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20May

Adventurer by Leo Damrosch review – a post-MeToo biography of Casanova

The self-deceptions of a dangerous groomer unravel in a portrait that reassesses his life and writings

Giacomo Casanova, that serial seducer of Enlightenment Europe, liked to think of himself as providing a social service. Whether it was romping in a gondola, or making out with two women at the same time (sisters were good, mothers and daughters even better) or getting it on with a girl who was passing herself off as a castrato (cross-dressing excited him), he insisted on the right of everyone involved to experience pleasure. According to Histoire de Ma Vie, the monumental and hugely priapic autobiography that he left behind at his death in 1798, Casanova very seldom resorted to violence or coercion. The worst thing that any partner might complain of was a certain post-coital tristesse which lasted only until the next sexual encounter arrived to chase it away.

Veteran biographer Leo Damrosch knows just how dodgily self-deceiving all this sounds. It is hard to see how an adult man who often slept with very young girls (10 was the legal age of consent) could be read today as anything other than a paedophile. Casanova’s insistence that everything was consensual overlooks, or over-writes, the brutal power dynamics in play. While he didn’t generally sleep with sex workers, he often slept with girls who were being prostituted by their parents or their protectors in return for favours, promotion, social advantage or even just a heavy purse. Venereal disease – he refused to use a condom or, as he put it, “envelop myself in a dead skin” – was not just a hazard but could, on occasions, be weaponised. And when the inevitable happened and Casanova did sire children, he was careful to have nothing to do with them. On one occasion he ended up sleeping with his daughter Leonilda, who produced a baby boy who was, of course, also his grandson.

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