Antonelli and Gasparo, courtiers of Francisco de Medicis, duke of Florence, bring to Count Lodovico in Rome the news that he is banished because of his notorious intrigues and bloody murders. Lodovico cannot understand why he is singled out for punishment when other noblemen, especially the duke of Brachiano, are guilty of crimes just as heinous.
Brachiano is trying to seduce Vittoria Corombona, wife of the aging Camillo. Helping Brachiano in his scheme is Vittoria’s unscrupulous brother Flamineo, who convinces Camillo that the best way to keep Vittoria virtuous is to give her unlimited freedom. This privilege granted, Vittoria keeps an assignation with Brachiano. Through the transparent symbolism of a dream that she fabricates, Vittoria urges her lover to murder Isabella, his wife, and Camillo, her husband. Just as Brachiano declares his love for Vittoria and his understanding of her design, Vittoria’s mother, Cornelia, discloses herself to denounce the two and to announce the arrival of Brachiano’s wife in Rome.
Isabella’s brothers, Francisco and Cardinal Monticelso, summon Brachiano to remonstrate against his philandering. When their appeal to Brachiano’s sense of virtue results only in mutual recrimination, the brothers produce Giovanni, Brachiano’s son, whose youthful innocence, they hope, will inspire Brachiano with a sense of family duty. Confronted alone by Isabella, Brachiano proves the folly of such a hope by berating his wife and vowing never again to sleep with her. To forestall the war that will surely ensue if Francisco learns of this vow, Isabella pretends that she is unable to forgive her husband and declares that she is abandoning her husband’s bed. Her ruse and Brachiano’s acquiescence in it fools Francisco so completely that he denounces Isabella for mad jealousy.
Disgusted by their sister’s vow but convinced that she will soon retract it, Francisco and Monticelso turn their attention to Camillo and Marcello, another of Vittoria’s brothers, whom they decide to appoint joint commissioners in charge of combating the pirates reportedly led by the banished Lodovico. Camillo objects because he fears he will be cuckolded during his absence from home, but Monticelso’s promise to keep an eye on Vittoria quiets him. Actually, Monticelso and Francisco are giving Camillo the commission to get him away from Rome so that Brachiano might have free access to Vittoria. By this scheme the two brothers hope to plunge Brachiano into a shameful scandal.
Brachiano, however, makes his own plans, arranging for Flamineo to murder Camillo, and for Julio, a physician, to kill Isabella. Through the magic of a conjurer, Brachiano is able to watch the murders, Isabella dying from kissing a poisoned portrait of her husband, and Camillo, from being pushed off a vaulting horse in a gymnasium.
Monticelso and Francisco immediately bring Vittoria to trial for the murder of her husband, although they know they have no evidence other than her ill repute. At her trial before the ambassadors to Rome, a hearing presided over by Monticelso, Brachiano admits that he stayed at Vittoria’s house the night of the murder. This testimony, along with other incriminating but circumstantial evidence of her adultery, is sufficient to convict Vittoria, although she protests her innocence and denounces the conduct of the trial. Monticelso sentences her to confinement in a house of reformed prostitutes.
Immediately after the pronouncement of this sentence, Giovanni arrives to tell his uncles of his mother’s death. Accompanying him is Lodovico, who secretly was in love with Isabella and who, in fact, witnessed her death. Francisco and Monticelso realize that Brachiano was responsible for the murder of their sister but disagree on how to avenge it. Fearing that a war might result...
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from an open attack on Brachiano, yet unwilling to defer vengeance, Francisco, inspired by a vision of Isabella’s ghost, devises a trick. He writes a letter to Vittoria, professing his love for her, and instructs his servant to deliver it when some of Brachiano’s men are close by.
As Francisco hopes, Flamineo intercepts the letter and gives it to Brachiano, who is, as expected, enraged by Vittoria’s apparent infidelity. A violent quarrel ensues between the two, refereed by the pandering Flamineo. It ends in a reconciliation so sweet that Brachiano resolves to have Vittoria stolen away from the home and then to marry her. To trick Brachiano into marrying a woman of ill repute is exactly what Francisco hoped for, but his lust for revenge is not yet satisfied. He engages Lodovico, who was pardoned, to murder Brachiano.
Monticelso, who has just been elected pope, excommunicates Brachiano and his bride; then, learning of the plotted murder, he forbids Lodovico to commit it. Monticelso’s command is ignored, however, when Francisco sends Lodovico a thousand crowns in Monticelso’s name, a gift that convinces Lodovico that the pope was craftily insincere.
Francisco apparently decides to oversee the murder himself, for he disguises himself as Mulinasser, a Moor, and proceeds to Brachiano’s palace in Padua, accompanied by Lodovico and Gasparo, who are disguised as Knights of Malta. Welcomed by Brachiano, the trio plan a horrible death for him.
Before they can carry out their scheme, another murder is committed. A quarrel between Marcello and Flamineo over the latter’s amorous attentions paid to Zanche, Vittoria’s Moorish maid, results in Flamineo’s killing his brother. While Brachiano passes judgment on the murderer, Lodovico sprinkles Brachiano’s helmet with poison. The poison drives Brachiano mad. Soon thereafter, Lodovico and Gasparo, dressed as Capuchins, enter the room where the count lies raving; they reveal their true identity and strangle him.
After his lord’s death, Flamineo asks Vittoria for a reward in payment of his long, treacherous service. Rebuffed, he produces two pairs of pistols, claiming that he promised Brachiano to kill himself and Vittoria after Brachiano’s death. Vittoria persuades Flamineo to die first, but when she and Zanche fire the pistols at him they learn that Flamineo, to test Vittoria, did not load the weapons. Before he can murder the women, however, Lodovico and Gasparo rush in and kill all three. Giovanni and a group of ambassadors discover the murderers standing over the corpses. Wounded, Lodovico confesses and then discloses the part Francisco played in these bloody deeds. Giovanni swears vengeance on the duke of Florence.