1375: Niccolo di Toldo, in the arms of St. Catherine of Siena

Add comment June 20th, 2016 Headsman

I have one body
And to you I offer and return it.
Here is my flesh;
Here is my blood;
Let me be slain, reduced to nothing;
Let my bones be split apart
For those for whom I am praying, if such is your will.

-Prayer of St. Catherine of Siena (Source)

This date in 1375 is the best data point we have for the beheading of Niccolo di Toldo.

The Sienese archives offer scant documentation of this political execution; a decree of June 4, 1375 orders his examination for “the discord sowed by him in the city of Siena, pernicious and deadly to the state of the present government” — and a couple of letters on Niccolo’s behalf from the governor of neighboring Perugia. Francis Thomas Luongo in The Saintly Politics of Catherine of Siena — we will come to Catherine presently — next points in lieu of any remaining record of Niccolo’s execution to “the necrology of the Sienese Dominican friary [which] includes an entry for one ‘Nicholaus, familiarius of the Lord Senator,’ who died and was entombed in the cloister of San Domenico on 20 June, the vigil of the feast of Corpus Christi.” It’s not certain that this is the same man but the description fits him, and the date is one week after the last known letter on his behalf from Perugia — which was an appeal for mercy.

We are as ignorant of Niccolo di Toldo’s offense as we are of the date of his death. But his position (in the household of a senator) and his Perugian affiliation suggest him an agent of papal subversion.

Siena’s centuries-long decline from the ranks of Italy’s city-state powers dates ultimately to the Black Death outbreak of 1348. The Plague devastated Siena.

The ensuing generations saw authority in the great Tuscan city furiously contested; the government turned over repeatedly in the 1360s — the Dodici (the Twelve), the Tredici, the Quindici, each an executive committee of interested parties in the coalition of the day.

From the late 1360s and through the 1370s, the Quindici held sway: reformist guild leaders* who were opposed by the the deposed (and by now proscribed) ex-Dodici, Siena’s great magnates in alliance with the papacy. (Luongo delves into Sienese politics in considerable detail in his book.) By year’s end Siena would join a city-state coalition led by Florence that fought a three-year war against the papal states with the excellent name “the War of Eight Saints”.

That coalition and that thrust of policy is likely what a “political subversive” in 1375 Siena would be subverting. And the governor of Perugia appealing to the Sienese for Toldo’s life? He was a French cardinal, kin to Pope Gregory XI.**


Little as we know of Niccolo di Toldo prior to his death, that execution is one of the most famous in all of medieval Europe.

The wretch was comforted in his last days by Catherine of Siena, a young mystic — and, not incidentally, an increasingly influential opponent of the anti-curial political climate. Today, Catherine is the patron saint not only of Siena but of all Europe, and her dessicated head (sawed off her body by devotees for use as a fetish) greets the reverent and the gawker alike, enthroned in its grisly reliquary in the Basilica San Domenico.


(cc) image by Patrick Denker.

Catherine found Niccolo angry at his impending fate, initially refusing to see any spiritual counselor: no state of mind for a soul to meet its maker. Any of the confraternities tasked at this time with succoring those about to face execution would have been charged with bringing such a person to a condition of resignation and penitence.

Catherine achieved her mission to join the doomed man to God but much, much more than that: her account of their relationship, up to the moment when she ecstatically catches his falling bloody head, is a celebration of erotic mysticism. It’s also one of the most famous episodes of the saint’s life.

Niccolo’s virgin helpmate was herself noted for her mystical “marriage to Christ”: in it, Catherine presented her heart to the phantom Savior, and he his ritually circumcised foreskin to her.

Converging religious fervor and carnality mark her interaction with Niccolo, too; at one point she implies that she has sublimated the condemned traitor’s attraction to her into piety, and (as Catherine wrote a follower),

God’s measureless and burning goodness tricked him, creating in him such an affection and love in the desire of me in God, that he did not know how to abide without God, and he said: ‘Stay with me and do not leave me. Like this I cannot but be alright, and I will die content!’ and he had his head resting on my breast. I sensed an intense joy, a fragrance of his blood, and it was not without the fragrance of my own, which I wait to shed for the sweet husband Jesus.

Catherine saw Niccolo di Toldo only twice in the days leading up to his execution. When he went to the block, she was there to meet him: in fact, she was there early and made bold to occupy the condemned’s place on the scaffold, and to stretch her own neck out over the headsman’s block that her kindred spirit would soon soak in gore. It was as if preparing his bridal bed, where she would embrace Niccolo even as the executioner struck — the two as passionately near to one in soul and body as the logistics of a heavy blade’s arc can permit.

[H]e arrived, as a meek lamb, and seeing me, he began to laugh, and he wanted me to make the sign of the cross. When he received the sign, I said, “Come on! to the nuptials, my sweet brother! for soon you will be in life without end.” He got down with great meekness, and I stretched out his neck, and leaning down, I reminded him of the blood of the Lamb. His mouth said nothing but “Jesus” and “Catherine.” And, as he was saying thus, I received his head in my hands, closing his eyes on divine goodness and saying, “I want this!” (“lo voglio”)†

She clutched to herself the lifeless head that had dropped into her lap and beheld “with the greatest envy” Niccolo’s soul ascending in the martyrdom Catherine aspired to. Afterwards, she was reluctant to wash out the clothes spattered with blood from the sacred climax of death.

The Dominican friar Caffarini, an ally of Catherine who was later to become of the principal exponents of her canonization, wrote of the tableau that Niccolo

accepted death while still at a young age, in the presence of the Virgin and with her receiving his head into her hands, with such marvelous devotion that it was like the transitus of some devout martyr and not the death of one who was condemned for a human crime. And everyone watching among whom I was only one was so moved internally and from the heart that I do not remember any previous burial accompanied with as much devotion as that one.


Panel of Francesco Messina‘s 1962 monument to St. Catherine of Siena outside Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo.

* Apart from the enmity of the papal party, the powerful guild leaders of the Quindici faced working-class opposition that resulted in a 1378 revolt.

** Gregory XI was the guy who moved the papacy back from Avignon to Rome.

† Translated excerpts culled from snippets and excerpts in various locations. Original Italian versions of Catherine’s poetic letters are available in public-domain Google books here; there’s also a recent English translation by Susan Noffke.

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Unspecified date: Mariotto Mignarelli, proto-Romeo

Add comment March 21st, 2016 Headsman

On a never-specified date in 15th century Siena, the tragic lover Mariotto Mignarelli was beheaded in Masuccio Salernitano‘s story Mariotto and Ganozza — the apparent wellspring (via an English interlocutor) for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Masuccio’s tale is itself an Italian Renaissance gloss on an old Ovid story; its outline will be instantly recognizable to devotees of the Capulets and Montagues. But instead of dueling suicides, Masuccio ends one of the star-crossed lovers with an executioner’s blade.

In Mariotto and Ganozza, which can be enjoyed for free in the original Italian here or here, the young lovers secretly wed only to find “that wicked and hostile fortune reversed all their present and future desires.”


These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder …

“Fortune’s” inscrutable hand turns out to be that of Mariotto himself, who gets into a fight with some other nobleman and, slaying him, must flee into exile. Posterity must excuse Mariotto/Romeo his hotheadedness, for were he not the type to wreck his own life by murdering a guy in a street fight he also wouldn’t be the type to pursue forbidden tragic romance. That’s art.


Fortune’s fool …

“How great was the supreme grief of the two most wretched lovers, so lately wed, and how bitter their tears at the thought of what they believed to be their endless separation, he alone who has been pricked by such wounds can truly tell.” (Translation source.)

“So deep and bitter it was, that at their last parting, they seemed for a long while to have died in each other’s arms.”

It next comes to pass that Gianozza’s father, ignorant of her secret marriage to the town fugitive, arranges a match for her. This development leads our Juliet figure to seek out the aid of the friar who has secretly wed them in a scheme that is precisely Shakespearean.

The friar “made up a certain water with certain concoctions of various powders that, when the draught was ready and she had drunk it, it would not only make her sleep for three days, but seem to be really dead.” With this potion they stage Gianozza’s death; then, the friar secretly steals her hibernating “corpse” from its tomb, revives her, and packs her off to find her beloved.

He, of course, has separately received word of Gianozza’s death — and (also of course) the courier that had been dispatched pre-death elixir to clue him into the plan has been waylaid by pirates and left his essential plot spoilers at the bottom of the sea.

Disconsolate, Mariotto returns to Siena with the unproductive object of mooning over Gianozza’s grave and “weep[ing] as if their lives were ended.” Don’t worry, he has a backup plan! “If by misfortune he was recognized, he thought he would gladly be condemned as a murderer, knowing that she was already dead whom he loved more than himself and who loved him with equal love.”

This works as well as you expect, albeit with less panache than Shakespeare’s crypt climax: Mariotto gets caught in a transport of the macabre trying to break into Gianozza’s sepulcher, and is recognized as a condemned outlaw.

Before dawn, all Siena was full of the news, which reached the ears of the Court, who ordered the mayor to go and arrest him and quickly do that which the laws and the State commanded.

So, a prisoner in fetters, Mariotto was led to the palace of the mayor. When he was flogged, without needing long tortures, he faithfully confessed the cause of his desperate return. Though all alike had the greatest pity for him, and amongst the women he was bitterly wept for and thought the only perfect lover in the world, and each of them would have willingly redeemed him with her own life, yet he was at once condemned by the law to be beheaded. When the time arrived, without his friends or parents being able to aid him, the sentence was carried out.

Three days later, Gianozza — having reached Mariotto’s former refuge of exile and there learned of his misapprehension — turns up in Siena again only to discover that she is too late. Rather than stabbing herself to death right then and there as the Bard’s heroine would do, she shuts herself up in a convent “with intense grief and tears of blood and little food and no sleep, continually calling for her dear Mariotto, [and] in a very short time ended her wretched days.”


Prokofiev’s unwilling balletic finale

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1517: Cardinal Alfonso Petrucci, plotter

1 comment July 16th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1517, the Italian cardinal Alfonso Petrucci was put to death for a conspiracy to murder Pope Leo X.

Leo had been acclaimed pope in 1513 at a conclave noted for nearly electing the worst possible pontiff when cardinals hedging their first-ballot votes while they took the temperature of the room all happened to vote alike for the feeblest candidate on the expectation that nobody else was voting for that guy.

Chastened by the near-miss, the leading candidate Giovanni de’ Medici promptly cut a deal with his chief legitimate rival for St. Peter’s seat, Raffaele Riario.*

This arrangement boosted to St. Peter’s throne the first of four popes from the Medici, intriguingly done with the acquiescence of Riario, who was kin to one of the prime movers of the anti-Medici Pazzi Conspiracy from many years before. Both Giovanni de’ Medici and Raffaele Riario were too young to have played a part in those events, but the lingering familial animosity might well bear on what transpired in the papacy of Giovanni de’ Medici — or rather, as we shall know him henceforth, Pope Leo X.

Leo was an entirely worldly character, whose enthusiasm for the peninsular politics that shaped his native habitat would help lead a German cleric to nail 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg later this same year of 1517. “Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of Saint Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?” Martin Luther demanded (thesis 86) of Leo’s increasingly shameless indulgences racket.

Acting more the Medici than the Vicar of Christ, Leo in 1516 deposed the tyrant of Florence’s neighbor and rival, Siena. The declining Sienese Republic was a prime target of Florence’s expansionist ambitions, and indeed it would be gobbled up in the mid-16th century by the Florence-based and Medici-led Grand Duchy of Tuscany.

In Leo’s time, his coup shattered Siena’s ruling Petrucci family** to the injury of one of Leo’s fellow churchmen, Cardinal Alfonso Petrucci English Wikipedia entry | the much more detailed Italian). Alfonso now had cause to use his office for the agenda of his family and his city, and sought a countervailing anti-Medici arrangement with the condottiero Francesco Maria I della Rovere, whom Leo was even then fighting a war against.

The arrangement came to nothing and Leo assured Alfonso of safe conduct for his return to Rome. It was just a lot of scheming Italian oligarchs doing what they always did, some of them while wearing cassocks.

Except upon Alfonso’s return, Leo had the Petrucci cardinal and another cardinal friendly to him clapped in prison for an alleged plot to poison the pontiff.

Cossetted court cardinals suddenly found themselves accused papicides under the threat (and, for some, the reality) of torture. Hard-to-credit “confessions” duly ensued with Leo enlivening the spring and summer of 1517 with preposterous security theatrics.

On June 8 they assembled in Consistory, when the Pope burst out into complaints. He had evidence, he said, that two other Cardinals whom he had trusted had joined in the conspiracy against him; if they would but come forward and confess he would pardon them freely; if they refused to confess he would have them carried to prison and would treat them like the other [accused]. The Cardinals gazed on one another in alarm, and no one moved. The Pope asked them to speak, and each in turn denied … Leo X’s dramatic stroke was a failure; he could not succeed in his unworthy attempt to induce some unsuspected person to criminate himself. (Source)

It’s hardly past thinking that rival factions would poison off a pope, and there’s been some latter-day research suggesting that something really was afoot. For that matter, Leo’s actual death in 1521 has often been suspected of being aided by an apothecary’s philter.

But outside the dramatics, Leo scarcely handled his prisoners in 1517 as if he were much in genuine fear for his life.

Instead, the practical pontifex maximus used it as a shakedown opportunity against anyone who could be denounced a confederate of the hotheaded young Petrucci. The Genoese Cardinal Sauli, arrested together with his friend Petrucci, was forced to buy his liberty for 50,000 ducats; Cardinal Riario, Leo’s old opposite number from the 1513 conclave, was implicated by Petrucci and Sauli as knowing himself the prospective beneficiary of the plot, and Riario was forced to retire to Naples upon payment of an exit tariff of 150,000 ducats plus his Roman palace. (It remains papal property to this day as the Palazzo della Cancelleria.) Further downmarket, Cardinals Soderini and Adrian fled Rome in despair of discharging the 25,000-ducat fines affixed upon each of them.

Money, however, would not suffice for Cardinal Petrucci, the active center of whatever conspiracy existed. Petrucci probably did murmur something one could construct as treason against his Holy Father, if one regarded them in their ecclesiastical rather than their dynastic positions, and he evidently engaged the Pope’s surgeon Giovanni Battista da Vercelli as an instrument of the proposed assassination or at least made loose talk to that effect.

While the doctor, along with Petrucci’s private secretary, were hauled through the streets to a demonstrative gibbeting, Petrucci was strangled privately in his cell on July 16, 1517. It was done by a Moor out of consideration for the impropriety of a Christian slaying a father of the Holy Church.

Beyond the rent-seeking and the rival-eradicating, Leo leveraged the purported plot to appoint 31 new cardinals in July 1517, basically doubling the College of Cardinals at one stroke while stocking the ranks with men who could offer him political support or timely bribes.

* Riario’s legacy can still be seen around the Vatican to this day: he’s the guy who brought Michelangelo to Rome.

** Leo’s coup deposed one Petrucci and raised up a different, more compliant Petrucci.

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1582: Philippe Strozzi, corsair

2 comments July 27th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1582, Philippe Strozzi, the Florentine-born commander of a French naval expedition against the Spanish was summarily executed as a pirate.

The Strozzi were long one of Florence’s wealthy and powerful families, as evidenced by, say, the Strozzi Palace, or the Strozzi coat of arms on Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo.

That made the Strozzi sometime-allies, sometime-rivals* of Florence’s more famous powerbrokers, the Medici. It is in both capacities that we meet Philippe (English Wikipedia entry | Italian | French).

To cut a centuries-long story short, the Strozzi had basically come out on the wrong side of the power struggle in the 16th century.

Philippe’s father, Piero Strozzi, was the child of a Strozzi-Medici union, and Piero too married a Medici. He also fought the Medici for power and ended up in exile whereupon he gravitated to the French court of … Catherine de’ Medici. (Catherine had been educated at the home of Philippe’s grandfather, Filippo Strozzi.) Catherine then turned around and used Piero as a French Marshal, including sending him to back Tuscan city-state Siena in opposition to its (and France’s) rival, Florence.**

Your basic tangled geopolitical-genealogical web.

Bottom line, Piero’s son Philippe was born in Florence but grew up Gallic, and fought in the French army all over the continent from the time he was a teenager.

When France got involved in the War of Portuguese Succession, they put this warlike fellow aboard a boat and sent him to dispute Spanish King Philip II‘s attempt to claim the Portuguese throne and unify the Iberian peninsula.

Strozzi’s armada got its clock cleaned at the naval Battle of Ponta Delgada near the Azores, with devastating loss of life.


The Spanish galleon San Mateo, which did yeoman service at this battle.

Since Spain and France were putatively at peace, Spain treated its captives not as prisoners of war but as pirates, and proceeded to execute several hundred in Vila Franca do Campo. Strozzi didn’t even get that much ceremony, however; the day after the battle, he was mortally stabbed, then tossed into the waves.

Happily, the name and the fame of the Strozzi outlived Spanish justice. In the next century, a distant relative by the handle of Barbara Strozzi became one of the most renowned composers of Baroque vocal music. (As befits wealthy Italians of the Renaissance, the Strozzi were big on the arts; Philippe was supposed to be a fine musician himself.)

* The Strozzi-Medici conflict frames the action in the play Lorenzaccio, in which the titular Brutus-like character mulls assassinating the Medici dictator in order to restore the Republic, only to find no such restoration in the offing once he actually does the deed; the father and grandfather of our day’s protagonists are both principal characters.

** That didn’t work. Strozzi was trounced at the Battle of Marciano, which signaled the permanent demise of the ancient city-state‘s independence.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,At Sea,Borderline "Executions",Drowned,Execution,France,History,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Piracy,Pirates,Portugal,Power,Put to the Sword,Soldiers,Spain,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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