Sun, Nov 12, 2006 - Page 19 News List

In the end, Casanova was all out of love

Much has been written about Casanova's insatiable sexual appetite, but as Judith Summers shows, some of his conquests gave him a run for his money

By William Grimes  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Every woman who ever met Casanova must have, at one point, thirsted for justice. In the game of love, why was the deck always stacked in his favor? It was always Casanova who won, relying on charm and guile, entreaties and threats or, in the last resort, brute force. When the affair was over, he slipped away, leaving an unwanted child or an empty purse behind him.

In Casanova's Women, Judith Summers tries to redress the balance, turning the spotlight away from Casanova and onto some of the many women he seduced, principally the ones who offered something like equal battle. Often Casanova simply bagged his prey like a hunter, or took his pleasures hoggishly, but from time to time he became captivated by women whose free spirits matched his own, or who played their cards as skillfully as he did. These are the ones who make the starting lineup on Summers' all-star team of love.

Nanetta and Marta Savorgnan, two well-born Venetian sisters, helped get Casanova off to a flying start in his chosen career. High-spirited and carelessly amoral, they volunteered to help Casanova win the heart of their good friend Angela Tosello, who had enslaved the poor fellow by coolly rejecting his advances. Their overly complex schemes misfired when Angela failed to appear at a proposed secret assignation. The three schemers found themselves together in a darkened bedroom with a bottle of wine, a plate of good antipasti and seething desires. It was the first of many memorable nights.

Like many of Casanova's conquests, the teenaged Savorgnan sisters loved the game of love, and Summers does too. She revels in the details of sealed letters, secret assignations and pillow talk. The mist-enshrouded streets of Venice, and the hidden niches of pleasure parks in London and Paris, ideal for assignations and furtive lovemaking, stir her pen.

Push past the high-minded words about giving women their voices, and Casanova's Women looks very much like a box of bonbons. Summers has simply jumped at the opportunity to retell Casanova's life, in soap-opera style, and to linger over the more intriguing love affairs, with no juicy details omitted. And what's wrong with that?

The young Casanova is much more appealing than the middle-aged roue, although, as Summers rightly notes, either version would win the well-deserved attention of law enforcement today and quite likely a prison term for "breach of promise, incest, fraud, pedophilia, grievous bodily harm and rape." But the youthful Casanova, heart aflame, seems more genuinely curious, vulnerable and eager to please.

"My currency was an unbridled self-esteem, which inexperience forbade me to doubt," he later wrote in his memoirs. That, combined with striking good looks, a sympathetic ear and boundless reserves of charm, put him on the high road to amorous adventure.

His gallery of conquests is astounding. Summers devotes a chapter to Bellino, a rising castrato whose almost perfect blend of male and female qualities captivates Casanova. He suspects that Bellino has a secret, and he is right. She is a woman, Teresa Imer, who has assumed the disguise of a castrato in order to perform in the Papal States, where women cannot appear on the stage or in operas.

One of Casanova's more serious love affairs ensues, but in the end Teresa, as shrewd as she is beautiful, attaches herself to a wealthy older patron and, after he dies, marries a poor but handsome young Roman who is, Summers writes, "her delight and her plaything." Casanova would have understood.

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