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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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1521: Xicotencatl Axayacatl, Cortes fighter

Add comment May 21st, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1521, the Tlaxcallan warrior Xicotencatl Axayacatl (or Xicotencatl the Younger) was hanged by Hernan Cortes on the eve of his conquest of Tenochtitlan.

In an alternate history of Spain’s New World encounter it is Xicotencatl who has the glory of putting Cortes and his adventure to execution: the Tlaxcallans mounted a ferocious resistance when the conquistadors penetrated their territory, with Xicotencatl’s huge armies placing the Spanish in mortal peril despite the latter’s advantages of firearms and cavalry. Spanish soldier and diarist Bernal Diaz del Castillo would record of one engagement in September 1519

a battle of as fearful and dubious an issue as well could be. In an instant we were surrounded on all sides by such vast numbers of Indians, that the plain, here six miles in breadth, seemed as if it contained but one vast body of the enemy, in the midst of which stood our small army of 400 men, the greater part wounded and knocked up with fatigue. We were also aware that the enemy had marched out to battle with the determination to spare none of us, excepting those who were to be sacrificed to their idols.

When, therefore, the attack commenced, a real shower of arrows and stones was poured upon us; the whole ground was immediately covered with heaps of lances, whose points were provided with two edges, so very sharp that they pierced through every species of cuirass, and were particularly dangerous to the lower part of the body, which was in no way protected. They fell upon us like the very furies themselves, with the most horrible yells; we employed, however, our heavy guns, muskets, and crossbows, with so much effect, and received those who pressed eagerly upon us with such well-directed blows and thrusts, that considerable destruction was made among their ranks, nor did they allow us to approach so near to them as in the previous battle: our cavalry, in particular, showed great skill and bravery, so that they, next to the Almighty, were the principal means of saving us.

Indeed our line was already half broken; all the commands of Cortes and our other officers to restore order and form again were fruitless, the Indians continually rushing upon us in such vast crowds that we could only make place with sword in hand to save our line from being broken. …

Cortes (and the Almighty) made it out of that scrap but their small force was severely taxed by repeated engagements, including a destructive nighttime raid launched by Xicotencatl. The Spanish never conquered the Tlaxcallans — turning instead to diplomacy to attract them as allies against their rivals, the Aztecs.

So far was the victorious Xicotencatl from embracing this decision that he repeatedly ignored Tlaxcallan chiefs’ orders to stop fighting. His refusal to accommodate has inevitably been read retrospectively in view of indigenous anti-colonialism, but in the moment it was probably had a more prosaic cause: had he been suffered to complete Cortes’s destruction, he would have figured to gain a whip hand in domestic Tlaxcallan politics.

Still, the Indians were taking fearsome casualties from the Spanish and this combined with the prospect of turning Cortes’s invaders against their own enemies carried the decision. For many generations this timely alliance privileged the Tlaxcala nation, whose peoples ranked higher than other natives long into the Spanish sovereignty.

But it seems to have been intolerable for Xicotencatl Axayacatl.


The Last Days of Tenochtitlan — Conquest of Mexico by Cortez, by William de Leftwich Dodge (1899).

Cortes and his Tlaxcallan and other allies launched the final march that would conquer Tenochtitlan on May 22, 1521, but the day before setting out it was discovered that Xicotencatl had abandoned the camp. Diaz, again:

After considerable inquiries, it was found that he had secretly returned to Tlascalla on the previous night to take forcible possession of the caziquedom and territory of Chichimeclatecl. It appears, according to the accounts of the Tlascallans, that he wished to avail himself of this favorable opportunity of raising himself to supreme power in his own country, which the absence of Chichimeclatecl offered to him, who, in his opinion, was the only person that stood in his way since the death [by smallpox -ed.] of Maxixcatzin, as he did not fear any opposition from his old blind father. This Xicotencatl, the Tlascallans further added, had never felt any real inclination to join us in the war against Mexico, but had frequently assured them it would terminate in the destruction of us all.

When Chichimeclatecl received information of this, he instantly returned to Tezcuco in order to apprize Cortes of it. Our general, on hearing this, despatched five distinguished personages of Tezcuco, and two Tlascallans, who were his particular friends, after Xicotencatl, to request his immediate return to his troops, in Cortes’ name. They were to remind him that his father Lorenzo de Vargas would certainly have marched out against Mexico in person, if blindness and old age had not prevented him; that the whole population of Tlascalla continued loyal to his majesty, and that the revolt he wished to excite would throw dishonour on his own country. These representations Cortes desired should be accompanied by large promises, to induce him to return to obedience. Xicotencatl, however, haughtily replied, that he was determined to abide by his resolve, and our dominion in this country would not have continued thus long if his father and Maxixcatzin had followed his advice.

Upon this our general ordered an alguacil to repair in all haste with four of our horse and five distinguished men of Tezcuco to Xicotencatl’s abode, to take him prisoner, and hang him without any further ceremony. “All kindness,” added Cortes, “is thrown away upon this cazique. His whole time is spent in devising plots and creating mischief. I cannot suffer this to continue any longer; the matter has now come to a crisis.”

As soon as [conquistador Pedro de] Alvarado received information of these commands, he urgently begged of Cortes to pardon Xicotencatl. Our general replied that he would consider about it, though he secretly gave the alguacil peremptory orders to put him to death, which was accordingly done. Xicotencatl was hung in a town subject to Tezcuco, and thus an end was put to all his plottings. Many Tlascallans assured us that the elder Xicotencatl himself had cautioned Cortes against his son, and had advised him to put him to death.

This, at least, is the story. We lack Xicotencatl’s own voice here, and we must guess at the forces at work via the few and partisan narratives of the conquistadors. Anthropologist Ross Hassig speculates here that the “desertion” accusation — given that other similar “desertions” occur with unpunished regularity among both Spanish and natives — might have been merely pretextual on the part of Cortes, to eliminate a man he still considered a dangerous foe.

Either way, with the passage of years Xicotencatl has become a Mesoamerican symbol of indigenous valor and imperial resistance. His martial statue graces Plaza Xicohtencatl in the present-day city of Tlaxcala.

* Diaz’s narrative dates the Spanish departure from Tezcuco to May 13, instead of May 22 but he is extremely slipshod with chronology. Diaz is also a key primary source for the most lurid accounts of Aztec human sacrifice, and his reliability in that quarter has been challenged, too.

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1617: Eleonora Galigai, Marie de’ Medici favorite

1 comment July 8th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1617, Italian noblewoman Eleonora Galigai was beheaded in Paris for witchcraft.

Continuing the French crown’s glorious tradition of importing dubious Italians in the train of a Medici, Eleonora (also known as Leonora or Dianora) shipped over from Tuscany with her mistress Marie de’ Medici when the latter was dynastically married off to Henri IV. Like many in its time it was a marriage of convenience: Henri brought the kingdom — and Marie the money.


Detail view (click for the full panoramic panel) of Peter Paul Rubens‘s Coronation of Marie de’ Medici in [the Basilica of] St. Denis, part of a cycle of Marie de’ Medici paintings Rubens produced on the queen’s commission beginning in 1622.

The coronation depicted above occurred on May 13, 1610 after ten quarrelsome years of marriage, and it was noteworthy timing (some thought suspicious timing) because her husband was assassinated the very next day, leaving Marie to rule France in the stead of her eight-year-old firsborn Louis XIII.

To the boundless irritation of France’s native optimates, the import queen now bestowed an incommensurate favor on her own people, and were the French nobility to draw up their bill of particulars for us the very first name might be Eleonora Galigai’s husband.

This character, Concino Concini by name, was the quick-witted son of a Florentine notary who had hustled his way into that same nuptial entourage. Marrying Eleonora, who was one of Marie’s favorites, put him squarely in the limelight among the regal expats; indeed it was he who had the honor of informing Marie of her late husband’s murder with the cold words “L’hanno ammazzato”: they killed him.

Now (runs an English traveler’s epistle), Marie’s “Countenance came to shine so strongly upon him, that he became her only Confident and Favourite, insomuch that she made him Marquis of Ancre, one of the twelve Mareschals of France, Governor of Normandy; and conferr’d divers other Honours and Offices of Trust upon him.” He lived with his wife in splendor at the Louvre, both of them in the constant orbit of the queen whom they dominated.

Haughty, insolent, low-born, foreign, and possibly complicit in regicide, D’Ancre was widely loathed in France; certainly he had few greater enemies than the growing young king, who would already have been disposed to chafe under his mother’s regency. In Louis’s eyes, this adventurer-marquis was both emblem of his mother’s misrule and (as Marshal of France) a substantive roadblock to his own power.

At last in 1617 — not yet 15 years of age — Louis seized his own realm* by having D’Ancre ambushed crossing in front of the Louvre and murdered by palace guards. Afterwards, a crowd long hostile to the noxious favorite brutally vented its rage on his naked corpse, gleefully shouting at Eleonora those words Concino had made so notorious: l’hanno ammazzato! They were really baying for her blood, too.


17th century French engraving.

And they got it.

With France in hand and public opinion at his back — “I cannot represent to the king one thousandth part of joy of all these people who are exalting him to heaven for having delivered the earth from this miserable burden,” one toady reported; “I can’t tell you in what execration this public pest was held” — Louis’s party began purging the remaining dregs of his mother’s regency.** They soon shut up Eleonora in the Bastille, and had her charged as a sorceress.

* This coup was naturally big news in England as well; there’s evidence of a now-lost play about it within weeks of D’Ancre’s murder.

** The eminence grise himself, Cardinal Richelieu, first attained the summit of the state as a loyal aide to Marie and Concino. Briefly banished from Paris in the wake of Louis’s coup, Richelieu bided his time and won his way back into the confidence of the young king with whom he was to become so closely identified.

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1868: Eleven samurai, for the Sakai Incident

1 comment March 16th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1868,* eleven samurai committed seppuku before the French consul in Japan spared their nine comrades.

The affair was stunning punishment for what’s known as the Sakai Incident — an offense eight days prior that occurred during Japan’s Boshin War, a last rearguard battle of loyalists to the (now officially ended) Tokugawa Shogunate against the rising imperial party of the Meiji Restoration.

What’s noteworthy for our purposes in this period is that the Meiji espoused an anti-foreigner policy — one that was not the less intently felt by the Meiji base for being entirely insincere on the part of elites.

It was in this tense context that a boat full of French sailors from the corvette Dupleix called on March 8 at Sakai — a port city whose shogunate forces had routed. It had been recently occupied by imperial troops.

Japan had only been opened to the west 15 years before, and access was still quite restricted; there might have been a misunderstanding between the French sailors and Sakai’s Tosa clan occupiers over whether this city was open at all. There was definitely a misunderstanding once the tourists ran into samurai on shore, and before you know it high words and suspicious glares turned into a street skirmish that left eleven Frenchmen dead.


Illustration from Le Monde Diplomatique (1868)

This Sakai Incident (English Wikipedia entry | French) incensed western powers, and not only the French: the British, Dutch, Prussians, Italians, and Americans all pulled down their embassy colors in solidarity pending adequate satisfaction for the French. Japan at this moment was not at all in a position to take a stand against foreign gunships over this dust-up, and it met the conditions — which consisted of some personal groveling by a state minister, the payment of a 150,000-piastres indemnity, and the execution of the officers and soldiers involed. The punishment would be self-administered by seppuku at a Sakai shrine. This set the scene for a powerful climax, in which the soldiers one by one tore out their own guts in a ceremony that must have played as defiance no less than submission.

Quoting the Moniteur, the London Morning Post of May 19, 1868 (news was slow in those days) describes the operatic punishment.

On the 15th [a Japanese] high functionary brought a written reply from his Government conceding all the satisfaction required. On the following day Captain du Petit-Thouars, commander of the Dupleix, landed at Sakai to witness the execution of two officers, a subaltern, and 17 Japanese soldiers, condemned to death as the principal authors of the aggression. The two chiefs were the first put to death, after which nine others perished successively. Captain du Petit-Thouars then seeing that the Japanese Government was decided on carrying out its engagements to the end, and ceding to a feeling of humanity, stayed the execution, declaring that he considered the reparation sufficient, and that he proposed to ask the Minister of France to intercede for a commutation of punishment in favour of the other condemned.

The last nine beneficiaries of the captain’s clemency were sent into internal exile instead.

The Japanese writer Mori Ogai wrote a short story about this affair, Sakai Jiken. (See Suicidal Honor: General Nogi and the Writings of Mori Ogai and Natsume Soseki.)

* There are some citations that give the date as the 23rd. The original reporting I have located unambiguously asserts that the execution occurred on the 16th.

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1573: Lippold ben Chluchim, scapegoat

Add comment January 28th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1573, the Jewish courtier Lippold ben Chluchim was broken on the wheel and cut into quarters.

Most of the readily available information about poor Lippold is in German; his was a fate similar to the 18th century “Jud Süß”, minus the worldwide notoriety conferred by a Nazi propaganda film.

Though born in Prague, Lippold would live a life, and die a death, in the orbit of the Elector of Brandenburg — a principality where Jews endured precipitous reversals of fortune over the centuries.

Elector Joachim I had actually expelled Jews from the territory in 1510* after riots incited by rumors of desecrating the Host; Lippold and his family would benefit when Joachim’s son, also named Joachim, rescinded some of the old man’s harsh ordinances and invited Jews to return. Lippold was about 12 years old when his family took advantage of the liberalization and relocated to Berlin in 1542.

By adulthood, the able Lippold had plugged into Joachim II’s court and become a trusted favorite. While Joachim’s dad must have been turning in the grave, one imagines the son appreciated the loyalty of an aide whose prestige depended entirely upon the prince himself.

Events would underscore painfully Lippold’s vulnerability to the turning wheel of fortune.

As Brandenburg’s master of the mint, it fell to Lippold to implement a wide-ranging currency debasement program required by Joachim to finance his spendthrift government — basically passing on the cost to merchants who were required by edict to accept the local coinage at its fanciful face value.

Despite this hated policy, plus additions to the state’s rounds of direct taxation, Joachim was 2.5 million guilders in debt when he died suddenly during a hunting trip on the third of January in 1571. Things immediately turned grim for Brandenburg’s Jewry after the liberal Joachim fils was in the earth; a pogrom sacked Berlin’s synagogue and rampaged through the Jewish quarter.

Joachim’s son and successor Johann Georg likewise found in his father’s Jewish henchman — a man who had naturally waxed very wealthy and very unpopular doing the previous sovereign’s dirty work — a ready scapegoat for Brandenburg’s financial woes. Johann Georg accused Lippold of using black magic and poison to assassinate his benefactor and persuaded Lippold in the usual way to confirm it. Jews beheld the reinstatement of that old proscription, little more than 30 years after Joachim II had canceled it — and they were once again expelled from Berlin en masse.

* Complete with a mass execution.

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1630: Christina Plum, at the stake, in Cologne

1 comment January 16th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1630, the city of Cologne burned Christina Plum.

This aptly-named fruit vendor was a real peach. During Cologne’s 1627-1630 witch hunt, Plum in 1629 denounced a bushel of Cologne’s leading citizens for devilry. While threatening established elites with torture and the stake certainly seems downright bananas with benefit of hindsight, the free city had in 1627 burned an influential woman — and possibly Germany’s first female postmaster — named Katharina Henot. Indeed, it was Plum’s contention that such varied characters as the wife of the Burgermeister, the pastor of St. Alban’s Church, and Katharina Henot’s brother had all been keeping regular dates at the late Katharina’s Black Sabbath orgies.

The city was at that moment facing intense pressure by the Archbishop of Cologne Ferdinand of Bavaria — an imperial elector and enthusiastic hammer of witches — to root out Satan’s earthly minions. It was not at all past thinking that Plum’s accusations could have cut a swath through the city’s upper crust.

Instead, they destroyed the credibility of the witch hunts.

After unsuccessfully pressuring Plum to just pipe down and go away, the city had her arrested as a witch. After all, how did she know so much about who was going to the orgies? And, as was almost inevitable in such cases, the consequent interrogation proved sufficiently vigorous to force a confession from the woman’s lips.

In 1631, as the witch fever abated in Cologne, and elsewhere throughout Germany, the Cologne-educated jurist Friedrich Spee published one of the seminal takedowns of witch-hunting, Cautio Criminalis. (Spee himself lost a kinswoman to the Hexenprozesse.)

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1730: Nevsehirli Damat Ibrahim Pasha, Tulip Era Grand Vizier

1 comment October 16th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1730, the Ottoman Grand Vizier Nevsehirli Damat Ibrahim Pasha was deposed by strangulation.

Ibrahim Pasha (English Wikipedia entry | Turkish)* was the minister of Sultan Ahmed III; more than that, he was the sultan’s son-in-law.**

It was the Lâle Devri in Istanbul, whose great families thrilled to the voluptuary pleasures of tulips — a consumption conspicuous not only of wealth but of European affectation.†

Ibrahim himself was a great connoisseur of the fashionable bulb that defines his 1718-1730 administration as the “Tulip Period”. Arts and culture in the empire — there’s no other way to say it — flowered.

But neither horticulture nor family ties were safety in Istanbul when events required of the sultan a politically expedient purge.

For the mass of Turks unable to entertain French noblemen in their cultivated gardens, resentments both economical and cultural accumulated during in Tulip Period until they were discharged by a ham-handed tax imposition in 1730 into a huge mob rising. We have previously covered this revolt; suffice to say that it was briefly a mortal threat to which the ruling dynasty was obliged to sacrifice a few elites: an Albanian shopkeeper named Patrona Halil basically ruled Istanbul for a few weeks, and one of the concessions his angry supporters required of the sultan was the death of his son-in-law. Ahmed himself got off “easy” and was simply made to resign in favor of his nephew.

The end for Nevsehirli Damat Ibrahim Pasha also meant the end of the Tulip Era; periodization aside, however, the flower does remain a popular Turkish symbol. (Even the word for tulip, Lale, is used as a feminine name.) They’re planted all over in present-day Istanbul, and bloom gloriously in the spring; Turkish Airlines also uses a stylized tulip as its logo.

* Not to be confused with the Damat Ibrahim Pasha who was Grand Vizier from 1596 to 1601, and still less with the Grand Vizier executed by Suleiman the Magnificent, Pargali Ibrahim Pasha.

** His wife Hatice Sultan wielded considerable power of her own; after her husband’s death and her father’s resignation, she played a leading role in statecraft for the government-averse successor sultan.

† This is, however, a century after the completely unrelated Dutch tulip mania. The flower is native to Anatolia, not to the Low Countries.

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1809: Seven Valladolid ruffians, by Napoleon

Add comment January 13th, 2015 Headsman

Upon this a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with. Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you. And that prince who, relying entirely on their promises, has neglected other precautions, is ruined; because friendships that are obtained by payments, and not by greatness or nobility of mind, may indeed be earned, but they are not secured, and in time of need cannot be relied upon; and men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.

-Machiavelli, The Prince

This date in 1809, Napoleon gave that dread of punishment to the Spanish with the execution of seven insurgents at Valladolid, where he had come to collect grudging oaths of loyalty from that conquered nation’s grandees to his brother and puppet king Joseph.

We get this entry from Adolphe ThiersHistory of the consulate and the empire of France under Napoleon. We’ve added some paragraph breaks for readability.

Napoleon very distinctly discerned in the alleged devotion of the Spanish people for the house of Bourbon the demagogue passions that stirred them, and which took that strange way to manifest themselves; for it was the most violent democracy under the appearance of the purest royalism.

This people, extreme in all things, had in fact begun again the work of assassination in revenge for the disasters of the Spanish armies. Since the murders of the unfortunate marquis de Parales in Madrid, and of Don Juan Benito at Talavera, they had massacred in Ciudad Real Don Juan Duro, canon of Toledo, and a friend of the prince of the Peace; and at Malagon, the ex-minister of finance, Don Soler. Wherever there were no French armies, honest men trembled for their property and their lives.

Napoleon, resolving to make a severe example of the assassins, ordered the arrest in Valladolid of a dozen of ruffians known to have been concerned in all the massacres, particularly in that of the unfortunate governor of Segovia, Don Miguel Cevallos; and he had them executed, notwithstanding the apparent entreaties of the principal inhabitants of Valladolid.

“You must make yourself feared first, and loved afterwards,” was his frequent remark in his letters to his brother. “They have been soliciting me here for the pardon of some bandits who have committed murder and robbery, but they have been delighted not to obtain it, and subsequently everything has returned to its proper course.”

Our historian encloses as a footnote the text of a Napoleonic correspondence, documenting not only this date’s particular entry into the annals of execution but the Corsican’s methods generally.

The historian Thiers, it transpired, would soon be called upon to implement the sanguinary lessons of his study.

To the king of Spain

Valladolid, January 12, 1809 — noon.

The operation effected by Belliard is excellent. You must have a score of rascals hanged. To-morrow I hang seven here, notorious for having committed all sorts of atrocities, and whose presence was an affliction for the honest folks who secretly denounced them, and who are recovering courage since they are quit of them. You must do the same in Madrid. If a hundred incendiaries and brigands are not got rid of there, nothing is done. Of these hundred have a dozen or fifteen shot or hanged, and send the rest to France to the galleys. I have had quiet in France only in consequence of arresting 200 incendiaries, September murderers, and brigands, whom I sent off to the colonies. Since that time the tone of the capital changed as if at a whistle.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Known But To God,Mass Executions,Murder,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Political Expedience,Power,Public Executions,Spain

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1743: Gen. Charles Emil Lewenhaupt, scapegoat

Add comment August 4th, 2014 Headsman

There’s a good chance that you experience an unpleasant degree of performance pressure from time to time in your environs, whatever they might be. Lord knows even the executioner is not immune to it.

But it’s doubtful very many are under the sort of professional pressure that Swedish general Charles Emil Lewenhaupt succumbed to on this date in 1743, when he was beheaded for command incompetence thanks to his country’s defeat in the 1741-1743 Russo-Swedish War.

An aggressive political faction of “Young Turks” — er, Young Swedes — known as the Hats had kicked the country’s cautious former president to the curb and aimed to restore the great power status Sweden had coughed up to Russia decades prior. In Sweden, their engagement with Russia would become known as the Hats’ War.

Lewenhaupt himself was elevated to command of Sweden’s Finland forces — for Finland was Swedish territory at this point, although it had been brutally occupied by Russia from 1714 to 1721 and only returned when Sweden ceded its Baltic possessions to Peter the Great — over a general who opposed the adventurous scheme. Ironically, the whole thing would ultimately redound to the benefit of Peter the Great’s daughter.

In 1741 as the War of Austrian Succession consumed the rest of Europe, Lewenhaupt was placed in charge of the opening gambit, an invasion of Karelia. Russia’s autocratic Empress Anna had just died in 1740, leaving her niece Anna Leopoldovna in charge as regent for the the infant Ivan VI. The idea from the Swedish side was to pair the invasion (with a short line to St. Petersburg, then the capital) with an internal coup against the shaky monarch; further to that latter end, Swedish diplomats* maneuvered behind the scenes to position Peter the Great’s popular daughter Elizaveta to seize power, whereupon she would cede back to Sweden (either out of gratitude or by compulsion of the arriving Swedish armies) the Baltic lands recently torn from Stockholm’s hands.

Make sense?

The entire project was a fiasco for Sweden.

Sweden’s Hats-dominated Riksdag declared war on Russia in July of 1741, but the joint land and naval attack that was supposed to ensue completely failed to materialize: the Swedish fleet had been ravaged by an epidemic while awaiting the action, and the Swedish army massing at Villmanstrand had not yet finished assembling. So having thrown down the gauntlet, the Swedes just stood flat-footed, and it was the Russians who launched the invasion by routing the army at Villmanstrand. Our Gen. Lewenhaupt only arrived at that army two weeks after the battle.

Things went pear-shaped from that point for Sweden, but back in St. Petersburg the invasion’s prospective beneficiary was doing just fine.

Elizaveta had cagily accepted the aid of her French and Swedish “benefactors” but without committing any reciprocal promise to paper. Far from being a catspaw of foreign interests, this daughter of Russia’s conquering tsar was a popular figure in her own right, especially with the elite Preobrazhensky Regiment; on the evening of November 24, 1741, Elizaveta displayed herself at the regimental barracks dramatically clad in a breastplate and wielding a silver cross, summoning her supporters to mount a coup that the guards themselves had long sought. It was achieved (by Elizaveta’s own insistence) without bloodshed** that very night.

Duly installed, Elizaveta simply continued prosecuting a war that was going quite nicely for her side thank you very much, eventually forcing Sweden to conclude the war with a treaty ceding yet more territory to Russia.

The tribulations of this embarrassing (and costly) war led for Sweden to an internal rebellion — but the Hats were able to crush it and hold onto power by farming out blame for their failed war of choice onto the generals in the field. In 1743, Gen. Lewenhaupt and Gen. Henrik Magnus von Buddenbrock were sentenced to death for command negligence. Buddenrock was executed on schedule on July 27, but Lewenhaupt managed to escape — briefly. He was recaptured aboard a ship fleeing for Gdansk and beheaded on August 4.

Needless to say the great classical tradition of “with your shield or on it” did not extend to the Hats’ civilian leadership. These fellows maintained their hold in the Riksdag long enough to fling Sweden into yet another costly war of choice with Prussia in 1757, where they got their ass kicked again by Frederick the Great.

* Joined by French diplomats, whose interest in Elizaveta’s takeover was to abort Russia’s alliance with Austria and England in the continental war. The Hats had aligned Sweden with France; the latter helpfully supplied the cash Elizaveta needed as the intrigue unfolded over 1741.

** Never the violent type, Elizaveta is especially notable in these pages for her pledge never to approve a death warrant under her reign. Russia would not see another execution until 1764, under Catherine the Great.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Finland,History,Military Crimes,Nobility,Political Expedience,Soldiers,Sweden,Wartime Executions

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756: Yang Guifei, favored concubine

Add comment July 15th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 756, the imperial consort Yang Guifei was expediently executed during the An Lushan Rebellion.

The Tang dynasty Emperor Xuanzong, whose beloved concubine Yang was, undertook this cruel extremity only in great duress. Initially married to one of the emperor’s sons, Yang so enamored the emperor that he usurped the prince’s place and got the kid a different wife. In the c. 800 classic poem “Song of Everlasting Sorrow” the poet Bai Juyi mused on the smitten sovereign rushing headlong into waiting tragedy.

The emperor neglected the world from that moment,
Lavished his time on her in endless enjoyment.
She was his springtime mistress, and his midnight tyrant.
Though there were three thousand ladies all of great beauty,a
All his gifts were devoted to one person.

Indeed, over the 740s Yang’s relations rose at court on the strength of her hold over the emperor, causing no few resentments among courtiers now obliged to flatter them. She’s been cast as a femme fatale, a siren whose chords called the emperor to capsize his own ship of state.

The general An Lushan was the rock of his ruin. Though An Lushan’s revolt would one day claim Yang’s life, he was a great favorite of hers and eventually adopted as Yang’s son; it was whispered that the imperial gifts showered on this commander might reflect favor with the concubine quite surpassing the bounds of propriety.

The most important favor was command of all northern China’s garrisons, with 150,000-plus troops.

His influence (and the fact that he was not ethnically Han, but of Turkic and Iranic extraction) made him rivals at the imperial court, even including the concubine Yang’s cousin, chancellor Yang Guozhong.

One can speculate as to who suspected whom first, but as we’ve seen with the Roman Empire a sufficiently strong inducement to treachery inevitably becomes tantamount to the real thing: eventually one’s intemperate supporters or implacable enemies will cast the die for even the most retiring general. An Lushan was Caesar enough to cross the Tang’s Rubicon, which for him was the Yellow River, above which his armies had been confined.

In the winter of 755-756, An crossed this river and marched towards Chang’an (Xi’an, then the imperial capital and the world’s most populous city), styling himself the Emperor of Yan. This aspirant state proved far from durable, and vanished by 763 — but by the time that long term had come into view, all of our principal characters were dead.

Yang Guifei was the first of them. (Plenty of secondary characters — generals, eunuchs, rivals and family of rivals — were being put to death all along and well before Yang, of course.) As the rebel army advanced on the capital, Xuanzong and his court fled in panic, Yang included. One day’s march further inland towards Chengdu, the royal guards themselves rebelled. Embittered like many others by the sway Yang and her family held — and blaming the consort for the ignominious retreat they were embarked upon — the soldiers refused to proceed without Yang’s execution. Xuanzong had little choice under the circumstances but to assent to her summary strangulation.

The Son of Heaven made good his escape, and his kingdom prevailed in the fight. (An was assassinated in 757.) Xuanzong himself, however, had to abdicate in favor of his son before the chaotic summer was out, and lived out his last five years as Taishang Huang, “Retired Emperor”.

One can only guess at the regrets he had in those days for the beloved mistress sacrificed to the safety of his person and throne. It’s a circumstance that has become a staple of Chinese literature over the centuries since, from the aforeentioned Bai Juyi right down to the present day, in every medium imaginable.

In Bai’s “Song of Everlasting Sorrow”, the bereft former emperor at last sends a Taoist priest to the heavens in search of his lost love, whose spirit has not even appeared to him in a dream. Yang Guifei sends the messenger back with a last pledge of sundered love:

“Our spirits belong together, like these precious fragments,
Sometime, in earth or heaven, we shall meet again.”
And she sent these words, by the Taoist, to remind him
of their midnight vow, secret between them.
“On that Seventh night, of the Herdboy and the Weaver,
In the silent Palace we declared our dream was
To fly together in the sky, two birds on the same wing,
To grow together on the earth, two branches of one tree.”

Earth fades, Heaven fades, at the end of days.
But Everlasting Sorrow endures always.

Yang Guifei’s tomb remains a popular tourist destination to this date.

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Entry Filed under: Arts and Literature,China,Early Middle Ages,Execution,History,Myths,No Formal Charge,Political Expedience,Popular Culture,Power,Sex,Strangled,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions,Women

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