Madrigals and Murder

Bronzino - Portrait of a Young ManGhirlandaio - Portrait of a Young WomanGrowing up in the 1560s young Carlo Gesualdo was unencumbered with the usual expectations of the eldest male heir to the throne. That was until his older brother Luigi did him a dirty trick by dying. The result was the expectation that Carlo would now assume the mantle of the eldest male heir and accept responsibility for governing, and of course marriage to guarantee that Gesualdo name would live in perpetuity. The bride chosen for him was his first cousin Donna Maria d’Avalos, a "surprising beauty of 21 years who had already given ample proof of her fecundity." In other words she was a "passionate woman" whose first husband had died from excessive "conjugal carnality." She then gave up her second spouse in order to marry Carlo.

Gesualdo approached his new "tasks" dutifully, including the administration of the estate and the producing a son to carry on the family name. And, by most accounts, appeared to be happy. There was beneath the veil of the appropriateness the restlessness of his young wife. As Gray relates:

The enemy of the human race, unable to endure the spectacle of such great love and happiness, such conformity of tastes and desires in two married people, awakened in the bosom of Donna Maria impure desires and a libidinous and unbridled appetite for the sweetness of illicit love and for the beauty of a certain knight. This was Fabrizio Carafa, third Duke of Andria and seventh Count of Ruovo, reputed to be the handsomest and most accomplished nobleman of the city.

Gray then relates the first amorous tryst:

The first occasion of their coming together was in a garden in the Borgo di Chiaia, in the pavilion whereof the Duke did lie concealed, awaiting his beloved who, on pretext of diversion and entertainment, was taken there. And she, while walking there, affected to be overcome by some bodily pain, and separating herself from her escort, entered into the pavilion wherein lay the Duke, who, without the loss of one moment, put into execution the work of love. Nor was this the only occasion on which they came together for these enjoyments, but many and many times did they do so…

Humm – well, I think we all see where this is going! All went well until one day Gesualdo returned home earlier than expected from a hunting trip only to find his wife Donna Maria in bed with the Duke who no doubt was….still "working."

Shaking off the dejection into which this miserable spectacle had plunged him, he slew with innumerable dagger thrusts the sleepers before they had time to waken. And after he had ordered that their dead bodies should be dragged from the room and left exposed, he made a statement of his reasons for this butchery, and departed with his familiars to his city of Venosa.  This tragedy took place on the night of the 16th October, 1590. The bodies of the wretched lovers remained exposed all the following morning in the midst of the hall, and all the city flocked to see the pitiful sight.

The lady's wounds were all in the belly, and more particularly in those parts which she ought to have kept honest; and the Duke was wounded even more grievously. Too beautiful, too alike, too unfortunate were this unhappy couple. At the hour of vespers the bodies were removed for burial amidst the lamentation of the entire city. Such was the end of impure desires.

It was at this point in his life Carlo Gesualdo turned to composing love madrigals. Not surprisingly, most of his madrigals are the typical "you do me wrong" love song. Do you think this is where country music got it start?