Casanova, aged 11, discovers wit

Giacomo Casanova

Giacomo Casanova

I’m reading The Story of My Life by Giacomo Casanova and arrive at the following event, which took place when the boy was eleven years old.

(And yes, this is part of the bibliography for my book. If you’re trying to figure out why, I leave, for the time being, the subtlest of hints here.)

Casanova was in his home town of Venice, with a group of people having supper. An Englishman, who was communicating with the Italians in Latin, which the educated were able to do in the Enlightenment era, wrote down a couplet for young Casanova to read:

Discite grammatici cur mascula nomina cunnus/Et cur femineum mentula nomen habet.

In English: “Tell us, grammarians, why cunnus (vulva) is masculine and mentula (penis) is feminine.”

Casanova announced that, rather than just translating the phrase, he would prefer to answer the question. So he wrote, in pentameter:

Disce quod a domino nomina servus habet.

In English: “It’s because the slave always bears the name of his master.”

“It was,” he says, “my first literary exploit, and I can say that it was from this moment that my love of the glory conferred upon literature began to germinate, for the applause brought me to the pinnacle of happiness.”

Later that evening, the priest charged with looking after him told him it was a pity that he could not publish the couplet or Casanova’s response.

“Why?”, Casanova asked.

“Because it’s smut. Still, it’s sublime. Let’s go to bed now and speak no more of it. Your response is extraordinary because you know neither the subject nor how to write verse.”

Casanova would catch up very soon.

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