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

Sun, Nov 12, 2006 - Page 19

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.

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."