Louis Friedland’s authoritative article, ‘Ferrara and “My Last Duchess”’, revealed that the duke and duchess in Robert Browning’s most popular, widely taught and extensively elucidated poem were based on Alfonso II d’Este (1533-98), Duke of Ferrara, and his first wife, Lucrezia de’ Medici. The couple married in 1558 when the bride was fourteen. The duke (who preferred to live at the French court of Henri II) abandoned her for two years and Lucrezia died a year later at the age of seventeen. Her sudden death sparked rumours and suspicions that he had poisoned her. Alfonso then married Barbara of Austria, daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor and sister of the Count of Tyrol.

In his dazzling self-exposure in ‘My Last Duchess’ (1842), Browning’s refined, cultured and autocratic Renaissance duke reveals his taste for absolute power and his utter disregard for human life. He preferred to have Lucrezia killed – ‘I gave commands;/Then all smiles stopped’ – rather than explain his violent objections to her unseemly and indiscriminate behaviour. She smiled at all alike, with a hint of naïve flirtation, a kind of lèse nobilité, suggested by the ‘spot of joy’ in her cheek and by the ‘faint half-flush that dies along her throat’, which also hints at strangulation. As Browning later explained, the duke’s monomaniacal speech was ‘an excuse – mainly to himself – for taking revenge on one who had unwittingly wounded his absurdly pretentious vanity, by failing to recognise his superiority in even the most trifling matters’. The duke liked her better when she was dead. He admired, even loved her as an aesthetic object hanging on the wall of his palace and seemed to possess her more fully as a work of art rather than as a breathing woman. She had, in fact, been painted by Agnolo Bronzino. Despite his deliberate or unintentional confession, threat and pitiless lack of remorse, the duke persuades the mute listener and marriage-broker to arrange his next betrothal to an unsuspecting fiancée. The great strengthof the poem is the ironic contrast between the reader’s fascinated horror and the duke’s malign complacency.

But there is another and hitherto unknown aristocratic Italian Renaissance wife-murderer who could have been the model for Browning’s duke: a close contemporary of Alfonso who was related to him by marriage. Like the poet Ben Jonson and the painter Caravaggio, Carlo Gesualdo was a great artist and a notorious killer. Percy Scholes called Gesualdo (1566- 1613), Prince of Venosa, a brilliant innovator, ‘a modernist madrigalist, using, for purposes of vivid expression, harmonies that went far beyond the most advanced then dreamed of by his contemporaries’.

In 1586 Gesualdo married his cousin Maria d’Avalos. Soon after the marriage she began a love affair with the Duke of Andria and, despite salacious rumours, managed to keep it secret from her husband for two years. But according to a contemporary report, on 16 October 1590, in the Palazzo San Severo in Naples, the prince, thought to be away on a hunting expedition, caught the lovers in flagrante delicto and murdered them both in their bed:

The Prince, having returned secretly to the palace at midnight, accompanied by a troop of armed men chosen from among his intimates, made his way rapidly to the bedchamber of the Princess, and with one blow broke open the door. Entering furiously he discovered the lovers in bed together; at which sight the state of mind of the unhappy Prince can be imagined. But quickly shaking off the dejection into which this miserable spectacle had plunged him, he slew with innumerable dagger thrusts the sleepers before they had time to waken….

The lady’s wounds were all in the belly, and more particularly in those parts which she ought to have kept honest; and the Duke [trying to disguise himself in Maria’s nightgown] was wounded even more grievously.

Gesualdo, stabbing Maria over and over again, kept screaming: ‘She’s not dead yet!’ After the murders he proudly displayed their mutilated bodies in front of the palace. Torquato Tasso, Giambattista Marino and several other poets wrote about this horrific and sensational crime. Gesualdo could not be punished as a nobleman or for a crime of passion. But four years later, in 1594, to escape the revenge of his late wife’s family, he moved from Naples to the Este court in Ferrara. Once there he arranged his second marriage, to Leonora d’Este, the niece of Duke Alfonso II.

The criminal history of Gesualdo, an important composer, was more violent and murderous, more dramatic and fascinating than that of Alfonso. In the poem Ferrara is the scene of the putative poisoning; in Gesualdo’s life it is the town where he fled after he had committed the murders and where he married his second wife. Gesualdo was a prince and his wife’s lover was, like Alfonso, a duke. Alfonso was merely a collector and connoisseur of art; Gesualdo was himself a true creator and major artist. Alfonso’s wife was innocent; Gesualdo’s wife was guilty. Lucrezia was a sweet young thing, who took childish delight in the small wonders of the world: her bough of cherries and tame white mule; Maria was a defiant woman, capable of conducting a passionate, dangerous and fatal love affair. Alfonso suspected his wife and may have ordered her death; Gesualdo, humiliated and enraged by his wife’s semi-public adultery, actually caught and killed her with his own blood-soaked hands. By the cruel customs and justice of that time, his unfaithful wife deserved to die.

Browning could have used either story. His choice of Alfonso rather than Gesualdo reveals his artistic strategy and interests in ‘My Last Duchess’. Gesualdo’s behaviour was straightforward and his violent act could have been carried out by any jealous nobleman or peasant. He caught his adulterous wife and killed her. Alfonso’s story was more complex and ambiguous, his motives – and indirect use of poison – more subtle and elusive. The real Alfonso may or may not have been responsible for Lucrezia’s unexpected death. In the poem he condemns her youthful heart – ‘too soon made glad,/Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er/She looked on, and her looks went everywhere’ – and seems to have misinterpreted her quite innocent if indiscreet behaviour. Browning was more interested in character than in history, and the devious Alfonso rather than the brutal Gesualdo was a better model for the unrepentant yet intriguing monster who narrates the poem.

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