Thursday, 13 February 2014

Very nice... but is it true?

Casanova's escape from the Leads prison is the stuff of legend. Passing secret messages between prisoners, tunnelling out of cells, improvised lamps... it's all very compelling. But is any of it actually true?

Much of what we know about Casanova's life comes from his memoirs, primarily Story of My Life. It's fair to say that he's not the most reliable narrator. With regard to Story of My Escape, sceptics have long maintained that he probably just bribed his way out, and this has even made it on to the Wikipedia entry that mentions the adventure. Several readers of my translation have already got in touch to ask to what extent his account is reliable. Is this one story that's just a little too good to be true?

Perhaps. But this much we know.

Casanova escaped from the Leads. That much is certain. He was not simply released, and he wasn't pardoned until 1774.

While in prison he did, however, have the support and friendship of Count Bragadin, his former patron, and Casanova mentions receiving food and clothes from this powerful man at this time. Bragadin was himself a former member of the State Inquisition and we can assume that he would certainly have known which strings to pull, and which people to bribe in order to spring the libertine from his cell. The problem is, there really doesn't seem to be any evidence for this.

We do have evidence, though, that the cell ceilings needed to be repaired after Casanova's escape was discovered, which at least partially corroborates Story of My Escape's account of events.

Not only this, but there's the view from the roof. Casanova explores the roof thoroughly over the course of a couple of hours. And he reports its details extremely accurately. Seriously, fire up Google Earth and take a look. It's all there, the domes of Saint Mark's Basilica, the dormer windows (which I translated as 'skylight' for readability, possibly something I'll change in any future edition of the book), even the gutter, and if you're an obsessed translator you can even trace Casanova's journey around the roof.

It's circumstantial perhaps, but to my mind it's all pretty clear. He had to have been up there.

And if we accept that he was on the roof, and we accept the physical evidence that the ceiling of his cell had to be repaired, the reasonable conclusion is that Casanova's account of his escape is broadly true.

Perhaps bribery played a part. Perhaps his improvised tools were smuggled into him. His gaoler clearly knew about his lamp (in a prison where artificial light was forbidden to prisoners) but did nothing. One of his cellmates even suggests that it was common knowledge that Bragadin had promised to pay the gaoler a huge sum in the event of Casanova's escape. It's very possible, even likely, that his escape attempt was facilitated, with or without his direct knowledge. We'll never know for sure.

Giacomo Casanova is an unreliable narrator. For me, though, this unreliability is visible more in his stream of consciousness than in the physical details of his adventure. Though his foreword professes humility and a love for the city of his birth, and mentions that his conduct 'needed correction', Casanova's stay in the Leads did little to alter his unique nature, as his subsequent travels around Europe reveal. His decision to publish the story, though framed charmingly as an attempt to relieve himself of the burden of having to describe the adventure to friends, was very clearly an attempt to cash in on the celebrity and notoriety that the exploit brought him.

At several points, Casanova also protests that he has no idea why he was arrested and imprisoned, as he can think of no crime he had committed. This is disingenuous in the extreme, as his exploits at the time had included not only the possession of the 'forbidden' books of magic that he alludes to in Story of My Escape, but peccadilloes such as exhuming a corpse to play a practical joke on a fellow Venetian. That's the reasoning behind my blurb: "Imprisoned for a crime he probably committed. The question is, which one?"

Perhaps surprisingly, the only detail of Casanova's escape from the Leads that really turns out to be questionable is the Venetian myth that after his escape he enjoyed a cup of coffee in Saint Mark's Square before making his getaway by gondola. You can only assume that this flourish would have appealed to Casanova, who was not averse to perpetuating his own legend, but his account makes no mention of it, instead he heads straight to the gondolas (and later even threatens to murder his co-escapee when Father Balbi nips off for a hot chocolate).

Story of My Escape. Truth? Fantasy? A mixture of the two? Read the translation, available here, and let me know what you think.