The Tragic Anna Guarini (ca 1563 –1598)
Italian Renaissance courts, glittering and dazzling though many were, could also often be dangerous places full of intrigue and gossip as this post on the murder of Anna Guarini, one of the most celebrated singers of late 16th-century Italy, illustrates.
I first came across this story in a sentence in Maria Bellonci’s book on Vincenzo Gonzaga “A Prince of Mantua” (subject of some recent posts) in which Anna is described as “destined to die because she had sinned too much in love’s cause” [i]. I discovered that, tragically, Anna had been murdered by her husband, Count Ercole Trotti, in Ferrara, in May 1598. She was then thirty-four or thirty-five; her actual year of birth is not known with any certainty. The murder of Anna Guarini became one of the great scandals of late 16th-century Ferrara, then one of the major cultural and artistic centres of Renaissance Italy.
Anna was born around 1563, one of the seven children of a famous poet, Giovanni Battista Guarini, and his wife Taddea Bendidio, a member of a wealthy and cultured Ferrarese family. Two of Taddea’s sisters were themselves noted amateur singers. Anna was brought up in a literary and musical environment and also educated as a courtly lady according to the ideals of the times (“A [court] lady should know something of letters, of music, of the visual arts and [she should] know how to dance and be festive” according to Castiglione’s extremely influential “Book of the Courtier”. Where or from whom Anna received what must have been her intensive and thorough musical and singing training is not clear.
In 1580 Anna took up a position at Court as one of the attendants to the new Duchess of Ferrara, Margherita Gonzaga, younger sister of Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, whose marital difficulties have featured in some of my recent posts. It is in fact more than likely that Vincenzo and his tragic first bride, Margherita Farnese, attended performances in which Anna took part both in Ferrara and in Mantua.
While in the service of the Duchess, Anna became a member of a ground-breaking quartet of virtuoso female singers known as the Concerto delle Donne; this group had been founded in 1580 in Ferrara, the year that Anna joined the Duchess’s entourage. What made the Concerto delle Donne special was that they were professional singers who performed for noble patrons such as the Dukes of Ferrara and Mantua; prior to the emergence of such groups, most singing and music making in courts had been done by the courtiers themselves. The emergence of trained singers such as the Donne allowed much more complex vocal music to develop. The skill and accomplishments of the Donne, and particularly Anna, became famous and attracted composers to Ferrara to write music especially for them. Much of the madrigals written at the end of the 16th and early 17th- century, as well as roles in the then new art form of opera, were written for highly trained women’s voices. Incidentally, these developments gave opportunities, at least to well connected, educated and musically trained women to find employment in their own right, thereby giving the possibility of an alternative to marriage or life in a convent.
The Donne performed at the Este court in Ferrara under the patronage of Alfonso II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara (grandson of Lucrezia Borgia). Alfonso is known to have commissioned musical works especially to entertain his young bride, Margherita Gonzaga, who had become his third wife in 1579, aged fourteen. Margherita was herself very interested in music, singing and dancing. Her brother Vincenzo Gonzaga, the Duke of Mantua, was himself a noted patron of music and dance; one of the earliest operas, Monteverdi’s l‘Orfeo was performed at Mantua under his patronage.
The four ladies who made up the Donne were Anna’s cousin Lucrezia Bendidio, Laura Peperara, Licia d’Arco and Anna herself. Anna also played the lute and took part in the Duchess’ balletti, a new dance form then gaining in popularity. Many of the performances took place in the apartments of both the Duke and Duchess and not in front of the whole court, and were therefore private and secret and presumably surrounded by all sorts of gossip and speculation.
In 1584 a marriage was arranged for Anna with Count Ercole Trotti, an older widower; how willing he was for this marriage is hard to tell but the Duke may have insisted on it, possibly to protect Anna’s reputation. It is very possible that Count Trotti disliked the fact that Anna was a singer and dancer and that she performed in public or even worse, in private before the Duke and Duchess and selected courtiers.
Around 1590 Anna was accused of adultery with one of the Duke’s cavalry officers and although the charge was never proven such an allegation could have very serious consequences for a woman. Who made the allegation is not clear but the man accused, the captain of the Duke’s cavalry, Count Ercole Bevilacqua (who was married to a cousin of Alfonso, Bradamente d’Este), was banished from the ducal court. So far as can be gleaned Bevilacqua seems to have become infatuated with Anna although she is not known to have reciprocated his attentions in any way. It was rumoured that the count was plotting to poison his wife, Bradamente, and Anna’s husband, Count Trotti so that he could marry Anna. Such accusations and innuendo could ruin a woman’s reputation with potentially devastating consequences for her. Whether Duke Alfonso believed the gossip and rumours or not he must have felt that Anna could be in danger as he ordered Trotti not to harm her.
Unfortunately, in October 1597 Duke Alfonso died and with his death Anna lost her protection; his death also led to the Este court in Ferrara, and to the Concerto delle Donne, being disbanded.
On 3rd May 1598, less than a year after the Duke’s death, Anna was murdered by her husband, Count Trotti (with the assistance of another man), while she was actually ill in bed. Her husband was aided in planning the killing by Anna’s own brother, Girolamo. Count Trotti was condemned to death but was subsequently pardoned by Cesare d’Este, the Duke of Modena, Alfonso’s cousin and his successor as head of the Este family. (Alfonso II had died without issue which led to the Dukedom of Ferrara, which was a Papal fief, being incorporated into the Papal States and thus to the end of the brilliant Este court).
The three involved in Anna’s death all were to die of natural causes; Count Bevilacqua returned to Ferrara after the death of Duke Alfonso and died there in 1600. Girolamo Guarini, Anna’s brother, died in Milan in 1611; some years earlier he made a sworn confession in which he admitted that Anna was innocent (of the suspected adultery). He was subsequently forgiven by their father though why he betrayed his sister is unclear, perhaps he was jealous of her success or maybe he had some other reason. Ercole Trotti remarried and died in the family estate where he had murdered Anna, in 1624 [iii].
This story interested me when I first came across a brief mention of it in Maria Bellonci’s book on Vincenzo Gonzaga “A Prince of Mantua”. The nature of Anna’s murder, with her brother assisting her husband, strikes me as being what we now call an “honour killing”. In fact, Count Trotti’s own mother, Michela Granzena, had been murdered by his father, Count Alfonso, in the same villa in which Anna died, having also been suspected of adultery. Maria Bellonci’s comments that Anna had “sinned too much in love’s cause” would imply that she believed there was some truth to the rumours of adultery; however, it is equally possible that gossip and innuendo could have been a factor. If Anna’s vocal accomplishments and her beauty had attracted significant attention, then gossip could have been motivated by envy. Then, as now, trying to refute scandalous stories, even when they contain no truth whatsoever is extremely difficult – “no smoke without fire” etc.
Anna was buried in the church of St Caterina the Martyr, in Ferrara.
I feel that this sad episode has all the elements of a great historical mystery novel which I hope someone eventually writes and that Anna’s tragic story becomes better known.
[i]: Bellonci, p 16
[ii]: Stras, p 312
[iii]: “Love and death in the time of the Estes” article.
Maria Bellonci: A Prince of Mantua: The Life and Times of Vincenzo Gonzaga. Translated from the Italian by Stuart Hood, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 1956.
Baldassare Castiglione: The Book of the Courtier. Translated by George Bull, Penguin Classics, London 1976.
Women Making Music: The Western Art Tradition, 1150-1950, by J.M. Bowers & J.Tick, Univ of Illinois Press, 1987. (Chap. 5, Anthony Newcomb: Courtesans, Muses or Musicians?).
Laurie Stras: Women and Music in Sixteenth-Century Ferrara, Cambridge Univ Press, Cambridge, 2018.
“Amore e morte ai tempi degli Estensi: Anna Guarini: una vittima della gelosia”. By Graziano Gruppioni in La Nuova Ferrara, 22 December 2011. (Love and death in the time of the Estes: Anna Guarini, a victim of jealousy). In Italian.