In a glittering Italian ballroom at the dawn of the seventeenth century, a courtier introduced Donna Maria d’Avalos to Fabrizio Carafa, the Duke of Andria. He then quickly withdrew. “Good evening,” said Donna Maria “it is a great honour to meet you. Your reputation as the most handsome gentleman in Naples goes before you.”
“The honour is all mine, I assure you,” responded the Duke, bowing low to her, “for you are reputed to be the most beautiful lady in the city. But tell me, please, is your husband, Carlo da Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, with us here tonight?”
“No, my Lord, he is not. Let me inform you straight away that the rumours abounding, about my husband are true. We married two years ago, after his brother’s death. He inherited all his father’s estates, becoming one of the richest men in Italy. Our wedding, as you know, was a splendid occasion, attended by all the nobility, but it was marriage for another purpose, not for love.”
“And what was that purpose, please tell me?”
“The purpose was purely political, the union of two houses. Carlo loved me for my looks. He is a very passionate man. However, the family wanted me, his cousin, to produce a son and heir, thus keeping his wealth in the family. Having been widowed twice and the mother of two children, I was considered to be good breeding stock, and still only twenty-five years of age.”
“And the Prince now has his son and heir, does he not?”
“Yes, he does, little Don Emmanuele. Subsequently, my husband lost any interest he once had in me. His passion now is for writing complex vocal music, madrigals, the texts of which are often very erotic, or so I am informed. However, you too are married. Is your lady wife here, tonight?”
“No, she is at home with our four children.”
The couple both paused for thought and Donna Maria seemed to drink in the Duke, with her eyes. She stared intently at him, rather than simply looking at him. He also had become very conscious of her interest in him. He noticed that she had moved to stand very close to him; their bodies almost touched. Eventually, she drew back and said, as if recovering from an intense reverie, “Will you please excuse me? I must mingle amongst the other guests.” She moved away quickly from the Duke, who bowed to her once again as she did so. She turned to look at him once more, from across the room and then was lost in the throng of people gathered there.
An hour later she found herself near him once more. She glanced in his direction many times, whilst she engaged other courtiers in conversation, but each time he returned her look she looked away. She was convinced that the Duke of Andria had been completely captivated by her.
He now watched her carefully and desired an assignation with this beautiful woman. He spoke to her maidservant, Magda, giving her a verbal message to pass on to her mistress. A week later, on market day, the assignation took place when the two women were examining fabrics for a dress at one of the stalls. He approached Donna Maria, coming to stand very closely at her side. She smiled, more to herself than at him, because she did not want to turn to look at him and attract attention to herself.
“Good day, Fabrizio,” said Maria, “is there some way we can meet in private?”
“Good day, Maria. Yes, I think so. Is your maid, Magda, trustworthy?”
“Then, please think of a time and place, when your husband is away, and I will attend you,” said Fabrizio.
“Tomorrow, Carlo goes to meet his friends at a lodge on the other side of Naples, indulging his passion for music again. I’ll send Magda to meet you outside the castle, tomorrow afternoon at half past two. She will lead you by the back staircase to my chamber.”
“Very well,” agreed the Duke, “until tomorrow… I bid you good day.”
The following day, at the appointed hour, Fabrizio met Maria in her private room. Magda, the maid withdrew to act as sentinel for her mistress. The Duke took Donna Maria by the hand and kissed it devotedly. She rose from her seat and hugged him, holding him tightly in her arms, for several minutes. Fabrizio responded to her advances by kissing her on the mouth. He felt her tongue against his as he did so. When they separated at last he looked down to see her breasts beneath her gown gently rising and falling. He had felt her heartbeat when he had held her closely to him and now he experienced her heavy breathing and sensed the desire coursing through her body.
“Tell me,” he said softly, “it is rumoured that one of your former husbands died as a result of an excess of sexual union with you. Is this true?”
“Yes, it is,” replied Maria. “While he was still inside me, thrusting away and I was gripping his member, for all I was worth, with my vaginal muscles, he had heart failure and died. He was a dead weight on me and the servants had to come and lift him off!”
“Goodness,” exclaimed Fabrizio, “I hope the same fate does not befall me…”
“The thrusting or the dying?” asked Maria.
“The dying,” said Fabrizio.
“Good,” said Maria, “because I’m very fond of fucking!”
“Right,” murmured Fabrizio, shocked at her language and directness.” At that moment Donna Maria released the clasp on the gown she was wearing, allowing it to fall to the floor.
He gasped at her seductive beauty as she stood naked before him, her voluptuous body causing him to tingle with excitement as he contemplated making love to her. She lay down on the bed as he quickly removed his clothes and joined her there, in a passionate embrace. This first kiss seemed to him to seal their fate. He was prepared to throw all caution to the winds. She had become the most important person in his life. What pleased him most was the fact that he had no need to court her, to win her approval and gradually draw her close to him. Every initiative in their lovemaking that he made, she responded to willingly, wantonly.
As she opened her legs to receive him she in turn, experienced the floodgates of pent up desire flow from her. The years of enforced domesticity had engendered a resentment of the husband who had now rejected her in favour of his passion for music. This resentment had built up into a considerable bitterness that she was determined to overcome by living a different kind of life, albeit in secret. She held him tightly as she gave herself to him, feeling her bitterness ebb away as she did so.
Many more such meetings took place over the coming months. Maria and Fabrizio lived only for each other. They were careful to conceal their feelings for each other from everybody except their closest acquaintances, those they could trust completely, their servants. Not everything ran as smoothly as they had hoped, however.
One day, an uncle of Don Carlo da Venosa did his best to begin an affair with his nephew’s wife. “You, Donna Maria, are very, very desirable,” he told her. “If you continue to pursue me I will tell Don Carlo that you have been making advances to me,” she threatened. At this forthright response, Giulio gave up his attempt to seduce Donna Maria, but he was now quite determined to seek revenge for her refusal to have sex with him. An opportunity arose later, when he heard of her affair with Fabrizio. He went immediately to seek out his nephew, Don Carlo.
“Are you aware that your wife is having an affair with the Duke of Andria, Fabrizio Carafa?”
“No, are you absolutely sure, uncle Giulio, that your information is correct?”
“Yes, I am quite sure.”
“I won’t believe it until I see them with my own eyes,” responded Don Carlo.
Donna Maria and Don Fabrizio soon became aware that their affair had been discovered.
“I implore you,” said the duke, “let us call off our arrangement and thus preserve our life and livelihood.” Maria was unrelenting. “If you are afraid then nature has made an error in creating you a cavalier with the heart of a woman, and in creating me a woman, with the heart of a cavalier.”
“I would prefer to die rather than see you die,” replied Don Fabrizio.
“I would rather die a thousand deaths than be separated from you.”
“Since you want to die, Maria, I shall die with you. If this is your wish, so be it.”
Don Carlo planned his revenge very carefully. He made arrangements with his servants to have the keys to the locks of his palace copied in wood so that he could gain access if any were locked. Eventually, he told Maria, “I’m going on a hunting trip today and will be back here tomorrow.” He left immediately to seek shelter at a house belonging to a member of his family. Meanwhile, Fabrizio, on hearing that his rival had left to spend the night elsewhere, decided to meet up with Maria. She gave instructions to Magda to put out her red night-dress on the bed, and then keep watch. She was so confident that they could get away with their secret tryst that she allowed her lover to come to her room in the palace, which was situated above Don Carlo’s room.
He hoped to find the couple in flagrante delicto di fragrante peccato, but after spending some hours in passionate lovemaking they fell asleep, naked, in each other’s arms. Maria’s husband reappeared at the palace at midnight. He was armed with an arquebus, a large knife and a sword. Accompanied by members of his family and a few trustworthy servants, armed with halberds, he sought his revenge. He raced up the staircase and burst through the door.
The servants killed Fabrizio brutally with many deep sword wounds, making sure that he was dead by shooting him through the head. His body was later found, dressed in Maria’s red night dress and his own clothing piled up by the bedside, unsoiled. Gesualdo was unable to contain his rage. His savagery knew no bounds, as he struck his wife multiple blows with a knife. He and his men left the room by a spiral staircase, but half way down the stairs, Don Carlo turned back. “I don’t believe that they’re dead!” he shouted and ran once more into the room, where he continued to stab the two bodies, repeating to himself, “I don’t believe that they’re dead!” Maria’s multifarious wounds were later found to be, all in her stomach and genitalia. Finally, Gesualdo skewered her to the floor. He and his men then dragged the bodies out onto the stairs, with a notice attached, explaining why he had killed them.