Monday, August 14, 2006

Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices (1995) review


This is the place where the modern horror genre begins--with characters like the Italian Renaissance Prince, Carlo Gesualdo. Possibly born in 1561 (or 1566, depending on who you believe), Gesualdo was born into nobility, and was the recipient of a Principality in the town of Venosa, and a Duke of the Kingdom of Naples. The Gesualdos were connected by blood-ties to nearly every noble family in Renaissance Italy.

Carlo was considered a child prodigy like Mozart, and was an accomplished performer of the lute and harpsichord.

In 1586, he married his cousin, Maria d'Avalos. The woman was known for both her incredible beauty and her amorousness (though this is debatable), and the marriage was possibly ill-fated due to Gesualdo's abusive behavior. It is unknown whether this is the reason for d'Avalos's infidelities, though his second wife consulted a witch who poisoned the Prince in an attempt to enchant him. Both this wife and a concubine were imprisoned and tortured for the deed, with the concubine dying shortly-afterward from the ordeal. D'Avalos would meet a much darker fate.

It's uncontroversial that the Prince was a sadist, and Gesualdo had wanted them both hanged, but the Church interceded. There is a strong possibility that the Prince plotted to murder his wife for years. However, it does appear that infidelity was the reason why Carlo slaughtered d'Avalos and her lover in what is considered the most heinous murder in the history of Italy and easily of music.


By 1590, the marriage had gone sour: the Prince had found the apartment that the two lovers were using from an uncle (a Cardinal who had unsuccessfully attempted his own affair with d'Avalos). The place was a niche-room in his own palace, and he commenced the planning of a murder. In a premeditated act, Gesualdo told d'Avalos he would be away on a hunting trip overnight with a party of his own senechals--except that he and this personal guard waited nearby until the two had consummated their lovemaking, finally falling asleep.

Gesualdo kicked-in the door and stabbed Maria d'Avalos dozens-of-times in the abdomen and vagina, as well as similar sexual-mutilations on her consort, the Duke of Andria. It is told in local legends of Venosa that after Gesualdo had dragged their bodies into the street, a San Dominican monk committed an act of necrophilia on the body of d'Avalos, adding to the depravity of the event.

This didn't sate the Prince's bloodlust: Gesualdo had their bodies displayed publicly on the steps of a Church, eventually using the corpses for an alchemical experiment that rubberized their organs and circulatory-systems. The bodies are still on-display in a Church in Venosa, making Carlo Gesualdo an evil genius who was clearly ahead of his time in almost every respect. Because of Gesualdo's station as a Prince there were no charges.


From the time that Carlo Gesualdo murdered his first wife, until his death in 1613, he did penance by composition and flagellation.

It is said that he suffered from asthma and constipation, and was possibly further enfeebled by his poisoning by the witch and sorcerer at-the-behest of his concubine and his second wife. For the rest of his life, Gesualdo composed his haunting choral madrigals, and was well-known in his time as a composer of inspired genius. Today, he is even more well-known, which is probably due to the depraved life he led and this documentary by the also-legendary Werner Herzog (commissioned in 1995 by ZDF).

The murders haunted Gesualdo until the end of his life. Immediately after the killings, he personally cut-down the forest surrounding Castle Gesualdo, much like Macbeth's fear of Birnham woods. Interest in the occult was universal in the time of the Prince, and it begs-the-question whether Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe were informed of Gesualdo's story through the court of Elizabeth I. An unsurprising number of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays come from stories with origins in Renaissance Italy. It's my opinion that this fact bears some investigation in the case of Carlo Gesualdo. By the end of his life, Prince Carlo Gesualdo was madder than Macbeth. There is every reason to think that the modern horror story was influenced by the horrific acts of Gesualdo. A hunch, yes, but it deserves investigation.


Werner Herzog does an incredible justice to the story of Gesualdo, and the events which made him famous. But he goes further by interviewing contemporary residents of Venosa on the impact left by the man into today, and his results are interesting and often seductively enigmatic. The region of Italy that he once reigned over is still haunted by him and other aristocrats.

Today, many people around the town still shun the name of Carlo Gesualdo, while the mentally-ill of the region fancy that they ARE the Prince, reincarnated. Others, such as the mad opera singer who "haunts" Castle Gesualdo, fancy they are Maria d'Avalos. It seems that the belief in magic is alive-and-well in Venosa and Ferrara, where local occultists enter the castle to exorcise it regularly with all manner of methods (one uses a bellows bagpipe).


With an extraordinary skill, Herzog wipes-away centuries with his approach, making this story a living one about the battles within all of humankind that continue to this day. The music of Carlo Gesualdo is unearthly, yet it is so terminally human, just like his legacy. Perhaps we find him so interesting because he was nearly 300-years ahead of his time, compositionally and alchemically. "Five Voices" is the documentary as high art and possibly Herzog's best work in the medium. There is a fascinating magic to this story, and the director has captured some of it on film.

Revised, 03.28.2009