Venetian Inquisition
1000 A.D. to 1799 A.D.


The Records of the Venetian Inquisition

[Source: Cornhill Magazine, reprinted in The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art. New Series, Vol. XIII, January to June, 1871. E. R. Pelton, Publisher (New York, 1871), p. 286-296.]

On entering Venice for the first time, notwithstanding the brightness of the strange beauty, so unlike anything else in all the world, which is around the visitor on all sides, there are probably few persons, part of the excitement of whose imaginations upon the occasion is not due to romantically terrible notions of the ways and dealings of the old Venetian Government. Even as the bright laughing gondola-life skims over the surface of dark voiceless waters, whose depths seem to cover the secrets of so many generations, so to the reader of that which is generally given to the world as Venetian history, does the brilliant and splendid story of the old Republic seem to overlie mysterious and unfathomable depths of terror, tyranny, and secret deeds of relentless and resistless power. When the stranger turns his first eager steps to the Ducal Palace — that grandest expression in stone of national power and magnificence, that the world has ever yet seen — when he passes awe-struck up the Giant Stair, and paces those exquisitely beautiful corridors, while

A thousand years their dusky wings expand
Around him,

his eyes and thoughts may first be turned to all the world of art in its highest expressions, which lies on every side, and to the consummate beauty of every kind that invites his gaze. But, if he have any tincture of historical lore, and any capacity of imagination in him, the liveliest thrill of excited interest will be felt when he passes through the low-browed little door in the great gallery on the first floor, which gives im admittance to the dark staircases that lead to the terrible "Pozzi;" or when, from the little room on the highest floor of the Palace in which the awful "Three" held their sittings, he climbs the narrow stair by which the condemned reached the yet more dreadful prisons of the "Piombi."

Who has not read the abounding stories divulged to all people in all lands by poets in verse and poets in prose, and stamped in many cases by the hall-mark of genius, which have prepared the mind for that pleasurable thrill of excitement and interest? And are there not still extant, palpable to touch and evident to sight, the material proofs of the genuineness of such narratives, — proofs of a nature eminently calculated to enhance to the utmost, by their actual presence to the senses, the vividness of the thrill? There gapes the awful "Lion's mouth." You may actually drop into it, with your own fingers, if you please, an anonymous denunciation of any man or any thing, pretending to glance suspiciously around, even as did the last person before you who used it for its terrible purposes. Only your billet will lie there innoxious till the unmoved dust consume it. There is still that fearful seat of stone hard by the secret exit of the "Pozzi" to the discreet and silent canal, on which the victim to be strangled was placed for execution. There, deep among the foundations of the colossal walls which support far above the noble halls, glorious with all the majesty and the splendor of the gorgeous Republic, are those ever silent, hopeless "Pozzi" themselves, exactly in the state in which they were left by their latest prisoner. There can hardly be an imagination so dull as not to be powerfully excited by these objects and places, and scarcely a visitor to them so unread as to be unprepared for the excitement by all that has been written of the terrible tribunal at whose word these awful prisons opened and closed their doors. "And now that the terrible "Three" exist no more, and that those fearful prison-doors open at the beck of any hand that has a franc in it, it cannot be denied that the thrill produced in the visitor is a not disagreeable sensation, and that the romance of the thing is one of the pleasures of a visit to the ancient Queen of the Adriatic. It may well be, therefore, that to some persons a sober and accurately historical account of the famed tribunal and its doings, which must have the effect of dissipating some portion of the romance and all the mystery, that has hitherto belonged to the subject, may not be welcome. Nevertheless there is ho spot so sacred to mystery and bugaboo, that the curious but calm eye of history will not sooner or later peer into it; and it is as well that the simple truth should be told and known, even respecting the dread "Three" of the Venetian Inquisition.

A portion of the romance which hangs about the subject will have to be dissipated; not all by any means. If the tribunal of the Inquisition of Venice was believed by its contemporaries, and has ever since been believed, to be something much more terrible and dangerous than it really was, it was not only the fault of that institution that such was the case; it was their wish and express purpose that it should be so. It was an essential and carefully practised part of their system to envelop their operations in mystery. Their object was to be supposed to be ubiquitous and omniscient. And they struck, when they did strike, in a manner which was calculated to give the impression of an unseen but ever-present and resistless hand. In a word, it was their policy to accomplish their objects as much by operating on the imaginations of the citizens as by the exercise of power over their persons. No account was ever rendered to any one of any of their doings, and no record was kept of them, save in their own absolutely secret and jealously guarded archives.

From these circumstances it naturally and necessarily resulted that mere rumor and fiction, more or less mingled with fact, took the place of history in all that concerned the doings of the dreaded "Three." But such rumors and tales were consolidated into the semblance of history, and these fictions were, more or less wittingly and of set purpose, presented to the world as such by the Frenchman, Daru, whose History of Venice was for many years the principal source of the historical notions commonly current in Europe upon the subject. The Comte Pierre Ant. Noel [288] Bruno Daru published, in 1819, his History of Venice, in seven octavo volumes; and it quickly assumed the position of the History of Venice, from which the world of general readers gathered their knowledge of Venetian story. It was systematically written with a view to discredit and blacken the old Government of the Republic. And most readers are now aware what is to be expected from a French writer under such circumstances! Justice has long since been done by more than one competent hand on Comte Daru's book. But many of the tales and notions, which first derived their birth from it, still circulate in popular guide-books and the like, and in the minds of those not more accurately informed than the general tourist can be expected to be.

Moreover, it is only quite recently that it has been possible to obtain the information, which alone could serve as a basis for a trae and authentic story of the practices and doings of the Venetian Inquisition. It has been said that the only record of these was kept with all secrecy by the tribunal itself. Absolutely nothing could or can be known with certainty of the maxims, procedure, and modus operandi of the Inquisition, without access to these archives. And it is only quite recently, as I have said, that such access has been possible.

Among the almost incredibly enormous masses of records of the Republic, which are preserved in the vast halls of the "Frari," there are eighteen huge folio volumes, bound in parchment, and lettered Annotations of the Inquisitors of State. These volumes contain the whole of the records of that institution. Years ago they were removed, together with large masses of other documents, to Vienna. There no person was permitted to have access to them; not, in all probability, in consequence of any desire on the part of the Austrians to keep the secrets of the Venetian Inquisitors, but probably because the masses of papers brought away were allowed to remain unexamined and unarranged in the cases in which they had been brought across the Alps. But in 1868, by virtue of a clause in the treaty of peace signed between Austria and Italy in 1866, these volumes, together with very many other documents, were restored to Italy, and replaced in their old resting-place at the "Frari," where they are now freely at the disposition of the studious. The results of this accessibility will shortly be laid before historical students in two works: one by the Cavaliere Armando Baschet, who will give the fruit of his diligent examination of all the recorded processes, as well as of the correspondence of the Inquisitors with their agents; and the other by Signor Giulio Crivellari, who has nearly ready a work entitled The Criminal Law of Venice.

But, in the meantime, Signor Augusto Bazzoni nas published a brief account of these Annotations in the Archivio Storico Italiano, by the help of which we propose to give English readers a somewhat more accurate account of the Venetian Inquisition, and of its doings, than has hitherto been offered to them.

In the first place, it may be necessary to mention that the Venetian Inquisition had nothing specially to do with religious matters. It was a State and not a Church Inquisition. The special object of the tribunal was originally to discover, to prevent, and to punish the traitorous revelation of the State secrets of the Republic to foreigners. This was an evil which the government had frequently reason to deplore, and to contend against. And Commissions of Inquisition, issued for that purpose, are mentioned occasionally from a time shortly subsequent to the establishment of the "Council of Ten." But no such tribunal existed as a permanent institution till the 20th of September, 1539, when the Council of Ten determined on appointing from among its own members a committee of Three, whose special duty it should be to discover and to punish the betrayers of state secrets. The special cause which at that particular time moved the Ten to take this step, was the discovery that five traitors, three of whom were put to death for their crime, had, in the year 1538, given information to the Mussulman of the designs of the Republic. The name of "Inquisitors of State" was not, however, given them till towards the end of the sixteenth century, at which time their attributions and functions were largely increased; and it became their duty to take cognizance of anything whatever that threatened either the external or internal well-being of the State. At the period above mentioned, it had become the practice to select two of the Inquisitors from the body of the Ten and one from the [289] Ducal Council. The two former were styled "the black Inquisitors," from the color of the gowns they wore; and the latter, who sat always between the other two, and wore a scarlet gown, was known as "the red Inquisitor." And Signor Bazzoni remarks that the grim contrast of these costumes, and the names to which they gave rise, contributed no little to the terror with which the tribunal was regarded by the Venetian populace.

The proceedings of the Inquisition were conducted according to no rules, (1) save such äs might in some degree grow out of the habitudes of their own court; were always wrapped in profound mystery; were entirely secret both as regarded process and sentence; and were inappellable! If any citizen of any rank of life disappeared, and any inquiry were made respecting him or her by the ordinary officers of justice, it was a fully sufficient answer to all such questions to whisper with bated breath that the individual in question had been arrested by the officer — the "fante," as he was called — of the Three!

It is indeed not surprising that such a tribunal should have been looked upon with terror. And Signor Bazzoni declares that he shuddered as he opened those dread registers, which were to reveal the arbitrary sentences, the despotic proceedings, the poisonings, the executions carried out in the silence of the prison, the mysterious disappearances, of which the terrible Three had been the authors. And great, was his surprise in discovering a course of procedure tolerably regular; a decided leaning to mildness and moderation in the punishments; a method of treating the guilty severe indeed, but not cruel; a disposition to pardon, except in cases of reconviction for the same offence; and a desire to prevent crimes rather than to punish them, if it were possible. He found, he tells us, but few cases of capital punishment, and as far as his investigations went, but one of death inflicted by poison, and one other in which the tribunal had wished and endeavored, but had failed to put to death by that means, a culprit who was beyond their reach. Only, says Signor Bazzoni, in matters of state were the Inquisitors more severe than modern notions might deem justifiable; as when they put to death Alberti, the Secretary of the Republic, for falsifying the Letters Ducal.

It is probable that all that Signor Bazzoni states here is strictly true and accurate. But an Englishman would think that all that is here said would go very little way towards removing the objections he would feet to the existence of such a tribunal. In the first place there is nothing whatever to assure the inquirer that these Annotations contain a faithful record of all the cases dealt with by the Inquisitors. No sort of control whatsoever existed. Nobody had cognizance of the record save the Three themselves, and their secretary, who became, it would seem, in process of time the most terribly powerful member of the court. On the other hand a cruel severity in dealing with criminals is not the evil of which one would especially expect to find the tribunal to have been guilty. In the case of ordinary crime one would wish to know rather what was the nature of the evidence on which a criminal was found guilty. But it is not to the dealings of the court with ordinary crime at all, that an Englishman's suspicions would more especially point Here are four men, — the Three and their secretary — who have wholly irresponsible power over the lives and persons of all the citizens of Venice; who can put their hand on any man or any woman in the midst of their family and of their daily life, and can cause them to disappear out of it, and never be heard of again. Is it likely that such a power should never have been exercised throughout the long series of years during which it existed, for purposes which had no connection with the repressing of crime? If it was exercised for any such nameless purposes, is it certain that we should find the record of such cases in the book of these Annotations? There seems, however, to have existed one, and only one circumstance, in connection with the absolute power wielded by the Inquisitor, which may have served as a partial protection against altogether arbitrary violence. It was absolutely necessary that every sentence passed against any person brought before the tribunal should be concurred in by all the three judges. If there were any difference of opinion between them, the matter had to be [290] referred to the Council of Ten. Signor Bazzoni does not mention having met with the record of any case in which that step had to be resorted to. And after all, in so small a body as the Inquisitors were, the "ca' me ca' thee" principle is too sure to be in operation for this circumstance to have afforded any very valid protection against the possibility of such irresponsible power being used for the purposes of private hatred, or interest, or convenience.

The eighteen volumes of records, or Annotations, as they are styled, which have been spoken of, contain the entire history of the tribunal for somewhat more than a century and a half. The first entry in them is dated in January, 1643, and the last the 6th March, 1797, which was just two months and ten days before the troops of France entered Venice "to murder," as Signor Bazzoni says, "a Republic which had lived for fourteen centuries." The first volume of the series extends from 1643 to 1651. In this the entries are exceedingly brief and informal, merely mentioning the nature of each case, without even stating the result of it, as whether the person inculpated was convicted or otherwise, or what punishment was awarded. But the second volume begins with the insertion of a new regulation enacted by the Inquisitors, providing that the records should be kept in a more orderly and full manner. And thenceforward the whole history of each ease is satisfactorily given, together with the means which had been adopted by the tribunal for the detection of the guilt of the accused.

This latter portion of the record, as may easily be imagined, is in many instances the most curious and interesting part of the document The principal means by which the Inquisitors performed the functions intrusted to them was the employment of a vast number of "confidants" — confidenti, persons whose occupation would, as Signor Bazzoni remarks, at the present day cause them to be called spies. It was the object of the Inquisition to have these confidants in every class of society, among noble men and noble ladies, among clergy and among monks and nuns, among servants of families, and the lowest as well as the highest classes of the body social. The persons thus employed by the tribunal received a regular stipend; and we find cases in which they were suddenly turned adrift because they did nothing, or because the communications made by them to their employers were frivolous and useless. There are also cases on record in which these confidential agents were detected in abusing the confidence of the tribunal by wittingly false information; and this was a delinquency which called forth all the severity of the "Three."

It is a satisfactory and a curious proof of the progressive improvement in the general tone of moral sentiment and manners, that during the later period of its existence the tribunal experienced a constantly increasing difficulty in finding a sufficient supply of suitable persons to undertake the office of confidant to the Inquisition. In a report made to his superiors by the secretary on the 1st of October, 1792, that functionary laments the great deficiency of proper agents, more especially in the upper classes of society, which bad reached such a pitch that among the nobles there remained to the tribunal only one single person, "il nobil uomo Girolamo M. Barossi" We are not aware whether there are sons or grandsons of this excellent nobleman still living at Venice; but if there are, they will hardly thank Signor Bazzoni for the researches which have revealed a fact which the noble Girolamo assuredly thought would never be known on this side of the day of judgment.

Although the Inquisitors trusted almost wholly to their confidants for the information necessary to them in the discharge of their functions, they did not by any means refuse to receive and listen to any person whatever, who came to them with any communication. And the following case, very considerably abridged from the report of it in the Annotations, will give an instance of their practice in this respect, as well as furnish some illustrations of their modes of procedure in other respects. The record is dated the 19th June, 1763.

An important robbery of cash and precious stones to a large amount had been committed in the house of the Ambassador of Spain. And the ordinary police authorities had, despite their utmost efforts, utterly failed in accomplishing anything towards either the recovery of the property or the discovery of the thief. [291] In these circumstances the Ambassador petitioned the Inquisitors, to see whether they could effect what had been found utterly beyond the power of the other magistracies. The Inquisitors took the matter in hand. And very shortly after they had done so, they received the visit of a nun, who, speaking from beneath her cowl, said that there was a person who would undertake to reveal to the tribunal the spot where all the stolen property would be found buried on three conditions.

  1. That the reward of an hundred zequins, promised by the Spanish Ambassador, should be paid to the person who should point to the property.
  2. That the name of the person who should give the information should be kept inviolably secret.
  3. That the person in whose house the property should be found should have a free pardon.

These conditions were accepted; and apparently no other guarantee for the observance of them, beyond the simple word of the Inquisitors, was required. Thereupon an individual came forward, who privately indicated to an officer of the "Three" a certain spot in the floor of the shop of a blacksmith, which was within the limits of the exemption from jurisdiction enjoyed by the palace of the Spanish Ambassador himself. All the residences of the Ambassadors and other ministers of foreign governments enjoyed in those days, as is well known, this infinitely mischievous and continually abused right of exemption from the visits and all the operations of the civil and criminal tribunals of the country. But, although this was a perfectly recognized and undisputed fact, it very specially suited the views of the "Three," to have an opportunity of acting before the eyes of the populace in a manner which should appear to show that neither this privilege nor anything else could be an impediment to the omnipotent and ubiquitous action of their dread power. So the secretary of the tribunal went privately to the Ambassador and told him that all his property would be restored to him by the action of the Inquisition, upon condition that he would waive all right or question of the exemption of his own dwelling from their operations. This having been arranged, the tribunal paused a little while. And then suddenly one day their "fante," in his well-known costume, accompanied by the "capitano grande," or chief officer of the executive, with forty men, marched straight to the spot, and pointing, said to his men, "Dig there!" Of course the treasure was found, to me infinite stupor and admiration of the crowd, who were more than ever convinced of the omnipotent power and omniscience of the terrible "Three!" The blacksmith, however, was arrested and carried before the Inquisitors. He pleaded the pardon bargained for, and his plea was allowed. But, said his judges, though you are pardoned for the crime of having concealed this stolen property in your dwelling, there is no pardon for him who refuses to answer to the utmost of his knowledge the questions put to him by the Inquisition. And we now require of you the name of the thief who abstracted the property from the Ambassador's house. The blacksmith replied that nothing could be further from him than the absurd idea of concealing anything from the "Three and he forthwith gave them all the details of the robbery, in such sort as to leave no possible doubt of the truth of his assertion, that he himself was the sole perpetrator of it! And thereupon, in accordance with their pledged word, he was at once liberated. The Ambassador, however, seeing the blacksmith thus arrested and almost immediately set at liberty again, made application to the secretary of the "Three," stating "in very resolute terms" his determination to know who the thief was, as he was thus left with the fear that the guilty person might have been one of his own household. And certainly the demand was not an unreasonable one. But the only reply he got from the "Three" was, that the Inquisition never rendered, and never would render any account whatever of its doings to any human being; that he might rest assured that what had been done was just and right; that he would be duly warned if his security in any way required it; but he would never know anything more as to the person who had robbed him, or the facts which had taken place.

Venice, during the whole period of her existence as an independent Republic, was a great place for diplomacy. The ambassadors which the Queen of the Adriatic sent into all countries were, for the most part, masters in their profession, as their recently published Relazioni [292] abundantly testify; all the States in Europe maintained diplomatic agents of higher or lower rank in Venice. And secrecy was supposed by all these diplomatists to be the very sine qua non and mainspring of their craft. To hide, and to discover; to deceive and to avoid being deceived; to know something which rivals had not found out; to spin elaborate webs for the entanglement of this or the other adversary, and the veiling of this or that carefully dissembled purpose; this was the game at which all the diplomatists in Europe were constantly playing. And Venice, which, at least in her later days, was a member of the European family, necessarily constrained to trust for the holding of its own more to the adroitness of its policy than to the force of its arms, was more than ordinarily jealous of the secrets of its diplomacy, and more vehemently bent than the rest on knowing the hidden purposes of others, while keeping its own impenetrably in the dark. Nevertheless, from the constitution of the Republic, it inevitably came to pass that the State secrets of Venice were known to a larger number of her citizens than was generally the case in the monarchies which were her contemporaries. Hence it came to pass that the safe-keeping of such secrets was, especially during the latter centuries of the Republic's existence, one of the most eagerly and carefully pursued objects of the State's solicitude. At the same time it was unfortunately found that the difficulties of attaining this object became greater as time went on. The nobles, whose position in the Republic made them members of the governing body, and depositaries of State secrets, had been all, and always in the flourishing days of Venice, men whose vast wealth, constantly poured in from argosies on every sea, was more than equal to the lavish expenditure necessitated by a splendor of living, which at all times specially characterized Venice, and distinguished her from her sister — particularly from the Tuscan — Republics. But in the latter times of Venice this was no longer the case. The habitudes of magnificence and lavish expenditure remained, but the sources of the wealth, which was needed for the supply of them, had become dried up. Hence it came to pass that there were numbers of men of high rank and great name who were in distressed and embarrassed circumtances, who were constantly on the look-out for some possible means of eking out incomes no longer sufficient for the calls upon them. And State secrets in those days were very merchantable articles, and bidders for them were at hand ready to compete with each other for purchase of them. Under these circumstances it became a master of ceaseless anxiety to the Government, and an important part of the duty of the Inquisitors, to make all dealing in such articles impossible. And laws which, to our notions, appear to be of almost incredibly arbitrary severity, were enacted to provide against the evil; and the execution of them was intrusted wholly to the tribunal of the Inquisition.

Among these laws was one which made it illegal for any Venetian man of patrician rank to visit at the house of any Minister of a foreign Power, or to receive any such Minister in his house, or even to consort with him or any members of his family in any way! And one great part of the business of the "Three" consisted, especially in the later days of the Republic, in watching and spying with sleepless vigilance to prevent the contravention of an ordinance so difficult to be enforced. One can understand, that however desirable a séjour at Venice may have been in other respects, such a law as this, together with the means and provisions necessary for the enforcing of it, must have had the effect of making the position of the foreign Ministers accredited to the Republic not a pleasant one in a social point of view.

Here are one or two instances of the steps taken by the tribunal for attaining the above-mentioned object

On the 18th January, 1676, the Baron de Passis received a summons to present himself before the Inquisitors. The Baron was not by birth a Venetian subject; but he resided in Venice, and was connected by ties of relationship with several noble families. Now it seems that there were two doors of communication between the house inhabited by him and the dwelling adjoining it, which latter was occasionally frequented by the Spanish Ambassador. The Baron was warned that, Venetian or not, he must rigorously abstain from all communication whatever with any foreign Minister, and must immediately wall up the doors of communicatioh above mentioned; in all which respects he promised accurate obedience.

[293] On the 11th of May, 1707 the noble Alvise Barbaro was called before the "Three." Ignorant that he had offended in any way, he obeyed the terrible intimation with much surprise and no little alarm. The matter was this. The Duchess of Bavaria was then residing at Venice, and this young nobleman had been seen on more than one occasion walking up and down before the palace inhabited by her. But this surely contravened no law. And therefore he was not punished but only warned. He ought to have known the duty of a Venetian noble better. The palace of the Duchess was frequented by sundry of the foreign Ministers, and other foreigners of high rank. Let him take care for the future to give no ground for suspicion that any acquaintanceship existed between him and people of that Sort And so the young man is allowed to retire. A very short time elapses, however, before he is again brought before the tribunal, and is this time walked off to a solitary prison under the "Piombi!" What was his fault? He had never entered the palace of the Duchess of Bavaria, or even repeated those walkings before it, which had been objected to. Could he deny that he had been in conversation with certain of the maids of the Duchess? or that he had had an interview with the Duchess herself at the nunnery of the Capucines? So after four-and-twenty hours under the "Piombi," he was then sent in the custody of the "fanti" of the tribunal to Brescia, with a letter to the captain of the fortress there, directing him to keep Alvise Barbaro a close prisoner till further orders. And he seems to have been detained there and in other fortresses of the Republic for several years. Now in this case, as Signor Bazzoni remarks, there can be little doubt that it was a love intrigue which led the unlucky Alvise to dare the consequences of disobeying the formidable "Three." But let what may have been the motive, it was to the tribunal a matter of first-rate importance to secure at all hazards implicit obedience to their commands.

On the 9th of January, 1764, the patrician Andrea Memmo went spontaneously to the secretary of the Inquisition and confessed to him that the wire of the

Minister of the Emperor of Austria had offered him her good offices in the affair of "the Mantuan Post-office;" that subsequently she had sent him a letter by an unknown hand, to which he had replied by the same means. He handed to the Inquisitors a copy of the lady's letter, not being able to furnish them with the original, inasmuch as he had been required to send it back to her. Also he laid before them a copy of the answer he had sent back. The tribunal at once declared that the matter was of extreme gravity in every point of view; and informed the culprit that, very fortunately for him, his spontaneous confession had, as it happened, reached them a few hours previously to information of the whole matter which had come into their hands from other sources. It was pointed out to the offender that he had been guilty of a very grave dereliction of duty in speaking even to the wife of aft ambassador on a public matter, without at once giving information of the circumstance to the tribunal. To receive and read a letter was even more heinous; and, worst of all, the answering it.Nevertheless the "Three," taking into consideration the circumstance that any strong step (passo risoluto) on their part might lead to unpleasant consequences as regarded the Ambassador, and at the same time willing to give the culprit the benefit of his spontaneous confession, contented themselves with administering a serious lecture on the heinousness of the offence, and strictly forbidding him ever to come near the lady ill question or any of her farmìy, even in church, or on occasions of public festivals. The tribunal would have its never-sleeping eye on him, and the slightest deviation from its commands would be followed by the severest castigation.

The cases which have been here mentioned would alone suffice to show that all that the popular guide-books and histories say as to the period since which the prisons of the Inquisition have been disused is incorrect. It is singular that such writers as Sagredo (Venezia e le sue Lagune) and Romanin (Storia documentata di Veneţia) should fall into the error of asserting that the "Pozzi" were never used in the last century of the Republic, or, as some even assert, after the Interdict of Paul V. A glance at the Annotations [294] now brought to light suffices to show the error of all such statements. But, as Signor Bazzoni observes, the extreme secrecy and mystery with which the tribunal surrounded their proceedings may account for the mistakes of the older writers, while those of the moderns must be attributed to the undoubting trust with which they copied their predecessors. It is needless to refer to the many passages of the Annotations which would show the above statements to be erroneous; for the following return of the prisoners then in confinement, taken from the Annotations for 1775, settles the question. There were then imprisoned —

  • In the "Piombi" one prisoner.
  • In the "Pozzi" four prisoners.
  • In certain prisons called the "Camerotti della quattro," thirty-three prisoners.
  • In the prisons on terra-firma, five prisoners.
  • In the galleys, fourteen prisoners.

It can scarcely be necessary to describe to anybody the "Piombi" and the "Pozzi." Who has not visited them? Signor Bazzoni states that his study of the records of the Inquisition has not enabled him to discover what considerations guided the Inquisitors in deciding to which of these celebrated prisons each convict should be sent He conjectures that the most troublesome and violent may probably have been consigned to the "Pozzi" Doubtless it has appeared to most of those who have visited these famous places of punishment, that the "Pozzi" were by far the most terrible. To the imagination they are so certainly. The very imperfect light, the idea of the locality, the utter silence, with the exception of the dull, melancholy, and monotonous clapping of the waters of the canal against the walls, may seem far worse to the imagination than the abundant daylight of the "Piombi." In either case the prisoner's cell consisted of a very small chamber, entirely of massive and thoroughly dry wood. But no one, who is not well acquainted with the effect of an Italian sun beating on a roof; when there is no sufficient space between it and the chamber in which one is to live, can realize to himself what the effect of living under those "Piombi" in summer, must have been. On the other hand there are three or four cases of escape from the "Piombi" on record; but there is, I believe, no recorded instance of any prisoner having escaped from the horrible bolgia of those "Pozzi."

The punishments awarded by the Inquisitors of Venice were: death inflicted secretly in the prison; imprisonment either in the "Piombi," the "Pozzi," or the less terrible prisons called the "Camerotti;" condemnation to the galleys for life or for a term of years; confinement to the offender's own house in Venice, or more frequently to his country residence; and, lastly, exile from the city of Venice, or from the entire territory of the Republic, either for life or for a term of years. The systematic secrecy and mystery in which the Inquisition sedulously involved all its proceedings gave rise to the popularly received opinion that its condemnations were pronounced not only arbitrarily but with the summary suddenness of a thunder-clap; and that they were of the most terrible description, dealing habitually with torture and poison. Arbitrary its method of proceeding assuredly was, as has been sufficiently explained. Sudden er reckless it certainly was not; and no length of inquiry was too great for the investigating patience of the tribunal, though the result was often made purposely to appear sudden to the offender. No evidence is to be found in the whole series of the Annotations that torture was ever practised by the Inquisition. With regard to the use of poison there are a few sufficiently curious entries.

Under the date 30th May, 1643, there is a note of the secretary, recording that one Pasin Pasini brought specimens of various poisons, which he offered to the Inquisitors with a view to their use among the hostile troops with whom the forces of the Republic were then engaged. It does not seem that his offer was rejected; yet neither does it appear that the scheme was carried into effect For the secretary notes that subsequently all these poisons were by him collected together and placed "in the ordinary cupboard of their Eminences the Inquisitors."

In June, 1646, the Governor of Dalmatia sent to the Inquisitors to ask them to furnish him with poison for the purpose of poisoning the wells for the destruction of the Turks. The Inquisitors [295] as the record declares, sent him a thousand pounds of arsenic for this purpose. And it is declared that the poison reached the Governor's hands duly. But whether it was used or no, there is no record to show.

More than a hundred years later, under the date of December 17, 1755, the secretary inserts in the records the following note:—

"Notice having been drawn to the tact that the poisonous substances kept for the service of the tribunal were scattered about among the presses of papers, so as to cause a danger of accident; and moreover, that many of these substances have become bad by lapse of time; and further, that with regard to many of them, neither the nature of them nor the proper dose is now known: Therefore their Eminences, minded to regularize so delicate a matter in such sort as is needful for the service of the tribunal and for safety, have ordered all things of this kind to be kept in a separate box, with a book in it, that shall explain the nature and the proper dose of every article, and which shall be thus registered for the enlightenment of their successors.
(Signed)   "ANDREA DA SEZZE, } "Inquisitors of the State"

Is not the picture suggested by this entry a strange and curious one? Think of the packets and bottles of various kinds of poison lying about among the papers in the room of the Palazzo Ducale, occupied by the Inquisitors till it had been forgotten what they were, and all about them! It would at all events seem clear that they were not often used. Still the "Three" are far from any idea of abandoning the use of such tilings. They put them all into a box by themselves, with a pharmacopœia that shall duly instruct their successors in the use of these agents on occasion arising. There is a sort of naiveté about the whole entry which is very surprising.

A few years after this, it would seem that recourse was had to the newly arranged poison-box, on an occasion which is the last instance in which the use of poison is mentioned in the Annotations. An entry, dated September 26, 1768, records that information had recently reached the Inquisitors that a strange and unknown personage had made his appearance in Dalmatia and Albania, who announced himself as a law-giver both in pontics and religion — called himself Peter the Third, Czar of Muscovy — and, in short, stirred up the minds of the people, got a party of adherents around him, and was giving rise to disturbances. Thereupon the Inquisitors sent the most stringent orders "le più robuste commissioni" — to the Governor of Dalmaţia to take immediate steps to insure that this dangerous impostor should be removed out of the world — "tolto dal mondo" — in the most cautious manner possible, and by the most hidden and secret means that could be devised. The Governor, however, despite the "robustness" of these orders, failed to find any means of getting rid of the obnoxious impostor. Whereupon the Inquisitors deliver a bottle of poison to one Count Zorzi Cadich Cornetta, who undertook to proceed to Dalmatia and accomplish the desired result. Cornetta, however, succeeded no better than the Governor, and returning to Venice, gave back the bottle he had received to the "Three," And that is the last mention of poison that occurs in the record.

Most of the cases of condemnation to death appear to have been occasioned by ordinary crimes of a nature that would have been similarly visited by the criminal code of any contemporary nation. In some cases indeed the Inquisition seems to have been specially lenient, since we meet with cases of wilful murder punished by imprisonment for twenty years. But there is one case which so curiously illustrates the maxims of Venetian State policy, and gives so singular an idea of the nature of the circumstances which were deemed to justify the taking away of a life, that we must give it, as the last of our extracts from these curious records.

The entry is dated May 29, 1755.

A certain Mattio Pirona had left Venice without the authorization of the Government and had betaken himself to Triest. He was by trade a "cavafango," [ed. note] literally a müd excavator, as we should say a "navvy," or a contractor for the execution of such works. This man being at Triest contracted there to execute a canal, which, by opening a communication from the port to the interior of the city, would be of great benefit to the [296] commerce of Triest. The tribunal therefore "considering that everything which might facilitate the commerce of that city would turn to the disadvantage of the commerce of Venice," addressed to Pirone repeated orders to abandon the work he had undertaken and return to Venice, where a full pardon awaited him, besides other advantageous proposals. Instead, however, of obeying these commands, Pirona endeavored to engage other Venetians to join him in his undertaking, and, when it turned out that the canal did not wholly answer the purpose for which it was intended, himself planned and set to work on the execution of a second. "But so great and so traitorous offences on the part of a subject moving their Eminences to just indignation, they determined to consider this matter as an affair of State, and decided to attempt the chastisement of the culprit as a warning to other subjects." Therefore, they despatched one Gelfino Versa, "a person well tried in other important executions of a like nature," with orders to find the means of "taking out of the world such a fellow as this Pirona, guilty of crime against the State." The price of the service intrusted to this emissary was fixed at two hundred and sixty zequins, sixty to be paid in advance, and two hundred when the job was done!

We had purposed adding some gleanings respecting those two curious points in the history of the Inquisition, the "Confidants" employed by it, and the recorded cases of escape from its prisons. But the length to which this paper has already run makes it impossibile to do so on the present occasion. Possibly some future opportunity may bo found for treating these parts of the subject.

Ed. note:

"Cavafongo" is a variation of "cavafango". In Francesco Corazzini's Vocabolario Nautico Italiano, Vol. 2, Tipografia San Giuseppe Degli Artigianelli (Torino, 1901), p. 152 "cavafango" is defined to be: "galleggiante usato nei lavori portuali, fluviali, e per la manutenzione dei canali per la navigazione interna. Sono dotati di apparecchi scavatori atti a mantenere la vulato profondità d'acqua nei porti, nei fiumi navigabili e nei canaliò servono altresì per aprire vie di communicazione fra mare e mare, praticando canali di navigazione interna".


  1. And those which Daru affects to give in his unveracious book are mere fabrications and inventions. New Series. — Vol. XIII., No. 3.

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