1800: Mario Cavaradossi, Tosca’s lover

1 comment June 18th, 2011 Headsman

It’s at dawn on this date in 1800 that the republican Mario Cavaradossi is shot at Castel Sant’Angelo in the climax of the Puccini opera Tosca.

This opera was adapted from the play La Tosca, by Victorien Sardou. That author does this site the considerable favor of exactly dating the action; a character at the end of Act 1, Scene 1 announces, “this evening, 17 June, a celebration at the Palazzo Farnese in honor of this victory.” The remaining story unfolds over that night and into the next morning.

En route to Marengo: Jacques-Louis David‘s heroic picture of Napoleon crossing the Alps comes from this campaign.

“This victory” worth the proposed palazzo party is the Austrian defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Marengo during Bonaparte’s 1800 invasion of Italy.

But there’s a minor problem. Said seesaw battle went not to Austria but (decisively) to Napoleon, after a late French rally.

The action of Tosca takes place in a Rome which has received an initial, incorrect notice of Austrian victory. This is of particular import in the Eternal City because it’s under the temporary receivership of the Hapsburg Queen Maria Carolina, a virulent foe of the French Republic as befits a sister of Marie Antoinette.

(France-supported Italian revolutionaries had already deposed Maria Carolina once; the Corsican’s reappearance on her peninsula gave her good cause to fear that it would happen again.*)

At any rate, “Queen Caroline” and her husband Ferdinand were not above spilling blood to hold down the republican elements in Rome. Harold Acton pegged their harvest at “8,000 political prisoners … 105 were condemned to death, six of whom were reprieved.”

Our date’s fictional principal would reckon among those.

We meet him as a painter with subversively liberal inclinations, in love with the titular heroine as she with him — but opposed by police chief Scarpia: his profession is to pursue revolutionaries; his passion, to pursue Tosca.

Scarpia captures, and tortures, Cavaradossi for aiding an escaped official of the recently destroyed Roman Republic, and forces Tosca to yield herself to him in exchange for her lover’s life.** This is Tosca’s aria lamenting her position:

One thing: because Scarpia doesn’t want to be implicated in the release of a dangerous radical, he insists on a mock-execution in which the prisoner will appear to be shot and feign death, the better to spirit Cavaradossi away and on to happily-ever-after.†

And because Scarpia is a villain, he arranges for his rival’s “mock” execution to be not so mock after all … to the suicidal horror of Tosca.

Aaaaaand curtain.

There are scads more Tosca excerpts on YouTube. Here’s an Italian-English libretto, and here a handy summary.

* It would, in fact, happen again.

** Okay, to agree to yield herself to him. Tosca stabs Scarpia to death when he rises to collect her promised virtue.

† “In the manner of Count Palmieri,” Scarpia instructs his subaltern. If this is a reference to a real case, we are not aware of it; there was a royalist Marquis Palmieri executed in Naples in 1807 by Napoleon’s brother, Joseph.

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1799: The defenders of Jaffa, at Napoleon’s command

5 comments March 10th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte gave, and saw executed, the dreadful order to slaughter thousands of Muslim prisoners from the Siege of Jaffa.

Having just conquered the city from the Ottomans, the Corsican faced the inconvenience of having a large number of POWs with no way to provision them. What to do?

His private secretary Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne later remembered the scene.

The Arnauts and Albanians, of whom these refugees were almost entirely composed, cried from the windows that they were willing to surrender upon an assurance that they would be exempted from the massacre to which the town was doomed; if not, they threatened to fire on the ‘aides de camp’, and to defend themselves to the last extremity. The two officers thought that they ought to accede to the proposition, notwithstanding the decree of death which had been pronounced against the whole garrison, in consequence of the town being taken by storm. They brought them to our camp in two divisions, one consisting of about 2500 men, the other of about 1600.

I was walking with General Bonaparte, in front of his tent, when he beheld this mass of men approaching, and before he even saw his ‘aides de camp’ he said to me, in a tone of profound sorrow, “What do they wish me to do with these men? Have I food for them?–ships to convey them to Egypt or France? Why, in the devil’s name, have they served me thus?” After their arrival, and the explanations which the General-in-Chief demanded and listened to with anger, Eugene* and Croisier [the officers who accepted the Jaffa garrison’s surrender] received the most severe reprimand for their conduct. But the deed was done. Four thousand men were there. It was necessary to decide upon their fate. The two aides de camp observed that they had found themselves alone in the midst of numerous enemies, and that he had directed them to restrain the carnage. “Yes, doubtless,” replied the General-in-Chief, with great warmth, “as to women, children, and old men–all the peaceable inhabitants; but not with respect to armed soldiers. It was your duty to die rather than bring these unfortunate creatures to me. What do you want me to do with them?”

The third day arrived without its being possible, anxiously as it was desired, to come to any conclusion favourable to the preservation of these unfortunate men. The murmurs in the camp grew louder the evil went on increasing–remedy appeared impossible–the danger was real and imminent. The order for shooting the prisoners was given and executed on the 10th of March.

This atrocious scene, when I think of it, still makes me shudder, as it did on the day I beheld it; and I would wish it were possible for me to forget it, rather than be compelled to describe it. All the horrors imagination can conceive, relative to that day of blood, would fall short of the reality.**

… the situation of the army, the scarcity of food, our small numerical strength, in the midst of a country where every individual was an enemy, would have induced me to vote in the affirmative of the proposition which was carried into effect, if I had a vote to give. It was necessary to be on the spot in order to understand the horrible necessity which existed.

War, unfortunately, presents too many occasions on which a law, immutable in all ages, and common to all nations, requires that private interests should be sacrificed to a great general interest, and that even humanity should be forgotten. It is for posterity to judge whether this terrible situation was that in which Bonaparte was placed.† For my own part, I have a perfect conviction that he could not do otherwise than yield to the dire necessity of the case. It was the advice of the council, whose opinion was unanimous in favour of the execution, that governed him, Indeed I ought in truth to say, that he yielded only in the last extremity, and was one of those, perhaps, who beheld the massacre with the deepest pain.

As tends to happen, this sort of thing made future garrisons much less interested in surrender.

Walter Scott, in his biography of the Corsican, judged that the “bloody deed must always remain a deep stain on the character of Napoleon.”

[W]e do not view it as the indulgence of an innate love of cruelty; for nothing in Bonaparte’s history shows the existence of that vice, and there are many things which intimate his disposition to have been naturally humane. But he was ambitious, aimed at immense and gigantic undertakings, and easily learned to overlook the waste of human life, which the execution of his projjects necessarily invvolved … That sort of necessity, therefore, which men fancy to themselves when they are unwilling to forego a favourite object for the sake of obeying a moral precept — that necessity which might be more properly termed a temptation difficult to be resisted — that necessity which has been called the tyrant’s plea, was the cause of the massacre at Jaffa, and must remain its sole apology.

And, Scott adds, “it might almost seem that Heaven set its vindictive brand upon this deed of butchery.”

This city the French wanted so desperately as to “forget humanity” was beset with plague; Antoine-Jean Gros would depict Napoleon on canvas humanely visiting the stricken right around the time he ordered a couple thousand prisoners shot dead.


Bonaparte Visiting the Pesthouse in Jaffa, by Antoine-Jean Gros (1804).

Bourrienne recorded that

[a]fter the siege of Jaffe the plague began to exhibit itself with a little more virulence. We lost between seven and eight hundred, men by the contagion during the campaign of Syria.

* “Eugene” is Napoleon’s adopted son-in-law Eugene de Beauharnais, one of the commanders whose expedient clemency inconvenienced the marshal. Beauharnais’s father was executed himself, during the French Revolution.

** Bourrienne goes light on the atrocity details, and makes it sound like it’s all shootings; Muslim sources record bayonet work.

† [sic!] By “terrible situation … in which Bonaparte was placed,” he of course means the terrible situation in which Bonaparte placed himself by launching his Egyptian campaign.

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1810: Tommaso Tintori, the first guillotined in Rome

3 comments February 28th, 2010 Headsman

It’s easy enough to accuse the Catholic Church of being behind the times.

But this date two hundred years ago found it in the criminological progressive vanguard (just ask Lord Byron!), conducting Rome’s first beheading by guillotine, that brave new instrument of egalitarian execution.

Okay, granted: it wasn’t the ecclesiastical authorities but the French occupiers who introduced the guillotine, as was their wont.

But when the Papal States were restored a few years later, after the Napoleonic Wars, the vicars of Christ were enlightened enough to keep this efficient device (and its sunk capital cost) around … at least as one option among the restored traditional sentences of hanging, quartering, and the local specialty, mazzolatura.

Biographical details of our milestone criminal are scarce on the ground, but we have his name, date of execution, and crime — omicidio — courtesy of the Italian list kept by the famed executioner Mastro Titta.

Seguono Le Giustizie Eseguite Nel Nuovo Edifizio Per Il Taglio Della Testa Nel Governo Francese.

106. Tommaso Tintori, reo di omicidio, li 28 febbraio 1810.

As one might guess, that “106” means that the prolific Titta had already notched 105 official kills in his 14 years as executioner prior to the guillotine. He would run his career total north of 500.

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1799: Dun Mikiel Xerri, Maltese patriot

2 comments January 17th, 2010 Jonathan Shipley

(Thanks to Jonathan Shipley of A Writer’s Desk for the guest post. -ed.)

That Napoleon Bonaparte, he simply can’t leave well enough alone.

He already conquered Malta. Most of the Maltese were even okay with it. But then he started disassembling the Maltese nobility and restricting the church. This displeased Dun Mikiel Xerri, and it was on this date in 1799 that Xerri was shot dead for spearheading a Maltese revolt against the French.

Born on September 29, 1737 in Zebbug, Malta, Xerri studied as a young man at various universities throughout Europe. Learned, he becme a Roman Catholic priest and dabbled in both philosophy and mathematics, living warmly under the rule of The Knights of St. John. Then, Napoleon came.

It was 1798 and Napoleon’s fleet was traveling to Egypt on expedition. Napoleon asked for safe harbor on Malta to resupply his ships. The Maltese refused him water and so Napoleon ordered a division of troops up to Valletta, the Maltese capital city. Ferdinand von Hompesch au Bolheim, the 71st Grand Master of the Order of St. John, thought again on his stance on the water issue but Napoleon was already beginning to be entrenched in Maltese life, looting the Order’s assets and administering control. Not wanting to fight fellow Christians (the French), Hompesch did little to quell the influx of French soldiers. In fact, he quickly signed a treaty handing over sovereignty of the Island of Malta to the French Republic.

This initially pleased some Maltese, tired of Knight rule, but the honeymoon didn’t last long.

Xerri, and many others, believed a revolt was the only way to regain people’s rights due to the fact that the rights of Maltese nobility were figuratively stripped, and the treasures of the Maltese church literally so.

Outraged Maltese rose against the French garrison headquartered in Notabile. Outraged Maltese formed a National Assembly. Outraged Maltese raised open rebellion on the islands.

The French retreated to the fortified cities around the harbor where their ships were anchored. The Maltese, in arms, implored the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (run by King Ferdinand I) and Great Britain (then under the rule of King George III).

It was to no avail. During the blockades, hundreds of people, Maltese and French alike, died from starvation and deprivation. Desperate, within the fortress, Xerri the patriot and others decided to attack French forces in Valletta and Cottonera. The plot, however, was discovered by the French and before it could be executed, 49 people were arrested for the plotted insurrection, Xerri among them.

The archbishop of Malta, Vincenzo Labini, met with Xerri and Xerri’s companions the morning of January 17, 1799. Prayers were offered, quiet words of salvation exchanged. Xerri was taken from Fort Saint Elmo to the Palace Square. French troops awaited him. Xerri, moments from death, gave a silver watch to the official on duty. He asked to be shot through the heart. “May God have pity on us!” he shouted with the others. “Long live Malta!” He was then shot dead, taken away, and buried near the Church of Saint Publius in Floriana.

Malta did not gain its independence until September 21, 1964.

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1815: Joachim Murat, Napoleonic Marshal

5 comments October 13th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1815, French Marshal-cum-Neapolitan King Joachim Murat was shot in Pizzo, Italy, for a failed attempt to regain his throne.

The charismatic cavalryman cuts a snazzy figure in the Napoleonic era, from its very infancy: it was Murat who secured for the 26-year-old Bonaparte the cannon used to deliver the “whiff of grapeshot” whose odor set Napoleon on the path to becoming Emperor.

Murat knew a good thing when he had it, and thereafter zipped around with the peripatetic conqueror, finding time between dashing mounted charges to marry Napoleon’s sister Caroline.

Murat’s honors multiplied with his commander’s victories: “First Horseman of Europe” (whatever that means); Grand Duke of Berg and Cleves; at last, in 1808, he was appointed King of Naples and Sicily, beneficiary via Caroline of the Corsican’s policy of installing family members to helm his satellite kingdoms.

Still, that elevation didn’t mean Murat would just retire to his Mediterranean villa and his mistresses: he was on call when Bonaparte went to invade Russia.

Leo Tolstoy, undoubtedly a hostile witness in his epic War and Peace, renders Murat as something of an oblivious dunderhead:

Though it was quite incomprehensible why he should be King of Naples, he was called so, and was himself convinced that he was so, and therefore assumed a more solemn and important air than formerly. He was so sure that he really was the King of Naples that when, on the eve of his departure from that city, while walking through the streets with his wife, some Italians called out to him: “Viva il re!” he turned to his wife with a pensive smile and said: “Poor fellows, they don’t know that I am leaving them tomorrow!”

But though he firmly believed himself to be King of Naples and pitied the grief felt by the subjects he was abandoning, latterly, after he had been ordered to return to military service — and especially since his last interview with Napoleon in Danzig, when his august brother-in-law had told him: “I made you King that you should reign in my way, but not in yours!” — he had cheerfully taken up his familiar business, and — like a well-fed but not overfat horse that feels himself in harness and grows skittish between the shafts — he dressed up in clothes as variegated and expensive as possible, and gaily and contentedly galloped along the roads of Poland, without himself knowing why or whither.

Like his fellow-Marshal Michel Ney, Murat nevertheless had the realpolitik chops to get on after their thrust to Moscow had so calamitously reversed — in Murat’s case, by cutting a deal with the Austrian Empire to retain his kingship.

But also like Ney, he couldn’t resist joining Napoleon’s ill-fated 1815 reunion tour. Murat could have survived the consequent loss of his throne, but made a quixotic bid to invade with only a handful of men the former possession whose people he quite wrongly imagined would rally to his cause.

Not the realization of the day-dreams of the most dreaming youth, not the visible acting of the strangest visions which the dramatist and romance-writer have conceived, could strike us with more wonder than the simple narration of that which befel the son of the baker of Cahors in his passage from the ranks of the French army to the throne and sceptre of Naples; and, alas! one step farther, an unquiet and a mournful one, to that small court in the castle of Pizzo, where the hero of a hundred fights, — the Achilles of the chivalrous French, — gazed for a second, with uncovered eye and serene brow on the party drawn out to send the death-volley home to his heart.

Well, this depiction of Murat’s end is plainly of more sympathetic character than Tolstoy would have done.

… the disgraceful tribunal, after consultation, declared, “That Joachim Murat, having by the fate of arms returned to the private station whence he sprung, had rashly landed in the Neapolitan dominions with twenty-eight followers, no longer relying upon war, but upon tumults and rioting; that he had excited the people to rebellion; that he had offended the rightful King; that he had attempted to throw the kingdom of Naples and the whole of Italy into confusion; and that therefore, as a public enemy, he was condemned to die, by authority of the law of the Decennium, which was still in vigour.” This very law, by a strange caprice of fortune, was one which Joachim himself had passed seven years before. He had, however, humanely suspended its operations many times, at particular seasons of his rule; and yet this very law, so passed, and so suspended by him, was made the instrument of his death.

The prisoner listened to his sentence with coolness and contempt. He was then led into a little court of the castle, where he found a party of soldiers drawn up in two files. Upon these preparations he looked calmly, and refused to permit his eyes to be covered. Then advancing in front of the party, and, placing himself in an attitude to meet the bullets, he called out to the soldiers, “Spare my face — aim at the heart.” No sooner had he uttered these words than the party fired, and he, who had been so lately King of the Two Sicilies, fell dead, holding fast with his hands the portraits of his family …

* More evidence that blood is thicker than water, since Napoleon and Murat were not chummy. According to Memoirs of Napoleon, His Court and Family, by the wife of another Napoleonic general,

The Emperor did not cherish for Murat the sincere friendship which he entertained for the other officers of the army of Italy. He used frequently to make him the subject of derision; and many of us have heard him laugh at the King of Naples, whom he used to call a Franconi King.

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1815: Michel Ney, the bravest of the brave

9 comments December 7th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1815, Napoleonic Marshal Michel Ney faced a squad of French troops un-blindfolded and gave them the last order of his wild career:

Soldiers, when I give the command to fire, fire straight at my heart. Wait for the order. It will be my last to you. I protest against my condemnation. I have fought a hundred battles for France, and not one against her… Soldiers Fire!

The carrot-topped commander, just seven months Napoleon’s senior, had like the Corsican distinguished himself at arms during the French Revolution.

He shone thereafter as a ballsy* cavalry officer in the Napoleonic Wars — Bonaparte called him le Brave des Braves (“the bravest of the brave”).

Hitching your star to Napoleon’s was a good career move, for sure.

Until right about …


Michel Ney was named Prince de la Moskowa after the Battle of Borodino 1812. Things kind of went downhill from there.

“[W]e are told of the greatness of soul of the marshals, especially of Ney — a greatness of soul consisting in this: that he … escaped to Orsha abandoning standards, artillery, and nine-tenths of his men.” -Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

Ney was able to keep things cool with Louis XVIII, but when Napoleon returned from Elba and Ney marched out to capture him, both Marshal and army deserted to the old emperor.

Ney often takes a rap for fouling up the reunion tour with a characteristically reckless cavalry charge during the Battle of Waterloo.

But his real problem was that he couldn’t make up his mind or stir his spirit or just plain read the writing on the wall well enough to get out while the getting was good. Though the Bourbons gave him every opportunity to blow town and spare the new-look ancien regime the embarrassment of having to try him, Ney didn’t do it — causing the king to fume,

By letting himself be caught, he has done us more harm than he did [defecting to Napoleon] on the 13th of March!

A vengeful Chamber of Peers, full of radical more-royalist-than-the-king types, gave him no quarter.

The near-unanimous conviction and death sentence were agreed by the Peers around midnight as December 6 became December 7, and the Bravest of the Brave led out near the Luxembourg Garden that very morning to suffer the sentence passed upon him.

The Bravest of the Brave, a 19th-century general history of the man, is available free on Google Books, as are two volumes of memoirs (1, 2) published posthumously by his family.

French speakers can find other free 19th century texts on Ney linked here.

* His reputation for unshakable courage notwithstanding, John Elting says Ney was also a deft hand at executing a cavalry retreat.

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