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three pairs of lovers with space



Giacomo Girolamo Casanova (2 April 1725 – 4 June 1798) was a Venetian adventurer and writer best-known for his amorous exploits recounted in his memoir, History of my Life until the year 1797.

Presented here is Casanova’s account of how he was expelled from a seminary after being caught with a boy in his bed. Casanova says he did nothing with the boy and he spent his time in the seminary “in abstinence.”[1] Nevertheless, the story is revealing as to attitudes to Greek love at the time, as well as other sexual matters.

The translation from the original French is by Willard R. Trask in Giacomo Casanova Chevalier de Seingalt. History of My Life. Volumes I and II (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966), pp. 168-173.


Volume I, Chapter VI

In March 1743, a fortnight before his 18th birthday, Casanova was sent to the well-known seminary of San Cipriano across the Venetian lagoon in Murano:

A handsome seminarian of fifteen years, who, if he is not dead, is a bishop, was the one whose person and talent particularly impressed me. He inspired feelings of the strongest friendship in me, and during the recreation hours, instead of playing skittles, I did nothing but walk with him. We talked poetry. The finest odes of Horace were our delight. We preferred Ariosto to Tasso, and Petrarch was the object of our admiration, as Tassoni[2] and Muratori,[3] who had criticized him, were of our scorn. Within four days we became such fond friends that we were jealous of each other. We sulked when one of us left the other to walk with anyone else.

Venice. Seminary and Church of San Cipriano Murano 1837
                                               The seminary and church of San Cipriano

A lay monk was in charge of our dormitory. His function was to keep order in it. After supper the whole pack of us, led by this monk, who was called the prefect, proceeded to the dormitory; there each one went to his bed, and after saying his prayers in a low voice, undressed and got quietly in. When the prefect saw that we were all in bed, he went to bed too. The place, which was a rectangle eighty paces long by ten wide, was lighted by a large lantern. The beds were placed at equal distances apart. At the head of each bed were a prayer stool, a chair, and the seminarian’s trunk. At one end of the dormitory there was a washroom on one side and the small room known as the “water closet” on the other. At the other end, close to the door, was the prefect’s bed. My friend’s bed was on the other side of the room, opposite to mine. The big lantern was between us.

The prefect’s principal duty was to make very sure that no seminarian got into bed with another. Such a visit was never considered innocent; it was a capital crime, for a seminarian’s bed is only for him to sleep in, not to give him a chance to talk with a schoolmate. Hence two schoolmates can break this law only for illicit reasons, though they are left free to do anything that they please alone, and so much the worse for them if they abuse themselves. The communities of boys in Germany where the directors are at pains to prevent masturbation are those in which it is most prevalent. The framers of these regulations were ignorant fools who knew neither nature nor morality; because nature, for its own self- preservation, demands this relief in the healthy man who has not the adiutorium[4] of woman, and morality is undermined by the axiom nitimur in vetitum.[5] The prohibition stimulates him. Unhappy the body politic whose legislator was not a philosopher! What Tissot[6] says is partly true only when the young man masturbates without nature’s demanding it; but this will never happen to a schoolboy unless someone sees fit to forbid him the practice, for in that case he does it in order to have the pleasure of disobeying, a pleasure natural to all men since the time of Eve and Adam, and which is largely indulged in whenever the opportunity presents itself. The mother superiors of convent schools for girls show much more sense than men do in this respect. They know from experience that there is not a girl who does not begin masturbating at the age of seven, and they never think of forbidding them this childish practice, although it can produce unfortunate results in girls too, though less extensively because the excretion is slight.

15 in dormitory 1740 Venice d1

It was on the eighth or ninth day of my stay in the seminary that I felt someone come and get into bed with me. He at once presses my hand, at the same time telling me his name, and sets me laughing. I could not see him because the lantern had gone out. It was the Abate with whom I had made friends, who, seeing the dormitory in darkness, took a fancy to pay me a visit. After we had laughed over it together, I asked him to leave, for if the prefect woke up and saw the dormitory dark, he would get up to relight the lamp and we should both be accused of having committed the oldest of crimes, according to some. Just as I was giving him this good advice, we hear footsteps; the Abate flees; but a moment later I hear a great thud, followed by the prefect’s hoarse voice saying, “You scoundrel, wait till tomorrow, wait till tomorrow.” After relighting the lantern he goes back to bed.

The next morning, even before the rising bell sounded, in comes the rector with the prefect. “Listen to me, all of you,” said the rector. “You know what disorderly conduct occurred here last night. Two of you must be guilty, and it is my intention to forgive them and to safeguard their honor by keeping their names from becoming known. You will all come and confess to me today, before the recreation period.”

He left. We got dressed, and after dinner all went to confession to him, and then to the garden, where the Abate told me that, having unluckily run into the prefect, he had been obliged to knock him down. This had given him time to get into bed.

“And now,” I said, “you are sure of being forgiven, for you have been a good boy’ and confessed the truth to the rector. ’ ’

“You are joking. I would not have told him anything even if the innocent visit I paid you had been sinful.”

“Then you must have made a false confession, for you were guilty of disobedience.”

“Possibly. But the blame is his, because he forced us.”

“My dear friend, your reasoning is perfect, and by now the Reverend Father must have learned that our dormitory is cleverer than he is.”

17 walking through dormitory

This affair would have had no further consequences if, three or four nights later, I had not taken it into my head to return my friend’s visit. An hour after midnight, having had to go to the water closet and hearing the prefect snoring on my way back, I quickly snuffed out the wick of the lamp and got into my friend’s bed. He recognized me at once and we laughed together, but both keeping an ear open for our guardian’s snores. Suddenly he stops snoring and, seeing the danger, I get out of my friend’s bed without losing an instant and take only a moment to get into mine. But I was hardly in it before I have two surprises. The first is that I am beside someone; the second, that I see the prefect in his nightshirt, with a candle in his hand, walking slowly along between the two rows of beds looking sharply now to the right, now to the left. I understood that the prefect must have instantly lighted a candle with a powder tinderbox. But how was I to understand what was before my eyes? The seminarian in my bed was lying with his back to me, sound asleep. Without taking time to reflect, I decide to pretend I am asleep too. At the prefect’s second or third shake I pretend to wake up; and my companion wakes in good earnest. Amazed to find himself in my bed, he stammers out excuses.

“I lost my way coming from the water closet in the dark; but the bed was empty.”

“That may well be,” I answered, “for I went to the water closet too.”

“But,” said the prefect, “how did you come to lie down without a word when you found your place taken? And, it being dark, how could you have failed to suspect that you were mistaken in thinking it was your bed?”

“I wasn’t mistaken, for I groped until I found the pedestal of this crucifix here. As for the boy in my bed, I didn’t notice him.”

“That is not very likely.”

At the same time he goes to the lamp, and seeing that the wick had been crushed:

“It did not go out,” he said, “of itself. The wick is submerged, and that can only be the work of one of you two, who put it out on purpose when he went to the water closet. We shall see about this in the morning.”

My fool of a roommate got into his bed, which was beside mine, and the prefect, having relighted the lamp, got into his. After this scene, which woke the whole dormitory, I slept until the rector appeared at dawn accompanied by the prefect and looking very angry.

18 seminarian solded by monk Venice 1740 d1

After examining the scene of the crime and subjecting first the boy who had been found in my bed, and who of course was considered the guiltier, to a long interrogation and then questioning me, without succeeding in convicting me of any crime, he left, ordering us all to dress for mass. We were no sooner ready than he came back and, addressing the boy who was my neighbor and myself, “You are both,” he said to me gently, “convicted of scandalous complicity, for you must have agreed together to put out the lamp. I am willing to believe all this disorder is, if not innocent, at least the result of nothing worse than thoughtlessness; but the whole dormitory has been scandalized and the discipline and the rules of this establishment gravely infringed, and the outrage calls for punishment. Go outside.”

We obeyed; but no sooner were we between the two doors of the dormitory than four menservants seized us, tied our arms together behind our backs, brought us back inside, and made us kneel down before the great crucifix. In the presence of all our schoolmates, the rector then preached us a short sermon, at the conclusion of which he told his henchmen, who were behind us, to carry out his orders.

I then felt seven or eight strokes from a rope or a stick rain down on my shoulders, all of which, like my stupid companion, I took without uttering a single word of complaint. As soon as I was untied I asked the rector if I might write two lines at the foot of the crucifix. He had ink and paper brought me at once, and here is what I wrote:

I swear by this God that I have never spoken to the seminarian who was found in my bed. My innocence therefore demands that I protest and that I appeal against this shameful act of violence to Monsignor the Patriarch.”

My companion in suffering signed my protest; and I asked all present if any one of them could declare the contrary of what I had sworn to in writing. All the seminarians then said with one voice that we had never been seen speaking together and that there was no way of knowing who had put out the lamp. The rector left in confusion, amid a storm of whistles and catcalls, but he nevertheless sent us to prison on the sixth floor of the monastery, separated from each other. An hour later my bed and all my belongings were brought up, as were my dinner and supper every day. On the fourth day the priest Tosello came to me with an order to take me to Venice. I asked him if he had gone into my case; he answered that he had talked with the other seminarian, that he knew the whole story and believed us to be innocent ; but that he did not know what he could do about it. “The rector,” he said, “refuses to admit that he is wrong.”

Venice. The fortress of Sant Andrea Malamocco
The fortress of Sant' Andrea, Malamocco, Republic of Venice

I thereupon threw off my seminarian’s garb and dressed as one does in Venice, and we got into Signor Grimani’s gondola, in which he had come, while my bed and trunk were loaded onto a boat.

The next morning in Venice, Casanova was arrested on his way back from a library and briefly imprisoned in the prison fortress of Sant’ Andrea for the same alleged offence, still protesting his innocence.



[1] At least two of Casanova’s modern biographers are sceptical as to his claims to innocence. Ian Kelly in his Casanova. Actor, Spy, Lover, Priest (London : Hodder & Stoughton, 2008) says : “At San Cipriano he seems to have reverted in other ways too to more boyish behaviour. For one thing, he developed a crush on a ‘handsome seminarian of fifteen’,” his “intransigence and unwillingness to confess to wrong-doing escalated the scandal”, and he calls Casanova’s abstinence in the seminary “claimed” (pp. 57-8). Leo Damrosch likewise calls Casanova’s protestation of innocence a “claim” (Adventurer: The Life and Times of Giacomo Casanova, Yale University Press, 2022, p. 61). It must be remembered that sodomy was a crime throughout Europe (excepting only revolutionary France at the very end of Casanova’s life) and, at least in northern Europe, was considered a particularly repugnant one, admission of which would have severely alienated most of his readers. Casanova did obliquely admit to unspecified sexual acts with males later in his life, but his courage as to what he should confess looks as though it grew over the time he was writing his memoir [Website footnote]

[2] Alessandro Tassoni (1565-1635), author of the first comic poem of modern times, La secchia rapita (Rome, 1624), and of various critical essays, among them the Considerazioni sopra il Petrarca (Modena, 1609-1611), the work to which C. here refers.  [Translator’s note 25]

[3] Lodovico Antonio Muratori (1672-1750), noted historian and critic, director of the Ambrosian Library (1694), librarian and archivist to the Duke of Modena (1700). (Opera, 48 vols., Venice, 1790-1810.) [Translator’s note 26]

[4] Adiutorium: Help. [Translator’s note 27]

[5] Nitimur in vetitum semper cupimmque negata. “We ever strive for what is forbidden and' desire what we are denied.” Ovid, Amores, III, 4, 17.  [Translator’s note 28]

[6] Casanova refers to the Swiss physician Samuel-Auguste Tissot (1728-1797), whose book L’Onanisme. Dissertation sur la maladies produites par la masturbation (Onanism. Dissertation on the Illnesses Caused by Masturbation), Lausanne, 1760 claimed that masturbation caused a wide range of severely debilitating illnesses. Its conclusions were swallowed without challenge by European society, including the most enlightened writers of the age, such as Voltaire and Kant. The eminent English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, in his essay of about 1785, Offences Against Oneself: Paederasty, criticised the contemporary condemnation of pederasty on the grounds that it was harmless, in contrast to wanking, which he called “the most incontestably pernicious […] of all irregularities of the venereal appetite.” Casanova himself, while expressing relatively moderate views, later in his memoirs explained to a sceptical Turk that “We Christians […] claim that young men who indulge in the practise impair their constitutions and shorten their lives. In many communities they are closely watched, left absolutely no time to commit this crime on themselves” (II 85). Widespread acceptance of Tissot’s views led to often extremely cruel measures to prevent boys from wanking and punish those who did until well into the 20th century. The panic Tissot caused about wanking has remarkable and unique similarities to the post-1980 mass hysteria about Greek love, in that in both cases uncritical swallowing of false pseudo-scientific claims of inevitable harm led to very long-lasting moral blindness and cruelty with a devastating impact on millions of lives. [Website footnote]