The Murder Story of Renaissance Composer Don Carlo Gesualdo

Written 11/03

“There’s nothing more destructive to the metaphysical than the untimely murder of an individual by another.” – Minority Report


     It does not appear that Don Carlo Gesualdo (1561? – 1613) [Watkins 1991, p.4, p.81] wrote much, if any music until after he slaughtered his first wife and her lover [Watkins p. 5].  Therefore it seems that his compositions are a direct result of this ghastly event in his life.  The tale of the Italian romance/murder is very Shakespearian and inspired many writings based on the incident [Watkins 1991, p. 23.].  It strikes a dark cord in the imagination and suggests an origin to an excellent ghost story!  In fact the grisly event occurred around midnight in mid October [Watkins 1991, p. 12], less than two weeks before what we now celebrate as Halloween.  This is a semi-dramatic version compiled of several witness accounts of that night.

     Fabrizio Gesualdo, the second Prince of Venosa, had two sons; Luigi and Carlo.  Luigi died in 1585 leaving Prince Carlo the responsibility of carrying on the family line.  Fabrizio arranged the marriage between his sister’s daughter Donna Maria d’Avalos and Don Carlo.  Don Carlo’s cousin Donna Maria was older than him, and had been previously married at separate times to two men who both ended up dead...  She was the prettiest, most virtuous woman in all the land.  So Don Carlo and Donna Maria got married in 1586.  Everybody danced long into the night for several days.  Within four years a son was born.  The marriage was happy and seemed permanent.  In fact the integrity of the union was tried when Don Carlo’s Uncle Giulio did everything he could to engage the desirable Donna Maria, his nephew’s wife.  She responded by threatening to tell Don Carlo about uncle Giulio’s endeavors.  Thus Don Giulio resigned his advancements.

     Despite this display of ethical conviction, Donna Maria harbored a forbidden love for another man; Don Fabrizio Carafa, the Duke of Andria.  He was the most handsome, passionate cavalier in all the land.  He was older than Donna Maria.  He also was married and had four children of his own.  Together Donna Maria and Don Fabrizio had innumerable salacious rendezvous which they kept as clandestine as possible with the help of servants and friends.  Alas no secret can be kept quiet for long.  When the jilted Uncle Giulio got word of the affair, he went strait to Don Carlo with the news.  This report struck Don Carlo to the quick of his psyche so that he remained for a period in a state of discontinuity.  However he had to witness these actions of infidelity with his own eyes before doing anything about it.

     Now it was known to the lovers that they had been discovered.  Don Fabrizio suggested to Donna Maria that they should stop their affair because their reputation and lives were at stake.  Nevertheless Donna Maria was relentless saying that if he was afraid then “nature had made an error in creating a cavalier with the heart of a woman, and had erred in making her-a woman- with the heart of a cavalier.” Don Fabrizio responded by saying that he’d rather die than see her die.  She said that she’d rather die a thousand deaths than be separated from him.  He answered, “Lady, since you want to die, I shall die with you.  Such is your wish; so be it” [W p. 11].

     After some time, Don Carlo announced that he was going to go hunting and would be back the next day.  He then left and hid out at one of his family member’s house.  Don Fabrizio heard that Don Carlo had left for the night and decided to spend the night with Donna Maria.  She allowed him to come up to her room in the palace which was above Don Carlo’s room, (up the classic spiral staircase found in all excellent haunted houses.)  After wearing each other out, they both fell asleep.  At midnight Don Carlo reappeared at the palace armed with an arquebus:

arquebus - microsoft encarta

and possibly a large knife or a sword.  He was in the company of a few trusted family members or servants who were armed with halberds.  Don Carlo stormed up the staircase, kicked down the door to Donna Maria’s room and found her naked with Don Fabrizio.  His fellow combatants rushed into the room after Don Carlo who yelled, “There he is!”  He then shot Don Fabrizio once through the torso and once through the head.  After disposing of the Duke, Don Carlo stabbed his wife to death.  After it was done, the Prince’s men descended the spiral staircase, followed by Don Carlo.  His hands were covered with blood.  The prince then said, “I do not believe they are dead!”  He turned back into the room and continued to stab the bodies, repeating to himself “I do not believe they are dead!”

     The investigation of the crime scene later conducted by the Grand Court found the before mentioned weapons in the prince's room, covered in blood.  They noticed that some of the Duke’s brain had oozed out of the bullet wound that penetrated both of his temples.  And in the floor beneath the body of Don Fabrizio, the Duke of Andria, were found holes made by the powerful sword thrusts of Don Carlo.  The prince fled to his family’s village the night of the murders; to the fortress of Gesualdo, and never returned [W p. 4 - 22].  It is possible that Don Carlo also murdered the child that Donna Maria birthed.  After discovering that his wife was unfaithful, thoughts may have entered his mind that the child was Don Fabrizio’s.  The evidence for this is found in a portrait that Gesualdo paid to have created much later which depicts all the players in this story painted around a lone child in the center.  Today, people who live in and care for the palace where these murders took place say they have heard the sounds of voices, screams, and have seen the image of a man, woman, and a child around midnight mostly occurring in mid October.  No, not really.  I made that last part up.  

     Gesualdo began to compose very expressive music which many feel was advanced for his time.  My impression is that the murders forced the prince into seclusion where he had the opportunity to focus on his musical talents.  And the affect of betrayal and murder on his psyche lead to a revelation of chromaticism as a means of extreme emotional expression.


Watkins, Glenn. Gesualdo: The Man and His Music. Oxford: Clarendon, 1991.

(Photo) Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia Standard 2002, “Arquebus”

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