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The sigisbées, when Italy invents marriage for three


In the 17th century, there appeared an Italian custom of "going out into the world with three people": the husband, the wife and the sigisbée, which some call " threesome marriage ". These particular characters that were the sigisbées, could be assimilated to the "knight serving" of the noble lady, in Italy of the XVIII E century. He had a role and a specific function perfectly defined: to keep company, to accompany the lady in her outings, but always with the agreement of the husband and with very precise limits.

The beginnings

Before the 17th century, the woman was the mother of children, responsible for the house and domestic service. But the social life of the Italian nobility and the condition of women changed greatly between the 17th century and the 18th century. We imitated the art of conversation, the literature salons, the refined lifestyle coming from Versailles, we copied the European courts, good manners, good education and politeness: "worldly feminine sociability" was born where the women were at the center of refinement and gallant courtesy.

This sociability then led to a change in the behavior of husbands who felt less jealousy and who could no longer carry the sword at receptions. To keep up with fashion and the times, there was also a change in clothing and eating habits with the appearance of chocolate spoons, coffee cups, ice cream makers, as well as in the comfort of the living environment. Small, decorated, luxurious places were installed, the furniture was adapted: a sort of sofa, especially not a double chair with a central armrest "the conversation is composed and formal between a man and a woman, seated one beside the 'another on a couch, his back straight and his arms still ”.

The sigisbees therefore appeared around 1690 in Italy, because "no woman could more decently appear alone in public, no husband could accompany his wife without ridicule". According to some, this custom comes from French soldiers during the siege of Turin, going to the carnival of Genoa to woo the ladies. From Genoa, this custom spread to the rest of Italy.

In Naples, around 1680, the nobles followed French fashion, but with more restraint, manners being more serious "as regards the honesty not only of women but also of men, the city of Naples can serve as an example. to many other cities in Europe ”. And again around 1740, it was impossible for the women to live freely in their houses "the rooms remained open, servants were in all the rooms, the carriage rides resembled Muslim surveillance". Naples will see the arrival and the institution of the sigisbées only around 1740; but in 1770, everything changed "conversations, magnificent dinners and lunches offered to people coming from outside, morning visits to the bathroom when the ladies are getting ready".

In Turin, the world was more serious, but sad. The private rooms functioned only with the agreement of the court, "the ladies cannot go out alone with their servant knights and gallantry is very badly practiced".

In Calabria and in the south in Sicily, there was so much jealousy on the part of the husbands that the wives therefore did not come out of sigisbees. In the big towns, a few sigisbees could be admitted, the nobles enjoying conversations and evening walks; but in the small towns and in the countryside it was impossible. This practice will not exist in Calabria until the very end of the 18th century, around 1790.

Who are the sigisbees

The appearance and the rise of the sigisbées comes from the fact of celibacy, because there were a large number of single people at the end of the 17th century and at the beginning of the 18th century. As a rule, men married around the age of 35, with young girls of 20, the sigisbée being an age in between.

Many young people wanted to enjoy life after college and flourish before marriage. For some it was beneficial. The establishment as a serving knight gave occupation, saved them from pernicious disorders "a young person who did not know any lady would be suspected of having a bad temper, of being libertine". The company of a married woman, respected and aware of the customs of the world was the assurance for the young nobles, to have a good training and a good education.

The sigisbees were therefore for some celibates, sometimes little abbots, priests or even bishops. Their ecclesiastical income enabled them to make expenses to maintain their rank with the ladies. They could be called "guides" and were sometimes several in their departments, when it was necessary to make replacements.

They were found only in the service of noble families and rulers. The sigisbees, women, wives of noble financiers or those close to the State, used their diplomacy, could have power and intervened to succeed in financial or marital alliances between the children of the spouses and other families.

Their counterparts

Although sigisbeism was reserved for the nobility, the countryside and popular circles wanting to imitate the greatest, there were also kinds of sigisbees that were called "accomplices or gossips". This desire to copy often led to great disagreements among couples, not used to worldliness. A code of good manners was then published in 1789 in Naples "the mirror of civility, or moral jokes" by Nicolo Vottiero, resembling the custom and chivalrous service.

In these circles, we also spoke of “brassier”, originally the one who offered his arm and accompanied the lady to help her get into the coach: he was a salaried servant, of high level, often a man of good looking and mature.

Sigisbeism did not spread among the bourgeoisie. Some sigisbees have served the wife of an official in the state bureaucracy, or the wife of a wealthy merchant. The rules were not at all the same and the sigisbées associating with commoners became the laughing stock of everyone.

Sigisbeism did not allow social openness, as the Marquis Dalla Valle or La Lande tells us: “this freedom of quality women does not extend to middle order, because city-dwellers in Venice live a lot in their homes and have no neither cicisbée nor casin; the bourgeoisie or "the middle" is too decent, too intelligent for this kind of practice ”.

In France, they have their fellows, nicknamed "the little masters": young noble socialites, elegant, idle, libertines, following the fashion.

The rules of sigisbeism

Sigisbeism is above all characterized by an assiduous court, provoking a gallant intimacy, a kind of platonic love whose essential element is the exclusion of adultery; the sigisbée must have learned good behavior, good manners and especially sexual continence. Despite the compulsory restraint, he is very often in love with the lady but he can "pay court as a respectful lover".

There are real hiring and service rules, as in a specification. The sigisbée was chosen by mutual agreement between the parents and the newlyweds, because it had to please the lady and her husband. If the lady is older, she knows how to choose her serving knight.

No document exists, but thanks to the Memoirs left, we can read "contract signed in 1798 in Pisa, chapters fixed and agreed between the noble lady Teresa Lorenzani and the knight Tommaso Poschi, for the service he was to render as knight serving and that must lend the aforementioned lady served ”with paragraphs like“ the lady can be tender with anyone, without showing contempt for the sigisbée; the sigisbée is not required to come and present himself to the lady every day and the lady cannot complain about it; if the knight stays a year without coming, the lady leaves him three times two months to reflect and decide if he continues to serve her ”. It may seem incredible, and some of the paragraphs are sometimes burlesque.

In all the marriage contracts of the Italians, there is an item mentioned "pocket money or annuity allocated to the lady by the husband for his social life, coaches, horses, servants and accompanists, subscription to the theater, etc." », As we discover in the Memoirs of Vittorio Alfieri sigisbée in 1773 and his lady" La Palma Mansi ".

Their role

The knight serving does not stay on site, but upon his arrival, he attends everything in the private and in the public: hairdressing, dressing, snacks, breakfast, games, theater performance, accompaniment to parties and mass. He must know how to hold a conversation and can leave with the lady for a stay in another city, in the countryside, all financed by the husband who does not always have time to walk his wife, due to his important functions in the country. society. For women, it is a relative and controlled freedom.

He acts as a bodyguard, no one being able to get too close to the lady. For people who would have liked to court him, the sigisbée is a great barrier too suffocating. It is however a complement to the balance and the good functioning of the household.

In parallel to his function of accompanist, if relations are very good with the husband and the lady, he may be called upon to become a mediator and adviser in household affairs. He also takes care of the children of the lady, at the level of the education of the boys as would have done the father, who is absent; later, it will be able to give the young person a good place in the noble and financial circles. Sometimes, on the death of the mother, and always according to existing friendships, the sigisbée can replace the real family until the boy is made his major heir.

Sigisbeism has political value, private support, as in Rome and Turin. The prelates or cardinals, often in their role of sigisbée, helped in family alliances. Unfortunately in Rome, Sigisbeism led to abuses, exaggerations and court intrigues.

Another example should be cited: Elisabeth Vigée le Brun, who had taken refuge in Venice in 1790, had to comply with the custom of the sigisbée; his was the great art collector Dominique Vivant Denon, "loaned" by the sigisbée that Denon was in charge of. There was a kind of loan to each other, especially for new foreigners arriving in Italy or those passing through.

The inconvenients

The sigisbees service can "open a reciprocal flow of sympathy between the lady and her knight servant", there could be a relationship between the two but since there were other people around regularly, more tender relationships proved difficult. Testimonials sometimes show us a relationship that turns into love, confidence, and genuine friendship.

Jealousy sometimes appeared in this triangle "jealous husbands who suffer with spite from these singular beings, who are the second masters of their disordered households".

The problems could be more serious than jealousy. The husband on the move, risked finding children on his return! However, filiation was primordial among the nobles who wanted the transmission of the natural characteristics of their superiority: dignity, purity of blood, wealth of the house. So the couple's children had to be from the father ...

To avoid the bastards, shortly after the wedding the couple went to the countryside and less than a year later the baby was born. It was only after, that the sigisbée entered the service of the lady, even if her choice was attested in the marriage contract. On the other hand, the Italian nobles were not ignorant, they were up to date with progress and contraceptive techniques.

However, some illegitimate births were recognized in closed environments. Infant mortality being high, the bastard child and therefore the sigisbée were very useful as Brooke an English traveler tells us in his Memoirs during his visit to Rome in 1794 "the use although not consecrated by the Church, n ' is not ignored by the Holy Father; that in fact, the sigisbée is neither more nor less than a second husband and a reliable friend of the house. But how is it possible for a husband to know his children? It's enough that he knows that they are his wife's children! ".

The refractory to Sigisbeism

The Church was first to revolt against this custom which she considered to be harmful for the honesty of women, for the peace of families and for the social order, this system diverting the attention of the hostess, to the level of savings.

In 1706, the parish priests lectured "the habit of telling the best of married women and serving them is an intolerable practice". But the Church had to become flexible, as Alphonse-Marie de Liguori puts it in his “Moral Theology” explaining that “hearing obscene comedies is a mortal sin only if we do so with the intention of entertaining them. turpitudes; if you go there out of curiosity, it's a venial sin. Dancing is not a libidinous act, but an act of joy ”.

Facing the priests, the Dominicans kept watch. Concina had an "instruction of confessors and penitents" printed in 1759, categorically refusing the compromise. And Montesquieu added "it is the most ridiculous thing that a foolish people could have invented: they are lovers without hope, victims who sacrifice their freedom to the lady they have chosen." Finally, after the knights errant, there is nothing so stupid as a sigisbée ”. For moralists, it was rather “when a man and a woman are alone in the intimacy, it is assumed that they do not recite the Our Father! "

The end of the sigisbees

Manners began to change with the Revolution. In the constitution of 1795, a principle prevailed "no one is a good citizen unless he is a good son, a good father, a good friend, a good husband". The texts were abundant "it is unworthy of the condition of a free man to worship a woman as a divinity, to degrade herself to her in the most unworthy functions and to waste the days at her side. like a seraglio eunuch ”. The society of the nobles of the Ancien Régime had almost disappeared, the Revolution had transformed many things: fairness of patrimonial divisions between all children, abolition of the privilege of birth, greater sociability between the old nobility and the bourgeoisie, reform of the social label where the old nobles were to mix with the bourgeois and the lower classes.

In England, the bourgeoisie was growing in power, the country was beginning to return to marriage, with a rejection of marital infidelity and adultery.

In France, Rousseau spoke of "passionate and absolute love, incompatible with libertine lightness"; Maupassant assured “marriage and love have nothing to do with each other. We get married to start a family and we form a family to form society. When you get married, you have to unite convenience, combine fortunes, unite similar races ”; Stendhal also wrote "the serving knights were abolished under French domination, because Napoleon, in a spirit of order, restored morals to Italy".

In Italy, the process was set in motion later, the principles of the Revolution arrived between 1795 and 1815. A woman's diary appeared from December 1798 to January 1799 "the true republican" recalling points of morality and feminine condition, condemning celibacy, refusing arranged marriages, and above all mentioning the duties of wives: breastfeeding and raising children, taking care of domestic affairs.

A large part of the population had read Rousseau, appreciated his moral sensitivity, his spontaneity of romantic love. Sigisbeism was no longer conceivable with a shared conjugal life, private life was modified, more sober, more severe, more republican. The authors of this period strongly criticized the sigisbees and the conversations "it is absurd to allow married women free access to the conversation of men". The new couples became attached to each other, the woman having a conduct majestic, virtuous and full of wisdom.

The end of the sigisbées took place around 1810. The Napoleonic Empire brought back domestic seriousness, a conjugal commitment, the family being the basis of the recomposition of society resulting from the revolutionary trauma. We then spoke of the "Risorgimento" the time of the final burial of the custom of sigisbées for 1820.

The Restoration, which in 1815 reestablished the governments overthrown by Napoleon, could have brought back the sigisbees. Around 1820, foreign travelers recognized sigisbees in the men who gravitated around the ladies of good society "in the gallantry shops, the elegantly dressed ladies enter, most often accompanied by their sigisbees or serving knights, busy reviewing and to judge the Parisian novelties ”. Thus in Sicily, the custom of sigisbees was still in full swing and testimonies are recurrent "it has happened more than once that young people have demanded that it be stipulated in their marriage contract that such or such an individual would be their serving horseman or sigisbée; and the future husbands consented to it ”. Revolutionary ideas had not yet gotten to this low.

But, decency was becoming fashionable "Napoleon had imposed that all the invitation tickets were drawn up in the name of the husband and the wife", the spouses therefore remained together more and more often. A movement was born "the rebirth of the nation", with a new image of Italy, a national identity with the idea of ​​belonging to the nation and the redefinition of the duties of the two sexes: purity of mothers and "remasculinization" of women. men.

Everything was in order around 1850 after the publication of the treaty in 1846 written by a daughter of an aristocrat and a Jacobin doctor "on the moral education of Italian women" in which she insisted on maternal love, piety for the country. "Italian and mother, you must apply yourself not to consume life in celebrations and pleasures, but to give the country, in your children, good, generous, strong, wise citizens".

Marriage became the normal condition of life, young girls having to study, rather than cultivate frivolities, in a word "converse with herself"!

It is the triumph of Rousseauism!

According to the book “les sigisbées. how italy invented three-way marriage - 18th century ”by Roberto Bizzocchi. Alma editor, 2016.


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