Apologies to Chelsea Handler. If you had to pick history’s bestselling sex memoir, it would be the innocuous-sounding Story of My Life by the 18th century playboy, Giacamo Casanova.
First published (in a heavily censored version) in 1821, it has gone through dozens of editions and translations over the last two hundred years, and sales have increased even more since the uncensored version was finally released in English in 1967. In fact, it has proven to be one of the most popular books ever written, recounting 122 of the Venetian’s love affairs in raunchy, hilarious detail. Not a huge tally compared to, say, certain modern rock stars, but still impressive nonetheless.
The odd thing is that many people consider Casanova a fictional character. Maybe it’s hard to take seriously someone who has been played for laughs by Donald Sutherland, Heath Ledger, Tony Curtis and even, at one stage, Bob Hope.
For my book The Sinner’s Grand Tour, I went to Venice to track down the historical sites related to Casanova’s actual life. It was a paradoxical experience. Today, he remains Venice’s most famous son, whose life epitomizes the sensual decadence of the city in the 18th century, when it operated as the red-light district for all Europe. But surprisingly, finding any memorials – or even evidence of his existence — is difficult. But now, the most famous of all, his prison cell in the Doge’s Palace, can be visited via a specially-arranged Itinerario Segreto, Secret Tour. Few people realize that Casanova was arrested in 1755 by the Venetian Inquisition – he was officially charged with using magic and astrology, but the real reason was that he was attempting to seduce one of the Inquisitor’s lovers – and was sent to rot in the so-called ‘Leads’ in the attic beneath the palace roof. After 16 months, he made a spectacular escape, becoming the only person to ever break out of the dreaded prison. Today, in order to join the Secret Tour and visit the cell, you have to be as patient as Casanova – in other words, book far in advance.
(For more on the Covert Casanova Tour of Venice, click here).