Carlo Gesualdo (1566 – 1613), Prince of Venosa, was an Italian Renaissance nobleman and composer widely renowned amongst music aficionados for his compositions that were centuries ahead of their time. The beauty of his famed madrigals is eclipsed only by the savage ferocity with which he committed one of the most notorious acts of violence in the history of western music.
Gesualdo had long been acquainted with Donna Maria D’Avalos, his first cousin, but it wasn’t until the year 1586 that her beauty overwhelmed him and he took her hand in marriage. Several years into the marriage Donna Maria began an affair with the Duke of Andria that was well known to many, but not to Gesualdo. It took two years before news of the affair reached him, at which point he resolved to catch the lovers mid-tryst. In 1590 Gesualdo allegedly left on a hunting trip and, once the lovers were in each other’s arms, burst into the bed chamber and stabbed the two where they lay (some reports even alleging that Gesualdo forced the Duke to don the lady’s eveningwear before he slaughtered the emasculated interloper).
Far from keeping the violent affair out of the public eye, Gesulado strew the remains of his wife and the Duke in front of his Florentine manor for all to see. The murders, in fact, became fodder for the Renaissance equivalent of a media frenzy, inspiring a generation of tawdry and sensationalistic poetry. This publicity did little to put Gesualdo’s freedom in danger since noblemen of the day were immune from legal prosecution. He was, however, officially censured by the Vatican, which issued the claim that Gesualdo’s violent acts betrayed, “secular perversions and a lurid internal conflict setting decency and morality at the feet of carnal desires.” Despite the disapproving glare of the Vatican, Gesualdo went on to produce some of his most cherished composition in the 23 years between the murders and his death. These years were marred, however, by a debilitating depression that caused a desperate Gesualdo to go as far as ordering his servants to physically beat him on a daily basis.
The relationship between creative genius and the propensity for brutality is a common theme in the evaluation of historically significant artists. The self-mutilation of Vincent Van Gogh, the bloody suicide of Earnest Hemingway, the reckless, pistol-waving outbursts of Phil Specter. These well-known instances illustrate the savage potential associated with the sharpest creative minds. Authors Cecil Gray and Philip Heseltine summarized this coupling of notions well, in this case focusing specifically on musical creativity, in their book Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, Musician and Murderer:
“But more particularly is there a definite connection between music and murder, although it may not be readily apparent. Not that many musicians have actually committed murders (apart from Gesualdo, one can only think of Salieri who, as everyone knows, poisoned Mozart); nor, strange to say, have many musicians been murdered themselves, except Mozart and Stradella. The connection between the two activities is much more subtle but nonetheless close. In the first place, the significant fact should be noted that the beginning of the decline of murder as an art dates from precisely the same period as the development of music as a personal expression, i.e., the beginning of the 17th century. In the middle ages music was more a craft than an art, because the emotions which we now express in music were then actually expressed in life. In these good old days one committed a murder if one felt like it, and thought no more about the matter; today we write an Elektra or a Cavalleria Rusticana instead, in order to work off our feelings. In definite relation to the increased difficulties attendant upon the practice of murder, music has become more and more sadistic. In place of inflicting the utmost pain on a single individual, we outrage the ears of thousands.”
Some Further Reading: