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1550: Jacopo Bonfadio, indiscreet

Add comment July 19th, 2018 George Bruce Malleson

(Thanks to George Bruce Malleson for the guest post on Italian humanist Jacopo Bonfadio (English Wikipedia entry | Italian). Although time’s ravages against the original legal paper trail has fogged the matter, it appears to be July 19 of 1550* that the Republic of Genoa took Bonfadio’s head for sodomy. In our more queer-friendly time, many scholars now believe (contra our Victorian guest author) that the scandalous charge might well have been accurate, although also one that most observers believe was invoked due to Bonfadio’s creditable disdain for protecting the secrets of the powerful. Malleson’s biographical vignette was originally published Studies from Genoese History. -ed.)

To possess genius — to have cultivated your talents to a degree which places you above the level of a prejudiced and half-educated community — to be incorruptible in a corrupt society — to have acquired, in virtue of your office, secrets which make you dreaded by the guilty — these are crimes which society, in a low state of morality, never has forgiven, never will forgive. They are, in fact, crimes which in every age have driven the perpetrator of them to exile, to proscription, and to death!

The truth of this statement has been illustrated by many noble examples, but of these there is not one more striking than that of Jacopo Bonfadio.

One of the most brilliant writers of the sixteenth century, a philosopher, a poet, and a historian, occupying one of the most important posts in the republic of Genoa, it was the fate of Bonfadio to be sentenced to be burnt alive for an offence which he had not committed, simply because, in his Annals of the Genoese, he had given certain indication of the possession of knowledge, which some influential families considered compromised themselves.

This was the sole crime of Jacopo. He was a self-made man; he had raised himself by his own abilities to the position he occupied; he was the intellectual life of Genoa; he possessed the confidence and affection of the learned; yet from this great position he was hurried to death by the machinations of the half-educated, corrupt, and demoralised amongst the influential families of the ‘proud city.’ [“la Superba”, the city’s nickname -ed.]

What he was, intellectually, may be gathered from the recorded opinions of his contemporaries, and of the great writers of subsequent ages. Thus, the French writer, Antoine Teissier, who flourished in the second half of the seventeenth century, pronounces him ‘l’un des plus beaux esprits d’ltalie;’ Menagio places him in the front rank amongst the poets of Italy; Bayle, in his dictionary, speaks of him as one of the best writers of the sixteenth century. ‘His private letters in particular,’ writes Mazzuchelli, ‘are held in the greatest esteem, so that not only are they considered equal to those of our best masters, such as Caro, Tasso, and Tolomei, but they are preferred by the soundest critics to the choicest productions of all the others. I do not propose to prove this by the sole authority of Octavio Rossi, who calls the style of his familiar letters “unique and inimitable,” for I can cite as strong supporters both Gianmatteo Toscano, who affirms without hesitation that Bonfadio might be regarded “in epistolis familiaribus Etrusca lingua tenui stylo, ac presso compositis, omnium Princeps;” and Scipione Ammirato, a judge not less competent, who frankly asserts that “he knows not what there is of polish in the art and manner of writing letters which is not to be found in the letters of Bonfadio.” Many other authorities are cited; but I need only name one, that of Ludovico Dolce, who, writing to Count Fortunate Martineiigo, thus expresses himself: ‘I have a liking for many men, but an especial liking for Bonfadio. I often see his letters, and I adore them.’

To his most famous work, The Annals of Genoa from 1528 to 1550, intended as the continuation of the history of Uberto Foglietta, it would be difficult to ascribe too much praise. The style is admittedly clear, elegant, and precise. But there belongs to it a greater praise — a praise the greatest of all — but which, by a strange contradiction of right, was earned by a quality which caused the death of the author. This quality, so rare, has thus been described in the concluding lines of a sonnet addressed to him by Alessandro Piccolomini, and which thus terminates:

Dunque direm de vostri scritti poi,
Quel che forse di rado in altro e detto;
Cosl series’ei, cosi fu fatto a punto.

And which may thus be imperfectly rendered:

In your writings we feel most acutely
A virtue so rarely conferred;
The events you describe so minutely
Are just the events which occurred.

It was because these annals were so true — I may say, so uncompromising in their truth — that they drew upon the author an anger, born of a lax perception of moral duties, which could only be satiated by his death. Written by Bonfadio in Latin, and translated into Italian by Paschetti, in 1586, they constitute to the present day the most valuable history of the events of the administration of the country after the recovery of its liberty by Andrea Doria, including the account of the conspiracy of Gianluigi Fiesco.

I will but briefly refer to the other writings of Bonfadio. They may, including those specially mentioned, be comprised under the following headings: I. His ‘Carmina,’ or Latin elegies; II. His rhymes. III. His letters. IV. His translation into Italian of the oration of Cicero in defence of Milo. V. The Annals of Genoa. VI. Poems translated from the Greek.

Regarding these I will extract only one criticism, and that will be on his elegies. Of these Antonio Abate Sambuca writes: ‘To all who examine them they appear a chef-d’oeuvre, whether for the perfection and regularity of the language, for the strength and novelty of the sentences, for the expression of the affections and manners, for the nobleness of the figures, for the clearness and sweetness of the style, and for the happiness and vividness of the rhyme.’ Of his poetry I shall give specimens at the end of the story, which I propose now to narrate, of his career.

The precise date of the birth of Jacopo Bonfadio has not been traced, but it is certain that he came into the world about the year 1500. He was born in Gazano, a small property in the Riviera di Said, in the province of Brescia. This property was situated between Salo and the river Clisi. He always believed that his family was of German origin, of noble race, and that his ancestors, settling on the banks of the river Clisi, had pursued there the vocation of blacksmiths. Such was the family tradition; but there seems reason to believe that he may have been mistaken, and that his ancestors were mountaineers of Brescia. This, however, is of little consequence.

Jacopo early displayed a happy disposition, and his natural genius was fostered by a careful education. At an early age he was sent to Verona and placed under the care of Signor Niccolo Pellegrini. Thence he migrated to Padua, to finish his studies at the university of that famous city. Here he so distinguished himself as to be accounted one of the most promising scholars of the university, from which he in after years received the degree of doctor of law.

His education completed, he set out for Rome — then the arena for the debut of a young man of ambition and of education. His first step seemed to promise success, for he was almost immediately appointed secretary to Cardinal di Bari. In this office he remained till the death of the cardinal, three years later. His life at this period he thus describes, in a letter written subsequently to his friend, Francesco della Torre: ‘For three years at Rome I served Cardinal di Bari in a very honourable position — that of secretary to himself — and I received from that Signor all the kindnesses which can be desired, without my asking for even one. And, besides presents, which he gave me every year, he promised to obtain for me a good position, in the most obliging manner, for he said I should not hope for it as emanating from his courtesy, but from my deserts. But when the time came he died, and all my hopes vanished.’

The loss thus sustained by Bonfadio was a great one. Again was he on the world. The new cardinal, Girolamo Ghinucci, did indeed appoint him as secretary, but he found himself on a footing very different to that he had occupied under his predecessor. ‘I served then,’ wrote he in the same letter to della Torre, ‘in the same office, Cardinal Ghinucci; and although one of his ministers, a man born in the country and brought up in the mountains, who had come smoke-dried and starved to Rome, with the old fierceness of soul and thenew avidity for office — although, I say, this man, who could do much, persecuted me with bitter hatred, in order to give my place to one of his friends, yet I might have hoped to obtain from the cardinal the post which Messer Giacomo Gallo, who succeeded to me, had afterwards, but, for my misfortune, a serious and long illness deprived me of my secretaryship.’

It was probably a little after this time, when at Venice, on his way to his native place, that Bonfadio incurred the temporary displeasure of two famous men of letters, his friends Paolo Manuzio and the Padre Ottavio Pantagato. It would appear that some four years previously the padre had made certain corrections in translations made by Bonfadio from the orations of Cicero. The translations as originally made Bonfadio had given to Manuzio, but he had refused to send him the emendations. Nevertheless, he did give or sell these to a printer named Giunta. The story is chiefly interesting from the insight afforded into his character by the letters of excuse he wrote on the subject to Manuzio: ‘Tramentino,’ he wrote, ‘gave me your letter. You can conceive how agreeable it was to me, and I thank you from my heart. I shall reply confusedly, for my mind is now agitated by pleasure and displeasure. I shall begin with that which weighs most upon it.

‘It is true that on the departure from Venice of the friend to whom I owed my life, it being necessary for him, in a matter concerning his honour, to go to Rome — he having no money even for his journey I was assailed by him with the most earnest and ardent prayers I ever heard, and, having no other means of succouring him, I did give to Giunta those corrections made four years ago by Padre Ottavio in certain orations of Cicero which you had from me in the Casa Colonna. … And although the cause which induced me to do this was one of humanity and duty, as you see, I am nevertheless liable to be blamed by the other side because I have disobliged you.’ He proceeds then to enter more fully, and with great feeling and eloquence into the case. The letter is a masterpiece of pleading, and of successful pleading, for it removed all anger from the mind of Manuzio.

Shortly after this correspondence Bonfadio received an offer to proceed to Spain in the suite of the Signor Guido Bagno, envoy of the Duke of Mantua. He accepted the appointment, in every respect very desirable, but he arrived at Rome to take it up only to find that Guido Bagno had just died. Full of sad thoughts Bonfadio at once quitted Rome for the kingdom of Naples. In this he passed many months travelling. He visited the places most famous for their beauty, their antiquity, and their historical recollections,. reaping much enjoyment, though, he adds very feelingly in a letter, no profit. In fact, his means at this period appear to have been extremely restricted. Having explored Naples, and found it intellectually barren, Bonfadio had resolved to proceed by sea to Venice, thence by land to Padua — the city of his education. But at this juncture he received a letter from his friend Marcantonio Flaminio, strongly urging him to return by way of Rome, as he would find in that city a patron in the person of Cardinal Ridolfo Pio di Carpi. He followed the advice, was well received by the cardinal, and assigned a stipend. Still retaining this he set out for Padua, where he had determined to fix his abode. He proceeded thither by way of Florence and Ferrara, renewing his acquaintance with valued friends at both those places. Arrived at Padua, fortified by his five years’ experience of the shallowness and instability of a courtier’s life, Bonfadio applied himself steadily to the study of the fine arts and of philosophy. He lodged in the house of Cardinal Bembo, who had for him so great an esteem that he appointed him one of the tutors to his son Torquato. He devoted likewise a considerable portion of his time to the education of the youth of the city, earning thereby their gratitude — for his name had become already established.

During his stay of from four to five years in Padua it was the custom of Bonfadio to make autumnal visits to various parts of the country. Thus, in the month of September, 1541, we find him at Verona; in October at Colognola, enjoying the society of his distinguished friend, Marcantonio Flaminio. More than once, too, he visited his native Gazano. The good effect on him of the re-opening of ties which exist between a man and the place in which he is born he thus recounts in one of his letters: ‘You know well,’ he writes, ‘that in Padua I was often tormented by a cloud of black thoughts, and that I came here to recover my serenity. That which I could not do myself by myself; that which you could not do by faithful reminders, by sweet reprovals, nor by efficacious prayers — for you are indeed a true friend to me; that which time could not do, although it is generally accustomed to do it — to be the only author of joy — that did in a moment the sight of this Riviera; for at the very first glance a deep sigh issued from my heart, and seemed to take away from me a mountain of humours, which till then had weighed me down.’

In a letter to another friend he thus expresses himself: ‘I am longing for the time to come when I may be there. Oh, happy time! I shall be in Gazano with the mountains and the rivers near me. Every eight days I shall descend to the lake, free from those thoughts which have kept my mind withered and burnt up. Carrying in my heart a lake of perfect joy, I shall go diverting myself, living a pure life, an Arcadian life with shepherds, shepherdesses, and the muses.’

It is not difficult to divine the cause of the sad thoughts to which Bonfadio alludes in these letters. He had, since his arrival in Padua, been mainly dependent for his livelihood upon the stipend granted him by cardinal Ridolfo Pio di Carpi. This stipend the cardinal suddenly, and without given reason, stopped. It became then difficult for Bonfadio to live in Padua in a style suited to his position and increasing fame. On this subject he thus wrote to his friend Francesco della Torre: ‘You know the conditions on which I now live in Padua; and it is because the maintenance I enjoy is not very secure, — not, indeed, because the Signor who keeps me here, Cardinal Bembo, is not very liberal, — I am always fearful lest it should diminish, — and the doubt which I feel regarding the future is the reason why I do not enjoy the present.’

Many thoughts of how to better his position appear to have crossed his mind at this period. At one time he endeavours to obtain the position of tutor in a well-to-do family; at another he strives to establish an academy for instruction in moral philosophy and ethics; at another he asks for an ecclesiastical benefice. But, if all these efforts were unsuccessful, a very long time did not elapse before he reaped the fruit of his studies. Just after he had learned that his application for the benefice was not likely to prove successful, there came to him from Genoa the offer of the Chair of Philosophy in that city. He promptly accepted it, and repaired without delay to his post some time in the year 1545.

Bonfadio went to his new labours with a light and cheerful heart. Nothing could have whispered to him that he was about to take up his abode amongst a people by whom his erudition, his honesty, his want of sympathy with every kind of corruption, would be imputed to him as the most heinous of all crimes. There was no cloud on- his brow now. In the other parts of Italy in which he had lived, he had been esteemed, honoured, and loved. The voice of envy and jealousy had never been raised against him. Enjoying at Rome, at Naples, and at Padua, the society of the most cultivated and intellectual men of the day, he might well have hoped to find some members of that class in the city still virtually governed by Andrea Doria. At all events there could be no suspicion in his mind that the very virtues which had caused him to be selected for the post to which he had been called, would prove, in the eyes of an influential portion of the Genoese society, defects so great as to necessitate his death.

We find recorded in his own letters his first impression of Genoa and its society. ‘I like Genoa,’ wrote he, after his arrival, to his friend Count Fortunate Martinengo. ‘I like Genoa, both for its position, and for all those peculiarities about it which you have seen. I have some friends, amongst them Messer Azzolino Sauli, a well-educated and refined young man. This winter I read the first of the Politica of Aristotle to an elderly audience, rather merchants than scholars. I am, then, up to a certain point happy, but am not without some annoyances. Towards the end of July I shall come to Brescia on my way to the lake.’ It is clear from this extract that he was little satisfied with the quality of his scholars. The same dissatisfaction may be traced in another of his letters. He writes: ‘The country is beautiful, the air good, the conversation agreeable; and if the intellects here were as fond of letters as they are of traffic in sea matters, I should be still better pleased.’ Still he never hesitated to declare himself quite satisfied with his lot, and ambitious of nothing beyond it.

To the duty of reading philosophy there soon became joined another. This was no less than to take up the history of the Republic at the point where it had been left by Uberto Foglietta, and to continue it. Bonfadio willingly applied himself to the task thus thrust upon him by the Republic. It was a noble undertaking. In 1528 Andrea Doria had restored to Genoa her liberty, and from that date Bonfadio started his annals. He had to write, in fact, the history of Genoa under the constitution which had been the first to secure her against the constant contests for authority amongst the great families — contests which up to that time had filled so large a part of her domestic history. The work was executed in a manner that may be pronounced perfect, whether with respect to the happy style or the accuracy of statement which characterised it. But it happened that amongst the events recorded in the twenty-two years, the story of the conspiracy of Gianluigi Fieschi occupied a very prominent place. Now all the archives of the State had been open to the inspection of Bonfadio. Either by their means, or by others to which, from his position, he was allowed to have recourse, he had become acquainted with a heap of secrets compromising many members of the aristocratic families. The reader who has accompanied me so far will probably recollect that many families belonging to the Portico Nuovo had given their adhesion to Fiesco; that even after the conspiracy had failed the Senate had actually treated with the elder surviving brother of the drowned Gianluigi; and that it was due, solely and entirely, to the personal influence of Andrea Doria, that that august body had consented to pursue ‘to the bitter end’ hostilities against the members of the family. It is very evident that the Fieschi had been supported openly by many, secretly by a considerable number, of the members of the Senate. It may even be inferred that their adherents were not to be counted in the Portico Nuovo alone.

In the Centuria No. 35, Trajano Boccalini gives the following figurative account of the appearance in Parnassus before the King of Heaven of Jacopo Bonfadio, after he had undergone the sentence pronounced against him, that of being burnt alive. ‘Hardly,’ he writes, ‘had the stoic youth been dismissed when there appeared in the hall of audience, all singed by the fire, Jacopo Bonfadio. He informed His Majesty that having been invited by the Genoese to write the history of their country, — solely because some of them had found him most resolved to write it with the dignity befitting an historian, without respect of persons, obeying only the voice of truth, — he had been terribly persecuted and accused of vice; that he thus had lost at the same time his reputation and his life. Apollo,’ pursues Boccalini, ‘contrary to the opinion of the rest, not only showed no compassion for the learned man, but informed Bonfadio in severe language that although the charge on which he had been tried might be entirely false, he did not the less deserve to be so treated by the Genoese by reason of his shameful imprudence. Because the writing of matters prejudicial to the honour of influential people during their lifetime and that of their sons, however true the matters might be, displayed rather imprudence or rashness than an uncorrupted mind and a love of truth; that a man must be a fool who should think he could preserve his life from the anger of an influential man whose reputation and perhaps even, whose honour he had attacked and soiled with his pen.’

There may possibly be some who would agree with Apollo.

-One of Malleson’s footnotes

Now, in writing the annals of that conspiracy, two courses were open to Bonfadio, — the honest and the dishonest course. He might tell the truth or he might disguise it. There was no middle way. The object of the compilation of the annals was to ensure for posterity an authentic record of the events of each year, without favour or affection for any man or any body of men. It was probably to ensure this result that the task had been entrusted to a distinguished foreigner, — though an Italian, — rather than to a born Genoese. Truth and impartiality were even more essential than a good style. Bonfadio possessed this peculiar qualification for the task, in that, whilst a distinguished writer, he had apparently no interest to conceal the truth. Obliged to speak, his inner conscience forced him to speak all he knew.

For such a man there could be but one course. Yet in Genoa — the city in which the educated people were money-making rather than intellectual — it was a course fraught with danger. The stern old man whose vigilance and caution had received so terrible a blow from Gianluigi Fiesco, and whose fiat was still supreme in Genoa, had not yet satiated his vengeance. The publication of all the secrets Bonfadio had acquired would, besides, induce the inference that he possessed others which he had not as yet divulged. The secrets of half the nobility of the city would thus be dependent on his forbearance. Yet Bonfadio did not hesitate. His Annals were found to contain such an account of the baffled conspiracy as could be acquired only by one who had acquainted himself with its most secret springs.

Then occurred one of those resolutions which most surely mark a low temperature of morality in a society. Bonfadio, it was evident, possessed certain secrets which many members of both Portici knew to be compromising to themselves. It was not as if each of those members had made a confidant of his fellow. Bonfadio, by the knowledge he had displayed in his annals, showed that he knew the secrets of each. Not one was sure that he might not at any moment be denounced. Without confiding in each other, all the secret conspirators knew instinctively that Jacopo Bonfadio was the common enemy of all.

Instinctively, too, each man simultaneously felt that Bonfadio must be got rid of. Not simply banished, for then he might tell his tale in other lands, but so dealt with that his tongue might be for ever silenced. Bonfadio, in fact, must die.

But how to accomplish his death. His life had been blameless. He was unmarried. They could not strike him through a wife. But he must be got rid of. The lie which could alone effect this must be a good one; it must have something in it of probability; something which was associated with the previous habits of the man. To unscrupulous Spirits of the baser sort the fabrication of such a lie was easy. It was produced. An infamous crime was manufactured, and Jacopo Bonfadio was Condemned to be burnt alive.

It is curious that of the process of this illustrious man no records are now to be found in the archives of Genoa. To an enquiry made on the subject by the author of the history of his life, Count Giainmaria Mazzuchelli, the following answer was returned: ‘The process of Bonfadio is not in the archives, nor are there any of his writings but the annals. I will search, in other places, but I cannot flatter myself that I shall be able to throw any light on the subject.’ Subsequently: ‘After having diligently searched in three different archives, in which it was possible something might be found, I have discovered nothing regarding Bonfadio, by which I conclude the process has either been taken away or burnt.’

Through the intercession and interest of his friends the sentence of burning was commuted into one of beheading, and this was duly carried into execution in the course of the year 1550. Bonfadio betrayed to the last all the consciousness of innocence. The following letter, the last of his on record, was written to his friend, Signor Giambattista Grimaldi, some short time before the sad event: ‘I am sorry to die, because it does not seem to me that I deserve so great a punishment; but I submit myself to the will of God. I am sorry, too, because I die ungrateful, not being able to thank so many honoured gentlemen who have toiled and laboured for me, and especially yourself. I give you, from the bottom of my heart, infinite thanks, and I consign to you and to Signor Domenico Grillo, and to Signor Cipriano Pallavicino, my nephew Bonfadino. My body will be buried in San Lorenzo; and if, from the world beyond, it shall be possible for me to convey to any friend a sign without terrifying him, I will give it. May all of you remain happy!’

Such was the end of Jacopo Bonfadio, a man who received death as the reward for exposing, in the course of duty, the crimes of the society of which he was a noble member. I have adopted the view that he was innocent of the crime attributed to him — that that crime was invented to screen delinquents from his censure — because that view is supported by the best authorities. Thus, Ghilini, in his ‘Teatro d’Uomini litterati,’ attributes the death of Bonfadio to ‘his having too freely, and perhaps more freely than became a historian, written severely of some families of Genoa.’ So, likewise, Carlo Caporali affirms that ‘Bonfadio, invited by the Genoese to write the history of their country, for speaking too freely, was, under other pretexts, condemned to the flames ;’ and in the’ Biblioteca Natiana’ it is stated that ‘Bonfadio was badly paid for his Annals, since, having spoken ill of some member of a noble family, he was accused, although innocent, of a shameful crime, and condemned to be burnt.’

The same sentiment was expressed by the celebrated poet Gianillateo Toscano, in the following lines:

Non mimis intumuit nuper Benaeus alumni.
Bonfadii, ac Musis, docte Catulle, tuis,
Bis tamen infelix: rapuit nam Roma Catullum
Bonfadium Letho das scolerate Ligur.
Historia teternum eujus, fera Genua, vivis
Immeritum sseva lege neoare potcs?
Mitius est, quod te spumanti vortice marmor
Pundit; et es scopulis durior ipsa tuis.

Trajano Boccalini, again, takes occasion to warn all writers of history, by the example of Bonfadio, against writing anything prejudicial to the honour of powerful members of a community; whilst Garuffi, in ‘Italia Academica,’ expressly asserts that ‘the capital crime of Bonfadio was his having described, with the freedom which is the duty of an historian, the conspiracy of the Fieschi.’ Finally Ottavio Rossi declares that’Bonfadio was really doomed to death for secret reasons of State, and not for the crime imputed to him.’ It is true that the historian, Mazzuchelli, summing up the various opinions which he cites, thinks it not impossible that he may have appeared guilty of having incurred the hatred of certain families, and also of the crime; but whilst he rests the evidence of his guilt of the crime solely upon some Latin verses written at the time by Bonfadio’s friend, Manuzio, who, in his turn, accepted the sentence as proof of guilt, Mazzuchelli proceeds to indicate that he may have made enemies not only by the freedom of his Annals, but by the honest freedom of his tongue, one example of which he cites. The opinion, then, of Mazzuchelli is certainly not borne out by the concurrent testimony I have cited, nor would it appear to be endorsed by later writers. Of these I will cite only one, Giunio Carbone whose work, the ‘Compendium of the History of Liguria,’ appeared in 1837.
Carbone thus sums up the case:

To write history, a mind resolute and impervious to fear is necessary. To expose nakedly the facts of a case is but a small thing; but to reveal the causes, to point to the consequences, and to assign to each actor his proper part, is the proper office of an historian. When this is done with respect to men of a past era, no danger is incurred; but, when men still living are referred to, it becomes necessary to offend either truth or the wrong-doers. For the first fault posterity will punish us; for the second, the offended wrong-doers will fabricate vengeance. It is never difficult for human malignity to paint its charges with the colour of reason. Jacopo Bonfadio had lived the greater part of his life wandering and unhappy. Nature had endowed him with a mind never satisfied with itself. After many wanderings he settled in Genoa, the life in which pleased him. To him was then allotted the duty of writing the annals of the Republic, and all the grandees of Liguria emulated with each other to do him honour. He wrote his work with great spirit and elegance, though not altogether with prudence, especially in his account of the conspiracy of the Fieschi. As an eyewitness of the event, and possibly aware of the part taken in it by certain grandees, he could neither suppress nor soften certain light allusions and certain pointed indications, which, in our days, may, indeed, have lost their significance, but at that time were as knives and spears piercing the hearts of many powerful nobles.

‘Now, those who were pricked in their own consciences, and who knew that Bonfadio was acquainted with their many secrets, terrified lest he should make still more important and damaging disclosures, tortured their ingenuity how they might rid themselves of him. Examining, then, very minutely his habits and mode of life, and finding therein no fault, not even a pretext, whereby they might convict him of a State crime, they thought they might compass his destruction by accusing him of some grave outrage against religion or morality … A process having been instituted against him, and he having been declared guilty, he was condemned to be decapitated and then burnt. The sentence was executed. But I do not believe, nor is it possible for me to believe, that he suffered so severe a penalty for a crime of that nature; nor can I conceive how the Ligurian Senate would have been so severe and ferocious in an age when Pierluigi Farnese boasted of greater atrocities, the indecent accounts of which were circulated in every country. No! the death of Bonfadio is attributable to far more potent causes — to the terror of that hypocrisy which veils the deadliest vengeance with professions of religion and of virtue, to the necessity of applying discipline to one who speaks about the most important affairs of the age in which he lives.

I cannot conclude this sketch of the life of this famous man, ‘whose writings,’ wrote Mazzuchelli, with great truth, ‘will live for ever immortal in the memory of the learned,’ without giving a few quotations from his letters and poems. It cannot but be interesting to know the opinion which such a man had formed of himself, the account which he has left of his habits and mode of life. These details, fortunately, still exist recorded in his letters to his most intimate friends. Thus, in a letter written in Genoa to his friend and patron, Signor Giovanibatista Grimaldi, he says: ‘Your Lordship having inquired about me from Messer Stefano Penello, it appears to me that I am bound to give you some information about myself. As to literature, it is true that I know less of it than I should like to know, and of the little I do know I don’t care to vaunt, for I detest arrogance, and am by nature inclined to its opposite. As to my life and habits, I would rather be accounted sincere and modest than a man of learning and letters. Above all, I love truth and honesty, nor can I change in this respect. … I am a man of few words, neither very cheerful nor melancholy, but very thoughtful, even more so than is good for me. In Rome I exhausted what I had of ambition, and I have learned to bear every inconvenience. I do not care for it when it comes, nor does it seem to me very strange when it does come, and I accommodate myself without ceremony to whatever may happen. I avoid the proud, but to .whoever shows me the smallest sign of courtesy I am the humble servant; nor do I ever insult anyone.’ Again, in a letter to a friend, dated Genoa, December 26, 1547, Bonfadio thus writes: ‘You deceive yourself if you think that I am other than I am. I am poor, alike with respect to nature, to fortune, and to virtue. Regarding the first I have not been able to increase my store, but I have lived very closely on that with which she endowed me at my birth. To the second, I have never been able to find out the road, although I have sought it in many places at the cost of great inconvenience. To the third, I do not deny that I have equally endeavoured to discover the way; but having seen that it was long, and rough, and steep, I have often been discouraged. Besides that, many times hard shocks of adverse fortune have struck me. And the syrens, still, have often sung in my ears, too open to their voices, so that I have remained at the foot of the mountain, whence only I have been able to see the summit of virtue. Yet I have had this happy fortune, that modesty having once descended from the peak I embraced her, and have since kept her with me.’

I shall conclude these extracts with one to his friend, Paolo Manuzio, written from Padua. ‘Your life,’ he writes, ‘is too much occupied and too much given to labour. Nor do I know for what end you are labouring; to enrich yourself? I do not believe it, for you do not measure riches with the crooked rule of the vulgar; and you have sufficient of the goods of fortune for your desires. Perhaps to have ecclesiastical honours? I do not believe that, because I know that you always held in higher esteem the being worthy of the honour than the honour itself; and already every honour is due to you. I see the stimulus that spurs you on, and that the desire for glory keeps you awake day and night. … Yet, although you may decrease, your labours, for which you are always striving to obtain new materials, you must not fear that the esteem of the world will decrease in the least, for your fame is already so high that it will always be recognised; Be content with that, and do not allow a love of glory to do that which may injure your health.’

I now proceed to give a few specimens of his imagination, as indicated in his lighter pieces of poetry. The first is a short extract from one of his longer odes. It may thus be rendered1: —

What men call Life, is like a meadow fair
Wherein some serpent makes his trench.rous lair:
And thus uneasy fears perturb each breast,
No heart finds happiness, no bosom rest.
‘Would as a child my life had passed away
‘Ere carking care began his cruel sway.’
Thus some. Whilst others nought but sorrow feel,
And sighs and wailings form their only meal:
And e’en if pain or death to vex forbear,
Still on their bosom lies the sleepless care,
Their pleasures finish ere they well commence,
Most brief those hours in which they.re most intense.

The next piece is addressed to his first love. The first four verses may be translated as follows: —

When the buds burst forth and blossom
In the month which heralds May,
And the scent of a thousand flowers
Is wafted from each spray,
I rise from my couch at daybreak,
And I seek my lattice and gaze,
And I list to the trills the nightingales
Pour forth as their song of praise,
And I see the glad sea peacefully
Smile its greeting to the morn,
And I feel my heart a glad captive led,
Yet I do not feel forlorn;
For I mind those days in my childhood,
When the crystal wave so dear
I stemmed, and sought from bank to rock
Delights in the water clear.
And I wrap myself in the memories
Of the past, and descend to the sea,
And I feel the soft air and all Nature
Seem, Laura, to murmur but thee!
Might it please the Fates that my heart.s desire
Should at last be granted to me,
Sweet Laura, then, I would supplicate
No sweeter boon than thee.
Then all Nature would seem more lovely
And the Graces and Loves, as a prey
Having yielded their charms, should follow
And grace thy triumphal day;
And I, who in thy absence
Feel all things dark and drear,
Should revel and bask in the light which shines
From those eyes so soft and clear.
And I, — What am I, dearest? None other than you see,
Whilst thou, in the wealth of thy beauty,
Art more than a goddess to me.
In the wealth of the youth of thy sweet spring-life
I could lie beside thee and gaze
On thy perfect form, and my lips should tell
Their tale of love and of praise.
I would tell thee what man men think me to be
Since the childhood of the past,
When I gave my heart to thy keeping, —
Oh! Love! shall I win thee at last?

I conclude with a short extract in the original from one of his Latin Carmina, on the subject of Villa Coloniola, the favourite resort for his autumn holidays: —

Nunc vivo: et vita est multo mihi carior, in me
Quum memini de quo venerit ilia loco.
Salve, o terra beata, mihi gratissima terra
Diis superis: salve dia Coloniola.
Nomen fama tuum immortalibus in monimentis
Protendat; nec te deruat ilia dies.
Haec lingua ante meis haerebit faucibus, ante
Haec dextra attractis concidet articulis,
Quam memori exanimo, et nostro de pectore migret
Saepe vocanda mihi cara Coloniola.

I should be glad to give a specimen of the clear and vigorous style of the Annals, but I refrain. It is possible I may some day be tempted to translate them into our language. I have met no Italian writings which would so well adapt themselves to the robustness and vigour of the English tongue.

For the present, I leave, and leave with regret, the name of Jacopo Bonfadio. He was not the first, and probably has not been the last, victim to the malignity of inferior natures, alarmed by the dread of the discovery of their own evil deeds. But to a noble nature his fate, sad as it was, possesses an element which reassures. It is true his enemies killed him. But, after a lapse of three hundred and thirty years, his name still lives, clothed with honour, veneration, and respect. But for those who killed him! A too kind Providence has preserved them, by the annihilation of their very names, from the execration of posterity!

* Even the year is a matter of dispute among various sources.

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222: Elagabalus

3 comments March 11th, 2018 Headsman

March 11, 222 marked the downfall of the Roman emperor Elagabalus (or Heliogabalus, in the Greek rendering).*

Notorious to posterity for lapping the field in outrageous sensuality, he was the 14-year-old cousin of the deposed brute Caracalla and stepped into the purple because his crafty grandma won the civil war that ensued Caracalla’s assassination.

By family heredity he was by that time already the high priest of the Syrian sun-god Elagabalus,** in the city of Emesa (present-day Homs, Syria). History has flattered the youth with the name of his novel god, although in life the former was simply Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. By any name, his eastern affectations would smell as foul to the Romans.

We’re forever constrained by the partiality of our few sources when it comes to antiquity and the possibility cannot be dismissed that the bizarre and alien portrait remaining us is mostly the outlandish caricature of his foes. However, such sources as we have unanimously characterize Elagabalus as — per Gibbon’s summary — “corrupted by his youth, his country, and his fortune” and it is this that has made his name a western metonym for for the sybaritic Oriental despot. The chroniclers practically compete for outlandish anecdotes of hedonism (the very dubious Historia Augusta) …

He would have perfumes from India burned without any coals in order that the fumes might fill his apartments. Even while a commoner he never made a journey with fewer than sixty wagons, though his grandmother Varia used to protest that he would squander all his substance; but after he became emperor he would take with him, it is said, as many as six hundred, asserting that the king of the Persians travelled with ten thousand camels and Nero with five hundred carriages. The reason for all these vehicles was the vast number of his procurers and bawds, harlots, catamites and lusty partners in depravity. In the public baths he always bathed with the women, and he even treated them himself with a depilatory ointment, which he applied also to his own beard, and shameful though it be to say it, in the same place where the women were treated and at the same hour. He shaved his minions’ groins, using the razor with his own hand — with which he would then shave his beard. He would strew gold and silver dust about a portico and then lament that he could not strew the dust of amber also; and he did this often when he proceeded on foot to his horse or his carriage, as they do today with golden sand.

… and tyranny (Cassius Dio)

Silius Messalla and Pomponius Bassus were condemned to death by the senate, on the charge of being displeased at what the emperor was doing. For he did not hesitate to write this charge against them even to the senate, calling them investigators of his life and censors of what went on in the palace. “The proofs of their plots I have not sent you,” he wrote, “because it would be useless to read them, as the men are already dead.”


Detail view (click for the full image) of The Roses of Heliogabalus, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1888). The work alludes to one of the boy-emperor’s crimes of decadence recounted in the Historia Augusta: “In a banqueting-room with a reversible ceiling he once overwhelmed his parasites with violets and other flowers, so that some were actually smothered to death, being unable to crawl out to the top.”

Most scandalous to Romans, or at least most expedient for his foes’ vituperations, were the adolescent’s outrageous transgressions of masculinity — again, we must underscore, “alleged”. They’re clearly deployed by his enemies to magnify Elagabalus’s cultural easternness, and we might suspect them to also hint at the emasculating power of the teenager’s mother and grandmother who were the true chiefs of state (and who were outrageously admitted to the Senate). Yet if we are to believe the half of what we read of Elagabalus then this effeminate priest-king constitutes one of history’s most notable transgender or genderfluid figures.

Let’s hear at some length from the tittering Cassius Dio, calling the emperor “Sardanapalus” to exoticize him by connection to Assyria.†

When trying someone in court he really had more or less the appearance of a man, but everywhere else he showed affectations in his actions and in the quality of his voice. For instance, he used to dance, not only in the orchestra, but also, in a way, even while walking, performing sacrifices, receiving salutations, or delivering a speech. And finally, — to go back now to the story which I began, — he was bestowed in marriage and was termed wife, mistress, and queen. He worked with wool, sometimes wore a hair-net, and painted his eyes, daubing them with white lead and alkanet. Once, indeed, he shaved his chin and held a festival to mark the event; but after that he had the hairs plucked out, so as to look more like a woman. And he often reclined while receiving the salutations of the senators. The husband of this “woman” was Hierocles, a Carian slave, once the favourite of Gordius, from whom he had learned to drive a chariot. It was in this connexion that he won the emperor’s favour by a most remarkable chance. It seems that in a certain race Hierocles fell out of his chariot just opposite the seat of Sardanapalus, losing his helmet in his fall, and being still beardless and adorned with a crown of yellow hair, he attracted the attention of the emperor and was immediately rushed to the palace; and there by his nocturnal feats he captivated Sardanapalus more than ever and became exceedingly powerful. Indeed, he even had greater influence than the emperor himself, and it was thought a small thing that his mother, while still a slave, should be brought to Rome by soldiers and be numbered among the wives of ex-consuls. Certain other men, too, were frequently honoured by the emperor and became powerful, some because they had joined in his uprising and others because they committed adultery with him. For he wished to have the reputation of committing adultery, so that in this respect, too, he might imitate the most lewd women; and he would often allow himself to be caught in the very act, in consequence of which he used to be violently upbraided by his “husband” and beaten, so that he had black eyes. His affection for this “husband” was no light inclination, but an ardent and firmly fixed passion, so much so that he not only did not become vexed at any such harsh treatment, but on the contrary loved him the more for it and wished to make him Caesar in very fact; and he even threatened his grandmother when she opposed him in this matter, and he became at odds with the soldiers largely on this man’s account. This was one of the things that was destined to lead to his destruction.

Aurelius Zoticus, a native of Smyrna, whom they also called “Cook,” after his father’s trade, incurred the emperor’s thorough love and thorough hatred, and for the latter reason his life was saved. This Aurelius not only had a body that was beautiful all over, seeing that he was an athlete, but in particular he greatly surpassed all others in the size of his private parts. This fact was reported to the emperor by those who were on the look-out for such things, and the man was suddenly whisked away from the games and brought to Rome, accompanied by an immense escort, larger than Abgarus had had in the reign of Severus or Tiridates in that of Nero. He was appointed cubicularius before he had even been seen by the emperor, was honoured by the name of the latter’s grandfather, Avitus, was adorned with garlands as at a festival, and entered the palace lighted by the glare of many torches. Sardanapalus, on seeing him, sprang up with rhythmic movements, and then, when Aurelius addressed him with the usual salutation, “My Lord Emperor, Hail!” he bent his neck so as to assume a ravishing feminine pose, and turning his eyes upon him with a melting gaze, answered without any hesitation: “Call me not Lord, for I am a Lady.” Then Sardanapalus immediately joined him in the bath, and finding him when stripped to be equal to his reputation, burned with even greater lust, reclined on his breast, and took dinner, like some loved mistress, in his bosom. But Hierocles fearing that Zoticus would captivate the emperor more completely than he himself could, and that he might therefore suffer some terrible fate at his hands, as often happens in the case of rival lovers, caused the cup-bearers, who were well disposed toward him, to administer a drug that abated the other’s manly prowess. And so Zoticus, after a whole night of embarrassment, being unable to secure an erection, was deprived of all the honours that he had received, and was driven out of the palace, out of Rome, and later out of the rest of Italy; and this saved his life.

He carried his lewdness to such a point that he asked the physicians to contrive a woman’s vagina in his body by means of an incision, promising them large sums for doing so.

Some books about Elagabalus

The essential problem for Elagabalus was that regardless the precise reality of the behavior his sure cultural distance from Roman manners was also a cultural distance from Roman soldiers — the men whose power to arbitrate succession had placed him in the purple to begin with. The reader may hypothesize the direction of causality but Elagabalus’s historical reputation proves that he failed to bridge that distance.

The fickle Praetorian Guard soon harbored an accelerating preference for Elagabalus’s cousin and heir Severus Alexander, a moderate and respectable Roman youth. Elagabalus triggered his own downfall, and summary deaths meted out to his associates and hangers-on like the hated charioteer/lover Hierocles, with an ill-considered attempt to disinherit this emerging rival. For this narrative we turn to Herodian, a contemporary of events who has disdain for the emperor’s weird god and his “dancing and prancing” but is not nearly so colorful on the subject of his purported sexual depravity. (For Herodian, Elagabalus’s “mockery of human marriage” consists in taking and discarding several different wives, including a Vestal Virgin.)

the emperor undertook to strip Alexander of the honor of caesar, and the youth was no longer to be seen at public addresses or in public processions.

[11 or 12 March 222] But the soldiers called for Alexander and were angry because he had been removed from his imperial post. Heliogabalus circulated a rumor that Alexander was dying, to see how the praetorians would react to the news. When they did not see the youth, the praetorians were deeply grieved and enraged by the report; they refused to send the regular contingent of guards to the emperor and remained in the camp, demanding to see Alexander in the temple there.

Thoroughly frightened, Heliogabalus placed Alexander in the imperial litter, which was richly decorated with gold and precious gems, and set out with him for the praetorian camp. The guards opened the gates and, receiving them inside, brought the two youths to the temple in the camp.

They welcomed Alexander with enthusiastic cheers, but ignored the emperor. Fuming at this treatment, although he spent the night in the camp, Heliogabalus unleashed the fury of his wrath against the praetorians. He ordered the arrest and punishment of the guards who had cheered Alexander openly and enthusiastically, pretending that these were responsible for the revolt and uproar.

The praetorians were enraged by this order; since they had other reasons, also, for hating Heliogabalus, they wished now to rid themselves of so disgraceful an emperor, and believed, too, that they should rescue the praetorians under arrest. Considering the occasion ideal and the provocation just, they killed Heliogabalus and his mother [Julia] Soaemias (for she was in the camp as Augusta and as his mother), together with all his attendants who were seized in the camp and who seemed to be his associates and companions in evil.

They gave the bodies of Heliogabalus and Soaemias to those who wanted to drag them about and abuse them; when the bodies had been dragged throughout the city, the mutilated corpses were thrown into the public sewer which flows into the Tiber.

More detail on reprisals — not exactly dated — comes from Cassius Dio:

His mother, who embraced him and clung tightly to him, perished with him; their heads were cut off and their bodies, after being stripped naked, were first dragged all over the city, and then the mother’s body was cast aside somewhere or other, while his was thrown into the river.

With him perished, among others, Hierocles and the prefects; also Aurelius Eubulus, who was an Emesene by birth and had gone so far in lewdness and debauchery that his surrender had been demanded even by the populace before this. He had been in charge of the fiscus, and there was nothing that he did not confiscate. So now he was torn to pieces by the populace and the soldiers; and Fulvius, the city prefect, perished at the same time with him.

The History of Rome podcast covers Elagabalus in episode 104.

* As pertains the mandate of this here site Elagabalus’s death is far more a murder than an execution, while the actual and threatened executions surrounding this murder are not necessarily dated, and verge towards lynchings. But between them we have a patina of somewhat orchestrated state violence with a somewhat dependable calendar peg that will suffice for a worthy cheat.

** The deity Elagabalus was among several pagan forerunners of the later sun god Sol Invictus, whose cult in turn became eventually conflated with another strange Asian religion, Christianity. There is a reading (distinctly a minority one) of Elagabalus as Rome’s Akhenaten, an unsuccessful proto-monotheist traduced by the incumbent priests who defeated his before-his-time religious revolution.

† Cassius Dio was a senatorial historian which both positioned him to know the scandalous things he reported and problematically incentivized him to concoct scandalous things to report. In particular we should note that Elagabalus’s successor Severus Alexander was personally and politically tight with Cassius Dio and, the historian boasts, “honoured me in various ways, especially by appointing me to be consul for the second time, as his colleague, and taking upon himself personally the responsibility of meeting the expenditures of my office.” In reading Cassius Dio we read the party line of the post-Elagabalus regime.

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1654: Hieronymus Duquesnoy the Younger, sculptor

Add comment September 28th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1654, Flemish sculptor Hieronymus Duquesnoy the Younger was strangled and burned in Ghent for sodomy (sodomy in a church, no less).

As an artist, the man’s legacy is forever overshadowed by his father’s Brussels tourist essential Manneken Pis; Hieronymus (or Jerome) the Younger learned his craft from dad as a studio apprentice. (We here dismiss Hieronymus the Elder from our narrative; Hieronymus the Younger is meant by all subsequent references in this post.)

This was not to be the end of the story when it came to Hieronymus and naked young boys, but in 1621 he upped stakes for Italy and proceeded to spend the next two decades honing his craft in Mediterranean climes. Or at least, this is the necessary assumption, as very little direct evidence traces his movements in that period.

Returning to the Low Counties in the early 1640s, Duquesnoy earned a number of baroque commissions as “architecte, statuaire et sculpteur de la Cour.” (For a taste of his work: The Infant Hercules | Ganymede.)

The last of his projects was this tomb for Bishop Antonius Triest in Ghent; “he set himself up with his assistants in one of the cathedral‘s chapels, to lay out and prepare the sections of this tomb, which could have been for the master the finest jewel in a new sculptural crown, had he not come to a sad end,” according to Edmond de Busscher.


This monumental tomb would also prove the death of its sculptor. (cc) image by www.pmrmaeyaert.com — Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0.

He was arrested when 8- and 11-year-old boys accused him of molestation in the church during his work on the bishop’s shrine. Duquesnoy vigorously denied the charges and tried to call in favors from his patrons to squelch the case, but Ghent’s council decided otherwise and had him executed in the city’s Koornmarkt (Grain Market).

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1805: Not Bartlett Ambler, possible buggerer

Add comment May 8th, 2017 Headsman

From “Buggery and the British Navy”, in History of Homosexuality in Europe and America

Unlike modern military law, which tends to distinguish in some way between homosexual acts between consenting adults and what is often the equivalent of rape of a shipmate, the navy during this period made no such distinctions. A boy who had been seduced or forced to commit buggery, therefore, was under great pressure to turn in his partner or attacker, for if they were caught and it appeared he had consented, the “victim” might well be as severely punished as the aggressor. Needless to say, there were serious problems in determining whether or not the boys called to testify were telling the truth, or simply using the buggery charge as a means of destroying a shipmate or officer they particularly disliked.

The courts were often acutely conscious of that possibility and there was even some objection to allowing young boys to testify in buggery trials. In 1772, the defense protested the testimony of John Ellis, a twelve year old boy who had accused one John Palmer of buggery. Despite the protest, however, it was decided that he could legally testify and Palmer was convicted of attempted buggery.

The problem of boys testifying against men in buggery cases are clearly revealed in the Bartlett Ambler case. Ambler was accused by four boys of sodomitic practices. Each testified that Ambler threatened to have them flogged if they told what had occurred. One of the boys, John Davy, said, “…and I had scarce buttoned up my breeches when he said be sure don’t tell no person of it. I’ll be very good to you, but if you tell any person of it I’ll get you flogged.” Ambler based his defense on the alleged wickedness of his accusers. Joseph Dorman, the ship’s corporal, was called upon to discuss the character of three of the witnesses.

Q. Do you know if the boys who have been examined in support of the charge against me are notorious liars?

A. Two of them Hopkins and Willcott have been several times punished for lying.

Court. What is the character of the boy Davy?

A. He bears a very bad character by the whole ship’s company.

Ambler also called upon Midshipman Robert Baker who told the court:

Davy is a very wicked boy indeed as ever lived everyone in the ship will say that if it was in his power he would hang his own father — I hear Hooper’s mother say that her son had denied to her all that had been said against the prisoner.

The court had to weigh the testimony of the four boys who accused Ambler of buggery against the evidence of Ambler’s witnesses, who denigrated the character of the boys and testified to his good reputation. The judges sentenced Ambler to be hanged, but as a sign of their unease, sent the following letter to the Admiralty Secretary, along with the minutes of the trial:

By desire of the members of a Court Martial assembled by me this day to try Mr. Bartlett Ambler, I have to request you will call their lordship’s consideration to the hardship the Court have labored under in being obliged to condemn a man to death, upon the evidence of four boys, the eldest not more than thirteen years of age, and therefore recommend him to mercy.

The recommendation was endorsed by His Majesty on May 8, 1805, and Ambler was pardoned.

It is clear that boys could be intimidated into testifying against innocent men. In one disturbing case, a boy was caught under the blanket of Edward Martin. Evidently, the boy did not have a bed or blanket of his own, and Martin took him in as an act of kindness. The captain of the ship had the boy flogged and threatened him with another whipping if he refused to testify. Under the threat of further punishment, the boy confessed that Martin had buggered him. The trial record reads:

Prosecutor. Did you inform me that the Prisoner had committed that unnatural crime on you twice?

James. Yes, but I was afraid that the Captain would flog me.

In this case, the prisoner was acquitted, but the case does suggest the many possible abuses in buggery trials: that the testimony of boys was suspect, that fear of punishment or promise of reward might be used to intimidate them into giving false evidence against a shipmate, that the boy could be motivated by dislike or a desire for vengeance.

Trial transcripts of the testimony offered against Bartlett Ambler — and summoned by Ambler in his defense, who averred the “wicked” and “very bad” character of the childish witnesses — are available in Gay Warriors: A Documentary History from the Ancient World to the Present.

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1939: Maurice Pilorge, Le Condamné à mort

1 comment February 4th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1939, the murderer Maurice Pilorge dropped his beautiful head under the blade.

This strange execution by retrospect almost marks the pivot between eras of crime and culture. Public executions were about to disappear entirely; the Third Republic that ordered them would not long outlive them.

And Pilorge’s death specifically would prove to be the last performance of the guillotine in Rennes. It was also to have been the 396th in the legendary career of 75-year-old headsman Anatole Deibler … except that Deibler dropped dead on a Paris metro platform two days before, as he set out for the lethal rendezvous.

So too did Pilorge’s crime belong to that interwar moment of cosmopolitan decadence. He fatally slashed the throat of a Mexican visitor named Escudero after what Pilorge claimed, in an unsuccessful attempt to leverage the “gay panic” defense, was an indecent proposition. The facts of the case appear better to fit the hypothesis that indecent propositions were Pilorge’s stock in trade: a black book full of dates and initials whose owners he would not identify, a short late-night visit to Escudero’s hotel room, and a total refusal to explain his activities.

Pilorge, who maintained a wry and mirthful attitude throughout his trial, could not but laugh at the judge’s speculation — inspired by the swarthiness of his victim in the case at hand? — that his prisoner was involved in traite des blanches, the white slave trade: “I was never cut out for that. I assure you that I have never fallen so low.”

If Pilorge’s character entered the public gaze awash in same-sex eros, he was fixed in the firmament as such by the pen of Villonesque criminal/writer Jean Genet after the war years.

Claiming (falsely) to have had a prison intimacy with this doomed “Apollo”, Genet dedicated to Pilorge, “assasin de vingt ans,” one of his breakthrough works. Written in prison in 1942, Le Condamné à mort is a homoerotic hallucination of lovemaking ahead of a gathering doom and it helped to launch the theretofore Genet into literary superstardom. I’ve found the lengthy poem available online only in the original French, but here’s a translated excerpt via The Columbia Anthology of Gay Literature:

O come my beautiful sun, o come my night of Spain,
Arrive in my eyes which will be dead tomorrow.
Arrive, open my door, bring me your hand,
Lead me far from here to scour the battleground.

Heaven may awaken, the stars may blossom,
Nor flowers sigh, and from the meadows the black grass
Gather the dew where morning is about to drink,
The bell may ring: I alone am about to die.

O come my heaven of rose, o my blond basket!
Visit in his night your condemned-to-death.
Tear away your own flesh, kill, climb, bite,
But come! Place your cheek against my round head.

We had not finished speaking to each other of love.
We had not finished smoking our gitanes.
Well we might ask why the Courts condemn
A murderer so beautiful he makes the day to pale.

Love come to my mouth! Love open your doors!
Run through the hallways, come down, step lightly,
Fly down the stairs more supple than a shepherd,
More borne up by the air than a flight of dead leaves.

O cross the walls; so it must be walk on the brink
Of roofs, of oceans; cover yourself with light,
Use menace, use prayer,
But come, o my frigate, an hour before my death.

The poem was one of several that Genet wrote later set to music by herhis friend, Helene Martin. (It’s also been covered and reinterpreted by several others.)

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1743: James Hunt and Thomas Collins, Pepper-Alley sodomists

Add comment August 25th, 2016 Headsman

This date’s post arrives via Rictor Norton‘s rich Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England sourcebook. We have cited this page before, notably in connection with London’s “molly houses”, a subject upon which Norton literally wrote the book.

His online “Sourcebook” compiles a vast trove of primary records capturing the prevailing views of early modern England’s sexual dissidents. Many of these records are legal proceedings, though most of those do not end at the gallows. Whatever their various fates, the misfortune to come under the court’s scrutiny preserves for us a snapshot of their circumstances.

Hunt and Collins were caught in a liaison at a house on Pepper-Alley, which once gave access to one of London’s innumerable little stairways into the Thames from which watermen would ferry passengers across and along the river.

To the frustration of the Ordinary they persistently denied it. Indeed, Hunt, a 37-year-old barge builder and “one of the most unaccountable Men that was ever under the like Misfortune” insisted quite violently that he had been stitched up by perjuring witnesses. As an Anabaptist, the threats to his soul that the C-of-E prelate delivered did not much bother him.

“He was one of the most morose, il-natur’d, surly Creatures that could breathe, and was never at Peace one hour, but continually railing against his Prosecutors,” we find. And even when an Anabaptist pastor was brought in to persuade him, “he answered, ‘Say no more to me about it; I’ll forgive no Body, for I’ll die harden’d.’ — This was a most shocking Speech for a Man who had but a few Hours to live; but he continued to the last Moment in the same Manner.”

A bit more polite about it was Thomas Collins, who had returned to England after spending a career as a soldier in the army of Emperor Charles VI. Still, Collins would not own any actual rendezvous with Hunt, saying only that the two had met by accident on Pepper-Alley and gone to the “Necessary House” (an outdoor toilet) where they “had not been there much above a Minute before two Men came and said they were Sodomites, and pull’d him off the Seat, and turned his Pockets inside out” but finding no money stomped off, complaining “here is no Feathers to pluck.”

The Ordinary was highly dissatisfied with their behavior.

Where two Men who were convicted of such an attrocious [sic] Crime, upon the fullest Evidence that was ever given in any Court of Justice, should prevaricate so much, and behave in so indecent a Manner as they (especially Hunt) have done ever since their Condemnation; the World must be left to judge, whether they were Innocent or Guilty.

Held in Southwark Gaol, they were executed at Kennington Common alongside three other men and a woman (crimes: housebreaking, returning from transportation, murder, murder) where both “continued quite obstinate” with Hunt even refusing to kneel for prayers. While Hunt had friends or money enough to have a coach ready to carry his corpse away from the surgeons who haunted hang-days in search of prey for their anatomy theaters, one final posthumous indignity still awaited Mr. Collins — described by the Ipswich Journal in its September 3 edition:

LONDON, August 27.
The Body of Thomas Collins, executed on Kennington-Common for Sodomy, that was carried off by the Surgeons, being, on Examination, found to be infected with the Venereal Disease, was carried back to the Gallows and there left naked.

Read the full account at Rictor Norton’s site here, or peruse the rest of the Sourcebook including his Grub Street resources on all manner of commoner life and literature (LGBT-related and not) for the 18th century British.

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1809: Four by William Brunskill at Horsemonger Lane

Add comment April 4th, 2016 Headsman

Jackson’s Oxford Journal, April 1, 1809:

ASSIZES. — At Surry [sic] assizes, the following capital convicts received sentence of death: — J.A. Davison, J. Mason, J. Wood, and S. Hilton, for burglary; W. Leech, for highway robbery; J. Bartlet, [sic] for an unnatural offence; T. Hall, for extorting money under a threat of charging J. Clarke with an unnatural offence; H. Edwards, for shooting at W. Smith; J. Stenning, for forging a note; C. March, for cattle-stealing; S. Turner, for privately stealing; and Mary Ann Ellis, J. Hopkins, and J. Cobb, for stealing in dwelling-house. The Judges reprieved all except Bartlett, Edwards, Mason, and Wood.

Robert Skinner was indicted for attempting to ravish Mary Ann Hill, on the 16th of February last, at Wandsworth. The prosecutrix, who stated herself to be only 16 years of age, deposed that her father was a market-gardener at Wandsworth, and the prisoner worked in his service. On the 16th of February last they were at work together in a shed. He was binding coleworts, and she was trimming them.


A field of colewort. (cc) image by patchara yu.

After he had finished, he came to where she was sitting and threw her down. He was, however, interrupted by the coming of a cart, or she believed he would then have committed the offence charged. On cross-examination, she said her father had a cottage in his garden in Garret-lane, and she, her sister, and another girl slept there alone. On the 14th of January the prisoner was there in the evening; they gave him some beef-steaks for his supper, and he would not go home. She gave him the mattress to lie upon without side her chamber door. — In the night she heard a noise, and got up to see what it was; they were both naked. She did not tell her father of this. A few nights afterwards they had him to supper again, and got him some sausages; he would stay all that night, and she then let him lie in the same bed, but she did not let him lie next to her. The Learned Judge here interrupted, and observed it was ridiculous to talk of any attempt at a rape after this. The prisoner was of course acquitted.


Jackson’s Oxford Journal, April 8, 1809:

EXECUTION. — James Bartlett, for an unnatural crime; Henry Edwards, for highway robbery; and John Biggs and Samuel Wood, for burglary, were executed yesterday morning, [April 4, 1809] at the usual hour, on the top of the New Prison, Horsemonger-lane, in pursuance of their sentence. The crowd assembled on the melancholy occasion was excessive. The unfortunate men met their fate with great fortitude, and died acknowledging the justice of their punishment. Biggs sarcastically observed to the Executioneer, [sic] when he was pinioning him in the usual way — “I wish you had a better office.”* — He with the rest died extremely penitent. A hearse conveyed the body of Bartlett to Limehouse, where he is to be interred. — He is stated to have conveyed before his trial upwards of 1500l. to his daughters.

* The hangman so busted upon was William Brunskill, who already had near a quarter-century in his poor office by that time. It’s a bit hard to tell from the printed account, but since Brunskill had some notable ten-thumbed hangings to his credit — like that of Joseph Wall seven years before — the “better office” remark might have been a Monmouth-esque professional rebuke.

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1823: William North, prostrated homosexual

Add comment February 24th, 2016 Headsman

From the Morning Chronicle of Feb. 25, 1823, via Rictor Norton. (Spaces added for readability.)

EXECUTION. — Yesterday morning, at an early hour, considerable numbers of spectators assembled before the Debtors’ door at Newgate, to witness the execution of William North, convicted in september Sessions of an unnatural crime.

The wretched culprit was 54 years of age, and had a wife living.

On his trial, he appeared a fine, stout, robust man, and strongly denied his guilt. On his being brought before the Sheriffs yesterday morning, he appeared to have grown at least ten years older, during the five months he has been in a condemned cell, with the horrid prospect before him of dying a violent death. His body had wasted to the mere anatomy of a man, his cheeks had sunk, his eyes had become hollow, and such was his weakness, that he could scarcely stand without support.

Though the consolations of religion were frequently offered to him, yet he could not sufficiently calm his mind to listen, or participate in them, even to the moment of his death. Sunday night he could not sleep, his mouth was parched with a burning fever; he occasionaqlly ejaculated “Oh God!” and “I’m lost;” and at other times he appeared quite childish; his imbecility of mind seemed to correspond with the weakness of his body. He exclaimed on one occasion “I have suffered sufficient punishment in this prison to atone for the crimes I have committed;” and when the Rev. Dr. Cotton and Mr. Baker, who attended him, asked him if he believed in Christ, and felt that he was a sinner? He replied “I pray, but cannot feel.”

The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was not administered to him, probably on account of his occasional delirium, and the generally disordered state of his mental faculties.

At five minutes before eight yesterday morning he was pinioned by the executioner in the press room, in the presence of the sheriffs and officers of the goal. As St. Sepulchre’s church clock struck eight, the culprit, carrying the rope, attended by the executioner, and clergyman, moved in procession with the sheriffs, &c. on to the scaffold.

On arriving at the third station, the prison bell tolled, and Dr. Cotton commenced at the same moment reading the funeral service “I am the resurrection and the life,” &c. of which the wretched man seemed to be totally regardless. On his being assisted up the steps of the scaffold, reason returned; he became aware of the dreadful death to which he was about to be consigned; his looks of terror were frightful; his expression of horror, when the rope was being placed round his neck, made every spectator shudder.

It was one of the most trying scenes to the clergymen they ever witnessed — never appeared a man so unprepared, so unresigned to his fate. — The signal being given the drop fell, and the criminal expired in less than a minute. He never struggled after he fell.

The body hung an hour, and was then cut down for interment. — The six unhappy men who are doomed to suffer on to-morrow morning, appear to be perfectly resigned to their fate.

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c. 1560: Dominique Phinot, queer composer

1 comment January 25th, 2016 Headsman

Jacob Bonfadius, a man otherwise not in the last place among the erudite, because of copulation with boys (a most vile and sordid thing), was beheaded in prison and publically burned. The French Dominique Phinot, a distinguished musician, was also killed in the same way for a very similar folly.

-Gerolamo Cardano

This throwaway remark by the Italian Renaissance man Cardano is our only clue to the fate — indeed, to the very biography — of the composer Dominique Phinot. Based on the volume’s publication in 1561, it is thought that Phinot suffered for his folly around 1557-1560. We don’t even know the place.

Whatever damnatio memoriae obscured him in death, Phinot (English Wikipedia entry | French) was a prominent and highly regarded musician in his working life, acclaimed an expert in polychoral motets. Some 90 exemplars, and dozens of other compositions, survive; the 17th century Italian musicologist Pietro Cerone credited Phinot’s innovations with opening the way for Palestrina.

He emerges for posterity through those compositions; the earliest surviving date to 1538 and his publication locales (and the powerful men to whom they were dedicated) suggest a man for whom patrons in northern Italy (and across the Alps in Lyons) eagerly competed in the 1540s and 1550s. It is known that Phinot was retained by the Duke of Urbino for a period.

It is surely topical to notice that our correspondent Cardano was himself widely whispered to enjoy the same folly, too: a Venetian whose deep interest in music led him to “adopt” into his wifeless** household a number of boys with musical gifts, Cardano could hardly fail to court suspicion. “The rumor was being circulated everywhere that I was using my boys for immoral purposes,” Cardano reports autobiographically of one instance where he was threatened with exposure. Cardano appears never to have been formally charged as a sodomite, but it is remarkable — and even, he admits, “foolishness” — that his brushes with danger never caused him to reconsider the boy-keeping policy.†

As a proper Renaissance man, Cardano’s interests stretched far beyond pederasty and a good tune. He was, in the backhanded compliment of Sir Thomas Browne, “a great Enquirer of Truth, but too greedy a Receiver of it” and treatised profusely on philosophy, law, geology, astronomy, pedagogy, medicine, and mathematics. The latter two fields brought him his fame, but his musings flashed intermittent prescience across disciplines. Cardano argued for the full mental capacity of the deaf, and correctly inferred that mountains had once been underwater from the presence of seashell fossils upon them. A cryptographic technique, a puzzle, and a gear mechanism all bear the Cardano name. His mathematician’s sure grasp on probability also made him a deft gambler — and he published yet another volume on this subject as a young man.

Cardano the physician’s most famous patient was the Archbishop of St. Andrews, whom Cardano in 1553 cured of a debilitating asthma that had stricken the prelate speechless and was thought untreatable by contemporaries. Thanks to Cardano, Archbishop Hamilton became spry enough to get hanged for murder in 1571.

Yet Cardano the man had a still closer acquaintance with the executioner’s office through the person of his firstborn son … a topic for another day’s post.

* Opera Omnia, vol. 2, p. 354 (Theonoston seu de tranquilitate) Translation via Clement Miller in “Jerome Cardan on Gombert, Phinot, and Carpentras,” The Musical Quarterly, July 1972. The aforementioned Gombert was another composer who got busted for same-sex contact; he caught a term in the galleys.

** Cardano’s wife Lucia died in 1546.

† For more see Guido Giglioni, “Musicus Puer. A note on Cardano’s household and the dangers of music,” Bruniana & Campanelliana, vol. 11, no. 1 (2005).

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1819: John Markham, abominable offence

Add comment December 29th, 2015 Headsman

The diary (pdf) of a man imprisoned at Newgate recorded for this date in 1819 that

A man was hanged this morning for an unnatural crime. Had my windows fastened up but could not sleep. They began putting up the scaffold at 4 o’clock. The tolling of the bell at 8 was frightful. I heard the crash of the drop falling and a woman screech violently at the same moment. Instantly afterwards, the sound of the pye man crying, “all hot, all hot.” ‘Tis dreadful hanging a man for this practice.* There are two, a man and boy now in jail, who were caught in flagrante delictu — and yet only sentenced to two years imprisonment. The poor wretch was half dead, so they told me, before he was hanged.

Of this poor soul fallen away into the indifferent cries of the pye-man we have this from The Morning Post of December 30, 1819 (see also Rictor Norton):

EXECUTION. Yesterday morning the sentence of the law was carried into effect at the usual place in the Old Bailey, on John Markham, convicted at the October Sessions of an abominable offence. Precisely at eight o'clock the wretched culprit was placed on the scaffold, more dead than alive, attended by the Rev. Mr. COTTON, with whom he appeared to join in fervent prayer while the executioner was performing his melancholy office. In a few minutes the drop fell, and the miserable wretch was dead in an instant. Markham was a person of the lowest stamp in society: he had been for some time, and was at the period of the commission of the offence, for which he forfeited his life, a pauper inmate of St. Giles's workhouse. There were fewer spectators than ever attended on any former occasion.

John Markham was obscure, no doubt; his condemnation literally was for unspeakable acts, since it barely rates a line at all in the Old Bailey’s archives.

But the aural observer of his death was not obscure at all.

John Hobhouse, though he would eventually become the first Baron Broughton, was a buddy of the queer-friendly Lord Byron (the fourth canto of Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is dedicated to Hobhouse). Hobhouse was also a prominent radical rabble-rouser, which is precisely why he was in Newgate on the day of Markham’s hanging.

All of this occurred in the tense wake of the Peterloo Massacre, which saw British cavalry ride down their countrymen in Manchester for assembling to demand the reform of a parliament long grown egregiously unrepresentative. (Manchester was a case in point: it had no M.P. at all based on a centuries-old allocation of boroughs even though it had now boomed into one of the realm’s leading centers of industry.**)

Following the Peterloo outrage, our correspondent Mr. Hobhouse had suggested in one of his many combative pamphlets that absent such brutal exertions the members of Parliament “would be pulled out by their ears” at the hands of an aggrieved populace. Given the all-too-recent aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars — and their antecedent, the French Revolution — the potential threat in these words seemed to the powers that be a step beyond mere colorful rhetoric.

Accordingly, the House of Commons judged Hobhouse guilty of a breach of privilege and had him arrested earlier that same December. His cause more advanced by the martyrdom than inconvenienced by a gentleman’s loose detention — Hobhouse’s at-liberty associates not only held political meetings in his ample prison apartments but planned and advertised them in advance — the man won election to that selfsame House of Commons from Westminster the following March.


(Via)

* A few days later, Hobhouse will record in his diary that he has been told that Markham “had committed his crime with a pauper in a workhouse on a coffin.”

** The U.K. finally enacted parliamentary reform in 1832. A few years after that, it even stopped hanging people for sodomy.

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