An excerpt from

Love and Death in Renaissance Italy

by Thomas V. Cohen

From Chapter One
Double Murder in Cretone Castle

On the last night of her life Vittoria Savelli wore an old shift. She lay in her bed, in her quirky little bedroom cut concave by the ballooning indoor wall of the old round tower of her husband's castle. Now, on the last night of his life, Troiano Savelli wore nothing at all. He lay in the same room and bed, atop Vittoria. One can only surmise what tenderness or elation mingled with the thrills of their sexual union. Alongside good feelings, there may have been as well a wary undertow of fear, for Troiano, despite his surname, was not Vittoria's husband. This then was adultery. That was already bad enough, but to make matters worse, the act took place inside the husband's house. To make things graver yet, Troiano was neither wholly noble nor even legitimate, for he had sprung of a union between the local lord and a peasant woman. But, worst of all, Vittoria and Troiano, in their bed, wallowed in incest, for Troiano, son of the husband's father, was his half-brother. None of this deterred the lovers from their reckless union.

Archival and published records tell us little about the three principals to this tale: lord, lady, and lover. There is an eighteenth-century history of the Savelli family, but it passes over Vittoria's husband, Giovanni Battista, one of the less illustrious Savelli to bear that traditional family name. He and Vittoria do figure in modern genealogies, and they have left a few notarial footprints, most notably a record of their marriage. The events of July 1563 recounted here may have also left their traces in the weekly avvisi, newsletters mailed out from Rome; it is hard to say, for the Vatican collection has a month-long, midsummer lacuna. We know the following. The cuckold, Giovanni Battista, as a Savelli belonged to one of the few surviving great baronial families of the Papal State. In 1563, the Savelli had three main branches, each with its ancestral lands. To the north were the Savelli of the Sabine foothills and, across the Tiber, around the lonely stump of Monte Soratte. To the south, below Rome, were those of the Alban hills. Giovanni Battista belonged to the Palombara branch, in the middle. They held castles, fiefs, and lands at the foot of Monte Gennaro, east of Rome, north of Tivoli. It was pretty country, a rolling hill zone of orchards, vineyards, and grain. There were also Savelli palaces in Rome, hereditary military offices in the Papal State, and ancestral rights to the revenues of the pope's main urban court and jails. Although the Savelli were doomed to eclipse in the early seventeenth century, when their ancestral holdings fell to newly noble members of ascending curial elites, in the 1560s they still mattered; they even had a cardinal. Our Giovanni Battista, however, was no magnate. He had a single fief and petty castle, at Cretone, a tiny village in the shadow of Monte Gennaro, just down the hill from the main stronghold of the local Savelli branch, Palombara, a conical hilltop village with massive fortress and soaring medieval tower, perched a few miles to the east.

Unlike the usual cuckolds of Boccaccio and other novellisti, Giovanni Battista was no doddering graybeard. In the summer of 1563, he was just past youth, between twenty-two and twenty-six years of age. For a Renaissance Italian man, he had married young, four years back. A notarial document of 19 March 1559 records how his bride and he pledged their faith and notes their exchange of rings. It preserves the futile invocation: "What God has put together let no man sunder." As for Vittoria, she was a distant cousin, daughter to Antonello Savelli, of the Albano branch. We know neither her age nor her dowry, though the generous 12,000 scudi Giovanni Battista dowered his sister Hieronima (2,000 of it trousseau and spending money) suggests its measure. But whatever money Vittoria brought with her did not suffice to float the payments to Hieronima's in-laws, the noble Massimi. Although he farmed out a portion of his Cretone lands to jobbers, Giovanni Battista fell into arrears. His in-laws collected interest in the usual way until at last he coughed up back payments.

Giovanni Battista's castle, as castles went, was modest. For a lord, he kept a small household: a page, two servants, a head maid/governess, and four maids to dress and serve his wife. If there were others, they do not turn up in the stories we are told. His village, too, was a mean affair. By 1563, Cretone was in steep decline; in subsequent years, it shriveled to a hamlet and then almost melted away. Indeed, by the end of the nineteenth century, many inhabitants had carved modest apartments out of the castle itself. Nevertheless, the town survived; Cretone today still feels like a place of substance. It has its hillside piazza with a fine view, its clubs of fans for the two Roman soccer teams, its cafe with tables where the men play cards. The castle itself, newly restored, still raises its shoulders, now freshly stuccoed, above the jumble of slipshod rural houses at its skirts. So far as I can tell, nobody remembers what happened to the lovers.

The story of Troiano and Vittoria's intrigue is hard to reconstruct. By the time the inquisitive magistrates arrived on the scene, the pair were in no state to give their version. The serving women, many of whom did speak to the court, probably knew a lot but had good reason to play dumb, for the more they confessed to knowing, the better they demonstrated their infidelity to their lord and master, Giovanni Battista. Nevertheless, hints slipped by villagers and servants make clear that July's passion was no sudden thing. The lovers had long cozied in the public eye. As far back as Christmas, one villager, husband of Troiano's peasant half sister, Gentilesca, had seen such hints of dalliance that he warned the young man to watch his step.

Mario, my husband, told this Signor Troiano in my presence several times, and in particular last Christmas, that he had noticed certain acts and joking that he [Troiano] was doing with Signora Vittoria, and then he warned him, telling him that he should be careful not to fall into something with the Signora that was not right. And Troiano took it ill that he should say such words to him, and since then I do not believe he has come into our house more than two or three times.

This warning, clearly, did little good. By then, or not long after, the lovers had found their way into a common bed; Diamante, one of Vittoria's young attendants, had, she reported, known of the affair since Christmas. The older women, she claimed, had told her. The affair was also common knowledge in the village.

The Layout of the Castle

Though close-quarters trysts are never easy, Cretone's architecture lent the lovers a hand. For Vittoria's room stood at the end of the castle's piano nobile, at its northwest point. Part of the westward sixteenth-century annex, it was beyond the sturdy old round tower that once had reinforced the corner of the original castle nucleus. The Renaissance addition, swallowing up half the tower, had afforded the piano nobile three new rooms, the smallest being hers. Below Vittoria were two floors of vaulted storerooms, on ground level and lower, and, above her, just a gently sloping roof. The older, taller part of the castle had a small mezzanine—on the north side only—with access to the tower stairs and, above that, an attic that ran its length and breadth.

These details mattered to the lovers, for castle geometry connived at their perilous trysts. At first glance, for adultery, Vittoria's room was an awkward rendezvous. It had only a single door, opening onto the chamber with the two beds where slept four maidservants (damigelle)—the two sisters Diamante and Temperanza, Attilia, and Ottavia—and also the senior female servant (massara), Silea, an old widow who served Vittoria's daughter as governess. The antechamber where the servants slept had two other doors. One led east, toward the main stairway and the sala, the great eastern hall with its noble frieze of swirling acanthus garlands, its carved beams, its splendid mantelpiece, and its fine Renaissance windows, with their sweeping view of fields, orchards, and the wooded slopes of Monte Gennaro. It was there that Troiano usually slept.

The second door of the servants' room opened southward to the husband's bedroom in the southwest corner, where Giovanni Battista slept, at least these days, while his wife—she had told him—was a bit sick. The master had a well-lit chamber. One window looked out over a small walled garden, on the sunny south side; the other, westerly, overlooked one of Cretone's streets. All these details matter for our story. The servant women, by virtue of their location between master and mistress, should have been privy to all traffic in and out of Vittoria's room and, most likely, to her every passage from her bed to her husband's. How, then, had Troiano come undetected into Vittoria's room, bed, and arms?

Cretone Castle Italy
Cretone castle, tower, Troiano's window above, Vittoria's below. [Photo by the author.]
The lover had come by air. More precisely, he had come dangling, on cloth bands anchored by a bolt affixed to a higher window; Vittoria had helped him clamber in. The tower clinched the trick. Its narrow twisting stairway spiraled to the castle's top, lit by little windows some fourteen inches wide, just big enough to wriggle out if one were lithe and nimble. The topmost window of the tower opened just south of westward, over the annex's gentle roof. From there, Troiano, strips in hand, could work his way to the north face and lower himself to Vittoria's chamber. The castle's principal stairway, far more commodious and better lit, was farther east. It rose in steady, ample flights from the only external doorway, in the north façade, just to the east of middle. On his midnight forays, Troiano most likely used to creep from his bed in the sala, climb the main stairs to the mezzanine, tiptoe softly across to the tower and its obscure stairway to nowhere, and affix his climbing rig to the topmost window.

That then was how Troiano made his final tryst, as he had at least once before and probably far more often. As Bandello wrote, in one of his novelle that, as often, ends in tragedy, when the way is blocked, love is ingenious. It borrows eyes from Argus. But, as in that novella, so in Cretone on 26 July 1563, ingenuity fell short, for suddenly, in the midst of sex, the bedroom door crashed open, and there, in the flickering glare of a page's torch, stood the husband. Giovanni Battista strode in, a dagger in his hand. With him came a second servant, also armed. At their backs, in alarm and horror, the serving women gathered. What happened next was swift and ghastly.

But wait! First, watch the lord build and spring his trap.

Setting and Springing the Trap

All the moves and devices that conspired to doom the lovers involved the castle's males. As in many households, serving women and men wove separate networks and alliances. Male servants looked to their master, females to their mistress. In Cretone, for seven months, female solidarity of some kind had kept Vittoria's intrigue a secret. How much of this discretion connived and how much cowered is hard to say. After the fact, when the court came through, the serving women strove to shuck off complicity. They therefore cited fear. Young Diamante told the visiting magistrate that, once the maids had caught scent of the affair, they had—oh yes!—wanted to tell their master. "We wanted to tell the signore, but the signora threatened us, saying she would hit us, so we were afraid." An unlikely story. Tattling would surely have heaped catastrophe on the patroness. What master's reward could make good the loss of a mistress's protection and employment and offset the opprobrium, largely female, that would befall the woman who betrayed her?

The male servants, on the other hand, owed their mistress little. They were the lord's, and served his interests. There were several on the scene. One was Giacobo, born Jacques, a Frenchman and thus an outsider; he was something of a gossip. Another, Stefano, had married a village woman. He was by birth a local, for his father's name traced to Nerola, a few miles away. A third, Domenico, as a page was probably too young to marry. All three men helped lay the lovers' trap.

There had been hints in plenty: cozy embraces, perhaps fraternal, perhaps less innocent. Giacobo claimed afterward to have had his doubts. But it was page Domenico who played spy. At his master's orders, the maid Silea told the court, he had kept an eye on the pair; they seemed too familiar for the husband's comfort. One night, we know not when, while lying in his trundle cot below the master's bed, the page saw Vittoria pass through the hall, heading for the sala. He then went there himself and touched the bedclothes on Troiano's bed. According to the story (we have it via Giacobo, who, before he fled, told the village headman, Loreto), when Troiano felt Domenico's hand on the bed, he protested, "What are you doing? Don't you see that it is my cape?" The page then returned to his master's room. We do not know whether he reported at once on what he had found, but we doubt he long stayed silent.

It may have been Domenico's spying that persuaded the lovers to resort to Vittoria's bedroom. We cannot tell how often Troiano scrambled down the roof tiles. Nor do we know how much the serving women knew about the trick. It would have been hard not to catch wind of what went on in Vittoria's room. Even if the lovers were discreetly quiet, it was strange of the mistress to ask to sleep not with servants but alone. This was not the normal way a lady spent the night. She claimed to be indisposed, they reported, perhaps truthfully, and she shut the door. Eventually, Domenico ferreted out Troiano's window trick. It was Sunday evening, 25 July. Perhaps the heat made Giovanni Battista thirsty. The lord was dressed for bed, most likely in his chamber. He sent his page over to the sala to fetch a little jug of water. A light in the great hall revealed Troiano's empty bed. Suspicious already, Domenico went snooping. The tower stairs had a doorway near the entrance to the maids' bedroom. Hearing a noise above, the page crept up the narrow, winding steps until he saw the bastard at the topmost window affixing his bar and bands of cloth. Domenico slipped down to alert his master. From Silea, the head serving woman, we hear what happened next. >

And the signore rose in his shift and went to the door of the room and he said that he saw them, but, because he was not armed and was alone, he was afraid and did not want to do anything. And he also said to me, "Let them enjoy this night, for another evening will go another way."

Contemplate Silea's quandary. She had two bonds, one to her mistress, the other to her master. Whatever she did, she would betray one of them. On his side, Giovanni Battista had male power, local connections, and the code of honor. On hers, presumably, Vittoria had affection and female loyalty. Silea chose the more prudent path, kept silent, and sealed her mistress's doom. A quiet word the next morning might have spared at least one life and even, perhaps, two, for Giovanni Battista was intent on well-timed revenge.

Both law and family politics argued that, were the lovers to die, they should do so on adulterous sheets. Legal doctrines tracing back to ancient Rome often pardoned a vengeful husband, especially if he acted in hot passion, killing wife and lover when he caught them in the act. But Giovanni Battista had a problem; his passionate moment of discovery found him unarmed and wavering. He needed a second occasion, equally flagrant, when, better prepared and thus less startled but still sufficiently aroused, he might strike sure and yet appease the law and justify the carnage to his in-law Savelli cousins. Accordingly, he set his trap and waited. The next night, as if to sleep, with Domenico the page he retired to his usual room. He stationed Giacobo in a facing house and Stefano in the street below, to the north or west, whence they could spy on the windows of the tower and of Vittoria's chamber. Giacobo carried a long gun to finish Troiano off should he make a bold long leap for safety. The trap sprang true. Around midnight, Troiano once more crept to the tower window and rappelled into Vittoria's helping arms and window. The spies, having seen her ease him in, went into action. One of the servants threw a stone in the master's western window. Domenico heard its rattle and said, "Signore, it's time." Soon, Stefano came up and joined them. Giacobo and his musket stayed in ambush below.

Unaware of the impending crisis, Temperanza, one of the young maidservants, chose this moment to go pee. The close stool must have been a flight or two above, for Giovanni Battista heard her retreating steps upon the castle's stairs. Misprising the sound, he dashed up after her, dagger drawn, shouting, "Ah traitress, you are fleeing!" In the nick of time, her sister, Diamante, tells us, Domenico called him off: "Don't do it, Signore! It's not the signora! It's Temperanza!"

The vengeful trio, torch in hand, then entered the maids' quarters. In Temperanza's bed lay her sister, Diamante, just dozing off. Silea was already asleep, with Helena, the Savelli daughter, a child of two. When the men came in, Helena, startled, began to cry, awakening her governess. Diamante was awake enough to see the three men move toward the closed door. At the portal, the trio may have paused to listen for sounds of sex, but not long, for as they shoved it open, Diamante could see Troiano still atop her mistress.

Despite the heat of the moment, Giovanni Battista observed vendetta's proprieties. These matters had their script; amid the carnage, he followed it. He may have first addressed his bastard brother. Cecco, a villager who heard from Giacobo, who still in ambush was never there, told the court that Savelli said, "O brother, traitor, this is the benevolence I bore to you [and yet you do] this to me!" Hearsay! A fitting speech but corroborated by no witness on the scene. Silea, who was there indeed, reported a much simpler exclamation: "Oh, I have brought you this for my sake!" Giovanni Battista almost certainly did address his brother. Whatever he said, all agree that he gave Troiano a quick dagger blow to the forehead and then at once commanded Stefano: "You kill him, and I don't want anybody to lay a hand on the signora." Silea, though slower than Diamante to her feet, was at the door to hear these words. While the servant butchered Troiano with a dagger, cutting him everywhere, Giovanni Battista addressed his wife. On essentials, the several versions of what he said agree. Silea reported the most interesting, on her first interrogation, just as malarial delirium began to fog her mind: "Ah, traitress, you have cut off the nose—to me, to Signor Ludovico, and to the Savelli house." The next day, fever abated, Silea instead retailed the simpler: "Ah, traitress, this is the honor that you do the Savelli house. You have cut off the nose of the Savelli house!" The earlier, delirium-tainted version is the more interesting. It is worth unwrapping its poetics, even if the servant and her fever may have shared in authorship. Nose cutting, in Renaissance Italy, was a gesture of extreme contempt, a permanent disfigurement penalized in law codes and signaled in local speech and custom. As act, as notion, it often attached to adultery and cuckoldry. In grammar and in bloody deed, it took the dative; it was "to" persons and collectivities that one cut off noses. In Silea's first rendering, Giovanni Battista's speech moved outward, from self to the larger sphere of aggrieved victims in whose name he struck. The ordering reflected a gradient, not of importance, but of location, outward. Vittoria's treason had afflicted her husband, her brother, and the whole Savelli house. Ludovico, then, was the conduit to a wider thirst for blood. Giovanni Battista would slake it.

Hardly any assault story in the Italian courts lacks its defiant speech. Like paladins in the Song of Roland, ancient foe, casual rivals, and even hired strangers often roared out insults before bringing down the blade. The victim seldom had much time to answer. Vittoria was no exception. On her back, helpless, all she could muster was three cries: "Ah, Signore! You do this to me!" "Yes, to you, traitress!" her assassin bellowed. He first hit her forehead and then slit her throat, cutting her head half off, slicing as he did so three fingers from a sheltering hand vainly risen. Giovanni Battista then stabbed Vittoria in the head and, finally, sank his dagger deep into her breast. Instrumental or expressive butchery? Hard to say. Slicing the neck, scannare in Italian, typically was the method used to dispatch livestock. I have encountered it in another honor killing of a girl. And Vittoria's head and heart had contrived adultery. But no local glossator affirms this reading. In the midst of murder, Giovanni Battista looked up and descried the servants huddled in the doorway. "Get out of here or I will kill both of you. Go, take care of that little girl."

This slaughter cannot have taken long. When it was over, Giovanni Battista, though still raging, nevertheless knew the moves revenge required. Dripping dagger still in hand, he turned from the blood-smeared little room to confront the clutch of terrified serving women. "All of you, go to bed!" "And we went to bed," as Diamante later said. What else could they do? As Silea later told it:

Then we left and went to bed. Soon afterward, the signore, Stefano, and the page came out of the signora's bedchamber, and they locked the door of the room where the two corpses were, and when they were in the anticamera of the signora, where we others were sleeping, Signor Giovanni Battista said, turning toward me and that little girl, his daughter, who was in the bed, with his unsheathed dagger in his hand, all covered with blood, "If I saw that this little girl didn't look just like me, as she resembles me at this very moment, I would kill her too."

Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 17-28 of Love and Death in Renaissance Italy by Thomas V. Cohen, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2004 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

Thomas V. Cohen
Love and Death in Renaissance Italy
©2004, 320 pages, 11 halftones, 1 map
Cloth $27.50 ISBN: 0-226-11258-6

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for Love and Death in Renaissance Italy.

See also: