There is some discrepancy as to what year Carlo Gesualdo was born. Some scholars say it was in 1560 or 1561, others claim it was 1564. The general consensus however is that Gesualdo was born on March 8,1566 in Venosa, Italy. He was the second son of Fabrizio II Gesualdo and Girolama Borromeo; feudal landowners who owned several palaces. Thus, Carlos Gesualdo's full title was Duke Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa.
Gesualdo's interest in music started at a very young age. He played the lute and the harpsichord and he also sang. Being the second son, his passion for music was supported by his family. But in 1584 his older brother, Luigi, died and the burden of producing the family heir fell on his shoulders.
In 1586 Gesualdo married his cousin, Donna Maria d’Avalos, who was already widowed twice and had two children from her past marriage. Donna Maria quickly became pregnant with their first child whom they named Emmanuele. Soon after, Carlo Gesualdo lost interest in his wife and returned his attention to his music.
Pining for the love and attention of a man, Donna Maria had an affair with Don Fabrizio Carafa, the Duke of Andria who was also married and had four children. Their affair lasted for two years and it is said that they would bribe their servants so they can continue their affair. By this time rumors were starting to spread about their affair and it was just a matter of time when Carlo Gesualdo would find out. Don Giulio, Carlo Gesualdo's uncle, is believed to be the one who revealed his wife's affair to him. It is also believed that Don Fabrizio suggested to Donna Maria that they should cool things off as rumors about them are now widely spread. But Donna Maria would not listen and thus, the lovers vowed to die for love.
It is believed that Don Carlo cleverly entrapped the lovers by announcing he will be gone for an overnight hunting trip. Believing that they were safe to meet, Don Fabrizio came over to be with Donna Maria. Don Carlo then went into the palace and smashed down the bedroom door, revealing his wife in the arms of another man. Don Carlo stabbed them both, several times until they died. Then he ordered their naked bodies to be taken out and exposed to the public.
Carlo Gesualdo was never brought to justice for committing the murders because of his status. But he indeed paid a high price for it because he was deeply affected both emotionally and mentally. He was married for a second time to Eleonora d’Este in February 1594. It was during those first few years when Don Carlo was very productive, he composed four books of five-part madrigals from which he is most noted. Yet there are stories about his affairs (with both sexes), cruelty to his wife and that he had sadistic and masochistic tendencies. Eleonara wanted to leave him but each time she would, Don Carlo would beg her to come back.
Gesualdo died in 1613. Soon after, his son (Alfonsino) from his second wife died. Eleonora was left to take care of her girls, she renounced the estate and married Prince Nicolino Ludoviso of Bolgna, the Pope's nephew. She died at the age of 76.
Carlo Gesualdo is known as a leading composer of madrigals. His music is characterized by sudden changes in tempo and highly erotic texts. It is known that Igor Stravinsky was fascinated by Gesualdo's work that he even visited the late composer's hometown.