Gambler, Writer, Lawyer, Spy: The Art of Giacomo Casanova

"Casanova: The Seduction of Europe" at the Legion of Honor looks at the full breadth of a 18th-century polymath who would have been your most annoying Facebook friend.

If he were alive today, Giacomo Casanova would be your most annoying Facebook friend, says Melissa Buron, director of the Art Division for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

“He’d always be putting pictures up of people he was meeting and places he was going,” she said. “If he was on LinkedIn, he’d constantly be updating his profile with new jobs.”

As we see in Casanova: The Seduction of Europe through May 28 at the Legion of Honor, Casanova really did do it all. He was a traveler, logging about 40,000 miles — no small feat in the coaches of the time — musician, prisoner, escapee, lawyer, spy, gambler, librarian, and writer. He kept reinventing himself, he was curious about everything, and he conned and charmed his way into every level of European society.

The exhibition uses his life as a vehicle to tour us around Europe in the 18th century, with paintings, sculpture, costumes, porcelain, and silver that would have been at the palaces, theaters, opera houses, private homes, cafés, and gambling dens Casanova visited. The style prevalent then was Rococo, known for its elaborate decoration, and we see this not just in the painting of Fragonard, but in the sedan chair, used to carry tired aristocrats around town or even inside their palaces. It’s painted with scenes of the voyages of Aeneas, and it has exuberate shell and scroll work. Martin Chapman, curator of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, says it was made in Naples, which he calls “the Motown of its day” with respect to making transportation.

The exhibition starts in Venice — where Casanova was born, in 1725 — with seven paintings by Canaletto (whose real name was Giovanni Antonio Canal) of famous landmarks of that city, such as the Piazza San Marco, the Grand Canal, and the harbor. A story goes that Casanova, who went to the University of Padua at 12 and graduated at 17 with a law degree, was playing violin at a wedding. He found a letter that a Venetian nobleman had dropped, returned it to him, was offered a gondola ride home and then saved the nobleman’s life when he had a stroke. In gratitude, the man offered to let Casanova stay with him at his palazzo, giving him a gondola, a servant and an allowance. This fortuitous episode set the son of actors off on a career as a social climber.

Francois Boucher Venus at Vulcan’s Forge (de Young Museum)

Because of his sudden rise in wealth, along with dabbling in the occult, Casanova was arrested, charged with gambling and libertinism, and sentenced to five years in a cell in the Palazzo Ducale. He escaped after sharpening an iron spike, which he used to get through walls and ceilings.

After his escape, Casanova went to Paris, where he exploited his connections, including to the King Louis XV’s mistress, to start a silk manufactory and organized the first national lottery. In Paris, he met Silvia Belleti and her daughter, Manon, who became his lover when she turned 17. (Portraits of both hang in the show.) They had a tumultuous relationship, and when she wrote him a letter saying she was marrying someone else, he says he was “consumed by fits of rage.”

Food was very important to Casanova, and through an interactive component called “The Art of Dining,” an overhead projector shows us the kind of three course meal he might have been served, with period silver and porcelain, featuring crawfish bisque and cold chicken in aspic. This gallery also has tureens, two shaped like pigeons and one like a boar’s head.

Another highlight of the exhibition was the tableaux. One is of a lady’s boudoir, another is of a card game gone wrong — you can see the trump card up one man’s sleeve — and a masked interaction in Venice. This exhibition coincides with carnival, associated with masks, but Buron said it wasn’t uncommon for people to wear them, not just for the holiday, but from October through the spring, to heighten drama and mystery.

Casanova also spent some time in London, but he didn’t seem to have liked it much, not knowing English well and not caring for the food. A quote from him on the wall reads, “I do not speak English. I like soup, French dishes, and the best wines, so I cannot put up with your taverns.”

The last gallery has paintings of some of the intellectuals Casanova met and knew, including Benjamin Franklin, Catherine the Great and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Near the end of his life — he died in 1798 — Casanova worked as a librarian in a castle in Bohemia, decided to put down his memoirs, dashing out a 12-volume autobiography, The Story of My Life. He also wrote science fiction, a history of Poland and translated The Iliad into Italian.

Casanova is most famously known as a womanizer, and some of the things he did were criminal in his own time. Buron says when they were planning this show in 2014, they had no idea that some of the issues raised by it would be so relevant in the era of #MeToo, when art institution are struggling with their responsibility around reprehensible behavior. The exhibit is not really celebrating Casanova, a man who had sex with hundreds of women, including prepubescent girls, but the art of his time, organizers say. But they want to address it and plan some events to have conversations about it, including “Female Agency in the Age of Casanova” on April 8 and “Reckoning with the Past: A Forum” on May 12.

Casanova: The Seduction of Europe, Through May 28, Legion of Honor, Lincoln Park, 100 34th Ave., $13-$28,


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