1500: 18 thieves in Rome

Add comment August 27th, 2011 Headsman

Tourism is pretty essential to the Roman economy, and for as long as there have been dumb foreigners come to gawk, the Caput Mundi has supplied robbers alert to relieve them of their opes mundi.

And as it happens, that’s been for quite a long time. They don’t call it the Eternal City for nothing.


Ponte Sant’Angelo. (Hanged corpses not included.) The bridge was built by Emperor Hadrian in the early second century. (cc) image from Jimmy Harris.

On this date in 1500, a gang of 18 brigands were all hanged (Italian link) along Rome’s Ponte Sant’Angelo for their activities preying on traveling pilgrims.

One of those executed was an orderly at the nearby Ospedale S. Spirito, whose particular specialty was casing the infirmaries for weakened patients

This death penalty venue facing the Vatican’s Castel Sant’Angelo across the Tiber saw plenty of traffic in its day. Bookending the other end of the 16th century, it would host the legendary execution of Beatrice Cenci.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Italy,Mass Executions,Murder,Organized Crime,Outlaws,Papal States,Pelf,Public Executions,Theft

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1599: Beatrice Cenci and her family, for parricide

14 comments September 11th, 2008 Headsman

On the morning this day in 1599, the Cenci family — mother Lucrezia, son Giacomo, and immortal tragic heartthrob Beatrice — were put to death at Sant’Angelo Bridge for murdering the clan’s tyrannous father.

Francesco Cenci, the victim, was more accustomed to making victims of his own: detested around the Eternal City, he indulged his violent temper and fleshy lusts with the impunity of a wealthy cardinal’s son. By all accounts, he enjoyed pushing around his family, too.

This much is stipulated. What lies beyond is legend.

But the legend is why we’re dallying with Beatrice today, so we might as well begin there: in fear that her father would rape her, it goes, Beatrice tried to turn to the authorities, who let mean old dad walk on account of his connections. Desperate to protect herself from incest, Beatrice and family arrange to batter his gulliver and toss him over a balcony to make it look like suicide.

Slight problem: it didn’t look very much like suicide.

So the family was hauled in and tortured, and eventually Lucrezia and Beatrice (both beheaded) and Giacomo (quartered after suffering the mazzolatura of an incapacitating hammer blow to the head followed by gory lethal knifework by the executioner) all paid the price while the youngest child watched, spared death but condemned to life in the galleys.

(The papacy gobbled up the patricides’ estate, which puts a fine point on the ironically-named Pope Clement VIII‘s law-and-order stance on the appeal for mercy, and his subsequent edicts to quash public comment on the affair.)

Then Beatrice’s body — the part below the neck — contrived to disrobe when fumbled by the brethren taking it away for burial.

You’ve got to admit it’s pretty romantic. Some versions even hold that the responsible executioners died violently themselves within a month, or that a ghostly Beatrice returns to the scene of her demise on this anniversary.

And not a word of Italian fluency will be necessary to catch the gist of this excerpt from this 1969 Lucio Fulci film:

It’s a little too Romantic, as in capital-R.

While the case was a true sensation Rome at the turn of the 17th century, the legend as we know it was heavily constructed in the 19th century … and specifically Percy Bysshe Shelley, who heard the story in Italy* where it had persevered as local folklore. A girl who killed her despot-father, executed by the despotic agents of the Divine Father? You don’t get into the canon without knowing what to do with that kind of material.

And he had this charming painting of her to boot:

Shelley amped up the menaced-virginal-purity theme, made the bloodshed a lot more demure, and turned it into a long poem, “The Cenci” (available on Google Books, and on Bartleby.com) which in Melville’s description proceeds from putting its protagonist between the “two most horrible crimes possible to civilized humanity — incest and parricide.”

This doesn’t all actually turn out to be well supported: at a minimum, Shelley inflated an incest allegation of doubtful lineage into accomplished fact. Beatrice’s camp did not raise this claim until just before her execution, when it needed a high card for clemency. The loutish victim eventually got his own biographer, who strongly disputed the incest charges. (Francesco also sports his own Italian Wikipedia page.)

From Shelley’s influential quill** into the DNA of western literature: Stendahl tapped the vein, as did Artaud, and risorgimento figure Francesco Domenico Guerrazzi; both Melville and Hawthorne used that painting so captivating to Shelley as plot devices (Dickens loved the painting, too). American sculptor Harriet Hosmer worked Cenci’s complex sensuality in marble.

Remarkable how the tradition in its modern incarnation proceeds root and branch from Shelley’s apprehension of a single painting, and how his reading stamped itself upon the canvas for later observers — like Hawthorne, writing in his journal:

It is the very saddest picture that ever was painted, or conceived; there is an unfathomable depth and sorrow in the eyes; the sense of it comes to you by a sort of intuition. … It is the most profoundly wrought picture in the world; no artist did it, or could do it again. Guido may have held the brush, but he painted better than he knew. I wish, however, it were possible for some spectator, of deep sensibility, to see the picture without knowing anything of the subject or history; for no doubt we bring all our knowledge of the Cenci tragedy to the interpretation of the picture.

He wrote better than he knew: the painting is no longer attributed to Guido Reni, and it’s doubtful whether it’s a portrait of Beatrice at all. One wonders if it would retain its place in Hawthorne’s estimation as a local washer-woman modeling for an allegory.

* Apparently you can still crash at the same place Shelley first got hep to Cenci.

** Kick back with some polysyllabic literary analysis of Shelley’s Cenci stuff.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Dismembered,Execution,Famous,Gruesome Methods,History,Italy,Mazzolatura,Murder,Nobility,Notable Jurisprudence,Papal States,Public Executions,Scandal,Sex,The Supernatural,Torture,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1570: Aonio Paleario, Italian religious reformer

July 3rd, 2008 Headsman

On this date, Antonio della Pagliara was hanged across the Tiber from the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome for heresy.

The present-day view from the square where Paleario is thought to have been put to death, over the Ponte Sant’Angelo’s span across the Tiber to the Vatican’s imposing citadel.

Better known as Aonio Paleario (English Wikipedia entry | the considerably deeper Italian), the humanist scholar grew into his intellectual career just as Martin Luther’s doctrine was shaking Christendom.

Paleario’s positions were dangerously — and at length, fatally — close to Protestantism. He counted himself a humanist, a great admirer of Erasmus, who from the Low Countries managed to hold his critical positions without running afoul of the Catholic Church.

This would prove an increasingly difficult trick as the century unfolded … especially in the pope’s back yard.

Paleario’s most particular offenses were to take what amounts to the Lutheran side on the primacy of scriptural text over ecclesiastical tradition, and of salvation through Christ alone without the Church’s intermediation. (He also denied Purgatory.)

Since the Italian academic also cottoned to the Protestant-humanist critique of clerical corruption, he pitched Martin Luther and John Calvin on the notion of convening a Christendom-wide ecclesiastical council to reconcile competing sects. He seems to have wanted to reconcile the reformist current of humanism still within the Catholic tradition, and that of those critics who had broken, perhaps not yet irrevocably, with Rome.

The effort ultimately foundered. Instead, the curia-approved Council of Trent formulated a Roman Catholic doctrine that insured the permanent schism with Protestantism.

The Counter-Reformation was on. Still, with contending theologies — and contending polities — afoot in the Italian quiltwork plus his own towering reputation as the greatest orator in Italy, Paleario was able to find protectors and carry on. He taught in Siena, Lucca and Milan for more than three decades, surviving two bouts with the Inquisition before a Rome in crackdown mode finally pinned a heresy rap on him.

By that time, the septuagenarian didn’t much bother to fight it.

If your Eminences have so many credible witnesses against me, there is no need to give yourselves or me any further trouble … Judge, therefore, and condemn Aonio; satisfy my adversaries, and fulfil your office.

The office was fulfilled consuming the old man in flames, but they did extend the favor of hanging him (and apparently exposing the corpse for several days) first.

A book uncertainly attributed to Paleario, Beneficio di Criso (The Benefit of Christ’s Death) is available free at Google Books.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,God,Hanged,Heresy,History,Intellectuals,Italy,Papal States,Power,Public Executions,Wrongful Executions

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