1293: Capocchio, Inferno-bound

Add comment August 15th, 2018 Headsman

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.

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1278: Pierre de La Brosse, “out of spite and envy”

1 comment June 30th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1278, humiliatingly dressed like a buffoon, Pierre de La Brosse was strung up at Montfaucon without benefit of trial.

De La Brosse (English Wikipedia entry | French) was a court figure of the petty nobility.

He cut his teeth — and a holy beard — as a surgeon and barber in the court of Saint Louis. When Louis died on crusade in 1270, Philip the Bold succeeded to the throne. Philip was tight with Pierre, so this seemed like great news for the chamberlain — and indeed, de La Brosse advanced rapidly with the new king’s patronage in wealth and influence.

The power of this Touraine arriviste did not fail to attract the enmity of the realm’s hereditary lords. As their grandchildren would do in Enguerrand de Marigny‘s time, they nursed their resentments and awaited only their chance.

King Philip’s marriage in 1274 to Marie of Brabant* gave them that chance.

His influence eclipsed by the new bride, de La Brosse developed a dangerous rivalry with the royal consort. When Philip’s firstborn son by his previous marriage and the heir to the French throne died suspiciously in 1276, Pierre de La Brosse allegedly made bold to suggest that the new queen herself might have poisoned the youth off.**

Philip “investigated” this by sending emissaries to consult a clairvoyant who, knowing she was speaking to representatives of the royal family, gave a judiciously positive appraisal of the queen, leaving de La Brosse on very tenuous footing indeed. The barons cut that footing out from under their foe a few months later when they produced documents, likely forged, implicating de La Brosse in a treasonable arrangement with the Spanish crown. De La Brosse was imprisoned for six months and condemned without a regular judicial proceeding: he has the unenviable distinction of being the first victim of an extraordinary royal commission in France. That commission destroyed the evidence (or “evidence”) in the case, but to judge from the positive appraisal de La Brosse enjoyed from chroniclers the popular sentiment for his innocence was widespread.

Pierre de La Brosse is among the several French royal counselors who are sometimes apocryphally said to have built the Montfaucon gallows only to hang upon them. The last word on him (and the more interesting trivia) belongs to Dante, who stationed the man in Purgatory as one who was unjustly slain but without opportunity to cleanse his soul with a last repentance.

I saw the soul
cleft from its body out of spite and envy —
not, so it said, because it had been guilty —
I mean Pier de la Brosse,
and may the Lady of Brabant
while she’s still in this world, watch
her ways—or end among a sadder flock

* Not to be confused with the Bavarian princess of that name who was put to death for adultery.

** Another way to interpret this: poisoning suspicions that were afoot generally came to be ascribed specifically to de La Brosse.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Power,Public Executions,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1256: Marie of Brabant, on suspicion of infidelity

Add comment January 18th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1256, Louis II, Duke of Bavaria, had his wife Marie of Brabant beheaded at Donauworth for adultery.

Louis II depicted with the first two of his three wives: Marie, and the more fortunate Anna of Glogau.

This 26-year-old uncle of the doomed Conradin was kept away from his spouse for many months on state affairs.

At some point, he returned furiously convinced of his wife’s infidelity.

One representative version of the legend has it that

[Lewis] held his Court in Heidelberg, and by him stood ever his dearest friend, Henry, Count of Leiningen, and to him one day the anxious wife sent a letter, beseeching he would use his influence to quicken her husband’s return. Another missive was dispatched at the same time to Duke Lewis … The old mistake was made, Duke Lewis received the letter destined for his friend, wherein the artless Duchess had assured Henry of Leiningen that, if he accompanied her lord in his return, her pleasure in welcoming him would be great.

Etcetera.

That Marie really did exist and really was beheaded on her husband’s authority for adultery appears to be about the extent of the certain information available to us.

This poignant scenario became embroidered into popular legend (and is supposed to have inspired the tale of one of the classic medieval faithful-accused-wife tales: that of Genevieve of Brabant).

The accusation evidently appeared quite doubtful in real life, since her husband and executioner Louis subsequently founded the Cistercian Furstenfeld Abbey in penitence.

She is not to be confused with Marie de Brabant, Queen of France later in the 13th century and a suspect in the poisoning death of the French heir … an affair that cost chamberlain Pierre de la Brosse his life. The words Dante wrote of that later Marie of Brabant would have suited our day’s heroine, too.

may the Lady of Brabant
while she’s still in this world, watch
her ways—or end among a sadder flock

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1289: Ugolino della Gherardesca, ravenous

1 comment March 1st, 2010 Headsman

On an uncertain date in March 1289, fallen nobleman Ugolino della Gherardesca was immured in a Pisan tower with two sons and two grandsons — all doomed to starve to death and land in the Inferno.

Hungry? Ugolino with his starving whelps, as chiseled by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux. (Ugolino was around 70 at his death, so his sons and grandsons were actually quite a bit older than these tots.) Auguste Rodin also sculpted Ugolino, more literally following Dante’s narrative.

In the dangerous Guelph vs. Ghibelline political landscape, Gherardesca had a knack for switching sides.

Originally a Ghibelline, he was banished once for plotting but returned with the support of Guelphs, and was made podesta to negotiate with Pisa’s Guelph enemies, Florence and Lucca.

Having made the unpopular but perhaps politically necessary decision to buy peace with Florence at the expense of territory and castles, Ugolino schemed to extend his own authority in Pisa, only to find himself hoisted on his own petard when onetime plotting-partner Archbishop Ruggieri Ubaldini had Ugolino and descendants seized for (wait for it) … treachery.

Months later, Archbishop Ruggieri ordered the keys to their dungeon thrown into the Arno and left them to starve to death.

Ugolino’s fate is mostly remembered by way of Dante, who places both Ugolino and Ruggieri deep in hell — where the treacherous noble has at least the satisfaction of gnawing vengefully on the treacherous cleric, but detaches his maw long enough to deliver himself the poem’s longest speech by any of the damned.

Here’s Dante’s Ugolino, from the tail end of Canto XXII through most of Canto XXIII.

I beheld two spirits by the ice
Pent in one hollow, that the head of one
Was cowl unto the other; and as bread
Is raven’d up through hunger, th’ uppermost
Did so apply his fangs to th’ other’s brain,
Where the spine joins it. Not more furiously
On Menalippus’ temples Tydeus gnaw’d,
Than on that skull and on its garbage he.

“O thou who show’st so beastly sign of hate
‘Gainst him thou prey’st on, let me hear,” said I
“The cause, on such condition, that if right
Warrant thy grievance, knowing who ye are,
And what the colour of his sinning was,
I may repay thee in the world above,
If that, wherewith I speak be moist so long.”

HIS jaws uplifting from their fell repast,
That sinner wip’d them on the hairs o’ th’ head,
Which he behind had mangled, then began:
“Thy will obeying, I call up afresh
Sorrow past cure, which but to think of wrings
My heart, or ere I tell on’t. But if words,
That I may utter, shall prove seed to bear
Fruit of eternal infamy to him,
The traitor whom I gnaw at, thou at once
Shalt see me speak and weep. Who thou mayst be
I know not, nor how here below art come:
But Florentine thou seemest of a truth,
When I do hear thee. Know I was on earth
Count Ugolino, and th’ Archbishop he
Ruggieri. Why I neighbour him so close,
Now list. That through effect of his ill thoughts
In him my trust reposing, I was ta’en
And after murder’d, need is not I tell.
What therefore thou canst not have heard, that is,
How cruel was the murder, shalt thou hear,
And know if he have wrong’d me. A small grate
Within that mew, which for my sake the name
Of famine bears, where others yet must pine,
Already through its opening sev’ral moons
Had shown me, when I slept the evil sleep,
That from the future tore the curtain off.
This one, methought, as master of the sport,
Rode forth to chase the gaunt wolf and his whelps
Unto the mountain, which forbids the sight
Of Lucca to the Pisan. With lean brachs
Inquisitive and keen, before him rang’d
Lanfranchi with Sismondi and Gualandi.
After short course the father and the sons
Seem’d tir’d and lagging, and methought I saw
The sharp tusks gore their sides. When I awoke
Before the dawn, amid their sleep I heard
My sons (for they were with me) weep and ask
For bread. Right cruel art thou, if no pang
Thou feel at thinking what my heart foretold;
And if not now, why use thy tears to flow?
Now had they waken’d; and the hour drew near
When they were wont to bring us food; the mind
Of each misgave him through his dream, and I
Heard, at its outlet underneath lock’d up
The’ horrible tower: whence uttering not a word
I look’d upon the visage of my sons.
I wept not: so all stone I felt within.
They wept: and one, my little Anslem, cried:
“Thou lookest so! Father what ails thee?” Yet
I shed no tear, nor answer’d all that day
Nor the next night, until another sun
Came out upon the world. When a faint beam
Had to our doleful prison made its way,
And in four countenances I descry’d
The image of my own, on either hand
Through agony I bit, and they who thought
I did it through desire of feeding, rose
O’ th’ sudden, and cried, ‘Father, we should grieve
Far less, if thou wouldst eat of us: thou gav’st
These weeds of miserable flesh we wear,

‘And do thou strip them off from us again.’
Then, not to make them sadder, I kept down
My spirit in stillness. That day and the next
We all were silent. Ah, obdurate earth!
Why open’dst not upon us? When we came
To the fourth day, then Geddo at my feet
Outstretch’d did fling him, crying, ‘Hast no help
For me, my father!’ There he died, and e’en
Plainly as thou seest me, saw I the three
Fall one by one ‘twixt the fifth day and sixth:

“Whence I betook me now grown blind to grope
Over them all, and for three days aloud
Call’d on them who were dead. Then fasting got
The mastery of grief.”
Thus having spoke,

Once more upon the wretched skull his teeth
He fasten’d, like a mastiff’s ‘gainst the bone
Firm and unyielding. Oh thou Pisa! shame
Of all the people, who their dwelling make
In that fair region, where th’ Italian voice
Is heard, since that thy neighbours are so slack
To punish, from their deep foundations rise
Capraia and Gorgona, and dam up
The mouth of Arno, that each soul in thee
May perish in the waters! What if fame
Reported that thy castles were betray’d
By Ugolino, yet no right hadst thou
To stretch his children on the rack. For them,
Brigata, Ugaccione, and the pair
Of gentle ones, of whom my song hath told,
Their tender years, thou modern Thebes! did make
Uncapable of guilt.

(According to Dante, the Wayfarer, Ugolino’s daughter married Guido Novello, and the couple actually hosted Dante at one point in his long exile.)

Dante’s quite understandable speculation that Ugolino might have been driven to cannibalize children has been recently disputed by scientists examining the apparent remains of this unfortunate bunch. But it hardly matters now … and Dante was sure right about the cannibalism scene’s dramatic potential.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Immured,Italy,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Starved,Torture,Treason

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1302: Dante Alighieri condemned

5 comments March 10th, 2008 Jeffrey Fisher

(Thanks to Jeffrey Fisher [jeffreyfisher at me.com] for the guest post.)

On this day in 1302, the governing commune of the city of Florence condemned to death Dante Alighieri, statesman, philosopher, and above all, poet. Arguably the greatest mind of his generation, Dante is most famous for his authorship of the Divine Comedy, relating his journeys through, successively, hell, purgatory, and heaven.

Born in 1265 to a noble family of Florence that, while not the city’s most prominent family, had already seen several of his ancestors banished as a result of political turmoil, Dante could hardly have avoided becoming embroiled in public life had he even wanted to. In brief, a long-running struggle between pro-imperial (the so-called Holy Roman Empire) and pro-papal factions was finally won by the pro-papal forces, known as the Guelphs. Two decisive battles in 1289 established both Florence’s independence (particularly from their old nemesis, Pisa) and the rule of the Guelphs, Dante’s own party.

Dante is likely to have taken part in those battles and was active in city politics in the following decade, culminating in a turn in 1300 as prior (one of six key counsellors to the city, serving a two-month term). Florence prided itself on a tradition of democratic rule going back to the death of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in 1250.

Persona Non Grata

Giotto painted Dante prior to his exile — the oldest portrait of Dante known.

Unfortunately, by the time Dante took on the priorate, the old rivalries had reshaped themselves into new factions eerily parallel to their predecessors: the so-called “Black” Guelphs, who aligned themselves with the Pope (as of 1294, Boniface VIII), and “White” Guelphs, who took a more moderate political stance and saw themselves as defending an independent Florence from the Pope and his allies (namely, the Blacks).

Things got so bad that, at the time of Dante’s priorate, the city’s ruling body banished leaders of both sides in an effort to stabilize the city. The pope took the opportunity to send emissaries to Florence on the pretext of negotiating a peace. After more than a year of this maneuvering, the commune sent Dante and two others to have words with Boniface in Rome in 1301.

The Pope “invited” Dante to stay in Rome while his companions returned to Florence to try to bring the commune around. In the meantime, the Pope’s key man had got himself into Florence and helped the Blacks take power, whereupon they confiscated properties and levied fines.

Dante was ordered to appear before a tribunal to answer for his alleged crimes. When he did not show up, he was banished to two years of exile, permanently banned from holding city office, and ordered to pay a further fine of some five thousand florins–a staggering sum–within three days. When that did not happen, either (Dante was apparently in Siena, a short ways from Florence, when he heard this news), the commune confiscated all of his goods and condemned him to death by burning should he ever return.

Fortunately, there were others in Italy at the time who had more sense, but Dante spent the rest of his life–almost another twenty years–wandering from city to city with his sons. He was excluded from an amnesty in 1311, and when he refused the terms of another in 1315, his death sentence was not only reaffirmed, but extended to include his sons. Despite all this, he still held out hope of returning to Florence to be crowned as poet, declining to be so crowned in Bologna as little as a year or two before he died.

Art in Exile

It was over the course of that time in exile that Dante composed his political and philosophical works, together with what must be considered his single greatest contribution to letters, the three-volume Divina Commedia.

There is no way to do justice to any of these works, much less all of them, but in the present context it is worth noting that in three key works — the Commedia (Dante’s title is this simple), Il Convivio (or The Banquet), and De Monarchia (On Monarchy) — Dante develops a serious, even strikingly modern, religious political philosophy.

In contrast to many of his religious contemporaries, taking issue with the great St. Augustine even as he espouses positions derived from Thomas Aquinas, Dante argues in favor of a strong central secular authority, specifically an emperor, and even more particularly, that this authority should be understood by Christians as co-equal with, not subordinate to, the spiritual authority of the Church: “two suns,” he says, rather than the sun and the moon (which merely reflects the light of the sun).

Indeed, he held out an almost messianic hope for the return of an emperor who would restore peace and order. He even wrote public letters to the Emperor Henry VII requesting that he restore justice in Florence (and this is surely a factor in the commune’s treatment of him with respect to amnesty). When Henry died before accomplishing these things, much of Dante’s hope for imperial cohesion died along with him.

(Consider this Open Yale Courses podcast series for more Dante appreciation.)

He Knew Beatrice All Along

It would be nothing short of travesty to write anything of this length about Dante and not mention Beatrice, the love of his life from the age of nine, when he first laid eyes on her, to the day he died in exile. Beatrice, who only spoke to Dante once and who died an early death, directly inspired his poetic-explicatory work, the Vita Nuova (New Life), an exemplar of the dolce stil nuovo (“sweet new style”) movement in poetry. As a character in the Commedia, Beatrice sends Virgil to rescue Dante from a dark forest in the Inferno, and guides him through the spheres of Heaven in Paradiso.

“Dante and Beatrice in the Constellation of Gemini and the Sphere of Flame”, one of William Blake‘s (uncompleted) series of watercolors illustrating Dante’s magnum opus.

Despite two decades of exile, Dante never gave up hope of returning to Florence in his lifetime, and clearly hoped (perhaps “expected” is more accurate) to be united with his other true love in the next. His body remains in Ravenna, where he died and was buried in 1321.

Florentines wish they could have him back.

Part of the Themed Set: The Written Word.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Burned,Famous,Florence,Guest Writers,Intellectuals,Italy,Nobility,Not Executed,Other Voices,Papal States,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,The Worm Turns

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