When the Last Heads Rolled in Lucca

In the UK the Death penalty was permanently abolished by Act of Parliament in 1969. In Tuscany it was abolished in 1786. That’s a difference of 183 years!

However, since Lucca remained a separate duchy until it was sold in 1847 to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany by Duke Carlo Lodovico, it still had the death penalty on its statute book, although for years the punishment had never been carried out on any of its citizens – that is, until 1845, when a notorious band of armed bandits were caught, tried and executed.

Alessandra Garibotti, a young solicitor from Bagni di Lucca, gave a very informative and lively account of what happened in 1845 yesterday evening.

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Alessandra spoke at the rifugio Fiori, a mountain hostel just outside the village of Monti di Villa where one of the bandits came from.

The band included the following members:

  • Fabiano Bartolomei, nicknamed “the weasel”
  • Natale Giusti
  • Demetrio Prosperi, nicknamed “the red”
  • Tommaso Bartolomei, nicknamed “Blackbeard”
  • Giuseppe Alessandri known as “Cabala” – he would go around the country disguised as a pilgrim and distribute holy images.
  • Pietro Buero, already accused of raping and killing a woman in Corsica
  • Giovanni Nardi who had been in a seminary as a child and was thus called “the abbot of Cocciglia” since he was born in that village, which is only down the road from us in the Controneria.

Here is a contemporary print of the band, dating from 1845:

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From 1837 to 1842 the gang carried out a series of increasingly audacious and violent burglaries both in the Pisan Mountain and the Garfagnana areas. Armed with ancient harquebuses they terrorised their victims and sometimes raped their women if they were considered pretty.  They even attacked priests, some of whom were also armed!

The main booty mainly consisted of jewellery, money and, surprisingly for today (but then it was rather expensive), linen.

Of the gang, six were caught and found guilty of the crimes of aggravated theft, violence and offence to women (rape was then not specifically stated in the statute book.) They were then (surprisingly, for they hadn’t killed any of their burglary victims) given the death penalty.

The Duke of Lucca pondered deeply over the requests for a pardon and spent a whole night in his private chapel in Marlia looking at the evidence and praying to God for guidance. The answer came the following day and only one of the six caught, Natale Giusti, had his sentenced transmuted from death to ten years’ forced labour in Viareggio.

The public reaction was mixed. Some Lucchesi decided to stay away while the execution took place as they were against it like their Tuscan neighbours. The majority, however, gathered in a huge crowd – around eight thousand it’s estimated – to witness the grand spectacle of seeing five men lose their heads.

The guillotine (introduced when Napoleon’s sister was Princess of Lucca and imported from France) was wheeled outside Porta San Donato. On 29th July 1845 at 6 am the prisoners were dragged out of the San Giorgio prison (still there today) accompanied by some priests to comfort them and hear their last prayers. By 7 am all heads had rolled into the tumbril and the show was over. People dispersed and the carnival atmosphere now turned to dejection and a sense of guilt for all those who had witnessed this awful event.

In defence of the times and the population of Lucca, it should be said that no-one volunteered to be the executioner. There is a “casa del Boia” (or executioner’s house) on the wall of Lucca to this day which has recently been restored and converted into a hostel for pilgrims going to Rome on the ancient Via Francigena, but the house’s occupier the night before the execution had to be imported from Parma, where, apparently, the death penalty was still in force.  For an account of this house and its new use see my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/07/06/how-to-become-a-pilgrim/)

Furthermore, when Lucca became part of the grand-duchy of Tuscany in 1847, the grand-duke Leopold II was glad to see the guillotine burnt. Only one part remained: the cutting blade which was taken away by a priest, put on a boat at Viareggio and thrown into the sea where it sank without trace.

Alessandra’s presentation was most engrossing with a map showing where the band operated and she brought to our attention several anecdotes which, in a sense, have merged reality with myth. For example, did Blackbeard really wear his boots back-to-front when escaping in the snow from his pursuers to confuse them? I’d find it rather difficult to walk in reversed shoes…

There are further unanswered questions. Was there an appeals system in force when Lucca was taken over by the grand-duchy? Did anyone claim compensation, for example?

The terrible irony of the situation was that when the grand-duchy of Tuscany decided, in a somewhat rigged plebiscite, to become part of the new kingdom of Italy in 1861 it again had to suffer a regime which had capital punishment since the new united Italy had the death penalty which was not officially abolished until 1889, (although in practise no execution had taken place since 1878). There was an interim period under Mussolini who in 1922, reintroduced capital punishment for murdering any member of the royal family and any form of treason against the state. The death penalty in Italy was finally killed off in 1945 at the end of WWII.

The last execution in Lucca was, therefore, also the last public one. The last public execution in the UK was in 1867 when Michael Barrett, an Irish revolutionary, was hung for his part in a bombing campaign. Let us remember these sordid facts when, while watching TV news, we hear about yet another execution by those fanatics of the IS.

At least the TV channels have the decency not to play the entire videos…..

Let us also remind those who would like to re-introduce capital punishment in the UK that it’s possible to compensate a lifer if it is found that there has been a miscarriage of justice in their respect but that it is not possible to compensate a dead man…..

Outside the rifugio is this plaque which says that the local school was named after the great Italian revolutionary, Giuseppe Mazzini, “ostrasized (i.e. exiled by the reactionary governments in Italy) to London”. At least, while the death penalty lingered on in the heart of the Empire, it remained a city where relative freedom of thought could be practised then and, hopefully, today too.

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2 thoughts on “When the Last Heads Rolled in Lucca

  1. Excellent and informative as usual. I think I have learnt more about the area from your posts than everywhere else combined. My attention was caught by your description of Mazzini having been ostracised in London – if that is a correct reading of your quoted phrase. I have in the past read a little around a chap called W J Linton who was very much a supporter (perhaps even a sycophant) of, and advocate for, Mazzini in London (and, later, in New York). My tentative assessment would be that Mazzini was given refuge in London and found support there, rather than ostracisism, but that he was not an easy fellow to deal with. You will know better than I but was not his vanity rather upset by the failure of his Sicilian adventure and Garibaldi’s rise to prominence?

    • Thanks very much for your appreciative reply. I should have made it clearer that Mazzini was ostracized from Italy and that he found, as you rightly state, friendship and sympathy in the UK. I’ve now tried to explain this in my amended last paragraph.

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