A Catholic man with the name Giovanni Battiste (“John the Baptist”) Bugatti could hardly have had a more ironic role in church history than the man who, on this date in 1796, dispatched his first victim as official executioner of the Papal State. Nicholas Gentilucci was hanged for killing a clergyman and his coachman, then robbing two friars while on the lam; Gentilucci’s corpse was subsequently quartered.
Little is known about Gentilucci, but much is known of his then-17-year-old executioner, for Bugatti, who would become known simply as Mastro Titta, turned out to be the most individually prolific taker of life in turn-of-the-19th century Rome.
Bugatti was born in Rome in 1779 and, even while putting criminals of the state to death, lived and worked on the west side of the Tiber River as an umbrella painter. Executions were a side job, and these ghastly deeds were recognized as such by the church, which compensated him a paltry three cents of a Roman lira for each body.
“Minister of Justice”
The original Mastro Titta — the titular corruption of the “Minister of Justice” — took responsibility for each of his “patients” (as he called them, and as they were notoriously referred to by others), dutifully noting each of the 516 in his memoir. He stood for 69 years as the primary administrator of the death penalty in papal Rome, killing variously by beheading, hanging, and use of the mallet. Some were charged with murder, others with conspiracy, others with more petty crimes, but all were found guilty by the court of judges chosen by the Church’s bishops and cardinals.
The Minister’s performances were not without an (increasingly practiced) flair, heavy on the religious symbolism. Bugatti’s residence on the west side of the river meant that, when he was to carry out a punishment, he had first to cross the river.
Initially, the executions were carried out in the Piazza del Popolo, but that location was retired in the 1820’s; it’s not clear how consistent the location was after this, but at least one later execution occurred near San Giovanni decollato, home to the group of monks dedicated to comforting the condemned even when the final blow didn’t occur at its doorstep. Regardless of the locale, a spectacle soon arose surrounding that crossing and the parade which followed, as documented by Italian dialect poet G.G. Belli in 1835 (presumably for the execution of Giovanni Orioli di Lugo on July 11 of that year):
The Dilettante at the Bridge
They approach: Attention: the ceremony is brief.
Behold the condemned, neck bare and stretched.
He is the first man of the opera, the Patient,
The Ace of Spades, lord of the fesitval.
And behold the professor that will soon be
The surgeon acting for the people
For three pence, the community,
He will cure the ills of their pained head!
But not the man on the left: the other, to the right.
He in the second place is the Assistant.
The proceedings wait for Mastro Titta.
Do you want the usual from me, who takes the head?
I who never miss it: I am consistent;
And I know him as well as I know the Pope.
Just a Job
Bugatti was known for playing the role of executioner in a manner which left no doubt as to his feelings towards the act: it was his job, his service to the Church itself, undisturbed by any personal animus towards the condemned — particularly early in his career.
He often offered snuff to his victims and spoke briefly and quietly with them prior to the execution, likely ploys to ease the victim into his role in the spectacle. Dickens viewed one of Mastro Titta’s beheadings on 8 March 1845*, and, in his Pictures From Italy, he remarked on the callousness of the event.
In keeping with this attitude, most of the entries in Mastro Titta’s memoir are fewer than 20 words. They reflect a man who seeks to distance himself from the crowd’s bloodlust. A selection:
- “Tommaso Tintori, guilty of homicide, 28 February 1810″ (The first using the “new edifice for beheading from the French government” — that is, the guillotine)
- “Pecorari Angel, of Poli, aged 29. Peasant guilty of premeditated homicide of one woman, condemned to «death as an example» in Poland on 21 January 1847.” (There were a number of prisoners sentenced in other Catholic parts of Europe sent to Rome for Titta’s ministrations.)
- “Sabbatino Proietti, aged 25, «decapitated» in Rieti for petty theft and highway robbery and murder on 20 August 1853, died converted, executed through administration of justice at the public square at the Bridge.”
- “Angelo Lisi di Alatri, found guilty of premeditated highway robbery and murder in Frosinone, «dead» on 30 April 1862.”
An Anomalous Man
Bugatti was born just seven years prior to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany becoming the first of the Italian states to abolish the death penalty. There, Leopold II barred torture and punishment of death, a decision heavily influenced by Cesare Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments and a desire to distance his nation from Rome.
In the neighboring Papal State, however, the practice continued, the embodiment of the church’s power over its people in matters earthly and spiritual. Executions of the time performed for various reasons, but with a handful of exceptions, they were almost exclusively performed on persons in the lower class. Many relied on the use of torture or testimony from confessionals. Papal executions were carried out until the 1870s and only declared unnecessary (though not banned by the Church) by Pope John Paul II in the 1990s.
A complete discussion of the role of executions in the Catholic Church is too much for this space,** but a man like Bugatti serves usefully to exemplify the absurdity endowed in these killings by the Catholic Church. Where the half-dozen popes who served over Bugatti thought such executions to be necessary for the control of the masses, they had no such ideas about nobles who committed crimes.
The execution itself consisted of a parade with masked priests, banners, scriptural readings, and sermonizing, culminating in the death of the condemned. John L Allen of the National Catholic Reporter described the treatment of these executions in that day as “a liturgy”, and descriptions from writers such as Lord Byron show a scene which could only be described as a mix of Catholic Mass and town festival.
Such ritualized killing came to contrast starkly with the Italian celebration of an anti-death penalty position, and the two stood at odds for over a century. In 1909, the topic was hot enough that a plaque glorifying two Italians executed by Bugatti in 1825 was erected; a dozen years later, its contents were concealed out of deference to Rome until after the Second Vatican Council. The commemorated, Angiolo Targhini and Leonida Montanari (here’s their Italian Wikipedia page), were convicted essentially of riling the people, and they were summarily beheaded; their story was the inspiration for Luigi Magni’s 1969 classic Nell’anno del Signore:
“So ends the long list of Bugatti.”
Mastro Titta was given an official residence, and at the end of his term, he was handsomely rewarded with a pension for his service — 30 scudi per year. His final executions were carried out on 17 August 1864, wearing his traditional red cloak (now on display at the Criminology Museum of Rome): Antonio Olietti of Rome and Domenico Antonio Demartini were beheaded for homicide.
The Minister of Justice was 85, four and some years from the end of his life, and the final line in his memoir reads, “So ends the long list of Bugatti. May that of his successor be shorter.”
Indeed it was.
The final executions in Rome occurred on 24 November 1868 at the hands of Antonio Balducci, Bugatti’s long-time apprentice; the event was marked by Pope Pius IX famously intoning in response to calls for a stay, “I can’t, and I don’t want to.” The last execution in the Papal State was of Agatino Bellomo on 9 July 1870, in Palestrina, shortly before the nascent unified Italy absorbed Rome.
Mastro Titta is still known in Italy,† but, adrift amid a particularly violent period of revolution, his legacy as papal executioner is largely lost to the rest of the world.
* The day’s guillotinee was Giovanni Vagnarelli, 26, from Augustine; he killed Bavarian Anna Cotten and robbed her, and her wife’s statement at confessional was used to convict Vagnarelli. Such confessional convictions were not uncommon, as Bugatti’s own memoir confirms.
** There’s surprisingly little reading out there about this topic, though it would seem ripe for a book or two. Here’s what I can find:
- “Fear and Loathing in Bologna and Rome: The Papal Police in Perspective”, Steven Hughes, Journal of Social History, 1987.
- “Capital Punishment: The Curious History of its Privileged Place in Christendom”, James J. Megivern, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 2003.
- For a discussion of current discourse in Catholic teachings, this is rather interesting: “To Kill or Not to Kill: The Catholic Church and the Problem of the Death Penalty”, lecture by E. Christian Brugger, Asst. Prof. of Ethics, Dept. of Religious Studies, Loyola University, 2001.
† A half dozen kilometers from the bridge that Mastro Titta crossed on his way to carry out Papal justice now stands the Mastro Titta Pub. It is reportedly “tastefully done” and serves mostly Belgian beers.