One of the myths about pre-modern prisons is that they were places of temporary confinement in between judicial stages, or for debtors until they paid their dues, rather than places of punishment. But punitive incarceration for defined terms was also an element of the judicial process, and some crimes were punished with jail time, as today.
Ercole notes an important element of the prison in Florence, which is that the costs of feeding and maintaining a prisoner were borne by the prisoner, his family, his friends, and those Florentines who took pity on the imprisoned and donated food, clothing and money. As in other steps of the judicial process, the charitable participation of the public was a critical aspect of justice: as we say, there but for the grace of God go I, and Renaissance Florentines took such dicta to heart. One of the Seven Acts of Corporal Mercy, dictated by Jesus and followed by Catholics, is to visit the imprisoned or to ransom the captive; prison charity allowed Renaissance Italians to do both.
The central prison of Le Stinche, an Italian word for “shinbone” replaced, in the fourteenth century, a variety of decentralized prison institutions across the city, and was initially associated with the dominance of the Guelf faction of papal supporters over the Ghibelline imperialists in Florence. It served as a political prison, a debtor’s prison, and a judicial prison. While earlier prisons in Florence were initially privately operated, Le Stinche was communally organized and funded from its inception. Personnel were salaried by public funds, to ensure a reliable operation. The wardens and scribes of the prison served limited terms, though permanent minor staff like the chaplains gave a degree of stability to the prison’s daily life. Both the rotating and permanent staff probably profited by skimming from charitable donations and the fees paid by prisoners to improve their living standards.
Minor crimes such as blasphemy, gambling or drinking to excess in public could land you a stay in the Stinche, as could political crimes; within the prison’s walls, wealthy prisoners worked to recreate the hierarchies of the outside world, paying to live in better quarters and buying themselves a greater freedom of movement. Le Stinche thus became a Florence in miniature, confined behind imposing walls and cut off from the rest of the city, though prison charity and prisoners’ reliance on friends and family made those walls somewhat porous.
Incarceration served many roles, from temporary confinement to punitive sentencing, in Renaissance Florence. Ercole would have known both its staff and its prisoners well and would have delivered many Florentines and foreigners to its hospitality. Le Stinche is one more place of justice in a city where location always mattered – here on this quiet street, behind the Palazzo Vecchio, around the corner from the Bargello, and close to the majestic church of Santa Croce. Let’s head there now and see what Ercole has to say about football, that curious mix of violence and sport.
To cite this essay, we suggest:
Colin Rose, ‘Life in prison’ published online 2019, in ‘Hidden Florence’, The University of Exeter, https://hiddenflorence.org/stories/ercole-crime-and-punishment/ercole3_prison/
Guy Geltner, The Medieval Prison: A Social History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008. Pp. 122-170.
Nicholas Terpstra, “Confraternal Prison Charity and Political Consolidation in Sixteenth- Century Bologna.” The Journal of Modern History 66, no. 2 (1994): 217–48.
Marvin E. Wolfgang, “A Florentine Prison: Le Carceri Delle Stinche.” Studies in the Renaissance 7 (1960): 148–66. https://doi.org/10.2307/2857131.