Who Was Casanova? The Personal Memoir of Historyâs Most Famous Lover Reveals an Intellectual Who Befriended Ben Franklin
Purchased in 2010 for $9.6 million, a new record for a manuscript sale, the original version of Casanovaâs erotic memoir has achieved the status of a French sacred relic. At least, gaining access to its famously risquĂ© pages is now a solemn process, heavy with Old World pomp. After a lengthy correspondence to prove my credentials, I made my way on a drizzly afternoon to the oldest wing of the BibliothĂšque nationale de France in Paris, a grandiose Baroque edifice on rue de Richelieu near the Louvre. Within those hallowed halls, built around a pair of ancien rĂ©gime aristocratic mansions, I waited by marble statues of the greats of French literature, Rousseau, MoliĂšre and Voltaire, before being led through a domed reading room filled with scholars into the private sanctum of the library offices. After traipsing up and down endless stairwells and half-lit corridors, I was eventually seated in a special reading room overlooking a stone courtyard. Here, Marie-Laure PrĂ©vost, the head curator of the manuscript department, ceremoniously presented two black archival boxes on the wooden desk before me.
As I eagerly scanned the elegant, precise script in dark brown ink, however, the air of formality quickly vanished. Madame PrĂ©vost, a lively woman in a gray turtleneck and burgundy jacket, could not resist recounting how the head of the library, Bruno Racine, had traveled to a secret meeting in a Zurich airport transit lounge in 2007 to first glimpse the document, which ran to some 3,700 pages and had been hidden away in private hands since Casanova died in 1798. The French government promptly declared its intention to obtain the legendary pages, although it took some two and a half years before an anonymous benefactor stepped forward to purchase them forÂ la patrie. âThe manuscript was in wonderful condition when it arrived here,â said PrĂ©vost. âThe quality of the paper and the ink is excellent. It could have been written yesterday.
âLook!â She held up one of the pages to the window light, revealing a distinctive watermarkâtwo hearts touching. âWe donât know if Casanova deliberately chose this or it was a happy accident.â
This reverential treatment of the manuscript would have gratified Casanova enormously. When he died, he had no idea whether his magnum opus would even be published. When it finally emerged in 1821 even in a heavily censored version, it was denounced from the pulpit and placed on the Vaticanâs Index of Prohibited Books. By the late 19th century, within this same bastion of French culture, the National Library, several luridly illustrated editions were kept in a special cupboard for illicit books, calledÂ LâEnfer, or the Hell. But today, it seems, Casanova has finally become respectable. In 2011, several of the manuscriptâs pagesâby turns hilarious, ribald, provocative, boastful, self-mocking, philosophical, tender and occasionally still shockingâwere displayed to the public for the first time in Paris, with plans for the exhibition to travel to Venice this year. In another literary first, the library is posting all 3,700 pages online, while a lavish new 12-volume edition is being prepared with Casanovaâs corrections included. A French government commission has anointed the memoir a ânational treasure,â even though Casanova was born in Venice. âFrench was the language of intellectuals in the 18th century and he wanted as wide readership as possible,â said curator Corinne Le BitouzĂ©. âHe lived much of his life in Paris, and loved the French spirit and French literature. There are âItalianismsâ in his style, yes, but his use of the French language was magnificent and revolutionary. It was not academic but alive.â
Itâs quite an accolade for a man who has often been dismissed as a frivolous sexual adventurer, a cad and a wastrel. The flurry of attention surrounding Casanovaâand the astonishing price tag for his workâprovide an opportunity to reassess one of Europeâs most fascinating and misunderstood figures. Casanova himself would have felt this long overdue. âHe would have been surprised to discover that he is remembered first as a great lover,â says Tom Vitelli, a leading American Casanovist, who contributes regularly to the international scholarly journal devoted to the writer,LâIntermĂ©diaire des Casanovistes. âSex was part of his story, but it was incidental to his real literary aims. He only presented his love life because it gave a window onto human nature.â