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  • Paolina’s Innocence: Child Abuse in Casanova’s Venice by Larry Wolff
  • Adrienne Ward
Paolina’s Innocence: Child Abuse in Casanova’s Venice. By Larry Wolff. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012. Pp. 328. $90.00 (cloth); $29.95 (paper).

Larry Wolff’s study reads like a really good mystery. It hinges on the outcome of a case brought against Gaetano Franceschini, an eighteenth-century Venetian near-nobleman, for committing sexual abuse with Paolina Lozaro, an eight-year-old girl placed in his service. Since conceptions of pedophilia were still very much in embryo in this period, the accused’s culpability is far from clear. Wolff purports that this case shines a penetrating light on the precise historical moment when modern notions of childhood innocence were taking shape. The episode illuminates the multiple currents of social, cultural, economic, political, religious, and legal history that converged to create present-day beliefs about childhood and childhood innocence, as well as social, sexual, and criminal deviance. Paradoxically, Wolff communicates the intense ambiguity of this cultural instance by clarifying or, better, sharpening the edges of its numerous and crucially intersecting facets. Support for his thesis is excellent and innovative. Among other sources, evidence deriving from prevalent stage entertainments, visual arts, and literature shows how popular culture both mirrored and helped create an ethos about what it meant not only to be a child but also to protect, abuse, defend, desire, and revere a child.

The book is organized in four parts, each containing five chapters. Part 1 contains an exposition of the case and its main characters. Wolff then introduces pertinent Venetian social and judicial organs, along with a history of the Bestemmia tribunal. He discusses poverty’s impact on moral conduct, insofar as the alleged victim came from a poor immigrant population (the Furlani from Friuli). Other salient topics include incipient ideas of sentimental motherhood, master-servant relations, and parameters for criminal behavior differentiated from permissible sexual misconduct. Regarding this last point, Wolff introduces Casanova. The biography and history of this period bad boy reveals much in terms of contemporary attitudes on violence, violation, and age.

Part 2 comprises an extended focus on the coffeehouse, given its prominent role in the case. Wolff analyzes ideologies and practices connected to [End Page 172] the commercial coffee venture. “The social implications of coffee” (75) include public visibility, gossip and its role in libertine culture, sociability, and honor. Notions of public and private space, even within the domestic zone, are examined, followed by a particularly insightful discussion of the theatrical-entertainment dimension of neighborhood events. Wolff also provides an illuminating history of the Friulian state in relation to the Venetian Republic and the conditions of Friulian immigrants in Venice. He considers the urban vs. rural divide, as well as labor, folklore, stereotypes, and servitude, and buttresses his points with dramas by the most popular eighteenth-century Italian producers: Carlo Goldoni, Pietro Chiari, and Da Ponte–Mozart. In an examination of the latter’s Le nozze di Figaro and Goldoni’s Pamela (modeled on Richardson’s novel), Wolff interrogates instances of sexual predation of female servants by superiors.

Part 3 contains some of the most subtle and innovative analysis, especially in the sensitive readings of trial testimony in chapters 13 and 15. The first focuses on the indictment and teases out the delicate differentials between actions and reputation, public scandal and crime. It also points to the period’s notable lack of legal and medical vocabulary for categories such as perversion and sanctioned culpability. The second studies Franceschini’s defense, exploring the rationale of domestic privacy as guarantor of freedom, definitions of freedom, primarily in concepts of uomo libero vs. uomo libertino, the slippery notion and reality of scandal, its relation to calumny, and the currency of both in a burgeoning literary and publishing universe. Wolff plots the specific moves by which Foucault’s sex becomes sexuality and behavior begins to determine individual identity. Chapter 12 provides plentiful examples of social ambivalence around childhood innocence, sexual inclination, and propriety.

Part 4 looks to Jean-Jacques Rousseau for revelatory information about his sexual interest in young girls. Wolff describes how Rousseau then reframed that...


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pp. 172-174
Launched on MUSE
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