1820: Karl Ludwig Sand, a curious strand of German history 1833: Midgegooroo, Noongar rebel

1425: Parisina Malatesta and Ugo d’Este, for incest

May 21st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1425, the Marquess of Ferrara had his wife and son beheaded for an incestuous affair, along with a courtier who had kept their secret.

The “incest” was social rather than sanguinary: the lovers were not related. Like many a Renaissance despot, Niccolò III d’Este produced a multitudinous assortment of illegitimate children and underaged dynastic wives. Small wonder, one might think, that the 14-year-old (at her marriage) Parisina Malatesta (the link is to her Italian Wikipedia page) should come to prefer the attentions of the Duke’s eldest bastard Ugo (one year her junior) to those of a spouse more than twenty years older.

Awww.

Still, the affair has its curious aspect, apart from the obvious. The Duke was on that timeless monarchical quest for legitimate male issue; Parisina Malatesta would bear him two surviving daughters and a son who died in infancy during her teenage years.

One can hardly fail to think of that more renowned decapitated queen of the next century Anne Boleyn. Like Anne, Parisina lost her head to an incest allegation after a few years’ failure to give her husband an heir.

The need for specifically legitimate succession, however, was somewhat less pressing in tightly run Ferrara than early Tudor England. As the oldest illegitimate son, Ugo himself had a chance to succeed by his father’s appointment — in fact, the second illegitimate son Leonello ultimately did just that. For this reason, Ugo and Parisina — the latter threatening to supplant the former with a legitimate child of her own — might have been natural rivals, and there is some hint of initial enmity between the two. One wonders if there might not have been a twist of obscured courtly skullduggery about this day’s bloody climax.

In any event, interlocutors have preferred the personal aspect, and little wonder. The Marquess played his part by being stricken with anguish and remorse for his ruthless treatment of a favored son, possibly aided by a general reaction of horror among most contemporaries.*

Retold in later years as scandal (though never with much sympathy for the marquess**) its Byronic potential as tragic love story was eventually seized by, well, Lord Byron. His “Parisina” gives us two true hearts in the flower of youth crushed by the cruel weight of their unjust world … although he found it more apt to conclude with only the boy losing his head while the wail of his lover signals a more ambiguous fate.

With all the consciousness that he
Had only passed a just decree;
That they had wrought their doom of ill;
Yet Azo’s† age was wretched still.
The tainted branches of the tree,
If lopped with care, a strength may give,
By which the rest shall bloom and live
All greenly fresh and wildly free:
But if the lightning, in its wrath,
The waving boughs with fury scathe,
The massy trunk the ruin feels,
And never more a leaf reveals.

Mascagni also adapted it for the opera in 1913 — a legendarily tiresome four-hour affair. One review’s famous recommendation (apt enough for the subject as well as the performance) was “Cut, cut, cut!”

* The Marquess was less troubled about his wife, and promulgated a decree imposing like punishment for any other wife guilty of such a crime. The sentence was actually carried out upon a magistrate’s wife.

** Gibbon tut-tutted the affair, simultaneously helping circulate it anew:

Under the reign of Nicholas III, Ferrara was polluted with a domestic tragedy. By the testimony of a maid, and his own observation, the Marquis of Este discovered the incestuous loves of his wife Parisina, and Hugo his bastard son, a beautiful and valiant youth. They were beheaded in the castle by the sentence of a father and husband, who published his shame, and survived their execution. He was unfortunate, if they were guilty: if they were innocent, he was still more unfortunate; nor is there any possible situation in which I can sincerely approve the last act of the justice of a parent.

† Niccolo is “Azo” in the poem, for metric convenience. The House of Este had produced a number of lords named Azzo over the preceding centuries.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Ferrara,History,Italy,Nobility,Scandal,Sex,Women

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