Thursday, September 16, 2010


Remember Emilio, the Venetian gondolier? He has a strange problem. Emilio loves his wife and now that he’s been blessed with a little daughter he wants to be a good father and a good husband. Not that he didn’t want to be a good husband in all the years he spent with his wife before little Maria was born, but it always has been so darn difficult. It isn’t really his fault that he lives in one of the world’s most beautiful and romantic cities. And is he to blame if he happens to be in one of the most glamourous blue-collared jobs in the world as a handsome gondolier in the canals of Venice? What is poor Emilio to do if a pretty young tourist looking for an authentic Venetian experience just flings herself into Emilio’s arms and begs him for a souvenir to remember? “I can’t help it, but it happens all the time,” he says, sounding like he’s almost duty-bound to comply.

“It must be such a torture, no?” I wondered aloud. Emilio smiled and said, “You have no idea,” and he was right, I didn’t. For a brief while, as we drift ed along the green waters of the grand canal, I entertained a vision or two of what it might be like to be a gondolier in Venice but just as the vision was about to approach the bit where the pretty tourist in a dress and a sun-hat is about to hurl herself at the gondolier and I’m wondering how to get the oar out of the way without knocking out a few of her teeth or dropping it into the canal when Emilio interrupted the reverie with a rather distracting remark. “It’s the blood…I just can’t get rid of it!”

For a moment, I wondered if he’d been peeping into my dream and if the oar really had gotten in the way, but no, he’d meant something else. The boat slid up next to a great white villa which must have looked rather grand once, but today with the iron bars on the windows red with rust and with the paint and plaster peeling away from the edges, it looked like a big decaying tooth…“This is my great-great-great-great grand father’s house. His name was Casanova…Giacomo Casanova. You know him?”

‘Course I do. Casanova, says the dictionary, is one who’s had many an amorous adventure, and the man whose name gave the word its meaning, Giacomo Casanova, was one of history’s most colourful luminaries – a man given to the pursuit of happiness. It was his blood that Emilio was complaining about…

Giacomo’s story, in the words of my boatman who still claims he carries his name, and the burden of his blood in his veins (amongst many others) is the story of a man who lived his 74 years (1725- 1798) in the pursuit of happiness. “Those who only know him as the man who seduced women for his pleasure and think of him as a debaucher, don’t really know Casanova and are missing the very essence of the man,” says Emilio. Casanova, he says, succeeded in his conquests simply because he was devoted to his loves. He did not have affairs because he wanted to merely douse carnal fires but because he truly was in love. It is just that when the flame flickered and the passions wore off, he did not stay to bicker and barter but instead moved on to other adventures. But never did he break a heart and dump a lover if he could help it for he always ensured that his lover’s affections had found a suitable substitute before moving on.

Casanova admired beauty but worshipped independence and intelligence in a woman. He sought the pleasure of an engaging conversation with a beautiful woman perhaps a fair bit more than the warmth of her embrace, claimed Emilio. From cloistered nuns to the neglected wives of noble men, and from famous virgins to renowned courtesans, Casanova gave all he had on the altar of their loves and was steadfast in his ardour for those he loved, for as long as he loved. A bit of research later revealed to me that this was no empty boast.

Casanova met his first love, when barely in his teens while lodging with Dr Gozzi, his tutor. Gozzi’s little sister Bettina, elder to Giacomo by a year or two, takes care of her brother’s protégé and soon their friendship leads to little games of discovery. Casanova begins to understand this strange stirring within as the force that’ll pitchfork him towards his destiny. But one day Bettina comes down with convulsions and Giacomo is told to stay away from her for she’s got the pox. Bettina’s beauty wastes away as her illness progresses. Unsightly sores and pustules cover her body and Giacomo knows that being close to her means he might catch the dreaded smallpox too. And yet he stays by her side, through her illness, hugging her, comforting her and washing her sores with love and warm water and praying for her recovery.

The joy of that first love stayed with him till his death, in a lonely corner of a castle in Bohemia. And to every lover he gave all he had, just like he had to Bettina. It’s just that he couldn’t get married, for he called marriage “the tomb of love”.

It was late now and Emilio was steering his gondola towards the gondola station near Piazza San Marco. As we glided under a covered bridge, Emilio said, “That’s Ponte dei Sospiri (the Bridge of Sighs)! When Casanova was arrested by the inquisitors for debauchery and heresy, he was taken across this bridge to the dungeons on your right. The prisons were supposed to be “unbreakable”, but Casanova , never one to give up, whether he’s chasing the chains of love or the wings of freedom, staged a famous escape and went off to Paris. This near impossible escape made him a legend in his lifetime.”

My gondola ride had come to an end and as Emilio lashed the boat to a wooden pole, for your sake, I happened to ask him, “What really was Casanova’s secret, Emilio?”

“We Casanovas, we offer ourselves in love, fully and unconditionally… seeking the lover’s happiness and pleasure before ours…and it helps if one can sing with his hands, speak with his eyes and dance with his tongue…” he laughed. So go figure…


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