The Decameron: The wrong way to a man’s heart

Bernardino Mei (1612-1676), Ghismunda (1650-59), oil on canvas, 66.5 x 47.5 cm, Pinacoteca nazionale di Siena, Siena, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Last week, I looked at the tragic tale of Lisabetta which was told by Filomena on the fourth day of Boccaccio’s Decameron. The first story that day was equally tragic. Although it is less familiar in paintings, it too has been told by several artists. This is the story of Ghismonda and her love for Guiscardo, as told by Fiammetta.

Ghismonda was the daughter of Prince Tancredi of Salerno, who was known for being a benevolent ruler, but in his later years became a very possessive father. He refused to let her marry until she was older than was usual, and when she did, her husband died soon after. She returned to live with her doting father, who had no interest in seeing her married for a second time. So she decided to take a lover instead.

She fell in love with a young valet to her father named Guiscardo, and he fell in love with her. Ghismonda devised an ingenious way of passing him messages, concealed inside a reed. They met in an old cavern underneath the palace: Ghismonda’s room had a long-disused door which opened into the cavern, and Guiscardo descended into it from a shaft outside the walls.

Before they met in this cavern, Ghismonda dismissed all her ladies-in-waiting, telling them she wanted to sleep. She then locked herself in her room, opened the door to the cavern, and descended its staircase to meet her lover, who had roped down from the entrance to the shaft. The couple then spent much of the rest of day making love in her room before Guiscardo departed.

One day, when the couple had arranged to meet in this way, Prince Tancredi came looking for his daughter. Seeing her outside, he settled down in a corner of her room and fell asleep. She was unaware that he was there, and proceeded with her lovemaking, during which her father awoke. He remained silent and was undiscovered, eventually climbing out of a window while the couple descended into the cavern to make their farewells.

Later that night, Guiscardo was arrested on the orders of the Prince, and confined to a room in the palace without Ghismonda’s knowledge. Tancredi went to his daughter’s room, where he told her of the dishonour she had brought upon herself. She showed no contrition, nor did she seek her father’s forgiveness, but told her father honestly of the love she shared with Guiscardo, of her youth, and amorous desires. She pleaded her lover’s virtues, and asked that she should bear the brunt of any punishment, rather than her lover.

Prince Tancredi decided to take revenge not on his daughter, but on her lover. He had two of his men strangle Guiscardo, then cut his heart out. The heart was placed inside a gold chalice, and presented to his daughter “to comfort her in the loss of her dearest possession, as she had comforted her father in the loss of his”.

Before she could be given this gruesome present, Ghismonda had called for poisonous herbs, which she turned into a highly toxic potion. When the servants delivered her the chalice, she removed its lid, saw her lover’s heart, and was given her father’s message.

Ghismonda raised her lover’s heart to her lips and kissed it. She then thanked the servants for her father’s priceless gift to her, bade farewell to her lover’s heart, and cried profusely over it.

Francesco Bacchiacca (1494–1557), Ghismonda with the Heart of Guiscardo (c 1525), oil on wood, dimensions not known, Lowe Art Museum, Coral Gables, FL. Wikimedia Commons.

Francesco Bacchiacca’s early painting of Ghismonda with the Heart of Guiscardo from about 1525 shows the rather distant figure crying over the heart, with her apparently disinterested ladies-in-waiting around her. In the foreground is her father’s servant who brought the chalice.

Francesco Furini (1600/03-1646), Sigismunda (c 1620-30), media and dimensions not known, Museo civico, Prato, Italy. Image by Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.

Francesco Furini made at least two very similar paintings of Ghismonda, here known by her alternative name of Sigismunda, crying profusely over the chalice. This version is thought to be from about 1620-30, and remains in Prato, Italy.

Francesco Furini (1600/03-1646), Sigismunda with the Heart of Guiscardo (c 1640), oil on canvas, 73 x 59 cm, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Thought to date from about 1640, this version known as Sigismunda with the Heart of Guiscardo is now in Birmingham, England. It had previously been attributed to Correggio, and was the inspiration for Hogarth’s much later painting, shown below. It had only just been purchased at auction by Sir Thomas Sebright.

I have also discovered Furini’s painting of Mary Magdalene from about the same time, which is almost identical to the earlier version now in Prato, except that a chalice of myrrh had been substituted for that containing Guiscardo’s heart. All three works are notable for their dramatic chiaroscuro.

Mario Balassi (1604-1667), Ghismonda with the Heart of Guiscardo (1650), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Mario Balassi’s Ghismonda with the Heart of Guiscardo from 1650 depicts Ghismonda being taken aback, although in Boccaccio’s account her response is strong and resolute despite the horrific cruelty of her father.

Bernardino Mei (1612-1676), Ghismunda (1650-59), oil on canvas, 66.5 x 47.5 cm, Pinacoteca nazionale di Siena, Siena, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

It is perhaps Bernardino Mei, in his Ghismunda from 1650-59, who captures her resolute response best of all, as she stands squeezing the heart in her hand, tears still on her face.

Sigismunda Mourning over the Heart of Guiscardo 1759 by William Hogarth 1697-1764
William Hogarth (1697–1764), Sigismunda Mourning over the Heart of Guiscardo (1759), oil on canvas, 100.4 x 126.5 cm, The Tate Gallery (Bequeathed by J.H. Anderdon 1879), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

William Hogarth’s Sigismunda Mourning over the Heart of Guiscardo from 1759 may come as something of a surprise.

Hogarth seemed determined to prove that the ‘modern’ English painter could compete with the “old Italian masters” in handling such heroic narratives. This was one of his last commissions, for Sir Richard Grosvenor, in 1758. He studied Furini’s version (that now in Birmingham), which had been much admired, but when this was completed in 1759, Grosvenor rejected it.

Hogarth then exhibited it with seven other paintings at the Society of Artists in 1761. It was there savaged by the critics, who were apparently repelled by the conflict between the beauty of Sigismunda and the gruesome heart which she is touching. Hogarth replaced it in the exhibition, and appears to have made changes to try to assuage its detractors. Unable to sell it or have it engraved for prints, the artist was forced to abandon it, and almost ceased painting for the remaining three years of his life.

Her ladies-in-waiting asked her why she was crying so, as they had not understood what had happened. Ghismonda then poured the deadly potion over Guiscardo’s heart, drank it, and lay down on her bed to await death. Her father was summoned, and Ghismonda asked him a final favour that she should be laid to rest beside Guiscardo. The Prince realised his cruelty and repented for it, ensuring that the two bodies were buried together in honour.