tagErotic HorrorPassion and Death in Ferrara

Passion and Death in Ferrara


I groaned.

Jesus, I felt awful.

Mother of God, I had the hangover of all hangovers.

Gingerly I opened my eyes, and promptly shut them again. Even with the curtains shut the light seared the backs of my eyeballs.

I groaned again, and prayed for death; anything to take away the pounding in my head which felt as if a herd of elephants were on the rampage.

Later, minutes or hours I couldn't tell, I opened my eyes again. The light wasn't so painful this time and I could just about bear it as long as I kept them screwed up.

I looked round the room and nearly jumped off the bed in shock and horror. Lying next to me on the bed was a woman. Well, the remains of a woman. She was naked and covered in blood, and her head had been savagely hacked from her body.

I fainted.


When I finally came round, I summoned my courage and looked to my left where the body had been. It was gone. God, what a relief. It had been a hallucination after all. What had I been drinking?

Eventually the demands of my bladder could no longer be ignored and I dragged myself to the bathroom. After relieving myself I stuck my head under the shower hoping that the cold water would clear my befuddled head.

Back in my room I collapsed into a chair and wracked my brain in an attempt to remember what I had been doing yesterday. I glanced over to the table on which there was an open book — a folio of manuscripts of madrigals by the Renaissance composer Gesualdo. And then it all came back to me.

We had been set an exercise by the Professor of Music for the following week's seminar. We each had to prepare an illustrated talk on a Renaissance composer, and I had drawn Gesualdo out of the hat. The story of his life was well known. Carlo Gesualdo was born into the Southern Italian nobility in 1566, and he became one a celebrated composer of sacred and secular vocal music. He was one of the most remarkable composers of his age, and particularly in his madrigals he stretched the boundaries of tonality in a way rarely seen again until the second half of the nineteenth century. However, it wasn't just for his music that he was notorious. On the night of October 16, 1590 he discovered his wife Maria in bed in the arms of her lover, another nobleman, and he murdered them both in a most violent and brutal manner. Despite overwhelming evidence of his guilt he was absolved of the crime by the Gran Corte della Vicaria — but then there has always been one law for the rich and another for the poor.

In 1594 he was married again to Leonora d'Este, niece of Alfonso II d'Este, duke of Ferrara. Alfonso was a noted patron of the arts and sponsor of the concerto delle donne, a group of professional female singers who were favoured companions of his duchess, Margherita Gonzaga d'Este, and who frequently performed at private formal concerts for the duke and the inner circle of his court. It was while he was in Ferrara that Gesualdo composed his first book of madrigals, and it is thought that their renowned technical and artistic virtuosity was the inspiration for his unique musical innovations.

I decided that rather than the usual practice for these seminars of playing a recording of the appointed piece of music, I would arrange one of Gesualdo's madrigals for lute and solo voice — the lute was my specialist instrument and I had a passable light tenor voice. I thought it would be more interesting, and I desperately needed a good mark, otherwise I was in danger of being hauled up before the Dean of the Faculty. I also thought it would be even more spectacular if I could find a piece that was not in the recorded canon.

So I descended into the bowels of the library, and after many hours of fruitless searching I discovered a dusty volume in a dark corner which had the single word "Gesualdo" inscribed in faded script on the spine of its leather binding. I pulled it out with trembling hands and placed it on one of the desks. Switching on the reading light, I gently opened it and to my excitement discovered that it appeared to be an early folio of his first book of madrigals, possibly in the composer's own hand.

I carefully slipped the unexpected treasure into my briefcase and hurried back to my room to explore it further. I could hardly catch my breath as I carefully opened the cover so I poured myself a glass of wine to calm my beating heart as I prepared to delve into its pages. To my disappointment the manuscripts appeared to be later copies of Gesualdo's originals, and I knew from my online investigations of the catalogue and that they had all been recorded in recent years. This was not really surprising as there had been a resurgence in the interest in early music, and to find an unknown work by a composer as celebrated as Gesualdo would have been very unusual. I would have to be content therefore with making an arrangement of my own to illustrate my talk on the composer and his revolutionary style.

I was about to go and find some blank manuscript paper and a pencil when I noticed a single loose sheet of paper sticking out slightly from between the bound pages near to the end of the folio. I pulled it out from its hiding place and my heart skipped a beat. The paper was yellow with age and it was obviously much older than the rest of the manuscripts in the volume. It was also in a completely different hand, and the inscription at the top of the page read, "dedicato all'angelo divinamente ispirato Anna Guarini, Contessa Trotti," — "dedicated to the divinely inspired angel Anna Guarini, Countess Trotti," — and below the inscription was a faint signature, "Carlo Gesualdo."

I let out a whoop of joy. I realised that I had possibly found a hitherto unknown work by the master. Of course I would have to inform the Professor, and the university would get much of the credit for the discovery, but it wouldn't do me any harm either.

After taking a large swig of wine, I placed the precious manuscript on a music stand, and picking up my lute I started to play.

Then something very strange happened. I was no longer in my rooms at college but standing in a small but ornately painted salon, dressed in the rich costume of a sixteenth century nobleman. At first I thought I must be dreaming and closed my eyes for a moment, but when I opened them the vision had not cleared. Looking around I saw that I was one of a group of about twenty similarly dressed men listening intently to a group of four ladies singing the most exquisite harmonies and accompanying themselves on lutes and viola de gambas.

When they finished the madrigal there was rapturous applause, and then one of them stepped forward and began to sing in a voice as crystal clear as a mountain stream the very piece that I had been playing. She was as beautiful as her voice, and as she sang she looked me straight in the eyes as if she was singing for me alone.

At the end of the song she took a little bow and stepped back to join her companions, and the man standing next to me turned to me and said, "the Countess truly has the voice of a nightingale, does she not? But be very careful my friend. The Count Trotti may be an old man, and no longer capable of pleasing the lady in bed, but he is very jealous of his wife's beauty and will no longer tolerate her infidelities. Beware that you do not suffer the savage fate of my first wife and her lover."

But I was not listening. I was in love, and I was impatient for the concert to end so that I could be alone with the object of my desire. Despite the beauty of the singing I was unable to concentrate, my mind filled with visions of the sensual delights that I would surely be enjoying before very long. At last the performance was over and as the ladies left, Anna looked back at me and her lips pursed momentarily in a tiny kiss.

Despite my impatience I was still unable to leave without attracting suspicion, and it was only after an hour of hard drinking that I could discreetly slip away. I quietly made my way through the passages of the ducal palace until I came at last to the doorway to the lady's bedroom. I knocked with a secret rhythm known only to us and the door opened enough to allow me to enter, and closed again as soon as I was in the room. I locked the door behind me and turned to see my lover waiting for me beside the bed.

She was wearing a simple robe of semi transparent silk which she allowed to fall open to reveal her naked loveliness, lit only by the flickering of the candles in the sconces either side of the bed.

"My darling," she whispered, "at last you are here. I have been dreaming of this all evening and my blood is hot with passion for your masculine beauty. Let me release you from those fancy garments that hide your manly delights from my eyes. I am impatient to enfold your hardness in my silken depths and ascend to the divine heights of love."

She stepped forward and taking me in her arms began to kiss me passionately, nibbling my lips and probing my mouth with her tongue. Running her hands down my chest she began to fumble with the buttons of my breeches, finally releasing my cock from its gaudy prison. Slipping one hand in my pants to fondle my balls, she gently grasped my hardening member with the other and began to caress it until it rose to its full rampant glory. Kneeling at my feet, she then took the head of my cock between her lips and looking up into my eyes brought me to a fever pitch of excitement and lust.

If she had continued for long I would have spilled my seed in her mouth, but she had other ideas and after a few minutes of exquisite pleasure she pushed me back onto the bed and straddled me, placing my swollen and throbbing member at the entrance to her sex, slid down my shaft until I was fully enfolded in her hot tunnel of love.

Words are inadequate to describe the exquisite wonder of the following minutes, which were even more beautiful than her earlier singing had been. My love rode me with all the passion of her tempestuous nature until we both exploded in a paroxysm of desire and ecstasy as I filled her with my hot essence.

Later we lay naked cuddled in each other's arms in the delicious afterglow of satisfied desire, our longing for each other's bodies temporarily assuaged. Our whispered words of love and desire soon inflamed our passions once more, and sliding gently once more into the heat of her sex, I took her once again to the land of sexual delight. We made love more slowly this second time, but our ultimate mutual climaxes were even more intense than our first heated passion.

"My darling," she murmured after we had come back to earth from the heaven of consummated desire, "go and find us a flagon of wine to sustain us through the rest of this night of magic, but hurry back my love, I am hungry for your magnificence."

Leaving her side, I donned a rich velvet robe and slipping discreetly out of her chamber, made my way down to the salon where we had been drinking. However all the jugs and flagons that had been filled with the most expensive wines for the delight of the Duke's guests were all empty and I had to go down into the cellars to find what I wanted.

As I entered the passage that led to her room I saw two lanterns approaching from the other direction. I pressed myself into an alcove in the wall for fear of being seen and saw two men burst rudely into the chamber. In the light of the lanterns I could see that they were carrying meat cleavers, and soon the most horrific screams issued from within and echoed down the corridor where I cowered in the darkness in fear for my life.

A few moments later the two men hurriedly exited the chamber covered in blood and made off in the direction from which they had come. One was her husband, the Count Trotti and the other was his brother. When they had gone I finally plucked up my courage and pushed open the door and entered upon a scene of indescribable horror. My lover's naked body lay on the bed covered in blood, her flesh disfigured by the most savage wounds. There was blood everywhere, such had been the ferocity of the attack, soaking into the bed clothes and spattered on the walls. Most awful of all, her head lay on the floor, her mouth wide open in a rictus of fear and pain. If I hadn't been delayed finding wine I would undoubtedly have suffered the same fate.

The shock and horror of the scene, my own close brush with death, and my intense feelings of grief and loss were just too much for me and I passed out.


When I came round I was back in the familiar surroundings of my room at college. With my rational mind I realised that I had probably had a vision of the past and in some mysterious way entered the mind of one of Duke Alfonso's courtiers. My feelings however were so real that I truly believed that I had actually been present at the concert in Duke Alfonso's private apartments, and had later made love to my mistress Anna Guarini, Countessa Trotti. I was in deep shock and drank a whole bottle of wine in an attempt to blot out the horrific memory of that bed chamber and the sight of Anna's dismembered corpse. Still shaking with

I made my seminar presentation but I hadn't the heart to arrange the music of the song I had discovered, and played recordings of selected madrigals instead. I did speak about the brilliance of the concerto delle donne which had so inspired Gesualdo, and I mentioned in passing the tragic end of Anna Guarini, Contessa Trotti. However I said nothing of my vision, and stuck to the accepted historical record that in 1596 she was accused, evidently without justification, of having an affair with a member of the Duke's armed forces, and that it was only after the death of her protector Duke Alfonso in 1597, that she was hacked to death by her husband, Count Ercole Trotti and his brother Girolamo when she was ill in bed with a fever, a brutal crime for which they were pardoned by the new Duke if Modena, Cesare d'Este.

The manuscript I had found in the folio of Gesualdo's first book of madrigals was claimed as an impotent discovery, and even made the pages of the tabloid newspapers. The university were offered a very large sum of money for the manuscript but decided to keep it, and put it on display in a glass case in the entrance to the Great Hall. The madrigal was later recorded for the BBC for a series of programmes about female composers and performers of Renaissance Ferrara. I was unable to listen to the broadcasts, however. The events of that night changed the direction of my life and I decided to become a composer rather than a performer. The wonder and horror of my vision have never left me and the feelings of love and loss I felt have found expression in many of my songs for solo soprano.

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