British biographer and cultural correspondent Kelly (Beau Brummell, 2006, etc.) fleshes out the complex 18th-century Venetian—principally known and caricatured as a serial seducer—as a significant intellectual chronicler of his age.
No biographer who takes on Giacomo Casanova (1725–1798) can avoid covering the vast amount of boudoir and biological specifics the subject was only too eager to document. Kelly does not shrink from the task, but he consistently strives to put these aspects of Casanova’s character within a larger context. Not just a great lover, but a writer, diplomat and philosopher, Casanova authored more than 40 books. Certainly, the man got around as did few in his time, and rubbed shoulders (and thighs) with the great and near great. His keen eye for their mores, predilections, virtues and vices resulted in a unique cultural record of an era that the French Revolution would bring violently to a close. Noting that he undoubtedly had friends as well as lovers who went to the guillotine during the Terror, Kelly notes, “In this new testament for the modern world, Giacomo Casanova cast himself as messiah and lead actor, lover, sex-god and principal protagonist but also as lead fall-guy, comedian, fraudster, grifter and dupe.” Born to a popular actress (and probably not fathered by her husband), Casanova grew to need the rich and the titled because he was neither, yet he always felt destined for the undeserved lifestyle he largely enjoyed. Kelly acknowledges the inaccuracies and exaggerations that populate Casanova’s memoirs—thousands of extant manuscript pages were not sorted and published in French (the language he chose to write in) until 1960. The author adds that historians eventually corroborated much that critics initially disputed.
Kelly’s immersion in the Casanova story pays off handsomely.