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That’s my last Duke painted on my locket.
Sofonisba’s work. Look; there’s no cocket
Wit there, no husbandly affection near.
Just an icy regard, a chilly sneer,
And a pair of painstakingly clean hands
That ne’er strangled an intimate, yet plans
To order it done with but a raised finger.
Do not view it long; evil does linger
About one such as he. I see you ask
Yourself the questions you hide ’neath your mask.
How came I to wear Ferrara around
My neck? In my weird state, am I not bound
To inarticulacy and moaning
As of a normal phantom, e’er droning
On and on, terrifying the living
But not, in any distinct way, giving
A listener any part of the truth?
Fie on that, I say, and more, in sooth.
My story will be told. Prithee, Duke’s wife,
Listen to my warning and save your life.
You of all people must know what transpires
A fortnight hence, amidst the red-hot fires
Which will consume the palace where once I,
Like you, was Duchess. Signora, don’t cry.
’Tis your life and salvation I give you.
A wicked, cruel man is Ferrara. Do
You not agree? Your marriage to him is
Scarce a week old, yet I see, plain’s day, his
Words on your face as scars. I, too, bear them.
Come, now, see? I carry them always—a gem
From the deep mines of savagery which he
Excavates with pleasure regularly.
My elder sister Maria was promised to him
But fever took her away from us. Grim,
Hot, and rapid. My father mourned deeply
Then spun in place and sold me (quite cheaply)
To the Duke. King Philip would have Ferrara
Again, so my life was pledged—the horror
To one of a line whose wives all came to
Unhappy ends. I, a Medici through
To my soul, did smile and say the words of
Submission to the Duke. Fine nuptials, love
Words a’plenty, as fitting Medici
Standards as could be. But a detainee
I was. Not so fine the marriage as
the wedding. My husband, Ferrara, has
a heart too soon made discontented, blood
too full of choler—he sees filthy mud
where God’s own sunsets exist. He could not
feel pleasure at the hawk in flight, he thought
a bough of ripe plums brought by me and
fed to him by my hands tasted like sand.
My hands. As if I were one of his house-
less amanti, begging with a sheer blouse
To please his mouth. No. His mouth had but one
Position: an angry frown, ready to kill or shun
Those who displeased him. Too easily peevish;
Nothing could soothe him. Not a Scappi dish,
Ode by Petrarch, nor gold Cellini fish,
Even could earn a tiny smile. His wish,
Oft voiced, was what might be expected of
Such a one: all the world kissing his glove.
All else—nothing. My favors in his bed,
Stanzas by Tasso, Luzzaschi songs, read
Books by Cremonini, sunrise over
The Po—all caused the frown, and moreover
A crabbed sentence or savage criticism,
If his choler ran high that day. The schism
Between us was his doing. Of all things
He disapproved—good! The temper of kings
He had. Somehow—I know not how—he ranked
A de' Medici wife with his troops flanked
And slain by the thousands during the clash
Between Habsburgs and Valois. What vile brash
Temper, to rush to anger over a dropped
Glass, my woman’s blood, flutes and horns stopped
By his own tantrum. Even had I the
Freedom of speech—which I never had—he
Would ne’er let me make my will known to him,
Allow me to say, “In this temper grim,
This petulance childish, you disgust me;
Your temper is most unbecoming.” He
Would not let himself be spoken to so,
Nor let himself be lessoned. Excuse made? No.
Only a raised finger and the speaker
Beaten. I? Smiled, to be sure, with bleaker
Thoughts inside. To certain others I gave
A grin—the son of an Earl, a Palsgrave,
Some others. Doubtless he feared that. And he
Sensed when his young wife’s lonely heart did see
The fair son of the Doge, and found comfort
In his arms. Ferrara, informed at court,
Commanded, and his Palermitani
Obeyed. My grins stopped from the sweet tawny
Port his poison master fed me. Fever,
Like Maria. Bleeding, like a cleaver
Blow to the neck. Coughing. Constant weight loss.
The Duke left me alone all the while. ’Cross
The city, in the palace, his guests were
Welcomed and wined. My death did not deter
Him from the business of state. He smiled and
Waited for my quietus. At last, grand
Death took me quietly. The Duke, pleased, wore
Black for a month. Mourned in private, he swore.
Created this curtained memorial
Hidden from view, just like my burial.
Then, as planned, negotiations began
With the Duke of Savoy for your fair hand
In marriage. Listen, girl, and listen well.
In two weeks’ time, the ringing of the bell
Of the Cathedral of St. George, to call
The worshipful to Mass, will the downfall
Of Ferrara signal. A wave of flame
Will the palace engulf, and leave the name
“Alfonso Este, Duke of Ferrara”
In ashes, to be forgotten. The maw
Of oblivion consumes all, in time.
I would hasten its arrival. The crime
Of his insults and calumnies against
Me must be requited. His good name flensed.
His palace razed. His wealth taken. Este
Fortunes reversed. For the Duke, no rest—a
Painful slide to poverty and death. He
Abused the daughter of a Medici.
My father Cosimo would destroy an
Empire to avenge that insult. I can
Do no less. I am my father’s daughter.
Isabella di Savoy, the slaughter
Should—must—not include you. On that Sunday,
Flee Ferrara at dawn. Your husband may—
Nay, will—be sleeping off too much wine and
Flattery from the night before. Do strand
Your servants and make for Annecy. Once there,
Pay my respects to your family. Wear
Your mourning shroud. Rejoice in widowhood.
And never again marry a man, good
Or bad. ’Od’s blood, no. They are poison, one
And all. Farewell! I depart with the sun.

Jess Nevins is a college librarian in Texas with a fatal weakness for nineteenth-century literature and stories in which women get the last laugh. Among his books is Horror Fiction in the 20th Century (Praeger, 2020).
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20 May 2024

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