On this date in 1293, the heretic and alchemist Capocchio was burned at the stake in Siena.
Little is known about about this man’s life, but thanks to his contemporary Dante we know a great deal about his afterlife. Capocchio appears among the “Falsifiers” or “Imposters” haunting the eighth circle of hell in Cantos XXIX and XXX of the Inferno.
We meet Capocchio butting into a conversation Dante is having with a different (also executed) shade — Capocchio crying out to support their mutual disdain for the “flighty” Sienese.
“But should you want to know who seconds you
Against the Sienese, direct your eyes to me
So that my face can give you a clear answer:
“See, I am the shade of Capocchio
Who falsified base metals through alchemy
And, if I read you rightly, you recall
“How fine an ape of nature I have been.”
This remark implies that Dante might have known Capocchio in life. Dante had a vivid destiny in mind for his maybe-acquaintance a few passages later, when
two shadows I saw, stripped and pallid,
Biting and running in the selfsame way
A hog behaves when let out of the sty.
One came straight at Capocchio and sank
His tusks into his scruff and, dragging him,
Scraped his stomach against the stony floor.
And the one left behind, the Aretine,
Shivering said, “That ghoul is Gianni Schicchi,
And he goes rabid, like that, mauling others.”
The attacker was another notorious imposter, with an artistic legacy of his own in the form of Puccini’s opera Gianni Schicchi … or both together on canvas via William-Adolphe Bouguereau.
Dante e Virgilio by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1850) has the two named characters contemplating from the background as Gianni Schicchi takes a bite out of Capocchio.
On this date in 1533, a German woman, nameless to posterity, was burnt as a witch in the town of Schiltach.
This Black Forest idyll had been ravaged by fire on Maundy Thursday, the 10th of April.
We have seen many times in these pages how frightful was the scourge of fire for early modern cities, and the haste by which it was liable to be attributed to a malevolent plot.
In this case, common superstition soon acclaimed the fire an arson by the hand of an unpopular former maid of Schiltach’s mayor, who had recently been dismissed under a cloud of suspected diabolism. (This summary in German of the German book Der Teufel von Schiltach delves into the particulars.)
One problem: upon her dismissal, she had returned to her native Oberndorf. Not being in Schiltach at all during the events in question seemed like a pretty good alibi.
But since witchery was contributing means and motive, why not opportunity as well? Everyone knew that witches could fly. She was proximate, if not spatially then conceptually, to a disaster, and this was reason enough.
The luckless woman was retrieved from Oberndorf to answer the tortures of her disgruntled ex-boss, and consigned to the stake … and, as the images accompanying this post will attest, to local legend.
1533 woodcut illustration (click for larger version with German narrative text) about the Schiltach witch. (From Wikimedia Commons)