The Real Casanova: Legendary Lover Or Predatory Pedophile?

Illustration of Casanova with one of his conquests. (Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images)

The sexual adventures of 18th-century Italian playboy Giacomo Casanova are legendary. He was such a renowned artist of seduction that his name has become synonymous with philandering. Despite his reputation as a suave ladies man, however, a look at his exploits through a modern lens reveals a man so obsessed with sex that he wasn't above rape and pedophilia.

Giacomo Casanova

Casanova led just as exciting a life outside the bedroom, acting at various times as a diplomat, businessman, pimp, lawyer, clergyman, author, mathematician, spy, foodie, violinist, con man, criminal, and politician. He also wrote numerous plays, essays, novels, and letters. One of his novels, Icosameron, is one of the earliest examples of the science-fiction genre.

Drawing by his brother, Francesco. (State Historical Museum/Wikimedia Commons)

Casanova's Memoirs

Casanova even penned his own memoir, Histoire de ma vie, from which his modern reputation is mostly derived, but it is also this autobiography that gives us pause today. His own recollections of his exploits read more like manipulation and coercion than skilled seduction, as he sought out lonely single or unhappily married women, earned their trust, had his way with them, and discarded them. His conquests included servants, noblewomen, wives of his closest friends, prostitutes, and random strangers, many of whom seem clearly not to be willing participants. In one 1745 incident, he and seven friends kidnapped a woman from a carnival and gang raped her repeatedly as a "fine joke." He also fathered an unknown number of children that will likely never be definitely tallied because each time a woman claimed he impregnated her, he simply denied it ... when he didn't get off on it.

Portrait of Casanova. (Alessandro Longhi/Wikimedia Commons)

Casanova's Crimes

Casanova's memoirs act as written confessions of numerous incidents of child rape, often the children of his adult partners and occasionally his own. After visiting one former lover in 1761 and finding out he'd fathered her 16-year-old daughter, he wrote that all three had sex together, resulting in the teen's own pregnancy. He later wrote, “I have never been able to understand how a father could tenderly love his charming daughter without having slept with her at least once.” He also detailed the purchase of a 12-year-old girl in St. Petersburg in 1765, who he kept as his personal sex slave until she matured and he grew tired of her. To be clear, all of this was just as illegal in Casanova's time as it is today, but it was even easier back then to get away with such things—especially if you're Casanova.