Deborah Swift writes about the background to a scene in her latest book, The Silkworm Keeper: a cruel punishment carried out on women in 17th-century Italy.
In my new novel, The Silkworm Keeper, there is a scene in which the sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini sends a servant to slash the face of his unfaithful lover, Costanza Bonarelli. This is a true historical event, well documented at the time. When reconstructing this scene for the novel, I wondered how common this deliberate facial disfiguration was as a punishment, and whether the idea of it then was any less horrifying then, than it is now.
Bernini was completely infatuated by Costanza, who was the wife of Matteo Bonarelli, one of the men he employed. It seems poignant that we have the marvellous sculpture of her with her face unblemished and smooth, sculpted by the very man who ruined that face forever.
But her fate was by no means unusual. It seems that the cutting of the face as a punishment for erring wives was endemic in Italy at the time. This sort of case was called sfregio, which translated refers to both the act of slashing and the resulting scar. Particularly in Renaissance Italy a woman’s beauty was a sign of her honour and supposedly mirrored her soul. This beauty was revered, but also often blamed as causing the inappropriate behaviours of men.
To deliberately disfigure someone is a demonstration of your power and ownership over them – very much like a toddler might say “if I can’t play with it, then nobody else shall either.” Such a visible punishment also demonstrated, in a very obvious way, to other men who was in control and that a woman who conspired against him would meet with severe consequences.
The most common cutting was to slice off the nose – the practice goes back to ancient Rome when Virgil writes in the Aeniad of the adulterous Deiphobus who lost his nose for bedding Helen of Troy. In the Renaissance the risk of facial disfigurement was much greater than it is today. Italy was not a unified country but many small states fought over by the Spanish and the French; wars, fights and duels were commonplace along with corporal punishments, a common one being to remove an ear or a thumb or a tongue.
The most shameful way to lose your nose was through syphilis – the ‘French pox’ – as serious infections caused the nasal cartilage to disintegrate. This meant any woman with a face that was different was thought to be a prostitute. The victims of this terrible disease, for which there was no real cure, had to rely on prosthetic noses, constructed from silver, gold, or even leather, which were then attached to glasses or tied around their heads.
In 1704, for example, the diarist Sarah Cowper was told about an acquaintance whose husband had given her the pox. On hearing that the poor woman was “airy, brisk, and a great Dancer”, Cowper retorted that “by no means shou’d any Woman dance without a nose, tho’ never so innocently lost”.
An engraving in the British Museum by Italian engraver Mitelli shows a prostitute being deliberately cut after her release from prison. These commissions to wound someone were often undertaken by servants for a fee, and rarely by the aggrieved party himself, because facial attack carried a heavy penalty.
In the statutes of Italian towns, the fines for those making wounds above the neck were twice that of those below it. In medieval Rome the punishment was either banishment or work as a galley slave, while in 17th-century Rome the judge Prospero Farinacci described it as ‘atrox et grave delictum’ (an atrocious and grave crime).
Was Bernini punished for his crime? Apparently not. Papal favour reached a long way, and according to Bernini’s son Domenico, in his memoir: “the Pope assured of the deed gave the order that the servant was to be exiled, and he sent his manservant to the Cavaliere [Cavaliere, Master, meaning Bernini] with a parchment absolving him of the deed… he was absolved for no other motive than because he was Excellent in Art”.
An anonymous document found in some contemporary papers also states Bernini was fined 3,000 scudi, but that the sum was later excused by Pope Urban VIII.
And what of Costanza, the wronged woman? It is likely her wound was sewn by a barber surgeon. Unfortunately barber surgeons were required to report all woundings to the authorities. In an age were sword fights were common, this was a sensible directive, but a disaster for Costanza. The sbirri (police guard) came for her at night and records show that she was sent to the Monasterio di Casa Pia, a convent for wayward women courtesans and prostitutes situated behind the Pantheon.
Perhaps her husband had something to do with this, for he had been made a fool of by both Bernini and his brother Luigi.
And of course this sort of love triangle is an absolute boon for a novelist.
Deborah Swift is the author of 14 historical novels so far. Her favourite periods are the 17th century, particularly the English Civil Wars, and the Second World War. Deborah lives on the Cumbria-Lancashire border, where she enjoys walking on the fells or by the sea.
She has written a number of features for Historia, including:
A different kind of WWII resistance
In search of the animals in the Great Fire of London
And so to bed – a goodbye to Pepys’s diary
Luck or lottery? Choosing your valentine in the 17th century
Health and Hellfire: Personalising the Plague in 17th-century London
Animating Pepys’s Women
Bust of Costanza Bonarelli.by Bernini, Museo del Bargello: Yair Haklai via Wikimedia
Bust of Costanza Bonarelli.by Bernini, Museo del Bargello: ErgsArt via Flickr
Gianlorenzo Bernini, self-portrait, c1623: via Wikimedia