Princess Christina Belgiojoso

It was Princess Christina Belgiojoso who hosted the Liszt vs. Thalberg duel and commissioned the Hexaméron Variations in 1837, all of which I discuss in A Year in Classical Music: 1837, vol. 3. Liszt’s biographer Alan Walker calls Belgiojoso “one of the strangest and most bizarre women ever to grace the salons of Paris.” Her support of the Italian unification movement made her a criminal, wanted for treason by the Austrian authorities, but she’d escaped arrest and fled to France in exile. (I discuss the Italian unification movement at the start of A Year in Classical Music: 1837, vol. 1.) She sent the money she raised through the Liszt vs. Thalberg event and the publication of Hexaméron to support the Italian revolutionaries.

One of those revolutionaries was Giuseppe Mazzini. Besides being a political revolutionary, Mazzini had been a leading proponent of opera reform. Opera was so important a component of Italian culture, its social influence so far-reaching, that Mazzini had called upon opera composers to recognize and act upon the political responsibility their influence placed upon them. It was Mazzini’s Philosophy of Music, published in 1836, that had convinced Mercadante to write the first of his “reform operas” in 1837: Il Giuramento. I talk about Il Giuramento, too, in A Year in Classical Music: 1837, vol. 1.

Living up to the reputation of French lovers, Belgiojoso bedded many prominent Parisian men, including the Marquis de Lafayette: the military general who’d played a crucial role in the colonial Americans’ defeat of England in the Revolutionary War. When her lovers arrived for these liaisons, there were greeted by a tall, bearded black man wearing a turban and a robe, who led them down a corridor decorated with human skulls and crossbones to her room. Her bed was built high up on a pedestal, like an altar, decorated with ebony, elephant tusks, and white silk drapes.

In 1848 Belgiojoso was arrested, after French police searched that bedroom and found, inside a wardrobe and dressed in formal evening wear, the embalmed corpse of one of her former lovers. She hadn’t killed him; she’d dug up his grave and stolen his corpse, to keep it for herself. Still, she fled Europe to Istanbul. Eventually she was able to return to a unified Italy, living out the rest of her life back at Milan.

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