Giacomo Casanova’s legendary life of adventure is well known from his autobiographical Mémoires. The Venetian writer and traveller charmed his way across eighteenth-century Europe. The discovery of a hitherto unknown letter shows that Casanova was also close to his family and down-to-earth, dispensing firm but kind advice to his nephew.
Library Assistant Maria Giovanna De Simone describes the excitement the 1791 letter has created in the Wren Library and what it tells us about Casanova and the whirlwind times he lived through.
What is your role regarding the find?
When the letter emerged from a book in the Crewe Collection, with my Italian native speaker hat on I was asked to translate it; I think we were all hoping for a love letter! I embarked with enthusiasm in the transcription and translation work and, as much as I immediately realised that the content was about money matters rather than romantic affairs, I was delighted to discover a side of Casanova’s personality that is not widely known. Hence the desire to research the context further, and the identification of the addressee, who was an unknown member of the Casanova family until now. As a librarian working with special collections, I always try to picture the ‘real life’ stories behind the written words or objects that I am privileged to work with.
What is most interesting to you about Casanova?
Before coming across this letter, I knew as much as everybody else about him: an eighteenth-century Venetian adventurer famous for his many romantic encounters (some of which today would be considered predatory and abusive), who travelled extensively around Europe and wrote an autobiography which, apart from being a literary sensation at the time, was also important in shedding light on one of the most turbulent times in the history of the Continent.
Researching his life for my blog post, I was intrigued to discover he was a librarian for the last 13 years of his life. This was a chance for him to settle down, live near his family, and have the time to write his autobiography. Sadly, he wasn’t enjoying his role as much as I enjoy mine! But this was due to the lack of esteem he was shown by other people living in Duchcov Castle and working for the Count of Waldstein at the time.
What is your role in the Wren Library?
As Library Assistant at Trinity since 2014, I undertake a variety of tasks. Currently, my focus is creating content for the Library’s social media. When the Crewe Collection was bequeathed to the Wren Library by the Duchess of Roxburghe – more than 7,500 books – I got involved in cataloguing them, completing work on the Italian collection and helping whenever my language skills were useful.
Being a native speaker of a European language is always an advantage in the world of rare book collections. I have a background in Italian literature, palaeography and cataloguing and it is a privilege to be able to use these skills and knowledge in such a fascinating environment. I had a stint in journalism during my university years in Italy, which helps with spotting a good story and communicating it in an engaging way.
How rare is it to find an unknown letter written by a well-known literary figure?
Generally speaking, this is quite a rare find. We were lucky in the sense that the letter, simply signed ‘Giacomo’, was addressed to his nephew, who was also a Casanova, and the full address, including the surname, was present, as well as the date and place. So there wasn’t much reason to doubt Giacomo’s identity.
However, in the context of the Crewe Collection and the ongoing cataloguing project, we come across letters, documents and other items inserted in the books fairly often. Richard Monckton Milnes, who amassed the Collection, was always on the lookout for peculiar books with some extra added value. Working on the Crewe Collection – and indeed in the Wren Library generally – it truly feels like working in a treasure trove.
The popular perception of Casanova is one thing but what more do we learn about him from this letter?
Apart from his Mémoires, there is a rich correspondence showing Casanova’s ability to move successfully through eighteenth-century society, entertaining relationships with the nobility and building a network of contacts across Europe.
It is a lot more unusual, however, to get a glimpse of Giacomo in a more familial context. The Casanovas weren’t a stable family: Giacomo’s mother, Zanetta Farussi, had been living in Dresden for years, working as an actress for the Saxon Court; his brothers were painters, working between Rome, Paris and Germany; family members had been scattered for decades, in a world where keeping in touch with each other was nothing like it is today.
What emerges from the letter is a man who, in spite of all the difficulties and frequent misunderstandings, cares for his family and feels for a nephew who has strayed from the ‘good’ path. Although there is a good dose of rightful anger in the letter, this is tempered by an affection that regards family ties as more important than the occasional failing or old grudge. In an age where all our family relationships are strained by physical distance, Giacomo Casanova can (for a change) be a good role model. I like to think he would be pleased and amused if he could read this.
You can read the Library blog – Money matters: the discovery of an unpublished letter by Giacomo Casanova – and a transcription and translation of the letter.