Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa
Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa

“I die, alas, in my suffering
And she who could give me life,
Alas, kills me and will not help me!
O sorrowful fate,
She who could give me life,
Alas, gives me death!”

Moro, Lasso by Carlo Gesualdo (1610)

It’s probably not true that his family’s ancestral home is haunted by the vengeful ghosts of his dead wife and her lover.  It’s probably not true that he was guilty of infanticide, vampirism or necrophilia.  It’s probably not true that he was plagued to the end of his days by witches.  But the true story of the life and work of Carlo Gesualdo – Italian prince, legendary Renaissance composer, idolized by artists from Igor Stravinsky to Werner Herzog to Aldous Huxley, and the bloody hand behind arguably the most famous murders in the history of Western music – isn’t any less strange or sinister than fiction.   Join us on a dark, bloody spin through 16th century Italy to get to know the composer whose haunting, heart-wrenching madrigal Moro Lasso you’ll hear as the score for James Kudelka’s world premiere work Sub Rosa.  WARNING: Not suitable for children.

CSI: Naples

Before we arrive at the crime scene, where two mutilated bodies lie dead in a palace apartment, it’s probably best to start with a brief account of the things we know are true about Carlo Gesualdo’s life leading up to that night.

Gesualdo’s family were Italian nobility through and through; his ancestors had been Norman rulers of Sicily and his mother was a Medici.  He was born in 1566, six years after his family had acquired the principality of Venosa (then part of the Kingdom of Naples, before what we now know as Italy was unified into one country under one government).  He was a second son, with all the honors and titles of Prince of Venosa destined for his older brother Luigi.  His uncle and namesake Carlo (better known to Catholics as Saint Charles Borromeo), intended Carlo Jr. for a career in the church, and had him shipped off to Rome.  We don’t have any documented records of how young Carlo felt about being destined for a life of celibacy (though, looking at the story of his sordid and violent love affairs over the course of his adult life, I’d imagine we can guess); but when Luigi died in 1584, Carlo succeeded him as heir, which meant marriage and public life rather than a career in the clergy.  Two years later, at the age of twenty, he married his first cousin, Donna Maria d’Avalos, with whom he had one son named Emanuele.  She was four years older than him, a legendary beauty of the time, and twice widowed – according to rumor, both husbands died “in excess of connubial bliss.”

Donna Maria d'Avalos
Donna Maria d’Avalos

This is right about when the trouble started.

“We tend to think of classical music as a rather staid affair,” writes BBC classical music historian Clemency Burton-Hill, “its practitioners generally well-behaved servants at court who busy themselves with counterpoint and harmony, not murder and sadism. Gesualdo, on the other hand, lived a life – and death – that the most luridly resourceful director of slasher B-movies might struggle to dream up.”

A few years into her marriage with her young cousin, Maria began an affair with Don Fabrizio Carafa, third Duke of Andria and widely reputed one of the handsomest men in Italy – “a model of beauty,” he was called by one of his contemporaries.  No one knows quite when the affair started, but it ended – in the bloodiest way imaginable – just four short years after Carlo and Maria’s wedding.

On October 16, 1590, at the Palazzo San Severo in Naples, Carlo caught the two lovers in the act.  Some accounts allege that Carlo found out about the affair because his uncle – who had himself tried and failed to seduce Maria – learned of her infidelity and told Carlo about it as an act of revenge.

The Palazzo San Sevro, modern day.
The scene of the crime, Palazzo San Severo, modern day.

Wild rumors began to fly immediately.  The one about Fabrizio being caught wearing Maria’s clothes is probably true; it appears in some detail in the official crime scene investigation from a delegation of Neopolitan officials who searched the apartment and questioned witnesses the following day.  They describe the Duke’s corpse as clad only in “a woman’s nightdress with fringes at the bottom, with ruffs of black silk.”  They found his body on the floor of the apartment’s bedroom; he had been shot through the elbow, through the chest, and in the head, with stab wounds all over his body.  Carlo had attacked him in such a frenzy that beneath his body they discovered a pattern of holes where his sword had pierced clear through the body and all the way into the wooden floor.

Donna Maria’s corpse was found on the bed, her throat cut, stab wounds all over her face and body.  There was no ambiguity as to who had done it, since eyewitnesses told the officials that Carlo had entered with several men, shouting, “Kill that scoundrel, along with this harlot! Shall a Gesualdo be made a cuckold?”, then reemerged covered in blood.  The rumor that he went back into the bedroom a second time because he wasn’t yet sure they were both entirely dead is also probably true; the myriad wounds on their bodies may not all have been made at the same time.  Very likely false are the rumors that Maria’s body was sexually violated after death, though both corpses’ genitals were horribly mutilated.  The whispers that Carlo had also murdered Maria and Fabrizio’s love child are also likely unfounded.

Illustration by Pierre Mornet
Illustration by Pierre Mornet

Still.  Even when one adheres strictly to the facts presented in the Gran Corte della Vicaria’s crime scene report, the story is harrowing.  Yet, because a prince is a prince, the officials found Gesualdo innocent of any crime.  This was not because anyone had doubts that Gesualdo had killed them, but rather because custom and family pride made this brutal double murder seem eminently reasonable.  Killing his unfaithful wife and her lover was standard procedure.  He was a nobleman, and Maria was his property.  The law would not interfere.  Gesualdo left town, and no charges were ever filed.

“Yet Gesualdo paid a posthumous price for the killings,” says the New Yorker’s Alex Ross.  “In the decades after his death, he became a semi-mythical, even vampiric figure, about whom ever more lurid tales were told . . . the prevailing picture of him as an uncommonly sinister character seems apt. Mentioning the name in the area of Piazza San Domenico Maggiore can still cause a momentary widening of the eyes.”

Sources Cited

  • “Carlo Gesualdo: Lurid Rhythms.” The Economist, January 21st
  • “Gesualdo: Glorious music and grisly murder,” Clemency Burton-Hill. com Culture, October 21st 2014.
  • “Prince of Darkness: The murders and madrigals of Don Carlo Gesualdo,” Alex Ross. The New Yorker, December 19th
  • “Carlo Gesualdo: composer or crazed psychopath?”, Tom Service. The Guardian, March 18th
  • The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley. 1954, Harper & Row.

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