Michael Tavuzzi, whose very specific title Renaissance Inquisitors: Dominican Inquisitors and Inquisitorial Districts in Northern Italy, 1474-1527 is our main source for this post, describes the case as “representative of the witch-trials conducted by Dominicans, both conventual and observant, in northern Italy during the Renaissance” which “seem to have been procedurally very similar.”
The story begins with a trial that we don’t know about, the trial at a nearby village of a witch called Maddalena who at some point offered Giovanna’s name to her tormentor.
Said tormentor, one Giovanni Domenico da Cremona, arrived in January 1470 to the beautiful Piedmont hamlet of Salussola* bearing a frightful boon: the offer of leniency for anyone who would gift the Inquisition their comprehensive confessions, and the names into the bargain of anyone else who was up to something sub-orthodox.
More than likely Giovanna’s name was actively solicited on the basis of Maddalena’s accusation; in either event, it was certainly supplied by family and neighbors to whom the woman had a witchy reputation. After an incriminating attempt to flee, she was brought to trial in the village church on February 13, 1470.
This time was very early days yet for the great witch-hunts yet to disgrace Europe, but it is recognizably of a piece with them. Over the course of the preceding generations, jurists and scholars had painstakingly constructed the edifice to support the many stakes and scaffolds: the conflation of folk magic, superstition, and holdover pagan customs with a literal network of flying, Satan-fucking warlocks bent on the destruction of Christendom.
For many centuries, “the Church, as the civilizer of nations, disdained these old wives’ tales,” Hugh Trevor-Roper put it in The European Witch Craze. But come the antechamber of modernity, “to deny the reality of night-flying and metamorphosis would be officially declared heretical; the witches’ sabbat would become an objective fact.”
Inquisitors’ preconceptions of the menace came to structure the trials they conducted, to insinuate themselves through questioning by turns sly and violent into the mouths of their prey, whose admissions would then compound not only upon the next town over but to the confirmation of the entire diabolic schema. It’s difficult to know where were the heads of long-gone peasants and townsfolk in all this but Giovanna’s attempt to escape suggests that whatever beliefs they might have held, all knew to dread the inquisitor.
Back to Tavuzzi’s treatment of the Salussola case:
The list reproduced in the trial’s transcript of the predetermined questions that were to be put to Giovanna by Giovanni Domenico during the course of the trial is instructive, for it reveals very well indeed the conceptual baggage that an inquisitor brought to such a task at this time. The questions amount to a kind of primer of the diabolic interpretation of witchcraft and allude to almost all its essential components: the sect of the witches, repudiation of the Christian faith, the pact with the devil, sexual congress with him, abuse of the sacraments, the performance of malevolent magic. Inquisitors invariably compiled such a list of points, known as articuli or capituli inquisitionales, to guide them in their interrogations, and it is through these that their own witch-beliefs and demonology would have impinged upon the course and outcome of a witch-trial.
Woe betide she who faced such questions … for the answers were already written.
Though Giovanna met this dreadful interrogation with some steadiness, human fortitude but rarely equaled the ordeal. Interrogated twice, she denied all repeatedly, even remaining steadfast through her third session that introduced torture to the proceedings.
Days later, the Inquisitor broke her.
A fourth interrogation took place on 20 February, and at that point she began to confess: she admitted that she had indeed belonged to the sect of the witches for twenty-three years, recapitulated all the elements of the stereotype of diabolic witchcraft, including shapeshifting and transvection that are not mentioned in Giovanni Domenico’s initial list of questions, and admitted to having caused the deaths of several persons.
She started coughing up names — some local women, some residents of a nearby village, a local priest — and when in fear for flesh or soul she attempted to walk back her confessions and accusations, she was tortured afresh until she adhered to the preferred story.
For unknown reasons it was not until almost 18 months later that
on 17 August 1471, the deputy of the local feudal lord, the count of Tollengo, in whose dungeon she must have been incarcerated since the trial, emitted the sentence whereby Giovanna was to be burned at the stake in nearby Miagliano — her birthplace — and it was carried out the same day.
* A display at a museum there commemorates the event.