To succeed as an outsider, wrote Giacomo Casanova, requires a man to be “a great dissimulator, impenetrable, obliging, often base, ostensibly sincere.”
The legendary libertine bedded more than 100 women in his lifetime. He was also a hedonist, writer, adventurer, spy, and courtier. He organized a national lottery in France, ran a silk factory there, and died a librarian in what is now the Czech Republic.
In all these guises, Casanova was a confidence man, wheeling and dealing for attention and power in Rococo-era Europe — a time of immoderation. The rich gloried in extravagance, and in time the middle and lower classes rose up and defied them.
“Casanova’s Europe: Art, Pleasure, and Power in the 18th Century,” a dizzyingly voluptuous show at the Museum of Fine Arts, uses Casanova’s life (he lived from 1725-1798; his memoirs end in 1774) to examine the excesses of European society on the cusp of revolution. The show, nine galleries brimming with more than 250 paintings and decorative objects and organized by a team of curators from the Kimbell Art Museum, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and the MFA, is on view through Oct. 8.
The exhibition was called “Casanova: The Seduction of Europe” when it opened last fall at the Kimbell. The title change, sensitive to the #MeToo movement, is purely cosmetic. Casanova was a product of his time, and 18th-century attitudes toward love and sex, at least among the aristocrats, were dazzlingly open. In Paris and London, adultery, fornication, and prostitution spiked.
“Casanova” abounds, then, with pink, plump flesh. Several frolicsome paintings, in a gallery papered with velvety purple wallpaper and devoted to amorous pursuits, exult in the erotic lives of gods and nobles. Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s “Useless Resistance” is particularly delicious: A half-dressed woman playfully fends off her lover amid a suggestive swirl of plump bedding and curtains.
This is no assault: They’re having fun. The exhibition’s wall text makes an effort to contextualize women and their relative power in the 18th century, but Casanova’s narrative, and the gaze of artists of the day, almost all men, frame the show. The women portrayed — from London courtesan Kitty Fisher to Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, the marquise de Pompadour (as she touches up her rouge in a stunning portrait by Francois Boucher) — don’t tell tales out of school.
There’s a clearer, more unnerving connection to today: the slipperiness of identity and the profligacy with the truth.
It wasn’t just Casanova. In Venice, masquerade was a way of life. In addition to attending masked balls, Venetians habitually wore masks from October through Lent. Disguised, they could elide the deferential rituals of class and dabble in erotic intrigue.
A splendid gallery devoted to the theater of identity has as its centerpiece Jean-Marc Nattier’s painting “Thalia, Muse of Comedy.” She peeks out with frank mirth from beneath a curtain, one breast exposed, delicately holding a mask. Nearby, a set of frisky porcelain figurines depicts commedia dell’arte characters, all masked.
To Casanova, the son of actors, playing chameleon to get in the good graces of the powerful came naturally. He came of age in Venice, where as a young man he played violin at a theater. The first gallery is a shimmering collection of Canaletto’s views of the lagoon and the city. His quick thinking when a senator swooned in a gondola they were sharing garnered him a home and allowance, elevating him, he wrote, “at one bound from the base role of a fiddler to that of a nobleman.”
In time, he traveled all over Europe, seducing and conniving as he went. The curators — led in Boston by the Art of Europe department’s chair and curator of paintings Frederick Ilchman and senior curator of decorative arts and sculpture Thomas Michie — have shrewdly designed a thematic journey, each gallery differently lit and adorned.
Wander from the creamy pastels of a Venetian palazzo into a sumptuous, boudoir-like interior, and then to a bustling and bawdy room celebrating Casanova’s cunning: gambling, prognosticating, and wooing nuns. Don’t miss the cheeky verso of a double-sided painting of an angelic nun at prayer. The next gallery: prison. Alas, Casanova was arrested as a heretic. But he made a prison break, and that tale gained him entree to many tony Parisian parlors.
The organizers include three tableaux populated by mannequins. It’s a leaden trope of history museums, but the curators pull it off with fair success by adding sound and tales of seduction and subterfuge to the breathtakingly lush aristocratic costumes and appurtenances. In today’s dollars, a woman’s dress like the rose-colored silk frock in one scene would cost $2,000-$13,000.
The wearer in that tableau greets her lover as he sneaks a love note to the maid. Behind them Boucher’s thundering series of six mythological scenes ornaments the lady’s dressing room. Clouds and scrumptious figures cascade down “Venus at Vulcan’s Forge,” a canvas filled with drama and romance (how Vulcan yearns for Venus! his eyes, his heart, his glorious torso!) and the sinuous curves typical of rococo design.
Across the gallery hangs a spectacular pair of gilded bronze wall lights resounding with similar curves, all tangling fronds with parrots roosting at their heart. Imagine how they would dance in the candlelight.
Casanova finally met his match in London, in the person of the courtesan Marianne de Charpillon. She made him fall for her and made him suffer. He regretted the day they met, writing, “It was on that fatal day at the beginning of September 1763 that I began to die and that I ceased to live.”
What kills us metaphorically is what we care about the most, and what stung Casanova so deeply, I expect, was not that he was heartbroken, but that he’d been hoist by his own petard.
A self-made man, a social climber who knew how to butter up his betters, he’s a fascinating character, somehow genuine in his disingenuousness. A worthy symbol of a time of excess and social acrobatics, he’d fit in just fine today.
CASANOVA’S EUROPE: Art, Pleasure, and Power in the 18th Century
At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., through Oct. 8. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.