Casanova: the world-class lover who died a second-rate librarian in Bohemia

Giacomo Casanova

So infamous a womanizer was the Italian-born libertine Giacomo Casanova that, a full two centuries after his death, his name remains synonymous with the art of seduction. But if not for the years he spent in the employ of Count Waldstein of Bohemia as a librarian, Casanova, "the world's greatest lover"—-a one-time consort of European royalty, popes and cardinals, and man known to the likes of Voltaire, Goethe and Mozart-—may have been consigned to obscurity. As it was, he barely found the peace to write his memoirs.

"Casanova is buried fourteen steps in front of the church of Saint Barbora, a little bit in the right direction."

RP: To the right: and that's one step for each year he spent here? Is that the symbolism of it?

"Maybe! [laughs] Maybe it is something from the Kabbalah! Some people say he knew a lot about Kabbalah, the Jewish 'black magic' ..."

RP: Like Madonna. The singer. She's a student of it.

"Yeah, yeah." [laughs]

RP: Nevermind.

"But Casanova was better."

Chateau Duchcov  (Dux),  photo: CzechTourism
Jakub Mracek is my guide through the Chateau Duchcov, or Dux as it's known in German, where the "world's greatest lover" spent the last fifth of his life. During his 73 years on this earth, Giacomo Casanova studied for the priesthood, became a Free Mason, an alchemist, a doctor of law, and, most probably a spy for the same Venetian Inquisitors who exiled him from the tiny nation state of his birth.

As my guide Jakub has alluded to, Casanova was also well-versed in the Kabbalah, the mystic interpretation of Jewish law. The legendary Italian libertine dabbled in the occult and was believed by many of his contemporaries - to say nothing of his countless lovers - to possess magical powers.

RP: Is there some mystery about the grave itself?

"No... but about the grave there is some story: The Count of Waldstein made a cross on the grave of Casanova - a very big cross - and because, after the death of Count Waldstein nobody [here] remembered who Casanova was, the grave was very much destroyed after one hundred, two hundred years, and at the beginning of the 20th century it was in a very bad state. And when women went to mass, to church on Sunday, they sometimes damaged their clothes on this very big cross. And so they say that Casanova doesn't leave the women [alone] even after his death."

RP: So, even after his death he can't leave women in peace?


RP: But that cross has now been removed?

"Yes. There is no grave [or even] churchyard there."

RP: So we couldn't see his grave now?


Whether or not Giacomo Casanova had magical powers, we shall never know. But one thing is for certain: Casanova, who took some 116 lovers in his lifetime, by his own reckoning (including at least one nun and his own daughter, Leonilda) died at Chateau Duchcov lamenting his impotence, both literally, in terms of the loss of his sexual prowess, and figuratively, for his inability to improve his station in life.

Casanova's study in Duchcov,  photo: Archive of Radio Prague
"In this corridor, you can see a lot of pictures of towns and cities around the whole of Europe, and Asia, and all these places Casanova visited during his life. For example, Madrid, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Istanbul, Paris, of course, and London, Venice and so on..."

RP: I read that he travelled something like 60,000 kilometres over his lifetime.

"It could be, yes."

For a man who was feted as an adventurer and spent a lifetime travelling - much of it on the run from church and state authorities, and jealous men - Casanova had a rather short commute to work in his final employ, as librarian to the great collection of Count Josef Karl Emmanuel von Waldstein.

Mracek: "He had to go across the yard, through this gate... and upstairs to the tower."

In the year 1785, the Waldstein family library already exceeded some 40,000 titles. But Casanova - as librarian - did little, if anything, to collate or catalogue the dusty volumes. He read a great deal, to be sure, but spent the majority of his time in Bohemia writing letters to his shrinking pool of friends, and philosophising.

Casanova: "I had women, I played, I joined in the fun, I bawled, I scorned and was never slave to my passions, but they gave me pleasure. Of not hiding myself, I made my profession..."

Count Waldstein shared Casanova's love for gambling and magic tricks - but was all too often absent. Isolated for months on end at the Chateau Duchcov, Casanova retreated to the world inside his head.

Casanova: "What pleasure in recording pleasures! But what punishment to bring them to my mind."

While in Bohemia, in hopes of winning fame as a writer and gaining back his fortune, Casanova wrote what is considered to be the first-ever science fiction novel, he also translated Homer's Iliad and Odyssey into Italian, and wrote a mathematical treatise on squaring the cube.

Jakub Mracek: "Casanova's job was to do some system in this huge library, but he did nothing. All the years in Duchcov, he only wrote his books and his correspondence."

Indeed, Casanova's chief occupation was the writing of his memoirs. He spent on average, 13 hours a day in his study at Chateau Duchcov writing the twelve-volume "Histoire de Ma Vie" or "The History of My Life."

Casanova: "I'm a writing my life in order to laugh at myself and I am managing very well. I write 13 hours a day and they fly past like 13 minutes. I am enjoying myself because I invent nothing. What distresses me is the obligation I have at this point to conceal names, since I cannot divulge the affairs of others."

Written in an idiosyncratic Italianate French, it would ensure Casanova in death the fame that had proved so fleeting late in his life. In celebrating his past, Casanova also made up for the drudgery of his daily life in Bohemia. Not a day went by when Waldstein's servants didn't torment him with minor indignities.

Mracek: "The helper of Count Waldstein, he tore some portrait of Casanova from one of his books in the library and used it as toilet paper. He was very unhappy here, of course."

The cook purposely spoiled his meal or served the Italian dandy scalding soup out of malice. Nearly everything was a cause for a quarrel, from the preparation of the morning coffee to the freshness of the milk he took it with, to the macaroni Casanova wanted prepared in the Italian way, but which never was.

A witty conversationalist, Casanova had found himself the odd man out in German-speaking Bohemia.

Jakub Mracek again:

"He spoke five languages: Italian, of course; Latin, Greek, French, and English."

RP: No German?

"No German: he hated the language very much. That's one reason he was very unlucky to be here, because all people around him in Duchcov spoke German."

"Other people - the personnel - in this chateau very much hated him and he was very unhappy here. The personnel could speak only German, so he wasn't very popular."

A man who once dreamed of becoming a priest, Casanova came to delight in seducing the wives and daughters of his benefactors, and had little time for guilt.

Casanova: "Happy are those who--without harming anyone--pursue pleasure, while mindless are the others to imagine that the Supreme Being will be cheered by their suffering and pain and the abstinence they offer up in sacrifice."

While in Bohemia, Casanova was visited by the German poet Goethe and helped Mozart's librettist finish the opera Don Giovanni [Don Juan], ahead of its premiere in Prague, where, in 1791, he also witnessed the coronation of Emperor Leopold II. But there were few such happy occasions during Casanova's fourteen-year stay at Duchcov.

Giacomo Casanova was born into a family of Venetian actors, in April of the year 1725, grew to manhood in the age of The Enlightenment, and was exceptionally tall for that time, standing 1.9 metres, or 6'3". Thanks to his "Histoire de Ma Vie", he became a great chronicler of the social history of the Age of Reason, although he would be remembered--indeed, immortalised--for the naughty bits, for his raging libido.

Casanova died in June of 1798. His last words: "Great god and all witnesses of my death: I lived as a philosopher and die a Christian."

That may well be, but his spirit--or so my guide, Jakub Mracek, tells me --is not at rest.

"In our chateau, we have the spirit of Casanova: so, if you want to see him..."

RP: Casanova's spirit lives here?!

"Yes, of course! He has to write his memoirs because in "Histoire de Ma Vie" he only wrote about 49 years of his life, so...."

The chair upon which Casanova died,  photo: Archive of Radio Prague
RP: Aha. So, it's an unfinished work - he's a restless soul.

"Yes, he must finish it."

RP: So where does he do his work? Presumably - whoa! [secret passageway opens behind a sliding bookcase] That's a surprise - I wasn't expecting that. We now see the man himself. He's got a great Roman nose, I must say, and... he's working in a hidden room. So, this was his secret writing chamber?

"No [laughs]. It's just for visitors to the chateau; it's not original."

RP: So he didn't have a secret chamber?