cover image Adventurer: The Life and Times of Giacomo Casanova

Adventurer: The Life and Times of Giacomo Casanova

Leo Damrosch. Yale Univ., $35 (432p) ISBN 978-0-300-24828-9

Harvard literature professor Damrosch (The Club) takes an evenhanded look at 18th-century Italian libertine Giacomo Casanova in this scrupulous biography. Drawing largely from Casanova’s embellished autobiography, Histoire de Ma Vie, Damrosch corrects the record when historical documentation proves that the unreliable narrator offered confused timelines or impossible events. He details Casanova’s relentless pursuit of pleasure, including gambling for income and the “thrills of risk-taking,” as well as spending fortunes on fine clothing, women, and alcohol, but also alleges that his subject was a con man who used magic and mathematical tricks to part wealthy marks from their money. Most disturbingly, Damrosch contends that Casanova (and others of his era) targeted prepubescent and young teenage girls for sexual conquests, often with the complicity of their mothers. Though he largely avoids gratuitousness in recounting Casanova’s sexual exploits, Damrosch’s claim that Casanova wasn’t interested in homoerotic experiences isn’t entirely convincing. Even if Damrosch succeeds in picking apart the mythology that has cast Casanova as a charming seducer rather than a predator, his enigmatic subject remains somewhat elusive. Still, this is an eye-opening and well-informed study of an “extraordinary character” in all his darkness and brilliance. (May)