Posts filed under 'Italy'

388: Magnus Maximus, minimized

Add comment August 28th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 388, Magnus Maximus, partially successful usurper of the western Roman Empire, was put to death by Emperor Theodosius.

The late centuries of Rome witness many a rebellious general but the smart money in a civil war rarely fancied the guy whose power base was distant Britannia. With his bombastic name and balls to back it, Magnus bigly bucked those odds, defeating and murdering the western Augustus Gratian in Gaul in 383. From there he bossed Africa, Britain, and his native Spain for several years.

The departure from Britain of this local chancer made good would prove to correspond approximately with the empire’s crumbling foothold on on the island, with the sandal-shorn Roman feet in ancient times last walking upon England’s mountains green in 410. As the last, most scintillating representative of Roman Britain, Magnus Maximus has survived into legend — extolled for example by Geoffrey of Monmouth as the title hero of “The Dream of Macsen Wledig”. In it, “Macsen”/Maximus weds a Welsh princess and sires a native dynasty, granting Brittany to the Britons in gratitude for their aid as he conquers Rome.

But forget living in legend. The real Magnus Maximus, like every aspirant to the dangerous purple, mostly just worried about living out the next campaign season.

He had a spell of tense peace with his eastern opposite number, during which time Maximus — a staunch Nicene Christian — had the distinction in 385 of decreeing the trial on trumped-up sorcery charges of the dissident bishop Priscillian. It’s widely, if loosely, accounted the very first intra-Christian heresy execution. (Saint Ambrose of Milan and St. Martin of Tours both intervened strongly to oppose this precedent which has spawned so very imitations.)

Meanwhile Maximus and Theodosius maneuvered toward inevitable civil war and it is obvious from his presence on this here blog that Maximus on this occasion did not rise to his nomens. As Zosimus describes,

Theodosius, having passed through Pannonia [routing Maximus in the process -ed.] and the defiles of the Appennines, attacked unawares the forces of Maximus before they were prepared for him. A part of his army, having pursued them with the utmost speed, forced their way through the gates of Aquileia, the guards being too few to resist them. Maximus was torn from his imperial throne while in the act of distributing money to his soldiers, and being stripped of his imperial robes, was brought to Theodosius, who, having in reproach enumerated some of his crimes against the commonwealth, delivered him to the common executioner to receive due punishment.

Such was the end of Maximus and of his usurpation.*

The poet Pacatus thereafter paid the conquering Theodosius homage for this victory in one of antiquity’s great panegyrics. (Enjoy it in the original Latin here.) Sure he lost the war, but how many figures are both magnus and maximus in fields as disparate as Celtic mythology and classical rhetoric?

Audiophiles might enjoy history podcasters’ take on Magnus Maximus: he’s been covered by both the British History Podcast (episode 31) and the History of Rome Podcast (episodes 156 and 157).

* After the post-Maximus arrangements Theodosius made in the west also went pear-shaped, necessitating yet another conquest and execution, Theodosius established himself as the emperor of both the eastern and western halves of the Roman world in 392. He was last man ever destined to enjoy that distinction.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Italy,Myths,Power,Put to the Sword,Roman Empire,Soldiers,Treason,Wales,Wartime Executions

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1471: Giovanna Monduro, Piedmont witch

Add comment August 17th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1471, Giovanna Monduro, wife of Antoniotto Marandolo, burned at the stake in her native Piedmontese village of Miagliano.

Michael Tavuzzi, whose very specific title Renaissance Inquisitors: Dominican Inquisitors and Inquisitorial Districts in Northern Italy, 1474-1527 is our main source for this post, describes the case as “representative of the witch-trials conducted by Dominicans, both conventual and observant, in northern Italy during the Renaissance” which “seem to have been procedurally very similar.”

The story begins with a trial that we don’t know about, the trial at a nearby village of a witch called Maddalena who at some point offered Giovanna’s name to her tormentor.

Said tormentor, one Giovanni Domenico da Cremona, arrived in January 1470 to the beautiful Piedmont hamlet of Salussola* bearing a frightful boon: the offer of leniency for anyone who would gift the Inquisition their comprehensive confessions, and the names into the bargain of anyone else who was up to something sub-orthodox.

More than likely Giovanna’s name was actively solicited on the basis of Maddalena’s accusation; in either event, it was certainly supplied by family and neighbors to whom the woman had a witchy reputation. After an incriminating attempt to flee, she was brought to trial in the village church on February 13, 1470.

This time was very early days yet for the great witch-hunts yet to disgrace Europe, but it is recognizably of a piece with them. Over the course of the preceding generations, jurists and scholars had painstakingly constructed the edifice to support the many stakes and scaffolds: the conflation of folk magic, superstition, and holdover pagan customs with a literal network of flying, Satan-fucking warlocks bent on the destruction of Christendom.

For many centuries, “the Church, as the civilizer of nations, disdained these old wives’ tales,” Hugh Trevor-Roper put it in The European Witch Craze. But come the antechamber of modernity, “to deny the reality of night-flying and metamorphosis would be officially declared heretical; the witches’ sabbat would become an objective fact.”

Inquisitors’ preconceptions of the menace came to structure the trials they conducted, to insinuate themselves through questioning by turns sly and violent into the mouths of their prey, whose admissions would then compound not only upon the next town over but to the confirmation of the entire diabolic schema. It’s difficult to know where were the heads of long-gone peasants and townsfolk in all this but Giovanna’s attempt to escape suggests that whatever beliefs they might have held, all knew to dread the inquisitor.

Back to Tavuzzi’s treatment of the Salussola case:

The list reproduced in the trial’s transcript of the predetermined questions that were to be put to Giovanna by Giovanni Domenico during the course of the trial is instructive, for it reveals very well indeed the conceptual baggage that an inquisitor brought to such a task at this time. The questions amount to a kind of primer of the diabolic interpretation of witchcraft and allude to almost all its essential components: the sect of the witches, repudiation of the Christian faith, the pact with the devil, sexual congress with him, abuse of the sacraments, the performance of malevolent magic. Inquisitors invariably compiled such a list of points, known as articuli or capituli inquisitionales, to guide them in their interrogations, and it is through these that their own witch-beliefs and demonology would have impinged upon the course and outcome of a witch-trial.

Woe betide she who faced such questions … for the answers were already written.

Though Giovanna met this dreadful interrogation with some steadiness, human fortitude but rarely equaled the ordeal. Interrogated twice, she denied all repeatedly, even remaining steadfast through her third session that introduced torture to the proceedings.

Days later, the Inquisitor broke her.

A fourth interrogation took place on 20 February, and at that point she began to confess: she admitted that she had indeed belonged to the sect of the witches for twenty-three years, recapitulated all the elements of the stereotype of diabolic witchcraft, including shapeshifting and transvection that are not mentioned in Giovanni Domenico’s initial list of questions, and admitted to having caused the deaths of several persons.

She started coughing up names — some local women, some residents of a nearby village, a local priest — and when in fear for flesh or soul she attempted to walk back her confessions and accusations, she was tortured afresh until she adhered to the preferred story.

For unknown reasons it was not until almost 18 months later that

on 17 August 1471, the deputy of the local feudal lord, the count of Tollengo, in whose dungeon she must have been incarcerated since the trial, emitted the sentence whereby Giovanna was to be burned at the stake in nearby Miagliano — her birthplace — and it was carried out the same day.

* A display at a museum there commemorates the event.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Italy,Public Executions,Torture,Witchcraft,Women

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Feast Day of Pope Pontian and Antipope Hippolytus

1 comment August 13th, 2017 Headsman

August 13 is the shared feast date* of third century saint and antipope — two adjectives rarely held in common — Hippolytus of Rome, and the official pope to whom he reconciled in the end, Pontian.

His legend, including his feast date, has been muddled with another ancient martyr of the same name, and even with the mythological son of Theseus — from which also derives the etymologically apt fancy that St. Hippolytus met his end by the straining of horses.**


The central panel (click for the full image) of the St. Hippolyte Triptych, from the Sint-Salvator Cathedral in Bruges, Belgium. (via the blog of Canadian Archbishop Terrence Prendergast) Attributed to Dieric Bouts and Hugo van der Goes, this image was commissioned by a courtier of Charles the Bold, Hippolyte de Berthoz — who also underwrote other depictions of his namesake’s martyrdom.

But Hippolytus the theologian and cleric was no fable.

Zealous after the correct doctrine in an age of heretical pitfalls like modalism and alogianism, Hippolytus clashed with Pope Zephyrinus and his successor Callixtus over their leniency — not only for heterodoxy but also for sinful conduct like adultery.

This timeless horn-locking between purists and pragmatists led Hippolytus to take his flock out of the Roman communion in opposition to Callixtus, and apparently to maintain himself as antipope for the best part of a generation — the very first recorded antipope, in fact.

Ironically it was the schismatic’s perspicacious quill that would bear to posterity much of our understanding of Christianity in the early third century. Apostolic Tradition, whose attribution to Hippolytus is contested, is a rare source on the early liturgy; Refutation of All Heresies helpfully catalogues dozens of beliefs disfavored of its author among pagan and Christian sects. He wrote a chronicle of the world since its creation, a compendium of ecclesiastical law, and numerous Biblical commentaries.

While world-shaping controversies gripped the sacerdotal space, the temporal world spiraled toward Rome’s Third Century Crisis, a periodization commonly dated to the rise of the cruel barracks-emperor Maximinus in the very year of our rival pontiffs’ martyrdoms, 235.

Maximinus’s years in the purple were short and sanguinary, harbinger of many like decades to come. “Italy and the whole empire were infested with innumerable spies and informers,” Gibbon wrote.

On the slightest accusation, the first of the Roman nobles, who had governed provinces, commanded armies, and been adorned with the consular and triumphal ornaments, were chained on the public carriages, and hurried away to the emperor’s presence. Confiscation, exile, or simple death, were esteemed uncommon instances of his lenity. Some of the unfortunate sufferers he ordered to be sewed up in the hides of slaughtered animals, others to be exposed to wild beasts, others again to be beaten to death with clubs.

Both Pontian and Hippolytus were arrested at Maximinus’s order, which was scarcely an act of pagan reverence on the latter’s part since he was also noted for stripping the traditional temples of valuables that could be melted into currency.

Banished to Sardinia for rough handling that was tantamount to a death sentence, the two men reconciled before attaining the crown of martyrdom.

Numerous cities in France (and one in Quebec) are named for St. Hippolytus.

* It’s the feast date in the Roman church. The Orthodox world honors Hippolytus on January 30.

** He’s the patron saint of horses, too.

† A reading of On Christ and the Antichrist is available free from Librivox.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",By Animals,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Dismembered,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,History,Intellectuals,Italy,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Uncertain Dates

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1789: Giovanna Bonanno, la Vecchia dell’Aceto

Add comment July 30th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1789, the Sicilian poisoner Giovanna Bonanno was hanged in Palermo.

Portrait of an Old Woman, by Giorgione (c. 1500-1510)

Bonanno (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) had borne the unremarked burdens of the poor into her ninth decade; her life prior to the brush with infamy is all but dark to us save a suspected marriage record from 1744. She seems to have scrabbled her way by beggary and folk magic.

In 1786, she chanced upon the the formula to concoct a lethal yet subtle draught from white wine vinegar and arsenic. (She never divulged its precise composition.)

For a few years in the late 1780s Bonanno’s vinegar became the hit choice for the choice hit. It was the ideal concoction: victims couldn’t detect it and doctors couldn’t diagnose it — so dissatisfied spouses, overeager heirs, rivalrous lovers, keepers of grudges, and all other manner of winnowers beat a path to her door.

Inevitably this business was betrayed as word got about; although it would surely have occurred by means of some other leak soon enough, in the event it happened when Bonanno’s delivery-woman realized that her parcel was intended for someone that she knew, and warned him.

As usual, it was the purveyor who bore the brunt of the law, as suppliers and clients alike damned her for a sorceress as well as a poisoner. Although hanged for her crimes, La Vecchia dell’Aceto — “The Old Vinegar” — entered instantly into Sicilian folklore; Italian speakers might enjoy Luigi Natoli‘s novel of that title.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Italy,Murder,Public Executions,Sicily,Torture,Witchcraft,Women

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1505: The Val Camonica witches

Add comment June 23rd, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1505, seven women and a man were burned in the town of Cemmo in Lombardy’s Val Camonica — the first victims of that region’s outbreak of witch-hunting that would claim over 100 lives all told.

This alpine valley fell in the remit of the city of Brescia which meant that (since the 1420s) it answered ultimately to the Most Serene Republic of Venice. But in the hinterlands of the fragmented Italian peninsula were

Remotenesses like Val Camonica are among the focal points for the fancy or hope that pockets of paganism held on from antiquity even in the heart of Christendom. Brescia lay in the belt spawning doctrinal and political challenges to the medieval church — the very zone that gave rise to the Inquisition.

During two distinct periods — 1505 to 1510, and again from 1518 to 1521 — that Inquisition fastened on folk in this region who constituted “a most pernicious kind of people … utterly damned by the stain of heresy, which was causing them to renounce the sacrament of the baptism they had received, denying their Lord and giving their bodies and souls to Satan whose advice was leading them astray.” (1521 communique of Pope Leo X, quoted here)

The circumstances for these purges can only be guessed at, as most of the primary documentation, particularly of the earlier episode, is lost. But the context of Papal-Venetian rivalry all but insists upon itself. Indeed, Venice’s ruling oligarchy is known during the 1518-1521 Inquisition to have interceded to prevent the Pope’s delegate from putting torch to flesh, provoking one of the innumerable jurisdictional imbroglios between the rival city-states.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Italy,Known But To God,Mass Executions,Public Executions,Venice,Witchcraft,Women

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Feast Day of St. Cetteus

Add comment June 13th, 2017 Headsman

June 13 is the feast of St. Cetteus, patron of the Adriatic port city of Pescara.

This saint’s legends the line between just-so story and real historical events, illustrating the Church martyrology’s great strengths as a read-made memorial of Christians’ trials down the years. That in this case the suffering was less a religious persecution per se than the shame of being trod over by conquerors who installed themselves almost without opposition in the hollowed husk of Roman greatness and did as they pleased.

The Lombard incursion beginning in 568 in some ways signals the permanent sundering of east from west in the Roman world, for the Germanic invaders — a mixture of pagans and Arian heretics, no less — in time ousted Byzantium from the latter’s Italian holdings and meanwhile underscored the Roman Empire’s near-impotence in its ancestral homelands. “From Italy the emperors were incessantly tormented by tales of misery and demands of succor, which extorted the humiliating confession of their own weakness,” writes Gibbon. “The expiring dignity of Rome was only marked by the freedom and energy of her complaints: ‘If you are incapable,’ she said, ‘of delivering us from the sword of the Lombards, save us at least from the calamity of famine.'”

For the near term, it was a violent and unstable period; Lombard rulers assassinated and warred with one another as their hegemony devolved into a patchwork of feuding duchies, helping set the scene for the fractured medieval peninsula.

The perils of internal strife manifest in our martyr’s story; despite his eventual association with Pescara, his bishopric was inland at Amiternum and it was there, the story goes, that he was ordered drowned in 597 by a tyrannous Lombard warlord who mistakenly thought him a crony of his rival.

Tossed into the drink, the bish floated downstream to Pescara where a fisherman, recognizing the corpse’s ecclesiastical raiments without knowing exactly who wore them, buried him under the whimsical name “Peregrino”.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Borderline "Executions",Drowned,Early Middle Ages,Execution,History,Italy,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Religious Figures,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates

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1944: Four Italian fascist saboteurs

Add comment April 30th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1944,* four young Italian fascist agents of Mussolini‘s rump state were shot as spies and saboteurs by the Allies at a quarry near Capua’s Sant’Angelo in Formis abbey.

Most of the information readily available about Franco Aschieri, Italo Palesse, Mario Tapoli-Timperi, and Vincenzo Tedesco is in Italian: specifically, in nationalist Italian pages celebrating the sacrificial patriotism of the young men who had parachuted into Allied-controlled southern Italy to operate as partisans. A number of their peers were shot in similar circumstances beginning in late 1943 and in greater numbers through the spring of 1944.

The quartet died game and then some, conferring upon posterity charismatic photos of handsome valor in the face of execution. The most startlingly iconic (at least one design based on it is available for sale) the shirtless and barrel-chested Palesse tied to the stake with an insouciant cigarette a-dangle from his lips. Inevitably their last cries ran to Viva il Duce! and Dio stramaledica gli inglesi! (God curse the Anglos!)


The condemned party in their cell on the morning of the execution, where their confessor remembered “I found them laughing.”


Having shucked off his shirt so the bullets won’t spoil it, Italo (sometimes given as Idalo) Palesse receives the comfort of a priest. (Source)


Franco Aschieri


Vincenzo Tedesco, from the firing squad’s perspective.

Mature Content: Video of this same scene records the men being shot.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Italy,Shot,Wartime Executions

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1505: One Bolognese thief hanged, and another saved by Saint Nicholas

Add comment April 15th, 2017 Cherubino Ghirardacci

(Thanks to Augustinian friar Cherubino Ghirardacci for today’s guest post, from his History of Bologna. The Saint Nicholas in question for this picturesque vignette is not Santa Claus (though that figure’s real-life inspiration also had an averted execution to his hagiography) but the medieval mystic Saint Nicholas of Tolentino … a popular Italian saint who appears to have obtained an informal niche profile as the intercessor who would help a fellow survive a hanging: he had already been credited with saving a man wrongfully accused of murder who hung four days on the gallows in 14th century Aquila. -ed.)

It has happened in these days, that is to say on April 15, Tuesday, that two thieves have been hanged; one sixty years old and one about eighteen, and the execution took place on the usual spot, that is in the cattle market; and the minister of justice ordered that they should be left hanging upon the gallows until the usual hour, when the members of the Company of the Dead came to remove them for burial, and having taken down from the gibbet the old man and having placed him on the bier, they then deposed the youth, called Pietro Antonio of Bologna. He had been adopted by one who dwelt in the Borgo of San Pietro, and was already a novice of San Jacomo; this one was found alive and of so much vivacity it seemed as though he had been reposing on his bed asleep: but however with the neck injured, because the halter had entered into it, and had almost sawn through the throat.

The bystanders, marvelling much at this unusual sight, quickly had him carried to the Hospital to care for him; and there came a messenger from the Senate to see, and to hear everything that had happened; and Pietro Antonio said that he had been helped by the glorious saint Nicholas of Tolentino, to whom he had vowed, that if he escaped this opprobrious death, he would vest himself in his habit, and that he being on the gallows, the glorious St. Nicholas supported him by holding the soles of his feet in his hands. This was considered a marvellous miracle in the city, and every one ran to visit him and hear him discourse.

On Sunday, April 27, the Brothers of San Jacomo came in procession to the Hospital to fetch the above-mentioned Pietro Antonio and to conduct him to San Jacomo, and they pass together with the “Compagnia della Morte” behind San Petronio and before this church, and they go before the palace of the family Antiani, and below the “Madonna del Popolo”; and the condemned man is dressed in white with a black mantle, and with no cap on his head, and with the same halter round his neck with which he was hanged. When he reaches this spot, he falls on his knees and adores the Queen of Heaven, and wishing to rise, the simple women around tear off some of his clothes in devotional excitement; but being covered with another cape, he arrives at the church of San Jacopo, and there in the presence of all the city, the halter is taken from his neck and laid by him on the altar; and by the reverend prior of that said convent, Master Giovanni de Ripis, he was solemnly dressed in the Carmelite habit and called Brother Nicholas, in honour and reverence of St. Nicholas of Tolentino; and the ceremonies of vesting him being over, the friars meanwhile chanting the Te Deum Laudamus, he was presented by the said Prior to the very holy image of the glorious St. Nicholas, which is behind the choir in the chapel of St. Thomas Apostle and St. Nicholas, now called of the Madonna of Heaven, because when he made his vow he had in his mind this venerated image. Then he placed there his votive offering, his true portrait painted on canvas, and also the same halter with which he was hanged, the which things one may still see today in this said church.

He lived four years very devoutly, tending the sick; but then, tempted by the devil, he threw away his habit, and giving himself once more to thieving he was taken and hanged with the golden halter to the long balcony of the Podestà, and died for his sins.

The record of this miracle appears, with all the expenses, in an authentic book of 148 pages, in the Sacristy of these said monks, where are mentioned the sums spent on the procession, and miracle, and of the votive panel picture, which was made by master Ercolese, painter, and cost in all lire 3 and soldi 11.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Executions Survived,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Italy,Myths,Not Executed,Other Voices,Public Executions,The Supernatural,Theft

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1724: Sister Geltruda and Fra Romualdo, at a Palermo auto de fe

1 comment April 6th, 2017 Henry Charles Lea

(Thanks to Henry Charles Lea for the guest post, which first appeared in his The Inquisition in the Spanish Dependencies: Sicily – Naples – Sardinia – Milan – The Canaries – Mexico – Peru – New Granada. The Inquisition was abolished in Sicily in 1782, but an interesting Palermo museum preserves its artifacts. -ed.)

When, in 1718, Savoy exchanged Sicily with Austria for Sardinia, the Emperor Charles VI would not endure this dependence of the [Inquisition] tribunal upon a foreign power and procured, in 1720, from Clement XI a brief transferring the supremacy to Vienna. In accordance, however, with the persistent Hapsburg claims on the crown of Spain, the Inquisition remained Spanish. A supreme council for it was created in Vienna, with Juan Navarro, Bishop of Albarracin as chief who, although resident there gratified himself with the title of Inquisidor-general de Espana, but in 1723 he was succeeded by Cardinal Emeric, Archbishop of Kolocz.

Apparently it was deemed necessary to justify this elaborate machinery with a demonstration and, on April 6, 1724, an auto de fe was celebrated at Palermo with great splendor, the expenses being defrayed by the emperor.


Detail view (click for the full image) of a French print of the auto de fe.

Twenty-six delinquents were penanced, consisting as usual mostly of cases of blasphemy, bigamy and sorcery, but the spectacle would have been incomplete without concremation and two unfortunates, who had languished in prison since 1699, were brought out for that purpose. They were Geltruda, a beguine, and Fra Romualdo, a friar, accused of Quietism and Molinism, with the accompanying heresies of illuminism and impeccability. Their long imprisonment, with torture and ill-usage, seems to have turned their brains, and they had been condemned to relaxation as impenitent in 1705 and 1709, but the sentences had never been carried out and they were now brought from their dungeons and burnt alive.


Detail view (click for the full image) of an engraving, The Great Auto De Fe At Palermo Italy 6 April 1724

Less notable was an auto de fe of March 22, 1732, in which Antonio Canzoneri was burnt alive as a contumacious and relapsed heretic.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Austria,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,Guest Writers,Habsburg Realm,Heresy,History,Italy,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Sicily,Torture,Women

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1464: Johann Breyde, via Schandbild

Add comment April 1st, 2017 Headsman

On April 1, 1464 mayor of Cologne Johann Breyde was chopped into quarters … with ink.

This startling image does not depict an actual flesh-and-blood execution. It is, instead, an outstanding (and conveniently for our purposes, dated) instance of an artifact from medieval Germany, the Schandbild. Such “defamatory pictures” often supplemented a Schmahbrief or “defamatory letter” — intended, as the names suggest, to impugn publicly the target over a debt, a broken promise, or some other private breach of faith.

Something like 100 of these defamations survive from late medieval and early modern Germany (approximately 1400 to 1600), many of them fantasizing about their debtors’ executions in bloodthirsty scenes that also gesture to the place that ritual, spectacle, and dishonor held on the real-life gallows. Here are a few of the more piquant examples; many more await at a wonderful Pinterest gallery here.

The purpose of defamatory letters and pictures was to bring low the reputation of their target in the eyes of a wider community — leveraging social pressure either for revenge, or to force the defamed to repair the breach.

Matthias Lentz, one of the (regrettably few) historians working on these underappreciated objects, notes* that there are even surviving contracts from Germany, Bohemia and Poland enumerating an “explicit understand about injuring a person’s reputation and bringing dishonour upon a defaulting individual … a clause called Scheltklausel that laid down the practice of publicly scolding a defaulter.” For every Schandbild or Schmähbrief there must have been a dozen other potential swindlers quietly forced by the threat of public infamy to make good their contracts.

Per Lentz, the earliest known instance of an explicit contract dates to 1379, “wherein a ducal councillor accorded a nobleman, in eventuality of the former violating the terms of the contract, the right to denounce him as a fraud by ‘posting his name on the pillory [of the councillor’s home town], or wherever he likes'” — again, linking the “mere” text to the instruments of official corporal punishment.

Nor was it uncommon for the Schmähbrief, if things got to that point, to fantasize about the debtor’s bodily suffering in brutal terms that would like invite an investigation for terroristic threats were the modern debt collection call center to deploy them in its harangue. One quoted by Lentz captioned his illustration thus:

It is customary to judge thieves and traitors according to their offences, the first is sent to the gallows, the second broken on the wheel. As I have not got power to carry out the above-mentioned acts, it is my intention to use the painter to have them painted hanging from the gallows and being tortured on the wheel.

Still, Schandbilder und Schmähbriefe meant to intimidate not physically, but socially.** It was in this capacity that the iconography of the pillory and the scaffold entered the frame: ’twas an infamy to be exposed upon them for a public crime — serving as “an indictment of those who knew the criminal … [and] a punitive stigma over his or her relatives and friends.”† Posting a slur on the repute of a prominent person — for the targets were most always people of rank, who would feel an injury to their status — taxed this same, essential, civic currency.

This is why we should let his shameful picture hang here with his coat of arms, until he has given me compensation recognized by respectable people for those unwarranted things that he and his people did … and ask all those who seek charity, who see him painted hanging, that they let him hang. (Source)

By consequence the execution imagery was strictly optional, one iconographic choice among many. From the too-few examples that survive to us it is plain that creditors delighted in their symbolic chastisement, issuing all the obloquies a grievance could devise, untethered from the confines of possible or the … sanitary.


The Schandbild frequently evinced a scatological fixation.

* Quotes form Lentz’s “Defamatory Pictures and Letters in Late Medieval Germany: The Visualisation of Disorder and Infamy” in The Medieval History Journal, vol. 3, no. 1 (2000). Lentz also has several German-language journal titles on the same topic.

** Not necessarily true of their Italian cousins, pitture infamanti. These were a similar sort of thing, but were issued not privately but by the city-states themselves against absconded offenders — a sort of quasi-execution by effigy. Many of these were painted for public spaces and removed with the passage of time so we have lost exemplars, including the products of masters — the Medici, for example, commissioned Botticelli to grace Florence with pitture infamanti of the Pazzi conspirators, which were whitewashed in 1494.

A characteristic pose for these pictures, also used in Germany, had the “victim” hanging upside-down by one foot, conjoining “metaphors of inversion” (as Robert Mills puts it) to the disgrace of the gallows. This posture is commonly thought to have inspired the “Hanged Man” tarot card.


Left: a pittura infamante study by Florentine Renaissance artist Andrea del Sarto; right: the “hanged man” card from a tarot pack.

*† Maria Boes, “Public Appearance and Criminal Judicial Practices in Early Modern Germany,” Social Science History, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Summer, 1996)

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Broken on the Wheel,Executed in Effigy,Execution,Fictional,Germany,Gruesome Methods,History,Italy,Not Executed,Pelf,Politicians,Public Executions,Scandal

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