The life of Giacomo Girolamo Casanova de Seingalt (1725~1798), better known simply as “Casanova,” was one full of adventure. The first of six children, he grew up in post-Renaissance Venice, where Italian arts, politics and commerce were at their peak. His father, actor/dancer Gaetano Giuseppe Casanova, passed away when the boy was eight, and his mother, actress Zanetta Farussi, toured Europe in the theater, which forced young Casanova to live in a boarding house from the age of nine.
Casanova had his first sexual encounter at the age of eleven, when he was fondled by his teacher’s younger sister, Bettina. He would later write, “It was she who little by little kindled in my heart the first sparks of a feeling which later became my ruling passion.” Today, we remember Casanova primarily for his complicated and elaborate affairs with women—so much so that his name has become synonymous with “womanizer.” But there was more to the Italian adventurer than chasing after skirts, including a lifelong love of gambling.
When Casanova was in his teens, the Republic of Venice was the pleasure capital of Europe. The otherwise conservative government and religious leaders of the time tolerated social vices such as gambling and debauchery because they encouraged tourism. The city-state’s famed annual Carnevale di Venezia or “Carnival” attracted visitors from all over Europe, and Venice was considered to be a “required stop” on the Grand Tour, traveled by young men coming of age—and Englishmen, in particular.
Entering the University of Padua at age twelve, Casanova graduated with a degree in law in 1742 at seventeen. It was during his school years that he learned to gamble and quickly got into debt, which caused his recall to Venice by his grandmother. However, the gambling habit had already become firmly established, and he would pursue opportunities to wager throughout his adult life, winning and losing large sums.
For a brief period, at the age of 21, Casanova set out to be a professional gambler. But as he described in his autobiography, “I had neither prudence enough to leave off when fortune was adverse, nor sufficient control over myself when I had won.” He soon lost all his money and was forced to rely on the generosity of a friend to gain employment as a violinist in the San Samuele theater—“a menial journeyman of a sublime art in which, if he who excels is admired, the mediocrity is rightly despised.”
Not long after, under patronage of a Venetian senator, Casanova obtained work as a legal assistant. In that position, he could lead the life of a nobleman, stylishly dressed and able to spend most of his time gambling and engaging in amorous pursuits.
Today, Casanova’s autobiography, “Histoire de ma vie” (Story of My Life), is regarded as one of the most authentic sources of the customs and norms of European social life during the 18th century. It is through his words that we know much about the gambling activities of the time, including lotteries, faro, basset, piquet, biribi, primero, quinze and whist. He also wrote of the passion for gambling shared among the nobility and the high clergy, as well as the many methods of cheating common in those days.
Casanova revealed that he was tutored by professionals and “instructed in those wise maxims without which games of chance ruin those who participate in them.” At times, he cheated, too, and even teamed with professional gamblers for his own profit. Sometimes, he used gambling tactically and shrewdly. Through gambling he could make quick money, flirt, make connections, act gallantly or prove himself a gentleman among social superiors. He could also be compulsive and reckless: “What made me gamble was avarice. I loved to spend, and my heart bled when I could not do it with money won at cards.”
It is through Casanova that we know of a popular 18th-century betting progression, doubling the size of the stake following each loss until the wager eventually wins. According to his memoirs, this system served him successfully at the Ridotto Casino in 1754, and even now the practice of “doubling up on a loss” is quite common among roulette players.