Giuseppe Balsamo was born to a shopkeeper in Palermo in 1743. He matured early, and was soon an accomplished thief. At thirteen he was entered as a novice in the Monastery of the Benfratelli. There he was assigned to aid the house apothecary, from whose bottles, tubes, and books he learned enough chemistry and alchemy to equip himself for quackery. Required to read the lives of the saints to the friars as they ate, he substituted for the names of the saints those of Palermo’s most distinguished prostitutes. Flogged, he decamped, joined the underworld, and studied the art of eating without working. He served as a pimp, a forger, a counterfeiter, a fortuneteller, a magician, and a robber, usually with such concealment of his traces that the police could convict him only of insolence.
Seeing himself uncomfortably suspect, he moved to Messina, crossed to Reggio Calabria, and sampled the opportunities of Naples and Rome. For a while he lived by touching up prints and selling them as his own. He married Lorenza Feliciani, and prospered by selling her body. Taking the name of Marchese de’ Pellegrini, he brought his lucrative lady to Venice, Marseilles, Paris, London. He arranged to have his wife discovered in the arms of a rich Quaker; the resultant blackmail supported them for months. He changed his name to Count di Cagliostro, put on whiskers and the uniform of a Prussian colonel, and rechristened his wife Countess Seraphina. He returned to Palermo, was arrested as a forger, but was released on the ominous insistence of his friends, who terrified the law.
As Seraphina’s charms were worn with circulation, he put his chemistry to use, concocting and selling drugs guaranteed to flatten wrinkles and set love aflame. Back in England he was accused of stealing a diamond necklace, and spent a spell in jail. He joined the Freemasons, moved to Paris, and set himself up as the Grand Cophta of Egyptian Masonry; he assured a hundred gullibles that he had found the ancient secrets of rejuvenation, which could be obtained through a forty days’ course of purges, sweats, root diet, phlebotomy, and theosophy.34 As soon as he was exposed in one city he went on to another, winning access to moneyed families by his Masonic grip and ring. In St. Petersburg he practiced as a doctor, treated the poor gratis, and was received by Potemkin; but Catherine the Great’s physician, a canny Scot, analyzed some of the doctor’s elixirs, and found them worthless; Cagliostro was given a day to pack and depart. In Warsaw he was exposed by another physician in a booklet, Cagliostro démasqué (1780), but before it could catch up with him he was off to Vienna, Frankfurt, Strasbourg. There he charmed Cardinal Prince Louis-René-Édouard de Rohan, who placed in his palace a bust of the Grand Cophta inscribed “The divine Cagliostro.” The Cardinal brought him to Paris, and the great impostor was unwittingly involved in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. When this hoax was exposed Cagliostro was sent to the Bastille; he was soon liberated as innocent, but was ordered to leave France (1786). He found a new clientele in London. Meanwhile Goethe visited Cagliostro’s mother in Sicily, and assured her that her famous son had been acquitted and was safe.35*
From London, where doubters had multiplied, the Count and Countess moved to Basel, Turin, Rovereto, Trent, everywhere suspected and expelled. Seraphina begged to be taken to Rome to pray at her mother’s grave; the Count agreed. In Rome they tried to set up a lodge of his Egyptian Freemasonry; the Inquisition arrested them (December 29, 1789); they confessed their charlatanry; Cagliostro was sentenced to life imprisonment, and ended his days in the Castle of San Leo near Pesaro in 1795, aged fifty-two. He too was part of the picture of the Illuminated Century.
Giovanni Jacopo Casanova added the lordly “de Seingalt” to his name by a random plucking of the alphabet, as a useful honorific in overwhelming nuns and braving the governments of Europe. Born to two actors in Venice in 1725, he gave early promise of mental alacrity. He was apprenticed to the law, and claimed to have received the doctorate at the University of Padua when he was sixteen.36 At every step in his engaging Memoirs we must beware of his imagination, but he tells his story with such self-damning candor that we may believe him though we know he lies.
While at Padua he made his first conquest—Bettina, “a pretty girl of thirteen,” sister of his tutor the good priest Gozzi. When she fell ill of smallpox Casanova nursed her and caught the disease; by his own account his acts of kindness equaled his amours. In his old age, going to Padua for the last time, “I found her old, ill and poor, and she died in my arms.”37 Nearly all his sweethearts are represented as loving him until his death.
Despite his law degree he suffered from a humiliating poverty. His father was dead, his mother was acting in cities as far away as St. Petersburg, and usually forgot him. He earned some bread by fiddling in taverns and streets. But he was strong as well as handsome and brave. When (1746) the Venetian Senator Zuan Bragadino suffered a stroke while descending a stairway, Ja-copo caught him in his arms and saved him from a precipitate fall; thereafter the Senator protected him in a dozen scrapes, and gave him funds to visit France, Germany, and Austria. At Lyons he joined the Freemasons; at Paris “I became a Companion, then a Master, of the order.” (We note with some shock that “in my time no one in France knew how to overcharge.”38)
In 1753 he returned to Venice, and soon caught the attention of the government by peddling occult wisdom. A year later an official inquisitor reported on him to the Senate:
He has insinuated himself into the good graces of the noble Zuan Bragadino, … and has fleeced him grievously. … Benedetto Pisano tells me that Casanova is by way of being a cabalistic philosopher, and, by false reasoning cleverly adapted to the minds he works on, contrives to get his livelihood. … He has made … Bragadino believe that he can evoke the angel of light for his benefit.39
Furthermore (the report continues) Casanova had sent to his friends compositions that revealed him as an impious freethinker. Casanova tells us: “A certain Mme. Memno took it into her head that I was teaching her son the precepts of atheism.”40
The things I was accused of concerned the Holy Office, and the Holy Office is a ferocious beast with whom it is dangerous to meddle. There were certain circumstances … which made it difficult for them to shut me up in the ecclesiastical prisons of the Inquisition, and because of this it was finally decided that the State Inquisition should deal with me.41
Bragadino advised him to leave Venice; Casanova refused. The next morning he was arrested, his papers were confiscated, and he was confined without trial in I Piombi, “the Leads”—a name given to the Venetian state prison from the plates on its roof.
When night came it was impossible for me to close my eyes, for three reasons: first, the rats; second, the terrible din made by the clock of St. Mark’s, which sounded as if it were in my room; and third, the thousands of fleas which invaded my body, bit and stung me, poisoning my blood to such an extent that I suffered from spasmodic constrictions amounting to convulsions.42
He was sentenced to five years, but after fifteen months of incarceration he escaped (1757), by a complication of devices, risks, and terrors whose narrative became part of his stock in trade in a dozen lands.
Arrived a second time in Paris, he fought a duel with the young Comte Nicolas de La Tour d’Auvergne, wounded him, healed him with a “magic” ointment, won his friendship, and was introduced by him to a rich aunt, Mme. d’Urfé, who devoutly believed in occult powers, and hoped through them to change her sex. Casanova played upon her credulity, and found in it a secret means of opulence. “I cannot, now that I am old, look back upon this chapter of my life without blushing”;43 but it lasted through a dozen chapters of his book. He added to his income by cheating at cards, by organizing a lottery for the French government, and by obtaining a loan for France from the United Provinces. En route from Paris to Brussels “I read Helvétius’ De l’Esprit all the way.”44 (He was to offer to conservatives a persuasive example of the libertin [freethinker] becoming a libertine—though the sequence was probably the reverse.) At every stop he picked a mistress; at many stops he found a former mistress; now and then he stumbled upon his own unpremeditated progeny.
He visited Rousseau at Montmorency, and Voltaire at Ferney (1760); we have already enjoyed part of that tête-á-tête. If we may believe Casanova, he took the occasion to reprove Voltaire for exposing the absurdities of the popular mythology:
CASANOVA: Suppose you do succeed in destroying superstition, with what will you replace it?
VOLTAIRE: I like that! When I have delivered humanity from a ferocious monster that devours it, you ask what shall I put in its place?
CASANOVA: Superstition does not devour humanity; it is, on the contrary, necessary to its existence.
VOLTAIRE: Necessary to its existence! That is a horrible blasphemy. I love mankind; I would like to see it, as I am, free and happy. Superstition and liberty cannot go hand in hand. Do you think that slavery makes for happiness?
CASANOVA: What you want, then, is the supremacy of the people?
VOLTAIRE: God forbid! The masses must have a king to govern them.
CASANOVA: In that case superstition is necessary, for the people would never give a mere man the right to rule them. . . .
VOLTAIRE: I want a sovereign ruling a free people, and bound to them by reciprocal conditions, which should prevent any inclination to despotism on his part.
CASANOVA: Addison says that such a sovereign … is impossible. I agree with Hobbes: between two evils one must choose the lesser. A nation freed from superstition would be a nation of philosophers, and philosophers do not know how to obey. There is no happiness for a people that is not crushed, kept down and held in leash.
VOLTAIRE: Horrible! And you are of the people! . . .
CASANOVA: Your master passion is love of humanity. This love blinds you. Love humanity, but love it as it is. Humanity is not susceptible to the benefits you wish to shower upon it; these would only make it more wretched and perverse. . . .
VOLTAIRE: I am sorry you have such a bad opinion of your fellow creatures.45
Wherever he went, Casanova made his way into some aristocratic homes, for many of the European nobility were Freemasons, or Rosicrucians, or addicts of occult lore. He not only claimed esoteric knowledge in these fields, but in addition had a good figure, a distinguished (though not handsome) face, a command of languages, a seductive self-assurance, a fund of stories and wit, and a mysterious ability to win at cards or in casino games. Everywhere he was sooner or later escorted to jail or the frontier. Now and then he had to fight a duel, but, like a nation in its histories, he never lost.
At last he succumbed to longing for his native land. He was free to travel anywhere in Italy except Venice. He repeatedly applied for permission to come back; it was finally granted, and in 1775 he was in Venice again. He was employed by the government as a spy; his reports were discarded as containing too much philosophy and too little information; he was dismissed. Relapsing into his youthful ways, he wrote a satire on the patrician Grimaldi; he was told to leave Venice or face another stay in the Leads. He fled to Vienna (1782), to Spa, and to Paris.
There he met a Count von Waldstein, who took a fancy to him and invited him to serve as his librarian in the Castle of Dux in Bohemia. Casanova’s arts of love and magic and sleight-of-hand had reached the point of diminishing returns; he accepted the post at a thousand florins per year. Arrived and installed, he was grieved to find that he was considered a servant, and dined in the servants’ hall. At Dux he spent his final fourteen years. There he wrote his Histoire de ma vie, “principally to palliate the deadly dullness which is killing me in this dull Bohemia.... By writing ten or twelve hours a day I have prevented black sorrow from eating up my poor heart and destroying my reason.”46 He professed absolute veracity in his narrative, and in many cases it gibes well enough with history; often, however, we find no verification of his account. Perhaps his memory declined while his imagination grew. We can only say that his book is one of the most fascinating relics of the eighteenth century.
Casanova lived long enough to mourn the death of the Old Regime.
O my dear, my beautiful France!—where, in those days, things went so well, despite lettres de cachet, despite the corvée and the misery of the people! … Dear France, what have you become today? The people is your sovereign, the people, most brutal and tyrannical of all rulers.47
And so, on his last day, June 4, 1798, he ended his career in timely piety. “I have lived a philosopher, and I die a Christian.”48 He had mistaken sensualism for philosophy, and Pascal’s wager for Christianity.