Today, I’m welcoming Deborah Swift and her new book, The Fortune Keeper to the blog with a fabulous post about crime in Renaissance Venice #BlogTour #CoffeePotBookClub #FortuneKeeper #HistoricalFiction

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.

Miracle of the Holy Cross Accademia – Miracle of the Holy Cross at Rialto by Vittore Carpaccio

Renaissance Robbery

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. 

Interrogation chambers of the Doge’s Palace

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. 

Cells of the Doge’s Palace

Renaissance Lawkeepers

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. 

Palazzo Dario where many murders in the novel unfold

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


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.

Trigger warnings: 

Murder and violence in keeping with the era.

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Connect with the author

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

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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Welcome to today’s stop on the blog tour for The Poison Keeper by Deborah Swift

Today I’m delighted to welcome Deborah Swift to the blog with a fascinating post about the historical research she undertook to write her new book, The Poison Keeper.

Researching Giulia Tofana

Finding an Enigma

I first came across Giulia Tofana on the internet when I was researching herbs for a different novel. I was immediately fascinated but somewhat daunted as it was quickly apparent that she was more of a legend than a real historical figure, although undoubtedly that figure was grounded in truth. By far the best and most thorough article about her online is this one by Mike Dash.

This was my starting point, and I probably followed his footsteps a lot of the way, but I needed more context because I had a whole society to build, not just one woman. His article contains a thorough list of references most I which I consulted through Academia and JStor, where academic papers are available to subscribers for a fee. This included articles by the British Medical Journal on poisons, and articles about the Seventeenth Century Judiciary, or articles about the poison Giulia Tofana invented, Aqua Tofana. Everyone has theories about what the poison was made of, but no-one has absolute proof. The prime suspect is a combination of arsenic and a crushed herb which is a type of toadflax.

pic of Academic articles

My search for the truth was hampered by the fact that I don’t speak Italian, however I did do Latin at school and that definitely helped when faced with a text in Italian and ‘Google Translate!’

The sources that are available for Giulia Tofana are all secondary, but most are available as on the internet and many written years after her death. From my research it is apparent that there are records for the deaths of Theofania di Adamo in 1633 (probably her mother) and Girolama Spara (her daughter) in 1659, and that they were both executed for their part in the poisonings. Giulia Tofana, although by far the best known of this trio of women is herself a shadow in the background of this story, which is why I chose her as the subject of my book. Here is the diary of Giacinto Gigli on JStor which I found very useful. It makes reference to Giulia Tofana and I used it again especially for the second in this series, The Silkworm Keeper when Giulia goes to Rome.

Background Research

The Italians’ reputation as keen poisoners can be traced back as far as the Borgias. I read anything I could find on the Borgias and their ‘cantarella’ or poison. According to the Encyclopaedia of Toxicology this was a mixture of copper, arsenic, and phosphorus, prepared in the decaying carcass of a hog. I also researched antidotes which sounded equally outlandish, Venice Treacle for example contained rotting viper’s flesh, and the use of Bezoar stones which were imported from the East and were stones from the stomach of a yak. 

Apart from this, my main concern was to paint a portrait of a realistic woman who existed in her milieu, and for that I needed mostly books. When researching I always invest in books I might need. One particularly useful book about women of this period is Women in Italy – 1350 -1650 Ideals and Realities by Mary Rogers and Paola Tinagli. For example, one woman’s advice to another woman in a letter:

“If your husband beats you or torments you and keeps bad company, you should blame your bad behaviour, your excessive loquacity and extreme obstinacy, which would be enough to make you unpleasant even in hell.”

The ‘friend’ certainly pulls no punches! But the real extracts from letters give a fantastic insight into the mind-set of the age, and many insights into how repressive the society for women was, and why the cult of poisoning was so strong. I also investigated Italian courtesans in Naples who formed a vast number of the population, and there are several extracts about them in the books I have on my desk. There are currently 27 books on my desk relating to this project,

Research Books

Mapping the Territory

Two things that were incredibly useful to me were the maps of Palermo and Naples that I used to orientate myself to the geography. Have a look at this fantastic map of Naples on Wikimedia here which is dated very close to the time period in which the novel takes place.

Maps were particularly useful as my research trip to Naples was cancelled because of Covid. The street names, and landmarks could then be explored on google maps. I am writing the sequel now, and also used online guided tours of The Vatican and Rome. Sometimes video views of Italian works of art with a good guide can be more informative than a real tour where you are wrestling with crowds and the heat.

Map of Palermo (Palermo Wikipedia 1024px-Palermo_-Braun&_Hogenberg,_1588-97)

The novel is born

Of course putting all this together in a novel is like constructing the star on a Christmas tree, there’s a lot holding up the story, but it might not be the focus of the reader’s attention. I am always surprised how little of all this makes its way to the pages, but as a writer I would feel quite unsupported without it all. In the end I invented incident to keep the plot moving, but only where it would fit within the context of the time and place and what was plausibly known of Giulia Tofana. But in the end, this is fiction, and my sincerest wish is for the research not to show!

Thank you so much for hosting me!

Thank you so much for sharing your research with me. I find maps incredibly helpful, even when they’re centuries older than the storyline, because they show the old streets which can have changed radically in recent years. Good luck with the new book. Intrigued, here’s the blurb.

Here’s the blurb:

Naples 1633

Aqua Tofana – One drop to heal. Three drops to kill.

Giulia Tofana longs for more responsibility in her mother’s apothecary business, but Mamma has always been secretive and refuses to tell Giulia the hidden keys to her success. When Mamma is arrested for the poisoning of the powerful Duke de Verdi, Giulia is shocked to uncover the darker side of her trade.

Giulia must run for her life, and escapes to Naples, under the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, to the home of her Aunt Isabetta, a famous courtesan. But when Giulia hears that her mother has been executed, and the cruel manner of her death, she swears she will wreak revenge on the Duke de Verdi.

The trouble is, Naples is in the grip of Domenico, the Duke’s brother, who controls the city with the ‘Camorra’, the mafia. Worse, her Aunt Isabetta, under Domenico’s thrall, insists that she should be consort to him – the brother of the man she has vowed to kill.

Based on the legendary life of Giulia Tofana, this is a story of hidden family secrets, and how even the darkest desires can be vanquished by courage and love.

‘Her characters so real they linger in the mind long after the book is back on the shelf’ Historical Novel Society

The Poison Keeper is available with Kindle Unlimited.

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Meet the Author

Deborah Swift lives in the north of England and is a USA Today bestselling author who has written fourteen historical novels to date. Her first novel, The Lady’s Slipper, set in 17th Century England, was shortlisted for the Impress Prize, and her WW2 novel Past Encounters was a BookViral Millennium Award winner. 

Deborah enjoys writing about ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances, and most of her novels have been published in reading group editions. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University and is a mentor with The History Quill.


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Don’t forget to check out the other stops on The Poison Keeper Blog Tour with The Coffee Pot Book Club