In 18th- and 19th-century Italy, the cicisbeo (Italian pronunciation: [tʃitʃizˈbɛːo]; plural: cicisbei), or cavalier servente (chevalier servant in French), was the professed gallant and perhaps lover in a sexual sense 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 Spain cortejo or estrecho and, to a lesser degree, to the France petit-maître. The exact etymology of the word is unknown; some evidence suggests it originally meant "in a whisper" (perhaps an onomatopeic word). Other accounts suggest it is an inversion of bel cece, 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).
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 18th century.
The cicisbeo was better tolerated if he was known to be homosexual. Louise d'Épinay wrote from Paris to her friend Ferdinando 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"
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 Teresa, Contessa Guiccioli. After Byron's death, the Contessa's second husband, the Marquis de Boissy, was known to brag about the fact. Byron also famously analyzed the institution from an England 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 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.
The topic can be found in the contemporary poem Il Giorno (1763) by Giuseppe Parini. Other works from the period which make good (subjectively) use of the topic include: