About the Exhibition

Casanova: The Seduction of Europe explores life in the eighteenth century through the eyes of one of its most colorful characters, Giacomo Casanova (1725–1798). Renowned in modern times for his amorous pursuits, Casanova lived not only in Italy, but in France and England, and his travels took him to the Ottoman Empire and to meet Catherine the Great in Saint Petersburg. Gathering together paintings, sculpture, works on paper, furnishings, porcelains, silver, and period costume, Casanova will bring this world to life. Following its display in Fort Worth, the exhibition will be on view at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco / Legion of Honor and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.


Amorous Pursuits
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Playboy, womanizer, philanderer: Casanova’s name comes down to us as a synonym for flagrant seduction. In his memoirs, he recounts a six-decade, transcontinental succession of sexual conquests, assignations, and affairs with well over one hundred partners. These ranged from virgins to married women, from prostitutes to nuns, from glancing encounters with men to members of his own family. Love—romantic, carnal, or a combination of the two—seems always to have been on his mind. He witnessed the birth of libertinage, a movement advocating the abandonment of polite society’s conventions regarding love and sexual expression. The exhibition explores the artistic expression of eighteenth-century Europe’s evolving views on sex and love. Side by side with depictions of modern-day flirtation, mythological subjects allowed many artists to explore overtly erotic themes; the love lives of the gods proved both racy and publically palatable. Private commissions, however, resulted in more intimate, blatantly passionate imagery.
 

 



The Theater of Identity

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Theater was in Casanova’s blood, and he found endless influence in the worlds of fantasy, storytelling, and music offered by the Venetian theatrical demimonde. Quickly, however, he learned that not all acting requires a stage. Throughout his life he traveled under assumed names, donning different costumes. An author who possessed the gifts of an actor, he invented himself as he went along. Closely associated with the stage, the mask was an apt symbol for this century of spectacle—and Venice was the city of masks. Locals and foreigners alike donned them during the city’s famed Carnival. Faces covered, people of all ranks mingled freely in cafés, dark passageways, the resplendent Piazza San Marco, and in the sideshows of trained animals, acrobats, charlatans, and soothsayers. Venetians also wore masks for courtly balls and, traditionally, from October through Lent each year. Whether at a ball in France or within Venice’s rigid social hierarchy, the mask afforded a degree of anonymity—allowing its wearer to more fluidly interact across classes and lending an appearance of equality among those who consistently jockeyed for social status.


  The Art of Luxury 
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Elaborately carved furnishings, delicate gilded stucco plasterwork, sumptuous damask walls, and paintings by the masters of the day: the splendid interiors of Venice’s palazzi must have astounded the modestly born Casanova. Richly appointed, with high, often frescoed ceilings, the grand palace halls were also used for entertaining and for the display of the owner’s wealth and sophistication. As Casanova acquired his taste for life in society’s upper echelons, his unrivaled ability to play to his audience served him well in Venice and on to Paris, Europe, and Turkey. In the middle of the eighteenth century, Paris was the center of the fashionable universe. French artists and craftsmen excelled in painting, furniture-making, and decorative arts. Often, they worked on commission for stylish (and wealthy) patrons, in whose circles Casanova strove to move. Indeed, in his time in Paris, Casanova performed at his social peak and amassed significant wealth. Dining and meals were also an important part of social life during the eighteenth century. For Casanova, they served as opportunities to display his personal taste, his ability to entertain—and sometimes even his skills in seduction. At this moment, the table became more visually interesting, with a variety of serving dishes to present new recipes. The exhibition invites us into the luxurious spaces of Casanova’s Europe, where identity could be invented and performed, like a role on the stage—where a poor man might learn to appreciate the luxury that came with wealth.

The Adventure of Travel
 
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Casanova, though closely associated with his hometown of Venice, logged over forty thousand miles during six decades on the road. Traveling long distances in the eighteenth century could be challenging, uncomfortable, and arduously slow. As much as he may have complained about the hardships of extended travel, he was also energized by it and eager to see new places across the continent. Casanova was not the only Venetian to travel far from La Serenissima. Artworks in the exhibition, especially those of Casanova’s brother Francesco and his compatriot Bernardo Bellotto, tell a story of how Venetians spread out across the continent, looking for new experiences, patrons, and inspiration. The truth is, however, that travel was not only uncomfortable and arduous, but often dangerous. The perils of travel ran the gamut from general discomfort to exposure to the elements (such as the snow of the Alps), to the dangers posed by untrustworthy fellow companions and outright thieves.