‘Be patient. Tonight is cold and I want my husband with me,’ Donna Felice says to Eufrosina, who’s hiding half-naked in the balcony. Donna Felice knows that her husband has an long-running affair with the twenty-year-old baroness – everyone else in Palermo knows too – but tonight she wants her husband with her.
Power, money, glory, a great woman for a wife, Marcantonio Colonna has it all. But some people are plain greedy. So, one night in the year 1580, during a masquerade ball in Palermo’s royal palace, after flirting with all the women, the newly-appointed viceroy of Sicily sets his eyes on Eufrosina Valdaura and loses his reason – soon followed by everything else.
Does he care that he’s forty-five and she’s twenty? Not a bit.
Does he mind that she’s got a husband? Not a lot.
Does he worry about her father-in-law, a man with powerful allies among his enemies? Not a jittery jot.
The Sicilian viceroy scoops to the ground to follow his passion. One night, he gets caught as, in disguise, he makes his way to Eufrosina through the streets of Palermo after the night curfew he himself declared. He’s fined fifty ounces and he has to pay.
Soon Palermo’s high society is alight with gossip about the viceroy’s insane passion, much to the pleasure of his enemies. When Marcantonio builds a gate to the city and dedicates it to his wife, everyone sniggers. In Italian, a cuckold (or a cuckquean) is said to have ‘horns’ on his/her head. People malign that the gate doesn’t have a top (see photo)
so that Donna Felice can get through with all her horns. Smack within the smack, a few yards further, Marcantonio builds a fountain in the shape of a beautiful mermaid fashioned to Eufrosina’s likeness. Spurting water from her breasts.
But Donna Felice Orsini is worth her weight in gold, and she proves it when things get ugly. Oh yes, they do get ugly.
While Eufrosina’s husband turns a blind eye on the wife’s affair, her father-in-law doesn’t. Both Marcantonio and Eufrosina are afraid of him and Marcantonio throws him in prison for insolvency – the old man has lots of debts, but so do many other aristocrats – and he dies in prison in mysterious circumstance. A little later, Eufrosina’s husband is murdered after being posted to a dangerous battle zone. A posting he welcomed as a recognition of his military valour.
At this point, Marcantonio’s enemies have plenty to whisper about him into the ear of the king of Spain, the big boss. Marcantonio is called to Madrid but, on the way, he dies of a suspicious tummy ache. Now Eufrosina is completely alone. Her family has disowned her, her friends have fled, nobody wants to be associated with her “toxic brand”. Who does she turn to for help?
Donna Felice. Really. Donna Felice, as a shining example of womanly sisterhood, takes Eufrosina to Rome and introduces her to an old aristocratic widower who always had a crush on her. Aww. The old widower marries Eufrosina and they all live happily ever after.
Alas, no. The old widower has nine children, and each one of them hates Eufrosina’s guts. None of them turns up to the wedding, which is fair enough, but one day, when their father is out, the two children who still live at home take to their hunting rifle and dispatch their stepmother to the other world. They themselves end up decapitated and their heads hung off a bridge. The other seven children get a hefty curse from their father and die in the following years. The old widower dies of crepacuore – ‘a broken heart’. Unsurprising.
Have you lost count of all the people who die because of Eufrosina? Me too. But one person survives Eufrosina’s deathly touch: Donna Felice. Sometimes kindness pays.
P.S. The water-spurting mermaid statue is lost, but the city gate is still standing.
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