On the night of October 16, 1590, a palace apartment near Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, in Naples, was the scene of a double murder so extravagantly vicious that people are still sifting through the evidence, more than four centuries later. The most reliable account of the crime comes from a delegation of Neapolitan officials, who inspected the apartment the following day. On the floor of the bedroom, they found the body of Don Fabrizio Carafa, the Duke of Andria, whom a contemporary described as a “model of beauty,” one of the handsomest young men of his time. The officials’ report stated that the Duke was wearing only “a woman’s nightdress with fringes at the bottom, with ruffs of black silk.” The corpse was “covered with blood and pierced with many wounds,”
Lying on the bed was the body of Donna Maria d’Avalos, the famously alluring wife of Don Carlo Gesualdo, the Prince of Venosa. Her throat had been cut and her nightshirt was drenched in blood. Interviews with eyewitnesses left no doubt about who was responsible for the murders. Gesualdo had been seen entering the apartment with three men, shouting, “Kill that scoundrel, along with this harlot!” The report ended with the observation that Gesualdo had left town.
A prince being a prince, there matters rested. Yet Gesualdo paid a posthumous price for the killings. In the decades after his death, he became a semi-mythical, even vampiric figure, about whom ever more lurid tales were told.
Gesualdo also wrote music, publishing six books of madrigals and three books of sacred pieces. He turned out to be one of the most complexly imaginative composers of the late Renaissance, indeed of all musical history. The works of his mature period—he died in 1613, at the age of forty-seven—bend the rules of harmony to a degree that remained unmatched until the advent of Wagner. There have been no fewer than eleven operatic works on the subject of Gesualdo’s life, not to mention a fantastical 1995 pseudo-documentary, by Werner Herzog, called “Death for Five Voices.”
The origins of “Gesualdo fever” are not hard to discern. The lingering question is whether it is the life or the work that perpetuates the phenomenon. If Gesualdo had not committed such shocking acts, we might not pay such close attention to his music. But if he had not written such shocking music we would not care so much about his deeds.
Although, as the article notes, some scholars "reject the picture of Gesualdo as a 'violent psychopath'," he certainly has plenty to recommend him as one. I know that these sorts of guesses about whether or not a historical figure was a sociopath are as ridiculous as the aspie's claiming that half the famous scientists from history had Asperger's. But, I find Gesualdo to be a particularly fun historical candidate for sociopathy not just because of how well it explains his violence and flouting moral conventions, but also how well it explains the experimental aspects of his music, which have managed to sound utterly modern and cutting age in every time period. The article continues from the above quoted selections in the abstract:
Many bloodier crimes have been forgotten; it's the nexus of high art and foul play that catches our fancy. As with Gesualdo's contemporary Caravaggio, who killed a man by stabbing him near the groin, we wonder whether the violence of the art and the violence of the man emanated from the same demoniac source.