BOSTON — His parents were actors, his grandfather made shoes; he did not seem born for great things. Giacomo Casanova, though, had assets that outshone the lack of money and title: boldness, wit, a gift for languages, and charm enough to slide into a seat at a cardinal’s dinner table or a countess’s bed. In his native Venice, in glittering Paris, and then across the continent, he reinvented himself as he went, playing the roles of author, courtier, entrepreneur, spy. The actors’ son trod the boards of a different stage, one that stretched from London to Constantinople.
The voracious Venetian hovers like a governing spirit over the art of the 18th century in “Casanova’s Europe,” a vivacious and often ingenious exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts here. Now his name is a bare synonym for sexual prowess, or worse — Casanova went to bed with his own daughter, and several of his romances fell well short of the contemporary bar of affirmative consent.
But he was also, as this show asserts, a kind of working-class hero, whose rakish tastes and picaresque exploits only became possible as an old social order began to give way. The mid-18th century was an era of cultivation and refinement, but also prime time for hustlers, gold diggers and chancers of all sorts. Casanova, the most erudite of scammers, was the archetype of the age.
The Boston museum is the third and final stop for this exhibition, and its yearlong run has coincided with an essential shift in how cultural institutions frame inequalities of gender, those of today and yesterday. (The show has been renamed for this last stop on its tour; at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth and the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, it went by the somewhat sexier “Casanova: The Seduction of Europe.”) Yet libertinage, or the celebration of the pleasures of the flesh, is just one of this show’s interests, and the lover boy himself is not really its subject.
Casanova’s autobiography, “The Story of My Life,” provides granular insight into the 18th century’s social manners over its 3,700 handwritten pages: how high-living Europeans feasted and gambled, how they chose their clothes or styled their hair, how they maintained a veneer of piety while seducing one another. Those insights are the invisible frame around the more than 250 paintings, furnishings, costumes and books here, which the curators have mashed together to evoke a Pan-European social scene in which life took on the aspects of theater. Images of lusty shepherds and goddesses set the sexual tone of “Casanova’s Europe,” but decorative arts matter even more: velvet suits and beaver-trimmed hats, keyboards and poker tables, porcelain statues, gilded candelabras and silver soup tureens.
We enter Casanova’s Venice through an initial gallery of half a dozen vedute, or cityscape paintings, by Canaletto: black-veiled women gossip beneath the arches of the Palazzo Ducale, and boatmen ply the lagoon between San Marco and San Giorgio Maggiore. Casanova was born there in 1725, and for centuries, a small number of families had enjoyed all the political power and all the good wine.
By the mid-18th century, though, these Venetian aristocrats and merchants were living public lives, inviting attention in salons and cafes, putting on a show at the opera and in church. Now a young man from the wrong class might just about mingle with this crowd — if he looked and talked the part.
First you needed clothing, and this show contains sumptuous ensembles for both sexes; a man on the make might have favored the silk and velvet three-piece suit on one mannequin here, its jacket gussied up with threads of silver and twinkling paillettes. Once inside the palazzo, you’d have to make conversation about the beautiful objects your host collected, his etched glasses, his gold sconces, or bawdy statuettes of lovers acquired from the porcelain factory in Meissen. You would play music with the lady of the house, on a harpsichord whose lid was painted with scenes of mythological romance. You would gossip about love and money, and deflect when asked about your past.
Casanova got his entry into this shining world after saving the life of a grateful senator, and he took to it like a gondola to water. He also had another skill — a dirtier one, but one no less welcome in high society. The pursuit of pleasure had taken on philosophical and political importance in the mid-18th century, and Europeans were falling into bed every which way, the more operatic the better.
The German painter Johann Zoffany appears here in a lusty self-portrait that functioned as the 18th-century equivalent of a cruising app profile, with two condoms, decorated with pretty pink string, prominently tacked to the wall behind him. A dozen pornographic drawings by the French artist Claude-Louis Desrais depict bewigged aristocrats in acrobatic ménages à trois (or more than trois), and three of them feature scenes of sadomasochism, the 18th-century sex practice par excellence. Two women in long dresses and bonnets thrash a third lover in a canopied bed. In another scene, a lady takes a bullwhip to a delighted man suspended from a pulley.
Libertinage was, needless to add, a man’s privilege. Yet women knew the rules of the game, and for both men and women, sex became another kind of theater, in which what you said never really expressed what you meant.
In a voluptuous painting here by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, which he gave the winkingly ironic title “The Useless Resistance” and completed in 1773, a maiden swaddled in silks tugs on the wig of an advancing seducer, who has lifted her skirt to reveal her opalescent thighs. It’s easy now to misread this picture as a scene of sexual assault, but the smiles on both lovers’ faces give it away: She is pantomiming her unwillingness, just as he is pantomiming his advance. Sex, too, was a masquerade, which allowed this (upper-class) woman to enjoy her desires and still hold onto her virtue.
Even women in convents could have a vibrant sex life, if they played it right. In “Casanova’s Europe” you’ll find a tableau of ornately dressed mannequins in a parlatorio, a nunnery’s visiting room where laymen could speak to the young women whose wealthy parents had judged holy orders cheaper than dowries.
It was in a Venetian parlatorio like this that Casanova would have met one of his most notorious lovers, a nun whom he gave the pseudonym M. M., who had numerous other paramours, male and female. She was not the only bride of Christ to break her vows; a naughty double-sided painting here depicts a young nun kneeling in prayer from the front and, from the back, opening her habit to reveal her bare bottom.
That’s the European 18th century for you: age of Enlightenment, age of adultery. The two were especially mixed in Paris, where the regency of the promiscuous, hard-drinking Duke of Orleans had ushered in a new social tolerance for sex, and where Casanova arrived in 1750. Etchings here of masked balls, theatrical performances and nights of gambling evoke the pleasures of the Parisian night, and another tableau, of a married woman at her toilette arranging a tryst with a younger lover, gives a provocative spin to silver pieces, snuffboxes and other decorative objects that museumgoers often overlook.
Casanova returned to Paris in 1757 after escaping a Venetian jail, where he was locked up for heresy, and which this show’s curators evoke through Piranesi’s nearly contemporary prints of shadowy imagined prisons. Casanova’s notoriety won him a place in the richest apartments in Versailles; soon he was running the Paris lottery, and spying for the French government. There were more schemes, money won and lost, time on the road and on the run.
At last he aged out of love and went off to Bohemia, living quietly as a librarian and writing the story of his life, in French. How honest he was, and what the many women he bedded might have said if they could have, will always be unknown — and the Museum of Fine Art’s anxious decision to retitle this show encapsulates a real uncertainty, at museums today, of how best to address sexual inequalities of the past.
Sex itself is not the problem. The problem, then and now, is power — and a fairer vision of power was also born in the salons and boudoirs of Enlightenment Europe.
In the last gallery here we come across a portrait from 1766, by the Scottish painter Allan Ramsay, of a glowering man with intense brown eyes. Who is this stern-faced man in this house of pleasures? He is Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose “Confessions,” with its disclosures of his own amorous misadventures, inspired Casanova’s biography — and whose other writings helped foment revolutions in America, France and Haiti. Rousseau took a dim view of luxury and spat on the high society in which Casanova reveled. But human freedom, more than any carnal lust, was the 18th century’s most immoderate desire.
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