Casanova has become shorthand for a kind of silly licentiousness—an Enlightenment-era Hugh Hefner.
But as Ian Kelly shows, Casanova should be considered less Hefner and more Enlightenment. This sensualist was an actor, librettist, spy, and perhaps one of the earliest food writers.
By mining his autobiography, History of My Life, Kelly paints Casanova as a modern man, one unfettered by the limits of class or social hierarchy who defines himself and pursues his talents.
One of Casanova’s talents was as a gourmet and food writer. Kelly devotes a chapter to his food writing, which presages M.F.K. Fisher’s personal approach of linking food and life as well as contemporary historical approach of using food to illustrate culture. The writings are, as Kelly points out, an “inclusive approach to social history as well as a simple statement of personal interest.”
Casanova of course, is known for his sexual conquests, but Kelly compares him with Byron and Boswell, and finds that for “an almost constantly traveling bachelor of his era and background, his sex life begins to appear more modest.” In fact, he enjoyed “the game of love and seduction,” and introduced food into the game.
In his History, Casanova describes seduction settings in which food plays a part—recounting a kissing game heightened with briny oysters. But he also provides tidbits of social history—the prevalence of polenta in Bohemia, the price of oysters in Rome, and the orgeat and vodka served at the court of Katherine the Great.
Despite his attention to food, Kelly points out that Casanova was only a rudimentary cook, at most whipping up an omelet for a famished lover. He was more likely to orchestrate a meal and it’s setting, working with a chef to oversee the menu and timing to create a bit of theater. He drew from his background as an actor to move food from sustenance to poetry.