If you like a good old wander, Venice is perfect. Its a treasure trove of alleyways, squares, palazzi and canals and you can easily while away a weekend uncovering its secrets. But if you want to make some sense of it you may need a guide. Mine turned out to be local and a bit of a dandy. But a little older than usual! His name was Giacomo Girolamo Casanova. The original Casanova!
Obviously I didn’t meet the legendary swordsman (ahem!) in person, he’s been dead a while! But he did tell me about Venice via his diaries. He writes in great detail about day to day life in the 1700s, painting a vivid picture of banquets, lavish outfits, gambling and entertainment of every type. And although Venice is no longer the capital of debauchery, astonishingly, much of the city hasn’t changed since Giacomo’s heyday. Retracing his footsteps gives an interesting perspective on the city.
The obvious spot to start is Casanova’s birthplace in Calle Malipiero, just off Campo San Samuele but its not that easy to find. The search takes you off the tourist trail and into the backstreets. And contrary to the image of Casanova the dandy nobleman, he was actually born in a small house in an anonymous alley. Frankly it’s not what you’d expect. But that’s the point. This is real Venice, real homes, not just the usual San Marco glamour and Grand Canal palaces. It’s quietly fascinating.
Young Casanova lived there for nine years before being packed off to school and university in Padua. And he got quite an education, returning to Venice aged 17 with a law degree, having discovered the fairer sex and with mounting gambling debts! The seed was sown for the rest of his life!
The next stop is just a few steps away. The teenager clearly fancied the good life and befriended a state senator round the corner in Palazzo Malipiero. The difference between the two houses is stark. The Byzantine palazzo fronts onto the Grand Canal and has one of few private gardens in the city. The family opened the door to high society for the teenager but he was caught “dallying” with the senator’s mistress! Casanova was on the move again.
It’s a bit of a trek to Casanova’s next home. Weaving through the labyrinthine streets past centuries-old shops and fresco’d chapels to the Rialto Bridge, it feels like the city is frozen in time. The fish, fruit and vegetable market on the north bank still serves the locals on a daily basis as it has for years and makes a great stop for a juicy peach before diving into the lesser known San Polo district.
The target is Piazza San Polo, the second largest square after San Marco. But the two are very different. San Polo feels really lived in as locals walk their dogs and children run off pent-up energy while their parents sit and chat in the shade of the trees. The contrast is a reminder that Venice is still a functioning city, albeit with a dwindling population, not a theme park for the 10 million-plus visitors each year.
Casanova spends three years in one of the grand palazzi of Campo San Polo living off his new patron, another senator, whose life he saved. But controversy starts to plague him. Not least when he seduces a nun on Murano!
These days Murano island is famous for its unique glass products. The furnaces were originally banished to the island to protect the main city from the risk of fire. Today tourists flock for glass blowing demonstrations every hour. But it is also home to the Santa Maria degli Angelli convent, the site of one of Casanova’s more audacious dalliances with one of the sisters. He clearly got about abit although the church is keen to downplay the association and opens only to worshippers. But take a wander round the island away from the shops and glass studios and you find quiet neighbourhoods of painted houses and abundant allotments. You can hear birdsong. This is tranquil Venice.
And so the trail takes us back to San Marco via a spluttering ferry. Casanova’s antics created enemies and drew the attention of the authorities. The Republic of Venice was very tightly regulated and citizens were encouraged to denounce their neighbours via a series of secret post boxes around the Doge’s (aka President’s) Palace.
Perhaps one of the many cuckolded husbands finally denounced Casanova or perhaps the government had just had enough? Either way, he was arrested, aged thirty, for dabbling in the occult and sentenced to five years in prison on the top floor of the Doge’s Palace. “The Leads” was a prison of just seven cells reserved for higher status or political prisoners. It was so-called because of the lead sheets which covered the roof. No-one ever escaped.
Today the Doge’s Palace is a popular tourist destination for its enormous audience hall and golden staircase. But peek behind the scenes on the “Secret Tour” and you find the true, and literal, corridors of power. Wood panelled rooms house the legal archives. Tintoretto paintings adorn the rooms where inquisitors extracted information by coercion or force. And on the top floor the six foot Casanova hunched in his attic cell planning his escape.r
Gazing out of the porthole windows across the Grand Canal it’s easy to imagine his frustration but the drop to the canal would be fatal. Legend has it that ever the cat with nine lives, Casanova cuts through the lead sheeting, clambers over the roof and drops back into the palace through a skylight. He escapes the prison but he’s still trapped. So in his usual style he pretends to be a civil servant locked in after an official event and convinces the nightwatchman that he’s been accidentally locked in and to let him out! Cool as a cucumber, he jumps in a gondola and sets off for Paris. He’s the first and last inmate to ever escape!
Ultimately, Casanova was a true Venetian and led a fascinating life. He was a priest, a millitaryman, violinist, professional gambler, womaniser, occultist & chancer. He journeyed all over Europe meeting prostitutes and royalty alike. He even invented the lottery! Yep, that’s right, Giacomo Casanova invented the state lottery for Louis XV of France and made a ruddy fortune for them both!! Then gambled it all away again! He never married, citing marriage as the “tomb of true love”, and finished his days quietly as a librarian in Bohemia, now the Czech Republic. He’s renowned as a womaniser but Venice was his first love and despite being expelled twice by the Republic he still yearned to return even on his deathbed. Wandering the streets and canals its easy to see why. Venice is absolutely captivating. Whether for the grandeur of San Marco or the beautiful, confounding maze of backstreets. Next time you’re there see if you can spot Giacomo!