Further clues to a fragile mind

Thoughts on Gesualdo’s psychological nature

Dr Ruth McAllister, consultant forensic psychiatrist (see her earlier article, here.)

Gesualdo’s history offers food for thought about how much an artist’s personality informs his work and whether it’s even possible to understand much about someone who grew up and lived in such a different society from ours. There are some first-hand descriptions of him that provide clues.

Count Alfonso Fontanelli, a diplomat, musician and composer at the court of Alfonso d’Este, met Gesualdo, travelled with him and reported back to the Duke, both before and after Gesualdo’s marriage to the Duke’s niece Leonora. His letters suggest that Gesualdo was a difficult travelling companion. He was ambivalent and dilatory: Fontanelli reported that ‘he does not stir from his bed until extremely late’. Their travel arrangements and appointments often had to be postponed.

Gesualdo was, at first, unprepossessing, although he became ‘little by little more agreeable’. He talked ‘a great deal’ and showed no sign of melancholy. He held forth about hunting and music at extraordinary length, declaring himself an authority on both. Fontanelli commented that Gesualdo shows his works in score to everyone in order to induce them to marvel at his art’.

Gesualdo score

He criticized Luzzaschi, the most famous composer at the Ferrara court, saying not all of his madrigals were equally well written, ‘as he claims to wish to point out to Luzzaschi himself’. He mentioned his feelings of rivalry with other composers, saying Luzzaschi was the one enemy he feared and poking fun at the others.

Luzzasco Luzzaschi

Gesualdo could be remarkably rude: on one occasion, he was invited to dine by a patriarch of the Church in Venice. The singing at dinner was bad and Gesualdo took it on himself to summon the musicians and give them a ticking-off. There are accounts of his forcing people to listen to him talking about or playing music for hours at a time.

Taken together, these accounts build a picture of a man who is highly defended against other people. He overwhelms them with his agenda, so his company can be oppressive. He lacks regard for their time and is not interested in what they might like to talk about. He can be insensitive, for example rebuking the musicians when he is a guest. He needs to impress people and induce them to admire him, which suggests that his self-esteem is low.

These are recognizable as narcissistic traits. A degree of narcissism is necessary to emotional development, in the form of healthy self-respect and self-love. But when there has been emotional damage, narcissism can become greatly over-valued as a defence against underlying feelings of inferiority and worthlessness. The need for admiration and tribute takes precedence over everything else. This impairs the person’s capacity to form relationships and cope with ordinary stresses and slights. As a defence, it is only ever partially successful, because other people see through it.

Narcissus by Caravaggio

Gesualdo was based at Ferrara for two years, following the marriage to his second wife, Leonora, though he spent months at a time travelling without her. He left for his estates in 1596 and wrote repeatedly and insistently for her to follow him. But when she eventually arrived at Gesualdo in September 1597, he treated her badly, appearing to despise her. He was rude to her, beat her and humiliated her by his affairs with two other women.

Leonora was unhappy in her marriage and leaned on her brothers for emotional comfort. They planned to take her away and ask the Pope for a divorce but she would not agree to this. One brother described in a letter how Gesualdo ridiculed Leonora, sometimes grabbed her by the arm and threw her to the ground, and flaunted his mistress in front of her eyes.

Gesualdo reluctantly let Leonora go away for a few months in 1607, to attend a family wedding and again in 1609, when she was ill, to convalesce. He insisted that she return quickly afterwards. She described herself as returning home a martyr to suffer purgatory.

Spaccini, a diarist of the time, said of Gesualdo: ‘When the Princess was away he would die of passion to see her, and then when she returned he would not pay much attention to her’.

These descriptions of Gesualdo’s marital difficulties suggest a failure of attachment. He loved the idea of his wife and longed for her when she was away, but he violently rejected her when she was near. This pattern may be seen in people who suffered severe trauma in infancy, especially those who have been unable to form a secure attachment to a primary carer. It tends to be repeated in all their close relationships.

Gesualdo’s extramarital relationships were apparently no more successful. Aurelia d’Errico, a former mistress of his, was brought to trial with an associate in 1603, accused of witchcraft against him. Gesualdo was chronically unwell. His doctors gave evidence that, as his illness did not respond to normal remedies, it must be supernatural. Aurelia confessed, but under torture, which of course means no reliance can be placed on a single thing she said.

Inquisition torture

She claimed she had been involved with the Prince for ten years but he had given her up. She used sorcery to try to get him back. She claimed she had given him a love potion of her menstrual blood to drink, among other things. This was believed to be a poison at the time. The women were convicted in an ecclesiastical court.

The importance of this is that Gesualdo clearly felt under attack. He may have been paranoid, but belief in witches was still common. Both his Cardinal uncles, Carlo Borromeo and Alfonso Gesualdo, were enthusiastic witch-hunters and supporters of the Inquisition, against the grain of Church policy at the time.

Carlo Borromeo

Gesualdo was also feeling under attack professionally. He published his fifth and sixth books of madrigals in 1611, with prefaces saying they had been composed 15 years earlier and intended only for private use. He was publishing them now because corrupt copies were in circulation and other composers had been stealing his best ideas and passing them off as their own. (Glenn Watkins speculates that this was mainly directed at Pomponia Nenna). It shows some insecurity about his legacy: Watkins says ‘the composer’s ego is revealed as conspicuously fragile’.

The cause of Gesualdo’s death is not known, but he certainly had severe asthma and chronic constipation. A contemporary letter, from someone who visited him, says that he suffered an illness which meant ‘he found it soothing to be beaten about the body and temples with a small bundle of rags’. This was not necessarily masochistic; it could have been medicinal, as flagellation was thought to be a cure for intestinal obstruction at the time.

He could not sleep without a servant who hugged his back to keep him warm. I don’t know whether this argues ambivalent sexuality or just overwhelming anxiety and a need for masculine protection. He developed a morbid obsession with his uncle Cardinal Borromeo, now a Saint, and tried to get relics (bones) of the Cardinal for relief of his illnesses.

Carlo Gesualdo with Carlo Borromeo

The picture that emerges from contemporaneous accounts is of a man with a fragile and insecure sense of himself who is prone to feeling betrayed, for example by his first wife, his ex-lovers, whom he accuses of witchcraft, and his colleagues, whom he accuses of plagiarism.

The same psychic structure generated his music, which is full of irreconcilable opposites, with an emphasis on tension and conflict. His choice of texts and his treatment of them offer another window into his mental state and temperament. He was attracted to poetry which erotises pain and loss. His madrigals sing of a perverse form of love, in which the lover must always be unattainable, and is more highly valued because she is cruel, rejecting and sadistic. Of course these themes were popular, indeed conventional at the time, but Gesualdo set them with an unrelieved intensity. He treated them with no sense of resignation, or reflective dignity: as with the murder of his wife, there was no resolution. Philip Heseltine says of Gesualdo: ‘he concentrated his peculiar genius on the expression of doleful sentiment – his joyful moods appear perfunctory and almost negative by contrast’.

The Tenebrae responsories have often been seen as a penitential offering, a reflection of Gesualdo’s guilt and remorse. I certainly think that his music served an important psychological function for him. It provided fuel for his narcissistic needs, as he could excel and excite admiration from others. But it also allowed him to express intolerable tensions. In the madrigals, he could go on torturing his wife and being tortured by her in his own mind.

In the sacred music and especially the responsories, he could dwell on his abiding feelings of rejection, betrayal, bitterness and suffering. He could find expression for them and communicate them.

Gesualdo seems to have had no successful relationships in his life. But he does have a relationship with an audience, and possibly also with his God, through his music. All music, even if it is only heard in the mind and never performed, includes an idea of another person, a listener: there’s no such thing as truly solitary music-making.

The fact that Gesualdo’s music can touch us shows that there is more to it than technical mastery. He invests it with the intensity of his personal experience and puts his undoubted suffering to creative use.

This post is the second part of Dr McAllister’s article considering Gesualdo’s psychiatric state. The first part is posted here.

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