PRISONS IN RENAISSANCE VENICE
Appointment of Be[rnardo?] Belegno as ‘Advocatus Incarceratorum’.
Manuscript, Italy, early seventeenth century.
4to. ff. 38 unnumbered, *3 2*-3*12 4*10, last gathering blank. MS, on thick paper, Italian. In red, gold, silver and brown-black ink in cursive (first gathering only) and secretary hand, typically 25 ruled lines per page, first two gatherings with triple rule border in red and black, last two with single rule border in silver and black-brown. Title in red within ornate oval frame surrounded by cherubs, foliage and grotesques in black; next leaf with charming architectural structure sketched in black with caryatids, grotesques, ovals illuminated in gold at head and tail, lion of St Mark in upper oval; third ornate medallion within shield in black and silver surrounded by foliage and instruments of incarceration, medallion with female figure and motto ‘QUI CARCERATVR ET EGO VROR’, and arms of the Belegno family; decorated initials and headings in red and black to first gathering. Light age yellowing, occasional foxing, the odd marginal ink spot, heavy ink on ruled border has caused partial detachment of central text to first gathering. Good, well-margined, crisp ms. in contemporary Italian limp vellum, rear outer fore-edge chewed, head of spine a little worn. Early inscription ‘Timor Dei imperij (?)’ to final ep.
Good, uncommon, handsomely decorated ms. drafted for the appointment of Bernardo Belegno as ‘advocatus incarceratorum’ (prison lawyer) of the Republic of Venice. Bernardo belonged to an important patrician family and was an ‘avogador de Comun’ (state prosecutor) in 1604, when he represented three citizens accused of entertaining illicit relationships with nuns from a Venetian monastery. After summarising the duties and wages of prison lawyers, the ms. provides the background to the office through selected excerpts from decrees approved by the Grand Council and the Avogadoria de Comun since the C14. Amidst the legal parlance there emerges an authentic portrayal of prisons in early modern Venice. The ‘advocati incarceratorum’ had to visit prisoners on specific days to assist whoever needed their services, provided free of charge, as the Serenissima sought to speed up the course of justice. Jail time was not a frequent punishment and was only intended to force minor offenders to pay their fines or as a temporary abode for serious criminals before they left to exile or service aboard galleys. Poor prisoners could not afford a lawyer and often languished in a cell for a long time before their case was discussed; thus, as one of the decrees stated, those who were guilty received the equivalent of a double sentence, and those who were innocent a jail sentence they did not deserve. The ms. tells of impoverished wives and children, people falling ill and dying in prison, and an ‘unbearable stench’ oozing from small cells, but also of plans to reduce overcrowding and improve sanitary conditions. The female personification saluting the new ‘advocatus’ on the third page represents Caritas in the world of prisons. Borrowed from 2 Corinthians 11:29, her Latin motto (‘Quis incarceratur et ego uror’) is an adaptation of St Paul’s speech narrating his own frequent suffering due to imprisonment, cold, and hunger, and remarking on his continuing concern for all Christian communities notwithstanding: ‘Quis infirmatur et ego non infirmor? Quis scandalizatur et ego non uror?’ (‘Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is offended, and I burn not?) The newly-appointed ‘advocatus’ was encouraged to be a professional defender of poor prisoners and feel for their condition out of Christian charity.