John Webster's most famous play tells the real-life tragedy of Giovanna d'Aragona, Duchess of Amalfi – but who was this extraordinary woman?

Giovanna d'Aragona (1478 – c.1510)

Giovanna d’Aragona was born in 1478 to Enrico d'Aragona, the half-brother of King Frederick of Naples, making her a member of the Italian aristocracy. She had two brothers; Luigi d’Aragona, a Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church with power in the Vatican, and Carlo d’Aragona, Marquis of Gerace (Webster’s Ferdinand). 

Early Years

In 1490, at the age of twelve, Giovanna was married to Alfonso Piccolomini, who became Duke of Amalfi in 1493. However, the young Duke died shortly after in 1498, leaving a pregnant Giovanna widowed at age 19. Five months later, in March 1499, she gave birth to his son, also named Alfonso, who was immediately invested with the Duchy of Amalfi as his father's only heir. Giovanna became regent of Amalfi throughout her son’s infancy, and the town flourished during this period.

A man and woman in period dress stand with their arms around a young boy.
Derek Godfrey (Antonio) and Peggy Ashcroft (The Duchess) in our 1960 production of The Duchess of Malfi.
Photo by Angus McBean © RSC Browse and license our images

Secret Marriage

Following the death of her husband, Giovanna fell madly in love with Antonio Beccadelli of Bologna, her estate steward. He was of a lower status than the Duchess and she knew her family would disapprove of the pairing. They married in secret and had two children, events they managed to conceal from Giovanna's brothers for several years. Fearing the wrath of her family and with suspicions mounting around her third pregnancy, Giovanna left Amalfi in November 1510 and travelled to Ancona to meet Antonio and their two children.

Mysterious Death

Unfortunately, Giovanna could not escape her family’s sphere of influence, and her powerful brothers pressured the Cardinal of Ancona to expel the couple and their children. They managed to evade spies and assassins for a short while, but the family was ultimately separated on a journey between Sienna and Venice.

Whilst Antonio made it to Milan (where he remained till 1513 before he was murdered), the Duchess and her children were taken back to Amalfi and never seen again. Her brothers were heavily suspected of orchestrating the murder of the Duchess, Antonio and their children, however, no evidence has ever been found to confirm this...