With her bouffant red hair, thick-rimmed spectacles, and puffy overcoat, my guide, Luciana, hardly seemed Casanova’s type as she clomped up the sumptuous Golden Staircase of the Doge’s Palace in Venice. But then she paused, slipped open her coat, and dipped a hand coquettishly down her plunging neckline to produce a small key on a silver chain. This she inserted with a flourish into the wall, opening a hidden panel.
“Signori and signore,” she whispered huskily. “Welcome to the Secret Tour of the Doge’s Palace. There will be no bags permitted. No photographs. No video.”
The half-dozen of us on the tour nodded obediently. Luciana, now coat-free, was instantly transformed into Sophia Loren in one of her later films—say, The Priest’s Wife—and she beckoned us to enter. A crowd of milling tourists could only stare in slack-jawed envy as we, the chosen ones, stepped into the netherworld. As we passed, Luciana touched us each lightly on the hair, counting our numbers, then stepped inside to lock the door behind us, slipping the key with a smile back into her magnificent décolletage.
The Venetians certainly know how to stage a secret tour. At the Doge’s Palace, the sumptuous nerve center of the old Republic of Venice, a special behind-the-scenes visit includes Casanova’s prison cells. But it’s difficult to learn about the trip, it’s almost impossible to book, and then it’s highly likely to be canceled on a whim. As a result, the mounting tension leaves travelers half-crazed and panting for more.
An illicit atmosphere goes with the territory in Venice, which flourished for over 10 centuries as the erotic capital of Europe. Fabulously wealthy, sexually permissive, the whole city qualified as a beautiful red-light district by the late 1700s. Travelers flocked here from around Europe to cruise the canals with alluring local courtesans and beefy gondoliers. They flirted at masked balls, gamboled in the bordellos, and flocked to the nunneries where aristocratic convent girls would entertain foreign gents with musical concerts and sparkling conversation, then offer intimate favors for a modest fee.
Nobody sums up the lascivious pleasures of this era more than Giacomo Girolamo Casanova, the prototype playboy who cut a virtual swath through the willing female population of Venice. He has been so mythologized in literature and film (most recently in a hokey 2005 Heath Ledger vehicle, Casanova) that many people now assume him to be fictional character. In fact, he lived from 1725 to 1798, and most of his operatic love affairs—his passions for milkmaids and princesses, his ménage à trios with noble sisters under the nose of their father, his liaison with a female singer who was masquerading as a castrato, his seduction of his own illegitimate daughter—have been documented by historians. (Incidentally, Casanova was born 15 years before the Marquis de Sade; the pair never met, although they had a mutual friend in Rome, a cardinal who seduced high-society ladies in the catacombs of the Vatican.) Casanova’s many other achievements put Hugh Hefner to shame. He was the ultimate self-made man: the handsome son of two poor actors, he used his wit, charm, and joie de vivre to insinuate himself into the highest courts of Europe. Today, few realize that Casanova was also a translator of The Iliad, a successful theater director, a violin virtuoso, a spy, and creator of the French lottery. He debated with Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin and worked on one of Mozart’s librettos. He penned a history of Poland as well as arcane mathematical treatises, a science-fiction novel, and a proto-feminist pamphlet.
Strangely, Venice prefers not to celebrate its most famous son, as if it is still rather ashamed of his reckless, wastrel ways. The only memorial is a plaque in the alley where he was born (nobody knows in which house). Which is why his prison cell in the Doge’s Palace—where he was thrown in 1755, then escaped in spectacular fashion—has unusual status. It’s the only place undeniably connected to the adventurer’s fantastical life.
I felt like I was clambering about inside a galleon. Luciana led us up dark stairs and into corridors made of raw wooden planks, which began to shudder and sway as if we were at sea. The route to Casanova’s cell ran through the original offices of the republic’s most powerful bureaucrats. One door led to the chancellor’s little no-frills cubicle; it was made with special hinges to create an airtight fit in order to prevent eavesdropping. Next came the State Inquisitor’s Room. Then the Torture Room, where prisoners had their arms tied behind their backs and were dropped from ropes.
It was through these dismal corridors that the 31-year-old Casanova was led after being arrested in his rooms on a hot July night in 1755. He had been denounced to the Inquisition for “irreligious behavior,” but the real motive for the arrest was evidently to tame his overactive libido. Over the years, he had made many enemies by seducing the wives of powerful men; he had recently been courting a young lady fancied by a grand inquisitor. Now Casanova, who was never told of the trumped-up charges against him or the length of his sentence, was thrown into a cell in I Piombi, “the Leads”—so named because they were located beneath the prison’s lead roof, which broiled in summer and froze in winter.
Climbing up into this attic, our little group became as hushed as if we were entering a cathedral. We stooped through a tiny doorway into a tight box; the floor, walls, and ceilings were dark planks encrusted with metal studs around an opaque window. Fixed near the door was a garroting machine, handy for quick executions.
“Alora,” Luciana breathed sadly as we crouched inside. “This was Casanova’s first cell. You can imagine what it was like for a man like him to be trapped here! He couldn’t even stand up straight. He was attacked by fleas constantly and tormented by boredom. In the heat, he could do nothing but sit stark naked, sweating. So he decided to escape, even though nobody had ever succeeded from the Doge’s Palace before.”
We all crouched as Luciana enthusiastically related the Great Venetian Breakout. Plan A, begun in this very cell, was an embarrassing flop. Casanova got hold of an iron bolt left by some workmen, and he began to dig through the floorboards. But after months of painful labor, the guards decided to do their amiable prisoner a favor and transfer him to a nicer cell. The tunnel was discovered. “But it was just as well,” Luciana said. “Directly below us is the grand inquisitor’s chamber. Casanova was about to break through the ceiling! He would have destroyed a Tintoretto fresco.”
We filed into Casanova’s second cell, which had slightly better ventilation and light, to hear about Plan B. Aware that he was being closely watched, Casanova slipped the iron pike, which he had somehow kept, to the prisoner in the next cell—a disgraced monk named Marin Balbi—and put him to work on the ceiling. At midnight on Oct. 31, 1756—Casanova had by now spent 15 months and five days in prison—the odd couple were ready to make their break. The monk scrambled up through the ceiling, broke into Casanova’s cell, and pulled him up. They then dislodged some lead tiles to get onto the palace roof itself, 200 feet above the darkened San Marco Square. After nearly plunging to their deaths, the pair managed to get back inside another window using ropes made from torn sheets. But when they slunk down the Golden Staircase, they discovered, to their horror, that the main palace gate was locked from the outside.
This was when Casanova’s fashion sense came to the rescue. In a bag around his neck, he was carrying the flamboyant party clothes he had worn on the night he was arrested—a lace-trimmed silk coat, ruffled shirt, tricorn hat with long feather—and now he put them back on. Glimpsing this chic man-about-town in the grille, a guard assumed it was a rich visitor accidentally caught inside after visiting hours, and he opened the door. Casanova elbowed past and scampered for the first gondola. “The escape made Casanova famous, but he would not return to our beloved city for 18 years,” Luciana sighed, as if mourning on behalf of Venetian womanhood. “When he returned, it was to a hero’s welcome. Even the inquisitors wanted to know how he did it!”
“Signore and signori,” Luciana said in conclusion back at the Golden Staircase. “You, too, have escaped from the Doge’s Palace! And perhaps you have learned that Giacomo Casanova was more than just a famous lover. He was a man of action, too.”
When I emerged back out in San Marco Square, it took a while for my eyes to adjust to the sunshine and crowds. What now, to honor the memory of this Venetian demigod? I considered going to the Cantina do Spade, a restaurant housed in a former bordello, where the patriotic owner tells any diner who will listen that “Casanova was the greatest fucker in history,” or to the convent of Murano Island, where he once lured the ravishing young nun “M.M.” away for a tryst in a gondola. But my own short stay in prison gave me the answer. I decided to sit in the sun and read his autobiography, The Story of My Life. In his 50s, flat broke, Casanova took a position as a librarian in a castle near Prague, where he knocked out some 3,500 manuscript pages. His carnal adventures—122 affairs—take up only about one-third of the final 12-volume memoir, but they are the most energetically written pages and have always drawn the most eager attention. “I have devoted my life to the pursuit of pleasure,” he declares without the slightest regret, and then he recounts why in hilarious, captivating detail. These tales would be published in uncensored form only in 1966, in time for the sexual revolution.
Well, I thought, maybe our view of Casanova as history’s ultimate playboy is a little one-dimensional, since it ignores his other achievements. But it’s hard to feel sorry for the guy.