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

The most serious affair in Casanova's life involved the woman he called Henriette, a Provencal noblewoman on the run from an abusive husband. Saucy, witty and wise, she entered into a torrid affair with Casanova, whom she met at an inn, with her eyes wide open and her brain formulating an exit strategy.

"Mystery enveloped Henriette like a heady perfume," Summers writes, "and Casanova was intoxicated by it." He was on the rebound, having fallen for a skilful tease so hard that he collected bits of her hair, had them made into candies and secretly ate them.

With Henriette, Casanova discovered the joys of companionship, conversation and emotional warmth, and he revisited her several times in the course of his long life. Her real identity has eluded scholars, but Summers goes over some of the more ingenious guesswork, some of it starting from the known fact that Henriette played the viola da gamba, which appears in a portrait painting of Henriette de France, a daughter of Louis XV.

The sweet, placid romance with Henriette gave way to an unending series of sexual encounters of bewildering variety. At one point Summers catches up by noting that, in a particularly busy period, "Casanova slept with countless prostitutes, cavorted with lesbians in the bathhouses of Berne, and was tricked into having sex with a woman he despised and from whom he caught a bad dose of the pox."

After a brief rest he proceeded to take on his weirdest partner, the wealthy Marquise d'Urfe, an alchemist and all-round loon who became convinced that Casanova possessed magic powers that would help her realize her dream: to be reborn as a man. Much lighter in pocket, she discovered that he could not.

Summers, who raises the curtain on her adventure-filled story in the room of the dying Casanova, returns to her hero's deathbed after chronicling his sad middle age and dismal twilight, spent as a librarian in the house of a Bohemian nobleman. The beautiful women who once sighed for Casanova now merely tolerated him. His powers declined, and most of the sex was purchased.

Still, even toward the end, Casanova remained true to himself and his notion of love. "I will never admit that it is a trifle or a vanity," he wrote. "It is a kind of madness over which philosophy has no power at all."

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