Luigi Ponelato, Il cicisbeo, etching, 1790

In 18th- and 19th-century Italy, the cicisbeo (Italian pronunciation: [ˌtʃitʃizˈbɛːo]; 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 or estrecho and, to a lesser degree, to the French petit-maître.[1] The exact etymology of the word is unknown; some evidence suggests it originally meant "in a whisper"[2] (perhaps an onomatopeic word). Other accounts suggest it is an inversion of bel cece,[3] which means "beautiful chick (pea)". According to OED, the first recorded usage of the term in English was found in a letter by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu dated 1718. The term appears in Italian in Giovanni Maria Muti's "Quaresimale Del Padre Maestro Fra Giovanni Maria Muti De Predicatori" of 1708 (p. 734).


Social importance

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.[4] While many contemporary references to cicisbei and descriptions of their social standing exist,[5] scholars diverge on the exact nature of the phenomenon.[6] Some maintain that this institution was defined by marriage contracts,[7] others question this claim and see it as a peculiarity of 18th-century customs that is not well-defined or easily explained.[8] Other scholars see it as a sign of the increasing emancipation of aristocratic women in the 18th century.[9]

The cicisbeo was better tolerated if he was known to be homosexual. Louise d'Épinay wrote from Paris to her friend the abbé Galiani about the impending departure of marchese Alvise Mocenigo, the Venetian ambassador, whose tastes the ambassador had displayed in Paris:

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"[10]

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.[11] Byron also famously analyzed 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.[12] [...] [E]very married lady in this country has her cicisbeo, or servente, who attends her every where on all occasions, and upon whose privileges the husband dares not encroach, without incurring the censure and ridicule of the whole community.[13]

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.[4] 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.[11]

Cicisbei in the arts

The topic can be found in the contemporary poem Il Giorno (1763) by Giuseppe Parini. Other works from the period which make good use of the topic include:

See also


  1. ^ Silvana Patriarca, "Indolence and Regeneration: Tropes and Tensions of Risorgimento Patriotism", The American Historical Review, 110(2), 2005
  2. ^ Gaite
  4. ^ a b Krünitz, Cicisbeo.
  5. ^ Boswell, 17–19; Smollett; Black, 123–26; Forsyth, 377, 411–12. All cited in Patriarca.
  6. ^ Patriarca.
  7. ^ Barbagli, 331–36. Cited in Patriarca.
  8. ^ Bizzocchi, 67–69. Cited in Patriarca.
  9. ^ Cazzoli, 2028–35. Cited in Patriarca.
  10. ^ Quoted in Francis Steegmuller, A Woman, A Man, and Two Kingdoms: The Story of Madame d'Épinay and the Abbé Galiani (New York) 1991:178.
  11. ^ a b Hodgson, 16.
  12. ^ Smollett, Letter XVII from Nice, July 2, 1764.
  13. ^ Smollett, Letter XXVII from Nice, January 28, 1765.

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • cicisbeo — (n.) 1718, from It. cicisbeo the recognized gallant of a married woman. Perhaps from Fr. chiche beau, or from Venetian dialect cici the chattering of women (attested in 18c.) …   Etymology dictionary

  • cicisbeo — [si sis′bē ō΄] n. pl. cicisbeos [si sis′bēōz΄] [It] 1. the lover of a married woman: also It. cicisbeo [chē΄chēz bā′ō̂] n. 2. 3. cicisbei [chē΄chēzbā′ē] …   English World dictionary

  • Cicisbeo — Ci cis*be o, n.; pl. It. {Cicisbei}. [It.] 1. A professed admirer of a married woman; a dangler about women. [1913 Webster] 2. A knot of silk or ribbon attached to a fan, walking stick, etc. [Obs.] [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Cicisbeo — Cicisbēo (ital., spr. tschitschis ) oder Cavaliēre servénte, nach früherer ital. Sitte der erklärte Hausfreund, der eine verheiratete Dame in Gesellschaften etc. begleitete …   Kleines Konversations-Lexikon

  • Cicisbeo — (Tschitschisbeo), nach (jetzt meist abgekommener) ital. Sitte der stete Begleiter einer verheiratheten Dame in Gesellschaften, zu öffentlichen Lustbarkeiten etc …   Herders Conversations-Lexikon

  • Cicisbeo — Cicisbeo,der:⇨Geliebte(I) …   Das Wörterbuch der Synonyme

  • cicisbeo — /tʃitʃi zbɛo/ s.m. [nome formato onomatopeicamente per esprimere il chiacchiericcio]. 1. (stor.) [nella società del sec. 18°, nobile che serviva galantemente una dama] ▶◀ cavalier servente. 2. (estens.) [giovane fatuo e leggero che fa il galante… …   Enciclopedia Italiana

  • Cicisbeo — Luigi Ponelato: Il Cicisbeo, Illustration zu Goldonis Werken Bd. 13, Venedig 1790 Der Cicisbeo ([t͡ʃit͡ʃizˈbɛo], ital. auch cavalier servente ‚dienender Kavalier‘) war im 18. und 19. Jahrhundert in Italien ein galanter Höfling, der der Dame des… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Cicisbeo — Ci|cis|beo 〈[tʃitʃis ] m.; od. s, s; veraltet〉 Hausfreund, Liebhaber [ital., „Begleiter u. Gesellschafter verheirateter Frauen“] * * * Ci|cis|beo [t̮ʃit̮ʃɪs be:o ], der; [s], s [ital. cicisbeo, viell. lautm.] (bildungsspr. verhüll.): ↑ Hausfreund …   Universal-Lexikon

  • cicisbeo — noun a) A knightly servant of a high born lady. Of course a cicisbeo is a normal enough figure in Alexandrian life, but things are going to become socially very boring for you if you go out with those two so much. b) A married womans lover; a… …   Wiktionary

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