Feast Day of St. Lucy

1 comment December 13th, 2015 Headsman

Today is the feast of Saint Lucy, a Diocletian martyr and one of Christendom’s best beloved saints.

As her Wikipedia page observes, “all the details of her life are the conventional ones associated with female martyrs of the early 4th century.” Like St. Barbara she had secretly become a Christian; like St. Cecilia, she was betrothed to a mean old pagan; like St. Catherine her sacred body defied the tortures ordered by the Governor of Syracuse, until the Romans just gave up and beheaded her. (Her husband is supposed to have denounced her when he found out that the pious Lucy, with the help of an apparition of the martyred St. Agatha, had convinced her mother to give away the daughter’s ample dowry; this embrace of lonely penury probably explains how she came to be the patron saint of writers.)


Lucy Before the Judge by Lorenzo Lotto, 1523-32.

Iconography often depicts St. Lucy brandishing her own eyeballs, like a Guillermo del Toro monster: this, too, is an allusion to the torments of the Romans, and the story is either the cause or the consequence of her patronage of the blind.

Lucy’s name derives from the Latin root for “light”, and her December 13 feast formerly coincided with the winter solstice; as a result, St. Lucy’s Day became a major holiday some locales — including Italy, Scandinavia, the Philippines, and Omaha, Nebraska. The English poet John Donne meditates upon the occasion in a 1627 noctural, by which time December 13 was not technically the solstice by either Julian or Gregorian calendars.

Since she enjoys her long night’s festival,
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year’s, and the day’s deep midnight is.


Detail view (click for the full image) of Burial of St. Lucy — which was painted for the church in Syracuse that stands on the spot of her purported martyrdom by the fugitive genius Caravaggio.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,History,Italy,Martyrs,Myths,Popular Culture,Roman Empire,Torture,Uncertain Dates,Women

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1606: Caravaggio murders Ranuccio Tomassoni

5 comments May 29th, 2011 Headsman

This site is occasionally prepared to stray outside its execution-anniversary beat to cover especially fascinating manifestations of the death penalty in history.

So for this date, we observe the anniversary not of a punishment, but of the crime itself: a capital homicide in the capital of the world that changed art forever.

NNDB summarizes Caravaggio as a “temperamental painter,” but a less generous interlocutor might prefer a descriptor like “lowlife.”

Painter, he certainly was.

Caravaggio’s pioneering realism and flair for the dramatic …


Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1598-1599. Though the young painter on the make would hardly want for models of public decapitation in 16th century Rome, the gendered intimacy with the act invites consideration of Caravaggio’s likely attendance at the execution of Beatrice Cenci.

… made him a rock star on the canvas.

Though the papacy in its dogmatic counter-reformation aspect may have viewed Caravaggio’s eye-catching chiaroscuro with suspicion, there were scudi enough to burst the coinpurse of a talent who could grace a chapel with awe-inspiring stuff like this:


Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of St. Peter, painted in 1601 for Rome’s Santa Maria del Popolo.

However many souls his stark brushwork won for the Church, Caravaggio’s reverential fare belied the creator’s own distinctly profane pastimes: gambling, boozing, brawling, and whoring around. He needed the intervention of well-placed patrons to duck prosecution on several occasions.

May 29, 1606 finds our “temperamental” antihero encountering a wealthy scoundrel by the handle of Ranuccio Tomassoni and a problem that would outstrip any political pull the artist could muster.

Allegedly, the two met to settle a paltry tennis wager, although this may have been a cover story for a rivalry over a courtesan.*

On whatever pretext, the young hotheads fell into a melee. Caravaggio won … and Tomassoni bled to death from the gash his foe dealt to his femoral artery.**

Caravaggio now had mortal blood on his hands. Homicides were treated very harshly by the authorities. Caravaggio was about to have a price put on his head, and if he were caught, that head would be summarily removed from his body and hung on a public street. Allies of Ranuccio bent on revenge were likely to be after him as well. … Caravaggio, the celebrated Italian painter, was now a notorious wanted killer. (Source)

Condemned an outlaw by Pope Paul V — himself fruit of Rome’s Borghese family, great patrons of art in their own right — Caravaggio fled the Eternal City. His brilliance went with him, perhaps even amplified by the exile.

“The fall from grace was huge,” a curator of late Caravaggio works argued. “It had a profound impact. He started expressing the psychological essence of the stories he is telling.”

The painter and killer had four years left to him — an exile spent sleeping clothed and armed, forever looking over his shoulder. But what his jangled nerves could still spare for the canvas would help launch the baroque artistic epoch and still influences us today.

Flight, fancy, and fortune took Caravaggio to Malta and to Sicily, but the year or so he spent as Naples’ visiting genius would make his artistic legacy: that city’s succeeding generations of painters took enthusiastic inspiration from Caravaggio’s Neapolitan offerings — like a Seven Works of Mercy that must have carried a very personal meaning for the hunted man.

He was reportedly as arrogant and hot-tempered on the run as he had been in Rome, but Caravaggio’s art in exile also traces his desperate attempts to undo the consequences of his bad behavior.

Exploiting his apparent affinity for the sawing off of heads, Caravaggio rendered his own head in a severed state in at least two apparently penitential paintings during this vulnerable period.

This Salome with the Head of John the Baptist was made for the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta after the latter had in 1608 booted Caravaggio from that island refuge:

While David with the Head of Goliath seems to have been created shortly before Caravaggio’s own death for the pope’s art-hounding “Cardinal Nephew” Scipione Borghese, in a bid to earn a pardon. Caravaggio’s self-portrait as the dead man, and Latin inscription “humility kills pride” on the Israelite hero’s sword, suggest an attempt to effect through his creative virtuosity his own execution in effigy.

That would be, at any rate, the only execution Caravaggio ultimately had to endure. He died in the summer of 1610 under unclear — and inevitably suspicious — circumstances while attempting to return to Rome.

A few biographical books about Caravaggio …

… and some Caravaggio art books

* Ranuccio Tomassoni was the pimp and lover of a prostitute named Fillide whom Caravaggio had painted years before, and become enamored of. This Fillide was also Caravaggio’s model for Judith in the arresting painting of the Biblical heroine in mid-decapitation above.

** Possibly, if you like the love triangle angle, in a botched attempt to castrate his rival.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Common Criminals,Crime,Escapes,Executed in Effigy,Famous,History,Italy,Murder,Not Executed,Papal States,Scandal,Sex

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