First Chorus from “Gesualdo”

By Shane Devine

Art collection of the Huntington Library in Pasadena, CA
“Vesuvius from Portici” by Thomas Wright, 1774-1776. Credit: Art collection of the Huntington Library in Pasadena, CA.

(This is the first chorus section from my play “Gesualdo.” The story of the Baglioni family can be found in Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, p. 20-24 in the Modern Library edition. Other inspirations for this piece can be found in Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols and The Antichrist.)

Like the bloodshed that dawned in the morning of Man
And delighted the spirits of Grecian command,
So was Italy’s Renaissance caught in her fray
And the zenith of Man was well-nigh underway
When Perugia warred in the dark of the night
When the favor of Justice cared only for might
And the power was tugged back and forth like the sea
Between families bold, Baglione and Oddi;
They kept bravi beside them and all through the town
Which made violence in public seem perfectly sound
To the point that the schools laid to waste their old peace
And chose swords over books and some plates over fleece.
They continued to squander their lives as we spend
Until Ares declared the Oddi had to bend
To the powerful fists of the great Baglione
Who took Christ off his seat and placed Life on his throne
And the crows stuffed with blood were of much freer sorts
As they perched on the churches that now served as forts
In a city that changed to a war hungry camp
That left clerical diplomats wounded and damp.

When the third year of rule had slid gradually by
And the nooses had strangled so many a spy
Full of greed little Charles the Frenchman arrived:
With his newly-won Naples his army contrived
To escape through Perugia fleeing the storm
That was burning and rife with a powerful swarm
Of despising Italians chasing him back;
But he bothered the wrong kind of men – they attacked:
Both the allies and enemies banded in wrath
To defend and destroy in a frenzy-red bath
That came washing through valleys and crushing the homes
And the peasants were turned into murdering drones
That left Franco barbarians slit in a ditch
For the bellies of wolves whom they bit without hitch
Sinking ravenous teeth in their soft measly flesh.
Alexander the Sixth, the great pope new and fresh
Who had Rome by the sword and the Earth by the cross,
Even he could not trick their old quick-witted boss
When he offered to throw them a well-cornered fest
To which Guido replied: “I would think it the best
For our troops to pike yours off a cornerless cliff.”
Thus the Borgia surrendered and heightened their myth;
Then the exiles too couldn’t break their decree
Though they tried when they raided to highest degree
The interior forum with hundreds of men;
Simonetto the son was depending on ten
– Just a boy of eighteen with a fiery gut –
Yet he slaughtered the hordes with a blazing-quick cut
‘Til with twenty-two wounds he was forced then to share
With his brother Astorre who charged with a mare
And he shocked all the watchers who saw him as Mars
Resurrecting from Rome to raise glory to stars
For the people of Italy dying for bliss
Who were longing to taste the concealed pagan kiss
That would rock the whole world with fine dancing and war
And let men become kids on Elysium’s shore . . .

As if signaling clear the whole Renaissance fate
These so bold Baglione conjured envy and hate
From deceivers who pounced at a wedding so grand
By destroying the brothers with bravi at hand.

In the dirt and the dust
Pure Roman gods rust.

Strophe 1

A noble truth sings through our mouths,
A blast of wind from ancient souths;
We are the lungs of paganhood
Who breathe the air of misty wood
So long ago, but now revealed.

Antistrophe 1

And yet our soul may portent sing
The Christian sound, if master bring
The darkened clouds of death and pain
And all that seeks to bring men shame
And leave the burning flame concealed.


But alone we may surge
With a bone and a dirge,
Some elegies
For Revelries
That clean and shine and purge!

Strophe 2

Binding bronze ‘neath baking sun,
Bowls of wine that sparked our run;
Power, myth, and hearts of spurs,
Kicking dirt on easterners:
Live in strife, but die as one.

Antistrophe 2

Back behind our iron flanks
Tired fools had climbed our ranks:
Taught our boys to question life
Split our bond with mental knife;
Sparta came and we were done.


What was real
Made Ideal
by Socrates the gnome.
Zeus, O Zeus, you made our very race!
Plato – wretch! you follower of waste!

Strophe 3

Troy’s great fall is in our book;
Rome then rose, the world it shook,
Gladd’ning breasts of hearty brawn,
Drinking sap with wild faun,
Lifting Man from childhood.

Antistrophe 3

Lazy peace turned steak to slop,
Plebeians came out on top;
Values of a chewing cow
Wrought the need to praise and bow:
Lifting Cross as highest good.


Words and guilt
Never built
The ramparts of high Rome.

Lead us, Caesar, bring the gods!
Paul has made us sick as dogs!

Strophe 4

Born once more this golden Life,
Thick with art and wide with strife:
Shining up from Rome’s new face,
– White with robes and full of grace –
Wolves appeared amongst the sheep.

Antistrophe 4

Borgia rose and took the throne;
Rome took on an ancient tone.
Deals with France to let his son
Rend his robes and take a gun,
Took Milan for France to keep.


The veil was torn
By ancient horn
And plague was cured away.

Strophe 5

Finding all the states awry,
Raised his sword up to the sky;
Drums then ate the meek debates,
Rumbling all the warring states,
Sounding Cesare’s decree:

Antistrophe 5

“Flip the church with Roman hand,
Drive the faith out from the land!”
Grave deceit then caught him fast
Slip he did when father passed,
Lost to those who hate the free.


The Higher Man
Forever ban’d
From seeing Glory-day.

Strophe 6

Gold stacked high in Vatican
Shined up to the north again,
Then a priest that lacked in health
Seethed with hatred at their wealth
Yelled with rage to cause their bust.

Antistrophe 6

Tumult grew; the emperor
Led the men he ruled over
Against the French for quick attack:
But lacked the strength to hold them back
. . . They sacked the gleaming Rome to dust . . .


Twisted seer
Fixed his sneer
To curse St. Peter’s dome.

Borgia, Borgia, our last chance!
Luther ruined healthy dance:

Kept what’s weak and botched in us,
Now we watch the Age of Pus . . .

Once the songs of the past had been found and performed
The despisers of life could not hold back the warmed
For the country of Italy swelled from below
In a swirling and boiling and fiery glow
For the graves of their fathers were burning the feet
Of the sons that were gath’ring their glorious heat
To destroy holy chains of so long a decline
That were bending and molding by steady incline,
Being twisted and bent from the wildest blaze
Until gods had declared the thick earth had to raise
Like Vesuvius cracking the heavens with hell!
Burning the stars with so violent a swell!
Pealing through space with a meaningful yell,
Rocking the empty and pitiful shell
Of a world that once lived and will live now as well!
Shooting sludge full of fire and muting the bell
That was ringing from pulpits to scare all the folk
And disguise the return to the cosmos’s yolk
As some horrible sin from the serpent’s dark wit –
But the glory of life was too grand to submit
So the people then basked in the glorious flow
Of the rushing and whipping and beautiful show
Of the writer and painter and perilous man
Who were wrenching the Spirit to infinite span
Who were shaping the human to perfect ideal
Yet preserving his aspects with faith in the real:
Celebrating and praising this wonderful earth,
Bringing praise and displays of incredible mirth,
Shining light on this life from sublimity’s mount! . . .
. . . But the spirit of gravity pulled at the fount
Bringing lava that brightened the face of the Night
Upon innocent children who wanted delight;
Bringing hammer and punishment lost in the rave
Upon Man who was freed but returned to a slave.
Now they gather upon the oppressive terrain
Bringing Italy back to the jailor’s domain;
Turning spirits of Spring into spirits of ice
On the corpse of a lion that’s buried by mice:
These sick robe wearing rodents that peasants call priests
Drawing pews from the ashes of claw-bearing beasts.
So we end our depressing request to return.
From the ashes of giants some embers may burn
With the fires Parnassian and Promethean
Which had scared all the gods and might scare them again.
But the cynic must tap us and feed us his doubt;
We must wonder if this be the start of a bout,
We must wonder so gravely at what really fell
And admit to ourselves that the rest could be hell,
But a hell filled with hail and the sounds of machines
And an age filled with money but nothing that gleams.
We must question the chance of a genius so great
Being raised in a world that’s been buried with slate:
For when beauty is traded for miserable ease
It should never surprise us that ugliness breeds;
For when Evil is questioned by merchants and Work
It should never surprise us if Man goes berserk.
Thus we drag from the ruins of Borgia’s defeat
Only two forms of man that we ever shall meet:
One has bitter restraint with an envious frown,
And the other wills pleasure until he goes down.

Carlo, teacher, calm your hate!
Damn the little reprobate!