Category Archives: Papal States

984: Pope John XIV

On this date in 984, the deposed Pope John XIV* was killed in prison.

Pietro Canepanova was his name by birth, and Bishop of Pavia was his rank when elected.

The papacy’s political axis in these prostrated times was the influence of the Holy Roman Empire. The Saxon emperor Otto II had given years of exertion to projecting imperial power over Rome and the Holy See, which although much weaker than the empire lay spatially at the fringes of effective imperial influence. The upshot was a fractious curial snakepit directed at any given moment by Otto’s degree of proximity and attention.**

John’s death, whose circumstances aren’t known with certainty,† was a sort of tragic middle act for the empire’s Roman project.

A decade before, the imperial-backed pontiff Benedict VI had been overthrown and murdered by a rival, known to history as Antipope Boniface VII. Boniface was backed by a Roman patrician family known as the Crescentii — rivals to Otto in our story.

The Boniface/Crescentii usurpation required Otto’s Italian hand to seize the city, and Boniface legged it for Constantinople with as much of the Vatican treasury as he could stuff into his chasuble. Behind, in his cloud of dust, the Germans installed a new guy, Benedict VII.

When Benedict died in 983, Otto was personally knocking about Italy,‡ so he popped into Rome to guarantee John XIV’s succession. But the pestilential atmosphere was not merely figurative in these parts, and a malaria outbreak killed Otto within days. His unexpected death left the succession to a three-year-old son, Otto III … which meant a period of ebbing imperial muscle as felt by remote marches like Italy. John XIV had lost his protection.

Still hanging around all this while, Antipope Boniface VII jumped at the opportunity to mount St. Peter’s throne once more and invaded Rome with the support of Byzantium and of the Crescentii, sending Pope John to the dungeons of Sant’Angelo where he was quietly offed.

Boniface’s own reign is largely obscure to posterity but it can’t be considered successful given that at his death in July 985, “the body of Boniface was exposed to the insults of the populace, dragged through the streets of the city, and finally, naked and covered with wounds, flung under the statue of Marcus Aurelius.”

Still, the Crescentii held the whip hand for years … until little Otto III grew up and returned to Rome in the 990s with a vengeance.

* Fun papal trivia: owing to some confusion in Middle Ages scriptoria, it was for a time erroneously believed that our Pope John XIV in fact compassed two different and very short-lived Popes John — “Iohannes XIV and Iohannes XIV bis” (the second). As a result, the regnal numbering for this particular name went all wonky and eventually skipped an increment: a pope took the name John XXI in 1276 mistakenly thinking himself to be the 21st of that name, even though the previous John (more than 200 years before — the span during which the numbering goof entered the parchments) was John XIX. There has never been a Pope John XX.

** Although the players are different, the situation reminds of the circumstances around the Cadaver Synod a century prior — when the imperial instigator in question was Charlemagne’s waning Carolingian dynasty.

† He might have been starved to death, or strangled, or poisoned, or indeed slain via almost any means convenient to the new pope’s goons. The probability that the death was ordered by the new pope qualifies this borderline case for consideration as an “execution.”

‡ He was campaigning against the Byzantines and the Saracens to extend imperial power to southern Italy and Sicily.

1515: Gio Batta, on the Capitoline Hill

You’ll not find the single execution (and its accounting of fees) that forms the very slim hook for this post until the very end of an extensively bloody tour of Renaissance and Early Modern Rome’s execution topography. This unauthorized appendix to your Rome tourism guide comprises excerpts of the public domain volume The Roman Capitol in Ancient and Modern Times, by Emmanuel Rodocanachi.


THE TARPEIAN MOUNT OR MOUNT CAPRINO.

In the Middle Ages nothing survived of what had constituted the splendour of the Tarpeian Mount of antiquity. Here and there only were a few scattered shafts of columns lying, a few sides of walls that had fallen, a few vestiges of foundations, while the other end of the Capitoline Mount was becoming the centre of municipal life, and a church, that of S. Maria Aracoeli, adorned it. Furthermore, this portion of the hill was soon chosen as the public execution place. In a chronicle of the thirteenth century, relating the legend of Pope Filigato (996 [sic]), we read: “… idcirco usque adhuc nullus papa venire vult in montem tarpeium ad arcen Urbis Romae scilicet in Capitolium ubi iste Johannes tormenta sustinuit. Ibi itaque semper ferebantur sententiae mortis contra sceleratos et contra adversarios Romanorum.”

To this spot the name platea of spianata was given, in translation of the word area, area capitolina (as opposed to arx), which had formerly designated it. This explains why the place of execution was often so called. Fra Montreale, who was condemned to death by Rienzo, was led “a lo piano” to be executed there. His head was cut off near the ruins of a tower.

The spot appointed for executions is fixed with accuracy by a curious document. In 1385, Giordanello degli Ilperini or Alberini, a nobleman of the Monti quarter, was cast into the prisons of the Capitol. Fearing the rage of the lords bannerets, furor presentium dominorum banderentium,” and not wishing to die without a will, he drew one up, forthwith, in the great hall where the assemblies of the people were held. Among other dispositions, he required his heirs to spend two florins in having a figure painted “ad imaginem gloriosissime virginis Marie,” in front of the gibbet and place of execution, “ante furcas et locum iustitie.” And, in fact, the figure was painted beneath the portico of a granary belonging to the Maffei family, in a spot indicated by Infessura thus: “in una costa di muro appresso santa Maria delle grazie di sotto a Campidoglio a piedi lo monte.” Thenceforward, criminals had a sight that consoled them in their last moments.

The custom of hanging people in this place was continued in the fifteenth century. In the Diario di Antonio Petri (1407) is the expression: “In loco iustitiae, videlicet in plano Capitolii.” The gallows is clearly visible in the Sienna plan. Somewhat later, documentary allusions become more frequent. An Act dated in 1457 bears on it: “in loco qui dicitur Monte Arpetio (Tarpeio) sive lo piano inter hos fines … ab alio via per quam itur ad furcas.” In another document, dated in 1473, and referring to the settling of a boundary, the following passage occurs: “ab alio tenet locus iustitiae qui dicitur lo piano.” This same document informs us that, behind the palace of the Conservators, lay a garden belonging to them, part of which exists to-day, while the other has been taken into the Caffarelli palace, which, at present, is the German embassy.

Executions were witnessed by the Senator. It was a duty incumbent on his office. He took up his position at the window in the palace situated in the southern tower. This window, as previously said, was ornamented in 1413 by the Senator Nicola of Diano.

Among the celebrated executions which took place on the gibbet of Mount Caprino was that of the accomplices of the Chevalier Stefano Porcari, who himself was hanged from the battlements of St. Angel’s castle in 1453. His accomplices were nine in number; and eight of them were hanged together. In 1490, a man accused of trying to poison Pope Innocent VIII, at the instigation of the Sultan of Constantinople, was beaten to the ground, on the ordinary execution place, by blows on his head with a club; then he was struck on the chest and stomach with an iron-covered fist, after which he was drawn and quartered. Hangings were numerous; in 1507, there were seven. The gibbet continued to be used in this spot until 1550, when the improvements that were undertaken in the surroundings brought about its suppression. Thenceforward, criminals were hanged on the Giudea square, at the entrance to the Ghetto.


A high gallows towers over Rome’s Piazza Giudia in this 1752 engraving by Giuseppi Vasi.

On occasion, use was made, as a prison, of the ruins standing on this potion of the hill, perhaps of some pits that will be spoken of further. Under the pontificate of Innocent III, the Romans confined their prisoners of war there.

The neighbouring quarters, suffering from the presence of the gibbet, remained deserted and neglected. Goats browsed in them, which soon caused the hill to receive the name of Mount Caprino, a name that it retained for a long time. The locality was almost a jungle. Gregory XIII, having remade, in 1582, the road that led to it, was justified in having inscribed on a stone that still exists in the Via di Monte Tarpeio these words: “Hinc ad tarpejam sedem et capitolia ducit. Pervia nunc olim silvestribus horrida dumis …”


The Piazza del Campidoglio atop Capitoline Hill, where beheadings took place. This is a view of its condition prior to Michelangelo’s 16th century makeover of the place, which changed it into this …

EXECUTIONS IN THE CAPITOLINE PALACE.

Whilst hangings took place on the gibbet of Mount Caprino, the beheadings were carried out on the Square of the Capitol [Piazza del Campidoglio -ed.], and even inside the palace. If Fra Montreale was beheaded at the foot of the Mount Caprino tower, it was by way of compromise, since he was considered as much a malefactor an an “enemy of the people” as a prisoner of war. Usually, executions in the Capitol took place on the great staircase, near the lion. It was there that, on the 3rd of March, 1398, the conspirators were beheaded who had attempted to re-establish the power of the bannerets, destroyed by Pope Boniface IX.

In the fifteenth century, executions were frequent. In 1405, Paolo Maracini, Giovanni Gnafri, and Motta were beheaded in the Capitol. In 1406, Antonio Carola was beheaded there also, as well as Giovanni Colonna, Jacovo de Nepi, “miles libertatis,” Ricardo Sanguineis, rebels against Pope Gregory XII. In 1497, Galleotto de Normanis was “decollatus, de mane, hora consueta, in loco institiae Capitolii, tanquam proditor Urbis.” Sometimes the execution was carried out in the evening: “De sero, hora completorii, fuit capta uxor Cole Cancellarii de Reg. Columne ac etiam Paulus de Cancellariis … omnes tanquam proditores Urbis et ducti per mercatum ad Capitolium et martirazti.” Before each execution, the condemned person had his sentence read to him, in the great hall of the Capitol. The bell rang thrice, and, at the third peal, he was put to death. In certain cases, the bell was not run; but this, as previously said, was when the execution was considered to be a murder. Occasionally the execution was inside the palace. We read that Lello Capocci was decapitated “Intus in palatio Capitolii ad pedem secunde columne ubi tenetur ratio.” The Square of the Capitol was also used as a place to expose criminals. Cardinal Vitelleschi shut up in three wooden cages, which were set there for the people to mock at, a triplet of thieves who had stolen the precious stones adorning the reliquary wherein were kept, at the church of St. John Lateran, the heads of St. Peter and St. Paul. The thieves were subsequently executed on the Square of the Lateran.

Now and again, hangings took place from the windows or arcades of the Capitoline loggia. On the 19th of December, 1458, Bernardo della Rosa was hanged from the window of the great staircase. At that time, however, hangings were not frequent. Infessura complains of it: “In Capitolio nulla vel saltem rara executio corporalis fit, nisi quod per curiam domini vicecamerarii aliqui nocte suspenduntur et mane suspensi reperiuntur apud turrim Nonae sine nomine et sine causa: et hoc ordine vivitur hodie in Urbe sedente Innocentio octavo” (1489).

EXECUTIONS IN THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY.

The hangings that Infessura, in his time, regretted were so few, as was seen in the previous chapter, were not long before they began again; and numerous ones took place on the Capitol during the sixteenth century, and in the few yers prior to it.

In the single year of 1497 were hanged from the windows of the Capitol: Matteo di Andrea, Francesco di Giacomo, Pietro Santi, Giordano della Scarpa. At the same time, hangings were also carried out on the gibbet of Mount Caprino.*

The expenses of executions were generally paid by the Governor, who deducted the necessary sums from the money furnished by fines, taxae maleficiorum. Under the date of the 13th of July, 1515, the executioner received three julii (about a hundred sols) for cutting off the head of a male servant, Gio. Batta; he received, besides, a salary of three gold ducats a month. The price paid for hangings was the same as for decapitations, three julii. It cost no more to have the criminal burned, after he had been hanged. However, it would seem that compensation was made for the wood, the chains, and the scaffold, when the criminal had been burned alive. Eighteen carlins were paid for the execution of a forger; and, for floggings, the executioner charged six carlins.

* A footnote here in the original helpfully explains that the executions referenced in this section come from “Archiv di Stato, Archivio di s. Giovanni Decollato, Busta XXIV. vol. 2″: “This brotherhood’s mission was to assist criminals; a regular register was kept of the executions at which the brethren of the order had been present.”