National Catholic Reporter, September 14, 2001
By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
One of the most extraordinary artifacts of papal Rome is not to be found in the Vatican Museums or in St. Peter’s Basilica, or, for that matter, in any ecclesiastical venue. It is tucked away on an obscure side street, in Rome’s sleepy Criminology Museum, operated as a hobby by the Italian “Ministry of Grace and Justice.”
There, in a back room on the first floor, 12 feet tall and looking to be in perfect working order, stands the papal guillotine.
This efficient deliverer of death was introduced in Rome by the French. It was first employed just two centuries ago, in 1810, to lop off the head of one Tommaso Tintori, a local man convicted of homicide.
To be fair, it was used on that occasion under French authority. The pope had lost political control of Rome to Napoleon in 1798 and did not get it back until the Congress of Vienna in 1815. From 1816 on, however, the guillotine was used scores of times by papal warrant.
The man who performed virtually all of those executions was, when the guillotine arrived, already a veteran at killing under the pope’s aegis. Giovanni Battista Bugatti, nicknamed “Mastro Titta” by the Romans, had been carrying out papal death sentences since 1796. He continued doing so until his retirement in 1865, at the venerable age of 85. He died in 1869, less than a year before the collapse of the Papal States he served so faithfully.
Mastro Titta -- the appellation is a Roman corruption of maestro di giustizia, or “master of justice” -- was the pope’s longest serving executioner and by far the most celebrated.
Though the date was not marked on any church calendar, the 140th anniversary of Bugatti’s last execution -- or “justice,” as official documents called it -- came Aug. 17. The anniversary offers an occasion to dust off the neglected story of Mastro Titta and reflect on what life was like in the Eternal City not so long ago when popes were kings.
It is also a lesson in how fast things can change in the Catholic church, given that today’s pope is a ferocious opponent of the act his predecessors little more than a century ago paid Mastro Titta to perform.
In his time, Bugatti was a celebrity. Byron jotted a few lines about him in a letter to John Murray, his editor in England. Charles Dickens left a lengthy recollection in Pictures of Italy, after watching him work one afternoon in 1845. The Italian poet Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli penned several satirical sonnets in his honor. The most famous elegized Mastro Titta as a swift cure for a headache.
Today his memory lives on as legends often do, in half-remembered anecdotes and obscure ditties. Roman mothers, for example, sing their little ones to sleep with a rhyme that goes: “Sega, sega, Mastro Titta.” Segare is the Italian verb “to saw,” so the mental image implied is ghoulishly accurate.
More heads than melons
Bugatti did not invent papal executions, nor was his the most bloodthirsty tenure. He never executed 18 people at once, as happened on Aug. 27, 1500, when thieves who had robbed and killed Holy Year pilgrims were put to death. (One was a hospital orderly, who had alerted his accomplice to weakened patients with deep pockets).
Nor did Bugatti work for Pope Sixtus V in 1585, when local legend says the pope’s “zero tolerance” crackdown on crime resulted in more severed heads on the Castel Sant’Angelo bridge than melons in the markets.
Yet it was Mastro Titta who became synonymous with papal execution, in part because he was around so long, in part because he did not cultivate the executioner’s usual anonymity.
Over the course of his 68 years on the pontifical payroll, Bugatti was called upon to perform “justices” 516 times -- a seemingly prodigious number, though it comes out to just over seven working days each year.
His first assignment came on March 22, 1796, and his last on Aug. 17, 1861. Such details are known because he left behind a precise list of each of his “justices,” with the date, the name of the condemned, the nature of the crime and the site of the execution.
Mastro Titta was not, it should be noted, executing the Giordano Brunos or Savonarolas of his day. His “patients,” as they were euphemistically known, were not victims of the Inquisition or theological critics of the pope. They were mostly brigands and murderers who had been convicted by the civil courts of the Papal States.
The method of execution was, before 1816, either the ax or the noose, and afterward the guillotine. In special cases, however, Mastro Titta would employ two other techniques.
The first was what the Romans called the mazzatello. In this case the executioner would carry a large mallet, swing it through the air to gather momentum, and then bring it crashing down on the prisoner’s head, in the same manner that cattle were put out of commission in the stockyards. The throat would then be cut to be sure the crushing blow killed, rather than merely stunned.
The other alternative was drawing and quartering. Sometimes this method would be employed in combination with the guillotine or ax. The body would be laid on a stone with its arms and legs tied to four different horses. The horses would be spurred at the same moment, pulling the body apart. In both cases, the point was to signal that the crime in question was especially loathsome.
When an execution was to be held, papal dragoons would provide security. The most common sites were the Castel Sant’Angelo bridge, the Piazza del Popolo, and Via dei Cerchi near the Piazza della Bocca della Verità.
Roman fathers would bring their sons to watch Mastro Titta lower the boom. By tradition, they would slap their son’s head when the blade came down, as a way of warning: “This could be you.”
Witnesses would take bets about how long it would take for the head to drop into the basket, how many times it would spin, and how much blood would spurt forth from the corpse. Pickpockets were notorious for staking out the gallows.
A public festival followed.
For his troubles, Mastro Titta received lodgings in the Borgo district of Rome near the Vatican and a steady income from various tax concessions granted by the pope. He also had a generous pension, awarded, according to official documents, in gratitude for his “very long-standing service.”
For each killing, however, papal law specified that the Boia (Italian for “executioner”) was to receive only three cents of the Roman lira, in order to “mark the vileness of his work.”
Yet Bugatti did not comport himself like a man who felt vile. Before carrying out an execution, he would offer the condemned a bit of snuff, a touch of good manners that someone with a guilty conscience would likely have been too sheepish to perform.
Bugatti frequented churches near the Vatican, especially Santa Maria in Traspontina. He was said to be pious and a conscientious Mass-goer. (One imagines him in Santa Maria, in its chapel dedicated to the Madonna della Pietà e delle Grazie, gazing at Mary as she cradles her dead son after a brutal act of capital punishment. What thoughts must have come?)
Mastro Titta was, according to remembrances, a short fellow, portly, and apparently a bit of a fop. He always dressed elegantly, with a white tie and low-cut polished shoes rather than the boots that were normal for the time. Later illustrations, usually intended to sell copies of his life story, often erroneously show him as a tall, dark avenger.
The one exception to his sartorial predilections came when Mastro Titta had an execution to perform. Then he would don a hooded, calf-length scarlet cloak. As befit a man of his ample carriage, the cloak had an elastic section around the belly so that it expanded with its wearer. The stained cloak is also on display at the Criminology Museum.
Bugatti was forbidden to leave Vatican precincts except on official business, that business having made him understandably unpopular in certain circles. Whenever he entered the center of the city, therefore, people knew what it meant. “Mastro Titta is crossing the bridge” entered the Roman lexicon as a way of saying that heads were about to roll.
Yet the executioner was neither isolated nor bereft of other interests. In addition to his work for the pope, Bugatti supported his wife (no children) by painting umbrellas, producing images of papal faces and Roman scenes for the raingear peddled in curio shops around St. Peter’s.
He was not, in short, a Hannibal Lector-esque monster thriving on cruelty. Indeed, if anyone were searching for a 19th-century Italian embodiment of what Hannah Arendt once famously defined as the “banality of evil,” Bugatti would seem to fit the bill.
A deadly tradition
To call Bugatti’s occupation “evil” is of course to make a judgment, but in this case at least not an anachronistic one. Italy in the era of Mastro Titta was in the vanguard of the abolitionist movement on capital punishment.
The Grand Duchy of Tuscany had become the first sovereign state to ban the death penalty in 1786, 10 years before Bugatti took up his ax. It did so under the influence of Italian essayist Cesare Beccaria, whose 1764 anti-death penalty tract “On Crimes and Punishments” is considered a classic.
So strong had Italian aversion to capital punishment become that when an anarchist named Angelo Bresci assassinated King Umberto I in 1900, Italian courts sentenced him to life in prison. It was the first time a man had killed a European king (without toppling his regime) and not been executed.
Yet the Catholic church was never part of this development. The guillotine was busy up to the very last minute of the pope-king’s regime. Its final use came on July 9, 1870, just two months before Italian revolutionaries captured Rome.
What explains this stubbornness? In part, that Catholic standby -- tradition. Christian writers since the fourth century had defended capital punishment.
St. Augustine did so in The City of God. “Since the agent of authority is but a sword in the hand [of God], it is in no way contrary to the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ for the representative of the state’s authority to put criminals to death,” he wrote.
Augustine saw the death penalty as a form of charity. “Inflicting capital punishment … protects those who are undergoing it from the harm they may suffer … through increased sinning, which might continue if their life went on.”
Aquinas followed Augustine in the 13th century in Summa Contra Gentiles. “The civil rulers execute, justly and sinlessly, pestiferous men in order to protect the state,” he wrote.
The Cathechism of the Council of Trent, issued in 1566, solidly endorsed capital punishment as an act of “paramount obedience” to the fifth commandment against murder.
Nor was this tradition confined to the Middle Ages. As late as Sept. 14, 1952, Pope Pius XII echoed its logic. “It is reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned of the benefit of life, in expiation of his fault, when already he has dispossessed himself of the right to live,” he said.
The leading abolitionists of the 18th and 19th centuries were Enlightenment-inspired critics of revealed religion. Popes defended their right to send people to death because to do otherwise seemed tantamount to abandoning belief in eternal life.
Catholic scholar James Megivern summed up the tradition this way: “If tempted to waver, one needed only to consult the bedrock authorities from Aquinas to Suarez. Questioning it could seem an act of arrogant temerity. If one did not believe in the death penalty, what other parts of the Christian faith might one also be daring or arrogant enough to doubt or deny?”
All of which makes the shift in thinking under John Paul II astonishing.
In the 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, John Paul wrote that the only time executions can be justified is when they are required “to defend society,” and that “as a result of steady improvements … in the penal system such cases are very rare if not practically nonexistent.”
When the new Catechism of the Catholic Church appeared, it did not ban capital punishment, but expressed a strong preference for “bloodless means.” Such strategies, it said, “better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.”
On the stump, John Paul has used much sharper language. During a visit to St. Louis in January 1999, he said that the death penalty is “both cruel and unnecessary.” Human life must not be taken away “even in case of someone who has done great evil.” Society can protect itself without “definitively denying criminals the chance to reform.”
The pope has relentlessly interceded on behalf of death row inmates, and the St. Louis trip occasioned his best-known success. Then-Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan commuted the death sentence of Darrell Mease in response to a plea for mercy.
Church historians locate the roots of changed Catholic thinking on the death penalty in the Second Vatican Council, as well as John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris, both of which endorsed universal human rights and especially the right to life.
Papal criticism of the death penalty became more explicit under Paul VI. When the Vatican city-state came into existence in 1929, its fascist-era “fundamental law” included a provision for execution of anyone who tried to kill the pope. When the law was updated in 1969, Paul VI removed this provision. He also begged governments on several occasions not to carry out executions. Both the atheistic Soviet Union, in 1971, and ultra-Catholic Spain, in 1975, ignored his appeals.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Pope John Paul II’s top theologian, says that Catholicism has witnessed a “development in doctrine” on the death penalty.
For a church that thinks in centuries, however, the word “development” hardly does justice to such a breathtakingly rapid change. It is more akin to a doctrinal revolution, one that would have dumbfounded no one more than the pope’s executioner.
A sacred act
Part of the reason Mastro Titta would have been flabbergasted is that a papal execution, as he experienced it, was a sacred act, rich with ritual and theological meaning hallowed by centuries of tradition. It was, in fact, a liturgy.
The ritual began with the announcement of an execution, accomplished by posting notices on Roman churches requesting prayers for the soul of the condemned. That was the only official notice that an execution was imminent -- aside, of course, from the erection of a gallows.
The morning of each execution, the pope said a special prayer for the condemned in his private chapel. A priest would visit Mastro Titta to hear his confession and to administer Communion, symbolizing in the sacramental argot of the time that the executioner was fully christened by the church.
The execution was solemnized by a special order of monks, the Arciconfraternita della Misericordia, or Brotherhood of Mercy. The order was born in Florence in the 13th century, where it aided the needy and injured, and at one point numbered Michelangelo among its members. (Florence Nightingale, an Englishwoman born in Florence, was later inspired by the brotherhood to go into health care).
In the Papal States, the monks had a narrower mandate. They delivered pastoral care to condemned prisoners and celebrated the rituals surrounding their deaths.
Pope Innocent VIII in 1488 assigned them the aptly named Roman church of San Giovanni Battista Decollato -- St. John Baptist Beheaded. The church is located around the corner from the Via dei Cerchi, where Mastro Titta carried out many of his executions.
The proximity was helpful, since one of the confraternity’s duties was to cart the corpses of the condemned back to their cloister for burial. Visitors can still see the manholes into which the decapitated bodies were placed.
The brotherhood stayed with the condemned in their last 12 hours of life. They would pray with them, offer the sacraments, and encourage them to ask God’s forgiveness. Under papal law no execution could take place before sundown, the time of the Ave Maria, if the monks had not succeeded in eliciting a confession.
Members of the brotherhood wrote prayer books and catechisms for death row inmates, paying special attention to the requirements for a mors bon Christiana -- “a good Christian death.”
Before the condemned set out for the execution site, their hands were tied and their shirts cut down to shoulder-level so as not to interfere with the smooth functioning of the apparatus. The monks led them through the streets in a sacred procession. Altar boys went first, ringing bells, while the monks chanted special litanies. Incense was burned as they walked.
For these processions the monks donned hooded whitish brown robes and carried a crucifix, usually wrapped with a black shawl. (Some of these robes and crucifixes are also on display in the Criminology Museum).
The monks continued their prayers, composed largely of the Old Testament psalms, up to the moment of execution. They would hold the crucifix toward the condemned, so that it might be the last thing he saw.
After the head was severed, Mastro Titta would walk to the four corners of the scaffold and lift it high for the crowd to see. This was in part meant as a threat, but it was also part of the ritual, a way of signifying that God’s justice had been done.
Megivern has described the theology underlying this liturgy of execution as “gallows pietism.” The idea was that an execution was a form of expiation, a way for the condemned person to atone for evil done.
The scaffold came to be seen as an occasion of grace, almost a sacramental. Devotional literature compared the redemptive value of the blood spilled to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
St. Robert Bellarmine offered a classic exposition in his book The Art of Dying Well, where he said of the condemned: “When they have begun to depart from mortal life, they begin to live in immortal bliss.”
Mastro Titta imbibed, and depended upon, this gallows pietism. One can assume that when he swung the ax, brought down the mazzatello, or let loose the guillotine’s blade, he indeed saw himself as Augustine’s “sword of God.”
If you ask Romans about Mastro Titta today, whatever image they have is likely to derive from a popular 1962 Italian musical comedy called Rugantino, in which the pope’s executioner is depicted as a roly-poly sidekick somewhat in the tradition of Falstaff. It was made into a film in 1973. The play has enjoyed a revival during the last two summer seasons in Rome.
During his epoch, however, Giovanni Battista Bugatti was the embodiment of a social order in the Papal States in which violence often was the glue that held things together. Execution was only the last recourse in the system, which had several less ultimate solutions at its disposal.
For example, Rome’s Piazza Giudia featured a “justice pole,” a tall beam of some 12 feet with a crossbar at the top. Papal police would tie the hands of a person convicted of petty offenses and heave him by a pulley to the top of the pole, then let him down with brutal speed a number of times.
At a minimum, the convicted person’s arms would be pulled out of their sockets. The falls usually broke some ribs, and occasionally someone would land at just the right angle to crack their skull. It was not subtle, nor was it meant to be.
Of course, the Papal States were no more thuggish than other monarchies of the time, and Mastro Titta was less heinous than many of his counterparts in France, Spain and Germany.
Yet there is something about the office of a papal executioner, and about the liturgy of death of which he was the focal point, that sensitive Catholics cannot help but find unsettling. If nothing else, it is an invitation to consider which of today’s systems of crime and punishment, which of today’s ritualized acts of violence, might in the course of a century seem unaccountably barbaric to others.
A final point: Popes don’t like to admit change in church teaching, preferring to style even the most blatant reversals as consistent with what went before. But perhaps John Paul II’s “Culture of Life” is a patrimony all the more precious when pondered from a place in front of the papal guillotine, reflecting on how far things have come since the days when Mastro Titta crossed the bridge.
John L. Allen Jr. is NCR’s Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is email@example.com
National Catholic Reporter, September 14, 2001