As any traveler knows, there's nothing like insider tips from a local to unlock a city's secrets. So when I was heading to Venice, I carried a package the weight of an anvil — all twelve volumes of Casanova's notorious sex memoir, The Story of My Life, whose pages brim with a native son's insights into his illustrious home town.
Consider his thoughts on accommodation. In the winter of 1753, Giacomo Casanova, then an insatiable 28-year-old, needed a short-term rental in central Venice where he could entertain a ravishing young nun he identifies as "M.M." (Her real name, historians have discerned, was almost certainly Marina Morosini). Like many other aristocratic girls in Venice, M.M. had been sent to a convent by her family so they could avoid paying a marriage dowry, and she chafed at her fate. With golden hair that hung down to her knees, winsome blue eyes, alabaster skin "so white that it verged on pallor" and "two superb rows of teeth," this enterprising Bride of Christ had made the first advance, according to Casanova, by dropping him a love note after a church service on the island of Murano. Several furtive meetings followed, where the pair agreed it would be safer to tryst in the heart of Venice.
A common inn was out of the question. Casanova wanted private rooms. Specifically, he required a casino—one of the city's secretive apartments designed for the pursuit of "love, good food, and the joys of the senses." He scoured the winding alleyways inspecting the options, before deciding on the most sumptuous and expensive of all, near the theater of San Moisé by St Mark's Square. It had five rooms, including an octagonal boudoir with mirrors on the ceiling, white marble fireplaces and porcelain tiles from the Orient that depicted an athletic array of erotic positions. The extravagant price included a chef, who would deliver meals ("game, sturgeon, truffles, oysters, and perfect wine") from the kitchen via a revolving dumb-waiter, so the occupants and their guests could keep their identities hidden.
Casanova's choice, it transpired, was a great success. On the appointed evening, M.M. slipped from her island convent — a feat that evidently was not over-difficult — and was escorted in a gondola to San Marco by her first lover, a mature French ambassador named Joachim de Bernis, who graciously encouraged the adventure. For safety, M.M. had disguised herself as a boy, wearing black satin breaches and a pink waistcoat embroidered with gold thread; her long blonde hair was plaited down her back. The androgyny only increased Casanova's desire when the group met in the Campo dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo behind a famous equestrian statue. Thanking the ambassador for his broad-mindedness, Casanova and M.M. retired to the five-star casino, where a candlelit feast duly materialized. The 22-year-old novice, Casanova fondly recounts in the second volume of his memoir, "was astonished to find herself receptive to so much pleasure, for I showed her many things she had considered fictions… and I taught her that the slightest constraint spoils the greatest pleasures."
The pair met regularly for months, swapping oysters in their mouths then making love while M.M.'s older consort, the French ambassador, spied on them through a peephole. Eventually, the ambassador was invited for ménages à trois, then later à quatre when another young nun, "C.C." (Caterina Capretta), joined in.
Naturally, I became fixated on lodging us in a former casino. I was traveling across Western Europe, visiting salacious historical sites from Parisian brothels to the Marquis de Sade's castle, and for good measure had lured along my wife and two young boys. The experience had been edifying but also, frankly, grueling, so a sensual and luxury refuge was in order. Unfortunately, like Casanova, I couldn't actually afford it. But as Giacomo must also have decided, Venice has never been a city for half measures.
The island republic has always held a place of honor in Europe's erotic imagination. In the 18th century, the whole baroque city qualified as a red-light district, and travelers flocked here to cruise the canals with powdered courtesans and taut gondoliers, gamble in the luxury parlors and recover in the Turkish baths. No figure sums up the era's hedonistic frenzy more than Giacomo Girolamo Casanova, the ultimate, well, "Casanova," who cut a swathe through an apparently willing female population. The son of two poor actors, he used his wit, charm and joie to vivre to make himself a sought-after companion in the highest courts of Europe, hobnobbing with the likes of Voltaire, Goethe, Catherine the Great and Ben Franklin. But it was his rollicking sex memoir, written when he was in his sixties, that has ensured Casanova's immortality.
The innocuously-named Story of My Life would also, I hoped, serve as my guidebook to Venice's secrets. Although an inveterate traveler, Casanova was obsessed with his home city, and the memoir teems with asides and observations. Being a serious fan of Giacomo, I hoped that if I followed his literary path, I might be connected, if only momentarily, to the city's past magic — a notoriously difficult feat. After all, no other city in Europe is so physically intact. A few guard railings have been installed on the canals, and the gondolas are no longer crowned with curtained leather booths, where lovers could withdraw for privacy as they floated through the city. But otherwise, Venice looks much the same as it did when Casanova saw M.M. shed her nun's habit.
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