Arts + Culture

Contemplating Casanova: International scholars explore the man and his myth with renewed focus

UCLA’s Center for 17th and 18th Century Studies is hosting a conference on one of history’s most notorious playboys

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Anton Raphael Mengs (1728–1779), Portrait of Giacomo Casanova, 1760. Federico Fellini and Donald Sutherland on the set of Fellini’s Casanova.
UCLA Clark Library
Anton Raphael Mengs (1728–1779), Portrait of Giacomo Casanova, 1760. Federico Fellini and Donald Sutherland on the set of Fellini’s Casanova.

The name Casanova immediately conjures images of a womanizer, and the real-life Giacomo Casanova certainly fit that description in his lifetime (1725-1798). But there was more to him than his sexual exploits. Recently revived study into his life and personal writings provides a unique window into the Age of Enlightenment for modern academics.

Historians and literary scholars from the United States, France, and Italy are gathering Jan. 22-23 at UCLA to reconsider the enduring myth of one of history’s most notorious characters. The conference is open to the campus community with RSVP.

This weekend’s event being held at Royce Hall Room 314 is the first U.S. conference devoted to the fascinating figure since 1992, said Malina Stefanovska, professor in the department of French and Francophone Studies at UCLA.

Scholars from around the world and across disciplines have been re-examining Casanova’s life due to the fact that the original manuscript — what remains of it — of his 12-volume memoir was acquired in 2010 by France’s Bibliothèque nationale. The French National Library made the documents available more publicly as part of an exhibition on Casanova and his times. New published editions of his writings are also emerging.

In the centuries since his death, Casanova’s memoir had been held in a private collection and multiple scholarly translations over the years have trimmed and often watered down some of the content of his original writing, Stefanovska said.

The increased access to Casanova’s original manuscript not only allows insight into a very lively and detailed first-hand account of his adventurous and licentious life story, but also enthrones him as a francophone writer, she said, an interesting new distinction given his Italian-Venetian heritage.

“His memoirs are very well written,” Stefanovska said. “Until recently his myth as the seducer had eclipsed his merit as an author. But is a fascinating text that gives you a glimpse at the entirety of one particular human life, an eccentric, definitely libertine one, but not just that — it is a vision of an 18 th century person in its fullest sense.”

This weekend’s conference will explore multiple facets of the building of the Casanova myth, the impact he had on the European societies he attempted to infiltrate (to varying degrees of success), and the enduring archetype he inspired.

Throughout his life, Casanova sought fame and attempted to launch himself into a higher social stratosphere. He was a renowned playboy, certainly, Stefanovska said. But he was also a prolific adventurer and traveler, often a gambler and con man, but also a man who embodied many abounding themes of the Age of Enlightenment. He was a robust networker and personally knew many of the bankers and politicians of his times. His written accounts of those relationships are invaluable to anyone studying the 18th century, Stefanovska said. Casanova mostly fell short in his pursuit of fame and fortune and died notorious and largely penniless at the age of 73 in what is now the Czech Republic.

“Casanova wrote his text knowing that he would die before it would be published,” Stevanovska said. “He sensed that this would be his ticket to fame, posthumously. He was not a good man, his life was definitely very checkered, but it is very interesting to look at him as a representative of his times, to look at him as one individual consciousness representing the 18th century in all its contradictions.”

Participating scholars are coming from Université Paris-Sorbonne, Università di Bologna, California State University, Long Beach, University of Montana, Troy University, Brown University and more. The conference was organized by Stefanovska and Thomas Harrison, professor and Chair of the UCLA Department of Italian. It is co-sponsored by the UCLA departments of French and Francophone Studies and Italian.

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