"The Prince of Darkness"
by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Dec. 19 and 26, 2011.
On the night of October 16, 1590, a palace apartment near Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, in Naples, was the scene of a double murder so extravagantly vicious that people are still sifting through the evidence, more than four centuries later. The most reliable account of the crime comes from a delegation of Neapolitan officials, who inspected the apartment the following day. On the floor of the bedroom, they found the body of Don Fabrizio Carafa, the Duke of Andria, whom a contemporary described as a “model of beauty,” one of the handsomest young men of his time. The officials’ report stated that the Duke was wearing only “a woman’s nightdress with fringes at the bottom, with ruffs of black silk.” The corpse was “covered with blood and pierced with many wounds,” including a gunshot that had gone “straight through his elbow and even went through his breast, the sleeve of the above-mentioned shirt being scorched.” The visitors observed another gunshot wound, to the head— “a bit of the brain had oozed out”—and there were wounds on the “head, face, neck, chest, stomach, kidneys, arms, hands, and shoulders.” Underneath the corpse, they found a pattern of holes, “which seemed to have been made by swords which had passed through the body, penetrating deeply into the floor.”
Lying on the bed was the body of Donna Maria d’Avalos, the famously alluring wife of Don Carlo Gesualdo, the Prince of Venosa. Her throat had been cut and her nightshirt was drenched in blood. The officials noted other wounds, to her face, right arm, right hand, and torso. Interviews with eyewitnesses left no doubt about who was responsible for the murders. Gesualdo, a twenty-four-year-old man with a narrow face, had been seen entering the apartment with three men, shouting, “Kill that scoundrel, along with this harlot! Shall a Gesualdo be made a cuckold?” After a time, he reëmerged, his hands dripping with blood. Then he went back into the room, saying, “I do not believe they are dead!” And he did more violence. The report ended with the observation that Gesualdo had left town.
A prince being a prince, there matters rested. Yet Gesualdo paid a posthumous price for the killings. In the decades after his death, he became a semi-mythical, even vampiric figure, about whom ever more lurid tales were told. It was said that the sexual organs of the slain lovers had been mutilated. It was said that the bodies had been left to rot on the steps of the palace. It was said that a demented monk had violated Donna Maria’s corpse. And it was said that Gesualdo had murdered an alleged illegitimate child of the lovers by having the baby suspended in a bassinet and swung to the point of death. None of these stories appear to be true, with the possible exception of the first. Still, the biography of Gesualdo contains enough evidence of bizarre behavior—not only the slayings themselves but later intimations of dealings with witches and of sadomasochistic relations with young men—that the prevailing picture of him as an uncommonly sinister character seems apt. Mentioning the name in the area of Piazza San Domenico Maggiore can still cause a momentary widening of the eyes.
Gesualdo also wrote music, publishing six books of madrigals and three books of sacred pieces. He turned out to be one of the most complexly imaginative composers of the late Renaissance, indeed of all musical history. The works of his mature period—he died in 1613, at the age of forty-seven—bend the rules of harmony to a degree that remained unmatched until the advent of Wagner. They constitute a “kind of musical no-man’s land,” to quote from liner notes that Aldous Huxley wrote for a pioneering 1956 LP devoted to Gesualdo’s madrigals. (Huxley once performed the dangerous experiment of listening to Gesualdo on mescaline.) The composer’s most influential fan was Igor Stravinsky, who, in 1960, wrote a piece called “Monumentum pro Gesualdo,” and, eight years later, contributed a preface to Glenn Watkins’s scholarly study “Gesualdo: The Man and His Music.” The fascination has hardly abated in recent decades. There have been no fewer than eleven operatic works on the subject of Gesualdo’s life, not to mention a fantastical 1995 pseudo-documentary, by Werner Herzog, called “Death for Five Voices.” Last year, Watkins, a professor emeritus at the University of Michigan and a luminary of American musicology, published a second book, “The Gesualdo Hex: Music, Myth, and Memory.”
The origins of “Gesualdo fever,” as Watkins calls it, are not hard to discern. No novelist would have dared to invent a savage Renaissance prince who doubled as an avant-garde musical genius, although Gesualdo has appeared in fiction with some regularity, most recently in Wesley Stace’s novel “Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer.” The lingering question is whether it is the life or the work that perpetuates the phenomenon. If Gesualdo had not committed such shocking acts, we might not pay such close attention to his music. But if he had not written such shocking music we would not care so much about his deeds. Many bloodier crimes have been forgotten; it’s the nexus of high art and foul play that catches our fancy. As with Gesualdo’s contemporary Caravaggio, who killed a man by stabbing him near the groin, we wonder whether the violence of the art and the violence of the man emanated from the same demoniac source.
During a stay in Italy last June, I visited the main sites of Gesualdine legend: the neighborhood of Piazza San Domenico Maggiore; the nearby church of Gesù Nuovo, which houses Gesualdo’s opulent tomb; and the hilltop town called Gesualdo, some sixty miles east of Naples, where the Prince fled after the killings. My guide was the congenial Giancarlo Vesce, a professor of veterinary anesthesiology at the University of Naples, whose father grew up in a village not far from Gesualdo, and who has taken an interest in the lore. “The soil in this area is volcanic, and makes the crops strong,” Vesce told me as we drove out of Naples, in the sometimes hair-raising manner that seems essential to travel in southern Italy. “Everything here is strong, like Gesualdo.”
The Gesualdo castle has been undergoing renovation for many years—it suffered heavy damage in the earthquake that devastated the region in 1980—and is not open to the public. Vesce, after elaborate negotiations with local notables, succeeded in getting us inside. It is a formidable hexagonal
structure, commanding a wide panorama. After the murders, the story goes, Gesualdo went on a tree-cutting rampage, so that he would have an unlimited view of potential threats. (The law could not touch him, but he may have feared vengeance from the families of the lovers.) Inside, the structure is filled with rubble and dust; the renovation has been making slow progress. Still, I could faintly imagine the castle of Gesualdo’s day: a place more austere than grand, its chapel consecrated to solitary devotions, its bigger rooms given over to madrigal evenings of a darkly playful nature. Naturally, one hears rumors of Gesualdo’s ghost haunting the premises. I detected no occult energies at work, although I would prefer not to be alone in the ruin late at night.
A castle has stood atop the hill since the seventh century. The Gesualdo family, of Norman descent, became lords of the town in the early twelfth century, and a series of advantageous marriages added wealth and power to the line. The Venosa title was bestowed in 1561, when Gesualdo’s father married Giroloma Borromeo, a niece of Pope Pius IV and a sister of Cardinal Borromeo, who played a dominant role in the Counter-Reformation. Gesualdo was slated for the clergy until his late teens, when the death of his older brother destined him for public life. About a year after the gruesome end of his first marriage, Gesualdo inherited the princedom and became one of the richest men in the Kingdom of Naples. Within three years, he had married again, to Eleonora d’Este, a cousin of Alfonso II d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara.
The second marriage seems to have been little happier than the first. Gesualdo reportedly engaged in abusive behavior and found sexual satisfaction elsewhere. What mattered most to him, undoubtedly, was that he was able to gain entrance to the glittering Ferrara court, and, above all, to its élite circle of musicians. The Este dukes may have been a typically ruthless lot—Robert Browning did Alfonso II no injustice in imagining for him a chilling monologue (“That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall, / Looking as if she were alive”)— but they had faultless taste, and lured scores of major artists to Ferrara. At one time or another, the court hosted the poets Ludovico Ariosto, Battista Guarini, and Torquato Tasso; the painters Cosimo Tura, Lorenzo Costa, and Dosso Dossi; and the musical masters Josquin Desprez, Adrian Willaert, and Cipriano de Rore, among many others. Alfonso II employed a trio of virtuoso female singers—the concerto di donne— famed for their ability to execute the most esoteric musical designs.
Gesualdo travelled to Ferrara for his wedding, in 1594, and stayed there for most of the next two years. Its culture plainly mesmerized him. An associate of Alfonso II, who accompanied Gesualdo, reported to the Duke that the new in-law could not stop chattering about music: “He makes open profession of it and shows his works in score to everybody, in order to induce them to marvel at his art.” The Prince had been steeped in music from an early age; his first published piece dates to 1585. Furthermore, Gesualdo was not pursuing mere gentlemanly refinement: he aimed to work wonders. Alfonso’s informant concisely summed up the emergent Gesualdo style when he wrote, “It is obvious that his art is infinite, but it is full of attitudes, and moves in an extraordinary way.”
To a degree, Gesualdo the composer was typical of his time and place. In his youth, the dominant mode of the day, in music and in other arts, was Mannerism: a rebellion against Renaissance humanism that emphasized flamboyant stylization, formal shock tactics, technical virtuosity, and intimations of the dark and the irrational. Giorgio Vasari called it the “modern style,” praising its vigor and dynamism. This was the period of Rosso Fiorentino’s feverishly sensual Biblical scenes, of Tintoretto’s cinematically swirling crowds and battles, of the wan, gaunt faces of El Greco. In music, Mannerism expressed itself through spirited, even exaggerated, responses to the nuances of poetic texts: abrupt contrasts, outré harmonic progressions, and other disruptions of the smoothly churning surface of the high-Renaissance style.
The madrigal, a short secular piece for a small group of voices, became the favorite vehicle of musical Mannerism. The scholar Susan McClary, in her 2004 book “Modal Subjectivities,” singles out as a turning point “Il bianco e dolce cigno,” a 1539 madrigal by Jacques Arcadelt, a Franco-Flemish composer who prospered in Italy. The text presents a typical Renaissance double-entendre, comparing the cry of a dying swan to the “joy and desire” of sexual oblivion. At the climax, the voices split into an ecstatic series of wavelike lines— “the first graphic simulation in music of orgasm,” McClary proposes.
The Este court at Ferrara was the headquarters of Mannerist innovation. In the late sixteenth century, the language of music was undergoing an epochal transition: composers were setting aside the established modes, or scalelike organizing patterns, that had regulated music since the medieval period, and were moving toward a simplified network of major and minor keys. (That system solidified in the early seventeenth century, notably in the new art of opera, and it still governs most Western music.) Yet alternatives were in the air. In 1555, the Ferrara-centered composer Nicola Vicentino published a knotty treatise, “Ancient Music Adapted to Modern Practice,” that was, ostensibly, a revival of Greek musical theory. Vicentino’s ruminations on Greek categories—diatonic, chromatic, and enharmonic, each involving progressively narrower intervals—led him to divide the octave into thirty-one tones instead of the usual twelve. The composer invented two keyboard instruments, the archicembalo and the archiorgano (super-harpsichord and super-organ), on which his microtonal shadings could be realized.
A posthumous inventory of the Gesualdo castle lists a copy of the archicembalo, suggesting that the Prince had Vicentine tendencies. Although he did not specify microtones in his scores, he may have taken an interest in the Vicentino system because it encouraged free movement from one chord to another. Freedom is a hallmark of Gesualdo’s style. To put it in modern terms: if a piece is in A minor, one would expect to hear such related chords as D minor and E major, whose notes overlap with the A-minor scale. One would not expect, say, C-sharp major, which is alien to the key. That chord sounds defiantly at the outset of one of Gesualdo’s greatest works, the A-minor-ish madrigal “Moro, lasso, al mio duolo.” No wonder Gesualdo’s music began to resurface in the nineteenth century: such spooky progressions are a Romantic standby.
Gesualdo, no less than Schubert or Wagner, makes these swerves with an explicit purpose. The text of “Moro, lasso,” like Arcadelt’s “Il bianco e dolce cigno,” plays on the double meaning of morte, earthly and sexual release:
I die, sinking, in my sorrow
And the one who can give me life
Kills me, alas, and does not wish to give me aid.
O woeful fate!
The one who can give me life, alas, gives me death!
In this case, though, sensuality gives way to an agitated, seething atmosphere. As Watkins writes, Gesualdo has gone beyond the Mannerist principle of creating spectacular effects; he is an expressionist, deploying both words and music to summon buried psychological states. Even though he had no apparent contact with the world of opera, his madrigals have the vividness of dramatic scenes. A 1628 commentary states that Monteverdi, the first great master of opera, “tried to sweeten and make more accessible” Gesualdo’s style. When, in Monteverdi’s “Orfeo,” a messenger tells Orpheus that his beloved Eurydice is dead, the harmony takes a sudden dismal turn, as if catching the Gesualdo chill.
The picture of Gesualdo as an avant-garde visionary is irresistible, but in some ways it is anachronistic, ignoring the complex currents of late-Renaissance music. Dinko Fabris, a leading Italian musicologist who accompanied Giancarlo Vesce and me on our visit to the castle, set forth his view of the composer at lunch. “We always want to be surprised by Gesualdo, because of this myth of him as an experimentalist,” Fabris said. “But he was a conservative— as conservative as it was possible to be in this time. Monteverdi was the radical, the new. There is a very curious letter from the poet Guarini, in which he says he prefers Gesualdo to the modern style because he is ‘so far from the hardness of Monteverdi.’ For Guarini, Gesualdo is so nice, so easy! Exactly the opposite of what we now think.”
At a time when younger composers were emphasizing the melodic potential of a solo line—the signature of the early Baroque—Gesualdo revelled in the venerable art of polyphony, in which each voice has equal importance. And, as Susan McClary shows, he clung to the medieval modes, wrenching maximum expression from a language that was on the wane. In “Moro, lasso,” the tenor voice follows the contours of the Aeolian mode while the other voices veer away. Indeed, the movement of the tenor increases the tension of the piece—it “suffers extraordinary stress,” McClary writes, “as though tied to some instrument of torture worked by means of a slowly turning crank.”
Gesualdo’s madrigals are devilishly difficult to perform live, with singers apt to stray from the pitch as the chords wheel about. (Things go easier in the recording studio, where performances can approach perfection through multiple takes: the groups La Venexiana, the Kassiopeia Quintet, and the Concerto Italiano have come particularly close.) I recently watched the New York vocal ensemble Ekmeles rehearse two madrigals from Book V—“Se vi duol il mio duolo” (“If my grief makes you grieve”) and “Mercè grido piangendo” (“Mercy! I cry as I weep”)—in preparation for a concert at Columbia University’s Casa Italiana. At one point, the singers exchanged ideas about what they called “scary” moments, of which there were many. The question of how to articulate a sixteenth-note passage in the first madrigal led to a discussion of its deeper meaning. The tenor Matthew Hensrud commented, “The ‘ardor’ of this—it’s sex, not war.” Jeffrey Gavett, the group’s leader, said, “Yes, except that with Gesualdo the line isn’t exactly clear.”
Gavett had compounded the difficulties by asking the singers to adopt a version of Nicola Vicentino’s intricate tuning system. To modern ears, its harmonies can sound either exceptionally pure or exceptionally weird, or both at once. In Gesualdo’s music, it’s disconcerting enough to hear a G-sharp-major chord after an E-minor one—as happens in “Mercè grido,” in the midst of the line “Would that I might tell you ere I die, ‘I die!’ ” In Ekmeles’s rendition, the moment was made all the more unearthly because the pitches kept shifting underfoot. In modern tuning, the note B-sharp is the same as the note C-natural, but here they diverged slightly, and when the soprano sang them in close proximity the air in the room seemed to ripple, as in a sci-fi movie. Although scholars may question the wisdom of performing the madrigals in this manner, there are so many unknowns around the Prince of Venosa that the idea cannot be ruled out.
The final stage of Gesualdo’s short life was, in some ways, ghastlier that the beginning. If any readers have found the story insufficiently lurid so far, let them now be satisfied. In 1603, two women of his household were tried for sorcery by local authorities, and, under torture, confessed. One of the alleged witches said that she had given the Prince potions of menstrual blood, and that after sexual intercourse with him she had inserted a piece of bread into her vagina and then served it to him in a sauce. (The trial record contains the phrase “soaked with the seed of them both.”) Both women were imprisoned in the castle, which cannot have improved the domestic atmosphere.
The master of the castle was prey to an array of ailments, real or not, and pursued curious remedies. According to one chronicler, Gesualdo was “afflicted by a vast horde of demons which gave him no peace, for many days on end, unless ten or twelve young men, whom he kept specially for the purpose, were to beat him violently three times a day, during which operation he was wont to smile joyfully.”
There is no way to avoid thinking of such episodes when listening to Gesualdo. Perhaps we are meant to. More than a few commentators believe that the last two collections of madrigals— Book V and Book VI, both published in 1611—are autobiographical. Gesualdo possibly wrote the poems himself, or had them written to his specifications. They dwell so often on themes of torment, pain, sadness, and death that, without the incessant variety of the music, they would become monotonous. Gesualdo may have been the first composer in history to write a kind of musical diary. “I do research in pain,” Giancarlo Vesce said to me. “I work very hard to save animals from pain, but I know the sound of it. In Gesualdo’s madrigals, I can tell that voices are suffering. Gesualdo is the highest expression of pain in music.”
Glenn Watkins, a scholar not inclined toward melodrama, accepts that the madrigals are confessional in nature. Yet he rejects the picture of Gesualdo as a “violent psychopath.” Instead, the composer’s flagellation ritual might be “a manifestation of an exorcism, intended to rid the body of demons.” Watkins views Gesualdo’s late works as recollections of suffering and acts of penitence. Two pieces of circumstantial evidence support this more sympathetic picture. One is a painting called “Il Perdono” (“The Pardon”), which is in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Gesualdo, and shows the Prince kneeling beside Cardinal Borromeo. The other is Gesualdo’s monumental, twenty-seven-part setting of the Responsoria— texts from the Catholic evening services for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. Those services are known as the Tenebrae, or “shadows”; in the old Catholic rite, candles were extinguished, one by one, until the church was enveloped in darkness.
The Responsoria cycle, also published in 1611, is Gesualdo’s masterpiece, his cathedral of shadows. As Watkins says, it is a Passion in all but name. The tortuous harmonies of the madrigals are put to sacred ends; throughout, Gesualdo displays a madrigalist’s alertness to verbal detail, evoking the betrayal, trial, and Crucifixion of Jesus with a flair that might have caused a scandal if the work had been performed more widely. (It was probably heard only in his private chapel or in Santa Maria delle Grazie.)
“Tristis est anima mea,” the second responsory for Maundy Thursday, begins with desolate, drooping figures that conjure Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane (“My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death”). It then accelerates into frenzied motion, suggesting the fury of the mob and the flight of Jesus’ disciples. There follows music of profound loneliness, radiant chords punctured by aching dissonances, as Jesus says, “I will go to be sacrificed for you.” The movement from inner to outer landscape, from chromatic counterpoint to block harmonies, humanizes Jesus in a way that calls to mind Caravaggio’s New Testament paintings of the same period, with their collisions of dark and light. Even though Caravaggio renounced Mannerism and heralded the Baroque, the two artists seem close in spirit, not only because of their bloody life stories but also because of the primitive fervor of their religious iconography.
The madrigals are densely packed, hyper-tense; listening to many of them at one sitting can be nerve-racking. The Responsoria—which were splendidly recorded by the Hilliard Ensemble, for ECM, in 1990—unfold in a more open-ended way, joining together into a vast structure that looks ahead to Bach. Some of the sharpest dissonances appear early on, in the passages depicting Jesus’ betrayal, with a piercing semitone clash assigned to Judas. The most disquieting of the pieces is “Omnes amici” (“All my friends have forsaken me”), which lurches from one key area to another, never settling in place for long. One suspects that Gesualdo is identifying with Jesus’ persecution, not least when a particularly stomach-churning progression accompanies the line “And [they have] given Me vinegar to drink.” At the midpoint of the cycle, in “Tenebrae factae sunt” (“Darkness covered the earth”), a sombre stillness descends.
The responsories for Holy Saturday bring a gradual lightening of mood, even as the imagery stays focussed on the tomb. The language is cleaner, cooler, more ancient-sounding. Renewed delirium might have been expected in the second-to-last setting, “Aestimatus sum” (“I am counted among them that go down to the pit”), but, a few twists and turns aside, the music takes on a strange luminosity. For in death there is release: “I am become like a man without help, free among the dead.”
The first modern composer to take an unhealthy interest in Gesualdo was the troubled English eccentric Philip Heseltine, who wrote a slew of subtly potent songs under the pseudonym Peter Warlock. After a long history of mental illness and dabblings in drugs and the occult, he came to an untoward end in 1930, apparently gassing himself in his apartment. Four years earlier, Heseltine had collaborated with the Scottish critic and composer Cecil Gray on the book “Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, Musician and Murderer,” a mixture of biography, analysis, and speculation. One section of the volume is devoted to a Thomas De Quincey-like panegyric to Gesualdo’s brutal handiwork, setting forth a satirical thesis about the connection between music and murder: “The beginning of the decline of murder as an art dates from precisely the same period as the development of music as a personal expression. . . . In definite relation to the increased difficulties attendant upon the practice of murder, music has become more and more sadistic. In place of inflicting the utmost pain upon a single individual, we outrage the ears of thousands.”
That mordant proposal contains a kernel of truth. More than a few twentieth-century modernists cited Gesualdo as a lonely prophet, a musical explorer whose discovery of uncharted land went unheeded. Watkins, in “The Gesualdo Hex,” catalogues dozens of allusions to the composer’s music as well as dramatizations of his life: the list includes Warlock, Stravinsky, Peter Maxwell Davies, Alfred Schnittke, Wolfgang Rihm, and Salvatore Sciarrino. The most recent operatic response, Marc-André Dalbavie’s “Gesualdo,” had its première at the Zurich Opera, last year. The production, which I saw on video, did not stint on kinkiness, with a hunky Spanish baritone on hand to deliver the whippings. Even so, Dalbavie’s score is the most artful of the Gesualdo operas, its mercurial language faithful to its subject’s ambiguities, its dreamlike finale disclosing a kind of primeval tonality. The example of Gesualdo has emboldened composers not just to invent new sounds but to reinvent old ones.
So it was with Stravinsky, who became enamored of Gesualdo in the early nineteen-fifties, his interest encouraged by his young American friend Robert Craft. Stravinsky went so far as to copy half a dozen of the madrigals by hand. In the same years, he was abandoning the neoclassicism of his middle period in favor of an idiosyncratic version of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method. To describe Stravinsky’s late music as “atonal” is, however, a misnomer: in a way, he was delving deeper into the past, reawakening the ghost harmonies of the late Renaissance. Watkins can speak of this aspect of Stravinsky’s career with authority, because he knew Stravinsky and discussed Gesualdo with him. Watkins was editing Gesualdo’s religious pieces at the time, and persuaded Stravinsky to fill in a missing bass part in two motets. The hieratic sacred pieces of Stravinsky’s last years— “Canticum Sacrum,” “Threni,” and “Requiem Canticles”—may all contain echoes of Gesualdo. Watkins writes, “Both Gesualdo and Stravinsky rang down the curtain with a sacred work that resonated personally, privately, and at the same time served the potential function of a formally prescribed public ritual.”
Stravinsky’s cryptic tributes to Gesualdo have a counterpart in a recent piece by Georg Friedrich Haas, an Austrian composer who balances avant-garde legerdemain with an almost Wagnerian feeling for large-scale musical architecture. Haas has long been attracted to microtonal divisions of the octave, and, in the eighties, made electronic realizations of Gesualdo madrigals in Vicentino’s thirty-one-tone tuning, as Ekmeles has lately done. Haas, in his Third String Quartet (2001), reënacts the old Tenebrae ritual in secular form, directing the performers to play in a space that has been thrown into total darkness. Toward the end, Haas briefly quotes one of the tenderest settings in Gesualdo’s Responsoria, “Eram quasi agnus” (“I was like an innocent lamb led to the slaughter”). The players are instructed to adjust certain notes up or down, in accordance with the secret chromatic art of Ferrara. The music of the deep past materializes in the present, as if time were bending in the blackout.
“He creeps inside and grabs your soul and is in no hurry to let go,” the Australian composer Brett Dean has said of Gesualdo. There is no denying the creepiness of “Gesualdo fever.” A feminist critic might conclude that male artists are getting a vicarious thrill from the composer’s acts of violence, and, indeed, relatively few women have shared in the fascination of the story. A sociologist might guess that the cult of Gesualdo is, on some level, a reaction to the popular stereotype of classical music as an effete art. Say what you will about Gesualdo, he was irrefutably badass.
A Renaissance historian, though, might advise that the business of the murders has been blown out of proportion. On the moral spectrum of the time, it was nothing too extreme. Perhaps Gesualdo had little choice but to do what he did: his reputation, and the reputation of his family, would have suffered if he had become known as a cuckold. The killings may have been the frantic, overcompensating action of a music-obsessed young man who ultimately had no deep connection to other people or to the outside world.
There is still more to be learned about that grisly night in Naples. During my visit, Dinko Fabris passed along news: recent research indicates that the location of the murders was not, as had long been believed, the Palazzo Sansevero, a gloomy five-story pile on the eastern side of Piazza San Domenico Maggiore. The scholar Eduardo Nappi, searching the archives of the Banco di Napoli, has uncovered evidence that Gesualdo had been renting an apartment just to the north of the palazzo, in another building in the Sansevero complex. It’s now an unpreposessing structure that has been painted a deceptively innocent storybook yellow.
This change in the scene of the crime may seem trivial, yet it adds one more tragic layer to the story. Fabrizio Carafa, the comely, cross-dressing duke whom Gesualdo slew so lustily, was the son of a noblewoman who, after the death of her first husband, married the Prince of Sansevero. In other words, Gesualdo made the additional faux pas of killing his landlord’s stepson. Beatrice Cècaro, another researcher, proposes that the families of the victims, overcome by horror, renounced vengeance and instead rededicated a chapel that stood next door to the murder site—the same chapel in which Gesualdo and Maria d’Avalos had been married.
That chapel became, after decades of expansion, the Cappella Sansevero, one of the most enthralling and unsettling religious spaces in Europe. Giancarlo Vesce took me there, after we returned from Gesualdo. “You must be prepared for this,” Vesce said, as we entered the chapel. I found myself confronted with Giuseppe Sanmartino’s 1753 sculpture “Veiled Christ,” a terrifyingly beautiful depiction of Jesus in the tomb, his body wrapped in a confounding marble simulation of a flowing veil. “Look at the vein standing out in his forehead,” Vesce whispered. “The exposed ribs, the sunken stomach, the holes in his hands and feet.”
The “Veiled Christ” was done at the behest of Raimondo di Sangro, the brilliant alchemical prince, who, in his residence at the Palazzo Sansevero, conducted all manner of experiments in biology, medicine, physics, and mechanics. In the crypt of the Cappella are Raimondo’s “anatomical machines”— male and female skeletons onto which stunningly accurate models of the circulatory system have been imposed. Although the models are now known to be artificial creations, Neapolitans long believed that they were the products of monstrous vivisections. No one had forgotten the story that a man and a woman had been slaughtered in the palace many years earlier. Does the Cappella Sansevero reverberate with centuries of crime and cruelty? Does Fabrizio Carafa lie interred behind one of its walls, as Cècaro suggests? After four centuries, the legend of Gesualdo is still growing. When La Repubblica reported the latest discoveries, it noted, “Like a black cloud blown by the wind, the curse begins to move beyond Piazza San Domenico Maggiore.”
I would have lingered in the chapel, but Vesce was tapping his watch. “We must not be late for il principe,” he said. I had an appointment to see Francesco d’Avalos, the Prince d’Avalos and the Marquis of Vasto and Pescara, who is a direct descendant of the family of Gesualdo’s murdered wife. (His great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather was Maria d’Avalos’s uncle.) D’Avalos is also a composer and conductor of some repute; a couple of decades ago, he made a series of recordings with the Philharmonia Orchestra, in London. The prospect of meeting a Neapolitan composer-prince with family ties to Gesualdo was irresistible, as it has been to other amateur detectives before me. Werner Herzog’s “Death for Five Voices” includes a visit to the d’Avalos palace, giving a glimpse of the very bed in which the murders were committed. Or so Herzog claims.
The Prince lives with his wife, Antonella, in the Palazzo d’Avalos, a largely abandoned sixteenth-century building in the middle of Naples. Vesce and I pushed open a tall gate, crossed a weedy courtyard, and rang a bell. A young man opened the door: it was d’Avalos’s son, Andrea, who had come from London to help take care of the property. After directing us toward a massive, crumbling staircase, Andrea vanished. Not for the first time that weekend, I had the feeling that I had stumbled into an Italian neorealist film. (At one point, Bernardo Bertolucci was planning to make a Gesualdo movie, entitled “Heaven and Hell.”)
At the top of the stairs, we went through another door and up another flight of stairs, until we reached the d’Avalos apartment. Paint was peeling from a few places on the walls; a layer of dust covered the tables and bookcases. All the same, the composer’s study was a bright, cozy space, stocked with engravings, art books, scores, and CDs. Although the temperature had hit ninety degrees, and the apartment lacked air-conditioning, d’Avalos was wearing a white dress shirt and a black suit.
He is now eighty-one, and has been in poor health. He spoke hurriedly and indistinctly, and although his English is fluent, I had trouble following him. I felt guilty for having barged into his home, but d’Avalos was eager to show me his music. He brought out a score of “Maria di Venosa,” a symphonic drama that he composed in 1992, in honor of his unlucky ancestor. We looked at the opening pages, which depict Gesualdo nearing death, beset by Maria’s ghost. I noticed a serpentine sequence and suggested that it was Gesualdine in character. I did not fully grasp d’Avalos’s reply, but it included the word Todestrank— “death potion.” He was referring to a menacing progression in Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” signifying the drink that Isolde serves (or thinks she serves) to Tristan and herself in Act I. D’Avalos then got out his 2005 book “The Crisis of the West and the Presence of History,” a treatise on twentieth-century music, and drew my attention to a discussion of Schubert and Wagner. He was tracing a continuity across the centuries—the science of eerie harmony that runs from Gesualdo’s time to the present day.
D’Avalos went to his computer and paged through YouTube videos of his compositions. We listened to a 1973 piece for string orchestra entitled “Sonata da chiesa,” or church sonata, which consists of little more than a sequence of sustained chords, in unstable, shifting relations. It is not unlike Gesualdo in method, yet the effect is gentle and wistful.
I nodded at Vesce: it was time to go. Before we left, though, I had to ask about the bed. Herzog’s film is not the only source of the rumor that d’Avalos possessed the murder bed; one scholar had assured me that d’Avalos once placed a tape recorder next to the bed and left it running overnight, and that when he listened to the tape the following day he heard a mysterious singing voice, which he transcribed for his “Maria di Venosa” score.
“Non è vero,” d’Avalos said, when I mentioned the bed. He spoke more clearly than before. “It is not true. Nobody knows which bed it was.”
His wife, who had joined the conversation, told me, “È una storia”—“It’s just a story.” She smiled indulgently.
The Prince was racked by a cough, and Vesce and I said goodbye. We made our way down the ancient stairs, parts of which had turned to dust. The heat and glare of the Neapolitan summer smacked us as we opened the outer door. Yet the memory of those pensive chords stayed with me: a wordless message, an ambiguous reply, drifting backward in time.
Bonus: A Gesualdo photojournal.