In a contest for the title of the world’s most notorious seducer, Casanova and Don Juan would easily come out on top. The difference between the two is that Casanova was a real person, not a myth.
When he was old and penniless, he was grateful for being offered the job of librarian at the remote castle of Dux in Bohemia. That’s where he wrote his memoirs -- 3,700 pages in elegant French.
They are the main attraction of an exhibition at the National Library in Paris and the first opportunity for the general public to have a look at the legendary manuscript. The library acquired it last year from the family of the German publisher Brockhaus for a cool 7.25 million euros ($9.8 million).
Friedrich Arnold Brockhaus, the founder of the publishing house, had bought “L’Histoire de ma Vie” in 1821 from Casanova’s nephew yet could never bring himself to print it in its entirety. Up to 1960, it appeared only in bowdlerized versions.
The first unexpurgated English translation came out, in six double volumes, in 1997.
To organize a show around the manuscript sounds easier than it is. Giacomo Casanova (1725-98) was real enough, yet his autobiography is a mix of fact and fiction.
Did the “Napoleon of Fornication,” as one admirer dubbed him, really bed the 132 women he mentions by name or by their initials? Did he really chat with Voltaire for a full day about the great questions of the time, as he claims?
Did he really organize a lottery for the benefit of the Paris Ecole Militaire? And did he really help his Venetian compatriot Lorenzo da Ponte write the libretto of Mozart’s opera “Don Giovanni”?
Independent sources confirming Casanova’s claims are practically non-existent. His credibility is undermined by his constant troubles with the law: Seven cities expelled him because of card-game cheating, document forgery and bounced bills.
Chevalier de Seingalt, the aristocratic name by which he traveled across Europe, was his own invention.
“The alphabet belongs to all of us,” he tartly replied when a curious official questioned him. “I picked eight letters and shuffled them around until the word Seingalt emerged.”
Confronted with that dilemma, the organizers have done what most of Casanova’s biographers did: They’ve taken the story of his life at face value. Don’t expect documentary evidence of his exploits. What you get instead is a portrayal of manners and morals in 18th-century Europe.
The first three rooms (out of 10) are devoted to Venice, where Casanova was born into a family of actors. He briefly considered a clerical or military career before he decided that neither was for him.
Next to Francesco Guardi’s vistas and Pietro Longhi’s gently satirical genre scenes, you find portraits of ladies who may or may not have fallen for the youthful Lothario.
You also discover the first edition, published 30 years after the fact, of his “History of my Escape From the Prisons of the Republic of Venice” -- a feat that made him famous.
From there, we move to Paris where Casanova continued to dabble in the occult practices that had provoked the ire of the Venetian authorities.
In the credulous Marquise d’Urfe, he found a rich benefactor who subsidized his social life, his gambling and financial operations.
The last rooms follow the increasingly frantic travels of the aging roue, illustrating them with lurid engravings by Francisco Goya and William Hogarth.
Casanova was by no means the only adventurer who roamed the European courts.
The show includes portraits of the Comte de Saint-Germain, who claimed to be 2,000 years old and peddled an elixir of life; the alchemist Cagliostro, who was involved in the necklace affair that ruined Marie Antoinette’s reputation; and the Chevalier d’Eon, a secret agent who spent most of his life in female dress.
The exhibition ends on a positive note with the manuscript of “Don Giovanni” and the hero’s toast to freedom: “Viva la liberta!”
“Casanova: La Passion de la Liberte” runs at the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Site Francois Mitterrand, through Feb. 19, 2012. Information: http://www.bnf.fr.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)