The 1700’s is the century of the Reason, epoch of great changes and that in some ways has revolutionised if not the world per sé at least the way of thinking of the modern human being. Italy is one of the favourite destinations of the Gran Tour: the scions of the European aristocracy, in order to complete their education, were used to travel across the country, attracted by its culture, art and antiquity.
Everything was seen as beautiful and instructive, stimulating in some cases as well as astonishing for those Italian habits like the one about the love triangle accepted by the society: amongst the Italian nobles, in fact, it was common habit to have husband, wife and lover, of her, and it was not only accepted but furthermore expected.
The visit – Pietro Longhi, 1746
Above: public domain image
To the foreign visitors it appeared as nothing but consented adultery, that weird habit of accompanying a married noblewoman to a gallant, i.e. a young man constantly caring about pleasing the desires of his mistress: he was taking her to the church where he spare her from watering her hands with the holy water, to the theater where he sat behind her back while whispering funny phrases into her ears, as well as in coach strolls, mundan events and other events in which her husband was absent, busy with certainly more important matters. The gallant was ready to assist her even with more subtle things, such as correspondence, shopping or formal visits.
A type of relationship that the European travellers found rather curious, if not scandalous:
“The fashion (…) is by know accepted across all Italy, where the husbands are not those terrible creatures we represent. Amongst them there is no one who can even pretend to find a reason to contradict such an overly accepted tradition”, wrote in a letter the British aristocrat Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who was of big influence over the literature in the Ottoman Empire.
Mary Wortley was right. No husband would have tried to contradict his own wife because she kept a gallant next to herself. Contrarywise:
Sometimes the right to have a gallant was included within the marital contract
The key to better understand this habit is there, in the definition of marital contract: the wedding, almost always combined for interest reasons of the two families, did not imply any romantic involvement of the spouses. A husband jealous of the gallant would have therefore appeared as ridicule with his peers, a non courteous person and closed minded for the heroic age of reason.
The cunning Norina, surrounded by gallants in the film “Don Pasquale”
Above: public domain image
This habit spread all over the Italian country (to a lesser extent in Spain and France), especially in the cities, where the noblewomen had many occasions to go out and have a social life. The gallant, coming from a noble family as well, had also the function to extend the circle of acquaintances of the woman, perhaps newly married and just come out from a convent, where she was kept for receiving an adequate education and therefore pretty ignorant about the mundane life. In a period where inheritance and titles are reserved only to the firstborns, there are many noblemen around without means and destined to an existence as bachelors, becoming gallants to some dame. The advantage was mutual even though that strange relationship, which was also meant as a protection for the dame in many aspects of her life, was often turning into an adulterous relationship. The gallant had to prevent the mistress from spoiling her virtues, interposing between a possible lover, while her husband was going around for business, fun or in visit of one of his own lovers.
As Mary Wortley reported, the husband was the one trying to choose the gallant for their wives, even though she was always able to get one to her liking. The choice was vast according to Madame de Staël in her novel “Corinna, or, Italy”, based on the diary of one of her trips in Italy.
“Three or four men with different functions follow the same lady, who, sometimes without even taking the trouble to mention their names to her host, takes them with her; one is the favourite, another is the man who aspires to be so, the third is called the sufferer (il patito). He is completely scorned; but he is allowed to play the part of ardent admirer; and all these rivals live peacefully together”.
When Madame de Staël wrote about the matter (1807) it was almost at the end of that too libertine trend: the 1800’s was the century of the romanticism, of passion, even the amorous ones, which did not leave room to the dry relationships of cohabitation experienced until then both inside and even more outside the marriage (is it possible to imagine Lord Byron as a gallant?).
Furthermore the French Revolution had recently finished, with its more rigid morality and decor compared to the habits the noblemen used to have. Let alone the rhetoric of the Italian Risorgimento, all interested in celebrating sacrifice and the personal commitment for the common good: nothing compared to those sinful individuals from that obscure past and their martyrs of gallantry and slaves for the whims of the gentle sex.
The Gallant, illustration for a Carlo Goldoni’s work
Above: public domain image
And yet, with all the limitations of the epoch, the 1700 seemed to be a period in which, surprisingly, women had some freedoms that later on went lost and became extremely hard to gain back.