Like many revenge tragedies, The White Devil is based on a historical affair. It was a popular story in its day, an equivalent to a contemporary tabloid affair, and so Webster might have expected his audience to have at least a passing familiarity with it.
The story begins in 1580, when Paolo Giordano, Duke of Bracciano, the husband of Isabella de' Medici, met and fell in love with Vittoria Accoramboni, who was married to the poor nephew of Cardinal Montalto. Although Vittoria refused his advances, Giordano had her husband killed at Monte Cavallo through the help of her brother, Marcello. He then killed his own wife, and convinced Vittoria to marry him.
The victims were powerful people, and their relatives soon rioted. Vittoria was placed in a nunnery, from which Giordano soon sprung her. They married and, banished from Rome, held court in Padua for two months until Giordano died from poison. Vittoria refused to give up her inheritance, and a small army of men stormed into her house and shot her brother. Lodovico Orsini, a relation of her late husband and a notorious murderer of thirty-four men, stabbed her while she was at prayer. He soon surrendered to an avenging army, however, and admitted that he performed the murder at the request of great men. He was privately strangled to death, while his accomplices were pulled apart by hot tongs, killed with a hammer, and quartered.
Unlike in the play, the real Vittoria seems to be conventionally moral, and not the headstrong temptress the men accuse her of being. Addtionally, Webster took great liberties with the character of Flamineo, making him the instigator of action and not one recruited by the duke. By rearranging the two brothers, Webster creates a biting and bitter commentary on both the futility of class mobility and the corrupt power of "great men."