1469: Andrea Viarani

1 comment August 12th, 2020 Headsman

The August 12, 1469 beheading of a Ferrara nobleman named Andrea Viarani is the subject of a chapter in the very fine volume The Art of Executing Well: Rituals of Execution in Renaissance Italy.

This scholarly tome explores via six chapters with different authors and several translated texts the spiritual and ritual experience of execution, particularly as mediated by confraternities of lay comforters who worked to steady the condemned for their ordeal and — as they prayed — their salvation.

Notably, The Art of Executing Well favors the reader with a 100-page translation of a Bolognese Comforters’ Manual and its associated hymnal. This resource was used by the Compagnia di Santa Maria della Morte to train its brethren for their weighty task of counseling the doomed.

This manual is, in the first place, a philosophical text for the counselor — to get his mind right, fully versed in Church doctrine concerning the afterlife and approaching his somber task full of contrition, humility, and piety.

Those doing this work must put their heart in it and act only out of love for God, and also out of charity for and the salvation of the neighbor. And they must make a great effort to do this, otherwise it would be displeasing to God. And take note that it will not gain you anything for eternal life if it is done for any vain reasons: any aspect of glory or mundane pomp, or to be held in high esteem by the people of this world, or to avoid disrespect of your fellow man, or for any worldly gain, or to be on everyone’s lips, or to be praised, or to be able to learn the secrets or the deeds of those people, or out of revenge, or out of ill will, or for faction, or for reward. But you should only do it out of reverence for God and to observe his commandment.

And in the second place, it’s a practical handbook for navigating the many reactions and considerations that people in their last hours might have, as part of guiding the sufferer towards reconciliation with God. “You must not tire of speaking” to those who wish to listen and pray with you, but also bring several enumerated volumes for those who prefer to read; in many other cases, “you will find those who do not willingly accept their death and for whom it is a very big thing” and who must be guided empathetically when their thoughts are preoccupied by concern for their family, or by writing their will, or by their raw resistance to death. At times the guidance reads strikingly modern; set aside the figure of the executioner and words like these would not be amiss to aid you or I in a 21st century personal crisis:

There are those whom you will find hard-hearted in the beginning and who do not want to hear anything you say … Be very careful not to unsettle him with words or harshness. Because sometimes those who are so hardened and miserable may react quite violently against one word they don’t like, with the result that you risk never being able to say anything that they do like, and this leads to worse. And if you see that in spite of your words he doesn’t wish to repent and remains hard-hearted, let it be and say nothing to him. Rather, let him say what he wants. And then tell some appropriate story or some example to your companion [i.e., a brother emissary from the confraternity -ed.] or with whoever is around, and tell in such a way that he who is to die hears you. And when his anger subsides and he is just there not doing anything, then go and put your hand on his back and ever so gently reprove him for his folly and place him on the proper road.

We’ve previously seen in these annals an example of lay brother and condemned prisoner working together to ready a soul for the block, in the person of Niccolo Machiavelli associate Pietro Boscoli, who was involved in (or perhaps merely adjacent to) an anti-Medici plot.

That’s not dissimilar from the situation of our day’s principal. Andrea Viarani came from a cultured noble family numbering diplomats, doctors, and astrologers among its ranks — and he came to his grief by his involvement in a conspiracy against the local tyrant, Borso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara.*

Not much is really known about this man’s life, but he comes alive in Alfredo Troiano’s examination of three poems that the man wrote while awaiting execution. These poems later made their way to Bologna, where the aforementioned Compagnia di Santa Maria della Morte incorporated them into its own corpus and for Troiano, that’s no coincidence: they exhort the reader to attitudes characteristic of confraternities, revealing the unrecorded exertions these lay brethren must have made in Viarani’s cell.

If the blind, false, and treasonous world,
full of injustice, betrayal, and deception
has held you many years
far from your Maker and the Supreme Good,

Shows now both the shadowy and the fleeting nature
of hoping for vain pleasures, which
that foolish desire inclines towards
never thinking of its true salvation:

Now that heaven has given you much grace
and you are brought back to the point,
Andrea, that God has made you
repentant of the wrong committed.

Lift your mind to God, move your hard heart
and do not be so obstinate with him
but with devout tears,
repentant of having erred, ask for forgiveness.

Ah! Don’t wish to abandon your soul,
being diffident of eternal grace,
for it never is tired of gathering
he who, repentant, so asks.

This sirvente runs to 35 stanzas, and the translation is original to The Art of Executing Well where the reader may peruse it at length; Viarani also wrote two sonnets, one addressed to the Eternal Father and the other the Eternal Queen (that is, to God and to the Virgin Mary), which also appear in that book.

* The son of Niccolo d’Este, a name distinguished in execution annals by meting that fate out to his young wife and his son for their shocking affair. (The lovers weren’t kin themselves.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Ferrara,History,Italy,Nobility,Power,Public Executions,Treason

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