“Why don’t you write us something about a local ghost story?” I was asked back in June.
And why not indeed… Only, when I set about researching, I found that my unimaginative hometown only has one official ghost.
Agnese Visconti was one of the many daughters of the Prince of Milan. Plain, sickly and waspish, she was married off very young to handsome Francesco Gonzaga, only son and heir to the de facto Lord of Mantova. It wasn’t what you’d call a happy marriage – but then nobody expected it to be – and it produced only one daughter.
Then Agnese’s father was murdered by an ambitious nephew, Gian Galeazzo Visconti, and things went truly downhill. Agnese decided she wanted revenge, and began working with her exiled brother to get back Milan… But Gian Galeazzo was quickly making himself a reputation for snatching whatever neighbouring princedom or seigniory he liked – on the flimsiest pretext. So, when his ambassadors began to hint that their lord disliked Agnese’s “traitorous” fussing, Francesco knew what was coming.
Presented with a choice between wife and throne, he didn’t hesitate for long. He either engineered or seized on a charge of adultery (it is still not clear which) and had Agnese tried as publicly as could be. Whether she had truly cuckolded him or not, the verdict was a foregone conclusion: Agnese was beheaded in February 1391, and the legend goes that her ghost still haunts the place of her execution – bemoaning either her unjust demise or her betrayal of her husband, depending on whom you believe.
A sorry tale, isn’t it? It was turned into several novels and plays through the XIXth Century – always highly and sugarily romanticised. One of the worst offenders was one Felice Cavallotti, whose Agnese, a six-act verse tragedy, has the most angelic and beautiful heroine-in-distress you could imagine…
And that’s where I come in, with a small play in which Agnese’s sharp-tongued ghost confronts the poets over his poetic lies, what exactly makes a story tragic, the needs of the stage, truth and fiction, a woman’s role, and so on…
Agnese e Nulla Più (Just Agnese, more or less) will have its début next Monday.