Torture in Renaissance Italy was highly legalistic, and integrated into the judicial process at several steps. As Ercole notes, it was used not only on suspected criminals, but also on their accusers, and sometimes on witnesses in investigations who were cagey with their information. There were strict rules around its use, which judges frequently found loopholes around. For instance, it was never supposed to draw blood – hence, as Ercole mentions, applying fire to the bottom of the feet. Nor was it meant to debilitate people permanently.

Despite what you’ll see in the “torture museums” in many Italian cities – Siena has one, San Gimignano has one, Volterra has one, Lucca has one, Montepulciano has one – most judicial torture did not involve elaborate instruments like the Heretic’s Fork or the Iron Maiden. Rather, Italian judges relied on the fune, or the strappado. This was a rope swung over a pulley, which was used to bind the prisoner’s wrists behind their back. When they were lifted off the ground, their arms were stretched out behind them; when they were given a sharp drop and caught before they landed, their shoulders dislocated. This caused extreme pain and severe bruising and swelling, but no permanent damage.

As Ercole says, the purpose of torture was not punishment but to ensure truthfulness. There was among judges some deep discomfort with this idea, as their experience with torture made it clear to them that people would say almost anything under such extreme pressure, or might be unable to say anything at all. Thanks to the hard work of Italian notaries, we have transcripts of torture sessions consisting of pages upon pages of agonized screams with no responses to the patient questioning of judges. Those who tortured frequently generally became aware that, for the purpose of finding the truth, torture simply didn’t work – and, over the seventeenth century, it became more and more rare to use torture on anyone but recalcitrant suspects who, in the face of damning evidence, still refused to confess.

Because it was legally regulated, torture also had its limits, and ordinary people had a surprising degree of legal literacy about when they could and could not be tortured. Some men arrived at their interrogations with doctor’s notes exempting them from torture because of their bad backs; women protested pregnancy to avoid the strappado; prisoners argued that, having been tortured the previous week, they could not be tortured again until next week. Though they did not always strictly abide by these rules, judges were aware of them and largely followed the guidelines, finding loopholes when they could.

Violence remained integrated into the judicial system well beyond the sixteenth century, though it dwindled more and more. Ercole himself probably smashed a few arms in the course of arrests over the years, and he has no compunction about delivering first-time thieves to the Bargello for torture. After torture and before execution, a prisoner would find himself confined in the central prison for a period of time – let’s follow Ercole there.

Colin Rose

The spaces discussed by Ercole are now occupied by the Bargello museum.


To cite this essay, we suggest:
Colin Rose, ‘Torture and truth-telling’ published online 2019, in ‘Hidden Florence’, The University of Exeter,

Further reading:

Sara Beam, “The Rites of Torture in Reformation Geneva.” Past & Present 214, no. Supplement (2012): 197–219.

Guy Geltner, Flogging Others: Corporal Punishment and Cultural Identity from Antiquity to the Present. Amsterdam : Amsterdam University Press, 2014.

Joanna Carraway Vitiello, Public Justice and the Criminal Trial in Late Medieval Italy: Reggio Emilia in the Visconti Age. Chapter Four. Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2016.