MADNESS & MAESTROS: Carlo Gesualdo "THE PRINCE OF DARKNESS"

Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa
October 16, 1590. The sun had set at the Palazzo San Severo in Naples, Italy - both below the horizon and in the private bedchamber of Donna Maria D’Avalos, first wife of Composer and Prince of Venosa Carlo Gesualdo.

Inside, the steamy quarters reeked with the stench of death. Amidst the blood-soaked enclosure, crumpled sheets and general disarray set-stage a scene of obvious whirlwind violence, leaving in it’s wake the grisly and horrific aftermath of plot, treason, and debauched primal furor. It was a hellish display of pre-determined destiny that would make the fate of Paolo and Francesca of Dante fame seem like a punishment fit for Paradise.


Deep within the caverns and alcoves of this magnificent castle, elicit and treasonous carnal exploits would meet their due restitution - at the end of a dagger and by the barrel of a still smoking gun.

The Prince of Venosa and Count of Conza was born into nobility. Born in late March c.1566 he was the nephew of a Pope (his mother was niece of Pope Pius IV) and nephew of Calo Borromeo, (later made Saint Charles Borromeo.)


As the second surviving son of Fabrizio Gesualdo and Geronima Borromeo, the would-be Prince obtained carte-blanche status in Italy when he was crowned Prince of Venosa (a Principality handed down to Gesualdo through the paternal line via his grandfather, made First Prince of Venosa by the King of Spain) following the death of his elder brother, Luigi.

A dedicated Composer of madrigals and other sacred and secular works, accomplished lutenist and harpsichordist, Carlo Gesualdo would use his status as Prince to excess, obsessive in his display of dominion over music, his servants, his wife and her paramours, and later, toward his own person.

In 1586, Carlo would marry his first Cousin (a practice not uncommon among royal houses, dedicated to preserving the familial bloodline of future Princes and Kings), Donna Maria D’Avalos.

Donna Maria was a noted and celebrated beauty, and quickly caught the eye of a young Carlo. Unfortunately for Maria and for posterity, her charm and smouldering allure also grasped the attention of Gesualdo’s blood-uncle, Don Giulio.

Ever the provocateur, Giulio, after witnessing for himself Donna’s Maria’s comeliness, began a pursuit of unrequited romance in the form of trinkets, protestations and tears. They were all rebuffed. Giulio, however, fancying himself quite irresistible, persisted. It wasn’t long before Gesualdo's wife had had enough. Eventually, she put her foot firmly down, warning the wannabe Romeo that she would inform her husband, Prince Carlo Gesualdo, should he continue to pursue her.

This was enough to stop Giulio in his tracks - for the moment. What was to brew next inside of this bizzare love triangle was an episode so horrific, so full of brutality and betrayal that it shook Italy and the Gesualdo Principality to it’s core - creating shockwaves that still continue to permeate through the streets of Naples to this very day.

Donna Maria D'Avalos
Giulio would soon discover that Donna Maria, for her own transgressions, was also plagued by the elusive wandering eye and fickle heart. Already too deep into a passionate romance with the Duke of Andria, Don Fabrizio Carafa (himself a described “model of beauty”), Donna Maria would soon find herself, again, under the maleficent sombre wings of her Uncle-in-law.

And maleficent he was. Furious and feeling personally emasculated, Giulio set out to blackmail his niece in law - his idée fixe, now a whore in his eyes and her prettyboy lover had but two choices: either die steadfast and in the face of adulteries sin, or go out of this world in protest, kicking and screaming. Indeed, it wasn’t much of choice.

The jealous Uncle immediately informed Carlo of his wife’s indiscretion with the Duke, knowing full well ahead of time of Gesualdo’s penchant for possession and avarice. With this scandalous bit of information, both Uncle and Nephew would seal the fate of the adulterous traitors. The Gesualdo bloodline was wracked with inherited mental illness (perhaps as a result of incestuous marriages and the subsequent births resulting from their unions
.) This ‘mutation’ of the Gesualdo gene pool would be on full display at the Prince’s home in an intricate series of well planned traps and a nefarious use of psychological warfare.

October 16, 1590. The bait was set. Carlo, set to go on a hunting excursion that evening, leaving Donna Maria alone in La Palazzo San Severo, calmly “left” the premises he shared with his various servants and wife, allegedly off to bring home a fresh kill for a later feast. The Lady Maria hadn’t suspected anything was amiss, despite the fact that her villainous Uncle in law had told her lover the Duke of Andria that their extra-marital dalliance had been revealed to the Prince. Donna Maria, suspicious of her uncles protestations, probably imagined this to be a false claim under the cloak of blackmail, intended to be used as a underhanded tactic to resume courting her. Indeed, Carlo had said nothing of the matter to her, or to the Duke.


Carlo Gesualdo
It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Carlos’ web was already spun. There was, in fact, no hunting excursion to be had that evening - at least, there was to be no hunting of wild game for sport or for sustenance. Instead, the fresh kill would be in the shape and form of his beloved Donna Maria and her paramour, Fabrizio Carafa, Duke of Andria.

Leaving all of the doors within the castle unlocked so as not to arouse suspicion of a coup d’état within the Gesualdo abode, wife Donna Maria and her handsome lover would find themselves succumbing to one another in her bedchamber. The two had already declared a pact between them, in the event her Uncle-in-law was telling the truth about revealing their relationship to Carlo.


In a dictated manifesto that read like a discourse on unyielding love, the two disgraced lovers vowed to die with and for one another. This was immediately preceded by a lamentation made by the Lady D’Avalos, who chastised the genial Duke as undeserving of a Knight and man, and therefore undeserving of her after he suggested they cool things off and let the dust settle. In an age where men were made Knights and Kings on the battlefield, this was an insult of castrating proportions.

Well into their conjugal tryst that autumn evening, Carlo, sneaking through the corridors of the Palazzo, burst into the bedchamber of Donna Maria D’Avalos, catching his wife and her lover in flagrante delicto. Overcome by her gall, and overpowered by rage, he stormed the chamber,
dagger (or possibly sword) in hand, accompanied by three of his trusted guards, and slit the throat of his philandering spouse, and repeatedly stabbed her for having the audacity to try to “make [him] a cuckold”.

In the end, it was difficult to tell who bore the greatest brunt of Carlos' and his henchmen’s brutality. Duke Don Fabrizio (described, oddly, as dressed in “only a woman’s nightdress with fringes at the bottom, with ruffs of black silk.”..this at a time where homosexuality and “sodomites” were considered agents of primal sin both blasphemous and injurious to Christianity, one can only imagine Carlos’ shock at espying his romantic nemesis in transgender garb) was himself repeatedly stabbed. His body was found “covered with blood and pierced with many wounds.”  


He had also been shot:

..an arquebusade through his elbow and side, with two shots, and an arquebusade on the eye on the side of the temples, which went from one side to the other, and a bit of the brain had oozed out; and he also had wounds on his head, face, neck, chest, stomach, kidneys, arms, hands and shoulders - wounds made by sharp sword thrusts, quite deep, many of them passing through the body from one side to the other...* 

when the Duke’s body was removed from the room, it was revealed he had been several times impaled through the torso and the floor underneath by a sword long enough to pass through the breadth of his chest and abdomen and leave tell-tale holes in the planks below his currently mangled corpse.

His now deceased inamorata also suffered a further abuse after her violent attack: Donna Maria, her throat already having been cut, had been stabbed in a count so numerous modern day detectives would label it overkill of a pre-meditated order. Carlo was seen leaving and then re-entering the domicile, his hands and clothes dripping blood, shouting  “Kill that scoundrel, along with this harlot! Shall a Gesualdo be made a cuckold?”  In all of his blind rage and inherited insanity, it seems he played his carte blanche privilege to it’s full reaches, unaware or unconcerned of any form of condemnation or punishment for his gruesome crime. After publicly shouting this murderous demand at his fellow executioners, Gesualdo himself took to Donna Maria, stabbing her already mutilated body another 28 times, declaring in a fit of insanity, “I do not believe they are dead!”

Of the contemporary accounts that survive, much is made of the additional crimes alleged to have been committed post-mortem. In those accounts, and, in current Neapolitan folklore, it has been suggested that Don Carlo ordered the corpses to be taken out of the Palazzo and splayed out in a crude fashion on the stairs leading up to the castle. (It has been regaled by contemporary local witnesses that the Lady D’Avalos was positioned spread eagle, and her corpse later violated by a passing Monk.)

Elizabeth I of England at her Coronation
Of course, these, and other similar claims could be the result of embellishment. On the other hand, however, 16th century Europe was far from immune to such ghastly displays of the flesh: over to the northwest in what is now part of the United Kingdom, a young Elizabeth Tudor, newly crowned, ruled over England, itself fresh from the public burnings-at-the-stake made popular by the previous, Catholic, Queen Mary I (“Bloody Mary.")

Although brutal punishments like hanging, drawing, and quartering were left behind by the predecessors Tudor and their antecedents, Elizabeth I of England would, throughout the course of her reign, execute more Catholics than all of the protestants executed by her sister Mary and in the Spanish Inquisition combined.  In then quite recent England, those convicted of treasonous offenses found their severed heads hacked off by a dull axe at the block, parboiled and left to rot on a spike over the River Thames, and their torso and limbs impaled and planted fermement in the ground as a warning at the borders of then-warring Scotland.

Also to the northwest in just under a mere two decades earlier, Catherine de Medici and her son, the future Henri IV, had orchestrated a devious coup to oust the Huguenots from the face of France by organizing a marital union between the Catholic house of Valois with the Protestant House of Bourbon through her only daughter, Margot, a Valois, and the King of Navarre, Henri III from the House of Bourbon. Scores of Protestants flooded Paris to witness the outdoor union at the Cathedral of Notre Dame. They were later slaughtered in the streets and pulled out of hostels as they slept and were made slain.

16th century Europe, for all of the wonders and social and political advancements of the Renaissance, was a very violent place to live. Church and State, for the most part still reigned supreme, with repeated uprisings and revolts across the continent (indeed, even after England’s Henry VIII broke from the Church of Rome in order to marry Anne Boleyn and establish the Church of England, the country would see the execution of Lady Jane Grey, the “Nine Day Queen," a Papal Bull and countless plots to overthrow Elizabeth in the Northern Uprisings and the notorious Babbington Plot that would leave Queen Mary of Scotland dead - her head hacked off by an executioner in the employ and command of her cousin Elizabeth I, no less
.)

In matters of high treason or offences against the Church, public displays of brutality in the form of executions and the display of corpses was Standard Operating Procedure. It served two benefits: first, it acted as a “deterrent” (in reality, the outcome of its efficacy was highly negligible: a public suffering and death was considered amongst religious zealots to be a gateway into the realm of martyrdom
.) Second, the mutilation of the flesh itself, it was believed, was a necessary evil to warn any would-be conspirators of a preordained refusal of the soul into afterlife..wherein the mutilated spirit, unaccepted by heaven and unwanted by hell, would be doomed to roam the earth, disassembled, for eternity.

Catherine de Medici's forced union between the Protestant Henri III
of Navarre and her Catholic daughter Margaret de Valois set off one
of the bloodiest massacres known to French history. The onslaught
would become known as the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre.
If one considers the barbarous brutality that went into punishments such as hanging, drawing, and quartering, Carlo Gesualdo’s alleged treatment of his scorned cadavers seems, rather..commonplace in an era that was still ages away from the dawn of the period of Enlightenment. What can be argued as inordinate and especially cruel was that Gesulado’s actions were committed outside of the Church and based solely on primitive jealousy and an overabundant sense of vanity.

Gesualdo would soon flee Naples, perhaps consumed by guilt, where further atrocities would be reported, one in the case of an unidentified infant (believed to be either his own offspring, or the illegitimate son of Donna Maria and Duke Fabrizio Carafa of Andria) who he is said to have ordered murdered by swinging in a bassinette hung from a palace balcony while his servant-musicians sang madrigals of death - his own compositions - below until the child expired, for reasons that range from jealousy to preventing the child from inheriting his barbarity and familial insanity (depending on which contemporary account one chooses to believe
.)

He would also go on to physically abuse is second wife, a punishment likely as a result of her condemning his two female lovers as witches and ordering them to stand trial. It was said that Gesualdo became obsessed over one of his lady loves, and willingly participated in her explicit and disgusting (I will spare the reader the details) spells on him, so taken was he by her charms. That mock-trial ended in Gesualdo hosting the convicted ‘witches’ in his castle alongside his wife, both of whom were spared execution and given house arrest under his roof instead! Again, it would seem Carlo was untouchable. But, this sense of invincibility toward accountability would not last. Over the course of the last 15 years of his life, the troubled Prince of Venosa inflicted upon himself a seclusion that would last until his death.


A contemporary depiction of flagellents
Gesualdo rarely left his castle as his mental state rapidly began to deteriorate. He single-handedly cut down entire forests in a frenzied episode of schizophrenic-like paranoia around his castle by his own hand over the remainder of his life, afraid of unannounced villains who might be laying in wait outside of the fortress, plotting an attack; he procured a 3rd or 4th century BC ‘disk’, etched in hieroglyph-like carvings, and suffered upon himself a life long struggle with insomnia as he tried in vain night by mind-wracking night to decipher it’s mysterious code, even penning a letter to his alchemist, promising a large sum of money to enlist his services in cryptology (the disk exists today in a museum in Italy just on the outskirts of the scene of his horrific crime. It’s mysterious message remains unsolved.)

It is said the Composer-Prince became consumed by depression during this period, an impression made all the more palpable by a painting he had commissioned ("Perdono di Carlo Gesualdo" by Italian Mannerist Giovanni Balducci) of a pensive-looking Gesualdo, flanked by his uncle and gazing up to a pointing Redeemer -  an unidentified cherub-like infant hovering above his head just below Christ Himself. Could this baby be that of his son? Could Gesualdo, now a recluse, finally have found remorse while idling away in his castle? The Prince was also rumored to practice self-flagellation, a religious ‘practice’ condemned by the Catholic church that involved whipping one’s own back in a display of penance, in Gesualdo’s case with an alleged three-tailed whip. Could this accusation also be true?

It is difficult to say either way. The Prince of Venosa kept a close circle of trusted men in his employ, and never ventured beyond the reaches of the now deforested landscape surrounding his castle.

Even in spite of his madness, Carlo Gesualdo remained acutely aware of the spoils of his own nobility. It is said the Prince would order his male servants to cling to his back while he slept in an effort to keep him warm. He continued to enjoy the carnal pleasures of his convicted ‘witches’, and committed himself to the composition of music. If he was indeed depressed, Gesualdo certainly was productive about it.

In his remaining 15 years, Carlo Gesualdo would shift his focus in between his deforestation efforts, cryptology and music. He would produce some of the most chromatic vocal compositions the world had yet seen or heard - and which would not be heard again until Classical music's Romantic Period in the late 19th century in the works of prolific composer Richard Wagner and later, in the 20th century, Igor Stravinsky.

German Composer Richard Wagner
Much like Wagner and especially in the case of Stravinsky, who would cause a riot in Paris at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées some two centuries later with his and choreographer/ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky’s premier staging of “Le Sacre du Printemps”, Gesualdo’s style was equally controversial, widely panned by contemporaries and critics for their “ugliness” and unusual dissonances and peculiar harmonic tensions. Gesualdo penned works -  now considered virtuosic - in a style and manner 16th century melophiles had never before heard. Like any unchartered territory, what was ‘new’ was considered ‘strange’. Certainly, this ‘new sound’ was far removed from the exquisite and ingenious innovations of Monteverdi in his use of polyphony. Monteverdi’s was a purer technique - a more blended sound.

It is of interest to note that while largely critically panned in his era, Gesualdo’s frequent use of chords that seemed to contrast in tonality would later be declared to be predecessive of Wagner in his exquisitely ground breaking ‘Tristan Chord’ over two hundred and fifty years after Gesualdo’s death in 1613.

‘Wagnerites’ and later scholars would cite Gesualdo’s madrigal “Moro Lasso” as being highly influential for the infamous and celebrated chord employed by Wagner wherein there exists “little tonal interrelation”, “strange harmonic tension” and “chords far apart in tonality”. Wagner’s Tristan Chord would enter into the realms of infamy and go on to become one of the most influential and extensively analyzed innovations to modern classical music - nay, to music itself.

Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps” would also find virtuosic roots in posterity. Stravinsky himself acknowledged Carlo’s premature stylistic genius and would go on to pay homage to Gesualdo in his lifetime by making pilgrimage to Naples and composing a work entitled “Gesualdo Monument," in honor of the late murderous Composer.

If anything positive can be drawn from the tragic life of the Prince of Venosa, it is this: that even drowning beneath the turbulent and undulating undercurrent of mental illness, it’s iron fisted grip on the fragile human psyche cannot undermine the hidden genius that exists in man... that in judging any given event in any given region in the annals of human history, one must consider the social, economical and political factors that surrounded the State in it’s epoch.

One simply must take into account the violent and dogmatic time in which men like Gesualdo lived in order to have for him or herself a concise picture in mind of the period in which the transgressor and victims met their fates. Abstract analysis favors neither the condoning nor excusing of actions.


Perdono di Carlo Gesualdo, 1609.
In the case of Carlo Gesualdo, certainly, one inevitably finds inexcusable criminal brutality. This finding however, is foreshadowed by a class warfare, immature scientific discovery in the annals of medicine, and in a particularly archaic and misogynistic series of laws that seemed to favor the privileged man. Laws that may have left the critically insane like Carlo Gesualdo free to engage in unpunished criminal behavior. Indeed, it was custom in Italy at the time of the slaying of Donna Maria D’Avalos and the Duke of Andria, for the cheating wife of a man and her lover to be tried and sentenced to death for adultery. Had this not been the case, had the disastrous effects on the human psyche and products of incest been common knowledge, and had mental illness been recognized as an actual condition, instead of the protestations of an angry God, punishing mankind for it’s manifold sins, perhaps the crimes of the Prince of Venosa would have been taken more seriously, and perhaps - just perhaps - the biography of Carlo Gesualdo may have read differently.

But then, that is a lot to have expected from that distant period. Indeed, it is a lot to expect today, where, in various parts of the world, sin is still punished by death, and examples are still being made by exacting the ultimate punishment through a barrage of unbridled violence and brutality. Many of the tortures and punishments the world sees today are in fact nothing more than archaic methods, inherited by modern man that have continued to exist since some of humanities most primitive times..the bedchambers and boudoirs of yesteryear become today’s battlegrounds and bunkers. Mankind continues, and will continue for the foreseeable future, to live and die by their ‘honor,’ by their station in this world, and by God.



If you listen closely, it is said you can hear the anger, angst, passions - and perhaps even guilt - in the music of Carlo Gesualdo.


Carlo Gesualdo's Moro Lasso, Al Mio Duolo from book IV, Madrigali Libro Sesto.


Footnotes:
READ MORE OF MY POSTS ON THE "PRINCE OF DARKNESS" in the Gesualdo archives here.

BACK TO MAIN PAGE>>


-Rose.

4 comments:

  1. Excellent article on Gesualdo! Very informative and great writing style!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello,

      Thank you kindly - I am pleased you enjoy my articles.

      Gesualdo is definitely one of the more interesting composers to cover.

      -Rose.

      Delete
  2. I agree - fascinating post. This man's life needs to be made into a movie

    ReplyDelete
  3. This is the most comprehensive account of Gesualdo I have read. I really appreciate the added accounts of historical events elsewhere in Europe, it really paints a scene of the times he lived in and puts his life into perspective.

    I agree with the comment by Belle epoque. This needs to be made into a movie!

    ReplyDelete