Throughout the 18th century Venice experienced a gradual decline in political and military prestige. Austria and Spain were the new powers on land and sea leading Venice down the path to isolation and neutrality. The glories days of La Serenissima were over, which made it a perfect time for decadence and the frenetic search for pleasure. Carnival-like transgression became the norm year around for all members of society from nobles to ferrymen. Morals however were not completely abandoned and Venetians used masks to enjoy stigma-free decadence.
Calle and campi were filled with anonymous individuals wearing dark cloaks, three-pointed hats and the white bauta masks that allowed the wearer to eat and drink while remaining hidden from view. Nobles wore masks to visit brothels, youth to escape parents, the poor to frequent the rich, the rich to frequent the poor, aristocratic ladies to enter dark alleys, clergy to break vows and so on. This was Venice without restraint that set new records in debauchery. Prostitutes were a ducat a dozen, gambling houses had no shortage of clients, theaters were packed and the city throbbed with nearly three time as many residents as it does today.
It was in this world that Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798) and his mentor Giorgio Baffo lived and actively participated. Baffo was an erotic poet who resided in Campo San Maurizio and greatly influenced his young disciple. The two were regulars of the Rialto quarter, one of the licentious epicenters of the city. Casanova gallivanted from tavern to tavern and was a regular at the Sotoportego dei Do Moro where he met his lovers. He would wear his mask to appointments and could only be recognized from his voice which made each encounter even more exciting.
The writer, poet, diplomat, philosopher, occasional secret agent and bon vivant dined with men and especially women nearby in Campo delle Beccarie next to the fish market. Trattoria Poste Vecie was a regular haunt where he would feast on luxurious banquets while entertaining the most seductive ladies of the day. Everywhere was ripe territory for Casanova’s romantic escapades including Caffe Florian in Piazza San Marco and the casino in Calle Vallaresso where noble women would gaily allow him to gamble their fortunes away. He also made frequent visits to Murano where it was rumored an influential nun awaited him.
It’s no surprise someone with an erotic drive as strong as Casanova’s would eventually seduce the wrong woman. Adultery was the final straw and got him locked up in the prison of Palazzo Ducale. He manage to avoid taking his last breath on the bridge of sighs and escaped to Paris where his legend grew and assured him a place in the firmament of romantic heroes.
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