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Love and Death in Renaissance Italy

Love and Death in Renaissance Italy

by Thomas V. Cohen

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Gratuitous sex. Graphic violence. Lies, revenge, and murder. Before there was digital cable or reality television, there was Renaissance Italy and the courts in which Italian magistrates meted out justice to the vicious and the villainous, the scabrous and the scandalous. Love and Death in Renaissance Italy retells six piquant episodes from the Italian court


Gratuitous sex. Graphic violence. Lies, revenge, and murder. Before there was digital cable or reality television, there was Renaissance Italy and the courts in which Italian magistrates meted out justice to the vicious and the villainous, the scabrous and the scandalous. Love and Death in Renaissance Italy retells six piquant episodes from the Italian court just after 1550, as the Renaissance gave way to an era of Catholic reformation.

Each of the chapters in this history chronicles a domestic drama around which the lives of ordinary Romans are suddenly and violently altered. You might read the gruesome murder that opens the book—when an Italian noble takes revenge on his wife and her bastard lover as he catches them in delicto flagrante—as straight from the pages of Boccaccio. But this tale, like the other stories Cohen recalls here, is true, and its recounting in this scintillating work is based on assiduous research in court proceedings kept in the state archives in Rome.

Love and Death in Renaissance Italy contains stories of a forbidden love for an orphan nun, of brothers who cruelly exact a will from their dying teenage sister, and of a malicious papal prosecutor who not only rapes a band of sisters, but turns their shambling father into a pimp! Cohen retells each cruel episode with a blend of sly wit and warm sympathy and then wraps his tales in ruminations on their lessons, both for the history of their own time and for historians writing today. What results is a book at once poignant and painfully human as well as deliciously entertaining.

Editorial Reviews

Toronto Globe & Mail - Konrad Eisenbichler
". . . and so the book continues with stories that keep our attention pinned to the seamy underbelly of Roman society at the end of the Renaissance. Cohen's versatile and lively pen not only brings to life the complex characters that move the plot of these court-room narratives, but also invites us to ponder a variety of questions that rise from these stories."

Canadian Journal of History - Robin Ganev
"It is very moving to read about such powerful passions centuries after all the characters are long gone and would have been consigned to the dustbin of history had it not been for Cohen's patient reconstruction. . . . This is a remarkable book. In these days of ever increasing specialization and jargon, it is hard to find books that combine scholarly excellence with such lively, colourful writing. Love and Death in Renaissance Italy will bring pleasure to both specialists and general readers.”
Renaissance Quarterly - Mary S. K. Hewlett
"It is very rare to find a history book that you simply cannot put down, but the latest contribution to Italian social history from Thomas V. Cohen is just such a book. Set in and around Renaissance Rome, this work comprises a collection of six incredible microhistories of love (or more often lust), intrigue, betrayal, dirty old men, and death. . . . This book is a wonderful addition to the burgeoning world of Italian microhistory. It is a beautifully crafted work in which Cohen sets up his dramatic tales, then brings his wealth of knowledge and experience to the interpretation of the texts. The result is inspiring to scholars and provides students with an intriguing glimpse into the complex world of the Renaissance criminal court."
Southern Humanities Review - James P. Hammersmith
"These are Renaissance true crime stories, cleverly and entertainingly told, that give us a glimpse of the reality behind the stereotype we have long accepted. We may well respond, as contemporaries in English playhouses seem to have done, with a mixture of fascination and horror."
Sixteenth Century Journal - Christopher Carlsmith
"The work reflects an admirable combination of historical sleuthing, literary analysis, and creative imagination. . . . Yet each story offers much more than archival minutiae. Cohen writes with exuberance and style, utilizing flashbacks and other devices to build the tension while remaining true to the archival record. . . . We come away with an enhanced sense of the past and an appreciation for the importance of literary style happily married to historical research."
Journal of Modern History - Carole Collier Frick
"This is a generous and illuminating work of early modern historical scholarship that would also be useful to anyone teaching in the profession. . . . Cohen's prose is witty, colorful, and delightful to read."
author of The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France Natalie Zemon Davis
"Love and Death in Renaissance Italy offers sparkling tales of intimate life in sixteenth-century Rome. Cohen has given voice to the desire, anger, fears, and excuses of Romans as they testify before the governor's court, even while he reflects on and experiments with the historian's predicament in telling their story. This is a book of learning, humor, and insight."

author of The Scarith of Scornello Ingrid Rowland
"Rome's streets always seem to promise an infinite series of hidden histories. Here Thomas Cohen reveals six of these with gusto and compassion, reconstructed from Roman court records with a historian's eye for the telling detail, a novelist's flair, and an exuberance all his own."

author of Renaissance Florence Gene Brucker
"For the past two decades, Thomas Cohen and his wife have systematically explored the Roman judicial records of the second half of the sixteenth century. From these court proceedings and from ancillary sources they have gained a comprehensive understanding of the social and cultural world of the Eternal City and its rural hinterland. Cohen here has selected six cases out of the thousands to illustrate the tensions and conflicts within Roman families in these decades. His introduction succinctly describes the Roman legal system and his methodology in interpreting the evidence from court proceedings. These richly documented episodes reinforce received wisdom with respect to this 'honor and shame' culture; the prevalence and range of social networks as sources of support; the weakness of political structures; and the pervasiveness of lawlessness. But Cohen also develops novel perspectives and insights, for example, the ability of women to develop effective domestic strategies in this patriarchal society. These tales often raise more questions than they answer, but they do provide instructive glimpses into a world so vastly different from our own."

History Today - Liza Picard
"Turbulent, colorful, murderous, lyrical—the people who lived in Renaissance Italy were all of these. Is it possible to transport a modern reader back to their times, and see and hear—and even smell them? Thomas Cohen does just that for the ordinary people. . . . Cohen weaves absorbing tales out of the most unpromising material. Court records can be dry, and incomprehensible, even in English, now. He interprets Italian sixteenth-century records in the State Archives of Rome, including court records, and distills from them the human stories in his book. Their voices are clear, and untouched by any editorial amendment; but where we need it, Cohen gently interposes his summary of the conditions under which his characters lived. He gives just enough guidance, never a word too many. . . . . [The book] engages and deserves your full attention. Renaissance Italy will never be the same again for you."

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Love and Death in Renaissance Italy

By Thomas V. Cohen

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2004 University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-226-11258-6

Chapter One

Double Murder in Cretone Castle

On the last night of her life Vittoria Savelli wore an old shift. She lay in her bed, in her quirky little bedroom cut concave by the ballooning indoor wall of the old round tower of her husband's castle. Now, on the last night of his life, Troiano Savelli wore nothing at all. He lay in the same room and bed, atop Vittoria. One can only surmise what tenderness or elation mingled with the thrills of their sexual union. Alongside good feelings, there may have been as well a wary undertow of fear, for Troiano, despite his surname, was not Vittoria's husband. This then was adultery. That was already bad enough, but to make matters worse, the act took place inside the husband's house. To make things graver yet, Troiano was neither wholly noble nor even legitimate, for he had sprung of a union between the local lord and a peasant woman. But, worst of all, Vittoria and Troiano, in their bed, wallowed in incest, for Troiano, son of the husband's father, was his half-brother. None of this deterred the lovers from their reckless union.

Archival and published records tell us little about the three principals to this tale: lord, lady, and lover. There is an eighteenth-century history of the Savelli family, but it passes over Vittoria's husband, Giovanni Battista, one of the less illustrious Savelli to bear that traditional family name. He and Vittoria do figure in modern genealogies, and they have left a few notarial footprints, most notably a record of their marriage. The events of July 1563 recounted here may have also left their traces in the weekly avvisi, newsletters mailed out from Rome; it is hard to say, for the Vatican collection has a month-long, midsummer lacuna. We know the following. The cuckold, Giovanni Battista, as a Savelli belonged to one of the few surviving great baronial families of the Papal State. In 1563, the Savelli had three main branches, each with its ancestral lands. To the north were the Savelli of the Sabine foothills and, across the Tiber, around the lonely stump of Monte Soratte. To the south, below Rome, were those of the Alban hills. Giovanni Battista belonged to the Palombara branch, in the middle. They held castles, fiefs, and lands at the foot of Monte Gennaro, east of Rome, north of Tivoli. It was pretty country, a rolling hill zone of orchards, vineyards, and grain. There were also Savelli palaces in Rome, hereditary military offices in the Papal State, and ancestral rights to the revenues of the pope's main urban court and jails. Although the Savelli were doomed to eclipse in the early seventeenth century, when their ancestral holdings fell to newly noble members of ascending curial elites, in the 1560s they still mattered; they even had a cardinal. Our Giovanni Battista, however, was no magnate. He had a single fief and petty castle, at Cretone, a tiny village in the shadow of Monte Gennaro, just down the hill from the main stronghold of the local Savelli branch, Palombara, a conical hilltop village with massive fortress and soaring medieval tower, perched a few miles to the east.

Unlike the usual cuckolds of Boccaccio and other novellisti, Giovanni Battista was no doddering graybeard. In the summer of 1563, he was just past youth, between twenty-two and twenty-six years of age. For a Renaissance Italian man, he had married young, four years back. A notarial document of 19 March 1559 records how his bride and he pledged their faith and notes their exchange of rings. It preserves the futile invocation: "What God has put together let no man sunder." As for Vittoria, she was a distant cousin, daughter to Antonello Savelli, of the Albano branch. We know neither her age nor her dowry, though the generous 12,000 scudi Giovanni Battista dowered his sister Hieronima (2,000 of it trousseau and spending money) suggests its measure. But whatever money Vittoria brought with her did not suffice to float the payments to Hieronima's in-laws, the noble Massimi. Although he farmed out a portion of his Cretone lands to jobbers, Giovanni Battista fell into arrears. His in-laws collected interest in the usual way until at last he coughed up back payments.

Giovanni Battista's castle, as castles went, was modest. For a lord, he kept a small household: a page, two servants, a head maid/governess, and four maids to dress and serve his wife. If there were others, they do not turn up in the stories we are told. His village, too, was a mean affair. By 1563, Cretone was in steep decline; in subsequent years, it shriveled to a hamlet and then almost melted away. Indeed, by the end of the nineteenth century, many inhabitants had carved modest apartments out of the castle itself. Nevertheless, the town survived; Cretone today still feels like a place of substance. It has its hillside piazza with a fine view, its clubs of fans for the two Roman soccer teams, its cafe with tables where the men play cards. The castle itself, newly restored, still raises its shoulders, now freshly stuccoed, above the jumble of slipshod rural houses at its skirts. So far as I can tell, nobody remembers what happened to the lovers.

The story of Troiano and Vittoria's intrigue is hard to reconstruct. By the time the inquisitive magistrates arrived on the scene, the pair were in no state to give their version. The serving women, many of whom did speak to the court, probably knew a lot but had good reason to play dumb, for the more they confessed to knowing, the better they demonstrated their infidelity to their lord and master, Giovanni Battista. Nevertheless, hints slipped by villagers and servants make clear that July's passion was no sudden thing. The lovers had long cozied in the public eye. As far back as Christmas, one villager, husband of Troiano's peasant half sister, Gentilesca, had seen such hints of dalliance that he warned the young man to watch his step.

Mario, my husband, told this Signor Troiano in my presence several times, and in particular last Christmas, that he had noticed certain acts and joking that he [Troiano] was doing with Signora Vittoria, and then he warned him, telling him that he should be careful not to fall into something with the Signora that was not right. And Troiano took it ill that he should say such words to him, and since then I do not believe he has come into our house more than two or three times.

This warning, clearly, did little good. By then, or not long after, the lovers had found their way into a common bed; Diamante, one of Vittoria's young attendants, had, she reported, known of the affair since Christmas. The older women, she claimed, had told her. The affair was also common knowledge in the village.

The Layout of the Castle

Though close-quarters trysts are never easy, Cretone's architecture lent the lovers a hand. For Vittoria's room stood at the end of the castle's piano nobile, at its northwest point. Part of the westward sixteenth-century annex, it was beyond the sturdy old round tower that once had reinforced the corner of the original castle nucleus. The Renaissance addition, swallowing up half the tower, had afforded the piano nobile three new rooms, the smallest being hers. Below Vittoria were two floors of vaulted storerooms, on ground level and lower, and, above her, just a gently sloping roof. The older, taller part of the castle had a small mezzanine-on the north side only-with access to the tower stairs and, above that, an attic that ran its length and breadth.

These details mattered to the lovers, for castle geometry connived at their perilous trysts. At first glance, for adultery, Vittoria's room was an awkward rendezvous. It had only a single door, opening onto the chamber with the two beds where slept four maidservants (damigelle) -the two sisters Diamante and Temperanza, Attilia, and Ottavia-and also the senior female servant (massara), Silea, an old widow who served Vittoria's daughter as governess. The antechamber where the servants slept had two other doors. One led east, toward the main stairway and the sala, the great eastern hall with its noble frieze of swirling acanthus garlands, its carved beams, its splendid mantelpiece, and its fine Renaissance windows, with their sweeping view of fields, orchards, and the wooded slopes of Monte Gennaro. It was there that Troiano usually slept.

The second door of the servants' room opened southward to the husband's bedroom in the southwest corner, where Giovanni Battista slept, at least these days, while his wife-she had told him-was a bit sick. The master had a well-lit chamber. One window looked out over a small walled garden, on the sunny south side; the other, westerly, overlooked one of Cretone's streets. All these details matter for our story. The servant women, by virtue of their location between master and mistress, should have been privy to all traffic in and out of Vittoria's room and, most likely, to her every passage from her bed to her husband's. How, then, had Troiano come undetected into Vittoria's room, bed, and arms?

The lover had come by air. More precisely, he had come dangling, on cloth bands anchored by a bolt affixed to a higher window; Vittoria had helped him clamber in. The tower clinched the trick. Its narrow twisting stairway spiraled to the castle's top, lit by little windows some fourteen inches wide, just big enough to wriggle out if one were lithe and nimble. The topmost window of the tower opened just south of westward, over the annex's gentle roof. From there, Troiano, strips in hand, could work his way to the north face and lower himself to Vittoria's chamber. The castle's principal stairway, far more commodious and better lit, was farther east. It rose in steady, ample flights from the only external doorway, in the north façade, just to the east of middle. On his midnight forays, Troiano most likely used to creep from his bed in the sala, climb the main stairs to the mezzanine, tiptoe softly across to the tower and its obscure stairway to nowhere, and affix his climbing rig to the topmost window.

That then was how Troiano made his final tryst, as he had at least once before and probably far more often. As Bandello wrote, in one of his novelle that, as often, ends in tragedy, when the way is blocked, love is ingenious. It borrows eyes from Argus. But, as in that novella, so in Cretone on 26 July 1563, ingenuity fell short, for suddenly, in the midst of sex, the bedroom door crashed open, and there, in the flickering glare of a page's torch, stood the husband. Giovanni Battista strode in, a dagger in his hand. With him came a second servant, also armed. At their backs, in alarm and horror, the serving women gathered. What happened next was swift and ghastly.

But wait! First, watch the lord build and spring his trap.

Setting and Springing the Trap

All the moves and devices that conspired to doom the lovers involved the castle's males. As in many households, serving women and men wove separate networks and alliances. Male servants looked to their master, females to their mistress. In Cretone, for seven months, female solidarity of some kind had kept Vittoria's intrigue a secret. How much of this discretion connived and how much cowered is hard to say. After the fact, when the court came through, the serving women strove to shuck off complicity. They therefore cited fear. Young Diamante told the visiting magistrate that, once the maids had caught scent of the affair, they had-oh yes!-wanted to tell their master. "We wanted to tell the signore, but the signora threatened us, saying she would hit us, so we were afraid." An unlikely story. Tattling would surely have heaped catastrophe on the patroness. What master's reward could make good the loss of a mistress's protection and employment and offset the opprobrium, largely female, that would befall the woman who betrayed her?

The male servants, on the other hand, owed their mistress little. They were the lord's, and served his interests. There were several on the scene. One was Giacobo, born Jacques, a Frenchman and thus an outsider; he was something of a gossip. Another, Stefano, had married a village woman. He was by birth a local, for his father's name traced to Nerola, a few miles away. A third, Domenico, as a page was probably too young to marry. All three men helped lay the lovers' trap.

There had been hints in plenty: cozy embraces, perhaps fraternal, perhaps less innocent. Giacobo claimed afterward to have had his doubts. But it was page Domenico who played spy. At his master's orders, the maid Silea told the court, he had kept an eye on the pair; they seemed too familiar for the husband's comfort. One night, we know not when, while lying in his trundle cot below the master's bed, the page saw Vittoria pass through the hall, heading for the sala. He then went there himself and touched the bedclothes on Troiano's bed. According to the story (we have it via Giacobo, who, before he fled, told the village headman, Loreto), when Troiano felt Domenico's hand on the bed, he protested, "What are you doing? Don't you see that it is my cape?" The page then returned to his master's room. We do not know whether he reported at once on what he had found, but we doubt he long stayed silent.

It may have been Domenico's spying that persuaded the lovers to resort to Vittoria's bedroom. We cannot tell how often Troiano scrambled down the roof tiles. Nor do we know how much the serving women knew about the trick. It would have been hard not to catch wind of what went on in Vittoria's room. Even if the lovers were discreetly quiet, it was strange of the mistress to ask to sleep not with servants but alone. This was not the normal way a lady spent the night. She claimed to be indisposed, they reported, perhaps truthfully, and she shut the door. Eventually, Domenico ferreted out Troiano's window trick. It was Sunday evening, 25 July. Perhaps the heat made Giovanni Battista thirsty. The lord was dressed for bed, most likely in his chamber. He sent his page over to the sala to fetch a little jug of water. A light in the great hall revealed Troiano's empty bed. Suspicious already, Domenico went snooping. The tower stairs had a doorway near the entrance to the maids' bedroom. Hearing a noise above, the page crept up the narrow, winding steps until he saw the bastard at the topmost window affixing his bar and bands of cloth. Domenico slipped down to alert his master. From Silea, the head serving woman, we hear what happened next.

And the signore rose in his shift and went to the door of the room and he said that he saw them, but, because he was not armed and was alone, he was afraid and did not want to do anything. And he also said to me, "Let them enjoy this night, for another evening will go another way."

Contemplate Silea's quandary. She had two bonds, one to her mistress, the other to her master. Whatever she did, she would betray one of them.


Excerpted from Love and Death in Renaissance Italy by Thomas V. Cohen Copyright © 2004 by University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Thomas V. Cohen is professor of history at York University. He is coauthor, with his wife Elizabeth Cohen, of Words and Deeds in Renaissance Rome: Trials before the Papal Magistrate and Daily Life in Renaissance Italy.

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