The gaze of scandalous, cheating libertine Giacomo Casanova (1725–1798) has been taken as the central viewpoint of a new exhibition at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts based on The Story of My Life – his unrivaled account of 18th-century European society.
Addressing themes such as travel, the intersection of sex and power, theatricality and identity, and the pleasures of fine dining and conversation, Casanova’s Europe: Art, Pleasure, and Power in the 18th Century reveals a culture of excess on the brink of revolution.
The curators found the momentum of the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment last year an important consideration after years of planning an 18th-century exhibition that fixates on a chauvenistic reprobate.
“It’s interesting when you plan a show four years in advance how the world changes by the time the show actually happens,” MFA deputy director Katie Getchell said.
“Casanova wrote one of the longest autobiographies ever,” Frederick Ilchman told Boston’s radio station Wbur. He chairs the MFA’s European art department. “And it’s an amazing mine of social history, details about life in the 1740s, ’50s and ’60s. He was incredibly perceptive observer and as we say — he went everywhere, he met everyone and he wrote it all down.”
“You can’t change an exhibition completely. The ingredients are still there; we’ve been working this for a long time and our focus has always been on the masterpieces. It’s not the purpose of an exhibition to re-litigate past injustices. The point rather is to make people today more aware of the good and the bad in a different time and place.”
Stretching the bounds of social mobility, Casanova mingled with royalty such as Catherine the Great and intellectuals such as Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin as he traveled throughout the continent, rising through the ranks with no legitimate claim to nobility or consistent wealth.
Power then and now
The exhibition now “invites visitors to consider aspects of power—political, social and financial—both in Casanova’s time and in today’s society,” said the MFA in a press release. “In-gallery interpretation provides context around these issues and encourages visitors to contemplate how one man’s experiences, told from his own perspective, resonate in new ways in the #MeToo era. Additionally, the Museum has organized a lineup of exhibition-related programs—including events with prominent feminists, films about heroic women and girls, and conversations about wealth and status in Boston—that address these topics in the current moment.”
While highlight works include those by Canaletto, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Jean-Antoine Houdon and William Hogarth three tableaux in the galleries feature mannequins dressed in elaborate period costumes and surrounded by furniture and decorative arts.
They illustrate the visiting parlor of a convent in Venice, a lady’s boudoir in Paris, and a raucous card party in London – probably inspired by the Rake’s Progress by Hogarth (pictured).
“The exhibition draws on the MFA’s renowned holdings of European decorative arts, particularly French and English furniture and silver, as well as Italian, German and French porcelain. When viewed in the rich context of painting, sculpture and costume, these objects help to bring Casanova’s Europe to life,” said Thomas Michie, Russell B. and Andrée Beauchamp Stearns – senior curator of decorative arts and sculpture, art of Europe. “Major new acquisitions are on display for the first time, and many works of art have been cleaned and conserved specifically for this exhibition.”
In Casanova’s time, Venice was a city of masks. Within the rigid Venetian social hierarchy, the mask afforded a degree of anonymity—allowing wearers to interact across classes, and lending an appearance of equality in a city whose inhabitants constantly jockeyed for social status.
Brightly costumed and elaborately posed porcelain figures from the MFA’s collection represent stock characters from commedia dell’arte, a popular genre of entertainment performed in theaters and outdoors throughout Europe, while iconic works representing masked balls are also on display.
“Casanova’s impulse to record his life and travels in his memoirs has given us a rich trove of information about mid-18th-century Europe. Following an introduction to his hometown of Venice, visitors to the exhibition can trace his many journeys across the continent—spanning 40,000 miles across six decades—and along the way, explore the highest achievements in art of the era,” said Courtney Harris, Curatorial Research Fellow, Art of Europe.