Venice: the adventures of Giacomo Casanova
  • Europe /
  • Italy /
  • Venice

This is the story of Giacomo Casanova, one of the most interesting and controversial figures

Arrest and imprisonment at the 'Piombi' Prison
Heritage place of interest.
Illustration in Casanova's Histoire de ma fuite des prisons de la République de Venise qu'on appelle Les Plombs (Story of my Flight), 1787. From the German edition, 1788.
Heritage place of interest.

The Palazzo Delle Prigioni, also known as “Piombi” in Venice, is in St. Mark’s Square and is connected to the Doge’s Palace by the world-famous Bridge of Sighs.

The Piombi are an ancient prison located in the attic of the Doge’s Palace in Venice, in the neighbourhood of San Marco. The name “Piombi” comes from the material with which their roof was built, which was covered with slabs of lead. In winter, these slabs let the cold pass, and they acted as a conductor in the summer heat, imposing harsh conditions for inmates. Inmates were locked up here and were allowed in the air hour to walk the corridor that connected the various cells.

Returning to Venice after his extended stay in Paris and other trips to Dresden, Prague and Vienna, Casanova was arrested at dawn on 26 July 1755 and confined in the “Piombi”, the famous and dreaded Venetian prison. As was customary at the time, the condemned man was not notified of the charge, nor of the length of imprisonment he had been sentenced to. This, as he later wrote, turned out to be detrimental, since if he had known that the sentence was of an altogether bearable length, he would have avoided the deadly risk of escape and, above all, the danger of possible subsequent elimination by the inquisitors, who often operated far beyond the borders of the Republic. These magistrates were the clearest expression of the arbitrariness of the oligarchic power that governed Venice. They were both a special court and an espionage centre.

The real reasons for the arrest have been much debated. What is certain is that Casanova’s behaviour was watched by the inquisitors and their spies, who minutely described his behaviour, especially those considered socially improper. Ultimately, the accusation was that of ‘libertinage’ with married women, contempt of religion, circumvention of certain patricians and in general behaviour dangerous to the good name and stability of the aristocratic regime. As a matter of fact, Casanova led a somewhat disordered life. Still, no more and no less than many scions of illustrious houses: like these, he gambled, cheated and also had quite unique ideas on religion and, what is worse, made no secret of them.

Moreover, his adherence to Freemasonry, which was known to the Inquisitors, did not help him, as did the scandalous relationship he had with ‘sister M.M.’, who certainly belonged to the patriciate, a nun in the convent of S. Maria Degli Angeli in Murano and mistress of the French ambassador, Abbot De Bernis. In short, the Venetian ruling oligarchy could no longer tolerate an individual considered socially dangerous hanging around.

Having just recovered from the shock of his arrest, Casanova began to organise his escape. The attempt was thwarted by a cell transfer. On the night between 31 October and 1 November 1756, he put his plan into action: he went from his cell to the attic, through a hole in the ceiling drilled by a fellow inmate, went out onto the roof and then descended back into the palace through a dormer window. He then passed, in the company of his accomplice, through several rooms and was finally noticed by a passer-by, who thought he was a visitor locked inside and called one of the palace staff, who opened the door, allowing the two to get out and lightning away in a gondola. They quickly headed north. The problem was to lose the pursuers: the escape cast a shadow over the administration of justice in Venice, and it was clear that the Inquisitors would try anything to catch the escapees. After brief stays in Bolzano (where the Menz bankers hosted him and helped him financially), Munich (where Casanova finally freed himself from the inconvenient presence of the friar), Augsburg and Strasbourg. On 5 January 1757, he arrived in Paris, where in the meantime, his friend De Bernis had become a minister, so he had no lack of support.

Refreshed and having found accommodation, he devoted himself to his speciality: shining in society, frequenting the best the capital had to offer. He met, among others, the Marquise d’Urfé, a wealthy and extravagant noblewoman with whom he had a long affair, squandering large sums of money that she made available to him, subjugated by her charm and the usual set of magic rituals.

On 28 March 1757, he witnessed, as an escort of some ladies ‘intrigued by that horrendous spectacle’ (while he averted his gaze) and a count from Treviso, the bloody execution (by quartering) of Robert François Damiens, who had attempted the life of Louis XV.


1. Calle Malpiero

2. Church of San Samuele

3. San Samuele Theatre

4. Arrest and imprisonment at the 'Piombi' Prison

5. The last house

6. Farewell to Venice and death