A few years ago, our local PBS station showed a series about Italian history and culture called FRANCESCO’S ITALY TOP TO TOE. Hosted by the altogether delightful Francesco da Mosto, it was a lovely overview of Italian history, art, architecture and food. You know me, though: what caught my attention was a segment devoted to the life and music of Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa, the one creative genius known to have committed murder. Worse yet, he got away with it—save with his own conscience. (The English poet and dramatist Ben Jonson killed a man in a duel; Gesualdo’s story is very, very different.)
Francesco da Mosto, a silver-haired scamp of a man, introduced the story of Carlo Gesualdo by saying the worst insult you can offer an Italian man is, quite simply, “Your woman is cheating!” And so it was with Gesualdo. Born in 1566, a prince of the royal house of Venosa, Gesualdo at the age of twenty married his first cousin, Maria d’Avalos, a daughter of the Marquis of Pescara. The couple eventually had two sons, but the marriage was apparently far from a happy one, for, in 1588, Maria took a lover: Fabrizio Carafa, the Duke of Andria, himself a married man and father of five.
Maria managed to keep her amour secret for two years, even bearing her husband a second son in the midst of it. Gesualdo, however, was a neurotically suspicious man, and came to doubt her fidelity. His jealousy got the better of him; he finally replaced the sturdy metal locks on her bedroom door with wooden ones, to allow him quicker access should he need it, then announced he was going on a hunting trip and would be gone for some days. Maria, of course, lost no time in summoning her lover. And so it was that Gesualdo, who had not gone hunting at all, burst into her bedroom on October 16, 1590, and found the pair making frenzied love—whereupon he and his servants stabbed them both to death. Gesualdo himself is said to have killed Maria—and later on, it’s said, he looked into the eyes of his infant second son, expressed doubt that he had fathered the baby—and killed him. (This seems, however, to be a later addition to an already infamous story, as is one that, when Maria’s father came to take his revenge on his son-in-law, Gesualdo killed him as well.)
Even in Naples, that city of great passions and intrigues, where he and Maria had been living, the murders of a wife and a prominent nobleman were shocking, and though he was eventually cleared of guilt (the good old double standard has always been in effect, it appears), Gesualdo ran for cover, returning to his castle at Gesualdo and staying there, more or less in hiding from his wife’s outraged family, for the next four years. In 1594, he moved to Ferrara to study music, and began composing the madrigals on which his reputation as a composer rests today.
He also contracted a second marriage, in 1595, to a virtuous lady named Leonora d’Este, a niece of Duke Alfonso II of Ferrara. This marriage was more successful than his first in one respect; he didn’t kill Leonora. She bore him one son (who died as a toddler), but for most of the marriage she lived with relatives as far from her husband as she could manage; she said he was abusive.
Certainly in his later years, he suffered severely from depression, said to have been brought on by guilt over the murders of his first wife and her paramour. He became obsessed with the idea of winning absolution for his crimes and with the mortification of the flesh to that end, having himself beaten regularly by his servants. He also attempted to buy holy relics, but was rebuffed.
Many think that his deteriorating mental condition had an effect on the works he was composing, particularly in his last years; they sound, compared to the madrigals of his contemporary Claudio Monteverdi, quite strange and often a bit atonal.
In 1613, his only surviving son—Maria’s older son—died, and Carlo Gesualdo followed him to the grave three weeks later, aged only 47. His music, thanks to its very strangeness, was largely forgotten until the twentieth century. His crimes never have been.