A European getaway is not out of reach this summer, when the Museum of Fine Arts debuts Casanova’s Europe: Art, Pleasure and Power in the 18th Century on July 8. Chair of Art of Europe Frederick Ilchman took us on a whirlwind tour of the 250 paintings, sculptures, decorative arts, furniture and costumes—the outfits are presented in three animated tableaux—curated through the eyes of renowned womanizer and intellectual Giacomo Casanova and his 12-volume autobiography.
Which artists and cultural figures did Casanova cross paths with that we’d recognize? It’s interesting because Casanova’s name is in the title of the exhibition, but he’s not an artist and he’s not a collector. He mentions art from time to time in his memoirs, but he’s really more of a connoisseur, let’s say, of gossip, social habits, personalities, witty comments. The thing about him though is that he would have been a very discerning observer. Casanova was exactly the kind of person that a mid-18th-century arts patron or statesmen or wealthy society figure would want to impress. He was the ideal audience, the kind of person who would then go to the next place and say, ‘Oh, you can’t believe the Duke so-and-so’s palace. It was so gorgeous. That guy really has taste.’ Casanova understood that part of his currency was being well-known, traveling to other places, charming new people. In social media terms, he had an enormous number of likes or friends. Part of his influence was his popularity. … He does meet a number of artists, but where he does extremely well is his remarkable roster of acquaintances with writers and statesmen and political figures. He meets several popes, the king and queen of England, Madame de Pompadour in Paris, Empress Catherine the Great in Russia, Benjamin Franklin, the American inventor and statesmen. And the last room of the exhibition is going to include portraits by many artists of great figures. What binds all these people together is they all knew Casanova. … One of our taglines is: “He went everywhere, met everyone and wrote it all down.”
How do you think contemporary audiences will relate to mid-18th-century life? His memoir, The History of My Life, is one of the world’s longest autobiographies. It is unprecedented in detail of the 18th century and often is used to study the period. People use this autobiography because it just tells so much about who was who, what was important, the settings of places, how people dined and traveled and got around, gossip. But at the same time, he was really writing this for himself. He didn’t get it published during his lifetime. He never finished it; it kind of ends mid-paragraph. But he discloses absolutely everything. It can be humiliating. It’s very personal. And this is a new thing, this idea of self-disclosure, self-revelation, candor. This is very different from earlier ways for people—you know, they make a fake family tree to show they descended from Achilles or Hector. This is really talking as he saw everything. And as he said, he allowed others to judge him. And that’s his attitude. So there are a lot of connections there. I think the sense of humor will come across.
What’s one of your can’t-miss pieces? One that I really love is from the National Portrait Gallery in London by Nathaniel Hone. Kitty Fisher was the number one courtesan in London in the 1760s. This painting was done just after Casanova was there. Casanova figured out this woman’s price—at that time, he had a reasonable amount of money that he could pay to spend the night with her. But when he realized that she didn’t speak Italian or French and he didn’t really speak English, he thought, “What’s the point?” If you’re going to spend the night with someone, you want to be able to say sweet nothings and witty jokes and have a lot of verbal play going on—to him that was the whole point of romance, or much of the point. But this painting I’m really excited about because there’s a wonderful pun in the bottom right corner. You can see the window in the room reflected on the fishbowl and the cat is assiduously fishing goldfish.
Francesco Guardi’s The Ridotto in Venice, about 1750 / Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
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