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Laura Lanza, Baroness of Carini, was murdered by her father, Cesare,
on 4 December 1563. Her crime, and in those days it was tantamount to a
crime in Italian law, was betraying her husband by taking a lover. Laura's
lover, meanwhile, was killed by her enraged husband. The story
of a noble family's honour and revenge has been idealised in legend, with
several books and plays based on the actual event. The facts were not ascertained
precisely until the 1970s, when several scholars researched the court records. By most accounts, Cesare Lanza, Count of Trabia (and later Mussomeli, bought from a destitute noble), was a powerful and stern man, respected but not generally liked by his fellow
aristocrats. Laura, his elder daughter, wed Vincenzo La Grua Talamanca,
Baron of Carini, while Giovanna, the yonger one, married Nicola Branciforti,
Count of Braccuia. In those times, marriages were arranged by parental consent.
This was true of humbler unions as well as aristocratic ones, and in Italy
the practice continued, in some form, well into the twentieth century, romantic
courtship being, in a manner of speaking, something of a novelty here in
Sicily. Cesare's marriage, like his daughter's, was planned for material
considerations when he was still a minor; at the age of fourteen he eventually
wed a wealthy widow much older than himself.
Cesare had several brushes with the law before the murder of his daughter.
During brief incarceration for complicity in the attempted homicide of Simone Pisano,
town councillor of Termini Imerese, he asked the pardon of the king of Sicily,
at that time the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. The Emperor allowed Lanza
to serve a sentence of military service, in lieu of jail time, in a company
of cavalry in Algeria and central Europe. In the end, this service enhanced his
career, and he was Prefect of Palermo from 1549 until 1566. He enlarged Palermo's city hall, the "Palace of the Eagles" in Piazza Pretoria, into the structure visible today.
Laura Lanza, who was wed in 1543 at the age of fourteen to a young man of sixteen, appears to have cheated on her husband for some time, but Lodovico Vernagallo, the man found with her, was her only lover so far as we know. Cesare arrived one night at Carini Castle to discover his son-in-law quite agitated. It was there that Laura and her lover were stabbed to death. Laura was thirty four years old. Cesare's mounted troops had surrounded the castle to prevent the lovers' escaping, and news of the murder was kept secret for weeks. No funeral is known to have been celebrated publicly, though an Act of Death appears in the parish register. The detail that Vincenzo caught his wife in bed with Lodovico is based on his confession to the homicide. We do not know with certainty whether his account reflected the truth. Nevertheless, sex always helped to sell a story, and in the decades to follow this tale was often told to frighten young Sicilian brides into marital fidelity.
The murders seem to have been premeditated, aided by an informant who advised Cesare and Vincenzo of one of Lodovico's visits to the castle. Laura's affair apparently had been going on for some time, but the allegation that she gave birth to some of Lodovico's children is unproven. Cesare's military tactic of surrounding the fortress lends credibility to the idea that the murder was planned. Certain details and motives of the incident will never be known with certainty, but Cesare claimed to have committed the act himself because Vincenzo, his son-in-law, initially feared vendetta from the Lanza family had he killed Laura on his own.
Adultery was quite normal among southern Europe's sixteenth century nobility, though probably somewhat less so among the common folk of that era. (It is surprisingly widespread in Italy today, among all social classes.) But the "double standard" of times past meant that Cesare Lanza, as a man, could have as many mistresses as he desired (including many from the lower social orders), while his daughter, trapped in an unhappy marriage, could not take a lover. And the law generally stood on the side of husbands rather than wives. This doesn't mean that murder was actually legal, but the penalties in "crimes of passion," virtually unchanged in Sicily since the Middle Ages, were not very severe. Rape, for example, was all but tolerated, and even today reports of this crime are extremely rare in Italy. A woman's adultery was a serious crime clearly defined in longstanding legal statute. (Though the principle existed elsewhere in Europe, Sicily's Norman sovereigns initially may have bowed to Muslim pressure in enacting such laws.)
King Philip II granted pardons to the murderers, who cited medieval law in their defense. Vincenzo La Grua, the widower, remarried in 1565, but his second wife, Ninfa Ruiz, died within a year. Cesare Lanza, whose second wife, wed to him in 1543, bore nine children (all married off to wealthy titled heirs), died in 1580. "Honour killings" were not unknown in sixteenth century Italy. Such acts were finally outlawed by statute in most parts of Italy by around 1850, when constitutional principles prompted by the revolts of 1848 brought a slightly more balanced outlook to society. One wonders whether a latter day Laura Lanza might have sought solace in divorce, legalised in Italy only in the mid-1970s following much debate. Today, adultery is recognised as grounds for divorce in Italian law.
About the Author: Palermo native Vincenzo Salerno has written biographies of several famous Sicilians, including Frederick II and Giuseppe di Lampedusa.