Giacomo Casanova was born on 2 April 1725 in Venice and died in Dux, Bohemia on 4 June 1798. The voluminous manuscript of his memoirs, written in French, was recently acquired by the Bibliothèque Nationale de France for approximately £6 million, demonstrating the cultural significance of those memoirs today. The purchase resulted in an exhibition, the publication and reprinting of many of Casanova’s own writings and numerous new works about Casanova since 2010. The timing of this thesis coincides with a renewed academic interest in Casanova. Popular interest in him has been fairly constant since the 19th century. Given his interesting life story and the fact that he still interests international publics today, we might ask: Was he famous in his own time? Was he a celebrity? What is the difference between these two things?
In historical accounts of fame and celebrity theory, it is argued that older models of fame (associated with merit or achievement) preceded the relatively recent phenomenon of celebrity (associated with artifice, media manipulation and a distinct lack of achievement). Historical studies of fame, or particular instances of it by scholars of the 18th century, focus on figures whose fame can be tied to a particular achievement or ascribed status, for example authors, politicians, actors, artists, composers, musicians and monarchs. Most contend that modern celebrity is a uniquely 20th and 21st-century phenomenon, inextricably linked to modern social conditions, forms of expression and means of mass and virtually instantaneous dissemination of visual images. Popular and academic discourse over the past two centuries presents celebrity as unique to the present historical context. The general trend is for each generation to plot the origin of celebrity or at least the point at which it reaches its most critical state in one’s own historical context.
This study is an investigation of Casanova’s “well-knownness”. Well-knownness is a convenient umbrella term, taken from celebrity theory, which is intended to describe all the different ways of being well known, such as fame, notoriety and celebrity. It is used here to describe Casanova’s status as a well-known person during his lifetime. This study explores the hypothesis that contemporary celebrity both as observed in popular culture and as conceived by celebrity theorists shares significant similarities with Casanova’s historical well-knownness, suggesting a celebrity culture in the 18th century.
Several of the distinctive qualities of the contemporary celebrity identified by commentators on popular culture and celebrity theorists are that their fame has become detached from and outstrips their meritorious achievements (or indeed they may not claim any such achievements), they are highly visible through the media, their private lives attract greater public interest than their professional lives, they engage in deliberate attention-seeking, they circulate within particular networks and physical spaces, as a group and as individuals they have enormous economic power, there is intense public interest in their opinions and activities and they derive wealth and social power from their well-knownness. A case study of Casanova’s well-knownness allows one to observe these trends. This suggests that the desire among certain individuals and the market for modern celebrity, hitherto described as a creature of the 20th century onwards, may in fact have emerged during the 18th century.
Casanova’s well-knownness has been given no critical attention. Celebrity, on the other hand, is one of the fastest growing areas of scholarship and provides an unusual correlation between academic and popular interest. By opening up a discourse between these two fields, it is hoped that new and fruitful discussions will be encouraged.