1789. Dux castle, Bohemia. A librarian of sixty-four years old, unlike any other, is taking care of a collection exceeding some 40,000 titles. He started to work there in 1785 at the request of the owner of the library’s castle, the count of Waldstein. Let me introduce you to the Chevalier de Seingalt. You think you don’t know him? But I’m convinced you do! Well, probably not as a librarian. Here is a description of the man written by the Prince Charles de Ligne who met our special librarian in 1794:
“There is always something weighty, new, piquant, and profound. He is knowledgeable, but he quotes Homer and Horace ad nauseam. His wit and his sallies are like Attic salt. He is sensitive and generous (…). In the aftermath of substantial disorder and a stormy youth, and career adventures, sometimes a little equivocal; he showed honour, delicacy and courage. He is proud, because he is nothing (…). Never tell him you have heard the story he is going to tell you (…). Never omit to greet him in passing, for the merest trifle will make him your enemy. His prodigious imagination, vivacity of his country, his travels, all the professions he carried, his firmness in the absence of all moral and physical goods, make a rare man, valuable to meet.”
Still does not ring a bell? You might know him as a diplomat, a scallywag, a clergyman, a musician or perhaps as a spy, a magician, a lawyer, a military officer or a trickster… and that’s not the half of it. Still no idea? Another clue: His name is now synonymous with womaniser. Yes, he is the great, the unique, Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798).
He was an atypical librarian, for sure. And yet, he spent the last thirteen years of his life in retreat, among books, far away from the world he strode across for more than three decades. The Capitals of Europe were indeed the stage of his affairs and adventures of all kinds. He visited Rome, Paris, Constantinople, Corfou, Dresden, Venise, Madrid, Amsterdam, Vienna, London, Moscow and Prague among so many others. It is said that Casanova travelled something like 60,000 kilometers over his lifetime. A constant meandering adventurer but the scenario was always the same: To seduce and be accepted by everybody, and especially nobility and powerful people, and then to amuse himself and make money, as much as possible – it is a way more exciting – with charlatan methods. And if he should find himself jailed after one of his schemes? The intrepid darer is capable of making an escape with ease!
To be involved in suspicious business and shine wherever he goes, was the everyday life of the Venetian citizen. Self-evidently, some of his meetings went wrong and Casanova was involved a couple of time in duels, the only way to properly clear ones name at that time. One might wonder how he is linked to the Cultural Heritage Group, putting aside the fact that Casanova was a librarian. I’m coming to that: our grand manuscript collection holds a letter written by him.
We don’t know from the missive where Casanova was when he wrote this letter and or which year it was. What can we learn? Casanova wrote it a Tuesday morning, the 18th of September, to a certain Michele Cavana. Obviously, the two pen-friends are not precisely friends but they rather seem engaged in a conflict. To summarize, this Michele Cavana eventually paid off a debt owed to him; which was appreciated by Casanova even if he reminded his correspondent that he was supposed to repay him the day before. Moreover, Casanova probably insulted Cavana in some way because this latter seems to propose a duel. Casanova, true to himself, is not dispose at all to apologize. On the contrary he maintains what he said with a pinch of arrogance. However, he flatly refuses the fighting request arguing that this Cavana is not a man of good reputation, nor a gentleman. The man used to spend some time in prison in Dresden because he stole some money and Casanova can certainly not be dishonoured by facing him. It’s the pot calling the kettle black…in regards of Casanova personal habit of spending some time in various jails.
This letter might have been written from Dresden since Casanova explains further that he will leave the place the day after to reach Prague. Or, in his own words, he was generally in Dresden before setting out for Prague. Anyhow, I’m not sure about the exact year. Casanova was in Prague many times but in his memoirs there is no date that clearly matches with the letter. However, after an investigation, I’ve found out that he was in Dresden in September 1753, and, according to the calendar, 18th of September was a Tuesday that year. During his last stay in Prague in 1788, it is said that Casanova met Mozart and help him to write Don Giovanni’s libretto. Whatever it was, this is a precious testimony and through this letter, the attentive reader can guess the nature of the figure. You can have a glimpse of the witty conversationalist he was but also foresee his casualness when he wrote that he will wait for Cavana in Prague where he will welcome him and kiss him with a discourse… and even give him back twice the amount of money Cavana just repaid him. Casanova underlines, to finish, that he appreciates the talents of the man and will not tell anyone all his weaknesses. Such delightful insolence!
Although this letter is written in Italian, the most famous of Casanova’s writings, his memoirs, Histoire de ma vie, were written in French. 3700 pages in an idiosyncratic Italianate in a splendid lively style. Casanova is undoubtedly a brilliant writer. In his preface he explains why he has chosen to write in French: “I have written in French, and not in Italian, because the French language is more universal than mine, and the purists, who may criticize in my style some Italian turns will be quite right, but only in case it should prevent them from understanding me clearly.” Somewhere else in the book we can read this (any similarities with the present situation is a mere coincidence): “The French have the tongue, palate, lips, chest and nose so well adapted to the sound, to the accent, to the prosody, to the consonance of their words […] that even when they really try, they never succeed to properly form sentences in the foreign language they are trying to speak and even less to pronounce.”
Casanova wrote this massive book at the end of his life while he was in Bohemia. Regardless, it’s hard to evaluate his work as a librarian. But we know that he did very little to collate and catalogue the collections. He was reading a lot but was more than anything writing letters and especially his memoirs: « I’m writing my life in order to laugh at myself and I am managing very well. I write 13 hours a day and they fly past like 13 minutes. I am enjoying myself because I invent nothing. What distresses me is the obligation I have at this point to conceal names, since I cannot divulge the affairs of others. » It was a good way for him to escape the routine of his solitude in this German-speaking place, a language that he hated very much.
In 2010, the original version of his memoirs was purchased by the National Library of France, thanks to an anonymous benefactor, for the insignificant amount of $9.6 million: a new record for a manuscript sale. Since then, it is said that the library is the 123rd Casanova´s conquest. But there is no need to linger over his hundred feminine conquests, Casanova´s finest delight. It is actually very unfortunate that the figure is again and again reduced only to a lover with no morality. He is first and foremost an eclectic traveler who was full of joie de vivre that wanted to go everywhere and experience everything. And also a brilliant man of letters. But, if you insist, here is a description of women by Casanova …An original comparison with books:
« Woman is like a book, which, good or bad, must at first please us by the frontispiece. If this is not interesting, we do not feel any wish to read the book, and our wish is in direct proportion to the interest we feel. The frontispiece of woman runs from top to bottom like that of a book, and her feet, which are most important to every man who shares my taste, offer the same interest as the edition of the work. If it is true that most amateurs bestow little or no attention upon the feet of a woman, it is likewise a fact that most readers care little or nothing whether a book is of the first edition or the tenth. At all events, women are quite right to take the greatest care of their face, of their dress, of their general appearance; for it is only by that part of the frontispiece that they can call forth a wish to read them in those men who have not been endowed by nature with the privilege of blindness. And just in the same manner that men, who have read a great many books, are certain to feel at last a desire for perusing new works even if they are bad, a man who has known many women, and all handsome women, feels at last a curiosity for ugly specimens when he meets with entirely new ones. It is all very well for his eye to discover the paint which conceals the reality, but his passion has become a vice, and suggests some argument in favour of the lying frontispiece. It is possible, at least he thinks so, that the work may prove better than the title-page, and the reality more acceptable than the paint which hides it. »
Casanova has been all his life interested by books and libraries. He always travelled with books:
« The next day I started on my journey, and got to Rome in thirty-six hours. It was midnight when I passed under the Porta del Popolo, for one may enter the Eternal City at any time. I was then taken to the custom-house, which is always open, and my mails were examined. The only thing they are strict about at Rome is books, as if they feared the light. I had about thirty volumes, all more or less against the Papacy, religion, or the virtues inculcated thereby. I had resolved to surrender them without any dispute, as I felt tired and wanted to go to bed, but the clerk told me politely to count them and leave them in his charge for the night, and he would bring them to my hotel in the morning. I did so, and he kept his word. He was well enough pleased when he touched the two sequins with which I rewarded him. »
He was with any doubt a regular reader. One day, while he was visited a monastery with an abbot; he has the extravagant and unexpected idea to become a monk:
« As for the library, if I had been alone it would have made me weep. It contained nothing under the size of folio, the newest books were a hundred years old, and the subject-matter of all these huge books was solely theology and controversy. There were Bibles, commentators, the Fathers, works on canon law in German, volumes of annals, and Hoffman’s dictionary. « I suppose your monks have private libraries of their own, » I said, « which contain accounts of travels, with historical and scientific works. » « Not at all, » he replied; « my monks are honest folk, who are content to do their duty, and to live in peace and sweet ignorance. » I do not know what happened to me at that moment, but a strange whim came into my head—I would be a monk, too. I said nothing about it at the moment, but I begged the abbot to take me to his private chamber (…). I sat down before him and for three consecutive hours I narrated scandalous histories innumerable, which, however, I told simply and not spicily (…). All that was needed to secure my happiness seemed a library of my own choosing, and I did not doubt but that the abbot would let me have what books I pleased if I promised to leave them to the monastery after my death. »
According to his memoirs, Casanova is a regular libraries visitor, public or private one:
“He ended by asking me to dine with him the following day, adding that if I cared to examine his library he could give me an excellent cup of chocolate. I went, and saw an enormous collection of comments on the Latin poets from Ennius to the poets of the twelfth century of our era. He had had them all printed at his own expense and at his private press, in four tall folios, very accurately printed but without elegance. I told him my opinion, and he agreed that I was right.”
Thus, libraries is a way to pass his spare time, satisfy his curiosity or refine one of his new swindle, like to write a fake document with the assistance of a dictionary. But the adventurer also wants to content his thirst for learning which is not always easy. But in the end, the man always gets what he wants. An example in Roma:
“Two or three weeks after my arrival he heard me complaining of the obstacles to research in the Roman libraries, and he offered to give me an introduction to the Superior of the Jesuits. I accepted the offer, and was made free of the library; I could not only go and read when I liked, but I could, on writing my name down, take books away with me. The keepers of the library always brought me candles when it grew dark, and their politeness was so great that they gave me the key of a side door, so that I could slip in and out as I pleased.”
It seems that free access to these collections would be a privilege, unfortunately, we are not so lucky today. I will have to just accept this and confess that you won’t be allowed to borrow our medieval manuscripts at the Cultural Heritage Group and bring them home to examine yourself. However, Casanova certainly enjoyed these opportunities:
« I went to Wolfenbuttel with the idea of spending week there. I was sure of finding amusement, for Wolfenbuttel contains the third largest library in Europe, and I had long been anxious to see it. The learned librarian, whose politeness was all the better for being completely devoid of affection, told me that not only could I have whatever books I wished to see, but that I could take them to my lodging, not even excepting the manuscripts, which are the chief feature in that fine library. I spent a week in the library, only leaving it to take my meals and go to bed, and I count this week as one of the happiest I have ever spent, for then I forgot myself completely; and in the delight of study, the past, the present, and the future were entirely blotted out. »
In those days, to be considering tasteful, you needed to be witty, a good table, a wine cellar and, naturally a well-furnished library. What else?
You can find the Casanova letter in the Waller Collection. Feel free to contact the Manuscripts and Music section if you have any questions or request: http://www.ub.uu.se/en/Collections/Manuscript-Collections/Autograph-Collections/Wallers-Manuscript-Collection/
You should really read Histoire de ma vie. The original manuscript is online on Gallica, the digital library of the National Library of France.