1453: Stefano Porcari

Add comment January 9th, 2019 Edward Gibbon

(Thanks to the estimable historian Edward Gibbon for this guest post on the humanist Stefano Porcari, who aspired to follow the revolutionary trail of the previous century’s great tribune of the people Cola di Rienzi … and did follow Rienzi’s fate. Compare with the account of Machiavelli in History of Florence, who remarks that “though some may applaud his intentions, he must stand charged with deficiency of understanding; for such undertakings, though possessing some slight appearance of glory, are almost always attended with ruin.” -ed.)

It is an obvious truth, that the times must be suited to extraordinary characters, and that the genius of Cromwell or Retz might now expire in obscurity.

The political enthusiasm of Rienzi had exalted him to a throne; the same enthusiasm, in the next century, conducted his imitator to the gallows.

The birth of Stephen Porcaro was noble, his reputation spotless: his tongue was armed with eloquence, his mind was enlightened with learning; and he aspired, beyond the aim of vulgar ambition, to free his country and immortalize his name.

Spirto gentil, che quelle membra reggi

Gentle spirit, that rules those members
in which a pilgrim lives,
a brave lord, shrewd and wise,
now you have taken up the ivory sceptre
with which you punish Rome and her wrongdoers,
and recall her to her ancient ways,
I speak to you, because I see no other ray
of virtue that is quenched from the world,
nor do I find men ashamed of doing wrong.
I don’t know what Italy expects or hopes for,
she seems not to feel her trouble,
old, lazy, slow,
will she sleep forever, no one to wake her?
I should grasp her by the hair with my hand.

I’ve no hope she’ll ever move her head
in lazy slumber whatever noise men make,
so heavily is she oppressed and by such a sleep:
not without the destiny in your right hand,
that can shake her fiercely and waken her,
now the guide of our Rome.
Set your hand to her venerable locks
and scattered tresses with firmness,
so that this sluggard might escape the mire.
I who weep for her torment day and night,
place the greater part of my hopes in you:
for if the people of Mars
ever come to lift their eyes to true honour,
I think that grace will touch them in your days.

Those ancient walls the world still fears and loves
and trembles at, whenever it recalls
past times and looks around,
and those tombs that enclose the dust
of those who will never lack fame
until the universe itself first dissolves,
and all is involved in one great ruin,
trust in you to heal all their ills.
O famous Scipios, o loyal Brutus,
how pleased you must be, if the rumour has yet
reached you there, of this well-judged appointment!
I think indeed Fabricius
will be delighted to hear the news!
And will say: ‘My Rome will once more be beautiful!’

And if Heaven cares for anything down here,
the souls, that up there are citizens,
and have abandoned their bodies to earth,
pray you to put an end to civil hatred,
that means the people have no real safety:
so the way to their temples that once
were so frequented is blocked, and now
they have almost become thieves’ dens in this strife,
so that their doors are only closed against virtue,
and amongst the altars and the naked statues
they commit every savage act.
Ah what alien deeds!
And no assault begun without a peal of bells
that were hung on high in thanks to God.

Weeping women, the defenceless children
of tender years, and the wearied old
who hate themselves and their burdened life,
and the black friars, the grey and the white,
with a crowd of others troubled and infirm,
cry: ‘O Lord, help us, help us.’
And the poor citizens dismayed
show you their wounds, thousand on thousands,
that Hannibal, no less, would pity them.
And if you gaze at the mansion of God
that is all ablaze today, if you stamped out
a few sparks, the will would become calm,
that shows itself so inflamed,
then your work would be praised to the skies.

Bears, wolves, lions, eagles and serpents
commit atrocities against a great
marble column, and harm themselves by it.
Because this gentle lady grieves at it,
she calls to you that you may root out
those evil plants that will never flower.
For more than a thousand years now
she has lacked those gracious spirits
who had placed her where she was.
Ah, you new people, proud by any measure,
lacking in reverence for such and so great a mother!
You, be husband and father:
all help is looked for from your hands,
for the Holy Father attends to other things.

It rarely happens that injurious fortune
is not opposed to the highest enterprises,
when hostile fate is in tune with ill.
But now clearing the path you take,
she makes me pardon many other offences,
being out of sorts with herself:
so that in all the history of the world
the way was never so open to a mortal man
to achieve, as you can, immortal fame,
by helping a nobler monarchy, if I
am not mistaken, rise to its feet.
What glory will be yours, to hear:
‘Others helped her when she was young and strong:
this one saved her from death in her old age.’

On the Tarpeian Rock, my song, you’ll see
a knight, whom all Italy honours,
thinking of others more than of himself.
Say to him: ‘One who has not seen you close to,
and only loves you from your human fame,
tells you that all of Rome
with eyes wet and bathed with sorrow,
begs mercy of you from all her seven hills.’

-Verse no. 53 from this English translation of Petrarch

The dominion of priests is most odious to a liberal spirit: every scruple was removed by the recent knowledge of the fable and forgery of Constantine’s donation; Petrarch was now the oracle of the Italians; and as often as Porcaro revolved the ode which describes the patriot and hero of Rome, he applied to himself the visions of the prophetic bard.

His first trial of the popular feelings was at the funeral of Eugenius the Fourth: in an elaborate speech he called the Romans to liberty and arms; and they listened with apparent pleasure, till Porcaro was interrupted and answered by a grave advocate, who pleaded for the church and state.

By every law the seditious orator was guilty of treason; but the benevolence of the new pontiff [Pope Nicholas V -ed.], who viewed his character with pity and esteem, attempted by an honorable office to convert the patriot into a friend.

The inflexible Roman returned from Anagni with an increase of reputation and zeal; and, on the first opportunity, the games of the place Navona, he tried to inflame the casual dispute of some boys and mechanics into a general rising of the people.

Yet the humane Nicholas was still averse to accept the forfeit of his life; and the traitor was removed from the scene of temptation to Bologna, with a liberal allowance for his support, and the easy obligation of presenting himself each day before the governor of the city.

But Porcaro had learned from the younger Brutus, that with tyrants no faith or gratitude should be observed: the exile declaimed against the arbitrary sentence; a party and a conspiracy were gradually formed: his nephew, a daring youth, assembled a band of volunteers; and on the appointed evening a feast was prepared at his house for the friends of the republic. Their leader, who had escaped from Bologna, appeared among them in a robe of purple and gold: his voice, his countenance, his gestures, bespoke the man who had devoted his life or death to the glorious cause.

In a studied oration, he expiated on the motives and the means of their enterprise; the name and liberties of Rome; the sloth and pride of their ecclesiastical tyrants; the active or passive consent of their fellow-citizens; three hundred soldiers, and four hundred exiles, long exercised in arms or in wrongs; the license of revenge to edge their swords, and a million of ducats to reward their victory. It would be easy, (he said,) on the next day, the festival of the Epiphany, to seize the pope and his cardinals, before the doors, or at the altar, of St. Peter’s; to lead them in chains under the walls of St. Angelo; to extort by the threat of their instant death a surrender of the castle; to ascend the vacant Capitol; to ring the alarm bell; and to restore in a popular assembly the ancient republic of Rome.

While he triumphed, he was already betrayed.

The senator, with a strong guard, invested the house: the nephew of Porcaro cut his way through the crowd; but the unfortunate Stephen was drawn from a chest, lamenting that his enemies had anticipated by three hours the execution of his design.

After such manifest and repeated guilt, even the mercy of Nicholas was silent. Porcaro, and nine of his accomplices, were hanged without the benefit of the sacraments; and, amidst the fears and invectives of the papal court, the Romans pitied, and almost applauded, these martyrs of their country. But their applause was mute, their pity ineffectual, their liberty forever extinct; and, if they have since risen in a vacancy of the throne or a scarcity of bread, such accidental tumults may be found in the bosom of the most abject servitude.

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1453: Alvaro de Luna, Spanish favorite

Add comment June 2nd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1453, the man who was once the power behind Castile’s throne became its foremost cautionary metaphor.

The greatest privado — royal favorite — in Spain’s annals, Alvaro de Luna (English Wikipedia entry | the far more detailed Spanish) sprang from noble albeit illiterate stock. He came to the Castilian court in 1410 as a witty and talented young page and adroitly got his hooks into the five-year-old crown prince, the future Juan II.

Quite uncommonly for a royal favorite, Don Alvaro held his king’s affection for many decades, and even while enriching himself into the mightiest subject in the land, he energetically served his prince’s interest.

Chief among these was managing the truculent nobility who would surely have dominated the weak-willed Juan but for his capable lieutenant — who was known from 1423 ask the Constable of Castile and Count of San Esteban de Gormaz in 1423. Don Alvaro proved a consummate politico, scheming to deflect the ambitions of Juan’s rivals and to consolidate the power of the throne … which meant his own power, too. To a very great degree the favorite was the real sovereign, until he suddenly wasn’t.

“Alvaro de Luna would probably not be particularly consoled by the judgement of modern historians,” observes a wry James Boyden in The World of the Favourite** — for they “praise his efforts on behalf of Juan II for opening the way to royal absolutism in Castile, citing his own arbitrary death sentence as the clinching proof of the newfound powers of the crown.”

Don Alvaro’s downfall from his post of seemingly unassailable preeminence satisfied every literary device imaginable, beginning with poetic justice.

When Juan’s first wife, Maria of Aragon, died in 1445 — and Don Alvaro’s own hand has been suspected in that death — the Constable managed Juan’s pivot to 19-year-old Portuguese princess Isabella as the successor queen.

From her advantageous position in the king’s bed, Isabella soon began to work against Don Alvaro. She resented his intrusions into even their most intimate chambers, and she surely feared sharing the fate of her predecessor, Maria. Eventually, her arguments carried the day. Boyden once again:

It is difficult to imagine a more striking illustration of the transitory nature of earthly fortune than the spectacle of the constable’s execution in a public square of Valladolid on 2 June 1453. Certainly the event caught the imagination of contemporary poets. ‘Look then to that great Constable,’ wrote Jorge Manrique, ‘the Master whom we knew so deeply favoured by the king / And yet even of him nothing more need be said than that we saw him beheaded. / His limitless treasures, his towns and villages, his power of command / What did they bring him but tears? / What were they to him except sorrows at the leaving?’

According to Juan II, Don Alvaro’s principal crime was that he ‘has for a long time held and usurped a chief position near me and in my household and court’, and despite having been admonished about his excessive pride and effrontery ‘he has persevered in it … grasping more power to himself each day, excessively, without temperance or measure, so that there remains to me no more room to rule and administer my kingdoms personally, nor to maintain my towns in justice and truth and law …’

Not surprisingly, the constable saw matters in another light. While the king alleged usurpation of his royal authority, Don Alvaro responded with a charge of ingratitude, levelled in a tone meant to convey the sadness and resignation of a loyal servant stripped at last of his illusions. Rather than withdraw into a well-deserved retirement after forty-five years of service, he wrote,

I chose … to serve as I was in duty bound and as I felt the situation demanded; I deceived myself, for this service has been the cause of my misfortune. How bitter that I should find myself deprived of liberty who more than once have risked life and fortune to preserve your highness’s freedom! I am well aware that for my great sins I have angered God, and I will consider it a boon if I can placate his rage through these travails.

This appeal to justice was accompanied by an offer of treasure, but neither swayed the king, who was so intent upon Don Alvaro’s destruction that he would finally order his execution despite the failure of a hand-picked tribunal to render a clear sentence of death.

Although it cut no ice with his king, Alvaro de Luna’s posture of betrayed fidelity — his courage and dignity on the scaffold, ere his throat was cut and his severed head mounted on a hook — helped to salvage what might easily have become a hateful reputation among Spaniards. The annalist Pedro de Escavias recorded that Don Alvaro “struck terror into all who saw him” but “he died with a good countenance and good courage, as a knight and a faithful Christian should. May God forgive him, for he handled many great matters in the days when he enjoyed the king’s favour.” (Quoted in the out-of-print volume The Greatest Man Uncrowned: A Study of the Fall of Don Alvaro de Luna) This respectful epitaph is evident in the numerous artistic treatments around the Constable’s corpse.


Collection to Bury the Body of Alvaro de Luna, by Ramirez Ibanez Manual (1884)

Collection to Bury the Body of Alvaro de Luna, by Jose Maria Rodriguez de Losada (1867)

Burial of Alvaro de Luna, by Eduardo Cano de la Pena (19th century).

Juan’s rancor did not extend to denying his favorite an ornate tomb in Toledo Cathedral. Like all the best sovereign-favorite pairs — Richelieu comes to mind — Juan II soon followed to the grave his secret-sharer, dying in July 1454 allegedly stricken with remorse.† His daughter was Isabella of Castile, famed of Christopher Columbus sponsorship.

* There appears to be some ambiguity among sources between June 2 and June 3 whose resolution lies beyond the reach of myself and perhaps of any human. I tentatively prefer June 2 based on a preponderance of citations, and because June 3 was a Sunday.

** There’s also a fine essay on our principal to be found in The Emergence of León-Castile c.1065-1500: Essays Presented to J.F. O’Callaghan.

† However, Juan’s knowledge of his own failing health and a desire to disencumber his successors of this overmighty minister have also been suggested as reasons for Don Alvaro’s destruction. The favorite treads a very treacherous road indeed.

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1453: The garrison of Poucques, Jacques de Lalaing’s cannonball killers

Add comment July 5th, 2016 Headsman

On or about this date* in 1453, the Burgundians captured the fortress of Poucques (Poeke) during the revolt of Ghent, and put its entire garrison to summary death.

It was merely one of the appetizers the Burgundians had to chew off en route to devouring the main course at the Battle of Gavere, where the revolt was decisively crushed.**

While the battle itself was a footnote — sorry, slaughtered garrison! — it’s remembered for claiming the life of the Burgundian lord Jacques de Lalaing (English Wikipedia entry | French) — the Michael Jordan of 15th century tournament combat, “le chevalier sans reproche.”

About 32 at his death, the “Bon Chevalier” was a member of the prestigious (and still-extant) Order of the Golden Fleece on the strength of a remarkable 1440s ramble around European where he would theatrically stage combats with local knights and never fail to win them. Celebrity and emoluments followed in their turn.

“Above all else, he knew the business of arms,” sighs a chronicle detailing his feats, and on its evidence it would be difficult to disagree.

He achieved his fame besting great champions in Aragon, Castile, Scotland, and Flanders, then set up a pas d’armes — the Monty Python-esque open challenge/invitation to battle all comers who dared him at a set location. In Jacques’s case the challenge lasted a full year at a statue of a weeping woman from which our pugilist derived the brand the Passage of the Fountain of Tears.

These were not intended to be fatal bouts but they featured expert fighters with real weapons so life and limb certainly stood in peril; occasionally our protagonist even deliberately courted danger by suiting up in only partial armor. Some challengers managed to emerge with a satisfying draw, but none could defeat him. At his last tournament in 1452, he even jousted the young future Duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold. (There’s an enjoyable detailed recap of Jacques’s career here.)

As this warrior par excellence was simultaneously noted for the perfection of his outside-of-armor knightly conduct — fidelity, generosity, piety, swooning ladies — Jacques de Lalaing had a fair claim on his contemporaries’ admiration as the very apex of the age of chivalry.

And his own fate poignantly embodied that of his era.

Studying the Burgundian court to which our Walloon nobleman adhered when not doing his gladiator road show, Dutch historian Johan Huizinga reckoned this 15th century the “autumn of the middle ages” — a decadence flowering in decay.

“This hero-worship of the declining Middle Ages finds its literary expression in the biography of the perfect knight,” Huizinga wrote — like our Jacques de Lalaing, “that anachronistic knight-errant” of “fantastic and useless projects.”

The realities of court life or a military career offered too little opportunity for the fine make-belief of heroism and love, which filled the soul. So they had to be acted. The staging of the tournament, therefore, had to be that of romance; that is to say, the imaginary world of Arthur,† where the fancy of a fairy-tale was enhanced by the sentimentality of courtly love.

A Passage of Arms of the fifteenth century is based on a fictitious case of chivalrous adventure, connected with an artificial scene called by a romantic name, as, for instance, the Fountain of Tears or the Tree of Charlemagne. [the latter was another famous pas d’armes defended in 1443 by another Burgundian knight, Pierre de Bauffremont -ed.] … There is an unmistakable connection between these primitive forms of warlike and erotic sport and the children’s play of forfeits. One of the rules of the “Chapters” of the Fountain of Tears runs thus: he who, in a combat, is unhorsed, will during a year wear a gold bracelet, until he finds the lady who holds the key to it and who can free him, on condition that he shall serve her.

Jacques de Lalaing and his ritual delights came to a savage end at the siege of Poucques when he had the apt misfortune to be struck by a ball from a defending veuglaire. The romantic master of the lists thereby became one of the first European elites slain by a cannon: for a junction to modernity one could do a lot worse than this moment.‡

The untimely end of Jacques happens to have hit the news in recent months when the Getty Museum acquired a precious Renaissance manuscript illustration of the event by Simon Bening, never previously exhibited.

In this extraordinarily bright and detailed miniature, our courteous doomed glances upward at the citadel, forming a sharp compositional diagonal with the fatal cannonball speeding towards him … and the fiery plume belched by the chivalry-smashing device that has hurled it.


Detail view (click for the full image) of the Bening miniature.

* The precise date on which this minor siege concluded is elusive and perhaps ambiguous; I’m basing Executed Today‘s dating on the July 13, 1453 correspondence in this archive reporting that “Poucques est tombée en son pouvoir le 5 courant; qu’il a fait démanteler ce deux places fortes et livrer au dernier supplice leurs défenseurs.”

** Maybe so, but Ghent is still with us today whereas independent Burgundy would vanish within 30 years.

† The late 15th century also gives us the apotheosis of the Arthurian legend, Le Morte d’Arthur.

‡ Periodization fans should note that 1453 also marks the Ottoman capture of Constantinople.

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1453: Çandarli Halil Pasha, after the fall of Constantinople

5 comments June 1st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1453, Ottoman Grand Vizier Çandarli Halil Pasha (or Chandarly) was put to death, the first time anyone holding that office had suffered such a fate.

In Istanbul, Halil Pasha tower — part of the siegeworks used to take Constantinople — overlooks Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, named for the man who ordered Halil Pasha’s death.

It was a stunning fall for the man who had presented himself in the sultan’s council just six days before to argue for discontinuing the seven-week-old Ottoman siege of Byzantine Constantinople.

This siege would succeed, on May 29, in conquering the second Rome, and it may have been Halil Pasha‘s longstanding opposition to this project so glorious for the rising Ottomans that cost him his life.

Or, something else; we are obliged to speculate. Other possible factors include:

  • Halil Pasha’s enormous personal wealth, which made his family both a potential rival and a source of confiscated revenues badly needed by the state.
  • Personal rivalry with the sultan now known as Mehmed the Conqueror, whom Halil Pasha had deposed in the former’s childhood in favor of his retired father when exigencies of state required a more experienced hand.
  • A generation gap with the sultan’s younger advisors. Both Ottoman and Christian sources recorded charges that he was in league with Byzantium’s defenders; even if not true in a literally treasonous sense, the veteran statesman had relationships with Christians through Constantinople and (as evidenced by his opposition to the siege) likely had more to lose than to gain from Mehmed’s aggressive foreign policy.

Especially in the last respect, Chandarly Halil Pasha’s death turned over a leaf in Europe’s complex relationship with the rising Turks. And among those inclined to view a clash of civilizations between the Christian and Muslim worlds, the May 29, 1453 Ottoman conquest of Constantinople rates as a day just as weighty for the fate of the world as for that of Halil Pasha himself.

A highly recommended digression: Lars Brownworth’s coverage in the 12 Byzantine Rulers podcast of that empire’s last ruler, Constantine XI — who died with his boots on the day Constantinople fell, “the empire as his winding-cloth.”

[audio:http://download.12byzantinerulers.com/16-Constantine-XI.mp3]

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Byzantine Empire,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Milestones,Nobility,Notable Participants,Ottoman Empire,Politicians,Power,Summary Executions,The Worm Turns,Turkey

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