A Renaissance of Violence: Homicide in Early Modern Italy

Author: Colin Rose
Publisher: Cambridge University Press, 2019. 248 pages.
Reviewer: Peter Sposato | December 2022

Colin Rose’s A Renaissance of Violence: Homicide in Early Modern Italy is a fascinating study of violence, justice, and state power in an early modern Italian city (Bologna) and the rural districts under its control (contado) in the seventeenth century. Through skillful analysis of quantitative and qualitative evidence drawn primarily from the records of the Tribunale del Torrone— a centralized criminal court with jurisdiction over homicide and other violent crimes—Rose traces the contours and rhythms of homicidal violence in this context, laying bare how gender, social class, and external forces, like war, disease, and resource-scarcity, intensified and shaped its practice. Rose’s study is deeply informative and convincingly argued, offering a persuasive response to Norbert Elias’s civilizing theory and Steven Pinker’s rose-tinted view of the progressive decline of violence. As such, it makes a significant and praiseworthy contribution to the history of violence. Rose is also deserving of praise, however, because he successfully combines this scholarly rigor and clarity of prose and argument, with skillful historical and historiographical contextualization, to make A Renaissance of Violence accessible to both specialists and non-specialists alike.

The first two chapters do an excellent job setting the stage for what is to follow. In chapter one, the official introduction, Rose lays out, clearly and concisely, both the historical and historiographical contexts and the various ways scholars have studied and interpreted violence in the early modern world. Rose also offers a comprehensive set of typologies of homicidal violence and sketches the outlines of his main arguments.

In chapter two, Rose discusses the creation, structure, and functioning (procedure, sentencing and punishment) of the Tribunale del Torrone— the criminal court established in Bologna by Pope Julius II in the early sixteenth century— which provides most of the archival evidence for this study. This court’s primary purpose was to “curb the noble class’s hereditary privileges of justice” and to respond to a desire among inhabitants for an “effective and reliable vehicle for conflict resolution they had never received under medieval courts” (p. 42). It offered a viable alternative to seigneurial justice because it was highly professionalized, stable in structure and function, and because it utilized elements of both inquisitorial and accusatorial procedures, allowing the Torrone to both find the “truth” of a crime and play the role of arbitrator. This arbitration was intentionally public in nature and involved all relevant parties in order to allow for the “confront[ation] and discharge [of] strong emotions” as the parties were guided toward “reconciliation and[…] finally toward forgiveness” (p. 45-46). Thus, the purpose of the Torrone was “not to execute every murderer” or even to necessarily punish every “individual act” of violence, but rather “to prevent cycles of revenge violence from breaking out in both urban and rural contexts, and among all levels of Bolognese society” through conflict resolution which reached into the lives of more individuals than ever before (p. 46).

Both “introductory” chapters are well-organized and clearly written, balancing comprehensive overviews of historical and historiographical contexts aimed at non-specialists, with new insights and well-evidenced arguments that will reward the careful reading of legal scholars and specialists who study early modern violence.

Homicide in seventeenth century Bologna is the topic of chapter three. Rose employs a quantitative lens when analyzing this large and complex topic, examining “the primary characteristics and patterns of homicidal violence [found in 701 investigations drawn from the Torrone’s archives] in eleven decennial years spanning 1600-1700” (p. 82). This quantitative approach works well, allowing Rose to offer insight into the who, when, and how of homicidal violence in the Bolognese context. Particularly illuminating are the clear patterns Rose identifies, what he describes as a “parabola of homicidal violence in Bologna[…] as it crested and fell across the seventeenth century in an unpredicted pattern” (p. 139). Importantly, Rose both connects the changing levels of homicidal violence to larger scholarly arguments about the civilizing process and the decline of violence— he argues that increases in violence occurred “as Bologna and the Bolognese judiciary were undergoing precisely the process of centralization and rationalization that [scholars] assert as causative to the civilizing process and the long decline of violence”— and moves beyond these larger patterns to investigate “the social logic behind trends of violence” (p. 139). While Rose’s challenge to the idea of a civilizing process and the inevitable decline of violence are very much in line with the current thrust of scholarly discourse on the history of violence, especially in the early modern period, Rose sheds considerable new light on the Bolognese context and thus makes a substantial contribution to the field. His conclusions are clear and convincing, even more so because they are presented in such a way that they simultaneously remain accessible for non-specialists and offer much food for thought for specialists.

Rose turns, in chapter four, to the relationship between gender and homicidal violence. As in the previous chapter, Rose takes a very structured approach, outlining three general categories of gendered homicidal violence: that which was 1) committed against women, 2) by women, and 3) infanticide. Homicidal violence committed against women was not uncommon and was generally fueled by powerful emotions, like jealousy. Rose traces its many contours, ranging from violence in the household between two relatives to violence against the city’s prostitutes, whom were “consistently vulnerable to violence from clients, public officials and other prostitutes” [141]. In a similar fashion, Rose breaks down the second category— homicidal violence committed by women— into three types, apart from infanticide (the third general category): 1) mariticide, 2) cooperative family violence, and 3) scarcity-driven resource violence. As suggested by this typology, female homicidal violence had many catalysts, ranging from resource pressure and defense of property to “day-to-day conflicts and the violence that accompanied them” (p. 142).

Turning finally to infanticide, which accounts for nearly half of the trials appearing in the sampled archival evidence, Rose notes the harsh treatment of the accused women, who were more likely to be condemned and executed for this type of homicidal violence than for any other. In addition to discussing these categories of violence, Rose also sheds important light on two factors that shaped how judicial authorities, and Bolognese society in general, viewed gendered violence: the connection between gender and honor and patriarchal attitudes deeply baked into Bolognese society. Rose deftly highlights the clear impact of each in the judicial record. For example, while the Bolognese government did not show significant concern about incidents of domestic violence perpetrated by men against women— Rose notes that “homicides of women by husbands and lovers were generally adjudicated lightly” despite the fact that “domestic violence remained a serious threat to Bolognese women”— judicial authorities were far more concerned about women who killed their husbands or children, even though they were often driven to this violence by the same catalysts as men (p. 141-142).

Women who committed homicidal violence were “fearsome figure[s]” who needed to be confronted with the full force of the law, especially if their violence involved poison and thus fell in line with “medieval tropes about women and women’s criminality” (p. 141-142). As a result, Rose finds that “women were[…] far more likely to face significant judicial penalty when they did poison a husband or commit a desperate act of infanticide than were men” (p. 142). Rose’s observations about the subjugation of Bolognese women and about female honor are likewise illuminating. Rose argues that Bolognese women, like their counterparts across Early Modern Italy, “continued to be subjugat[ed…] through increasingly tight systems of enclosure and discipline” that neither protected them from homicide, nor “afford[ed] them a cultural role that permitted significant acceptable violence of their own” (p. 141).

In chapter five, Rose explores how environmental and economic upheaval following the devastating plague which struck Bologna in 1630-31 intensified homicidal violence in rural Bologna, engendering violence that “transgressed social hierarchies and communicated strong dissatisfaction with society’s status quo” (p. 156). Although Rose focuses on the judicial records for only a single year, 1632, this chapter successfully sheds light on the nature of homicidal violence, its environmental and economic catalysts, and the failed efforts of the Torrone to control it over the subsequent three decades.

More specifically, Rose argues that violence played an important role in “reconstructing the institutions of society, redefining relationships between groups whose circumstances had shifted radically, and recalibrating the options available to those seeking to modify their station in life” in the aftermath of a plague that had severely compromised traditional structures of conflict resolution (p. 157). Rose carefully distinguishes this violence according to its geographic (city versus countryside) and societal (urban nobles versus rural denizens) contexts, offering real insight into qualitative differences that often elude modern readers but would have been readily apparent to contemporaries. Thus, we find the reinvigoration of “deadly rivalries between noble clans of the city” alongside a significant uptick in violence among rural peasants and artisans (p. 158). Rose argues that “in each setting, members of social groups who had previously maintained a degree of peace[…] killed in pursuit of individual goals” (p. 179). The failure of the Torrone (and governments in local communities and Bologna proper) to control this transgressive violence and restore stability to the Bolognese contado resulted in a dramatic decline in “societal trust in and support of governmental, judicial and societal institutions” that lasted for decades (p. 158).

Rose’s arguments in this chapter— well-supported by his mining of rich veins of archival evidence— are clearly articulated and persuasive, even more so because he places his findings in conversation with well-known theories connecting changing levels of violence to changing levels of trust in government institutions. As a result, readers will learn much from this microstudy, while also finding in the process an effective model of how to study violence in an early modern society torn apart by environmental disaster and other external forces.

Rose’s discussion in the previous chapter of elite violence in the decades following the 1630-1 plague nicely sets the stage for his examination in chapter six of how Bolognese nobles used violence to restore and protect their traditional privileges in the mid-seventeenth century. More specifically, Rose analyzes the judicial records for two years, 1652 and 1660, to highlight a “quantity and quality of violence in the city and province of Bologna” that bordered on a “civil war in which the factions were not always clear, loyalties shifted within and among families, and the legatine government was left largely unable to control order within Bologna” (p. 220). This resurgence of noble violence was not the result solely of the economic and social upheaval following the 1630-1 plague, but rather was the increasingly unchecked manifestation of decades of latent animus and resistance on the part of some noble families to papal rule in Bologna and the Torrone’s judicial authority, which had usurped traditional noble claims to private justice.

Rose deftly traces the contours of this violence, highlighting both its quantitative and qualitative intensification, as well as the marked shift from rural to urban spaces as the primary location for this violence. Rose connects the continued violence of these noble families— mostly members of Bologna still-extant magnate class— to the larger scholarly debate about the early modern centralized state’s ability to “civilize” its subjects, particularly elite men for whom violence was not only a marker of their “exceptionalism”, but also a constitutive feature of their lifestyle (p. 185). Rose concludes quite convincingly that “mid-seventeenth-century Bologna demonstrated a failed civilizing process” (p. 220), underscoring just “how illusory the seeming success [of papal rule and the Torrone in the early sixteenth] century had actually been” (p. 183). Indeed, rates of homicidal violence in the countryside returned to ‘normal’ levels only after “general regional stability” was reestablished in the waning years of the century (p. 40). The conclusions to this chapter are powerful and persuasive, even more so because Rose once again successfully combines clarity of prose and argument with skillful historical, historiographical, and methodological contextualization.

Colin Rose’s excellent A Renaissance of Violence makes an original and significant contribution to the study of violence, justice, and state power in premodern Europe, particularly in early modern Italy, pushing back in the process against popular, but misguided theories of civilizing processes and the progressive decline of violence. Rose skillfully paints a picture of the changing contours and fluctuating rhythms of homicidal violence in Bologna and its contado using hues of scholarly rigor, clarity of prose and argument, and critical analysis of archival evidence. While this potent combination will offer specialists much to ponder, Rose ensures that his study is accessible for non-specialists as well through careful historical and historiographical contextualization. As a result, Rose’s A Renaissance of Violence is not only an excellent study of homicidal violence, but also a useful model for future studies in the field.

Peter Sposato is an Associate Professor of History at Indiana University, Kokomo

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