Clues to a fragile mind

Comments on Gesualdo’s homicides

Dr Ruth McAllister, consultant forensic psychiatrist

Gesualdo, surprising his wife and her lover in flagrante, killed them both. It sounds like a crime of passion, easy to imagine: the shocking discovery, fury, loss of control, tragic consequences: but the details of the offence tell a different story.

Amazingly, two first-hand accounts have survived *. Even if you know nothing else about an offender, you can sometimes learn a lot by analysing the offence. Of course, you can’t carry out a psychiatric assessment of someone you’ve never met. But you can look at the evidence with a psychiatrically-informed eye.


Gesualdo came from a noble family. As a second son he was probably destined for a career in the Church. He learnt to play several instruments and immersed himself in music. But when he was 18, his older brother died and Gesualdo became the heir. This meant he would have to marry.

In 1586 he married Maria d’Avalos, his first cousin, a renowned beauty who had been married twice before and had two children. So Gesualdo, who ‘cared for nothing but music’, was matched with a beautiful and sexually experienced woman.

Maria had an affair with the Duke of Andria, a ‘handsome and accomplished nobleman’, who was married with four children. Friends and relations of Gesualdo told him about it.

The offence

The witnesses were Silvia, Maria’s personal maid and Pietro, Gesualdo’s manservant. In Gesualdo’s palazzo, Maria’s room was on the upper floor, with a balcony over the street: Gesualdo’s was on the mezzanine floor and a staircase connected them.

Palazzo Sansevero

The killings took place on 16 October 1590. Maria went to bed at the usual time, then got up and asked Silvia, the maid, to stand guard; she had heard the Duke of Andria whistle and wanted to go out on the balcony. Later, she asked Silvia to undress her, then shut the door.

Meanwhile, Gesualdo had dined in his room and retired to bed. Later in the night, he called for a glass of water and got dressed, saying he was going hunting: Pietro said it was no time for hunting and Gesualdo said ‘you shall see what hunting I am going to do’. He pulled weapons from under the bed, told Pietro to bring torches and ran to the staircase, saying ‘I am going to slay the Duke of Andria and that strumpet Donna Maria’. On the way upstairs Pietro saw three men, each carrying a halberd and a gun (a halberd was a pike with a double axe-head).

Spanish halberd

Silvia, sleeping in the anteroom, was wakened by the men coming up the stairs. They threw open the door leading to Maria’s apartments: Silvia fled to the next room and hid under the bed. Gesualdo shouted the order to kill and shots were fired in the bedroom. The men came out, followed by Gesualdo, whose hands were covered with blood. Gesualdo then went straight back in, saying ‘I do not believe they are dead’.

Pietro followed him in to the bedroom. Gesualdo went up to Maria’s bed and ‘dealt her still more wounds’ saying ‘I do not believe she is dead’. He commanded Pietro not to let the women scream, then went down the staircase and left on horseback.

Next day the local magistrate examined the scene in the bedroom. The Duke of Andria had been shot in the chest and head and had deep stab wounds in the chest, arms, head and face. Some of them went right through his body; the swords had made deep holes in the floor under him.
Maria was in the bed. Her throat was cut and her nightshirt was ‘all bathed with blood’. She also had multiple stab wounds in the upper body, head and face.

The lock on the bedroom door had been altered so that it could not be secured. There were blood-stained weapons and used torches in Gesualdo’s room.

The evidence of Maria’s adultery was plain and no attempt had been made to conceal who did the killing.

Gesualdo went straight to the Viceroy, the local political leader, confessed and was told to lie low, partly to protect him from revenge attacks. Popular opinion locally was all on the side of the dead lovers. Even so, the killing was accepted as justifiable. Gesualdo escaped prosecution not because he was a nobleman, but because what he did was lawful.


Gesualdo did not act on impulse or in the grip of strong emotion. The killings were planned so as to surprise the lovers at their most vulnerable and guilty. He used entrapment, disabling the lock on the bedroom door and he employed overwhelming force, far more than was necessary kill his victims. After leaving the room, he went back in and mutilated Maria’s body, saying ‘I do not believe she is dead’ .

What these features suggest to a psychiatrist is that an earlier trauma was being re-enacted which had not been a straightforward loss but a rejection and a betrayal.

In his mind the person betraying him was hugely powerful – not a naked and defenceless woman but a monster who needed a troop of men, armed to the teeth, to subdue her. This suggests that he felt defenceless in the face of the betrayal. Finally, though, his feelings could not be resolved: even after killing his wife, he immediately had to go back and kill her again.

Some would say there are sadistic elements in the killings, that he needed to humiliate the victims and have them in his power. But this could also reflect his desperation to protect himself against something he found frightening.

He constructed the offence so as to ensure he would escape punishment. This was partly pragmatic – he needed evidence of Maria’s adultery to justify the killings. But the excessive violence and the mutilation of his wife’s body suggest a psychological need was driving his actions as well.

The murders weren’t necessary to solve the problem. Gesualdo could have divorced and disgraced Maria, had her shut up in a convent, or fought a duel with the Duke. But it’s unlikely that any of these solutions would have been enough for the man who emerges from this story.

Later evidence supports the idea that Gesualdo had a fragile and insecure sense of himself and was prone to feeling betrayed. There is little or no evidence to support the view that he was depressed, or tormented with guilt.

*The witness statements are published in Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, Musician and Murderer by Cecil Grey and Philip Heseltine (1926) and in Gesualdo, the Man and His Music by Glenn Watkins (1973, 2nd edition 1991)

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This blog accompanies Betrayal: a polyphonic crime drama, a music and dance-theatre project inspired by the life and works of Carlo Gesualdo with shows in London, Cambridge and Salisbury May/June 2015. More information here and via the links on the left.