Despite the great wigs, one of the reasons that I do not want to develop a time machine and go back to the 18th century is the notion that I would probably be married off to someone I didn’t like very much, who would then take a mistress. While I would do . . . nothing. At least, nothing in terms of fun and flirtations and romance. I would bear children, and I would knit. Knitting. That’s a past-time for ladies. They knit like fiends, slowly forming the nets that symbolize the metaphoric web called Life which has so trapped them.
Wrong! Not true! And not the case for all women. If you ended up in 18th century Italy, you would totally not knit, because you would have a cicisbeo – sometimes called a cavalier servente.
Where men were permitted mistresses, in Italian culture through the 18th and 19th centuries a somewhat similar arrangement existed for women. You were allowed to take a cicisbeo, a man who was the professed lover of a married woman. The cicisbeo would sign a document vowing to love only that woman, never to marry, and never to leave Italy. He would also promise never to dishonor his inamorata’s family nor her husband. With those rules in place, the cicisbeo had a fair amount of access to the woman, and would often stand behind her at public entertainments and whisper in her ear, though refrain from public displays of affection.
Byron wrote of this extremely civilized tradition, saying:
You must understand, this Italian fashion prevails at Nice among all ranks of people; and there is not such a passion as jealousy known. The husband and the cicisbeo live together as sworn brothers; and the wife and the mistress embrace each other with marks of the warmest affection . . . every married lady in this country has her cicisbeo, or servente, who attends her everywhere on all occasions, and upon whose privileges the husband dares not encroach, without incurring the censure and ridicule of the whole community.
But don’t get too excited. You couldn’t have sex with him. Love was tolerated between a cicisbeo and a married woman, but actual intercourse was not.
Which was probably really frustrating for most heterosexual cicisbeo, which explains why a great many of them were probably gay. The saloniste (and lover of Rousseau, who Rousseau later trashed in his Confessions) Louise d’Épinay wrote:
Nothing equals the friendly companionship afforded to a woman by men of those persuasions. To the rest of you, so full of yourselves, one can’t say a word that you don’t take as provocation . . . Whereas with those gentlemen one knows quite well that they want no more of us than we of them—one feels in no danger and deliciously free.
So, the cicisbeo was really just something of a walker, or an extra man? That’s still a fairly common concept. I was going to insert a video of the Cole Porter song “Extra Man” here, but there is no video of it online so, go here, listen to it, learn all the words and then please record yourself singing it so no one else ever has this problem again.
To some extent the “hands off” policy was in effect - except when it wasn’t, as was the case with Lord Byron and Countess Teresa Guiccioli.