It’s a charge often leveled at reality TV or social media stars: despite having no stand-out talents, they’ve manipulated the media and the public to pay attention to their relationships, fashion choices, and personal dramas. Humanities scholar Nicola Vinovrški argues that Giacomo Casanova pioneered this career path back in the eighteenth century.
“He was not, at any point, well known because of, or at least primarily because of, his occupation or ascribed status,” Vinovrški writes. “He was not a famous person whose private life then became a matter of public interest.”
Born in Venice in 1725, Casanova trained as a lawyer, briefly worked as a priest before delivering his second sermon drunk, and wrote about mathematics and politics but made little impression among the intellectuals of his time. What he was known for was a life of adventure, featuring audiences with kings and popes, imprisonment, and sexual escapades. He carefully cultivated his reputation, dressing in imitation of fashionable aristocrats and turning himself into a sought-after guest at elite gatherings. European elites bragged about having heard the tale of his escape from prison in Venice, or the one about his duel with Count Branicki, from the man himself.
Vinovrški writes that Casanova deployed his public appearances strategically. For example, when rumors circulated that he was being kicked out of the Italian city of Padua, he dressed up and went to the opera, later commenting that everyone there was amazed to see him.
He used his prominence to win jobs, including that of Count Joseph Karl von Waldstein’s librarian. One observer wrote that Waldstein was “proud to have in his household someone as famous and extraordinary as Casanova.”
Long before the first public relations firms, Casanova pursued deliberate strategies to achieve fame, including writing and speaking about himself constantly. He wrote of the importance of being talked about. At various times he described his dreams of becoming famous for preaching, astrology, writing, conversation, and art—with the one constant being the desire to be well known.
Vinovrški writes that he also took advantage of the media. With newspapers and gazettes becoming an increasingly important source of information about elite happenings, Casanova provided fodder for sensational stories. He wasn’t always pleased with the coverage—when one paper suggested he was expelled from Warsaw after his duel with Branicki, he claims to have found the writer and kicked him in the stomach. But when it came to his fame, any press was good press, and he became a standing figure in emerging reporting on fashionable social events and the relationships and fashion choices of the elites.
His similarities to today’s celebrities is perhaps most clear in the way his contemporaries discussed his fame. Italian playwright Pietro Chiari described him as “one of those who live—we know not how; and even live splendidly; though they have neither estate, nor office, nor talents to procure them that affluence; which, from their gaiety of dress, we may conjecture that they enjoy.”