first, Casanova enjoyed what felt like a triumphant return to Venice. He'd spent years writing about his escapades and he'd become a local celebrity. Even the Inquisitors asked him to regale them with the tale of how he'd escaped their prison. But Casanova soon realized that something was...different about Venice. It wasn't the same den of sin that he'd left all those years ago.
Then, as if that wasn't hard enough to take, he received news that broke his heart.
Soon after returning to Venice, Casanova heard of his mother's passing. They'd never been close, but the loss still affected him—however, the worst tragedy was soon to follow. Bettina Gozzi, the woman who'd first introduced him to carnal pleasure all those decades ago, was not long for this world. Casanova rushed to her bedside, where she ended up dying in his arms.
Without Bettina, this already-changed Venice felt even colder. In the years the followed, those close to him couldn't help but notice a change had befallen Casanova—and they didn't like what they saw.
In his 20s, Casanova lit up any room he entered—by age 49, that jovial young man was gone. Smallpox scars and sunken cheeks marred his once handsome face. Venereal diseases left him weak as a kitten. He no longer had the money for gambling, and couldn't charm his way through glamourous parties anymore. He became irritable and strange; one friend described him as having a "ferocious air."
He'd spent years wishing nothing more than to return to his beloved Venice, but now, he couldn't leave fast enough. He couldn't possibly have realized it, but he'd never see his home again.
Casanova spent his final years in Bohemia (modern-day Czech Republic), at yet another patron's castle. However, he felt as miserable there as he had in Venice. His new patron was even stranger than he, often refusing to speak to him for days at a time. The locals also couldn't stand this grotesque, paranoid Italian who'd invaded their castle. However, no matter how miserable he was, he had nowhere else to go.
By some miracle, Casanova made it to age 73, warts and all (pun intended). The raucous days of his youth had long since ended, and he had faded from public memory. He passed in such obscurity that we still have no idea where his grave is. All that remained of his scandalous youth were his memoirs and the hearts he broke along the way.
Sex wasn't just a passion for Casanova, it was a full-on sport. Just sleeping with someone wasn't enough for him—he needed the drama. Like an 18th century version of the D.E.N.N.I.S. system, he perfected a formula for his ideal affair: Act I: Find a beautiful woman with a jealous lover. Act II: Play the hero, save her from the brute, and seduce her. Act III: Get bored with her and set her up with another man; maybe even the one she'd been with in the first place. Act IV: Skip town, and start again.
OK, that sounds a little too...detailed to be totally normal—and it gets a whole lot worse than that.
In Casanova's writings, he always paints his lovers as willing, but the truth is almost certainly much darker. For starters, he almost exclusively targeted young, insecure, and emotionally vulnerable women, telling them anything they wanted to hear if it meant they would sleep with him. He and a group of men also certainly assaulted one woman at Carnival, though Casanova had the sheer arrogance to proclaim their victim was willing.
Throughout his life, Casanova preferred younger women. While many of the stories about him portray these relationships as consensual and romantic, the truth is far more disturbing. In St. Petersburg, at 40 years old, he purchased a 12-year-old girl as his slave. 10 years later, he assaulted the daughter of one of his former lovers.
Today, "Casanova" may imply a great lover of women, but the real man himself, for all his charm and bravado, was a predator, plain and simple.
Unsurprisingly, Casanova fathered too many illegitimate children to keep count. This got dangerous in 1761, when (so he claims) he almost took a woman named Leonilda as his mistress. Just before he brought her into his bedroom, he found out that she was actually his daughter, and pulled back from the affair. But the worst wasn't over.
Years later, Casanova visited them again, Leonilda's mother revealed that their daughter had married, yet her husband couldn't have children. That's when she made a shocking request: She begged Casanova to impregnate his own daughter—and he actually did it. That's right, if we are to believe his writings, Casanova fathered his own grandson.
My mom never told me how her best friend died. Years later, I was using her phone when I made an utterly chilling discovery.
Madame de Pompadour was the alluring chief mistress of King Louis XV, but few people know her dark history—or the chilling secret shared by her and Louis.
I tried to get my ex-wife served with divorce papers. I knew that she was going to take it badly, but I had no idea about the insane lengths she would go to just to get revenge and mess with my life.
Catherine of Aragon is now infamous as King Henry VIII’s rejected queen—but few people know her even darker history.
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