It is one of those names, that of the Venetian Giacomo Casanova, who has traveled around the world, known and mentioned, mostly, for the image that he himself wanted to convey to posterity.
His culture is multifaceted because he is a literary, translator, historian, poet: he was a secret agent, philosopher, mathematician, alchemist, traveler in the main states, interlocutor of the major cultural personalities of his time, of statesmen, of princes, of kings. Anyone who deals with the eighteenth century in Europe inevitably crosses his name, but also those who are not moved by precise cultural intent, the name of Casanova has met him refracted in a thousand streams, in a thousand stories of costume as a mirror figure, in a certain sense , of Mozart's Don Giovanni, as an emblem of the great seducer and the great libertine. And the latter characterization is linked to the success of his autobiography, the Story of my lifewritten in the most widespread and spoken language of the time, French.
In Venice Casanova, often wrongly, still today depopulated compared to many illustrious Venetians of the past, because precisely the legendary has prevailed over reality, it is functional for the tourist sale of the many places in the city where the character had lived.
It was wrong, it was said, because Casanova's autobiography, as well as many other works he wrote, is not only a history of love adventures, it is an interesting and valuable source of news, descriptions of places, references to customs and culture of time, of notes of an educated man and an attentive traveler.
Has Albania been included in its reports? We will see it below.
Venice of the eighteenth century, the home of Casanova, had now lost
his state da Mar, Albania's own, had remained a small portion in front of Corfu, the area of Butrint, but the reasons for trade continued to maintain the lively and daily dialogue between the two shores; the Albanians subjects of the Ottoman Empire were stable presences in Venice, headed by Fontego (Warehouse, Warehouse) of the Turks, and dozens and dozens of galleys shuttled in the Adriatic from Shkoder, from Durres from Valona from Butrino (Corfu) to Venice and vice versa laden with waxes, tobacco, timbers, animal skins, silks and wools and whatever. The ancient Venetian Albania continued to maintain an almost fabulous memory. If on Bucintoro the statue of the Giant Scanderbeg had given way to that of a more generic Mars, the Albanian hero continued to relive on the Venetian theatrical scenes through representations of the Commedia dell'arte that had taken over the size of the Giant, capable even of taming lions.
And the Republic did not forget the military contribution it had had for centuries from the Adriatic "relatives" of the other side, slaves and Albanians, and Carlo Goldoni, the great eighteenth-century playwright, dedicated a highly successful piece to the theme: Dalmatina and precisely the slave soldiers present in Venice ran at every performance.
And here we are with the memories of our Casanova, who, not even twenty years old (he was born in 1725), has the opportunity to see on the island of Sant'Andrea, at the mouth of the port of Venice, an unforgettable human picture: the meeting of Albanian soldiers, with their families all in colorful costumes, who had gone to that place to receive decorations of their military value.
The fortress [of Sant'Andrea], where the Republic usually held a garrison of one hundred invalid slaves, then housed two thousand Albanians called cimarioti. The Minister of War, who in Venice called Savio to write, had made them come from the Levant on the occasion of a promotion. It was intended to give way to the officers to assert their merits and see them rewarded. They were all natives of that part of Epirus which is called Albania and which belongs to the Republic and twenty-five years earlier they had distinguished themselves on the occasion of the last war fought by Venice against the Turks. For me it was a new and surprising sight to see that group of officers, all elderly and in good health, with their faces covered with scars and their breasts uncovered. The oldest, and also the most horrifying, was the lieutenant colonel, who literally lacked a quarter of his head, as he had lost an ear, an eye and a jaw. Nevertheless he spoke cheerfully, ate with good appetite and was jovial. He had the whole family with him, which was made up of two girls, whom the national costume made even more graceful, and seven boys, all under arms. This man was six feet tall and well placed, but his face was so ruined by his wounds that it frightened him. Despite this, he immediately liked me and I would have liked to have been with him if only he had eaten a little less garlic. Instead he was very fond of it, like all his compatriots, and smelled unbearably. Among other things, he always had at least twenty segments in his pocket, as we would keep confetti in his pocket…. The lieutenant could not write, but he was not ashamed because, except the priest and a surgeon, nobody in the regiment was capable of it. Everyone, officers and soldiers, had a full purse and at least half were married: in the fort there were also five or six hundred women and a large number of children and the spectacle that these colorful people offered was very interesting to me….
Casanova soon became friends with the Albanian who gave him twelve bottargas and two pounds of delicious Gingè tobacco.
We do not enter the continuation of the story, less interesting for our purposes because it is linked to an adventurous love affair with a young woman from that group. What counts is the spectacle of the old Cimariot soldiers: a gallery of faces covered with scars, bare breasts, headed - so to speak - by the colonel who was even half-headed; yet all proud of their wounds, happy for the honors they would receive.
We have always been used to thinking of Stradioti as brave fighters, very fast in their war with almost mythical horses, Stradioti, even noble ones, such as a Mercury Bua for example, complete with a prestigious tombstone. Here, this passage by Casanova takes us back to other images, to torn and disfigured bodies, to blood fights, to miraculous survival, to mutilations and infections, to furious bodies to bodies. Also striking is the atmosphere of joy in which the ugliness of disfigured faces was an occasion for pride, for an almost exhibition, for a desire for honors and prizes to reward value and loyalty to the Republic.
Remember, if the combination is legitimate, a scene that could be inserted in a Venetian carnival of the time (mythical, very long, the eighteenth-century Venetian carnivals); the tragedy of fighting was transformed into a great party, the joy of surviving, of being protagonists to be honored and rewarded.
Albania paraded there in Venice, in the fort of Sant'Andrea, as a land of brave and exceptionally strong men: to the Venetian people it appeared, tout court, like a fabulous country of extraordinary and faithful warriors.
The young Casanova records that experience on the eve of his first trip to Constantinople, following a new bailo, Pietro Vendramin: planned and obliged stage of that trip, both outward and return, was Corfu.
With interest, in search of possible notations on the Albanian land, the reading of the Story of my life: that reading is not very satisfactory, because the journeys to the Levant only touched the coast and did not involve stops inside; yet no, something finds the reader attentive, still tied to the Corfu area, on the occasion of another adventure of Casanova's travel (it was 1744).
... The next day Mr. F. asked Mr. DR to let me go three days to Butrint to replace his aide who was seriously ill.
Butrint, the closest mainland location to the island, is seven miles across from Corfu. It is not a fortress, but a village of Epirus, today's Albania and belongs to the Venetians. Aware of the political truth that "a neglected right is a lost right", the Venetians send four galleys laden with galleys every year to cut wood and load it on boats that transport it to Corfu. The galleys were always escorted by a detachment of troops who have the task of supervising the convicts, who otherwise could easily desert and go to become Turks .... In two days the convicts had already finished cutting the wood and boarded it. So on the third day I was able to return to Corfu.
In contrast to the colorful scene of the Forte di Sant'Andrea, Butrinto's description disappoints for the tomb silence of a place that is only scrubland: the Venetians still own it, that place that had been a strategic time in the clashes with the Ottoman power. But, underlines Casanova, for Venetian politics it was now a matter of maintaining and not neglecting a right, so here is Butrinto as a simple reserve of timber, however raw material always precious for the Republic.
And on the other hand, having lost its value as a strategic military position, with a very important fortress, what could Venice Butrinto be like in the eighteenth century? Butrinto, beaten by the endemic malaria, was now only a land of timbers, rather it was the area of the fish ponds to assure lavish proceeds to the Chamber of Corfu; it was his fishponds that also supplied the Venetian canteens with excellent bottarga, equal to that which the old colonel had given to young Giacomo at the Fort of Sant'Andrea.
It would still take two centuries for the excavations of Luigi M. Ugolini, who will find it in the end not very different from Casanova's brief notations: he will say it is invaded by an intricate and impenetrable forest, an area of desolate squalor inhabited by wild boars, jackals, vipers . It was an area for hunting at most, as he had known well Ali Pasha of Tepelena.
The great silence of Butrint it did not attract the young Casanova, who evidently knew little of the history of the places and did not even know the fifteenth-century travels of Ciriaco d'Ancona with his very first finds of archaeological remains. The romantic charm of the wild Butrint, what will become of Byron, was still far away, in him there was only a desire for life and adventure.
He was in a hurry to return to Corfu, amid possible amusements of love encounters and challenges to the game, and of the latter he had had a good school in Venice where the first casino in modern history was opened in 1638.