1503: A banderaio and an executioner

Courtesy of Emotions in the Heart of the City (14th-16th century), we travel to Florence during its between-Medicis republican interim* for a very emotional execution:

On the morning of 29 May 1503, outside the city’s great Gate of Justice,** a young flag-maker (banderaio) was put to death for having murdered another banderaio. In a scene that struck the throng of spectators as an outrage, the executioner had failed to cut off his head even after three blows of his sword. The sight must have been grisly, for the attending mounted captain was next forced to move in and club the flag-maker to death. The compassion of the crowd now pivoted into incandescent rage. A tumult broke out, as men and boys directed a cannonade of rocks at the executioner. There was, in addition, something oddly religious about the event, because rocks were also thrown at the men hooded in black, the members of the religious confraternity who were there to offer comfort to the unfortunate banderaio. They had to flee for their lives. The executioner was killed, and children then lugged his corpse around, worked their way back into the city, and dragged the body all the way up to the Franciscan Church of Santa Croce. Were they sending a message to Savonarola‘s great local enemies, the Franciscans? There was a possible religious subtext to this episode : some contemporaries claimed that the hangman had been punished — he was the very same man — for having first insulted and then hanged Savonarola five years previously. It goes without saying that he had died without last rites, and the dragging about of his body again touched on something religious in being subject to a ‘ceremony’ of desecration.

Although I cannot locate an online version of this document, it appears to me that a primary source for this incident is the chronicle of Simone Filipepi. This historian is a bit less famous than his little brother Alessandro Filipepi … who is inscribed in the annals of art’s history by his nickname (meaning “Little Barrel”) as Sandro Botticelli.

Tangentially, readers might also enjoy this 1625 instance of a clumsy executioner being lynched: in that case, his proposed prey actually survived the scaffold. A similar fate nearly befell notorious English hangman Jack Ketch, after his maladroit butchering of the Duke of Monmouth in 1685.

* This period prior to the restoration of the Medici was also Machiavelli’s political heyday. (He wrote his classics of statecraft after Giuliano de’ Medici subsequently recaptured Florence from the pie-eyed republicans and retired Machiavelli to countryside exile.)

** This public domain English translation of Guido Carocci‘s classic Firenze Scomparsa (Bygone Florence) illuminates some of the relevant topography.

A tower which now only consists of four stone walls, plain and undecorated, but which some day must have been much higher and surmounted by battlements, rises at the end of the Lungarno apposite the viale Carlo Alberto.

It is the sole remnant, the only souvenir of a number of ancient buildings which were situated in this position, and were known as the old mint (Zecca Vecchia).

Previous to the demolition of the walls the tower reared its massive proportions on the river bank in the midst of the ramparts of a dismantled fortress, near a mill race and buildings next the walls which at this point showed traces of a walled up gate.

The buildings next to the tower seemed a mixture of old and modern construction with large arched rooms, long corridors and balconies overhanging the canal from the Arno — which gave motive power to the wheels of various cloth mills.

These houses, which grouped en masse were of singular picturesqueness, completed the view of green banks and vine covered hills lining the river and were full of interesting historical associations.

A postern gate was situated here, flanked by a tower on the river bank to defend the city from a water attack; this was called the Gate of Justice, and its name calls up painful and melancholy memories. Outside the walls at the end of a meadow beyond the moat was a small low church whose facade was frescoed with sad subjects. In this meadow was placed the gallows and executionary scaffold. The Gate of Justice was generally closed for the better security of the city and was only thrown open for the passage of religious companies accompanying condemned criminals to the place of execution.

The street through which they passed to the gate was very appropriately known as Via Malcontenti, (Street of the Discontented).


Via dei Malcontenti, Florence (c. 1880) by Telemaco Signorini.

In 1346 criminals condemned to death were brought to a chapel, still in existence, next to the church of San Giuseppe in Via Malcontenti were tied to an iron ring which may still be seen in the pavement, but afterwards the little church outside the walls was built for this last grim service. [If this artifact still exists, I would be indebted to anyone who can supply a picture of it. -ed.]

The church was used as a resting place where the penitent might offer his short and final prayer before being handed over to the executioner.

The victims’ bodies remained suspended on the gallows for days in order to act as a wholesome warning to all evil disposed persons, but the Florentines, who must have their little joke even on the most solemn subjects, called these meadows which formerly belonged to the Nemi family, the paretaio of the Nemi (bird-catching place of the Nemi).

The gate of Justice was walled up during the great siege, and after that the lugubrious procession passed through the Porta alla Croce. In our times traces of this gate, partly buried in the raised soil, could still be seen previous to the destruction of the old walls and above it the hole through which every defensive missile might be hurled on attacking parties below.

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