Monday, June 4, 2012

Murder, Melancholy, and Musica: The Complicated Life of Carlo Gesualdo (Part I)

Flanked by a handful of servants and armed with a blade, Italian prince Carlo Gesualdo rushed up the stairwell of the Palazzo San Severo with murder on his mind. Having recently learned that his wife had arranged for a rendez-vous with her lover, the Duke of Andria, Gesualdo lulled the lovers into believing he would be away on a hunting trip. This time, however, his prey was human. The details of the 1590 murders survive today in an inquest held by the Grand Court of the Viceroy. According to the report, as he burst in upon the lovers in flagrante delicto, Carlo yelled, “Kill that scoundrel along with this harlot! Should a Gesualdo be made a cuckold?”

The lurid details of Gesualdo's life often 
overshadowed his music

The inquest papers describe a gory scene. The lovers’ throats were slit, their genitals stabbed. Blood soaked the sheets and dripped from Gesualdo’s hands. Leaving the death chamber, the furious prince returned to the scene to stab his wife again and again, saying, “I believe she may not yet be dead.”[1]

Map of Italy, with Gesualdo marked

Born in 1566, Carlo was the second son of the noble family of Gesualdo, a principality in Italy. Since lands and titles of Renaissance Italy were handed down to the eldest son, Carlo was sent to Rome to pursue an ecclesiastic career, a move that was also typical of the age. When the Carlo’s older brother died as a youth, however, Carlo was the first in line for the title Il principe del Gesualdo.

The highly ornate armor of Carlo Gesualdo, left

Castle Gesualdo stands today and is undergoing restoration, but the walls bear an inscription reading “CARLOUS GESUALDUS EX GLORISSIMI ROGERII NORTHMANNI APULIAE ET CALIBRIA DUCIS GENERE COMPSAE COMES VENUSII PRINCIPES ETC. EREXIT,” that is,– Carlo Gesualdo, descendant of the most noble Roger the Norman, Duke of Puglia and Calabria, Count of Conza and Prince of Venosa, etc., erected this building.[2] The castello, like the prince, also has a strange history even after the murders in San Severo.

In 1586, Gesualdo married his first cousin, Maria D’Avalos. A woman of purported beauty, Maria had been twice widowed before her marriage to Gesualdo. Maria appears to have begun or resumed an affair with the similarly ill-fated Duke of Andria two years after her marriage to Gesualdo, an indiscretion that might have remained undisclosed had Maria not rebuffed the advances of Carlo’s uncle. Spurned by Maria, the uncle went to Gesualdo and informed the prince of his wife’s affair.

 Portrait of Carlo Gesualdo

The murders of Maria and the Duke were notorious, even in their day and the facts were embellished over the years. Intrigued by the story, some poets suggested that Gesualdo displayed the corpses nude to further humiliate the adulterers. Another tale has a monk stumbling upon the still-fresh body of Maria and is incited by her beauty to commit an act of necrophilia. Yet another tale says that Gesualdo, suspicious of his first-born child, has the baby murdered in a method similar to shaken baby syndrome. Filmmaker Werner Von Herzog has further muddied the history in his 1995 faux-documentary on Gesualdo, Death for Five Voices. According to the contemporary inquest, however, Maria’s aunt had her niece’s body cleaned and placed in a coffin. Gesualdo fled to his castle at Venosa, the site of his birth, to escape Maria’s family.

Alfonso D'Este II, another notorious 
Italian nobleman accused of 
murdering his wife

Curiously, Gesualdo’s second marriage, to Eleanora d’Este, linked the prince with another famous Italian uxorcide, the Duke of Ferrara, Alfonso D’Este II, who was a cousin of Eleanora’s. Students of literature might recognize the name; Ferrara is the speaker in Robert Browning’s famous poem, “To My Last Duchess.” (The poem is available for study here:

Gesualdo’s second marriage appears to have been an unhappy one. In letters to her brothers, Eleanora claimed abuse at the hands of her husband not long after their wedding vows were exchanged. The prince also had several affairs, one of which led to the birth of an illegitimate child.

Portrait of Gesualdo (bottom left)
and his second wife Eleanora (bottom right)

Within the walls of Castle Gesualdo, a strange case surfaces in the year 1603. One of the prince’s mistresses, Aurelia D’Errico, is accused of witchcraft after the prince and his wife fall ill. Under torture, Aurelia admits she sought advice from a local witch, Polisandra Pezzela – a woman who already had a pierced tongue as punishment for the crime of blasphemy. Pezzela, Aurelia admits, advised her to feed the prince her own menstrual blood so that she could continue to receive his affections.

Castello Gesualdo, as it stands in Italy today

During the Renaissance, menstrual blood was considered poisonous, a toxin expelled from a woman’s body. During the 1603 inquest, Aurelia admitted to mixing some of her blood with food the prince would ingest. From the report: “That menstrual blood is a kind of poison which, if not treated immediately, will eventually lead to a person’s death is established through the depositions of four physicians, who also say they judged the Prince’s indisposition to be supernatural, caused by harmful drinks and other sorceries, because many natural remedies that were used were of no avail, thereby indicating the supernatural nature of the poison.”[3]

Both women were convicted of the crime of attempted murder and were sentenced to hang. Gesualdo intervened, however, and elected to keep them both at his castle. Biographer Glenn Watkins sees this reduced punishment as a means for keeping the prince’s mistress nearby, a decision that may also have been intended to insult his wife Eleanora since the affair would have been common knowledge after the trial.

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Next week: Part II of Murder, Melancholy, and Musica: The Complicated Life of Carlo Gesualdo

[1] See The Gesualdo Hex: Music, Myth, and Memory. Glenn Watkins. (New York: Norton, 2010): 18.

[2] Ibid, 14.

[3] Ibid, 27.

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