Ercole only hints here at the elaborate rituals that accompanied the execution of criminals in Renaissance Florence. As he says, executions were public affairs, and the whole community was invited to witness the prisoner’s procession from prison to gallows and the execution itself. But they were also deeply private, intimate affairs, a chance for the condemned to make his or her final peace with God and with the society that condemned them.
It was the men of the comforting confraternities, such as Santa Maria del Croce al Tempio, that helped them accomplish that peace. These confraternities were made of elite men, members of government including Lorenzo the Magnificent, who visited the condemned on the eve of their death. They passed the night, in pairs, using a combination of scripture and gentle cajoling to make the prisoner accept the justice of the death sentence, approach the gallows with fortitude and the hope for divine mercy in the next life. They stayed with the prisoner until the very end, even climbing the gallows with them. Along the procession route, the two comforters flanked the prisoner, whispering comforting scripture in his ears and holding tavolette, small painted boards showing scenes of martyrdom and comfort, in front of the prisoner’s eyes to distract them from the noise of a jeering crowd.
Though their primary purpose was to ease the prisoner’s passage to heaven, they also worked to ensure a quiet execution: nothing delegitimizes a public execution like a prisoner protesting his innocence even as he climbs the gallows. The comforters were agents of state legitimacy as well as deeply charitable Christians. The work was exhausting for the men who took it on, and they took it very seriously: some comforters attended several executions a year. Through their work, the state judicial apparatus was upheld and the souls of the condemned were given over to the next life. These confraternities operated in cities across North and Central Italy from the fourteenth century onward.
The executions themselves were elaborately staged rituals designed to promote the justice of the state by connecting the punishment to the crime. Often, before heading out the Via dei Malcontenti to the gallows, prisoners would be processed in a cart to the scene or scenes of the crime, where they would be mutilated in symbolic atonement: a thief would have his hand cut off, a blasphemer would have their tongue removed. The community witnessed these atonements, and the injury done to the community would be healed by the spilling of blood. Public executions were not just spectacles of violence. They were deeply meaningful rituals by which justice made broken social contracts whole again.
The bodies of condemned criminals often performed one final service to their community: they became material for anatomy lessons delivered by the university medical schools, which built anatomy theatres in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. These theatres hosted dissections for students and the public throughout the year. In a chilling twist, we see spikes of executions in the late autumn and winter months, when a cadaver would stay fresh longer. Too many poor, rural young men were condemned as thieves to educate the medical profession in Renaissance Italy.
To cite this essay, we suggest:
Colin Rose, ‘Walking the last mile’ published online 2019, in ‘Hidden Florence’, The University of Exeter, https://hiddenflorence.org/stories/ercole-crime-and-punishment/ercole5_malcontenti/
Petrus Cornelis Spierenburg, Violence and Punishment : Civilizing the Body through Time. Malden, MA: Polity, 2013.
Nicholas Terpstra, ed., The Art of Executing Well : Rituals of Execution in Renaissance Italy. Kirksville, Mo.: Truman State University Press, 2008.
Nicholas Terpstra, “Confraternal Prison Charity and Political Consolidation in Sixteenth- Century Bologna.” The Journal of Modern History 66, no. 2 (June 1, 1994): 217–48.