‘Bad Luck’ and ‘Irresistible Force’: Framing Violence against Women (1919–30)

How should a good wife behave? Which are the boundaries between the acceptable and the unacceptable? Does her past affect her present? Violence against women is a longstanding phenomenon. Sara Delmedico (Rome Awardee 2019–20) provides an insight into the research on violence against women she has undertaken at the BSR.

In the Fifth Canto of Inferno, Dante imagines himself meeting the Lustful in his journey through Hell. One of them, Francesca of Rimini, approaches Dante with these words:

‘O animal grazïoso e benigno
che visitando vai per l’aere perso
noi che tignemmo il mondo di sanguigno’

(O living creature gracious and benignant,
⁠Go a  pilgrimage through the purple air,
Visiting us who stained the world with blood)

Dante, Inferno, V, 88–90

Francesca of Rimini stained the world with her own blood: she had been murdered by her husband because of an extramarital relationship with her brother-in-law. Many centuries later, Giselda Zanolo suffered a similar fate. She has been murdered by her husband Vittorio Consalvi in their house in Cusano Milanino, a village near Milan, in August 1923. It was considered a crime of jealousy, caused by an affair that Giselda allegedly had with Ugo Consalvi, Vittorio’s brother.

Uxoricide was widely studied by scholars of the time. Scientists and jurists such as Scipio Sighele, Cesare Lombroso and Augusto Guido Bianchi defined it as a crime or a pseudo-crime of love, thus implying that violence, and murder as well, could be considered a component of love itself. In a series of works from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they analysed cases of men who killed their wives or lovers. Particular attention was given to the behaviour of victims, who were considered to have somehow been the cause of their own death, suggesting that often ‘it was genuinely difficult to distinguish the victims from the real culprits’. The cultural industry, too, contributed to delivering this idea, for example, by using a touch of irony for those crimes which were considered minor (see image of Il Popolo D’Italia, 24 January 1920) or by minimising and significantly suspending the culpability of the attacker.

24gennaio1920

An extract from Il Popolo d’Italia, 24 January 1920, Photograph: Sara Delmedico

The Consalvi case is an interesting example for understanding how gendered stereotypes defined the boundaries of what was disreputable and what was not, and how socially unacceptable behaviour affected a woman’s reputation, and conditioned the outcome of a case to the extent that the murdered wife could be considered a culprit rather than a victim.

Giselda and Vittorio met in Trieste where he was stationed with his battalion in the period immediately after the war. The two got engaged, married, and went to live in Cusano Milanino, together with Giselda’s mother and Vittorio’s brother Ugo.

Articles dealing with the case and published in the newspapers Il Popolo d’Italia, La Stampa and Corriere della Sera gave a fictionalised description of both the murder and the trial. Corriere della Sera, for example, describes Vittorio Consalvi as a ‘painful figure of a man, still very young, but already bent and destroyed by misfortune’; and Giselda’s homicide was triggered by ‘the tremendous nightmare of his young and beautiful wife betraying him with his brother, and in a red-hot August afternoon, in Cusano Milanino, in a field near their quiet little villa, he shot her two, three, four times’. Then, ‘the woman fell dead, her face disfigured by the blows: the uxoricide, still shuddering with hatred, trampled that lifeless body: then he bent over to kiss her hair sprinkled with dust […] and ran away, mad of horror and remorse’ (Corriere della Sera).

17gennaio1920

An extract from Il Popolo d’Italia, 17 January 1920, Photograph: Sara Delmedico

The parade of the witnesses brought in by Vittorio’s lawyers described him as ‘a romantic, sentimental and reserved man, an excellent person from every point of view’ (La Stampa), and was clearly aimed at ruining Giselda’s reputation. After the testimonies, the General Attorney gave his address, stating that Giselda ‘perhaps liked being courted’ (Il Popolo d’Italia) and, although Vittorio did not see Giselda betraying him with his brother, it was evident that she did it. But, in fact, there was no evidence at all. Therefore, the General Attorney concluded that Vittorio ‘saw what he wanted to see’, and prayed that ‘peace and forgiveness could radiate from the victim’s grave’ (La Stampa). Corriere della Sera reported that ‘his speech was welcomed by the public with a thunderous and prolonged applause that was difficult to interrupt’.

The public and the General Attorney empathised with Vittorio. Vittorio was declared mentally ill, absolved and sent to an asylum for a few years.

Il Popolo d’Italia commented that, in this case, ‘there was no need to find the guilty one. It was misfortune that murdered Giselda Zanolo’, therefore, suggesting that there could be someone other than Vittorio who was guilty of Giselda’s homicide, maybe Giselda herself, whose past behaviour and bad reputation made her the culprit of her own homicide.

16gennaio1925

An extract from Il Popolo d’Italia, 16 January 1925, Photograph: Sara Delmedico

Six centuries after Dante’s Comedy, Giselda, like Francesca of Rimini, was not just a victim. Vittorio, the witnesses, the court and the public maintained that Giselda, because of her past, ‘actively’ contributed to her own homicide; she was the culprit, and stained the world with own blood.

Sara Delmedico (Rome Awardee 2019–20)