Witchcraft and Inquisition in Early Contemporary Venice, Rome

Jonathan Seitz

Jonathan Seitz

When Domenico Scalabrin, whom we met in a previous article, denounced Marina Fachinetti for having sickened his wife, he kicked off a series of judicial events that followed detailed rules of procedure — inquisition trials were no haphazard affairs.

The Holy Office tribunal to which Scalabrin submitted his denunciation not only had available to it large books filled with Latin legalese to remind its members of their duties, but it also had a group of powerful cardinals in Rome overseeing its activities and those of its sister institutions in other cities. And in Venice, the tribunal also included ex officio members of the Venetian civil government whose cooperation was essential for the smooth operation of the Inquisition in the city and its environs. But the vigour — and procedural rigour — of the Venetian Inquisition was a relatively recent development when Scalabrin submitted his complaint in 1625, despite the fact that inquisitions had been in operation for several centuries.

The inquisitions of the Middle Ages had generally been diocesan concerns and had mostly fallen into decline by the late 1400s. (The main exception to this rule is the Spanish Inquisition, which was, according to one historian, virtually the only inquisition really operating at the turn of the sixteenth-century.)

In the 1500s, the emergence of various Protestant groups spurred Catholic authorities to centralize and reorganize the tribunal, to make it a primary tool for investigating and combating heresy within Catholic Christendom.

Re-established and re-organized by the papal bull Licet ab initio in 1542, local inquisitions became creatures of the Roman Curia, with inquisitors chosen by the pope — generally from the mendicant orders, mostly Dominicans but also Franciscans — and sent out to towns and cities around the Italian peninsula. A new congregation of cardinals (the Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition or Holy Office) was established in Rome to oversee their work and to serve as a court of appeal.

The structure of the Venetian Holy Office was reasonably typical of the various Italian inquisitions, and of Catholic inquisitions in general, though Venice had its idiosyncrasies. In contrast to its medieval structure as a court controlled by the local ordinary (the patriarch of Venice, in this case), the new Venetian tribunal in its lasting form consisted of the nuncio, the inquisitor, and the patriarch, or their designates.

These three were joined by a trio of lay “assistants” appointed by the Venetian state, and by a variety of staff members who often had other ecclesiastical duties as well. By design, the tribunal’s members brought with them a mixture of loyalties and interests. The nuncio was the pope’s representative in Venice, and when hearing cases would have been sensitive to the implications for papal prerogatives, including such issues as the Inquisition’s right to extradite suspects to Rome — repeatedly a point of contention in Venice. He also tended to be more attuned to the diplomatic implications of inquisitorial activities. The Inquisitor himself was typically a Dominican, especially after the 1560s, and had usually served elsewhere before gaining the relatively prestigious appointment to watch over the Most Serene Republic.

In theory, the pope chose the inquisitor from suggestions passed on by the cardinals of the Congregation of the Holy Office in Rome, but the Venetian state exerted formal and informal diplomatic pressure on the Roman Curia to pick palatable candidates, and especially to pick candidates from Venetian territories — a number of seventeenth-century inquisitors came from the city of Brescia, for instance.

The Venetians also had some influence over sitting inquisitors, as they could (and did, though rarely) demand the removal of those in whom they had lost confidence. The patriarch was also invariably a Venetian citizen as the pope simply confirmed Venice’s choice for the office, and he was not necessarily a cleric when nominated. Thus, though in theory a representative of the Church, the patriarch brought a local sensibility to the tribunal.

As in other areas with sufficient independence from Rome’s political and religious control, the Venetian Holy Office also included local, lay involvement in inquisitorial activities. Here, the Venetian government chose a trio of lay assistants, called the “tre savii sopra l’eresia” (the “three sages over heresy”) or simply the “assistenti”.

The Venetian government chose these men from the highest ranks of the aristocracy based on their seniority, their government experience, and, sometimes, even their piety. Indeed, the savii included some of the most prominent names in Venetian politics, usually in the twilight of their careers.

During the trials, the savii were supposed to hold a purely advisory role: they were not allowed to vote on, nor did they sign, verdicts or sentences. However, these laymen were vital to the operation of the tribunal. Not only did one or more of them have to be present for the proceedings of the Holy Office to be valid, but the Inquisition depended on the state, through the savii, for police powers, for instance to arrest suspects or to carry out certain sentences, such as time on the pillory, whippings, galley service, and execution.

Thus, to achieve its goals Rome had to negotiate with a Venice protective of its rights and privileges and the negotiations were not always smooth. Various popes had placed the Republic under interdicts several times over the centuries, including a nearly year-long episode in 1606–1607.

However, such occasional discord does not mean that the state and the Holy Office were inevitably and continuously at loggerheads. Neither side was interested in protecting heresy; on the contrary, both felt they had an interest in suppressing it.

The periodic dustups that did occur over inquisition activities were generally associated with more prominent defendants or with defendants whose cases somehow impinged on areas of disputed governmental authority — neither of which was generally the case with the trials of the often poor, usually female defendants accused of witchcraft.

In these cases, the inquisitor and his colleagues had a great deal of autonomy from Venetian state control in making their decisions to prosecute and punish violations.

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