Libertine, Libertarian, librarian

As promised this week we will return to our two remaining famous librarians. The sex obsessed, commitment-phobic poet will come next week as this week we concentrate on Casanova

According to Ian Kelly, one of his biographers, Giacomo Casanova was, a libertine and a libertarian unfortunately the biographer failed to complete a much more satisfying piece of alliteration by adding that Casanova was also a librarian. Casanova is invariably one of the names routinely trotted out as a rather cack-handed illustration of how interesting librarians can really be and he is the kind of iconic figure that needs no introduction. Almost everyone knows the name and what the name signifies in terms of personal achievements. Any man who has the inclination and time, not to mention the stamina, to indulge in sexual relations with more than a small handful of other people would once automatically be branded a Casanova.

Although the fact that Casanova was a librarian is well known to the people who matter, people like other librarians, pub quiz nerds and compilers of newspaper articles mocking librarians, surprisingly it has not been used by the library profession to try and counter the rather dowdy, sexless and dull image to which I alluded in the previous post. This is partly, I presume, because in the interests of gender balance and a desire to attract women the ad agency would have to come up with a companion female version of Casanova and there are possibly not many examples of women who combined a rampant sex life with a day job at the local branch library. It may also be because even if they did find such a woman she would almost certainly not be treated with the respect verging on admiration generally afforded to men with a Casanova reputation. Women get called altogether less flattering names and this would rather defeat the object of the recruiting exercise. More of a reason is probably that Casanova didn’t actually take up the post of librarian until he had pretty much given up on his philandering on account, presumably, of running out of steam or whatever it is you run out of when you are a Casanova. There will no doubt be recruitment campaigns less successful than the one with the strap line “Shag as many people as you like and then get a job in libraries” but it’s difficult to imagine what they might be at the moment.

Casanova’s dominate image is something of a shame, not only because it completely ignores his library pedigree, but more upsetting for Casanova’s legacy it completely obscures all the other significant achievements of his fascinating life. He trained as a priest but was at various times a soldier, a spy, a diplomat and a musician. He amassed fortunes only to lose them again, he was a gambler who helped set up state lotteries which may or may not be related to the previous point; he wrote more than 40 books as well as the large memoir on which much of his reputation is now based, he translated Homer and even had a hand in the libretto for Mozart’s Don Giovanni. I am sure that Casanova would have shared the frustration of many modern day celebrities who discover that in the pages of the tabloids no matter how considerable their achievements in their chosen field of endeavour as soon as they sleep with more than a dozen other people that is all they are remembered for.

“He would be a good looking man if he were not ugly”.

Casanova – “He would be a good looking man if he were not ugly”.

According to his memoir which we have few means of verifying Casanova made love to more than 120 women not to mention a few men. This may not be in the same league as the unfeasible 2065 claimed for Don Giovanni by his mate Leporello but given that the Don is mythical and Casanova was real this probably makes him the world champion and gold medallists in the Hapsburg Empire Sexual Olympics and a record that may stand for some time although modern day film star Warren Beatty and a few current rock stars and sportsmen making a serious attempt on that record. When asked if he had seen Don Giovanni, Casanova, apparently exclaimed “Seen it, I have practically lived it”.

Giacomo Casanova had just turned 60 when he took up residence at the castle in Dux in the north east of Bohemia finally accepting an invitation from Count Joseph Charles de Waldstein to take over responsibility for the castle library in 1785. Casanova had fled Venice where he had hoped to spend the later part of his life having rather overestimated the sense of humour of one of the most powerful men in the city who failed to see the funny side of a satire that claimed that the nobleman was the illegitimate son of an actress. Even in those days you didn’t question the parentage of an Italian and expect him to laugh at your witty fiction and so Casanova fled for Trieste and after wandering through Europe for a couple of years ended up at Castle Dux. Despite the fact that the job was secure and well paid and he was at the time homeless and penniless Casanova was not happy as the librarian at Dux and the post turned out not to be the pleasant sinecure that he hoped would entertain his later years. For one thing he was frustrated by the lack of access it gave him to the kind of upper class social circles in which he was used to operating.

Although he was the son of actors, a parentage he disputed, Casanova had high aspirations for his own social status and after failing to persist with careers as a priest and a soldier, through a combination of good luck and clever dissembling he was taken under the wing of a Venetian senator whose patronage allowed him to live the life of a nobleman which comprised chiefly gambling and sex apparently. It was a lifestyle that Casanova maintained for much of the rest of his life before washing up in Bohemia, combining bouts of extreme licentiousness with spells in prison when it caught up with him, each time moving on to a new patron and more sex.

Inevitably with all of this sex he fathered a number of children about eight in fact but Casanova was not a terribly attentive parent usually having moved on to someone or somewhere else long before the nine months was up which did cause problems. In 7161 he fell so instantly in love with the mistress of an impotent Neapolitan Duke that he was impelled to ask the Duke to release her so that he might himself become her lover. Only later when he was in bed with one of his other lovers, after the Duke’s refusal, did he discover that the girl, known as Leonilda, was his own seventeen year old daughter. Not that this prevented him some time later from consummating his relationship with his daughter apparently because she was getting so little satisfaction from the Duke and he wanted to cheer her up! Several years later, whilst on a welcome trip out from Castle Dux to the theatre in Prague Casanova met a young Marchese whom he calculated was his grandson, the son of Leonilda and her husband the Duke. But on closer inspection and remembering that the Duke was impotent he realised it was most likely in fact to be his own son. Life could be so confusing for an C18th libertine without today’s modern organisational aids such as iPad, contraception and DNA testing.

Despite all of this Casanova was decorated by the Pope, seemingly for donating a valuable book to the Vatican Library rather than for services to Catholic parenthood, met Mr and Mrs Great; Frederick and Catherine, sleeping surprisingly with neither it seems, as well as George III on his only visit to England. He had hoped to become rich by setting up a lottery England but ended up with venereal disease which is probably why they waited another 200 years before the government decide it was safe to have another go at setting up a lottery. He argued with Voltaire met Benjamin Franklin and helped de Ponte, Mozart’s librettist, with helpful suggestions for Don Giovanni, all of this with no obvious consistent means of support apart from his good looks and even they deserted him in later life. One of his best friends claimed that “He would be a good looking man if he were not ugly”. When that’s the best your friends can say you know it is time to start thinking about a future beyond sex which brings us back to the Library.

The Castle Dux Library contained somewhere between the 40,000 volumes claimed by the Count and the 12,000 insisted on by the Count’s brother who clearly has much more discerning reading tastes than his brother as he also claimed that he would have flung most of them on the fire. There are no details in Casanova’s biographies of what he actually did as librarian and it appears this is because it was very little, either because little was expected or because that is how Casanova decided to interpret his duties. His access to polite society was limited because, despite their apparent closeness, the Count, who would have provided his introductions, was often away. The French Revolution was occupying the minds of the noble families across the entire continent as more and more of their French peers found their heads in a basket. The dashing Count, not one to sit idly by whilst liberty, fraternity and most of all equality could be vanquished, decided to audition for the soon-to-be-created role of The Scarlet Pimpernel by attempting to rescue members of the French Royal Family which he spectactularly failed to do but he must have been heartened that it was claimed he cut quite a dashing figure as he failed to do so. So Casanova saw very little of his patron who clearly felt that the threat to the nobility of Europe was more important than deciding where to classify the new Voltaire editions.

Castle Dux, now Duchov Chateau. The Library is probably tucked away at the back somewhere!*

Castle Dux, now Duchov Chateau. The Library is probably tucked away at the back somewhere!*

Casanova’s mood was not improved by the company he was forced to keep at the Castle in the absence of the Count. The Chamberlain was another grumpy old man with a self-image problem who clearly felt that the post of mere librarian should bow to his authority and took considerable exception when Casanova failed to concur with his take on the castle pecking order.  As a confirmed urban socialite Casanova was not made to feel any more at home by the unavoidably rural nature of life at the castle which revolved around hunting shooting and horse racing, activities not always closely with the sex that was his usual pastime nor much associated with libraries especially as most of them ban The Racing Post anyway.

What saved Casanova from this nightmare was meeting up with an old friend from the past, a refugee from the revolution in Paris, who was now living at the nearby spa resort, Teplice. Teplice seems to have been a sort of C18th version of Monaco providing a haven from the horrors of revolution for all the chattering classes. Prince Charles Joseph de Ligne had known Casanova in Venice and Paris and was happy to renew the friendship as he knew they shared a taste for limitless pleasure including the widespread distribution of sexual favours. Casanova became a regular feature in the Prince’s party and the two old reprobates cheered each other up with tales of their lurid exploits as well as sharing friendship with another two women although it not clear how far those relationships went as Casanova complained in his memoir about how reduced his powers were. Still it was better than messing about in that dull old library.

The Prince’s close friendship did not though prevent him from recognising how bitterness and anger had consumed Casanova since his appointment as librarian, which as we established in the previous post are not actually prerequisites for the role, nor how much ridicule he brought down upon himself though his constant complaining and pretentious mannerism which weren’t among the key competences of library posts either. His friend wrote that Casanova complained about everything from the breakfast he was served to the priests who kept trying to convert him and including, rather surprisingly, how people borrowed books without asking the librarian. Bearing in mind the enormous volume of writings that poured from his pen whilst at Dux which included on his death almost 1800 letters and nearly 400 poems in addition to his memoirs it is hardly surprising that readers couldn’t be bothered waiting just in case this very occasional librarian turned up and could find the time to issue the book that they wanted to borrow. The fact that the unauthorised borrower was usually the Count who had given him a job with security and a good salary and who owned the Library anyway seems to have counted for nothing and is an example of the kind of sensitive and circumspect customer service to which, if we are to believe the stereotype, generations of librarians have aspired.

Just because Casanova found the life of a provincial librarian tedious and inconvenient, however, compared with the dissolute abundance of his life before his flight from Venice, it doesn’t mean that the rest of us don’t find the role a little more congenial otherwise how on earth would the world’s great literature and information get organised, and exploited to universal benefit. But then again not all of us have 122 other amorous alternatives with which to compare it. But if you have please let me know and you can have a post all to yourself too.

Next week the Librarian at the University of Hull who also wrote some poetry.

*“Front side of Duchcov castle in Czech Republic” by Zacatecnik – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

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