Giacomo Girolamo Casanova was a writer who documented his adventures and affairs in a memoir that is a literary treasure of the eighteenth century.
Casanova is back in France. The manuscript of his memoirs, The Story of My Life, and other writings (totaling more than 3,700 pages) of his are on display for the first time at the National Library of France in the exhibition “Casanova — The Passion for Freedom.”
He wrote the memoirs in the last years of his life. Just before his death at seventy-three, he bequeathed his papers to his nephew. In 1821, Friedrich Arnold Brockhaus, one of Germany’s prominent publishers, acquired them from the nephew’s descendants. It was assumed that the documents had been destroyed in the bombing of Dresden in World War II, but they were carried on a bike and hidden in a bank vault in Leipzig. An American military truck drove them to safety in Wiesbaden.
In 2007, the French ambassador in Berlin contacted the director of the National Library and told him someone was prepared to talk about the sale of the memoirs.
A meeting was arranged in a room in the Zurich airport. Thirteen boxes numbered in gold were laid out on two tables for Mr. Racine and his curators. They contained the hand-written memoirs and a note to the emperor of Austria to end the system of usury. The script was bold and undisciplined. Words were scratched out and underlined; ink blotches stained some pages.
A French commission declared the manuscripts a “national treasure” that needed to be purchased. It took almost two and a half years of negotiation before an anonymous donor provided the finances to buy it.
The deal was hailed by the culture minister, Frédéric Mitterrand, as the most spectacular acquisition ever made by a French library. At $9.6 million, it was the most expensive.
The National Library will make all the documents available online, and the Gallimard publishing house will begin publishing a series of the memoirs in 2013.
The memoir is extraordinary because of its detailed descriptions of the rich cultural and social life of late-eighteenth-century Europe, including Casanova’s sexual encounters, duels, visits to royal courts, carriage chases, evasions of arrest, and swindles. Along the way he drops the names of his acquaintances, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Casanova “always made a point of preserving his independence and never sacrificed it for a woman, a cause or a taste for possession,” the library said in a statement announcing the opening.
This exhibition is organized in ten sections, one for each book in his memoir, including one of his days in Venice and another on Paris. It also includes other writings; Venetian paintings; objects reflecting the style of the era; jewelry; fabrics; films; and music recordings.
This is not the library’s most daring exhibition. In 2008 it offered a peek at erotic art known as L’Enfer, or hell, that it had deemed “contrary to good morals.” It put on display more than 350 sexually explicit literary works, manuscripts, engravings, lithographs, photographs, film clips, calling cards, and cardboard pop-ups.
It was the most popular exhibition in the library’s history.