This painting, "Il perdono di Gesualdo" by Giovanni Balducci, which shows a Last Judgement scene, was commissioned by Carlo Gesualdo for a small chapel he had built called Santa Maria delle Grazie. The composer is shown kneeling (in black), accompanied by his newly canonised uncle, Carlo Borromeo, who is interceding on his behalf. Two nude figures, male and female, in the lower right-hand corner, engulfed in the flames of purgatory or hell, are thought to be Gesualdo's unfaithful wife and her lover; the child near the top of the picture is possibly his first wife's second child and the issue of that illicit relationship.
St Carlo Borromeo (1538-1584), nephew of Pope Pius IV, archbishop of Milan, canonised in 1610, was an influential person in Gesualdo's spiritual life. It is thought that Borromeo's support for the flagellation confraternities encouraged Gesualdo's involvement in this form of penitential practise. One report, published 20 years after his death, describes the composer's miserable last years suffering from neurotic guilt and fear of damnation, when he was "afflicted by a vast horde of demons which gave him no peace for mnay days on end unless ten or twelve young men, whom he kept for the purpose, were to beat him violently three times a day, during which operation he was wont to smile joyfully. And in this state did he die miserably at Gesualdo, but not until he had lived to witness...the death of his only son Don Emmanuele, who hated his father and had longed for his death..."
The life and music of Gesualdo are the subject of a Werner Herzog film, Death For Five Voices.
Suggested Reading - Glenn Watkins, Gesualdo, The Man And His Music (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1991); Denis Arnold, Gesualdo (BBC Music Guides, 1984)
Text © Rubberneck; Photo © Symphonia
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