Family feuds and spilt ink

Crime, Society and the Law in Renaissance Italy
September 8, 1995

Crime in Renaissance Italy has become a popular area of research over the two past decades with the publication of a series of studies of some of the major northern and central city-states. Self-consciously viewed as a successor to Violence and Civil Disorder in Italian Cities, 1200-1500 (1972), this book presents examples of some of these new approaches to the subject. This collection is refreshing because it attempts to eschew two of the great divides of Italian history: on the one hand the Campanalismo of Italian historiography, by presenting case studies of crime from the northern Venetian Terraferma down to the southern kingdom of Naples and Sicily, and on the other hand the divide between "late medieval" and "early modern". There has instead been a determined effort to seek out continuities rather than discontinuities.

One of the main themes that helps to bind together this quite disparate collection is the changing nature of the legal systems in Italy. Many authors detected a shift towards greater centralisation over the 15th century, which can be seen in, for example, Trevor Dean's piece on Bologna, Alan Ryder's on Sicily, and Andrea Zorzi's on Florence. Even if this may not seem a very surprising conclusion, it is a timely reminder that those processes frequently seen as more typical of the early modern period had already begun before 1500. It would have been useful to have included a piece on a princely state such as Milan, where the greater concentration of power at the centre began a good 50 years earlier than in the republican cities examined here. Another intriguing feature that remains to be considered properly would be the long-term influence of emergencies on the move towards a more centralised political and legal state. This was important not just in terms of revolts (as in Furio Bianco's study of Friuli), but also in terms of the public health structures that were established with a powerful judicial arm during outbreaks of plague and in some places, such as Venice, became a permanent magistracy with wide-ranging powers.

Another theme of this collection is enforcement, a problem that remained even with the creation of more centralised city-states. This can be seen particularly well on a day-by-day basis in the wide-ranging piece by Catherine Kovesi Killberby on sumptuary legislation, though she provides little idea of regional variations. But the difficulty remained for many states to control the more sporadic violence in the dependent territories, as Peter Laven shows graphically in his study of the mafiosi of the Venetian Terraferma and Furio Bianco for Friuli. If the source of many of these revolts was the rivalry between noble families in the countryside, some of the same problems underlay patrician duelling in Pistoia. In an intriguing piece, Donald Weinstein shows that during the 16th century this practice became less violent as the weapons changed gradually from rapiers to pens, in response at least in part to pressure from the new Tuscan state under the Medicean grand dukes.

The theme of power struggles at court itself is at the centre of Kate Lowe's analysis in one of the collection's most interesting pieces. She is concerned to understand the nature of conspiracy and shows through an examination of three "spurious" events at the papal court (1468, 1517 and 1523) how conspiracies could be used by successive popes as strategies to increase their control over court and patrimony. The papal court also figures largely in Paolo L. Rossi's lively examination of Benvenuto Cellini's criminal activities. In a subtle analysis and comparison of the Vita and surviving court records, Rossi manages to tease out the discrepancies between literary hyperbole and judicial "facts".

But even though Cellini travelled and worked outside central Italy he remained a Florentine and it is with crime in and around Florence that four of the 13 articles are concerned. These include three contributions by Italian scholars, whose work deserves to be more widely known. Andrea Zorzi outlines the changes in the Florentine judicial system from the 14th to the 15th centuries to one that was more centralised and repressive, leading to an increase in anonymous denunciations, a legal apparatus that, he argues, helps to explain the fall in assault cases and the growth in property crimes.

The centralising tendency is even more evident in granducal Tuscany, which Elena Fasano Guarini and Daniela Lombardi examine within the context of relations between the sexes. Guarini looks at Cosimo I's reform of the legal system, in particular in relation to a law passed in 1558 against sexual violence, in part a response to the case examined here, Vincenzo Gianfigliazzi's rape of a 13-year-old girl. Rape is also one of Lombardi's concerns in relation to a particularly interesting topic, the influence of the Council of Trent in transforming marriage from a social to an ecclesiastical process. These themes are placed in a wider context by Nicholas Davidsohn, whose survey article compares the attitudes of state and church to sex crimes throughout Italy. He underlines the difficulty of enforcement, even when reinforced by the growing moralistic attitudes of the Observants and later of the Counter-Reformation. It is indeed one of the achievements of the contributors that, because they draw on a wide variety of sources from literature to medical and legal treatises to legislative and judicial records, we get a more complete picture of the theory and reality of the judicial process in renaissance Italy than was possible 20 years ago.

John Henderson is senior research fellow, Wellcome unit for the history of medicine, University of Cambridge.

Crime, Society and the Law in Renaissance Italy

Editor - Trevor Dean and K. J. P. Lowe
ISBN - 0 521 41102 5
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 293

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