“The man of the world is wholly a mask. What he is, is nothing. What he appears to be, is everything.”
Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote these words in the mid-eighteenth century, yet anyone alive in modern society would find it difficult to dispute their truth still today. The allure of mischief, fantasy, and other-worldly celebrity are not creations of our own age, but rather firm establishments of human society at large. The star of the Legion of Honor’s latest exhibition is none other than the larger-than-life, mid-eighteenth adventurer Casanova— and his very alluring seduction of Europe.
The lowly son of an actor, Casanova grew up in Venice, its canals and waterways the playground of his childhood. In a time where, much more so than now, one’s social standing at birth seemed immovable for the rest of one’s life, Casanova found a way to deftly climb the ladder of societal success. By his mid-twenties, he was gallivanting across Europe and maneuvering his way into every social circle with the charm and wit of a modern-day Derek Blasberg. He studied, he womanized, he wined and dined and won over the hearts and bodies of the greater part of the European continent. Among some of his accolades, Casanova seduced a nun, escaped jail, and shared company with some of the greatest minds of the time—Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Johnson, Catherine the Great, and (some say) even Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Photography courtesy of Legion of Honor
Within the Legion’s exhibition, you’ll find paintings from masters like Canaletto, Longhi, Guardi, and Nattier to name but a few. Cast alongside the gorgeous paintings are fine silver, maps, original works by Casanova himself, and wardrobe finery from the mid-eighteenth century. By experiencing the lavish exhibition, you’ll orient yourself with the luxury and debauchery of the age, which saw the shirking of sexual conservatism, a freedom of ideas, and a new experimentation with the pleasures of life. Traveler, philanderer, great mind, and inspiration of the times, it may seem difficult to surmise whether Giacomo Casanova was charlatan or genius what with the hazy fog around his persona. Above all, perhaps, he is entirely indescribable. What we have of him is the incredulity of his lifestyle and the amusement to be gained from his freewheeling tendencies.
Like so many of the figures admired and followed on various social media channels today, the identity which Casanova created for himself and of himself was not substantiated on truth, but rather illusion. The myth of the man perhaps outgrew the reality, and took on a life of its own—and with it, the profound ability to inspire and ignite fantasy.
// See “Casanova: The Seduction of Europe” at the Legion of Honor through May 28th; legionofhonor.famsf.org