Naples:life,death &
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ErN 59, entry Oct 2008, rev. Oct 2010     

asanova in Naples

In 1761 Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798), the Venetian author, adventurer, and eponym of lascivious behavior (I lost out again in the awards this year!), returned to Naples after an absence of 18 years. He describes this episode in The History of My Life, memoirs he started in 1789. They weren’t published until after his death. Various editions have been so tampered with that the old standard 1894 Arthur Machen English translation is not a good choice since he was working from corrupted versions, but, on the other hand, it’s free!

Briefly, Casanova meets his old buddy, the Duke. They spend hours and days talking, reminiscing, playing cards and going to San Carlo. The Duke has a “mistress,” 17-year-old Leonilda, but she is a mistress in name only. The Duke is impotent and for that reason the girl’s mother has made the safe arrangement to entrust her daughter to him; as her guardian, he will see that the young woman is properly introduced into society. Leonilda gets Casanova's attention early on:

The seductive features of this charming girl were not altogether unknown to me, but I could not recall the woman she reminded me of. Leonilda was certainly a beauty…She had splendid light chestnut hair, and her black and brilliant eyes, shaded by thick lashes, seemed to hear and speak at the same time. But what ravished me still more was her expression, and the exquisite appropriateness of the gestures with which she accompanied what she was saying.

Casanova's memoirs contain a number of episodes of bawdy humor —in a high school locker room sort of way. In one such scene, he, the duke and young Leonilda are sitting around a table. Casanova is kissing the young woman’s hand, all the while becoming more and more aroused; Impotent Duke is getting his vicarious jollies by fondling Casanova under the table. At a certain point, Casanova “sprinkles” on the duke’s hand, and they both have a hearty laugh over it. Real funny stuff. It gets even funnier. Casanova decides he wants to marry Leonilda. She consents and takes Casanova home to meet Mother. Heeellloo! —now he remembers why the girl looked familiar!

As soon as the mother saw me she screamed and fell nearly fainting on a chair. I looked at her fixedly for a minute and exclaimed,—

"Donna Lucrezia! I am fortunate indeed!"

"Let’s catch our breath, my dear friend. Come and sit by me. So you are going to marry my daughter, are you?"

I took a chair and guessed it all. My hair stood on end, and I relapsed into a gloomy silence.

Donna Lucrezia is Casanova’s old flame from 18 years earlier and, of course, the young girl he wants to marry turns out to be his own daughter. Now, that might be the end of a standard Neapolitan comic opera. Ho-ho, whew! That was close! He almost… Then everybody goes home vaguely titillated and disappointed but having had a good time. Not quite. Some passages outraged censors of the day:

As we were going away the duke made several observations on what moral philosophers call prejudices. There is no philosopher who would maintain…that the union of a father and daughter is horrible naturally, for it is entirely a social prejudice…

At this point, you wonder if there weren’t enough inbred, moronic members of royal families in Europe in 1760 for Casanova to have noticed the link between “inbred” and “moronic.” (Casanova had just met the child-king of Naples at the opera, Ferdinand IV, a prime example, the best of a litter of 16, one day to be infamous as the idiotic Re Lazzarone, the Beggar King, one of the worst monarchs in European history.)

In any event, the story continues in a very non-Comic Opera vein. Since Casanova can’t marry his own daughter, Leonilda, he re-falls in love with her mother. The plot thickens:

A moment later the door opened, and Leonilda laughed heartily to see her mother in my arms, and threw herself upon us, covering us with kisses. The duke came in a little later, and we supped together very merrily. He thought me the happiest of men when I told him I was going to pass the night honourably with my wife and daughter...but here I must draw a veil over the most voluptuous night I have ever spent. If I told all I should wound chaste ears…all the phrases of the poet could not do justice to the delirium of pleasure, the ecstasy, and the license which passed during that night…We were scarcely dressed when the duke arrived. Leonilda gave him a vivid description of our nocturnal labours…

Casanova leaves for Rome the next day after saying farewell to his friend, the duke,

…The poor nobleman, whom fortune had favoured, and whom nature had deprived of the sweetest of all enjoyments, came with me to the door of my carriage and I went on my way.

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