Researching Crime in Renaissance Venice by Deborah Swift
One of the things I was aware of as soon as I started this novel, The Fortune Keeper, was that although not a crime novel, it would probably have several murders within its pages. This is because the whole series is about Giulia Tofana, who was renowned for poisoning men in order that their wives could escape marital persecution.
Giulia Tofana became a legend and it is probable that she didn’t poison as many men as the rumours say, and that probably she was blamed for the crimes of others. One of the others suspected of her crimes was her stepdaughter Girolama. As she was to feature in this book, it led me to look into the law in early modern Venice because I knew I would have to be aware of policing, punishment, and the mechanisms of the law.
Venice was extremely wealthy in the Renaissance period, and vagabonds and thieves flooded into the city in search of easy pickings. In the picture above you can see the canal thronged with men dressed in rich clothing and ornament. The most common crimes in Venice were burglary and forgery, but it was by no means unusual for there to be murders over money and debts. The punishment for robbery was calculated on the basis of the quantity of property taken. First offenders who stole goods worth less than one lira could get away with a whipping, but woe betide you if you stole something bigger. The penalty was the loss of an eye for goods valued between five to ten lire, and the noose awaited those brave enough to steal something worth more than forty lire.
Debt and Death
The law allowed for anyone who was owed more than five lire de piccola to threaten and even kill the debtor in order to recoup their money, putting the onus firmly on the debtor, not the avenger. This tells us that money was the main driving force in Venetian society. But what about armed robbery or assault where no debt was owing? Most assaults were subject to a mere fine of twenty-five lire, or banishment from the city state. If your crime was a crime which drew blood – sanguinem fecerit – then the punishment was up to the judging council. There was no such thing as ‘innocent until proven guilty’ in Venetian law at that time. Proof was largely circumstantial, and it relied on the judge and jury’s instinct as to the guilt of the person involved.
The Avogaria di Comun were a group equivalent to lawyers, though non-professional, drawn exclusively from the nobility. They acted as prosecutors for the state, giving evidence and arguing for punishments before the main judicial councils of Venice. Because of their status, their judgements were often influenced by their social position, and the personal axes they had to grind.
Execution and Mutilation
In this period it was still common for mutilations to take place, which had been traditional in medieval times. Cutting out the tongue for heresy, cutting off the thumb or fingers for pilfering. Courtesans regularly had their noses or faces cut. There was also the custom of cutting of the ‘offending’ part – this led to men who were convicted of dabbling in heresy or alchemy, or crimes against the Holy Roman Church having their hand cut off to remove the ‘devil’s instrument’. This kind of public ritual and humiliation was designed to bring public vengeance to the accused person, and to reaffirm the values of the Church or state. The ritual turned the execution into a purification of the city.
There were in fact few crimes which brought down corporal or capital punishment. The types of corporal punishment used for the crimes of rape and assault were minor by today’s standards. As an example, for assault, out of 569 cases only fifteen involved mutilation of the criminal; and sixteen more involved some form of corporal discipline. For rape offenses, corporal punishment was even less significant, with twenty cases of discipline and only four of mutilation.
Maintaining law and order
On the streets the main arbiters of law and order were the town guard, the vigili urbani, who acted like our police do now. Their job was to make sure masked men didn’t carry arms, that only noblemen wore swords, and to act as a preventative force as well as policing troublemakers.
Further up the ladder were the Council of Ten, a kind of secret police force whose job was to maintain order within the city state of Venice. There was not much space in the city gaols of Venice due to the whole nature of its construction. For crimes of fraud, marital dispute, and affray, these men sat in judgement. It was unfeasible to keep men incarcerated for long because otherwise the gaols would be full of minor offenders. Small fines and short gaol sentences were the usual punishments for common violence in Venice. When the crime crossed the line into something that was considered ‘against God’ or ‘against the reputation of Venice’ then ritual punishment could be relied upon to warn the populace about sinning against these bigger, less personal edifices.
Documents I found helpful in my research:
Law and Punishment in Early Renaissance Venice
Violence in Early Renaissance Venice — Guido Ruggiero
Banditry and Social Identity in the Republic of Venice – Sergio Lavarda
Authority and the Law in Renaissance Venice — G. Cozzi
BUY THE FORTUNE KEEPER: https://mybook.to/FortuneKeeper
Here’s the blurb
Count your nights by stars, not shadows ~ Italian Proverb
Winter in Renaissance Venice
Mia Caiozzi is determined to discover her destiny by studying the science of astronomy. But her stepmother Giulia forbids her to engage in this occupation, fearing it will lead her into danger. The ideas of Galileo are banned by the Inquisition, so Mia must study in secret.
Giulia’s real name is Giulia Tofana, renowned for her poison Aqua Tofana, and she is in hiding from the Duke de Verdi’s family who are intent on revenge for the death of their brother. Giulia insists Mia should live quietly out of public view. If not, it could threaten them all. But Mia doesn’t understand this, and rebels against Giulia, determined to go her own way.
When the two secret lives collide, it has far-reaching and fatal consequences that will change Mia’s life forever.
Set amongst opulent palazzos and shimmering canals, The Fortune Keeper is the third novel of adventure and romance based on the life and legend of Giulia Tofana, the famous poisoner.
‘Her characters are so real they linger in the mind long after the book is back on the shelf’ – Historical Novel Society
NB This is the third in a series but can stand alone as it features a new protagonist.
Murder and violence in keeping with the era.
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Deborah Swift is a USA TODAY bestselling author who is passionate about the past. Deborah used to be a costume designer for the BBC, before becoming a writer. Now she lives in an old English school house in a village full of 17th Century houses, near the glorious Lake District. She divides her time between writing and teaching. After taking a Masters Degree in Creative Writing, she enjoys mentoring aspiring novelists and has an award-winning historical fiction blog at her website www.deborahswift.com
Deborah loves to write about how extraordinary events in history have transformed the lives of ordinary people, and how the events of the past can live on in her books and still resonate today.
Recent books include The Poison Keeper, about the Renaissance poisoner Giulia Tofana, which was a winner of the Wishing Shelf Readers Award, and a Coffee Pot Book Club Gold Medal, and The Cipher Room set in WW2 and due for publication by Harper Collins next Spring.
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