In 18th- and 19th-century Venice, the cicisbeo (; plural: cicisbei), or Cavalier Servente, was the professed gallant and lover of a married woman, who attended her at public entertainments, to church and other occasions and had privileged access to his mistress. The arrangement is comparable to the Spanish cortejo and, to a lesser degree, to the French petit-maître. The exact etymology of the word is unknown, some evidence suggests it originally meant "in a whisper" (perhaps an onomatopeic word), some suggests it is an inversion of bel cece , "beautiful chick (pea)". According to OED, the first recorded usage of the term in English is found in a letter by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu dated 1718.
This arrangement, called the cicisbeatura or cicisbeismo, was widely practiced, with knowledge and consent of the husband, especially among the nobility of the cities of Genoa, Nice, Venice, Florence and Rome. While many contemporary references to cicisbei and descriptions of their social standing exist, scholars diverge on the exact nature of the phenomenon. Some maintain that this institution was defined by marriage contracts, others question this claim and see it as a peculiarity of 18th-century customs that is not well-defined or easily explained. Other scholars see it as a sign of the increasing emancipation of aristocratic women in the eighteenth century.
Regardless of its roots and technicalities, the custom was firmly entrenched. Typically, husbands tolerated or even welcomed the arrangement. Lord Byron, for example, was cicisbeo to Contessa Teresa Gamba Guiccioli. After his death, her second husband, Marquis de Boissy, was known to brag about the fact. Byron also famously analysed the institution from an English point of view in his poem Beppo. Attempts by the husband to ward off prospective cicisbei or disapproval of the practice in general was likely to be met with ridicule and scorn:
[...] for, 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.
[E]very married lady in this country has her cicisbeo, or servente, who attends her every where, and on all occasions; and upon whose privileges the husband dares not encroach, without incurring the censure and ridicule of the whole community.
Cicisbei played by set rules, generally avoiding public displays of affection. At public entertainments, they would typically stand behind their seated mistress and whisper in her ear. Customs of the time did not permit them to engage in relationships with any other women during their free time, making the arrangement rather demanding. Both parties could decide to end the relationship at any time. A woman's former cicisbei were called spiantati (literally penniless, destroyed), or cast-offs. Many comic operas from the period profit from the cicisbeo institution, for instance Rossini's operas ''L'Italiana in Algeri and Il Turco in Italia''.
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