At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Carlo Gesualdo – composer

Madrigal writer was also a murderer


Carlo Gesualdo devoted himself to music  from an early age
Carlo Gesualdo devoted himself to music
from an early age
Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa, who composed highly experimental music for his time, was born on this day in 1566 in the principality of Venosa, then part of the Kingdom of Naples.

He was to become known both for his extraordinary music and for the brutal killing of his first wife and her aristocratic lover after he caught them together.

Gesualdo was the nephew of Carlo Borromeo, who later became Saint Charles Borromeo. His mother, Geronima Borromeo, was the niece of Pope Pius IV.

Although Gesualdo was sent to Rome to begin an ecclesiastical career, he became heir to the principality after his older brother died. He married his cousin, Donna Maria D’Avalos, and they had a son, Emanuele.

Gesualdo was devoted to music from an early age and mixed with musicians and composers, learning to play the lute, harpsichord and guitar.

Donna Maria began an affair with Fabrizio Carafa, Duke of Andria and Count of Ruova, and one night in 1590 Gesualdo caught them in flagrante at the Palazzo San Severo in Naples. He killed them both on the spot.

A delegation of officials from Naples inspected the room where they were killed and found the corpses were mutilated.

The Palazzo San Severo, where Gesualdo murdered his wife and her aristocratic lover
The Palazzo San Severo, where Gesualdo murdered his
wife and her aristocratic lover
Witnesses said he had returned to the room to make certain they were dead. But the court decided Gesualdo had not committed a crime.

After Gesualdo’s father died, he became Prince of Venosa and Count of Conza. He arranged to marry Leonora d’Este and travelled to the Este court at Ferrara.

At the time the court was a centre of musical activity and the madrigal was popular. Surrounded by some of the finest musicians in Italy, Gesualdo wrote his first book of madrigals, having worked with three renowned female singers.

Back at his castle in the town of  Gesualdo, in the province of Avellino, he established a group of resident singers and musicians to perform his music, both sacred and secular, which he later published with a printer in Naples.


Listen to one of Gesualdo's best-known madrigals





His relationship with his second wife was poor and she spent a lot of time away. His son by his second marriage died in 1600.

Gesualdo began to suffer from depression and it has been claimed he asked his servants to beat him regularly. He died alone at his castle three weeks after the death of his eldest son, Emanuele, in 1613.

The church of Gesu Nuovo in Naples, where Carlo Gesualdo was buried after his death in 1613
The church of Gesu Nuovo in Naples, where Carlo
Gesualdo was buried after his death in 1613
He was buried in the chapel of Saint Ignatius, in the church of Gesu Nuovo in Naples. His tomb was destroyed in the earthquake of 1688 and covered over when the church was rebuilt. The composer now lies beneath the church, but his burial plaque is still visible.

It has been said he expressed guilt over the murders he committed through his music, which was among the most experimental of the Renaissance. Similar music was not composed again until the 19th century.

Gesualdo’s most famous works are his six books of madrigals, but his music and life story has inspired other music, operas and books.  The Music Conservatory in Potenza is named the Conservatoria di Musica Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa in his honour.

Travel tip:

Venosa, where Carlo Gesualdo was born, is in the province of Potenza in Basilicata. One of the main sights is the Aragonese Castle, built in 1470, which he turned into a residence. It now houses the National Museum of Venosa and a collection of Roman artefacts.

The town of Gesualdo in Campania, which is called 'the city of the prince of musicians' in honour of Carlo Gesualdo
The town of Gesualdo in Campania, which is called 'the city
of the prince of musicians' in honour of Carlo Gesualdo
Travel tip:

Gesualdo, in the province of Avellino in Campania, is called ‘the city of the prince of musicians’ in honour of the composer, who wrote madrigals at the castle, which he transformed from a fortress into a palace able to accommodate writers, such as Torquato Tasso, and musicians.

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