An excerpt from
Love and Death in Renaissance Italy
by Thomas V. Cohen
From Chapter One
Cretone castle, tower, Troiano's window above, Vittoria's below. [Photo by the author.]
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.
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
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