Love and Death in Renaissance Italy, by Thomas V Cohen

Witness protection, Baroque style
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The Independent Culture

There waws a column in a London evening newspaper entitled "Courts Day by Day": a sketch of the most colourful cases. The historian Thomas V Cohen has achieved something similar with the courts of Renaissance Italy, aided by the meticulously preserved State Archive of Rome.

There waws a column in a London evening newspaper entitled "Courts Day by Day": a sketch of the most colourful cases. The historian Thomas V Cohen has achieved something similar with the courts of Renaissance Italy, aided by the meticulously preserved State Archive of Rome.

The criminal courts run by the governor of Rome dealt with crimes ranging from murder and treason to minor brawls and taking whores to wine shops. The richest of the archives were the processi, where an examining magistrate investigated suspects and witnesses behind closed doors, releasing a transcript to defence and prosecution lawyers.

To become enmeshed by the law in Renaissance Italy could be as harrowing for witnesses as suspects. In 1577, a young woman, Lucretia Gramar, her two sisters and her father were all jailed for three months during the trial of the former chief prosecutor of the Papal State, Alessandro Pallantieri, who had n raped and impregnated her. Cross- examination included the torture of being hanged by the arms. This, Cohen says, was helpful in that the evidence affirmed under torture was strengthened, adding in a comment Donald Rumsfeld might have approved: "To further their case and help her prove her point, the judges did her a favour: they strung her up."

Pallantieri appears, before his fall, as the judge in a case of double murder. Giovanni Battista Savelli, lord of Cretone, caught his wife Vittoria and his illegitimate half-brother in flagrante. The lover had descended to Vittoria's bedroom window by means of cloth bands anchored to a higher window. Female servants may have suspected, but were protective of their mistress - a case of both sexual solidarity and support for their employer.

Giovanni Battista observed the etiquette of vendetta. A servant stabbed the lover to death while the husband reserved the killing of Vittoria for himself. In the court case, Vittoria's brother's acceptance of the murders as a matter of honour would have influenced the outcome. There is no trace of a sentence.

Cohen attempts to dramatise the last will of Vittoria Giustini by turning the court dialogue into a play with intermezzi. The case concerned four brothers who cut out the fifth black sheep by forcing a will on their dying sister. Their brawling is more reminiscent of a soccer match than a play.

Cohen suggests that women, despite their lack of power, were able to use the weapons of resistance. "They subvert and evade oppression and ... lash back with irony and reproach." Irony can't have been much comfort to the rape victims in the book, and the "resistance" seems more a sop to present-day gender politics. His writing veers from archly old-fashioned to academic ponderings. No marks for style, but plenty for the sheer endeavour of unearthing a submerged piece of history.

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