Link to info on the play Link to a summary of the story Link to cast and crew Link to the poster

The Duchess of Malfi

by John Webster



The Duchess



The Author

About the Real Duchess of Malfi

The Duchess of Malfi was a historical character. Born in Giorvanna d'Aragon, she was married in 1490 at the age of 12 to Alfonso Piccolomini, son and heir of the first Duke of AMalfi. He succeeded to the dukedom in 1493 but died of gout in 1498. The Duchess then at the age of 19 already had a daughter named Caterina. Her son was born posthumously in 1499 and succeeded to the Dukedom, which she ruled for him as regent.

Despite French and Spanish invasions, the state flourished. The Duchess was able to pay off debts incurred by her husband and live prosperously. Antonio Bologna who came of a reputable family was brought up in the court of Naples. He became major-domo to Frederico, the state's last Aragonian king and followed his master into exile in France. Upon Frederico's death, Antonio returned to Naples where he was offered the post of major-domo in the household of the Duchess of Malfi, who herself was of the Royal House of Aragon. The young widow fell quickly and passionately in love with Antonio. Fearing the wrath of her brothers Lodovico who had resigned his title of Marquis of Gerace to become a Cardinal and Carlo (Webster's Ferdinand) who had succeeded it, she married Antonio in secret, with her waiting woman as the sole witness to the ceremony. In real life, as in Webster's play, their marraige was successfully concealed for some years. The birth of their 1st child was undetected, but the birth of the 2nd caused rumours which, reaching the ears of the Aragonian brothers, led them to set spies to watch their sister. Antonio took his 2 children to Ancona, leaving the Duchess who was again pregnant, in her palace. Unbearably lonely, she found an excuse to set out with a great retinue on pilgrimage to Loretto, from whence she proceeded to join Antonio. Upon her arrival in Ancona, she revealed her marraige to her household and declared that she would renounce her rank and title to live privately wiht Antonio and their children. One of her astonished servants set out to inform the Cardinal what had happened. The rest deserted her and returned to Amalfi.

At Ancona where their third child was born, the Duchess and her husband were allowed only a few month's peace before the Cardinal of Aragon put pressure on Cardinal Gonzaga, Legate of Ancona to banish Antonio. Having foreseen this, Antonio had made preparations to take refuge with a friend in Siena. As soon as the decree of his banishment was issued in 1511, he set out with the Duchess and their children, thus evading any attempt that might have been made to capture or murder them.

The Cardinal continuing the exert his influence against them, the head of Signiory of Siena was persuaded to expel them. This time, Antonio and his family did not depart so quickly. One their way to Venice, they were overtaken by horsemen. By asserting that her brothers would not harm her in person, the Duchess was able to persuade Antonio to escape with their eldest child, a boy of 6 or 7 of age. They arrived safely in Milan, probably in the late summer of 1512. There is no evidence to connect the Aragonian brothers with the death of the Duchess, but after being taken back to her palace in Amalfi, neither she, her two youngest children nor her waiting woman were ever seen again. ntonio did not know what had happened to them. But he was constantly warned that his life was in danger, one warning coming from a man named Delio who had heard Antonio's story from a neopolitan friend.

On an October in 1513, Delio and a companion passed Antonio, who looked dismayed, with 2 servants on their way to mass at the church of S Francesco. A few minutes later, an uproar was heard. Looking back, Delio and friend realised that Antonio had been stabbed to death by a Lombard captain called Daniele de Bozolo and three accomplices. All Four escaped.

Amanda Elizabeth Koh
Source: Professor Brian Gibbons's 'Introduction to The Duchess of Malfi'
(New Mermaids Edition, London, New York, 1993)