In 18th- and 19th-century Italy, the cicisbeo (Italian pronunciation: [ˌtʃitʃizˈbɛːo]; plural: cicisbei), or cavalier servente (chevalier servant in French), was the professed gallant and lover of a married woman, who attended her at public entertainments, to church and other occasions and had privileged access to his mistress. The arrangement is comparable to the Spanish cortejo or estrecho and, to a lesser degree, to the French petit-maître. The exact etymology of the word is unknown; some evidence suggests it originally meant "in a whisper" (perhaps an onomatopeic word). Other accounts suggest it is an inversion of bel cece, which means "beautiful chick (pea)". According to OED, the first recorded usage of the term in English was found in a letter by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu dated 1718. The term appears in Italian in Giovanni Maria Muti's "Quaresimale Del Padre Maestro Fra Giovanni Maria Muti De Predicatori" of 1708 (p. 734).
This arrangement, called the cicisbeatura or cicisbeismo, was widely practiced, with knowledge and consent of the husband, especially among the nobility of the cities of Genoa, Nice, Venice, Florence and Rome. While many contemporary references to cicisbei and descriptions of their social standing exist, scholars diverge on the exact nature of the phenomenon. Some maintain that this institution was defined by marriage contracts, others question this claim and see it as a peculiarity of 18th-century customs that is not well defined or easily explained. Other scholars see it as a sign of the increasing emancipation of aristocratic women in the 18th century.
The cicisbeo was better tolerated if he was known to be homosexual. Louise d'Épinay wrote from Paris to her friend Ferdinando Galiani about the impending departure of marchese Alvise Mocenigo, the Venetian ambassador, whose tastes the ambassador had displayed in Paris:
Nothing equals the friendly companionship afforded to a woman by men of those persuasions. To the rest of you, so full of yourselves, one can't say a word that you don't take as provocation. ... Whereas with those gentlemen one knows quite well that they want no more of us than we of them—one feels in no danger and deliciously free"
Regardless of its roots and technicalities, the custom was firmly entrenched. Typically, husbands tolerated or even welcomed the arrangement: Lord Byron, for example, was cicisbeo to Teresa, Contessa Guiccioli. After his death, her second husband, Marquis de Boissy, was known to brag about the fact. Byron also famously analyzed the institution from an English point of view in his poem Beppo. Attempts by the husband to ward off prospective cicisbei or disapproval of the practice in general was likely to be met with ridicule and scorn:
[...] for, you must understand, this Italian fashion prevails at Nice among all ranks of people; and there is not such a passion as jealousy known. The husband and the cicisbeo live together as sworn brothers; and the wife and the mistress embrace each other with marks of the warmest affection.
[E]very married lady in this country has her cicisbeo, or servente, who attends her every where on all occasions, and upon whose privileges the husband dares not encroach, without incurring the censure and ridicule of the whole community.
Cicisbei played by set rules, generally avoiding public displays of affection. At public entertainments, they would typically stand behind their seated mistress and whisper in her ear. Customs of the time did not permit them to engage in relationships with any other women during their free time, making the arrangement rather demanding. Both parties could decide to end the relationship at any time. A woman's former cicisbei were called spiantati (literally penniless, destroyed), or cast-offs.
Cicisbei in the arts
- Così fan tutte Act II scene 1 (1790), an opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
- The Antiquarian's Family (1749), a comedy by Carlo Goldoni
- L'italiana in Algeri (1813) and Il turco in Italia (1788), operas by Gioachino Rossini
- La Tosca (1887), play by Victorien Sardou, the basis of the opera Tosca by Giacomo Puccini
- Silvana Patriarca, "Indolence and Regeneration: Tropes and Tensions of Risorgimento Patriotism", The American Historical Review, 110(2), 2005
- DIZIONARIO ETIMOLOGICO ONLINE
- Krünitz, Cicisbeo.
- Boswell, 17–19; Smollett; Black, 123–26; Forsyth, 377, 411–12. All cited in Patriarca.
- Barbagli, 331–36. Cited in Patriarca.
- Bizzocchi, 67–69. Cited in Patriarca.
- Cazzoli, 2028–35. Cited in Patriarca.
- Quoted in Francis Steegmuller, A Woman, A Man, and Two Kingdoms: The Story of Madame d'Épinay and the Abbé Galiani (New York) 1991:178.
- Hodgson, 16.
- Smollett, Letter XVII from Nice, July 2, 1764.
- Smollett, Letter XXVII from Nice, January 28, 1765.
- Marzio Barbagli, Sotto lo stesso tetto: Mutamenti della famiglia in Italia dal XV al XX secolo, (Bologna, 2000)
- Roberts Bizzocchi, "Cicisbei: La morale italiana," Storica 3 (1997)
- Jeremy Black, Italy and the Grand Tour, (New Haven, Conn., 2003)
- James Boswell, Boswell on the Grand Tour: Italy, Corsica, and France 1765–1766, Frank Brady, ed. (New York, 1955)
- Carla Pellandra Cazzoli, "Dames et sigisbées: Un début d'emancipation feminine?". Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 193 (1980)
- John Forsyth, Remarks on the Antiquities, Arts, and Letters during an Excursion in Italy in 1802 and 1803, 2nd edn., (London, 1816)
- Barbara Hodgson, Italy Out of Hand: A Capricious Tour, Chronicle Books LLC, 2005
- J.G. Krünitz (ed.), Oekonomische Encyklopädie oder allgemeines System der Staats- Stadt- Haus- und Landwirthschaft, Volume 8, 1776. Cicisbeo. Retrieved on March 27, 2006
- Silvana Patriarca, "Indolence and Regeneration: Tropes and Tensions of Risorgimento Patriotism". The American Historical Review April 2005. Retrieved on March 27, 2006.
- Jean Charles Léonard Simonde de Sismondi, Histoire des Républiques Italiennes du Moyen Age, 5th edn., vol. 8 (1807–1818; Brussels, 1839)
- Tobias Smollett, Travels through France and Italy, numerous editions.
- Gaite, Carmen Martín (1991). "Love Customs in Eighteenth-Century Spain". Berkeley: University of California Press. Retrieved 2006-12-08.
- "DIZIONARIO ETIMOLOGICO ONLINE" (in Italiana). Retrieved 2006-12-08.