“The Road of Excess leads to the Palace of Wisdom” – William Blake
Giacomo Girolamo Casanova de Seingalt aka “Casanova” was a Venetian adventurer and author. Among the several titles accredited to his name, the book Histoire de ma vie (Story of My Life), part autobiography and part memoir, is regarded as one of the most authentic sources of the customs and norms of European social life during the 18th century.
Historically well known as a womanizer, in that his name remains synonymous with the art of seduction, is only half the story. This is how history has pigeon holed Casanova and left only this pulp fiction of the man. After the scandals that he is better known for in his youth, Casanova’s life is not what one would have expected.
Later in life he associated with European royalty, popes and cardinals, along with luminaries such as Voltaire, Goethe and Mozart. He spent his last years in Bohemia as a librarian in Count Waldstein’s household, where he also wrote the story of his life.
Casanova’s passions were not limited to the fairer sex however. They encompassed literature, art, music, gambling, medicine, mathematics, law, philosophy, cabala, alchemy and yes, Freemasonry.
Traditionally dismissed by Masonic authors as little more than an opportunist unworthy of the rank of Mason, Casanova and his insightful observations on the nature of Masonic mystery have been either casually passed over or intentionally ignored. It is not the purpose of this post to vindicate Casanova’s character, but to draw attention to his remarks about Freemasonry and how truly insightful and relevant to his times and ours they were and are.
What most do not know is that Casanova was early in his life groomed for a position in the Church. Unfortunately scandals tainted Casanova’s short church career. After his grandmother’s death, Casanova entered a seminary for a short while, but soon his indebtedness landed him in prison for the first time.
An attempt by his mother to secure him a position with bishop Bernardo de Bernardis was rejected by Casanova after a very brief trial of conditions in the bishop’s Calabrian se. Instead, he found employment as a scribe with the powerful Cardinal Acquaviva in Rome.
On meeting the Pope, Casanova boldly asked for a dispensation to read the “forbidden books” and from eating fish (which he claimed inflamed his eyes). He also composed love letters for another cardinal. But when Casanova became the scapegoat for a scandal involving a local pair of star-crossed lovers, Cardinal Acquaviva dismissed Casanova, thanking him for his sacrifice, but effectively ending his church career.
Casanova’s life after leaving the Church is the stuff of Hollywood and fanciful books. It is late in this period in his life that he discovers Freemasonry and about 1750 he is initiated in a lodge in Lyons, France.
From his memoirs:
“A respectable personage whom I met at the house of Monsieur de Rochebaron procured me the privilege of being admitted into the company of those who see the light. I became an apprentice Freemason.
Two month later at Paris I received the second degree, and some months later the third, which is the Mastership. It is the highest. All the other titles which were conferred on me in the course of time are pleasing fictions which though symbolic, add nothing to the dignity of the Master.”
“There is not a man on earth who succeeds in knowing everything; but every man should aspire to know everything. Every young man who travels, who wishes to know society, who does not wish to be inferior to another and excluded from the company of his equals in the age in which we live, should be initiated into what is called Freemasonry, if only to acquire a superficial knowledge of what it is. However he must be careful to make the right choice of the lodge of which he wishes to become a member, for though evil company cannot act in the lodge, it may be present in it, and the candidate must beware of dangerous connections. Those who decide to become Masons only to learn the secret may well be deceiving themselves, for a man can be a Master Mason for fifty years and never learn the secret of the brotherhood.”
“The secret of Masonry is inviolable by its own nature, since the Mason who knows it, knows it only because he has divined it. He has learned it from no one. He has discovered it by virtue of going to the lodge, observing, reasoning and deducing. When he has arrived at it, he takes great care not to share his discovery with anyone, were it his best friend and a Mason, because if he has not the ability to find it out, he will by the same token not have the ability to profit by it if he learns it by word of mouth. The secret then will always be a secret.”
A century later Albert Pike would re-iterate the same idea when he wrote,
“It is for each individual Mason to discover the secret of Masonry, by reflection upon its symbols and wise consideration and analysis of what is said and done in the work.”
Casanova was what some would term an adventurer or an opportunist. For he once wrote, “I never aimed a set goal, the only system I followed, if a system it may be called, was to let myself go wherever the wind which was blowing, drove me.”
One must remember that this was the age of Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau and like them Casanova put his faith in the rational and reasoning powers of man, which he consider nothing less than divine. In fact, Casanova believed reason to be the true source of man’s freedom. “Man is a free agent” he wrote, “but he is not free if he does not believe it, for the more power he attributes to Destiny, the more he deprives himself of that power which God granted him when he gave him reason.”
Casanova’s approach to Freemasonry was not mystical but rational and scientific, which kept with his enlightenment views of relying on observation and deduction. This attitude is consistent in what he says about Masonry, insisting that it is only by this divine yet wonderfully human faculty of reason that a Freemason might discover, or “profit” from the secrets of the Craft.
Today many Masons view the secret of Masonry as being one’s individual interpretation based on personal experience in searching and researching. For them the Masonic journey or quest is the most important aspect of Freemasonry, far greater in value than the recovery of the Lost Word.
Many Masons fail to understand just how revolutionary Freemasonry was in Casanova’s day and how the institution embodied in its tenants the Enlightenment’s high ideal of equality. The world at that time had not yet caught up with Masonry’s teachings, and even though it was the age of Enlightenment, there still existed a strong presence of class distinction in society.
As Casanova was the son of two actors, he was decidedly on the more modest side of that divide, but by using Masonic Credentials, he and other adventurers such as Count Cagliostro and St. Germain, whom Casanova knew personally, were able to interact in the highest echelons of society, even obtaining audiences with monarchs and other royal figures. Essentially being a Freemason in Casanova’s day, especially one who was traveling, was like carrying a letter of introduction that could be used to enter into good society.
This is why Casanova recommends the fraternity to, “every young man who travels.” The traveler had to be wary, however because Masonry could be dangerous to one’s health depending on the view of Masonry taken by the authorities of the country in which one found himself.
In Venice Casanova faced the Inquisition, which arrested and imprisoned him, partially on the charge of just being a Freemason. It was Casanova’s escape from that famous prison called the Leads, due to the fact that the roof of Doge’s palace was made of lead. Casanova’s escape, being the only person to accomplish this, catapulted him to fame in Parisian society. Others were not so lucky. Casanova’s counterpart, the equally beloved and reviled Freemason and adventurer Count Cagliostro, dies in an Inquisition dungeon because he attempted to open his own Masonic Lodge in Rome 33 years later.
In his Memoirs, Casanova writes “The same impression which the Brotherhood of Masons produces today on many who have not been initiated into it was produced in ancient times by the great mysteries which were celebrated at Eleusis in honor of Ceres. They aroused the interest of all of Greece, and the greatest men in the world aspired to be initiated into them.”
Histoire de ma vie (Story of My Life) by Giacomo Girolamo Casanova de Seingalt