“The people of Rome,” said Montaigne, seeing them in 1581, “seem less religious than in the good towns in France, but much more given to ceremony.”54 The ceremonies of Holy Week included processions of bleeding self-flagellants, the public pronouncement of papal excommunications, and an exhibition of the veil with which Veronica had wiped the sweat from the brow of Christ. “On Easter Eve I saw, in the Church of St. John Lateran, the heads of St. Paul and St. Peter, which are on show there, and which still have their flesh, complexion, and beard, as if they were alive.”55 Exorcisms were performed with impressive ritual, perhaps as mass psychotherapy. Catholicism in Italy deliberately ignored the minds of the elite and offered to the masses of the people a beneficent but unwelcome moral code wrapped up in poetry, drama, symbolism, catharsis, and hope.
Montaigne bore witness to a general improvement of morals, but much of the old laxity remained in the relations of the sexes. The Italian theater was so loose in action and dialogue that the Venetian Senate, which winked at prostitution, expelled all actors from its territory (1577).56 Obscene literature could be bought in any large town, as now almost anywhere in Christendom. Pius V made homosexual actions a capital crime, to the dismay of noble Roman youths. Eight Portuguese inverts entered into a formal marriage; they were arrested and burned at the stake.57 Pius also decreed the expulsion of prostitutes from the Papal States (1566). Businessmen complained that the edict would depopulate the city; the Pope allowed a few courtesans to remain in a segregated quarter, and gave substantial help to women who tried to transfer to a younger profession. Sixtus V, who conquered the bandits, won only Pyrrhic victories against the courtesans, as evidenced by his repeated edicts of 1586, 1588, and 1589.
Since romantic love was still an extramarital vagary, and marriage was a mating of dividends, and divorce was forbidden by the Church, imaginative spouses indulged in adultery. Pius V thought of making it a capital crime; a report of August 25, 1568, said, “The threat of the death penalty for adultery is expected, so that everyone will have to become moral or leave the city.” Pius, relenting, contented himself with milder penalties: a noble Roman lady was sentenced to life imprisonment; a prominent banker was publicly whipped; many other offenders were banished.
Toward the end of the sixteenth century the cicisbeatura came in from Spain through Naples and Milan: a husband, in the upper classes, might allow a friend to be the cicisbeo, or cavaliere servente (gentleman attendant), of his wife; apparently the custom had arisen in Spain in times of frequent wars and long absences of the husband from home. The knightly servitor waited on a lady from her rising to her bedding, but convention did not yet condone the adultery that often attended the custom in the Italy of the eighteenth century.
Despite theological deterrents, crime flourished. Bravi in noble homes, brigands on the highway, pirates in the Mediterranean, political and amorous assassinations abounded. Paolo Giordano Orsini, like another Othello, strangled Isabella de’ Medici in her bed; Piero de’ Medici murdered his wife on suspicion of adultery; we have seen how John Webster turned the bloody story of Vittoria Accoramboni into The White Devil; and Shelley was to do likewise with Beatrice Cenci. Her father, Francesco Cenci, was a paragon of vice and brutality. In 1594 he was tried on a charge of sodomy, but escaped with a fine of 100,000 scudi. His first wife died after giving him twelve children. Having quarreled with his sons, he left Rome with Beatrice and his second wife, Lucrezia Petroni, and removed to a lonely castle on the road to Naples. There he imprisoned them in the upper rooms and treated them with great cruelty—though there is no evidence of incestuous relations with his daughter. Beatrice found means of having a liaison with Olimpio Calvetti, keeper of the castle. At the instigation, or in the pay, of Beatrice, of her stepmother, and of her brothers Giacomo and Bernardo, the keeper, with the aid of a professional assassin, killed the father in his bed (1598). The conspirators were arrested and tried; they pleaded unbearable provocation, and many citizens begged Clement VIII for clemency; he refused. Beatrice and Lucrezia were beheaded, and Giacomo was tortured to death.58
Nevertheless, morals were improving, manners were softening, and Italian society had charms and graces that only the French could rival. Dress, in the upper ranks, was a colorful fancy of velvets, satins, and silks. About this time aristocratic women began to frame their faces, crown their heads, and drape their shoulders with the black silk mantiglia already popular in Spain. Men of social pretension still walked in high hose, but commoners and merchants, familiar with Turkish garb, were slipping into trousers. Italian comedy satirized the custom in the stock comic character Pantaleone, who became pantaloons and pants.
As in most Latin countries, amusements were plentiful. Rome had its annual carnival before Lent; the streets, as Evelyn saw them in 1645, “swarm with prostitutes, buffoons, and all manner of rabble”;59 there were races in the Corso, with fleet steeds from Barbary, riderless but prodded by spurs hanging against their sides, and races of asses, buffaloes, old men, naked men, and boys; and plays were performed on movable stages in the open air. The arts of the dance, conversation, and flirtation graced homes, gardens, and streets. And was there an Italian who could not sing?