“I discovered that a man shut up in solitude and deprived of any possibility of occupying himself, alone in an almost dark place, where he does not and cannot see anything except, once a day, the person who brings him food, and in which he cannot walk upright, is the most wretched of mortals. He longs for Hell, if he believes in it, only to have companionship. Confined there, I reached the point of longing for the company of a murderer, a maniac, a man with some stinking disease, a bear. Solitude under the Leads drives one to despair; but to know it one must have experienced it. If the prisoner is a man of letters, give him a writing desk and paper and his wretchedness will decrease by nine tenths” (Vol. IV, Ch. 12).
When Casanova was imprisoned under the Leads of the Doge’s Palace, he abhorred being alone. He abhorred having nothing to do or think about. At one point, his jailor Lorenzo brought him a book. Turns out, he abhorred this book, too, but at least it gave him something to latch him brain to.
That book was La Cité mystique de Soeur Marie de Jésus appelée d’Agreda. Casanova tells us, “I read everything that the extravagance of the heated imagination of an extremely devout Spanish virgin, given to melancholy, shut up in a convent, and guided by ignorant and flattering confessors, could bring forth. All these chimerical and monstrous visions were adorned with the name of revelations.” Sister Marie de Jésus outlines all that the Virgin Mary did in her mother’s womb, her astonishing ability to do chores at age three with the help of legions of angels, her conversations with the angel Michael, and much more. “I could not get over my astonishment,” Casanova writes. “Far from increasing or exciting in my mind a fervor or a zeal for religion, the work tempted me to regard as fabulous all that we have in the way of mysticism and of dogma as well.” The nun’s visions invaded Casanova’s dreams and made him contemplate the nature of insanity.
Years later, when C visited Spain in November 1767, traveling from Pamplona to Madrid, he passed through the town of Ágreda where Sister Marie de Jésus lived. “‘So it was here,’ I said to myself, ‘that the brain of that holy madwoman gave birth to her masterpiece.'”
My friend Valeriano recently passed through Ágreda and sent me this photo as he drove past. Casanova describes the town as ugly, but when I looked it up on Wikimedia Commons, I found these rather lovely images.