The Art of Executing Well: Rituals of Execution in Renaissance Italy

Nicholas Terpstra, ed.


In Renaissance Italy a good execution was both public and peaceful—at least in the eyes of authorities. (EMS 1)

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Early Modern Studies, Vol. 1

In Renaissance Italy a good execution was both public and peaceful—at least in the eyes of authorities. In a feature unique to Italy, the people who prepared a condemned man or woman spiritually and psychologically for execution were not priests or friars, but laymen. This volume includes some of the songs, stories, poems, and images that they used, together with first-person accounts and ballads describing particular executions. Leading scholars expand on these accounts with articles explaining particular aspects of the theater, psychology, and politics of execution.

The main text is a manual, translated in English for the first time, on how to comfort a man in his last hours before beheading or hanging. It became an influential text used across Renaissance Italy. A second lengthy piece gives an eyewitness account of the final hours of two patrician Florentines executed for conspiracy against the Medici in 1512. Shorter pieces include poems written by prisoners on the eve of their execution, songs sung by the condemned and their comforters, and popular broadsheets reporting on particular executions. It is richly illustrated with the small panel paintings that were thrust into prisoners’ faces to distract them as they made the public journey to the gallows.

Six interdisciplinary essays explain the contexts and meanings of these writings and of execution rituals generally. They explore the relation of execution rituals to late medieval street theater, the use of art to comfort the condemned, the literature that issued from prisons by the hand of condemned  prisoners, the theological issues around public executions in the Renaissance, the psychological dimensions of the comforting process, and some of the social, political, and historical dimensions of executions and comforting in Renaissance Italy.

The Art of Executing Well offers a disturbing picture of what went on behind the scenes at executions in Renaissance Italy. Companies of patrician laymen consoled the condemned during the dark night before an execution, whispered prayers into his ear as he marched through the streets on the way to the scaffold, and stood by him right up to the moment of death. Only in Italy did “companies of death” offer professionals, merchants, and political leaders an intimate experience with the horrors of judicial executions. This fascinating volume, which conveys all the psychological and spiritual intensity of these dramatic personal encounters between the condemned and the political figures who supported capital punishment, suggests why, long before other Europeans Italian elites became skeptical of the benefits of judicial executions, Tuscany was the first European state to abolish capital punishment.

—Edward Muir



Scaffold and Stage: Comforting Rituals and Dramatic Traditions in Late Medieval and Renaissance Italy.....Kathleen Falvey
Comforting with Song: Using Laude to Assist Condemned Prisoners.....Pamela Gravestock
Mirror of a Condemned: The Religious Poems of Andrea Viarani.....Alfredo Troiano
In Your Face: Paintings for the Condemned in Renaissance Italy.....Massimo Ferretti
Consolation or Condemnation: The Debates on Withholding Sacraments from Prisoners.....Adriano Prosperi
Theory into Practice: Executions, Comforting, and Comforters in Renaissance Italy.....Nicholas Terpstra

Contemporary Texts
The Bologna Comforters’ Manual
Comforting by the Books: Editorial Notes on the Bologna
Comforters’ Manual.....Nicholas Terpstra

Book 1.....trans. Sheila Das
Book 2.....trans. Sheila Das
Book 3: Laude and Prayers.....trans. Sheila Das and Nicholas Terpstra
Book 4: Authorities.....Nicholas Terpstra
Luca della Robbia’s Narrative on the Execution of Pietro Paolo Boscoli and Agostino Capponi.....Alison Knowles Frazier
Public Execution in Popular Verse: The Poems of Giulio Cesare Croce.....Meryl Bailey


Nicholas Terpstra, professor of history at the University of Toronto, is a historian of early modern social history in Italy whose work has focused on the intersection of religion and politics, and particularly confraternities, charitable institutions, and the networks of care available to marginal populations. He has written many articles and is the author of Abandoned Children of the Italian Renaissance: Orphan Care in Florence and Bologna (2005) and Lay Confraternities and Civic Religion in Renaissance Bologna (1995), which was awarded the Howard Marraro Prize of the Society for Italian Historical Studies.


This multiplicity of perspectives—condemned prisoners, comforters, public spectators, and scholars of various disciplines—makes this book deeply interesting and an important contribution to studies of ritual, piety, and society in Renaissance Italy.

Sixteenth Century Journal

This excellent book quite belies the very series title under which it was published. Indeed, the included essays regarding the elaborate rituals by which criminals were put to death in Italy from the fourteenth through the eighteenth centuries, and especially the contemporaneous manuals instructing volunteer laybrothers in how to comfort the condemned and convince them to accept and even appreciate their fate, indicate remarkably just how medieval still were the judicial systems of that so-called age of cultural enlightenment.

Catholic Historical Review

[Terpstra] has identified and brought important primary texts to a wider audience. The volume will hopefully spur more scholars to study how public executions shaped Italian religious life and perhaps changed early modern attitudes toward crime and punishment.

Renaissance Quarterly

There was an art to it, born of tradition and compassion. The act of execution in Renaissance Italy was not purely to punish the prisoner and entertain the public but also to affirm religious and social concepts that comforted some and warned others. Based upon an extended period of research, particularly of a rediscovered manuscript on the Beinecke collection of Yale U., this collection of essays reflects the political, religious and social complexity of execution. The contributors detail the comforting (and disturbing) rituals associated with executions and dramatic traditions, the uses of sacred song or other forms of worship to assist the condemned, the commercialization of executions through the sale of printed broadsheets and other products, and the works of artists and writers to preserve memories of the condemned and their acts.

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