Conversion on the Scaffold: Italian Practices in European Context
Space and Conversion in Global Perspective: Brill, October (2014)
Rome 1581: Montaigne and the Execution of the Bandit Catena
11 January 1581 was a fine day in Rome. That morning, Michel de Montaigne, recently arrived in the city, had gone out on horseback when he encountered a procession accompanying a condemned man to execution. Montaigne stopped to watch the sight. It was Catena, a bandit notorious for the number of murders to his name: as many as 54, according to the Avvisi di Roma (‘News from Rome’) printed a few days later. In his Journal, the travel diary that Montaigne’s secretary kept on his behalf, every detail of the scene that morning was carefully described. France too had its own public executions at the time, but they were different. And it was the differences that Montaigne noted down: what struck him, in comparison with French customs, was the display of piety in the Roman ritual, which transformed the city into a scene of conversion.
At the head of the procession was a large crucifix draped in a black cloth, and the condemned man was surrounded and followed by a good number of men dressed in a cowl, their eyes covered by a hood of the same fabric. Montaigne was told they were gentlemen and persons of standing. They were members of a confraternity that accompanied criminals along the route to the scaffold and buried their bodies. Two of them were next to Catena on the cart taking him to the place of execution. The others followed on foot. Catena was a swarthy man around thirty years old, a gang leader notorious throughout Italy for his crimes, which, it was said, included killing two Capuchin friars after forcing them to deny God. All this seemed hard to imagine from his present appearance: con-centrated on prayer and with a devout and contrite demeanour.