The Papal States were a collection of territories in central Italy ruled directly by the Roman pontiff. Established by a grant of King Pepin the Short of France in 754, the Papal States existed to provide the popes with a degree of independence from temporal authorities who were always seeking to dominate the Church. Until their dissolution in 1870, the Papal States were governed by the pope acting as a temporal sovereign. In his capacity as sovereign of the Papal States, the popes undertook the burdens of civil administration as would any other king or noble. This included application of the death penalty when it was merited.
In this essay, we shall explore the application of the death penalty in the Papal States, focusing on the last three centuries of their existence.
What sorts of crimes were punishable by death in the Papal States?
While the death penalty could be inflicted for obstinate heresy (as was the case in the rest of Europe), it was generally reserved for actions considered criminal under civil law. For example, during the Jubilee Year of 1500 under the pontificate of Alexander VI, a hospital orderly in Rome had conspired with a band of brigands to rob sick pilgrims who had come to the papal hospital for recuperation; some of these they even murdered. When the plot was uncovered, the orderly along with seventeen accomplices were publicly executed in Rome.
The rolls of executions for the 19th century (the best documented period) are full of entries for robbery, murder, and larceny. A certain Giacomo dell’Ascensione was hanged in 1797 for “smashing many shops.” This Giacomo was the first execution carried out in Rome by the renowned papal executioner, Giovanni Battista Bugatti. In his memoirs, Bugatti wrote of Giacomo:
The seventh day of August 1797 was one of the highlights in my life and long career. I had the honor of performing my duties for the first time in Rome, in the Piazza del Popolo, in the presence of the most exalted magistrates, ecclesiastics, eminent figures of the Papal Court, ambassadors, ministers, patricians and ladies of the most high lineage, hanging Giacomo Dell’Ascensione. He was a very dangerous shop burglar, who, by dedicating himself to this dangerous profession, had always managed to escape the investigations of punitive justice and lead a cheerful, joyful, very happy life. But by and by he ended up falling into a trap artfully set for him. Caught almost red-handed, he initially tried to resist, but then he wised up and submitted to arrest and was taken to prison, where he confessed to all his crimes. Being condemned, he didn’t want to suffer an apology. He said that his crimes were not punishable by death, that the sentence was an abomination. And it took some time to get him secure in the cart, As I was about to get him up the ladder, he gave me so terrible a push that he almost made me falter. But this rude trait embittered me and without further ado, I put the rope around his neck, I sent him to the other world, where he has taken his complaints against the justice of Rome. (1)
Occasionally malefactors were put to death for treason. One Enrico Trivelli was executed by beheading in 1737 for encouraging sedition against Pope Clement XII. A certain Prospero Ciolli was beheaded by guilltoine for treason in 1832. Even scheming cardinals were not exempt: in the 16th century, Cardinal Alfonso Petrucci, Cardinal-Deacon of San Teodoro, was implicated in a plot to kill Pope Leo X in retribution for a humiliation imposed upon the cardinal’s brother, Borghese Petrucci, governor of Siena. Cardinal Petrucci was discovered and executed by strangulation and beheading at Castel Sant’Angelo on July 16, 1517.
Common criminals who were captured in flagrante (in the act of committing the crime) could be sentenced to death by discretionary judgment of a magistrate or tribunal. In crimes with mutliple accomplices, torture could be applied in order to extract information or discover co-conspirators (see “Torture: Historical and Ethical Perspectives” for a detailed study on how judicial torture was viewed in Christendom). Then as today, accomplices might receive papal immunity in exchange for turning against their associates. In such cases, an accused was promised immunity from punishment if they divulged their co-conspirators. The accused might also bargain to avoid a formal sentence in exchange for a self-imposed exile or house arrest. In such cases, the papal authorities received information needed to prosecute higher value targets for capital crimes, while accomplices avoided the public embarassment to their families that came from a formal sentence.
We know that, at least from the 17th century, the law dictated that criminals who were accused of capital crimes but not caught in flagrante could not be executed unless they confessed their guilt. This was meant to remove any doubt as to the accused’s culpability. This law became an issue in the famous case of Gironima Spana in 1659. Spana was a dealer in the deadly poison Aqua Tofana, used by Roman women in unhappy marriages to kill their husbands. Spana consistently refused to admit her guilt, despite the overwhelming material evidence and witnesses arrayed against her. So long as she had not confessed, she could not be executed. It was not until six months of imprisonment when, faced with multiple incriminating statements from her former clients, she signed a long confession, admitting sardonically that “I’ve given this liquid to more people than I have hairs on my head.” (2) Spana and four acquaintances were executed at the Campo de’ Fiori in Rome on July 6, 1659.
The condemned were provided with a priest to make a confession and receive sacramental absolution, both during confinement as well as to attend them at the moment of death. Priests might also be employed to speak with the accused to try to gain confessions from them, as was done in the case of Gironima Spana mentioned above.
Execution: Locations and Methods
Executions would typically be carried out in the square of the city that had jurisdiction over the crime. The Bolognese condottiero Astorre Manfredi was executed in the city square of Bologna in 1405 for planning to detach the town of Faenza from papal control. Within Rome, three sites were preferred for execution:
• The Ponte Sant’Angelo, the bridge that leads to Castel Sant’Angelo. This bridge was also used for displaying the severed heads of condemned criminals; it is said that Pope Sixtus V’s crackdown on crime in 1585 saw “more severed heads on the Castel Sant’Angelo bridge than melons in the markets.” (3)
• The Piazza del Popolo, the circular piazza inside the Aurelian Walls which today is distinguished by the obselisk of Rameses II from Heliopolis. It was here that Giovanni Bugatti hanged the criminal Giacomo Dell’Ascensione, as narrated above.
• Along the Via dei Cerchi, a road which runs along the northern edge of the old Circux Maximus by the Piazza Bocca della Verità.
Prior to the French occupation, the most common forms of execution were hanging and beheading by axe; strangulation could be employed for criminals of noble or ecclesiastical rank. Burning at the stake was also reserved for certain cases, although this does not appear to have been used after the 1600s. We also see occasional recourse to hanging, drawing, and quartering for crimes considred especially heinous, typically meaning fratricide or crimes against clerics or the Church. One Giovanni Batta Genovesi was hanged, drawn, and quartered in 1800 for stealing ciboria from churches; after death, his body was burned and his decapitated head displayed from the Arco dei Banchi. The bandit named Nicola Gentilucci was hanged, drawn, and quartered in Foligno 1796 for killing a priest and robbing friars. (4) The last quartering reported in the Papal States was of Leonardo Narducci, put to death in Viterbo on October 26, 1820, though the record is vague as to the details of his crime, saying only that he was punished “for murders and robberies.” Criminals were quartered in the French style, using horses to tear their limbs apart. This was often done after death as a form of humiliation, but could be inflicted while alive as well.
One unique form of death inflicted in the Papal States was the mazzatello, used from the late 16th century until 1816. Death by mazzatello consisted in striking the prisoner in the skull with a large mallet. The condemned would kneel on a scaffold, accompanied by a priest. The scaffold also contained a coffin and the masked executioner, dressed in black or red. After a prayer for the soul of the condemned, the mallet would be raised, swung wide through the air to build momentum, then smashed into the head of the prisoner. As the victim was rarely killed on the first blow, his throat would then be slit. (5) The mazzatello was reserved for crimes considered especially loathsome. It was used until 1816, by which time it was replaced by a more refined manner of killing.
In 1810 the French introduced the guillotine, which executioner Bugatti referred to as “the new edifice for beheading from the French government.” (6)The guillotine was used until the end of the Papal States. Two papal guillotines used in 19th century beheadings still exist today, preserved on the first floor of Rome’s Criminology Museum. (7)
Bugatti, “Mastro Titta“
The best attested executions of the Papal States were those carried out between 1796 and 1864 during the tenure of Giovanni Battista Bugatti, Rome’s longest-serving executioner. Bugatti was an umbrella painter who worked part time as maestro di giustizia (“Master of Justice”) and was known as “Mastro Titta,” a corruption of his official title. Bugatti kept detailed records of his work, recording every execution, its location, the crimes of the victim, the method of death, and anything else of note. Bugatti records that he personally executed 514 people (whom he called “patients”) during his 68 year tenure. His memoirs are out prime source of information for executions within the Papal States during the 19th century.
Bugatti was a married man (but childless) who was a regular Mass attendee at Santa Maria in Transpontina. As he lived on the west side of the Tiber, his crossing over to the east side was a sign that an execution was imminent, and his passing would attract crowds eager to watch the spectacle. According to legend, fathers would slap their sons’ heads as Mastro Titto’s axe or mallet came crashing down, as if to say, “Be good, or this could be you.” Another legend is that witnesses would take bets on how long it would take for a decapitated head to drop into the basket, whether it would spin, how many times, how much blood would spurt from the corpse, and so on. (8)
Bugatti referred to his executions as “justices.” For each justice he was paid a meager stipend of three lira (though he received many perks for his work, such as tax concessions, and free food and logding from the generous citizens of Rome). When he retired in 1864, he was granted a pension of 30 scudi per month by Bl. Pius IX, worth about $563 per month in 2023 dollars. (9) Bugatti died in June of 1869 at the ripe age of 90, only fifteen months before the Papal States fell to the Kingdom of Italy.
Relevance to Contemporary Discussions on Capital Punishment
The popes’ administrative acts in the governance of the Papal States were not in any sense acts of the Church and possess no magisterial authority, whether by example or application. Still, they are not irrelevant to contemporary discussions about capital punishment, as the popes viewed their administration of the Papal States as an exemplification of the principles of the Gospel—in other words, a template for what Catholic government should look like. Pope Pius IX, in his 1870 encyclical Respicientes protesting the seizure of Rome and the Papal States by the Piedmontese, invoking a similar declaration of Pius VII from the Napoleonic occupation, stated:
We judged that there was far less right for Us to give up so ancient and sacred an inheritance (namely the temporal power of this Holy See, held by the Roman Pontiffs for many centuries). Nor could We tacitly consent that someone occupy Our City and destroy its holy form of government, bequeathed by Jesus Christ to His Church and ordered according to the sacred canons which were inspired by the Holy Spirit. (9)
Pius IX here affirms the temporal government of the popes to be a “holy form of government” that based on principles derived from Church’s sacred canons “which were inspired by the Holy Spirit.” Pius of course does not mean that the individual acts of government are inspired by the Holy Spirit, but that papal rule of these lands itself was part of God’s plan for the Church—and that consequently, the papal administration is a kind of model for a “holy form of government.” This would presumably include the application of the death penalty.
Recall as well that after 1848, the constitution of the Papal States (the Fundamental Statute for the Secular Government of the States of the Church”) mandated that every proposed law be reviewed by the College of Cardinals to ensure their comformity with the mind of the Church and personally approved by the pope. (10) This means the laws prescribing capital punishment were reviewed by the highest clerics in the Church and personally authorized by the pope himself.
Given all this, we are not remiss in assuming that the laws of the Papal States were considered in full conformity with the Gospel. This is not an argument to bring back the mazzatello or anything of the sort, but rather an invitation to reflect on whether it is really plausible that the death penalty, which was sanctioned by the popes for centuries (and in many cases personally signed off on by them in particular cases) in the official legislation of the Papal States, which was viewed as a “holy form of government,” could suddenly become “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person…in light of the Gospel”? (12)
(1) Anonymous, Mastro Titta, il boia di Roma. Memorie di un carnefice scritte da lui stesso, (Perini, 1891), 5
(2) Craig A Monson. The Black Widows of the Eternal City: The True Story of Rome’s Most Infamous poisoners (University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor, 2020), 138
(3) John Allen, “He Executed Justice,” National Catholic Reporter, Sept. 4, 2001
(4) “Giovanni Battista Bugatti,” Italy on this Day, March 6, 2020. Available online at https://www.italyonthisday.com/2020/03/giovanni-battista-bugatti-executioner-papal-states-Italy.html
(5) Geoffrey Abbot, What a Way to Go (Macmillan: London, 2007), 239
(6) “1796: Mastro Titta’s First Execution of Many,” Executed Today, March 22, 2008. Available online at http://www.executedtoday.com/2008/03/22/1796-mastro-titta-first-execution/
(7) John Anderson, “Retired in Rome Journal: Rome’s crime museum a macabre way to while away an afternoon,” Dog-Eared Passport, Feb. 7, 2014. Available online at https://johnhendersontravel.com/retired-in-rome-journal-romes-crime-museum-a-macabre-way-to-while-away-an-afternoon/
(8) Allen, 2001
(10) Pope Pius IX, Respicientes, 8 (Nov. 1, 1870)
(11) Mirbt, Carl Theodor (1911). “Pius.” In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 21 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 687–690.
(12) Catechism of the Catholic Church, §2267
Phillip Campbell, “Capital Punishment in the Papal States, Unam Sanctam Catholicam, Sept. 8, 2023. Available online at https://unamsanctamcatholicam.com/2023/10capital-punishment-in-the-papal-states