Casanova, the Museum Exhibit? Casa-I-Don’t-Think-So

Curators, I propose a new kind of exhibit for your museum. (Hint: it doesn't honor the womanzier!)

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Casanova
Actor/writer Obehi Janice has some questions about Casanova. He wouldn't like them.

Let’s say a 20-something guy you know meets a young girl. He believes the girl to be a virgin. He checks this out by groping her. She could be considered underage, though this being a different time and place — 18th century Venice — that label doesn’t really exist. And the groping is not a crime. He’s testing the goods! The guy pays the girl’s mother so he can relieve her of her virginity.

Once the girl is alone with this guy, she refuses to give up her maidenhead. After some grappling with the girl (we do not learn her name), the guy decides to beat her. He uses a broomstick, being careful only to land blows on her “posteriors,” which leave marks. He stops short of breaking her limbs, and sends her on her way.

And he writes about it. At length. Mostly because he is later brought up on charges by the mother, who accuses him of assault and rape. He declares the rape charge false, but he heartily agrees that he beat the young girl to get some satisfaction out of the encounter. Like an 18th century Andy Warhol, he records how much he paid the girl: 10 Venetian sequins. Because of the charge and some grave-robbing he did (different story), he flees the city. Life is so unfair.

Sequins: the type of coins Casanova used to buy a woman’s virginity. Not actual size.

After the guy dies, someone discovers that he wrote a 1,200-page tell-all memoir. He’s been a rascal, this guy. A priest and fugitive from the Inquisition. A grave robber. A scientist, a scribe and a spy. He’s traveled the world, met a pope, met a king, and met Benjamin Franklin. He even invented the French lottery. And eventually, the memoir makes him famous.

His name was Casanova.

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But what this guy Casanova is most remembered for is that he had sex with women. Lots and lots of women. More than one at a time. Several, in modern terms, underage. Nuns! A fake castrato! He even impregnated his daughter. Did he once fondle a 13-year-old? Did he long for the nine-year-old daughter of a former lover? Sure did. Did he trick a woman into having sex with him and several other men by saying she could save her husband’s life? Sure did! It’s complicated. Times were different.

Over time the story gets easier and simpler, and his name — Casanova — comes to mean someone who delights in seducing women who delight in being seduced by him. He leaves them, but he leaves them satisfied.

Casanova! If we are to believe his memoir (and there are currently few alternate historical accounts to check against), he once made love to a woman who had 14 orgasms in one night. To his paltry three. But who’s counting? He was. He was doing Warhol one better. Warhol only tracked expenses.

Casanova was — is — a brand. A brand strong enough for an anonymous donor to purchase his original manuscript for $9.6 million and donate it to the French government. A brand in the 21st century that framed a comprehensive exhibition of 18th century art and artifacts in Boston, originally conceived of in 2014. Which recently ran into a little hitch (chronicled by this piece) dealing with the exhibit when it was called “Casanova: The Seduction of Europe.”

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Now that Casanova’s memoir is online and free, it’s easy to search through and learn about him hitting a young sex worker. And now that lots of folks know what #MeToo means, Casanova’s sexual shenanigans don’t look so shenanigan-y. Some of them look like crimes.

Who’d have thought, back in 2014, we’d be having these conversations?

Actually, lots of people could have been having these conversations — if they were paying attention. #MeToo was created in 2006 by activist Tarana Burke. Comedian Hannah Gadsby, long before her Netflix special Nanette, was hilariously using her art history background to spot the misogynistic elephants (and occasionally, vulva imagery) in the middle of paintings. Feminist art activists The Guerrilla Girls have only been around for 33 years, but who’s counting?

Who’d have thought, back in 2014, we’d actually be listening to women? But here we are.

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Because of #MeToo, the Boston exhibit has made many adjustments, which it is happy to publicize. And which I am sure were hard to do. The show has a new name: “Casanova’s Europe: Art, Pleasure, and Power in the 18th Century.” Curators rearranged and expanded parts of the exhibit to feature more women. Significantly, they also invited politically- engaged writers and performers to deal with what Casanova may mean now.

This is apparently what consent looks like in the 18th century. Because she’s smiling. Jean‑Honoré Fragonard’s “The Useless Resistance,” painted around 1770. (Photo: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.)

If he means anything. Among the performers is actress-writer-comedian Obehi Janice, who said of Casanova, “I have no access to this figure.” She added: “I’m a black woman, I don’t know about this dude… I don’t know why he’s important.” Her upcoming piece will explore “[w]hen an 18th century European art exhibit meets the millennial Black female gaze.”

But what does this mean for the next exhibit featuring a highly talented and very terrible dude? Because let’s face it: there are so many, and they are not going away. Neither is #MeToo. But I’m not naive about the difficulty of course correction: I am still a capitalist, and I have worked on complex public exhibit projects. (I even proofread a timeline of all the popes. All of them. Including the murdering ones.) I know these things take years to plan, and buckets of sequins to fund.

But from now on, no more retrofitting. No more sticking narratives on feminism or black voices or lady artists after the fact. Time’s up.

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I propose a new kind presentation of abominable male artist. Curators: pay and center the underrepresented first — past and present. Pay for original research about them as the exhibit develops. Casanova and Picasso (torn to shreds by, again, Hannah Gadsby) are big-ticket boys. We know their deal. We know they bring in dollars. (P.S.: Serial masturbator Louis C.K. is back and he’s got millions, so hit him up: his redemption tour isn’t going so great.) So if they curators can give voice and access to those who have been silenced or ignored, I am for it. If their shows can generate generous grants for original research on rape culture or the history of sex work, I’m for it. But no more after-the-fact clean up. Bake it in. From day one.

When research puts the girl that Casanova hurt at the center of her own story, we’ll know something has truly changed. Because her history exists somewhere — now, more than ever, bless amateur historians and the Internet. It may not be found in a 1,200-page memoir, but it exists, whether it’s in a public record, a bill of sale, a prescription. She exists. Let’s learn her name, and let her speak.