• Giovanni Antonio Canal, Entrance to the Grand Canal
  • Fan, 1730s, Italy, Venice. Double paper leaf painted in gouache; ivory sticks, lacquered and gilded; mother-of-pearl.

Casanova: The Seduction of Europe

The Legion of Honor Museum, San Francisco

Legion of Honor Museum, San Francisco
Through May 28, 2018
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, July 8, 2018-October 8, 2018

Yes, there was an actual person named Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798) from whence the epithet originated. The Venetian libertine and adventurer, author of his “Histoire de ma vie,” a gaudy and glamorous 12-volume account of his sexual adventures in the mid-18th century, proudly described his amorous pursuits and seductions, as well as his charmed life as a spy, gambler, intellectual, gadfly, escaped prisoner, financier, cheat, poet and world traveler. According to Casanova, he was everywhere that mattered, with everyone who counted. This makes him an ideal foil through which to view mid-18th century European culture in the Age of Enlightenment, with its advances in liberty, tolerance, philosophy, constitutional government and separation of church and state.

Therefore, “Casanova: The Seduction of Europe” is not really about his life, but presents art history through the lens of the time in which he lived. Casanova traveled over 40,000 miles during his life and visited the courts of Louis XV of France, Catherine the Great of Russia and King George III of England. He and his circle enjoyed cultural sophistication, fancy attire, masked balls, elaborate dining and plenty of promiscuity.

With about 80 gorgeously rococo paintings and sculptures, and over 200 objects in total, including many lavish furnishings, porcelain, silver, period costumes and other decorative arts, this exhibit, organized by the Kimbell Museum, Ft. Worth, the Legion of Honor, San Francisco and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, explores the robust flavors of mid-18th century high life.

Casanova’s birthplace of Venice was then the pleasure capital of Europe. So it is fitting that the first gallery contains some excellent paintings of Venice’s canals by Canaletto (Giovanni Antonio Canal). Happily, the Venice of today is still recognizable in the paintings. Another gallery shows oils of scantily dressed women that were the erotica of the times. The attractive paintings by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, including “The Desired Moment,” were considered risqué. Even more explicit are the sizzling “Twelve Amorous Drawings” by Claude-Louis Desrais.

One gallery is devoted to elegant dining. There is a video camera on the ceiling focusing on a table below that permits the viewer to observe a meal being served course by course. Note that the elaborate centerpieces also replaced for each course. Wine was served liberally, but the glasses were not left on the table. It’s not clear what led to the great popularity of the whimsical animal-shaped terrines in this gallery, since they don’t seem especially appetizing, although the shape of the terrine had no relationship to the meal that was waiting inside it. The Sèvres covered bowl, on the other hand, I would gladly take home.

Always attention-grabbing are the fine examples of decorative art and the elaborate costumes. The gilded sedan chair was used by people of quality either inside a large palace or in town. Made in Naples, the painted mythology scenes are of the voyages of Aeneas. An extravagant gilt over silver toilette service would have been the focal point of a bedroom.

The exhibit follows Casanova’s travels through Paris and his short nine-month stay in London. Apparently, he couldn’t speak English and his Italian and French were not easily understood by English society. A lifelike and detailed display shows the aftermath of a card game at which cheating was discovered. There is also an amusing painting, “A Caricature Group,” by John Hamilton Mortimer, that gently mocks the artist and his friends.

Finally, there is a room of portraits of a variety of Casanova’s famous friends and acquaintances, including Benjamin Franklin, Catherine the Great and a charming bust of an older Voltaire by Jean-Antoine Houdon.

Casanova makes a fine tour guide of mid-18th century high society, although at times the connection between Casanova and the art may seem a bit tenuous. Nevertheless, the art is attractive and inviting, and if you don’t think about the coming French Revolution, you can imagine yourself living the rich and carefree life of Casanova and his circle.

By Emily S. Mendel


© Emily S. Mendel 2018 All Rights Reserved

San Francisco ,
Emily S. Mendel, a writer and photographer, has been a regular contributor to culturevulture.net since 2006, where she reviews theater, art, film, television and destinations. Ending her 30-year law practice has given Ms. Mendel the time to indulge in her love of travel and the arts, and to serve as the theater reviewer for berkeleyside.com.