The second Mrs Gesualdo

The second Mrs Gesualdo (Princess of Venosa)

When it comes to the women in Carlo Gesualdo’s life, the wife that he killed for commiting adultery understandably gets much of the attention. Reported to have been one of the most beautiful women in the land, Maria d’Avalos was from an important Neapolitan family, and her lover, the influential Duke of Andria (himself considered a ‘model of beauty’), even more so.

Maria d'Avalos

Their ‘legitimate homicides’ (contrary to common assumption, Gesualdo did not simply get off with murder because he was a prince) proved scandalous, and in the years and centuries that followed, have almost attained mythical status. Often overlooked, however, is Gesualdo’s second wife, Eleanora, whom he married a few years after the killing the first.

Eleanora d’Este was the cousin on Alfonso II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. With no immediate heir, Alfonso II’s celebrated court and duchy were destined to be forfeit to the Papal States. It was decided that marrying Eleanora to Gesualdo, who had two powerful cardinals for uncles and might influence the Pope, represented the family’s best chance of hanging on to their precious fiefdom.

From Carlo’s perspective, marrying into the illustrious d’Este family would have been attractive, but of greater allure would probably have been the access such a marriage granted him to the famous musicians and poets at court. Given the d’Este’s ancestors from the Borgia family and that Alfonso was on his third wife, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the fate of Carlo’s first wife was not considered an obstacle to marriage.

The couple met and were married with much pomp and ceremony, and based themselves in Ferrara until after the birth of their son, Alfonsino. Despite enjoying being at the centre of artistic innovation, however, Carlo abused and was unfaithful to Eleanora. He returned, alone, to his mistress at Gesualdo. Eleanora stayed in Ferrara until the death of Alfonso II (when the family lost duchy anyway).

Life in the Neapolitan (i.e. Spanish-ruled) south was very different from Eleanora’s Tuscan home, and in the following years, Carlo subjected her increasingly to psychological and physical abuse. Alfonsino died at the age just four, and then Carlo’s mistress bore him an illegitimate son. Eleanora was said to have lived in constant fear of being poisoned; Carlo would ‘grab her violently and throw her to the ground’ and enjoyed his mistress ‘under the eyes of the Princess [Eleanora] and all others in the castle, without regard and without temperance’.

When Eleanora returned north to stay with her brother, Cesare, the duke successfully obtained papal dispensation for a divorce from Carlo on grounds of maltreatment. Nonetheless, ‘a willing martyr’, she dutifully returned to care for her needy and abusive husband until he died, 19 years after their wedding.

It’s not easy to say which wife had it worst.

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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.