6 March 2020

Giovanni Battista Bugatti - executioner

An 18th century woodcut shows Mastro Titta showing off the head of a victim
An 18th century woodcut shows Mastro
Titta
showing off the head of a victim

‘Mastro Titta’ ended 516 lives in long career


Giovanni Battista Bugatti, who served as the official executioner for the Papal States from 1796 to 1864, was born on this day in 1779 in Senigallia, a port town on the Adriatic coast about 30km (19 miles) northwest of the city of Ancona.

Bugatti, who became known by the nickname Mastro Titta - a corruption of the Italian maestro di giustizia - master of justice - in Roman dialect, carried out 516 executions in his 68-year career.  He was the longest-serving executioner in the history of the Papal States.

The circumstances of him being granted such an important role in Roman life at the age of just 17 are not known.  What is documented is that while not carrying out his grim official duties he kept a shop selling painted umbrellas and other souvenirs next to his home in the Borgo district, in Vicolo del Campanile, a short distance from Castel Sant’Angelo, which served as a prison during the time of the Papal States.

It seemed an incongruous day job for someone whose very name struck a chill among Rome’s criminal fraternity. Yet he treated his responsibilities with the utmost solemnity, leaving his home early in the morning on the days an execution was to take place, dressed in his scarlet executioner’s coat, stopping off first at the church of Santa Maria in Traspontina for confession.

Bugatti would often offer the condemned man or woman a pinch of snuff
Bugatti would often offer the condemned
man or woman a pinch of snuff
For his own safety, he was not permitted to enter the central part of Rome except to carry out his official duties.  When Mastro Titta was spotted crossing the bridge it became a signal to Romans that an execution was due and crowds would gather.

Executions did not take place solely in Rome. Bugatti was required to travel to all parts of the Papal States to fulfil the terms of his service. Indeed, his first execution took place more than 150km (93 miles) north of the capital in the city of Foligno in Umbria. His first victim, on 22 March, 1796, was Nicola Gentilucci, who had been convicted of strangling and killing a priest, a coachman and of robbing two friars.

In Rome, many of the executions took place in Piazza del Popolo, in the shadow of the famous Egyptian obelisk, others on the Ponte Sant’Angelo, which links Castel Sant’Angelo with central Rome.  Both Lord Byron and Charles Dickens witnessed Bugatti’s work during visits to Rome and wrote about it for their English readers.

Bugatti himself called the executions justices and referred to the condemned as patients.  He bore no personal animosity towards his victims and would often offer them a pinch of snuff as a last experience of earthly pleasure. He was skilled in what he did, whether it was execution by hanging, beheading by axe, the administering of a fatal blow with a mallet or, latterly, with the guillotine, and prided himself on being both neat and quick.

Notices of impending executions were posted in churches, asking for prayers for the condemned, and so crowds would assemble. Fathers would bring their children so that they learned at an early age what fate might befall them as adults if they disobeyed the law.

Remarkably, Bugatti is said to have maintained his strength and the precision into his work even into old age and he was 85 when at last he agreed to retire, accepting a pension from Pope Pius IX.  He returned to Senigallia and lived a further five years.

Today, his blood-stained scarlet coat, plus a selection of axes and guillotines, are on display at Rome’s Museo Criminologico - Museum of Criminology - in Via del Gonfalone.

The Ponte Sant'Angelo, which connects Castel Sant'Angelo with the centre of Rome across the Tiber river
The Ponte Sant'Angelo, which connects Castel Sant'Angelo
with the centre of Rome across the Tiber river 
Travel tip:

Castel Sant’Angelo, the towering cylindrical building in Parco Adriano, on the banks of the Tiber, was originally commissioned by the Roman emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum for himself and his family. It was later used by the popes as a fortress, castle and prison, and is now a museum. It was once the tallest building in Rome.  Hadrian also built the Pons Aelius – now Ponte Sant’Angelo – which provides a scenic approach to the mausoleum from the centre of Rome across the Tiber. Baroque statues of angels were later added, lining each side of the bridge.

The beach at Senigallia, with its art nouveau pier and  pavilion, the Rotonda al Mare
The beach at Senigallia, with its art nouveau pier and
pavilion, the Rotonda al Mare
Travel tip:

Badly damaged in both world wars and by an earthquake in between, the Adriatic port of Senigallia has a modern look today but has a long history. It takes its name from a third century Roman settlement Sena Gallica.  Captured and recaptured many times by opposing sides during the Guelph and Ghibelline war, it was the scene of a bloodbath early in the 16th century as Cesare Borgia routed some of his disloyal supporters. It became the property of both the Medici and Della Rovere families before the Papal States took charge.  In more recent years, it has become an important holiday resort but retains some historic attractions, such as the well-preserved Gothic Rocca Roveresca, which was restored in the 15the century.

Also on this day:

1483: The birth of Florentine historian and diplomat Francesco Guicciardini

1853: Verdi’s opera La Traviata is performed for the first time

1933: The birth of Augusto Adone, the father who famously invented Lorenzo’s Oil as a medicine for his sick son


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