"Rebels of 18th Century Venice: Casanova and Aristocratic Daughters Consorting in Convents" by Ozlem Eren

HUSI student Özlem Eren examines Casanova's legacy in light of her recent visit to the Museum of Fine Art's exhibition on 18th century life in Europe.

Gondolas glide along the canal with an air of excitement; it's carnival time in Venice! Handsome young men in masks approach the nunnery and pick up young women dressed in delicate silk gowns under the watchful gaze of the mother superior. The dresses are cut in the latest fashion from the most luxurious Venetian brocades and silks, embroidered with pearls. In the women’s hands flutter diamond and gem-crusted fans, which by this time have become serious flirtation devices…

These were the daughters of the patricians of 18th century Venice, sent to convents until they found upper class husbands suitable in the eyes of their family. Members of convents were under increasing pressure from the Pope since 1563, when the Council of Trent passed laws to enforce the encloisterment (clausura) of nuns. Yet, still, they frequently met with trendy bachelors, attended carnivals, performed theater, exchanged letters, and had passionate love affairs. “Occasionally the inevitable happened – the pregnant nun, the secret birth, the rumor passed off as ‘calumny’,” wrote historian Maurice Andrieux.1 Today it is rather strange to think of nuns in this way.

Ozlem 1 Casanova exhibitFigure 1. The installation of an 18th century convent parlor at the MFA

 

The current exhibition at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, “Casanova’s Europe: Art, Pleasure, and Power in the 18th Century” (July 8, 2018 – October 8, 2018), transports the viewers directly into the luxurious and treacherous world of the 18th century European elite, who spoke the language of money, power, deception, and intrigue. The exhibition displays a breathtaking collection of 18th century Venetian and Parisian luxury and splendor, including several masterpieces by 18th century painters, such as Giovanni Canal (Canaletto), Rosalba Carriera, and Francesco Guardi. The most intriguing part of the exhibit is the model of an 18th century “parlatorio” (convent parlor), where nuns and young men (represented here by extravagantly dressed mannequins) could meet behind the iron-barred windows to exchange conversations and arrange meetings. Nearby, a painting by Guardi presents the same theme.

On August 5th, the MFA will host several 15-minute spotlight talks about 18th century Venetian convent life with Barbara Lynn-Davis, Wellesley college lecturer and author of the 2017 book Casanova’s Secret Wife. These talks will take place at 1pm, 2pm, and 3pm at the Ann and Graham Gund Gallery (Gallery LG31).

Ozlem 3 Casanova bustFigure 2. The photograph of a print of a bust of Jacques Casanova de Seingalt. Harvard Law School Library. http://id.lib.harvard.edu/via/olvwork390899/catalog [Seingalt is an added pseudonym, forged by Casanova in 1760 when he was in Zurich. He calls himself Chevalier de Seingalt]

Giacomo Girolamo Casanova, (1725-1798) a native son of Venice, quickly found a way to overcome his modest origins and enter the world of the rich and influential. He attended balls, met nobles (possibly even Mozart in 1787 in Prague), had affairs with hundreds of women throughout Europe, hid under false identities, and finally became the quintessential reprobate of 18th century Venice. Casanova’s numerous fortunes and misfortunes, feelings and thoughts about women, adventures and escape from jail are detailed in his own diaries, and could not have been told better by anyone else. Harvard’s Widener Library and image collections provide rich resources for those who are interested in learning more about life during the time of Casanova.

Casanova’s most captivating love intrigues were with the nuns at the convent of Santa Maria Degli Angeli Church at the Murano island in Venice, whom he identified only by their initials, M* M* and C* C*. In 1968, researchers established that the real names of these famous women were “Caterina Capretta” and “Marina Maria Morosini”.2 Casanova frequently attended Mass in Santa Maria Degli Angeli for the chance to visit his mistresses. Today, the convent where M* M* lived no longer exists, since it was demolished in 1810, but the church still attracts many visitors.

In his own words, Casanova describes meeting M* M* through a wealthy countess, beginning his affair, like this:

The next morning, being Sunday, I need not say that I took care to attend mass at the convent, elegantly dressed. In the afternoon I masked myself again, and at the appointed time I repaired to the house of the countess, who was waiting for me. We went in a two-oared gondola, and reached the convent without having spoken of anything but the weather. When we arrived at the gate the countess asked for M* M* … We were shown into a small parlour, and a few minutes afterwards a nun came in, went straight to the grating, touched a spring, and made four squares of the grating revolve, which left an opening sufficiently large to enable the two friends to embrace: The ingenious window was afterwards carefully closed.3

With countless intrigues, was Casanova a heartless womanizer who abused hundreds of women and never looked back?

We need to leave behind our modern conceptions about love, relationships, and sex, and try to understand the historical realities behind convent life in 18th century Venice. So, let’s dive in:

Ozlem 4 Santa Maria ChurchFigure 3. Santa Maria Degli Angeli, Murano Island, Venice

In Early Modern aristocratic societies, women were prohibited from “marrying down,” that is, marrying a man of a class lower than themselves, since the offspring would automatically belong to the father’s social class.

Women marrying down threatened the future of the aristocratic families, as Jutta Gisela Sperling argues in her book Convents and Body Politic in Late Renaissance Venice (1999). Sperling writes, “As more women refused to marry ‘down’ … more men were forced to look for partners among the citizenry. And as more noblemen4 were forced to remain bachelors, [or] lived with concubines in secretly sanctified unions … fewer patrician women were successful in making a proper match.”5 Between 1550 and 1650, “aristocratic girls were more likely to become nuns than wives.”6 It was purely the lack of suitable upper class marriage partners that sent the girls to the convents, not the increasing burden of dowry that the woman’s father had to pay to the groom’s family at the time of marriage, as some historians have argued. The solution for elite families who feared the loss of their high status was sending the “extra” girls to the convent rather than marrying them down. In fact, in 1580, when the Pope wanted to establish stricter discipline in Venetian convents, a papal diplomat to Venice informed the Pope that this would discourage many patrician girls from taking the veil, and that would ruin many influential families in Venice.7

As expected, these women were frustrated about being kept behind bars (literally) in a secluded life they did not choose. They often knew nothing about life, society, and men. Therefore, they were open to abuse and trickery at the hands of seducers. The affairs and escapades more often than not ended disproportionately in favor of their lovers. In one case, two nuns in San Zaccharia were caught hiding two men in the basement of the convent for two weeks, and were accused of carrying food to them during the day and meeting with them at night. The 1614 account of one of the nuns’ confession goes like this:

I came to the convent as a small girl about four or five years old. … I was accepted as a nun in this convent when I was about fifteen years old. I became a novice, and then I professed with my mouth, but not with my heart. Zuccone Cocco, a young man about 20 years … came occasionally to see me in the parlor…I fell in love with him, and I got him to love me also. I used every art, even magic, that is incantations, conjurations, and invocations of the devil…8

Ozlem 5 Hogarth painting Ladys Last StakeWilliam Hogarth, The Lady's Last Stake, 1759. Oil on canvas. Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery Buffalo, New York. Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr., 1945. Image retrieved 8/2018 from MFA website

Although Casanova is a product of this misogynistic, male-dominated world, he nonetheless departs from the stereotypical “Don Juan” type of selfish roué. In his memoirs we see pages and pages of his feelings for these women –of course, keeping in mind that memoir as a genre has its own rules and conventions. Contrary to popular belief, his memoirs do not have explicit or disrespectful descriptions. On several occasions, Casanova contemplated marrying his love interests. Most interesting of all, the women that he seduced were not deceived by him; they were willing and happy to go along with the sexual adventures. Casanova actually thought about deeper philosophical topics such as women’s place in society and wrote exactly this:

The nuns, or those of certain convents at least, are cheerful libertines who do no harm at all and as much good as possible. If they fail to keep an enforced vow of chastity it is no fault of theirs but of the parents who pushed them into the cloister and of the people who thought of such a dreary vow to begin with. Their intrigues are generally love affairs, and they have such nice natures.9

Therefore, Casanova does not fit easily into today’s understanding of abuse and the #MeToo movement. He did not manipulate or abuse these women, and arguably had more genuine motives than many men of his time or those involved in recent scandals. Nonetheless, the topic of women’s rights is more important than ever, since it is the shared culture of treating women as objects that allowed seducers and abuses to arise in the first place, regardless of whether Casanova perfectly fits that definition.


  1. Andrieux, Maurice, Daily Life in Venice at the Time of Casanova, London, George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1972, 169
  2. Sollers, Philippe, and Mortimer, Armine Kotin. Casanova the Irresistible. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016, 50. http://id.lib.harvard.edu/alma/990146534590203941/catalog 
  3. Casanova, Machen, Gribble, Machen, Arthur, and Gribble, George Dunning, The Life and Memoirs of Casanova. Da Capo Paperback. New York, N.Y.: Da Capo Press, 1984, 301
  4. Regarding the status of nobility, Oliver Logan writes: “Nobility was purely a legal status. Many nobles were in fact paupers. It has been suggested that the nobility was in decline in the first half of the 17th century.” Culture and Society in Venice 1470-1790, p.26
  5. Sperling, Jutta Gisela. Convents and the Body Politic in Late Renaissance Venice. Women in Culture and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999, 21
  6. Sperling, 18
  7. Sperling, 30
  8. Sperling 38-39
  9. Excerpt from Casanova’s Memoirs 1923 Sirene Edition

Özlem ErenÖzlem Eren is a PhD Student in Art History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, studying medieval art history. Her research focuses on the art and architecture of Early Medieval Rus' and its interactions with the Byzantine Empire. She is taking the Ukrainian for Reading Knowledge class at HUSI to support her research, as most of the architectural monuments of Early Medieval Rus' are in present-day Ukraine. 

https://arthistory.wisc.edu/people/graduate-students/eren

 

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