The Kimbell Art Museum’s fall exhibition, “Casanova: The Seduction of Europe,” depicts the story of the notorious lover through the art and luxurious objects of 18th-century Europe. It is less about Casanova, the man, and instead relies on the Italian womanizer as a tour guide of sorts as he traipses across Europe visiting the courts of Louis XV of France, Catherine the Great of Russia and King George III of England and the grand houses through which he cut his memorable swath.
The exhibit — now open and on display through the end of the year — is filled with the paintings, sculpture, furniture, fashions, accessories and home wares that might have staged the scenes of his many travels and conquests.
Was Casanova really the great serial seducer?
Without a doubt, the Venetian hedonist (1725-1798) admitted to over 100 sex partners. He was an indiscriminate opportunist who bedded married women, girls, men, nuns, virgins, prostitutes, sisters, and even his own niece.
Without a sex tape, how did he become so famous?
He admitted it all in his autobiography, “The History of My Life” (Histoire de ma vie), however it wasn’t published until decades after his death.
He became famous the old-fashioned way.
Without a publicist, gossip blogs, a reality show, or paparazzi following him about Europe to document his every indiscretion, his reputation was self-made — and self-promoted. He should be declared the patron said of publicists, for no one has done a better job cementing his reputation than did Casanova. For over two hundred years he has been known as the world’s greatest lover.
But wait, he was more than just a tireless enthusiast of bedroom sports.
He was a lawyer, diplomat, journalist, poet, librettist, translator, thief, and a cheat. He moved in the highest circles in the many courts he visited, even though his lineage was quite humble, if not scandalous. He was born to actress Zanetta Farussi and perhaps her husband, Gaetano Casanova, though it’s more likely his father was a patron of the theater where his mother worked. Young Casanova was able to promote himself into the upper echelons of Venetian society through dissembling, trickery, and bluff.
One thing Casanova had learned at a very young age from his theatrical family was that the audience preferred dazzle to truth. So he obliged.
His traveled widely and often.
Usually he was on the move one step ahead of the constabulary. He travels took him over 40,000 miles back and forth across Europe with a side trip to Constantinople. He spent over a year in a Venetian prison. Incarcerated, not so much for his libidinous ways, but for gambling, cheating tourists, his flagrant libertinism in the face of the Venetian Inquisition, and his heretical interests in alchemy and the kabbalah. He managed a daring escape from prison and had to flee Venice. He was on the move for 19 years.
He made and lost a fortune in France, chatted up Catherine the Great, and struck out in London.
His greatest coups were in France. He talked the French government into sponsoring a national lottery and pocketed the profits from a number of betting shops. He opened a fabric printing facility providing luxurious silks that rivaled those from China. He squandered his money, and at the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War was left with a warehouse of superfluous frippery.
He dodged his creditors, hastily fleeing to Russia. With little to show for his ordeal suffering a winter in Russia he moved on the England, but not speaking the language, one of the few in which he could not converse, he found his charms went unappreciated.
He returned slowly to Venice, broke, lacking the vigor for travel and conquests, to eventually take a librarian position in Dux (now Duchov in the Czech Republic). There he began his memoirs, including his conversations with regents and philosophers such as Voltaire and Rousseau, and expounding on his literary credits, a history of Poland and his translation of “The Iliad.” He enumerated his success and failures and gave thorough descriptions of the societies of his time. It is those descriptions that have given his work lasting value to historians.
How did the Kimbell translate the story of Casanova into an exhibition?
By taking his travelogue and the chronology of his life, the galleries are dedicated to his beginnings in Venice with a group of lovely paintings by Canaletto (Giovanni Antonio Canal) so named for his skill at depicting the city’s canals. They were painted at the time Casanova lived in the city and show many of the places he mentions in his memoir, including the ducal palace that housed the prison.
Moving on to the gallery of titillation is a room full of amorous encounters that when originally created were presented as mythological moments. With the inclusion of a few scattered symbols such as Mars’ shield or Venus’ doves, the painter indicated this was not current cohabitation but another time and place. It fooled no one, and the plump flesh and rumpled linens of the Greeks are soon replaced with even more lascivious moments of contemporary lovers caught in flagrante delicto.
There is a sequestered gallery, for adults only, that has a series of extremely small drawings depicting a variety of ménages, and explicit encounters utilizing all manner of accessories. Magnifying glasses are provided.
Moving right along to the social aspects of the 18th century are the fashions in the exhibit, with the embroidered gowns and waistcoats that were worn by the privileged classes. At that time all the garments where handmade, even lace, which was so time consuming to create that a set of lace cuffs and collar would cost the same as a jeweled tiara. Casanova’s biography keeps a tally of his velvet suits, and as his fortunes rise and fall so does the number of velvet suits in his wardrobe.
There are bejeweled snuffboxes and vanity sets of intricate workmanship, as it wasn’t just the outer apparel on which the courtiers were judged but also their homes, their furnishings and the gifts they bestowed. Snuffboxes and miniature portraits were often exchanged between lovers and supplicants. Casanova was very fond of giving what looked to be small boxes adorned with a portrait, but when opened they revealed a lascivious nude painting.
One of Casanova’s tactics in seduction was fine dining. He planned his siege by way of multi-course dinners with dishes that were chosen to delight the senses. He may have been the one to give oysters their reputation as an aphrodisiac, as he often included them in his menus and suggested orally delivering them from one dining companion to another.
The table settings in France in the mid 18th century were a thing of extravagance. Rather than having servants deliver one course at a time, the long dining tables were set with piles of food in elaborate chaffing dishes, tureens and trays so that guests were encouraged to graze their way through the bounteous offerings. Many of these silver service items are on display, as are the glittering bronze sconces and gilded tables.
The accouterments of a fine meal with liberal servings of wine were bound to be intoxicating to many of the senses, and the resulting pliability of the guests was a foregone conclusion.
This was the world in which Casanova circulated, one in which enjoyment and indulgence were encouraged, not castigated. It was the age of Enlightenment, and Casanova took it to extremes as he tested every boundary and found little that curtailed his pleasures.
The final gallery includes painted portraits and sculptural busts of the luminaries whom Casanova knew, the kings and queens, learned philosophers, and even an American, Benjamin Franklin. Without knowledge of Casanova’s life and his extensive travels, the exhibition seems rather random. Reading the gallery signage is imperative to make sense of all these objects and faces.
One beautiful portrait by Jean-Marc Nattier depicts Manon Balletti, one of Casanova’s most significant loves. She and a woman he refers to as Henriette in his memoirs could have married Casanova. He was so infatuated, he considered both of them as potential spouse material. They were wise to his ways, though, and chose to look elsewhere for husbands.
He remained a bachelor and without a family or wife had time in his dotage to record his youth and the incidents that provided his notorious reputation.
The Kimbell exhibition requires imagination. There is scant evidence of the man himself —only one portrait of the aged lothario is on display. For all of the salacious details, one must read the text blocks on the wall or use the magnifying glasses.
Casanova: The Seduction of Europe
- Through Dec. 31
- Kimbell Art Museum
- 3333 Camp Bowie Blvd., Fort Worth
- Closed: Mondays, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, New Year’s Day
- 817-332-8451; www.kimbellart.org