Ever wondered why Elizabethan and Jacobean drama is obsessed with happenings in Spain and Italy? The answer lies substantially with one man: William Painter. In 1566 he published The Palace of Pleasure, a collection of translations into English of tales from the Decameron, the Heptameron, Bandello’s Novelle, and others. The book led to a flood of interest in gory goings-on at foreign courts - giving Shakespeare the plot for All’s Well That Ends Well and other works - and supplied Webster with the idea for The Duchess of Malfi.
The Duchess, however, was a real flesh-and-blood woman. Her name was Giovanna d'Aragona, Duchess of Amalfi. Married at 12 in 1490, her husband died young, and she secretly married a servant, Antonio Bologna. Over the next couple of years she bore him two children. By the time of her third pregnancy, her brothers, who wanted power for themselves, got wind of the scandal, and in 1510, the lovers, with the two children and the new baby, decided to flee. The Duchess and her two youngest children didn’t get very far: they were soon captured, brought back to Amalfi and imprisoned. Antonio escaped with the eldest son but was murdered in Milan. The Duchess then disappeared from history. Her first son, from her first marriage, became ruler of Amalfi in her place.
Thus ends the melancholy tale of the doomed Duchess. The story was picked up by Bandello in his Novelle, and, mediated through the French of François de Belleforest, was subsequently rendered into English by William Painter, to the delight of English audiences and playwrights.
Webster was thus handed his title by history. The transformation from ‘d’Amalfi’ to ‘of Malfi’ is easy to see. ‘La Duchessa d’Amalfi’ in Italian became ‘La Duchesse d’Amalfi’ in the French of Belleforest: ‘d’Amalfi’ was mistaken for ‘de Malfi’, and translated into English as ‘of Malfi’.
Webster, John: The Duchess of Malfi (Dover, 1999)
Boklund, Gunnar: The Duchess of Malfi: Sources, Themes, Characters (Harvard University Press, 1962)
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