Published: October 17, 2017
By James D. Balestrieri
FORT WORTH, TEXAS – Giacomo – Jacques when he was in France – Casanova (1725-1708), Chevalier de Seingalt, was really just Giacomo Casanova. Chevalier de Seingalt was his idea, an a.k.a. that sounded noble and signified nothing. To us, he is Casanova, that Casanova, Don Juan and Don Giovanni come to life. Libertine, adventurer and man about Europe – and Russia and Turkey – Casanova, the real Casanova, is one of those key characters in history who reveals an era as it is passing, after it has passed. Casanova’s Memoirs, written when he was an old man, a librarian in the provincial – how he would have hated that word – court of Duchow (Dux) in Bohemia, chronicled the frenzied, oblivious end of the dazzling rococo world of Versailles and of the other great capitals of Europe as they were about to give way to revolutionary impulses that ripple out to our time.
A museum exhibition of the kinds of artworks, fashions and furnishings that Casanova would have seen as he moved through Europe, from high society to humble circumstances and back again, is a superb idea. “Casanova: The Seduction of Europe,” organized by the Kimbell Art Museum, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston does not disappoint.
I readily admit that Casanova has fascinated me for more than 30 years. My introduction to the Memoirs grew out of a graduate school interest in Eighteenth Century autobiography. Through the memoirs of Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, I learned that Casanova helped reshape a few scenes in Don Giovanni. So Casanova, the real “amorous adventurer,” as cultural essayist Paul Zweig called him, was not only aware of the mythical, fictional libertine Don Giovanni (Don Juan), he actively assisted in creating the most famous incarnation of the character. Seeing Don Giovanni, as the exhibition catalog suggests, had a profound effect on the aging rake, and may have inspired (frightened?) Casanova to embark on his Memoirs, not so much to excuse his life, but to discover whether there was any face beneath the serial masks he fashioned, used, discarded and reshaped. Casanova wrote to find out whether he was, or ever had been, anybody, any discernible self.
Casanova was born in Venice. His mother was an actress, married to an actor named Casanova, but the boy’s actual father was probably a member of the Grimani family, one of the noble families of the prosperous maritime city-state. Intended for the priesthood, Casanova found himself called instead to the flesh, had a splendid uniform made for himself and, by chance (which might be the subtitle for his life) saved – ostensibly – the life of a Venetian nobleman who then took him in and sent him on his way across the shifting sands of European society. Casanova was a foreign emissary, spy, creator of lotteries for the French government and others, textile entrepreneur, flimflam man and a lover who was always in love with someone, but never for too long.
Along the way, Casanova, amazingly, found plenty of time to write, translating the Iliad into heroic Italian ottava rima verse, writing a ponderous and strange sci-fi novel, Icosameron, and, of course, the 12 volumes of the Memoirs (read the Trask translation if you have interest; the others are all heavily censored).
Like a shrewd, calculating version of Zelig or Forrest Gump, Casanova was everywhere. Wearing heavy brocade, proffering ornate snuffboxes, eating off heavily ornamented table services, Casanova met and conversed with the likes of Voltaire and d’Alembert, Catherine the Great and Frederick II of Prussia, Samuel Johnson, Madame de Pompadour, Benjamin Franklin, the Spanish court castrato Farinelli and literally scores of monarchs, luminaries, artists, composers, writers and celebrities.
And it was a celebrity culture, one we would recognize, where sheer nerve, a silver tongue and a stream of hollow promises could open the highest doors. Casanova’s own tale of his famous escape from the prison at the top of the Doge’s Palace in Venice, a true story he never told in less than two well-rehearsed hours, often led to invitations, gifts and positions at court. But he himself was at times undone, sometimes by his own hubris, though more typically at the hands of a woman – and Casanova had many female counterparts – who could match him wile for wile and guile with guile.
It could not last, this strange fairy world, because it was surrounded by the privation of the masses and contained, within its gilded wholeness, its monadistic culture, a hypocritical core of darkness that writers like Voltaire and Rousseau saw and wrote about and knew could not last. Something of this is in the art of Casanova’s fellow Venetians, Tiepolo and Canaletto.
In Venice, city of masquerades – of masked balls, masked Mardi Gras, masks of the commedia dell’arte – the first families tried to preserve a crumbling hierarchy by wearing masks when mixing with merchants and the working and lower classes. Canaletto’s precise cityscapes – “Bacino di San Marco, Venice” is an excellent example – show how urbanization and the rise of a hardworking mercantile class was breaking down barriers with trade and commerce. Tiepolo’s paintings “Charlatan” and “Time Unveiling Truth” blur the distinctions between theater and life, between mythology and history. Behind the sexual and social freedoms implied in libertinage, the rococo ormolu clock is ticking and the thin veneer of the mask is no match for social and economic upheaval.
Even as history marched on, the paintings, furnishings, fashions and manners of Casanova’s era were iced and gilded – frozen in time and place. To own these things (or rent them, as Casanova often did, including manners) and present them to influential people and at lavish parties was to project taste and refinement. In a cohesive, comprehensive culture surrounding an emptiness of tentative, provisional morality, this was the only way to compete. Your seductive power play had to outdo the last seductive power play. In such a milieu, art, as the exhibition rightly avers, is a means rather than an end, props for a stage set in an unending theatrical battle to win favor, open a purse or secure an assignation.
Consider the seven mythological panels by Francois Boucher gathered in the exhibition – a real coup, and the thematic heart of the exhibition. Though Ovid’s Metamorphoses would seem to be a more apt classical text for a protean age, and often inspired artworks of the period, Boucher’s interpretation of “Juno Asking Aeolus to Release the Winds” comes from Virgil’s Aeneid. The entire scene is fraught with folds. Garments, clouds, flesh: everything is agitated, contorted and in motion – unstable, shifting, suggestive of the myth’s schemes and counterschemes. The poor winds, terrified children chained in a dark cave, are at the mercy of capricious gods. It is all a high stakes game, and yet, taken as a whole, the painting is utterly beautiful.
The rococo marks the beginning of modernity, of the separation of inner and outer life, of the suspicion that there is no inner life, only layers of appearance whose origins are lost to us. No wonder it is also the great era of scientific classification, of encyclopedias, of the drawing up of categories. Life, like art, is artifice. We cannot know what things are, so we really have to know where they go, where they belong – so we know where we belong. Romanticism is only one small step beyond Casanova’s world, the last world before the inner life takes on a life of its own, when psychology becomes a discipline and a cultural preoccupation, at least in the West.
Casanova, the lover who could not love, the con man whose ultimate mark was himself, spares no one in his Memoirs. Living by the motto that if nobody is anybody then I can be anybody I want – if I can pull it off – Casanova sought to stand out in order to fit in and then to stand out again, elsewhere, somewhere better – or at least, somewhere where no one was onto him – and then to devote himself to fitting in there. Houdon’s masterful bust of “Voltaire,” carved in 1778, 11 years before the Bastille and the guillotine, takes it all in. Just imagine if marble could shake its head and laugh.
My own fascination with Casanova as a fulcrum figure in history can be summed up in the old paradox of the man who says he never tells the truth. If he never tells the truth, then he cannot be telling the truth about never telling the truth, can he? But “Casanova: The Seduction of Europe,” rising out of the old libertine’s confessional Memoirs, does tell the truth about the floridly untruthful age he moved through, an age that tells another truth, a deep, abiding truth about the nature of the human animal, and desire.
“Casanova: The Seduction of Europe” continues at the Kimbell Art Museum through December 31. The museum is at 3333 Camp Bowie Boulevard. For more information, 817-332-8451 or www.kimbellart.org.
Playwright, author and critic Jim Balestrieri is director of J.N. Bartfield Galleries in New York.
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