“As the day dawned on 26 July 1755, as the third bell rang, Messer Grande entered and told me he had to put me up in the Piombi“
The name Casanova is synonymous with scandal – everyone knows the stories of how he slept around and was one of the most famous libertine’s in the world. Indeed, he is often thought of as a romantic hero as well as an adventurer – the most famous of his exploits has to be his escape from the Piombi, the prison within the Palazzo Ducale in Venice.
When I was in Venice last November, Matt and I went on the Secret Itineraries tour and saw the cell in which Casanova was kept. We also learned all about how he escaped from the prison, and let me tell you – it’s absolutely fascinating how he did it.
Casanova was aged thirty when he arrested, primarily on charges of public outrages against religion, and he was sentenced to be imprisoned under what was known as “The Leads”. Now, the Leads are a set of seven cells in the east wing of the Doge’s palace and reserved primarily for high status prisoners. He was sentenced to five years in The Leads, named for the lead that covered the roof. Casanova was placed at first in solitary confinement in what he named ‘the worst of the cells’ where he suffered greatly from heat and fleas. But after five months, a personal appeal from Count Bragadin meant that Casanova was allowed winter bedding, books and much better food than what he had previously. It was after this point that Casanova launched his first escape plan – one day, during one of his allowed moments of excercise he found an iron bar which he smuggled back to his cell. The bar was hidden within his armchair and whilst he was without cellmates, he spent two weeks sharpening the bar into a point which he planned to use to dig his way out of the cell and drop through the floor. But three days before his planned escape, he was moved to a larger cell despite his arguments that he was perfectly happy where he was.
“I sat in my armchair like a man in a stupor; motionless as a statue, I saw that I had wasted all the efforts I had made, and I could not repent of them. I felt that I had nothing to hope for, and the only relief left to me was not to think of the future.”
However, whilst in his new cell Casanova hatched another escape plan and enlisted the help of a fellow prisoner by the name of Father Balbi. Casanova had brought his armchair with him to the new cell, and thus his sharpened spike. Now this next part of the story is probably my favourite part as it’s exceptionally clever. Due to the fact that the spike was too big to just hand over, Casanova had it transported to Balbi covered with a large bible and a HUGE plate of pasta! Clever, right?
Father Balbi then used the iron spike to make a hole in the roof of his cell, climbed out onto the roof and made a hole into Casanova’s cell. Once the hole was complete, Casanova climbed out and made his way to freedom. Once outside, Balbi and Casanova realised that the drop down to the canal was far too big so they made their way through a window and used a bed sheet rope that Casanova had made to lower themselves to the floor. The two of them made the decision to then rest until morning. The next morning they changed their clothes and then broke a lock to the exit before making their way out through the palace – only stopping to convince a guard that they had been locked in the palace the night before after an official function. Then? They simply just walked out of the main exit into the Piazza San Marco.
There is a wonderful legend that before getting on a gondola to escape Venice, the two of them stopped for coffee in the main square. I have wonderful images of them sitting there sipping on coffee, looking all smug about their escape and planning how they would get to Paris.
It truly is a wonderful story. And although skeptics seem to think the tale implausible, I like to think that it was true. Casanova even writes of it in his memoirs, although in all honesty he could very well have over exaggerated on a lot of it. Still, it has to be one of my favourite stories and whilst we were looking around the Piombi I could totally imagine Casanova making his escape.
If any of you ever have a change, make sure you go on the Secret Itineraries tour at the Palazzo Ducale in Venice. It’s absolutely fascinating, and truly amazing to see the cells where the famous Lothario was kept imprisoned.
An example of the cells within The Leads.