1502: Vitellozzo Vitelli and Oliverotto da Fermo, Borgia casualties

On New Year’s Eve 1502, Cesare Borgia had two treacherous condottieri put to summary death at Senigallia.


The Showtime series The Borgias got canceled before it reached this particular depredation in Cesare Borgia’s career.

The “nephew” — that is, son — of Pope Alexander VI, Cesare resigned a cardinalcy in 1498 to follow his true passion, bloodshed, and set up as one of the Italian peninsula’s warring dukes. He had many a martial adventure before getting ambushed by a party of Spanish knights in 1507. Machiavelli considered him an able leader compromised by owing his temporal power to the pope’s territorial allotment. In The Prince, Machiavelli remarks on the lesson of Borgia’s reign, that “he who has not first laid his foundations may be able with great ability to lay them afterwards, but they will be laid with trouble to the architect and danger to the building” — and yet Cesare Borgia’s own fall months after his patron paterfamilias passed “was not his fault, but the extraordinary and extreme malignity of fortune.”

Cesare went from victory to victory in the first years of the sixteenth century, enough so that he threatened to make himself hegemonic in Italy. Several of his own allies, of which our day’s principals Vitellozzo Vitelli (his family ruled Citta di Castello) and Oliverotto da Fermo* (lord of Fermo) were two, began plotting against him and sent out feelers to build an anti-Borgia alliance among small powers who fretted the prospective domination of Cesare. (Though Borgia had them killed on a separate occasion, the others of note for purposes of this post are two members of the powerful Orsini family — Francesco Orsini, known as the Duke di Gravina; and, Cardinal Pagolo.)

As Florence’s own representative to Borgia’s court during the events in question, Machiavelli had a first-person view of events and recorded them in some detail. Taken on the back foot momentarily, Borgia stalled, firmed up his relations with friendly cities like Florence, and beat a momentarily tactical retreat. He came to terms with his friends-cum-rivals, who once more resumed campaigning on Borgia’s side.

Putatively back on the same team, several of the plotters soon found themselves at a stalemate besieging Senigallia, which refused to surrender to any but Borgia himself. They were therefore required to summon the dangerous prince from Lombardy. True to his name, Borgia did not miss the opportunity of an innocent invitation to destroy his foes.

Borgia marched into Seniallia with 10,000 infantrymen and 2,000 cavalry for a friendly little reunion. According to Machiavelli (who in this passage refers to Borgia as Duke Valentino, or simply as “the duke”),

Vitellozzo, Pagolo, and the Duke di Gravina on mules, accompanied by a few horsemen, went towards the duke; Vitellozo, unarmed and wearing a cape lined with green, appeared very dejected, as if conscious of his approaching death — a circumstance which, in view of the ability of the man and his former fortune, caused some amazement. And it is said that when he parted from his men before setting out for Sinigalia to meet the duke he acted as if it were his last parting from them. He recommended his house and its fortunes to his captains, and advised his nephews that it was not the fortune of their house, but the virtues of their fathers that should be kept in mind. These three, therefore, came before the duke and saluted him respectfully, and were received by him with goodwill; they were at once placed between those who were commissioned to look after them.

But the duke noticing that Oliverotto, who had remained with his band in Sinigalia, was missing — for Oliverotto was waiting in the square before his quarters near the river, keeping his men in order and drilling them — signalled with his eye to Don Michelle, to whom the care of Oliverotto had been committed, that he should take measures that Oliverotto should not escape. Therefore Don Michele rode off and joined Oliverotto, telling him that it was not right to keep his men out of their quarters, because these might be taken up by the men of the duke; and he advised him to send them at once to their quarters and to come himself to meet the duke. And Oliverotto, having taken this advice, came before the duke, who, when he saw him, called to him; and Oliverotto, having made his obeisance, joined the others.

So the whole party entered Sinigalia, dismounted at the duke’s quarters, and went with him into a secret chamber, where the duke made them prisoners; he then mounted on horseback, and issued orders that the men of Oliverotto and the Orsini should be stripped of their arms. Those of Oliverotto, being at hand, were quickly settled, but those of the Orsini and Vitelli, being at a distance, and having a presentiment of the destruction of their masters, had time to prepare themselves, and bearing in mind the valour and discipline of the Orsinian and Vitellian houses, they stood together against the hostile forces of the country and saved themselves.

But the duke’s soldiers, not being content with having pillaged the men of Oliverotto, began to sack Sinigalia, and if the duke had not repressed this outrage by killing some of them they would have completely sacked it. Night having come and the tumult being silenced, the duke prepared to kill Vitellozzo and Oliverotto; he led them into a room and caused them to be strangled. Neither of them used words in keeping with their past lives: Vitellozzo prayed that he might ask of the pope full pardon for his sins; Oliverotto cringed and laid the blame for all injuries against the duke on Vitellozzo. Pagolo and the Duke di Gravina Orsini were kept alive until the duke heard from Rome that the pope had taken the Cardinal Orsino, the Archbishop of Florence, and Messer Jacopo da Santa Croce. After which news, on 18th January 1502, in the castle of Pieve, they also were strangled in the same way.

* Machiavelli also wrote up Oliverotto in The Prince.

1663: Tempel Anneke, witch

Three hundred fifty years ago today Anna Roleffes — nicknamed “Tempel Anneke” — became one of the last* witches executed in Braunschweig, Germany.

Roleffes (English Wikipedia page | German) is particularly interesting due to the lengthy and detailed records of her case that remain preserved. Consequently she’s become the subject of one of the most compelling microhistories of the witch-hunt era, The Trial of Tempel Anneke: Records of a Witchcraft Trial in Brunswick, Germany, 1663.

The accused was a widow about 63 years of age, putting her right in the demographic sweet spot for a witchcraft accusation. She lived with her son, and kept up a side business in folk medicine and fortune telling, putting her right in the professional sweet spot for a witchcraft accusation.

But again, this was the decline phase of the burning time. The Thirty Years’ War was over,** and with it the time of panicky bloodbaths was receding (ever so gradually) relative to more measured legal procedures. In this meticulously documented instance, procedural rules are rigorously followed by rational, educated investigators looking to convict a duly accused citizen of being the bogeyman.† Some records of the investigation stretch from a full year before her June 1663 arrest.

It’s not completely clear exactly how she first entered the judicial process,‡ but her reputed felicity in the augury business stacked up the evidence against her. (Even though some of the witnesses providing it were themselves fined by the court for engaging it in the first place.) One of the first witnesses in the record was a fellow who came to Tempel Anneke for some palmistry. She told him that he’d soon retrieve some pewter silverware that had been stolen from him, and indeed he did. After such an event, you and I might be tempted to leave Tempel Anneke a favorable review on Yelp; Hans Tiehmann, by contrast, reported her for maleficium.

A person in such proximity to the many private woes of her neighbors could find such accusations quickly became self-confirming in the juridical eye. One shepherd came to her after losing several sheep. She prescribed a burnt curative and this proved effective in protecting the remainder of his flock. Then he returned complaining of an illness of his own, and this she could not cure. Both transactions inculpate her in the record. Just another satisfied customer!

The demonology theory of the day held that any magic at all flowed by definition from Hell. In the hands of judges steeped in such ideas, everyday hexes and cantrips — which, again, many of the witnesses themselves voluntarily sought out — could become, officially, infernal manifestations. From turning up lost cutlery, the proceeding segued all the way demonic contracts.

Tempel Anneke was literate and sharp, cannily refusing to confess anything voluntarily. But the terms of the Carolina — the 16th century Germanic criminal code governing proceedings — authorized torture to obtain such a confession upon a “credibly established legally sufficient and consequently suitable indication” of criminal behavior. (Source) The judges submitted their investigation records to legal experts at the University of Jena, who ruled that they had indeed met the legal threshold to enhance interrogation. This she could not withstand, and so eventually confessed that she had made a pact with Satan sealed with fornication

on her son’s farm in the granary … by the light of the moon, she had to step into a circle on the ground which was black, and on [the Devil’s] urging, she let three small drops of blood into a small piece of linen, from her smallest finger on her right hand, which she had pricked with a needle, and she had to give it to him. Thereupon he had started and said, “I now have your blood, now you are mine, with body and blood, now you shall do what I want from you.”

* She was for a time thought to be the last witch executed in Braunschweig. That distinction appears to belong instead to Katharina Sommermeyer (1698).

** Gone, but certainly not forgotten. Tempel Anneke was a widow because her husband died in the Thirty Years’ War.

† Modernity can’t cast too many stones here.

‡ The Carolina licensed investigation of someone who was simply “suspected of a crime through common repute.” Many accused witches of course were prior to their formal accusations suspected or reputed witches.