~ Curious And Unusual ~
- 9 -

When Mastro Titta Crossed The Bridge

public executions in 19th century Rome

page 1

Viengheno: attenti: la funzione è llesta...
(Here they come: pay attention: the ceremony is short...)
These are the opening words of one of several sonnets by the famous dialect poet Giuseppe Gioachino Belli inspired by executions that took place in Rome.
Up to 1870, in times when the city was ruled by the 'Pope King' as an absolute monarchy, public executions were one of the the common people's favourite happenings, attended by crowds, who found this unholy practice not only amusing, but even took their sons to witness the event for ...educational purposes.
The papal law, a mixture of civil and religious codes, was strict with the common people and with liberals, and was rather loose with the noble, especially if belonging to a family that counted among their members one or more bishops or cardinals, who in those times represented the core of the Papal State's establishment: judges, ministers, even the head of the police, all important charges were held by high members of the clergy.
From 1796 to 1864, only one man was in charge for the rather frequent executions in Rome: Giovanni Battista Bugatti, whose nickname Mastro Titta ("Master Titta"), became legendary: during his 70-year long activity, he performed 516 executions, or justices, as they used to be called. 'Mastro Titta' became the local synonym for 'executioner': even the many who came before him and the few who came after were addressed by this nickname. A personage so deeply rooted in the folk memory to be mentioned even in a popular children's rhyme.
Although professing one of the most outrageous activities, Mastro Titta carried out his duty with a certain detachment, which is a traditional Roman attitude towards the ups and downs of life. He is even known to have sometimes offered the condemned a last pinch of snuff, almost as to say don't blame me for being here today, or cheer up: it won't take long, I'll do a neat job.

a youthful Mastro Titta offering snuff,
before getting work done; the setting
is the bridge by Sant'Angelo Castle

vicolo del Campanile: the house
where Mastro Titta lived
In short, he didn't enjoy what he was doing, but since someone had to do it ...he took care of it, very professionally too!
Mastro Titta lived on a regular job: he was an 'umbrella-painter', an activity for which he ran a shop next to his house in Borgo district, on the western side of the river Tiber, next to the Vatican. Still today, one of the streets of the district is called via degli Ombrellari ("Umbrella-makers Street"). His residence was in vicolo del Campanile 2, in a house of the early 1500s, still extant. Due to his other more occasional 'occupation', for the sake of his own safety, he was not allowed to enter the city's central districts, located on the opposite side of the Tiber; he was only allowed to do so officially, for the well-known reason: when the people said that Mastro Titta was to 'cross the bridge', it meant that somebody would very soon lose his head.
Being an executioner, he was granted a number of facilities and concessions, although even in those times, after all, many people frowned upon this activity; Belli wrote in one of his notes:
 However, for the act of killing the patient (sic!) he was payed 3 cents of the roman Lira, to remark the vileness of his work.
Mastro Titta retired at the age of 85, and for the five years he still lived he was even granted a pension for his very long-lasting duties (as stated by an official document), an activity which he took very seriously: on every crucial day, at dawn - most executions took place early in the morning - he wore his scarlet cloak, and solemnly crossed the bridge.
He also kept a record of his activity, a notebook in which he scrupulously wrote dates, names and crimes for which his work was required. After coming into the possession of an editor, in 1891 this document inspired an anonymous autor (probably Ernesto Mezzabotta), who published in installments an anthology of the most thrilling stories of the criminals put to death, signing them as Mastro Titta, under the title Memorie di un carnefice scritte da lui stesso ("memories of an executioner written by himself"); an online edition of this work is available in the website of Rome's Criminology Museum.

piazza del Popolo was one of the sites where executions took place →

Although this may sound slightly morbid, Mastro Titta's versatile skills in handling his 'ware' should be shortly mentioned: his techniques included hanging, malletting (i.e. killing by means of a precise blow with a mallet), beheading with the guillottine (a heritage of the French Revolution), and even quartering. The latter was an additional punishment for particularly brutal crimes, such as the murder of a member of the clergy; it was inflicted after the killing, to the dead body, the dismembered limbs being then hung to the four corners of the scaffold.
Public executions used to be held on fixed spots; piazza del Popolo, the large central square with an obelisk, was one of them. Still today, a plaque set in 1909 by a democratic association remembers two patriots sentenced here in 1825, their capital punishment being ordered by the pope, without evidence nor defense.
Very soon the government had the latter words covered with plaster, as a token of friendship to the Vatican; but several years later, while the building where the plaque hangs was undergoing some restoration works, the text came out again, this time, says the plaque, to stand permanently as the people's admonishing will.
The story of the two patriots also inspired movie director Luigi Magni for the making of one of his best known titles, The Conspirators (original title: Nell'anno del Signore, 1969).

the plaque in memory of the two patriots

Another site for executions was the small square at one end of the bridge in front of Sant'Angelo Castle, whose charming view was still not enough to deaden the cruel show it used to host.
In mentioning the above-said spots in one of his sonnets, Belli added another witty note, dated 1835, which reads as follows:
Popolo and Ponte
Squares where up to the latest years justice was carried out. Executions are now performed in Via de' Cerchi, which runs parallel to the outer northern side of the ancient Circus Maximus, in the valley between the Aventine and the Palatine, where once the greater Velabrus flowed. And the punishment of misdeeds well suits this spot, where Romans committed their first crime: the rape of the Sabine women.

← the square before Sant'Angelo Bridge where the scaffold was set

Shortly before an execution took place, it was a common custom for several churches to hang public notices, in which the faithful were asked to pray for the soul of the condemned. This is also how the mob came to know about the event.

Belli and Rome's people were not the only witnesses of these crude happenings: also two famous English authors left a description of Mastro Titta's work.
On May 19th, 1817, George Gordon Byron was in piazza del Popolo while three convicts were being beheaded (...for murder and theft, Mastro Titta wrote in his booklet), and the English poet mentioned this experience in a letter to his editor John Murray.
A much more detailed record, though, was left by Charles Dickens. The novelist was touring Italy in 1845; among his memories of Rome, the execution of another criminal was described in Pictures of Italy (1846). The relevant passage from his work can be read in page 2.

As Dickens remarks in his chronicle, in the case of beheading the head was immediately shown to the crowd on the four sides of the scaffold, before being left on display for a while, usually stuck at the end of a pole (what in earlier times was done, for a much longer time, along the sides of Sant'Angelo Bridge).

Mastro Titta, of mature age, showing
the crowd a severed female head
('justice' was not only for men!)

via dei Cerchi, another site where 'justices' took place;
St.John's is located further up the dark street on the right
A curious custom that the English author seems to have overlooked, probably because too concentrated on what was going on above the scaffold, is that among the huge crowd, several men used to carry along their young sons, to show them every detail of the event: on the very moment the blade (...and the head) fell down, or the criminal was hung, they used to give the kid a slap, as a tangible reminder of what one day might have been their own fate, had they got into trouble with justice (in those days, this happened to members of the lower class rather often).
Such custom is mentioned in one of Belli's popular sonnets, a small selection of which, concerning the subject of executions in Rome, can be found in page 2.

Another typical feature of the gloomy cerimony was the procession of friars who accompanied the condemned up to the scaffold, wearing a black cowl with a pointed hood.
They belonged to the Confraternita della Misericordia ("Brotherhood of Mercy"), a centuries-old congregation founded in Florence; Michelangelo himself had been one of its members, over 300 years earlier. Their headquarters in Rome were by the church of San Giovanni Decollato ("St.John Beheaded", i.e. St.John the Baptist), located in a narrow street by via dei Cerchi, another spot where executions took place in the 1700s and 1800s.

The congregation was in charge of delivering religious consolation to the condemned; after the execution, the same friars also carried away the corpses to the church's cloister, where they buried them.
By an ancient privilege, granted by pope Paul III in 1540, each year the Brotherhood of Mercy had the right of freeing one convict sentenced to death. The choice was carried out by gathering information about the several prisoners, about their crimes and their trials, by asking the victims' families for forgiveness (the convict could not be freed without their permission), and by finally holding a ballot among the members, to choose which prisoner was more worthy of being saved, and when to hold the ceremony.

(↑ above) the Misericordia members
wore cloaks similar to these ones;
(← left) the church of St.John Behead
On the given day, a procession of friars would march up to the jail, where the chosen prisoner would be officially handed over to them. The congregation would have then found the man an honest job or, in the case of a stranger, would have given him some money to travel back home.
Memories of the aforesaid rituals and ceremonies are now kept in the congregation's Historic Chamber, by St.John's church, open to the public once a year, on June 24, the saint's own day.

the original cloak
worn by Mastro Titta
What is left of Mastro Titta, instead, besides his legendary fame, is the scarlet cloak that the executioner used to wear on official occasions, when he was allowed to 'cross the bridge'; it is now on display in Rome's Criminology Museum.

this page was written in the hope that the cloak and the tools
of every 'Mastro Titta' still active may soon be turned
into a harmless museum exhibit

a head presented in a dish: the seal
of the congregation of St.John Beheaded