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.

While not strictly heterosexual, Lord Byron definitely liked all kinds of sex. With everyone, really. Byron and Teresa were having an epic love affair – they were having sex in gondolas all over Venice, which I guess would be a lot like taxi cab sex, but much cooler – and Byron suggested that they run away together. Teresa replied that wouldn’t be necessary, because he could simply become her cicisbeo.

Look, here’s a picture of Lord Byron, the poet and philosopher at the forefront of the Romantic movement who died fighting for Greek Independence.

Lord Byron

I’d have run away with him. But that’s just me. Teresa seemed convinced that this cicisbeo arrangement would be a perfect way to legitimize their affair and continue having gondola sex. It wasn’t completely irrational. Until Teresa’s husband found out about the couple’s affair, and made full use of the legal rights afforded to a husband when a wife had a cicisbeo. Elizabeth Abbot, one of my favorite historians, writes:

So how did cavalier servente work for Teresa? First, Count Guiccioli “borrowed” a large sum of money from Byron, then invited him to move into their palace where eighteen servants spied on the lovers and made sexual trysts nearly impossible. Guiccioli also noisily exercised his husbandly right to sex with Teresa, making Byron intensely jealous.


As the affair deteriorated, Byron complained that a man should not be hobbled to a woman, and that his “ex­istence [as a cavalier servente] is to be condemned.” Weary of the conflict and rancor, and no longer “furiously in love,” Byron left Italy – and Teresa – forever. Teresa grieved. In breaking the rules that forbid a cavalier servente from abandoning his mis­tress, Byron had broken her heart and humiliated her.

So, really, it didn’t work out well. Though for some time thereafter Teresa’s husband bragged that Lord Byron had once been his wife’s cicisbeo. I’m not sure who you should come out of this story liking, but I feel a convincing case could be made for the wily husband. Byron and the Countess had fun while it lasted, and I’m sure spying provided an interesting diversion for those eighteen servants.

It sure beats knitting.

Picture via 19th Century Post, wikipedia