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A New Show at the Legion of Honor Asks, Was Casanova a Lover or a Creeper?

Or was he just a very handsome man of his time?


Casanova may well have been the original celebrity lecher. So in the era of #MeToo, a traveling exhibition hitting the Legion of Honor this month, Casanova: The Seduction of Europe, seems like a case of terrible timing. But then again, the question it raises is all too relevant—how to historically contextualize repellent behavior with current mores.

One way is to ignore it: The show is less focused on the actual character of Giacomo Casanova, the 18th-century Italian bon vivant, and more interested in the world he inhabited, says Virginia Brilliant, the Fine Arts Museums’ curator in charge of European paintings. “Casanova is the tour guide through 18th-century Europe,” she says. “The people he meets, the art he sees, the cities he visits.” Which is to say: This is not just a recounting of his sexual conquests. “Frankly, the exhibition doesn’t celebrate him as much as the craftsmanship that marks the 18th century.”

Still, it’s hard to turn a blind eye toward behavior that in the contemporary world would be a crime. Casanova had sex with prepubescent girls and mentions in his memoirs buying a 13-year-old sex slave.

If celebrating history’s best-known libertine leaves you feeling nauseated, Brilliant suggests checking out the exhibition’s 1757 Jean-Marc Nattier portrait of Manon Balletti, who was briefly engaged to Casanova. Finally sick of her fiancé’s philandering, the French beauty, 14 years his junior, took a stand: She told him to kick rocks. Feb. 10–May 28


Originally published in the February issue of San Francisco 

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