publisher colophon
Larry Wolff - "Depraved Inclinations": Libertines and Children in Casanova's Venice - Eighteenth-Century Studies 38:3 Eighteenth-Century Studies 38.3 (2005) 417-440

Depraved Inclinations":

Libertines and Children in Casanova's Venice


On September 2, 1785, Bartolo Fiorese, a Venetian parish priest, delivered a denunciation to the judicial authorities of the Venetian republic. He reported that a man, Gaetano Franceschini, around age sixty, had spent a night in bed with a little girl, age eight, Paolina Lozaro. The assignation for delivering the girl into Franceschini's hands, ostensibly for training as a chambermaid, had been scheduled to take place in Father Fiorese's own parish church of Sant'Angelo on August 31, and though the priest had learned of the arrangement in advance and failed to obstruct it, he ultimately took responsibility for rescuing the girl from Franceschini's apartment on September 1. "Yesterday I went to the apartment of Signore Gaetano Franceschini, a resident of this parish," the priest reported, in his denunciation, "and removed from that apartment, in the absence of the master, a girl of about eight years, Paolina Lozaro by name, and I delivered her into the hands of her mother Maria. I was driven by the reports I had obtained about the bad reputation and depraved inclinations of Signore Gaetano, and about his keeping the girl, the night before, scandalously in his own bed."1 Venetian justice took up this case of "depraved inclinations," and instituted a thorough investigation, taking testimony from an entire neighborhood, trying to determine what had happened in Franceschini's bed. [End Page 417]

The thick case file offers to the historian of the ancien régime one of the most comprehensive explorations of the phenomenon that we today call "sexual abuse" or "pedophilia"—for which there were no such clarifying clinical or legal designations in the world of the 1780s. Though the inclinations of Franceschini may have seemed "depraved" to some of his neighbors, including Father Fiorese, the absence of any clearly defined concept of sexual abuse meant that even the most comprehensive investigation, seeking to establish the facts of the case, would inevitably find it difficult to assess the legal significance and implications of those facts. The case of Gaetano Franceschini and Paolina Lozaro thus offers insight, at a remarkable level of detail, into contemporary perspectives on sexual relations between adults and children.

The case illuminates Venetian law, society, sexuality, and culture in the late eighteenth century. The legal forum for prosecution was the unusual Venetian tribunal, Esecutori contro la Bestemmia, executors against blasphemy—which had to try to formulate the charges in a way that made sense according to Venetian law. Ultimately, the impossibility of articulating a modern concept of sexual abuse meant that Franceschini's conduct would be prosecuted under the very general rubric of "scandal." It was possible to obtain so much testimony to such vaguely formulated criminal implications because Franceschini's apartment was located upstairs from a coffee house, one of the basic institutions of the emerging eighteenth-century public sphere. Carlo Goldoni dramatized the importance of the coffee house in Venetian public life in his drama of 1750, La Bottega del Caffè. Franceschini's case, one generation later, demonstrated how private lives could become matters of public discussion and controversy.

Franceschini himself, who came from a wealthy family in Vicenza, offered an unabashed defense of his conduct, both denying everything that was deniable about his sexual conduct and, at the same time, affirming his liberty as a free man to pursue his own private life. Fundamentally, he was a libertine, according to eighteenth-century norms, even though a modern perspective might classify him retrospectively in terms of sexual abnormality and criminality. The case reveals the uncertain conceptual boundaries of eighteenth-century libertinism, and may be considered in the context of the Venetian "conquests" of Casanova, and even the French pornographic extravagances of the Marquis de Sade. In particular, with regard to Casanova, the paragon of Venetian libertinism, the historian may pose the blunt question: how young was too young? Paolina Lozaro was eight years old in 1785. The daughter of a Friulian laundress from the immigrant underclass of the Venetian metropolis, the girl, by her own testimony, gave voice to the perspective of underprivileged childhood. Her story offers historical insight into the nature of childhood and the sexual exploitation of children in the eighteenth century.

Testimony before the Bestemmia

The Venetian blasphemy tribunal, the Bestemmia, was created in 1537 as a judicial instrument of the Council of Ten: "Since it is also the duty of men to have constantly in view the fear of God, upon which depends the particular and public interest of the state." The Bestemmia was, accordingly, endowed with "the supreme power to inform against blasphemers of the holy name of God, the Virgin [End Page 418] Mary, and the Celestial Court, to question them, to condemn them, and to punish them."2 Over the course of the next two and half centuries, between 1537 and the end of the Venetian republic in 1797, the competence of the tribunal was gradually extended from cases of blasphemy to a somewhat haphazard variety of criminal improprieties, including scandalous behavior by priests or monks, scandalous conduct in sacred places, sexual relations between Christians and Jews, and the defloration of virgins. Especially in the eighteenth century, the increasingly varied concerns of the Bestemmia produced an emphasis on such vague categories of criminality as "bad living" (mala vita) and "scandal."3

Michel Foucault has noted the urgency of scandal in the penal concerns of the eighteenth century: "The injury that a crime inflicts upon the social body is the disorder that it introduces into it: the scandal that it gives rise to, the example that it gives." Gaetano Cozzi has argued, with reference to eighteenth-century Venice, that blasphemy was gradually "integrated into other kinds of accusations, to which the opinion of the judges and the public were more sensitive, like not having a profession or being idle, gambling, using violent and aggressive language toward your neighbor rather than toward God."4 The work of the Bestemmia thus became part of an amorphous revision of criminality, encouraging the denunciation and apprehension of anyone scandalously disruptive of social order. The case of Franceschini came before the Bestemmia in 1785 precisely because his crime was not specifically recognized by any other legal forum. He was therefore judged by the Bestemmia with its general and vague mandate for monitoring scandal.

Guido Ruggiero has studied the judicial history of sex crime in Renaissance Venice, including cases of fornication and rape. Though these were often regarded as minor crimes with minor penalties, Venetian tribunals regarded sex with children as particularly culpable. Rape in Renaissance Venice, according to the research of Ruggiero, was most harshly punished when the victim could be classified in Latin as puella, a prepubescent and therefore still unmarriageable girl, usually under twelve, but sometimes as old as fourteen.5 By the eighteenth century, the Bestemmia had taken over cases specifically concerning the defloration of virgins, a matter of public scandal for the community as well as a criminal offense against the victims. Virgins might range in age, but tended to be young, and at the youngest end of the spectrum they could be children like Paolina Lozaro. According to the testimony of a surgeon who examined her genitals, however, Paolina Lozaro had not been actually deflowered. The four patricians who were serving as judges on the Bestemmia in 1785 therefore found themselves prosecuting Franceschini under the general count of causing scandal.

The tribunal pieced together the story from the accounts of those principally involved. The mother, Maria Lozaro, described her daughter's first encounters with Franceschini:

Since last winter I have been seeing pass by in my neighborhood of Santa Maria Maggiore a well dressed gentleman of some age, and what was his motive for coming I do not know. I do know, however, that during that winter my daughter Paola said to me that a gentleman had sought her out and wanted her to go into his service. I didn't pay attention to that, because since she only reached the age of eight in March, on the sixteenth, I believed the girl was wrong, or that whoever made the proposition was joking. [End Page 419]

In fact, when Maria Lozaro learned that this was no joke, but a serious offer of employment to her daughter, the mother was immediately enthusiastic. One of the tribunal's difficulties with the case was that the mother had been obviously all too willing to deliver her daughter into Franceschini's service. It was impossible to determine for certain whether or not the mother was venally complicit in her daughter's degradation.

There was no doubt from the testimony of Maria Lozaro that she was eager to reach an agreement with the stranger:

I was not even thinking about him until Thursday of the week before last when he returned, asking after the girl again, saying that she would be dressed and maintained entirely at his expense, and that she would be paid a silver ducat monthly, paid to me. I was to go to see her every day and urge her to be good and obedient. I accepted the proposition which I regarded as a stroke of Providence. He told me that he would meet me the following Wednesday in the church of Sant'Angelo, where his housekeeper would come to take the girl.

To this point, the arrangement might have seemed entirely benign, indeed providential, to Maria Lozaro. Franceschini even proposed making the girl his "adoptive daughter," (figlia d'anima) which would have meant eventually providing her with a dowry.

It was Franceschini's housekeeper who clearly appreciated the circumstances. In fact, as she testified to the tribunal, one of her own daughters had already been solicited for Franceschini's special service, with the promise "that he would make her fortune, while keeping her at his table, and also in bed with him, because the warmth of youth would influence and revive that of his own advanced age, and that he would then think about making her condition secure." The housekeeper kept her own daughter away from the apartment, but had no doubt about what would happen to Paolina Lozaro, the girl who was supposed to be picked up in the church of Sant'Angelo: "Having understood this, I spent a night in the most frenzied thoughts, struggling between the need to maintain myself with my master, and repugnance at cooperating in the sacrifice of an innocent. I therefore determined in the morning to turn to a confessor whom I casually found in that church." Franceschini offered a pseudo-medical reason for requiring the service of young girls in his bed, while the housekeeper, who certainly disapproved of his intentions, expressed in general moral terms her outrage at "the sacrifice of an innocent." Franceschini's contemporaries were capable of modern outrage at his inclinations. But they lacked the modern conceptual framework to classify his specific conduct, just as the tribunal lacked the legal framework to prosecute his specific crime.

Though Father Fiorese warned Maria Lozaro against Franceschini, the mother nevertheless, under pressure, delivered the girl to his apartment, and then, according to her testimony, regretted what she had done.

I immediately returned to the house of this Franceschini to see if I could get my daughter out the door, to take her away with me. I could have climbed the stairs ten times, for the door to the street was open, but I could not do it, because I lacked the courage to go into the house where [End Page 420] the master was. Meanwhile as I was standing there and turning around, the neighboring coffee house proprietor appeared, and I told him the story, and he told me that I should try to get the girl away from there, since the man had the reputation of being a beast in matters of sex. And then the housekeeper came downstairs to get some wine, and I entreated her, but she replied that she would not have this on her conscience, but nevertheless she was certain that the girl would have all possible protection. . . . She advised me that since the girl was quite young there need not occur any certain evil. So I departed, agitated . . .

The coffee house proprietor, identifying Franceschini as a "beast in matters of sex," managed to suggest that there was something monstrous about the man's sexuality, but did not specify that his bestiality was particularly related to matters of children. From the perspective of the housekeeper, now tentatively complicit in the sacrifice of the innocent, the crucial concern was to prevent the "certain evil"—sexual intercourse and the full defloration of the child. When she reassured the mother that that, at least, might be averted, Maria Lozaro was then willing to give up hovering around the threshold of the building and, though still agitated, leave her daughter in the apartment for the night.

The housekeeper was also able to testify to what happened that night in Franceschini's apartment.

He ordered me for that evening to take in one of his shirts as best I could, for the use of the girl, and then to put her to sleep in his bed. Fear of the master made me obey. Though the other servant and I myself customarily went to bed early when we were not waiting up for the master, that evening we both stayed awake, but hidden, until the master went to bed, and we kept ourselves at attention to listen for any cry, determined to make noise if necessary, and thus divert anything sinister, but after some time, hearing nothing, the other servant went to bed, and a little later I did too. When they were up the next morning I made all the most minute observations to see if anything had happened to either of them. In truth I could reassure myself that nothing had happened.

The housekeeper was focused on the issue of defloration. She evidently believed that the sacrifice of innocence was a matter of all or nothing, and could therefore conclude, the next morning, presumably after looking over the principals and inspecting the bedding, that "nothing had happened." Indeed, both the mother and the housekeeper had a stake in insisting that nothing had happened, for if something had happened, they would both have been liable to charges of complicity.

Yet, something had happened, and only the girl herself could describe what that actually was. Paolina Lozaro, age eight, described to the tribunal, in her own words, in Venetian dialect, what had happened to her in Franceschini's bed.

He had me get into the bed after dinner and he put his hand on me under my skirts, and he gave me a kiss (m'ha da un basso), but I did not sleep at all—at night when he came into the bed he woke me, and he touched me everywhere, he pinched me everywhere, he took me in his arms, he pinched me between the legs, he wanted me to give him caresses everywhere between the legs, he stretched me out upon him, and pinched me between the legs. . . . Then extending his left hand he [End Page 421] showed me how to make the indicated caresses, and promptly lifting toward me the index finger with his left hand, he took the finger in his right fist, and raising and lowering the fisted hand he said he wanted me to do it like that, and he took my hand so that I should do it, and if I turned away, he turned me back, and with his hand he put my hand there, and all night long he did not let me sleep after he came to bed and woke me with pinches (pizzigoni) and tickling (gattorigole).

Her narrative illustrated some of the problems that still today surround testimony in cases of sexual abuse, notably how to evaluate the testimony concerning sex from a child who clearly has no notion of what sex actually is. An adult, now or then, would have no trouble interpreting her testimony as evidence that Franceschini attempted to have her masturbate him, demonstrated by the raising and lowering of his own fisted hand. The girl herself was much more confused by the "pinching" and "tickling," and by the complex manipulation of digits and limbs demanded by her master.

The report of a surgeon served as a supplement to the account of the child. Pietro Recaldini performed the examination on September 5, noting some redness and some swelling of the genitals, "from which I would not hesitate to assert reliably that that part was molested, but can not then establish absolutely with what sort of instrument." Molestation was a medical term in this context, not a criminal charge. The term "child molester" did not exist as a category of criminal conduct or sexual deviance. When Recaldini actually testified before the tribunal he elaborated on the report and permitted himself to speculate that the redness might have been caused by "friction either of the hand or of the penis, or even attempted rape, not consummated either by volition, restricting itself only to that satisfaction, or by a lack of elasticity and force in the active body." In any event, whether due to Franceschini's restraint or his impotence, Recaldini had no doubt that the girl remained "perfectly virginal." Whatever occurred on that night in that bed, the tribunal could not construe it as rape or defloration.

It was Father Fiorese who, in spite of reservations and hesitations about intervention, finally resolved to get the girl out of Franceschini's apartment.

I could also infer that although decisive consequences had not yet occurred, nevertheless matters had moved far along. It was almost noon and the certain danger of a greater evil was approaching. To carry her off with me I recognized as a violation, and to leave her there was contrary to charity, but there was not time for other recourses. Therefore in this dilemma the duties of religion prevailed in me, and I took her away with me, preserving her thus from the plausible imminent danger, and him from the guilt.

Father Fiorese was weighing the "greater evil" of intercourse against the "violation" that he himself would have to commit by intervening in another man's private affairs and removing a servant from the house. Indeed, it was probably in part to justify himself and his intervention that he then proceeded to denounce Franceschini to the law.

By rescuing the girl Father Fiorese may have averted the greater evil, but he also, by so doing, guaranteed that the case before the Bestemmia would be [End Page 422] both culturally complex and legally ambiguous. Franceschini could not be charged with defloration, and the tribunal had to attempt to construe his depraved and bestial inclinations as criminal matters of bad living and scandal. "For what reason truly did Franceschini seek out the girl?" the tribunal asked Father Fiorese, but the answer to that question was necessarily inferential and speculative. In fact, even the attempted defloration of a prepubescent girl could, theoretically, be punishable by death, according to two legal treatises of the eighteenth century: Criminal Jurisprudence, Theoretical and Practical, by Benedetto Pasqualigo (Venice, 1731), and Criminal Practice according to the Laws of the Serenissima Repubblica of Venice, by Lorenzo Priori, (Venice, 1738).6 Priori noted the possibility of capital punishment for a man "who deflowered or attempted to deflower a little virgin (verginella) of less than ten years approximately, not fit to receive a man." Yet, according to Priori, in cases of merely attempted defloration, judges preferred not to apply the death penalty. Pasqualigo, further, felt that the penalty for attempted rape, might be left to the court's discretion: "according to the circumstances of the cases, of the age, of the custom, of the condition of the woman," and "whether she is noble or plebeian, whether of audacious or reserved spirit, whether mistress or maidservant" (Pasqualigo, 76–90; Priori, 162–3). Age was one factor, but by no means the only factor, that affected the degree of culpability in sexual crimes of the eighteenth century. In the case of Franceschini, however, it was difficult to argue even that he attempted the defloration of the child, since, alone in bed with her, there was nothing to have prevented him from succeeding.

In 1785 the Bestemmia would have to wrestle with the legal dilemma of how to prosecute a man who had not actually had intercourse with a child, but had kept her for a night in his bed, and how to evaluate the innocence that had been sacrificed if the child, whatever else she may have undergone, remained technically a virgin. She herself would be the only witness in a position to testify to what had happened to her in his bed, and she was the witness least able to comprehend the implications of her experience and her testimony. In short, the tribunal of the Bestemmia, which had exercised competency over such a variety of scandalous behaviors ever since its creation in 1537, would have to wrestle with the problem of the sexual abuse of children in 1785, long before that problem was clearly recognized in law, medicine, or society.

In 1747 Casanova came to the attention of the Bestemmia when an irate mother accused him of raping and deflowering her daughter. Casanova, however, insisted that the mother had eagerly sold him the daughter's virginity, and then, after he had paid six zecchini in advance, the daughter had refused to submit. So he beat her up:

I know, however, that I did not break either her arms or her legs, and that the great marks of the blows can only be upon her buttocks. I forced her to get dressed, I made her get into a boat that was passing by chance, and I had her disembark at the fish market. The mother of this girl had six zecchini, and the daughter preserved her detestable flower. If I am guilty it can only be of having beaten a daughter who is the infamous pupil of an even more infamous mother.7 [End Page 423]

Casanova, however, decided to flee from Venice rather than face the Bestemmia. Like the case of Franceschini forty years later, before the same tribunal, Casanova's story turned on the same issues of the daughter's provable virginity and the mother's possible complicity. What was not at issue in Casanova's case, however, was the age of the daughter, which he never even troubled to mention in his account. Forty years later, the age of Paolina Lozaro would definitely matter, and would be repeatedly cited in the records, though its legal significance would remain uncertain.

In 1779 the Venetian priest Lorenzo Da Ponte, soon to become Mozart's librettist in Vienna in the 1780s, fled from Venice rather than face the Bestemmia. He was a priest at the church of San Luca, not far from Sant'Angelo, and the tribunal was interested in prosecuting him for the scandal of his sexual relations with a married woman in the parish.8 There was plenty of testimony before the Bestemmia to illuminate the circumstances of his scandalous life. In his memoirs, however, Da Ponte attributed his judicial problems to political antagonisms, which provoked a denunciation to the Bestemmia for "having eaten prosciutto on a Friday" and for "not having gone to church on several Sundays."9 A whole variety of considerations, from trivial to alarming, could all contribute to the general accusations of scandal that came before the Bestemmia in the eighteenth century.

In 1779 Father Fiorese also made an appearance before the Bestemmia, to offer testimony on the character of a certain Roman barber, Giuseppe Terrizzo, then living in the Campo Sant'Angelo and suspected of supporting himself as a pimp. His was apparently a prominent and even prestigious operation, for he was seen in the company of foreign ambassadors, and supposedly befriended the secretary of the papal nuncio. In addition to pimping, Terrizzo was also occupied with other aspects of the sex trade, pretending to have medical remedies for venereal disease and even treatments to restore a girl's virginity, and thus inducing "many poor women to sacrifice the honor of their daughters." Father Fiorese testified that though Terrizzo lived in the parish, actually on the piazza right behind the church of Sant'Angelo, he never attended mass or received the sacraments.10 Such abstention was construed as an integral part of Terrizzo's scandalous conduct and character. Six years later Father Fiorese would step forward to denounce Gaetano Franceschini.

In the 1770s the Bestemmia tried the cases of a venereally infected boatman who tried to rape a three-year-old girl and spent a year in prison, a stonemason who raped a nine-year-old girl on her way home from school and fled from justice, and a Greek tailor who was supposed to have deflowered and infected with syphilis a nine-year-old girl in his shop on the Rialto, earning a sentence of six months in prison even though he demonstrated that the girl was actually eleven and he himself was not infected.11 There was also an artist from Bologna who deflowered a thirteen-year-old girl and fled from Venice rather than marry her, and a sailor from Dalmatia who deflowered a twenty-two-year-old virgin and then reneged on his promise of marriage.12 Thus the tribunal attended to the sexual violation of girls of all ages, while at the same time prosecuting a great variety of other scandalous activities.

The tribunal of the Bestemmia, originally created to prosecute blasphemy in the sixteenth century, pursued a far wider range of cases in the eighteenth [End Page 424] century, involving the general category of "scandal," and including some sorts of sex crime, like the defloration of virgins. No one accused Gaetano Franceschini of blaspheming, and there was general agreement that he had not deflowered Paolina Lozaro, but on September 8, after hearing secret testimony for a week, the Bestemmia ordered his arrest, and he was conducted to the prisons of the Doge's Palace. Whatever the precise nature of his crime, his scandalous conduct was such as to dictate further investigation and eventual judgment.

The Coffee House of Domenico Ravisan

Maria Lozaro testified to meeting the coffee house proprietor and learning from him about Franceschini's reputation as a "beast in matters of sex." Franceschini's apartment was located two floors above the coffee house, in the same building in Calle della Cortesia, not far from the Campo Sant'Angelo. In the apartment above him, on the top floor, lived the coffee house proprietor and his wife, who could therefore easily attend to the business of the coffee house below. The coffee house proprietor, or caffettiere, was Domenico Ravisan. The records of the Venetian archive indicate that his relatives ran more than one coffee house in the neighborhood during the previous decades, dating back at least to the 1760s.13 It was natural for Ravisan to have an opinion about Franceschini's reputation, not just because they were neighbors, but because the coffee house itself was the chief public institution for the making and breaking of reputations in the neighborhood.

When summoned by the Bestemmia to testify, Ravisan tried to insist that he minded his own business, but his testimony indicated the extent to which an eighteenth-century coffee house proprietor might possess privileged information.

I cannot affirm anything with certainty relative to his behavior, because, standing in my coffee house, I do not see who comes and goes in his place. His universal reputation is certainly that of a man extremely devoted to women. But I don't think I have seen a woman go there more than once, except for a Friulian woman who sells ladles and spoons, and various Friulian women who pass by and look toward his apartment, but I don't know if they then go in, because, standing in the coffee house I can't see. I will say that one day last winter I sent to him one of my men, Zuane Lorenzini, who was then working in the coffee house, and when he returned he expressed himself to me in these precise terms: "The old pig, he has a whore with him who would make you vomit." And I will say that on Wednesday of last week a Friulian woman came to my place and said to me that he had brought home her daughter, and she asked my opinion whether the girl was safe, because the woman had come to feel some suspicion, and I replied that I couldn't tell her anything, but that if she had doubts I advised her to go and take the girl away.

Actually, as the tribunal would have known, he said rather more than that to Maria Lozaro, and, as he himself admitted, he was in a position to assess the "universal reputation" of Franceschini. If that was so, it was precisely because a coffee house in eighteenth-century Venice was universally visited by everyone in the local neighborhood. It was furthermore a magnet for itinerant figures like the Friulian woman who sold ladles and spoons, and various other women whose wares and purposes could not be easily ascertained. Finally, Ravisan actually sent [End Page 425] his coffee house workers, like Zuane Lorenzini, into the private apartments of local inhabitants, delivering cups of coffee and returning to the coffee house with the intimate news of the neighborhood.

The coffee house could thus function as a public forum for processing reports of private life. Franceschini, when he took an eight-year-old girl into his apartment and his bed, seemed not to appreciate that the coffee house downstairs might contribute to public revelations of his private inclinations. The Bestemmia would be inevitably interested in the gossip of the coffee house, since gossip was the very substance of scandal.

In 1750, in this very same neighborhood, at the Teatro Sant'Angelo, Carlo Goldoni staged the premiere of his drama La Bottega del Caffè (The Coffee House). The curtain went up on a Venetian street scene with the coffee house itself occupying the center of the stage. The proprietor Ridolfo was preparing for the day's business, and anticipating a throng of customers: "Once alcohol was the thing, but now coffee is in fashion (in voga)."14 Coffee first came to Venice from the Ottoman empire in the seventeenth century. In the 1680s there was a single coffee house in the Piazza San Marco, but by the 1780s the number was around two hundred in a city of 140,000 inhabitants. In fact, the number of coffee houses had been limited by law in 1759, because "occupying the best places of the city with luxury commerce, they restrict the practice of more useful and necessary arts."15 Some coffee houses were luxurious establishments, with noble names like "The Empress of Russia," "The King of France," "The Queen of Hungary," and "Venice Triumphant"—also known as the Florian, founded in 1720 in Piazza San Marco and still going strong today.16 Other coffee houses in eighteenth-century Venice served a more modest clientele without benefit of an evocative name, like that of Ridolfo in Goldoni's drama of 1750, or that of Domenico Ravisan in 1785.

Government concern about luxury commerce was only one aspect of the moral controversy surrounding coffee in the eighteenth century. There was also medical debate about the effects of coffee, with critics warning against a variety of ills from sleeplessness and slothfulness to convulsions and paralysis. The Venetian journalist Gasparo Gozzi, however, in 1761 wrote an essay celebrating the coffee house for its sociability, as an antidote to melancholy.17 The sociability of the coffee house, in fact, could also become the context for vice and crime. In the 1760s in Venice there were attempts to legislate against the presence of women in coffee houses, because the lively atmosphere seemed to encourage libertine relations between the sexes. Backrooms for unauthorized gambling could also be used for illicit sex. The Inquisitors of State in 1765 went so far as to "prescribe the demolition of certain indecent and scandalous rooms, profaned by the greed of the caffettieri and of wicked men." In 1767 some proprietors were arrested for "transgressing the sage regulations against intolerable scandalous abuses" in the coffee houses around San Marco (Pilot, La Bottega da Caffè, 17–28, 100–2). Goldoni's drama was also intended to play a part in the moral debate surrounding the popularity of coffee houses, and he targeted in particular the vice of gossip that seemed to flourish in the coffee house environment. Indeed it was the gossip of the coffee house, transformed into testimony before the Bestemmia in 1785, which ultimately brought Franceschini before the law for the legally unspecifiable crime of sexual abuse. Thus, gossip could have salutary as well as vicious effects, [End Page 426] but it was recognized as one of the undeniable aspects of the sociability of the coffee house in eighteenth-century Venice.

In Goldoni's drama the character of Don Marzio collected and disseminated vicious gossip. "I know everything. I am informed about everything," Don Marzio proudly declared, sitting in the coffee house, discussing a certain count who paid visits to a certain dancer. "I know when he goes there, and when he leaves. I know what he spends, and what he eats. I know everything." The virtuous proprietor Ridolfo tried to keep out of such discussions, but couldn't help hearing everything that was said in the coffee house.

DON MARZIO: Ah! What do you say, Ridolfo? Don't I know everything about the dancer?

RIDOLFO: I've told you before that I'm not getting involved.

DON MARZIO: I am a great man for knowing things! Whoever wants to know what happens at the homes of all the musicians and dancers should come to me.

(Goldoni, Act 1. Scene 9. 199)

Like Ridolfo, Domenico Ravisan hesitated to commit himself in his testimony—"I cannot affirm anything with certainty"—but ended up demonstrating that he was entirely in touch with the "universal reputation" of Franceschini.

Jürgen Habermas has suggested that the coffee house was one of the crucial institutions for the evolution of the public sphere in eighteenth-century Europe, fostering a spirit of open and critical discussion. Gossip, with its emphasis on private matters, was not the basic substance of the public sphere, but the coffee house could also be the site of political discussion and the exchange of enlightened ideas; in Milan, the preeminent journal of the Enlightenment, was known as Il Caffè.18 The case of Franceschini suggested that coffee house gossip, if solicited as testimony, and focused on particular moral and legal issues, could in fact become a matter of the public sphere. Ravisan's opinion of Franceschini's reputation, emerging from the gossip of the coffee house, became the basis for judicial reflection on what sort of criminal conduct was involved when an adult and a child spent a night in bed together. Venetian justice was secret, however, including all the testimony of the witnesses before the Bestemmia, and Franceschini's apartment was private, so the only properly public discussion of the case took place in the coffee house, which acted as a channel between the private sphere of the apartment and the secret judicial sphere of the tribunal.

Zuane Lorenzini was the man who worked in the coffee house, uomo da caffè, and it was he, as he testified before the Bestemmia, who was sent to bring coffee to Franceschini in his apartment.

TRIBUNAL: Do you know a certain Gaetano Franceschini?

LORENZINI: I know him very well, because last winter he came to live in an apartment above the coffee house in Calle della Cortesia in Sant'Angelo, and I worked there as a man of the coffee house.

TRIBUNAL: Did you ever go to Franceschini's apartment?

LORENZINI: I was there several times to bring him coffee.

TRIBUNAL: In these encounters did you see any observable person?

LORENZINI: Never, but I will say that more than once, going to bring him coffee, when I was in the portico the servant took the tray and brought to his room two coffees that he had ordered, and in the [End Page 427] meantime, while I waited in the portico, the housekeeper told me once that he had a whore in bed with him, and that whenever they ordered two coffees from me, he had such a person with him, because other times he had me go into the room to bring him only one coffee, and I conjectured all the more inasmuch as he had the universal reputation of being a pig, as people say, with regard to women. But I never happened to see any women there.

The portico or entry into Franceschini's apartment thus defined the frontier between the private life of the bedroom and the public life of the coffee house with its convenient but invasive system of home deliveries. The virtuous caffettiere, as in Goldoni's drama, was in a position to monitor public morals, and the uomo da caffè, bringing coffee to the customer, was able to observe and report upon matters of private impropriety.

The public company of the coffee house furthermore intersected with other social and commercial spheres, including the shadowy world of procuring and prostitution. Lorenzini could testify to numerous suspicious characters who appeared in the vicinity of the coffee house. Like Ravisan he claimed to have seen frequently the woman who sold ladles and spoons—"with a girl of young age, that is, around five years." There was also a mysterious man who once appeared outside the coffee shop, looking for Franceschini, and Lorenzini thought that he could date this appearance back to the last Sunday of Carnival during the previous winter.

I will say that one morning early, when I was opening the coffee shop, I was approached by a man who seemed to be around forty years old, and he told me that Franceschini had asked him for a girl, I don't know of what age, to take on as an adoptive daughter, and so this man was waiting there to speak with him, but did not know what to do, and so he asked me for advice; because of the ill fame of Franceschini I insinuated to him not to bring a girl, telling him about the man's reputation; nevertheless he told me he wanted to wait, and I saw him around there for about two hours, and don't know whether or not they spoke.

Carnival was a lively season in the coffee houses in Venice, and Ravisan's customers presumably had some interesting discussions about the stranger's commission.

Lorenzini could not identify the stranger who waited outside the coffee house, but thought that he must have been born, of all places, in Friuli. It was an ethnographic identification that Lorenzini could make with some confidence since he himself came from Friuli, though he'd been living in Venice for ten years. There was a Friulian community of Venetian workers, which may have included the woman who sold ladles and spoons, the man of the coffee house, the mysterious procurer of adoptive daughters, and the laundress Maria Lozaro. The Venetian public sphere of customers in the coffee house thus had some points of contact with an immigrant underclass of Friulians in Venice.

The popular culture of early modern Venetian Friuli has been studied in such landmark works of history as Carlo Ginzburg's The Cheese and the Worms and Night Battles, and Edward Muir's Mad Blood Stirring.19 There was considerable seasonal migration between Friuli and Venice in the eighteenth century, and the absence of Paolina Lozaro's father from the tribunal records, until the very [End Page 428] end of the case, suggests that he may have been in Friuli working in the autumn harvest. Friulians in Venice did various sorts of labor and service, including laundry—like Maria Lozaro—while other Friulian women survived on the margins of Venice's celebrated sexual underworld in the eighteenth century. Franceschini looked among the Friulians of Venice when he contemplated adoptive daughters.

Francesca Ravisan, the wife of Domenico, lived with her husband on the top floor of the building, just above Franceschini, and three floors above the coffee house. The building's common staircase ascended to his apartment and then to hers, and there at the top of the stairs she presided over an "internal balcony," from which she commanded a view of everyone coming up and going down. She too was summoned by the tribunal and was asked about the "character and custom" of Franceschini.

What I can say is that since he came to live here a universal notoriety has informed me that he is a sensual man (un uomo sensuale) and brutally inclined toward women. . . . What I can say is that from an internal balcony of the building that looks out over the staircase and also allows a view of the door that gives entrance into his house, or rather apartment, I have happened to see at various times women whose deportment seemed to suggest a bad life, knocking on his door and entering. I also saw poor Friulian women going there with some little girls, some older and some younger (di maggior e minor età), and sometimes I heard the servant tell them that the master was sleeping, and they departed. This prostitute quality of women who frequently went to his place could not help becoming scandalous to everyone, though they did not speak out about it publicly on account of the reserve that they all felt in speaking about it, concerning a person with the reputation of being rich.

The dynamics of "universal notoriety" determined what was "scandalous to everyone," which was relevant to the concerns of the Bestemmia. Francesca Ravisan noted as scandalous the "deportment" of the women who visited Franceschini, noticed that they were both poor and Friulian, and finally observed that they were of various ages. That some of them were young girls was not actually the most striking aspect of the circumstances in her account. In fact, it seemed entirely plausible to her that a man of Franceschini's "sensual" character would be visited by women both older and younger.

Francesca Ravisan was, in some sense, the mistress of the coffee house, and was able to acquire information not only from the private perspective of the internal balcony but also within the public circumstances of the establishment below. She was downstairs in the coffee house on the morning of September 1:

Then in the morning at the entrance to my husband's coffee house I met another woman—I don't know her name or where she lives—who usually does the daily menial work in that apartment, and she told me that Franceschini had kept the girl with him in bed during the previous night; that the housekeeper and the other servant had stayed at attention during the night, and if they had heard any significant noise they had decided to knock on the door and thus to avoid any sinister effect; that they had heard the girl crying out something, but they were able to reassure themselves that no decisive misfortune had happened to that [End Page 429] girl. And here that woman went on to declaim against Franceschini, and I, shrugging my shoulders as I customarily do, continued on my way.

Presumably, as she continued on her way she told the story to everyone she encountered, and so the news of the coffee house made its way around the neighborhood, transmuted from gossip into scandal. The next day, when Father Fiorese made his denunciation, the scandal began to take the form of a judicial accusation. Goldoni in 1750 recognized that the coffee houses of Venice were sites of unrestrained conversation that fostered the dissemination of gossip. They were also, however, institutions of the public sphere, in which gossip might address issues of public concern, and even compel the attention of the organs of the Venetian state. Because he lived upstairs from a coffee house, Gaetano Franceschini was particularly susceptible to the intrusive investigation of the Bestemmia, peering into the privacy of his bedroom, and studying the night that he spent in bed with an eight-year-old girl. The gossip of the coffee house enabled the tribunal to consider in unprecedented detail the unarticulated phenomenon of child sexual abuse.

Franceschini and Casanova

Franceschini admitted to having spent a night in the same bed with Paolina Lozaro, but denied that anything improper, let alone criminal, had occurred between them. He insisted that his only intention in bringing the girl into the apartment was to put her to work as a chambermaid, assisting the housekeeper. It was, according to Franceschini, the housekeeper who had made the sleeping arrangements.

Then that evening when I came home I found that she had put the girl in my bed; so as not to wake her I also went to bed, and fell asleep, though my first impulse was to awaken the girl and the housekeeper, so that the housekeeper could take the girl with her, but I reflected that they were both asleep, and that it was the same as if she were sleeping with her father, so I too, as I said, went to bed. I woke up the following morning at my usual hour, opened the door, and the housekeeper came to open the shutters, and I asked her the reason why she had put the girl in my bed when I had told her to keep the girl with her.

The implication was that the man and the girl had in fact slept side by side like father and daughter, though that would be impossible to prove. What could be proved, Franceschini thought, was that the girl's virginity remained intact, and so there could be no question of defloration: "This is certain, that that girl left my house just as she was when she came."20 The girl's virginity was, in fact, medically certified before the tribunal. But what was most modern about the case was the underlying, almost, inarticulable, conviction that the girl, though a virgin, was not exactly as she had been before, that she had been violated, harmed, abused.

The Bestemmia interrogated Franceschini about young girls in the context of a broader spectrum of sexual activities.

TRIBUNAL: Have you received bad women in your apartment?


TRIBUNAL: Do you know the mistress of one of those public places situated in Calle de' Zendali? [End Page 430]

FRANCESCHINI: Yes, a big fat woman, and she has also been at my place.

TRIBUNAL: Did she come there frequently?

FRANCESCHINI: As far as I recall, she was there only once . . .

TRIBUNAL: Have you brought such women to your apartment at night?

FRANCESCHINI: Once or twice, I think.

TRIBUNAL: Did you during the past Lent intend to have in your apartment any girl as a servant?

FRANCESCHINI: That I do not know, or I do not remember.

Franceschini thus readily admitted to relations with fat prostitutes, but cautiously evaded questions about little girls, recognizing that this was the most the awkward aspect of the case against him. At the same time, it was the most difficult for the law to grasp, and Franceschini would give no assistance to the case against him.

The tribunal noted that Franceschini's conduct was all the more scandalous because he belonged to a distinguished family, "whose honor is recognized in utility to commerce, decorum to your country, luster to religion, for which account it attracts all the more attentive universal observation, and so there was a greater and more precise obligation on your part to be an edifying exemplar, and instead all the greater and more effective is the scandal that you have caused." The Franceschini family of Vicenza was well known for the manufacture and commerce of silk. In 1765, when Francesco Griselini established the enlightened journal, Giornale d'Italia, to address economic issues within the Venetian republic, he particularly mentioned the Franceschini family, whose enterprise "had no equal inside or outside Italy, both for its vast size and systematic method." In 1770 an official report from Vicenza to the Venetian government praised Giovanni Franceschini, the head of the family, as "that ingenious Franceschini who is always adding new things to his renowned factory."21 It was in the year 1770 that Giovanni Franceschini built a grand new family palace in Vicenza, designed by the celebrated neo-classical architect Ottavio Bertotti-Scamozzi. The new Franceschini family home was constructed alongside the silk works in an extensive economic complex, with weavers living in the houses around the palace courtyard. The family undertook important technical innovations in the use of hydraulic energy to power the machinery, and the enterprise operated seven hundred looms, more than a quarter of the total in Vicenza. Their silks were sent all over Europe.22

Giovanni Franceschini was the father of ten children, including Gaetano. The father died in 1774, and his last will and testament, preserved in the archives of Vicenza, revealed his provisions for five children in religious orders, including his only daughter. His worldly property was then divided among five other sons.23 Antonio Franceschini became the most active of the brothers in operating the family business, and Gaetano, a decade after his father's death, had left Vicenza. His income was enough to rent an apartment and pursue his personal inclinations in Venice.

"I am a free man (io sono uomo libero), living by myself without family relations," Franceschini affirmed in his own defense before the tribunal, meaning that his sexual conduct was his own private affair and could not be the concern of anyone else, including the law. This declaration of freedom clearly aligned his case with the phenomenon of sexual libertinism in the eighteenth century. Casanova, [End Page 431] the Venetian paragon of libertinism, summed up thus the commencement of his sexual career in the 1740s: "I began to live truly independently of everything that could place limits on my inclinations. As long as I respected the laws it seemed to me that I could despise prejudices (mépriser les préjugés). I thought I could live perfectly free" (II, 199). This libertine declaration of independence sophistically played upon the values of the Enlightenment in its rejection of prejudice and celebration of freedom. Casanova was already writing his libertine memoirs in the 1780s, as Franceschini came to trial, and in 1787 the Venetian Lorenzo Da Ponte created for Mozart the libretto of Don Giovanni, a study in operatic libertinism. The imminently orgiastic celebrations of the first act finale included a toast to freedom: "Viva la libertà!"24 Don Giovanni's libertine slogan might have served equally well as Franceschini's legal defense. The case against Franceschini, in focusing on young girls like Paolina Lozaro, sought to distinguish his conduct from that of more conventional libertinism, but contemporary cultural values did not necessarily recognize the difference with notable clarity.

Two months after his arrest, on November 11, the Bestemmia issued a formal indictment of Franceschini:

On account of your own depraved customs, not satisfied to vent yourself by impudently frequenting the public brothels, but causing more scandal and making it more public when you came to live in Calle della Cortesia in Sant'Angelo, where trampling without reserve upon the most definite duties of virtue and religion, you made yourself a mirror of turpitude by showing your sensual dissoluteness in common sight, by prostituting without shame your own house, receiving by day and entertaining also for whole nights libertine women, causing the greatest scandal and universal commotion. Not limiting your dissoluteness to this, but pushing it still further, you went so far as to procure innocent girls of tender age, treacherously disguising your guilty intentions with alluring promises, in order to obtain the girls, seeking then with chimerical pretexts to obscure the circumstances of your turpitudinous purpose, and to achieve it you attempted by seductive means to deceive the feeble mentality (imbecillità) of the girls in order to bend them to your satisfactions, and thus by your lewd acts and dishonest licentiousness in perpetrated malice, taking from them that innocence that was supposed to form the most sturdy rampart of their virtue.

There were thus two principal parts to the indictment, the first focusing on the great scandal caused by Franceschini's general sexual conduct, the second—"pushing it still further"—addressing his particular proclivity for young girls. Amidst the moral rhetoric of the indictment there emerged a rather modern formulation of his criminal conduct: though he might not have technically violated anyone's juvenile virginity, he nevertheless "took" a young girl's innocence.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in Emile (1762), offered a modern conception of childhood's innocence as something that naturally appertained to the child, and of which the child could only wrongly be deprived. Rousseau was writing with reference to the unsalacious topic of pedagogy, believing that traditional education oppressively robbed children of their childhood. "Love childhood," Rousseau commanded his readers. "Encourage its games, its pleasures, its lovable instinct. Which of you has not sometimes regretted the age when laughter was always upon the lips, when the soul was always at peace? Why would you wish to take [End Page 432] from these innocents the joy of such a short time that escapes them, of such a precious good that they cannot abuse?"25 The sexual corollary of this pedagogical proposition suggested, as in the indictment of Franceschini, that children could be robbed of their innocence even without losing their virginity, that their lovable instinct could be sexually abused.

Paradoxically, however, the emphasis on childhood's innocence in the age of Enlightenment made Rousseau's injunction to "love childhood" appear as a perverse challenge to the libertine—for whom the erotic appeal of innocence provoked its violation. Casanova, born in 1725, was Franceschini's contemporary, and his memoirs, written in the 1780s and 1790s, suggest the erotic values that conditioned the libertinism of both men. Like Franceschini Casanova enjoyed relations with women of various ages, and, like Franceschini, he was ready and eager for sex even with girls who were very young. In Ancona in 1744 Casanova encountered a traveling theatrical family that included the supposed castrato singer Bellino, who turned out to be a girl in disguise, and became a major romance. Bellino, however, also had two younger sisters, Cecilia age twelve, and Marina age eleven, who both briefly occupied Casanova's bed. "The two little girls were true living rose buds," Casanova observed, "and very worthy of being preferred to Bellino, if I had not gotten into my head the idea that Bellino was a girl like them. Despite their extreme youth (grande jeunesse) one saw the signs of their precocious puberty (puberté précoce) on their white bosoms" (II, 4). For these children Casanova had a vocabulary of description that evocatively expressed their barely pubescent appeal.

First he had sex with twelve-year-old Cecilia, and then he was approached by eleven-year-old Marina. He hesitated for a moment in response to her juvenile advances:

"You are too much a child. (Tu es trop enfant.)"

"Age means nothing. I am better formed than my sister."

"And is it also possible that you have had a lover?"

"As for that, no."

"Very well. We will see tonight."

(II, 8)

His merely perfunctory objection—"you are too much a child"—was immediately put aside out of deference to her perseverance. So he gave Marina some money to bring to her mother—"who was insatiable to contract ever greater obligations with Divine Providence." Casanova took cheerfully for granted that venal mothers would eagerly offer daughters, at least as young as eleven and twelve, and regard the opportunity, in the words of Maria Lozaro, as a stroke of Providence. Casanova too considered such encounters to be providential, and summed them up accordingly: "Those who say that life is only a collection of misfortunes mean that life itself is a misfortune. . . . These people have written thus without good health, without a purse full of gold, and without the contentment of the soul that comes from holding in their arms the like of Cecilia and Marina, and being confident of having others of that sort in the future" (II, 11–12). Sex with children was thus elevated to a principle of enlightened optimism.

In 1755, when he was thirty, Casanova had sex with thirteen-year-old Hélène in Paris, but stopped short of intercourse, because he hesitated over the price: "little Hélène, whom I enjoyed, while leaving her intact." In 1765, when he [End Page 433] was forty, he purchased a thirteen-year-old girl in St. Petersburg as a sexual slave, and therefore did not need to deny himself any of her favors. In the memoirs he described the Russian girl as emphatically prepubescent: "Her breasts had still not finished budding. She was in her thirteenth year. She had nowhere the definitive mark of puberty." (III, 196–7; X, 116–17).26 In 1774, when he was almost fifty, Casanova encountered in Trieste a former lover, the actress Irene, now accompanied by her nine-year-old daughter. "A few days later she came, with her daughter, who pleased me (qui me plut) and who did not reject my caresses. One fine day, she met with Baron Pittoni, who loved little girls as much as I did (aimant autant que moi les petites filles), and took a liking to Irene's girl, and asked the mother to do him the same honor some time that she had done to me. I encouraged her to receive the offer, and the baron fell in love. This was lucky for Irene" (XII, 238). It was lucky for Irene, because Pietro Antonio Pittoni was a police official in Trieste, who was able to offer her some special protection, while she offered him some sort of special relation with her nine-year-old daughter.

Casanova noted Irene's eventual departure from Trieste after the carnival theater season: "At the beginning of Lent she left with the whole troupe, and three years later I saw her at Padua where I established with her daughter a much more tender acquaintance" (XII, 238). Those were, in fact, the final phrases of Casanova's epic memoirs, which thus concluded with his anticipation of a relationship three years in the future, when the girl would have been twelve and Casanova fifty-two. At nine, the girl was only one year older than Paolina Lozaro, and Casanova's unembarrassed account of caressing a nine-year-old suggests that Franceschini's inclinations might not have seemed outrageous in the context of contemporary Venetian libertinism.

Casanova analyzed the sexual appeal of a juvenile partner in his account of sex with Barberina, age fourteen, in Venice in the 1750s.

The celebration was new for Barberina. Her transports, her green ideas that she communicated to me with the greatest naïveté, and her compliance flavored by the charms of inexperience would not have surprised me, if I were not feeling something fresh myself. It seemed to me that I was enjoying a fruit whose sweetness I had never so fully tasted in the past. Barberina was ashamed to let me know that I had hurt her, and this same sentiment of dissimulation excited her to do everything to convince me that the pleasure she felt was greater than it actually was. She was not yet a big girl; the roses of her budding breasts were not yet in bloom. Perfect puberty was present only in her young spirit.
(IV, 181)

It was not just her prepubescent form that excited Casanova, but her inexperience, her innocence, that made her all the more irresistible. The more sensitive he was to the innocence of childhood, the more titillating was the prospect of violating that innocence.

Casanova was writing his memoirs in the 1780s and 1790s, and, at the same time, the Marquis de Sade, in France, was penning his pornographic novels, and demonstrating some of the same principles in the dynamics of libertinism and the violation of innocence. In 1785, while Franceschini was in prison in Venice, facing the Bestemmia, Sade was a prisoner in the Bastille in Paris, just finishing [End Page 434] his first large-scale work of pornographic literature, The 120 Days of Sodom. It began with the assembling of a harem, intended for the most brutal orgies, and the harem was to consist of eight girls and eight boys, between the ages of twelve and fifteen—"anything above or below was pitilessly rejected." At this stage of his pornographic career, Sade was not principally focused on prepubescent children. In the novel Justine, published in 1791, the heroine was held by monks in a harem that consisted of eight women between the ages of ten and forty, a wider range.27

It was in the History of Juliette, published in 1797, that Sade focused more particular sadistic attention on children. The heroine, Juliette, encouraged by the depraved nuns who served as her sexual mentors, inaugurated her libertine career by choosing a child as her sexual victim: "Her childhood (she was barely ten), her pretty lively little face, the splendor of her birth, everything excited me, everything enflamed me. The Mother Superior, seeing little obstacle since this young orphan had no other protector than an old uncle who lived a hundred leagues from Paris, assured me that I could regard as already sacrificed the victim whom my perfidious desires were immolating in advance."28 Sade lengthily described the convent orgy at which the child was bloodily abused. Later, when Juliette encountered the ultimate sexual barbarian Minski the Muscovite, he boasted of a harem of 200 girls between the ages of five and twenty. His custom was to rape, murder, and devour his victims. Juliette eagerly asked to see him assault a seven-year-old girl: "Nothing could be prettier than the little creature whom the barbarian was about to immolate, and nothing amused me more than the incredible disproportion between the assailant and the victim" (Sade, Juliette, 563–4). In the History of Juliette Sade was fully engaged by pornographic fantasies of the violation of childhood's innocence, and the publication of the novel seemed to suppose the existence of a readership that would be similarly aroused, including, perhaps, men like Franceschini.

In 1787 Da Ponte and Mozart created Leporello's catalogue aria, celebrating the sexual conquests of Don Giovanni.

V'han contesse, baronesse, Countesses, baronesses,
Marchesane, principesse, Marchionesses, princesses,
E v'han donne d'ogni grado, And women of every degree,
D'ogni forma, d'ogni età. Of every form, of every age.
(Act 1. Scene 5. 522–3)

Though Da Ponte did not specify the age range, Don Giovanni's interest in "every age" suggested that contemporary libertinism looked to the young, perhaps the very young. It seemed almost a part of the all-inclusive libertine ideal to be open to the possibility of sex with partners of all ages, but youth held a particular attraction.

Delle vecchie fa conquista He makes conquests of the old ones
Pel piacer di porle in lista: For the pleasure of putting them on the list:
Ma passion predominante But his predominant passion
É la giovin principiante. Is the young beginner.

How young is the young beginner? Da Ponte did not specify, but Don Giovanni, if his libertinism bore some resemblance to the Venetian Casanova, might have included in his catalogue virgin beginners of fourteen, thirteen, twelve, and even [End Page 435] eleven. In the catalogue aria Leporello also discussed the size of the women whom the Don seduced:

Vuol d'inverno la grassotta, In winter he likes a fat one,
Vuol d'estate la magrotta; In summer he likes a thin one;
É la grande maestosa, The big one is majestic,
La piccina è ognor vezzosa. The little one is always charming.

How little is the little one? This question Mozart allowed himself to answer in an archly playful setting of the words, "la piccina."

Anyone who knows the catalogue aria knows that here Leporello launches himself into a hypnotically driven repetition, marked by playful staccato, dotted rhythm, and an almost complete collapse of articulation: "La piccina, la piccina, lapiccinalapiccinalapiccina lapiccinalapiccina." Leporello, Don Giovanni's Boswell, his fellow basso, his trusty servant, his alter ego, sings a sort of riff on the diminutive expression "la piccina," with a musical effect that is at once ironic, comic, knowing, and infinitely suggestive, as if the little girl, the young beginner, were getting littler and younger with each repetition of the diminutive. "La piccina" is Don Giovanni's child victim, as young as the public would dare to imagine her.


On December 16, three months after his arrest, the Bestemmia finally issued a verdict on Franceschini. The judges rejected a sentence of further imprisonment, but also rejected a proposal to let him off with a simple warning; instead they made him pay a fine of two hundred ducats to the girl's family. The sum would have seemed significant to them, poor Friulians. After all, Maria Lozaro, had considered it a stroke of Providence to obtain only a single ducat monthly as payment for her daughter's services. Franceschini promptly had the ducats deposited with the tribunal, and was released on December 19. On December 28 Mattio Lozaro, Paolina's father, made his first and only appearance in the entire affair, to claim the two hundred ducats. He could not write his name on the receipt, and therefore signed with an X. When a girl was deflowered, such money was often specified as a dowry, rendering her more marriageable. Since Paolina Lozaro had not been deflowered, the purpose of the money was not stipulated, but it may perhaps be viewed as the token of the tribunal's recognition that something had been taken from her, the innocence of childhood. The eighteenth century possessed neither the legal framework nor the conceptual vocabulary to recognize her more precisely as a victim of sexual abuse.

The length and meticulousness of the investigation, however, suggests that the case was nevertheless problematic for the Bestemmia. In the end, it was a matter of scandal, but a scandal of more disturbing depravity because it involved an eight-year-old child. The context of the coffee house guaranteed that the whole matter would be widely discussed in the neighborhood, while the machinery of Venetian justice transformed public discussion into secret prosecution. Venetian libertines pursued women of all ages, and exhibited a variety of depraved inclinations, but the enlightened ideology of childhood's innocence made sex with children into an especially charged issue. For the length of the investigation, in 1785, the tribunal could vaguely discern and indirectly confront the problem of sexual [End Page 436] abuse, long before its modern formulation and recognition. One century later in 1885, the problem became a public sensation in London with W.T. Stead's journalistic investigation of child prostitution, billed as "The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon." One century later still, in the 1980s, American society and justice would be sensationally preoccupied with alleged sexual abuse in day care centers, like the McMartin Pre-School in California and the Fells Acre Day Care Center in Massachusetts. In fact, American justice was so awkwardly prepared for the problem, even then, that the cases became subject to persistent doubts, appeals, and overturnings. From the 1780s to the 1880s to the 1980s—to the pedophilia scandal among the Roman Catholic clergy at the beginning of the twenty-first century—the road to recognition of sexual abuse has been far from uncontroversial. The hesitations and uncertainties of the eighteenth-century Venetians may be taken as marking the beginning of a long, as yet unfinished, historical process.

Rousseau was living in Venice in the 1740s, and, because he was disgusted by prostitutes and dreaded venereal disease, he came up with a "simple project" for providing himself with sexual satisfaction. Together with a friend he decided to invest in a young girl:

Since we were inseparable, he proposed to me the arrangement, not rare in Venice, to have one girl for us both. I consented. It was a matter of finding a safe one. He searched so hard that he unearthed a little girl of eleven to twelve years, whose unworthy mother was seeking to sell her. . . . We gave some money to the mother, and provided for the keeping of the girl. She had a voice: to gain her a useful talent we gave her a spinet and a music master. All that cost us scarcely two zecchini each per month, and we saved on other expenses. But since it was necessary to wait until she was mature, there was a lot of sowing before the harvesting. We were content, however, to go there to pass the evenings, to chat and play very innocently with this child. . . . Imperceptibly my heart became attached to little Anzoletta, but it was a paternal attachment, in which the senses played so little part that accordingly as it grew there would have been less and less possibility for the senses to enter into it. And I felt that I would have had a horror of approaching that girl when she became nubile, as if it were an abominable incest. . . . I am certain that however beautiful that poor child might have become, we, far from ever being the corruptors of her innocence, would have been its protectors.29

Franceschini's libertine machinations were not so far in spirit from the "simple project" of Rousseau, a man who would represent "virtue" to an entire generation of the Enlightenment. Rousseau, who would help to construct the enlightened ideology of childhood's innocence when he wrote about the education of Emile, was not too fastidious to contemplate the project of purchasing a little girl from her mother and raising her as a sort of sexual slave. Indeed, one might conclude that it was partly the erotic contemplation of little Anzoletta in Venice in the 1740s that permitted Rousseau to achieve some of his insights about the innocence of childhood.

The Venetian painter Pietro Longhi did a series of paintings in the 1740s on the theme of temptation, including one that is known as "The Letter" or "The Milliner," in which a lecherous older man, maybe sixty, brings a letter to a pretty young milliner, a working woman, in her shop. (fig. 1) There is an older woman [End Page 437]

 Pietro Longhi, 'The Letter' or 'The Milliner,' 1740s. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Frederick C. Hewitt Fund, 1912 (14.32.1). Photograph  1993 The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Click for larger view
Figure 1
Pietro Longhi, "The Letter" or "The Milliner," 1740s. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Frederick C. Hewitt Fund, 1912 (14.32.1). Photograph © 1993 The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

present, possibly playing the role of procuress. The man holds out a little bag, probably a purse. There is also a child in the picture, a beautiful little girl, maybe eight years old, playing with a doll. The little girl is so busy with her doll that she seems oblivious to the drama taking place around her, with all its erotic angles and implications. Her childlike innocence would surely have dissuaded Rousseau from any sexually exploitative intentions, but might only have attracted the libertine attentions of Casanova or Franceschini. In fact, the older gentleman in the painting is not actually looking at the pretty milliner, the ostensible object of his visit. He has discovered another temptation, the temptation of innocence. He is looking intently at the little girl. [End Page 438]

Larry Wolff is professor of European history at Boston College. He is the author of Postcards from the End of the World: Child Abuse in Freud's Vienna (1988), Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment (1994), and Venice and the Slavs: The Discovery of Dalmatia in the Age of Enlightenment (2001).


1. Archivio di Stato di Venezia, Esecutori Contro la Bestemmia, Busta 40: Processi: 1784–1785, the case of Gaetano Franceschini; all subsequent citations from the documents of the case refer to this same archival citation.

2. Armand Baschet, Les Archives de la Sérénissime République de Venise (Paris: Amyot, 1857), 87–8.

3. Renzo Derosas, "Moralità e giustizia a Venezia nel '500–'600: Gli Esecutori contro la Bestemmia," in Stato, società, e giustizia: nella Repubblica Veneta (Sec. XV–XVIII), ed. Gaetano Cozzi (Rome: Jouvence, 1980), 446–53, 455–6; Gaetano Cozzi, "Religione, moralità, e giustizia a Venezia: Vicende della Magistratura degli Esecutori contro la Bestemmia (secoli XVI–XVII)," Ateneo Veneto, Anno 178/179, Vol. 29 (1991), 23–30; Gaetano Cozzi, "Note su tribunali e procedure penali a Venezia nel '700," Rivista Storica Italiana, Anno 77, Fascicolo 4 (Napoli 1965), 943–4; Giovanni Scarabello, Esecutori contro la Bestemmia: Un processo per rapimento, stupro, e lenocinio nella Venezia popolare del secondo Settecento (Venice: Centro Internazionale della Grafica, 1991), 147–8.

4. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 92; Cozzi, "Religione, moralità, e giustizia," 55.

5. Guido Ruggiero, The Boundaries of Eros: Sex Crime and Sexuality in Renaissance Venice (1985; Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1989), 96–8, 148–52.

6. Benedetto Pasqualigo, Della Giurisprudenza criminale, teorica e pratica, Tomo I (Venice: Stefano Orlandini, 1731); Lorenzo Priori, Pratica criminale secondo le leggi della Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia (Venice: Gasparo Girardi, 1738).

7. Jacques Casanova de Seingalt, Histoire de ma vie (Wiesbaden: F. A. Brockhaus, 1960–1962), II, 272–3.

8. Sheila Hodges, Lorenzo Da Ponte: The Life and Times of Mozart's Librettist (London: Grafton Books, 1985), 30–1; Fausto Nicolini, "La vera ragione della fuga di Lorenzo Da Ponte da Venezia," Archivio Storico Italiano, Serie VII, Volume XIV (Florence 1930), 129–38.

9. Lorenzo Da Ponte, Memorie, in Memorie, Libretti mozartiani (Milan: Garzanti, 1981), 58.

10. Archivio di Stato di Venezia, Esecutori Contro la Bestemmia, Busta 36: Processi: 1779, the case of Giuseppe Terrizzo.

11. Archivio di Stato di Venezia, Esecutori Contro la Bestemmia, Busta 33: Processi: 1770–1775, the case of Iseppo Franceschini (1771); the case of Sebastian Marchetti (1772); Busta 34: Processi: 1775–1777, the case of Anastasio Valensa (1775).

12. Archivio di Stato di Venezia, Esecutori Contro la Bestemmia, Busta 33: Processi: 1770–1775, the case of Zuanne Fratovich (1774); Busta 34: Processi: 1775–1777, the case of Francesco Toselli (1776).

13. Archivio di Stato di Venezia, Inquisitorato alle Arti, Busta 16, Fabbrica Acciaio, Acquaroli, Acquavite, "Catastico di tutte le botteghe e posti dell'Arte Acquavita di questa città," 1761.

14. Carlo Goldoni, La Bottega del Caffè, in Commedie, vol. I, ed. Guido Davico Bonino (Milan: Garzanti, 1981), Act 1. Scene 1. 185.

15. Antonio Pilot, La Bottega da Caffè (Venice: Zanetti Editore, 1926), 16–17, 49–52, 96.

16. Danilo Reato, La Bottega del Caffè: i caffè veneziani tra '700 e '900 (Venice: Arsenale Editrice, 1991), 15–8, 67–70.

17. Gasparo Gozzi, "Elogio delle Botteghe di Caffè," in Opere Scelte, ed. Enrico Falqui (Milan: Rizzoli, 1939), 296–301.

18. Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993), 31–43; Franco Venturi, Settecento riformatore: Da Muratori a Beccaria (Turin: Giulio Einaudi, 1969), 645–747. [End Page 439]

19. Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, trans. John and Anne Tedeschi (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1980); Carlo Ginzburg, Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, trans. John & Anne Tedeschi (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1983); Edward Muir, Mad Blood Stirring: Vendetta in Renaissance Italy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1993).

20. "Questo é certo che quella ragazza é partita tal quale é venuta in mia casa."

21. Sebastiano Rumor, Il Blasone vicentino (Venice: Federico Cav. Visentini, 1899), 81; Patrizia di Savino, Manifattura e commercio dei Tessuti Serici a Vicenza nel XVIII secolo (Università degli Studi di Venezia, Tesi di Laurea, 1985–1986), 116.

22. Emanuele Lodi, Cenni Storici e Statistici sul Setificio in Vicenza nella seconda metá del secolo passato (Vicenza: G. Burato, 1872), 5–7; Alessandro Ometto, Il Setificio vicentino nel settecento: organizzazione produttiva, scambi e mercati (Università degli Studi di Verona, Tesi di Laurea, 1985–1986), 214.

23. Archivio di Stato di Vicenza, Notai di Vicenza, Busta 14961, Testamenti, 94–6.

24. Da Ponte, Don Giovanni, in Memorie, Libretti mozartiani, Act 1. Scene 21. 550; Andrew Steptoe, The Mozart-Da Ponte Operas: The Cultural and Musical Background to Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi fan tutte (1988; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 207.

25. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile: ou de l'éducation, ed. Michel Launay (Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1966), 92.

26. Larry Wolff, Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightment (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1994), 50–62.

27. Marquis de Sade, Les 120 Journées de Sodome (Paris: Cercle du Livre Précieux, 1967), in Oeuvres Complètes, XIII, 33; Sade, Justine: ou les malheurs de la vertu, (Paris: Cercle du Livre Précieux, 1966), in Oeuvres Complètes, III, 165–6.

28. Sade, L'Histoire de Juliette (Paris: Cercle du Livre Précieux, 1966), in Oeuvres Complètes, VII, 38.

29. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Les Confessions, ed. Michel Launay (Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1968), II, 66–7.

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.