How do you create a potent art museum exhibition centered on someone who was not an artist? It’s not impossible, of course. There have been fascinating shows at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art illuminating the contributions of the influential art dealers Paul Durand-Ruel, Ambroise Vollard, and Alfred Stieglitz. These examinations of the history of taste assembled exemplary works by the artists these pioneering gallerists espoused, including many that were actually exhibited or personally owned by the dealers. But what if the proposed subject, unlike Durand-Ruel or Vollard or Stieglitz, had no obvious connection with the painters and sculptors of his day? What if he was known chiefly for writing a racy memoir recounting an extremely colorful, peripatetic life, a disarmingly frank account that made his name synonymous with “hedonist,” “libertine,” and “sexual adventurer”? What, that is to say, if the subject were Giacomo Casanova? Could a major museum exhibition focusing on the paradigmatic rake be created—not by the Museum of Sex?

The answer is a resounding “Yes.” Witness the delicious “Casanova: The Seduction of Europe,” a witty, multivalent celebration of the arts, culture, and social mores of high-end eighteenth-century Europe, as seen, experienced, and commented upon by the man himself.1 It turns out that Casanova, despite his name’s current associations mainly with the erotic, is an excellent, all-purpose guide. He was not only, as we learn from his own account, an irresistible seducer, adventurer, gambler, con man, convict, escapee, spy, and social climber, but also, according to everyone he encountered as he moved across Europe, a glittering conversationalist in several languages and a trenchant observer who charmed men and women alike. He was also an inexhaustible traveler who zigzagged across Europe for most of his life, starting from his native Northern Italy and reaching, among many other places, Constantinople, Saint Petersburg, Moscow, Riga, and Dresden, with extended sojourns in Spain, Paris, and London, often changing identities and occupations, both real and assumed, when he changed locations. (An obsessed graduate student who charted Casanova’s journeys calculated that he logged forty thousand miles—in an era of horse-drawn coaches and river barges.)

The exhibition evokes the era in which all this took place with a dazzling selection of paintings, prints, drawings, and sculptures, sumptuous furniture and decorative objects, costumes, porcelain, silver, commedia dell’arte figurines, a slightly sinister boar’s head tureen, books, and, since Casanova was Casanova, a section of X-rated miniature “how-to” drawings, accompanied by a warning for fragile sensibilities and magnifying glasses for the adventurous. There’s literally something for everyone. Each of the two hundred or so outstanding inclusions, from snuff boxes and toiletry sets to enormous paintings and over-the-top furniture, was made between 1725, when Casanova was born, and 1798, when he died. We are delighted, absorbed, intrigued, and occasionally titillated by the works on view. But we are also instructed and informed. There are subtexts on theater, performance, masking, identity, travel, dining, and class structure, among other things. We learn a great deal about the period and we have a wonderful time as we do.

Could a major museum exhibition focusing on the paradigmatic rake be created—not by the Museum of Sex?

“Casanova: The Seduction of Europe,” on view at the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, through December 2017, will be seen in 2018 at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Legion of Honor, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, with minor differences in the selection of exhibited works at each museum. Not surprisingly, the enormous, complex, lavish show required the combined efforts of a team of specialist curators, a list almost as complicated and wide-ranging as Casanova’s twelve-volume History of My Life. It includes: C. D. Dickerson, who initially conceived the project, the head of sculpture and decorative arts at the National Gallery, Washington, D.C.; Esther Bell, the senior curator of the Clark Art Institute, Williamstown; and, all from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Frederick Ilchman, the chair of the art of Europe, Thomas Michie, the senior curator of decorative arts, and Pamela Parmal, the chair of textile and fashion arts, among other collaborators. The list of contributors to the lively, generously illustrated, extremely entertaining catalogue is even longer.

Jean-Marc Nattier, Thalia, Muse of Comedy, 1739Oil on canvas,  The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

While the exhibition is not, strictly speaking, a biography of Casanova, it uses the salient and sometimes salacious events recounted in History of My Life as an organizing principle. As beautifully installed at the Kimbell by the museum’s deputy director, George T. M. Shackelford, the story begins with a section titled “Venice,” which includes an impressive group of large vedute paintings of Casanova’s birthplace by Giovanni Antonio Canal, called Canaletto. The ensemble conjures up the moist shifting light of the magical city and the boat traffic on the Grand Canal, from luxurious private gondole to robust wine barrel transports, against backgrounds of monumental domed churches and handsome palazzi. For those who know Venice, one view is a sly reminder that just out of sight, round a bend of the depicted scene, is the San Samuele neighborhood of narrow canals and narrower streets where Casanova was born to an actress. But there are no images of this more workaday side of La Serenissima in the exhibition, perhaps because Casanova soon left it. A ravishing, somewhat atypical Canaletto of the outskirts of Padua, on the mainland, more landscape than canal scene, signals the brilliant, precocious adolescent’s studies at the university there.

The next gallery, “Inside Venice,” introduces us to the elegant world Casanova quickly became part of, after receiving a Doctorate in Law from the University of Padua at the improbable age of sixteen. The story is told, in part, by Pietro Longhi’s intimate paintings of shadowy interiors populated by smartly dressed young women, musicians, suitors, and equivocal older men. At first, they seem to be straightforward genre scenes, but closer scrutiny suggests that subtle negotiations are taking place. An eminent art history professor of mine once said that he always thought the people in Longhi’s paintings were listening to Mozart. If so, it might be the parts of The Marriage of Figaro dealing with concealment and subterfuge. (In this context, it’s worth remembering that Casanova and Lorenzo da Ponte, the librettist of The Marriage of Figaro, were friends.) Casanova’s rapid ascent within Venetian society is embodied by opulent gilded furniture, all sinuous curves, richly worked surfaces, and fabulous upholstery, contextualized by studies for ceiling decorations by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Together, the paintings and furniture serve as capsule evocations of the grand rooms that the ambitious young man now frequented. At the Kimbell, the contrast between these elaborate Rococo furnishings and the austere high modernism of the iconic Louis Kahn building intensifies the impact of the objects on view, allowing us to savor fully their concentrated doses of eighteenth-century luxury. At intervals, black-and-white enlargements of period prints become economical backgrounds, mediating between the Kimbell’s pure geometry and stripped-down surfaces, and the character of the exhibited works.

The subjects range from the high-minded to the pastoral to the lascivious to the obliquely graphic.

The next section, “Amorous Pursuits,” presents the type of images we might expect in connection with someone whose memoir the art historian Susan M. Wager describes, in her enlightening and engaging catalogue essay, as an account of “a six-decade, transcontinental succession of sexual conquests, assignations, and affairs with well over a hundred partners: married women, men, prostitutes, nuns, and even his own family members.” Since Casanova spent a great deal of time in Paris, which was famous for that sort of thing, this section includes works by such French masters of amorous themes as François Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard, as well as the British social satirist William Hogarth, and some of their lesser-known but accomplished colleagues. The subjects range from the high-minded (the loves of the classical gods) to the pastoral (flirtatious, well-dressed shepherds and shepherdesses) to the lascivious (two girls in shifts playing with their lapdogs in bed )to the obliquely graphic (Hogarth’s Before and After, both 1736, a pair of canvases that force us to imagine what happened in between). None of this is gratuitous. Libertinage and sexual license were hallmarks of Casanova’s day, especially in France, Wager reminds us, part of a revolution in ideas about love, sex, and family, including women’s appetites, that foreshadowed modern attitudes. Wager persuasively ties this to concepts that seem wholly bound up with Enlightenment ideals, noting that “These alterations in intimate behavior reflected the growing cultural and philosophical value placed on selfhood, personal liberty, privacy, and the individual’s right to pursue happiness.” (See Thomas Jefferson.)

William Hogarth, After, ca. 1731Oil on canvas, © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, U.K.

In Venice, Casanova’s pursuit of happiness included an extra-conventual arrangement with a couple of nuns, which also involved the French ambassador. To help us envision how this might have been accomplished, a section titled “The Troublemaker” includes a superb, dashingly painted Francesco Guardi, The Parlatorio (1745–50), a large canvas showing the room where convent visitors, including suitors, could converse with nuns and resident young ladies who were not members of the order, through ample screened openings. On the visitors’ side, Guardi includes well-dressed men and women, a lapdog, and children watching a puppet show. Behind the very large grilles, we see bejeweled, fashionable young women; the nuns are just as youthful and fetching, but wear black and don fine, sheer wimples. Nearby, a tableau of costumed mannequins, the first of a series that punctuates the show, brings a visit to the parlatorio to life. Despite the permissive atmosphere of the day, this time Casanova’s behavior attracted the attention of the Inquisition and he was sentenced, at age thirty, to five years’ imprisonment in the unpleasant attic cells of the Doge’s Palace known as i piombi—the leads. In one of the best-known passages of his book, he describes his escape, after a little more than a year, with a fellow prisoner. In the exhibition, a selection of Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s fantastic prints of imaginary prisons, Carceri d’invenzione (begun 1745), embodies this event, with a brooding Canaletto of the island of Murano doing triple duty as an image of the moonless night of the escape and of the site of both the nuns’ convent and the trysting place the French ambassador arranged for the complicated affair.

We follow Casanova’s prudent, post-escape relocation to Paris in a gallery devoted to six gorgeous wall panels with mythological scenes by Boucher. Normally divided between the Kimbell and the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, the ensemble is reunited to splendid effect, anchored at one end by a group of costumed figures plotting hanky-panky amid fine furniture, and at the other by a pair of spectacular, oversized gilded bronze wall lights with volutes and parakeets, and a vast gilded bronze clock surmounting what is said to be the largest bombécommode in captivity. Casanova’s sojourn in London is conjured up by images of the era’s notorious pleasure gardens and scenes of gambling, most notably Hogarth’s The Lady’s Last Stake (1759), an interior where an elegant woman, who has clearly risked all her tangible assets, ponders whether to offer herself to the importunate fellow she is gaming with. Another costume tableau dramatizes the discovery that a simply dressed card player has been cheating; his richly clad opponent knocks over a fine mahogany chair in his rage.

Casanova’s ambitious wanderings are evoked by a pair of meticulous, near-panoramic views of Dresden by Bernardo Bellotto, a hobnail-studded trunk, and a rare, ferociously refined canvas of women in Turkey by Jean-Étienne Liotard, better known for his pastel portraits. The discomforts and perils of travel are made vivid by two immense canvases by Francesco Casanova, the painter-brother of the writer. Intended to provoke shudders of terror, Collapse of the Bridge and Travelers in a Storm (both ca. 1770) present scenes of inescapable horror; in one, a horse-drawn carriage and its occupants plunge into a rocky chasm, while in the other, the occupants of a cart are struck by lightning. (Apparently there are two more narratives, equally grim, in the series.) The paintings make the thought of Casanova’s having covered an estimated forty thousand miles not only exhausting, but also terrifying.

At the Kimbell, exhaustion and terror are soothed by a gallery of superb objects associated with dining—the kind that Casanova would have encountered at the fashionable dinners and aristocratic soirées he attended across Europe or that he would have rented in order to convey an impression of wealth when he entertained the people he wished to cultivate. The selection includes fine examples of Sèvres and Meissen porcelain, exquisitely wrought silver pieces by some of the most celebrated makers of the era, and that leering earthenware boar’s head tureen, tusks and all, with his ears at a jaunty angle.

Throughout the installation, we encounter portraits of people significant to Casanova, including women he loved and described, disguising their names, in his memoir, as well as such public figures as the celebrated castrato known as Farinelli, the most acclaimed and highest paid singer of his day. The last gallery emphasizes just how rich and varied Casanova’s connections were—from royalty and revolutionaries to artists, writers, and intellectuals. We are surrounded by paintings and sculptures of such luminaries as Louis XV and his mistress Madame de Pompadour, their portrait busts reunited after long separation, along with Benjamin Franklin and Pope Clement XIII, and other memorable portraits including Joshua Reynolds’s imposing life-size image of a seated Samuel Johnson; Jean-Antoine Houdon’s incisive marble bust of Voltaire, with a wry smile; Anton Raphael Mengs’s self-portrait, with its virtuoso paint-handling; and the Scottish painter Allan Ramsay’s sensitive head of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, painted when the Enlightenment hero visited London. It’s an impressive pantheon. Apparently, most were not casual acquaintances, but people with whom Casanova spent substantial amounts of time.

The exhibition offers a visually and intellectually stimulating, deeply pleasurable introduction to the world that Casanova (and Don Giovanni) inhabited.

This crowd of notables concludes “Casanova: The Seduction of Europe” with a crescendo, but the life of the notorious writer, traveler, and womanizer in fact ended diminuendo. Pardoned by the city of Venice in 1744, he returned there, after eighteen years of exile, for almost a decade, before taking a post in Vienna with the Venetian ambassador. Improbably, Casanova spent his last years as a librarian in Waldstein Castle, in a small duchy in what is now the Czech Republic. The most exciting thing we learn about the end of his life is that he attended the first performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni in Prague and consulted with Da Ponte on the libretto at the time of the premiere. It’s impossible not to wonder if that included vetting the servant Leporello’s catalogue of the Don’s international liaisons, although Casanova didn’t spend enough time in Spain to account for the aria’s claim of one-thousand-and-three conquests. “Casanova: The Seduction of Europe” provides no details about that. But it does offer a visually and intellectually stimulating, deeply pleasurable introduction to the world that Casanova (and Don Giovanni) inhabited. And the catalogue, with its lush pink, peekaboo cover, is a great read.

1 “Casanova: The Seduction of Europe,” opened at the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, on August 27 and remains on view through December 31, 2017.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 2, on page 47
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