Sick City Project

'Nobody is healthy in London, nobody can be'

Anatomy of the City 10 – Casanova in Soho

An eighteenth-century mezzotint showing a pair of lovers. Copyright Wellcome Library, London

An eighteenth-century mezzotint showing a pair of lovers. Copyright Wellcome Library, London

Despite appearances, sex in Soho has not always been a matter of mere commerce, and its streets have played host to some of the most notorious lovers in history. In 1764 47 Greek Street was taken by a young Italian man – Giacomo Girolamo de Seingalt, better known to the world as Casanova.

Born in Venice in 1725, Casanova was the eldest son of two Venetian actors, and (so he tells us) was a highly precocious, handsome and intelligent child. He went to the University of Padua at the age of twelve to study law, and graduated at the age of seventeen. Destined for a career in the Church, Casanova quickly realized that he found and all kinds of work boring. Instead, he decided to cultivate what he saw as his true vocation – the art of seduction.

For Casanova as for many educated eighteenth-century Londoners, sex was an important part of a balanced and healthy lifestyle, a way of exercising animal passions and sensual appetites. He came to London hoping to persuade state officials to let him run a national lottery, and had an audience with King George III. After a turbulent encounter with Teresa Imer, a childhood friend and the mother of his daughter, in her mansion on Soho Square Casanova took grand apartments on Pall Mall, moving to Greek Street the following year in pursuit of the French-born courtesan Marianne de Charpillon. You can read more about Casanova’s time in Soho, and its romantic and erotic resonances for him, in an excellent piece by Judith Summers at the Museum of Soho website. In his memoirs, written in 1797, Casanova outlined what he saw as the secret of the successful Italian lover:

He must be flexible, insinuating, a great dissimulator, impenetrable, obliging, often base, ostensibly sincere, always pretending to know less than he does, keeping to one tone of voice, patient, in complete control of his countenance, cold as ice when another in his place would be on fire; and if he is so unfortunate as not to have religion in his heart he must have it in his mind, and, if he is an honest man, accept the painful necessity of admitting to himself that he is a hypocrite. If he loathes the pretense, he should leave Rome and seek his fortune in England.

One comment on “Anatomy of the City 10 – Casanova in Soho

  1. Dunciad
    September 1, 2013

    Read the relevant section of the memoirs again and make this more accurate. The part about mistress Pauline is wrong. She was a Portuguese aristocrat who had a happy affair with Casanova at his lodgings in Pall Mall, not Greek Street where he moved later, before she returned to her country. Casanova was then ‘worn out’ not sexually but in a fruitless pursuit, of a young Swiss girl living in Denmark Street. He did not leave London ‘riddled with disease’. You can download the memoirs free from the Gutenberg Project.

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