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On the topography of medieval prisons in Italy



Understanding if a building has served as a prison in the medieval period is not easy. While there is a plethora of historical and literary records and the memory of local prisons seems prominent almost everywhere, when it is time to go into detail and in search of archaeological confirmations to a possible attribution, all the certainty wavers. The reasons are different and well known to all archaeologists who have faced the task of reconstructing the stories of the “invisibles”2. The plan or the shape of the prison is not yet standardised as in other times ; often the function has been transitory and there had been no intention to preserve traces of this use. It means that, according with processes of improvement and sanitization often contemporary to the change of use, many of the direct evidences have been lost.

Fortunately, some elements of continuity come to our aid in helping us to trace the evolution of “pre-penitential systems”, namely all the forms of imprisonment before the establishment of high security prisons. These elements are not explicit and, to contextualize them, we need to briefly recall the reason which led to segregation and, in particular, the idea of penalties in the ancient world, which only partially involved the prison itself.

The incarceration was not conceived as a punishment – carcer enim ad continendos homines, non ad puniendos haberi debet3 – but as a type of custody, which had different forms of application in response to different needs. It was a way to prevent the repetition of the crime, especially in the case of short detention (preventive imprisonment) ; it could be a forced detention of a debtor waiting for the family to pay off the debt (coercive imprisonment) ; it was an instrument of the authority to ensure the presence of the accused at the trial ; and eventually, as the last standoff of the murderer before the execution. The deprivation of freedom was not considered one of the major penalties, but the prolonged stay in dark and unhealthy environments was often used as an additional punishment4. Not least, the progressive loss of direct control of the authority over one of its most important symbols made the prison a place of arbitrary justice and fertile ground for any kind of abuse.

Before the adoption of imprisonment as a form of penalization, any type of building that could meet the security criteria needed to ensure the presence of the accused at the trial could be used as a prison (‘the passive instrument of the building’5, whose sole duty was to ensure safety). Later, in addition to retaining this feature, buildings for imprisonment were modified and designed for the therapeutic goal of repentance, making them more comparable to today’s prisons.

The research problem at the core of this work is simple and intriguing : are there specific features in these buildings that could be investigated ? The answer is positive, although due to the high degree of complexity of the matter, the research was limited to a specific time frame and geographical context, i.e. the prisons of the Italian peninsula between the vith and XVIth  c.6.

As far as we know, buildings intended to house prisons were not planned with any specific distinctive design until the middle of the XVthc.7. Therefore, virtually any place could be fit for this purpose, making it particularly difficult to recognize this peculiar function, that was often transient, in structures that have not been clearly identified as prison by the sources. However, the analysis conducted so far allows us to identify some elements whose recurrence, and especially coexistence, leads us to identify them as specific to the prison, making them, with due caution, potential “indicators” of such a use. These identified elements are the graffiti, the characteristics of the structure itself, and the location in the urban context, intended as the relationship between the prison and the other buildings. We will briefly mention the first element and then focus more on the second and third aspects, closely interconnected, since their relationship define the main topic of this paper.


With reference to indicators, we absolutely cannot ignore the direct evidence in the form of graffiti8. Wall writing is the most obvious archaeological indicator of a prison, and can often offer a chronology, if explicitly indicated9. The increase in spontaneous writing, prompted by the need to “leave the mark” of one’s own existence, at a time when not only the survival of the writing but of the writer himself was in doubt, shows that the prisoner drew on a pool of experiences closely related to his own life10. Alongside the symbolic repertoire already known from the Early Middle Ages in other contexts (such as liturgical graffiti11), there are more profane contents, such as playing boards and invectives, as well as strictly autobiographical graffiti, such as dates, names and references to the social status of the writer. This variety (and substantial unpredictability of their content) linked to the intrinsic nature of graffiti makes any attempt at exhaustively cataloguing each individual testimony quite impossible. However, with reference to the prison, the co-existence of these graffiti reflected (as they still do12) a particular emotional condition in which any sign (whether it was an expression of faith, a way to kill time or count the days, the memory of a profession, a portrait, or simply what was seen inside the room or outside the grates) is an expression of the prisoner’s identity. These signs, made with a multitude of instruments that generally share the only requirement of availability (nails, charcoal), show the fundamental need to not be forgotten, tying the memory of the presence of the author (in his condition of imprisonment) to the detention space. Therefore, they can never be analyzed without considering the support on which they are engraved.

Structural features and location

The other two aspects, namely the structural features aimed to prevent escape from the place and the position of a prison in the urban context, are intimately connected. Let us start from the consideration that, as far as prisons are concerned, the type of structure chosen is always a consequence of the function, and the location of the prison constantly reflected the ‘topography of power’13, intended as the complex of interventions on urban space through which the authority shows its power, manages territorial control and conveys ideological messages14. Is it an equal relationship or does one aspect influence the other ? If we focus only on the information offered by the literature, the position would seem to have a prevailing role. As Vitruvius canonized in the fifth book of the De Architectura by defining the usual location of the prison within the ancient city, “Treasury, prison, and senate house ought to adjoin the forum, but in such a way that their dimensions may be proportionate to those of the forum”15. Rome is, obviously, the place to look at and its prison is, consciously or not, the model to refer to.

The Carcere Mamertino of Rome, in use at least since the IIIrd c.16 until its conversion into the church of San Peter in Jail17, was located at the foot of the Capitoline hill, between the temple of Concordia and the Curia, facing the clivus Lautumiarum18. The structure was developed on two levels. The first is a trapezoidal upper part, erected later whose façade was rebuilt and perhaps monumentalised between 39 and 42 by the consuls Vibius Rufinus and Cocceius Nerva19. The second is an underground circular room (with a diameter of about seven metres, made up of large peperino blocks arranged as tholos, which in ancient times could only be accessed through an opening in the ceiling) called Tullianum. As the name seems to imply20, it was probably a defunctionalized cistern21 chosen mainly to prevent the escape of the criminals awaiting a death sentence22. At a very early stage, therefore, this prison was not built ad hoc but rather chosen between the available structures in the proximity to the main judicial buildings. The prison was enlarged only later, when it started to be recognised as an autonomous element of the urban landscape, and consequently was monumentalized, which at any rate did not prevent the construction of other prisons around the city23. The model of Rome (or rather, the mutual spatial relationship between the buildings in Rome) probably influenced the layout of Cosa, Paestum and perhaps Pompeii24, well before its canonization in the Vitruvian text which occurred during the last quarterof the ist c. AC. We can argue, therefore, that by the time this happens the ‘Roman model’ had probably become customary and that prisons were following this example.

We can also speculate that, since even the most symbolic prison of Roman antiquity (the Carcere Mamertino) did not affect the development of the area in which it was inserted, but rather adapted to it, initially, the function influenced the position. This will not always be the case and a change in this relationship can be regarded at as a tell-tale sign to understand the effective control on a territory by the authority in power. In this sense only when the authority has an effective hold in power relationships, the position gains priority over the actual functionality. This is what occurs when the first prisons are constructed.

From the VIth c., when the control over civil infrastructures became less pervasive and gradually began to weaken, it became necessary to adopt a parcelled system. This was formally subject to the central authority but left the jurisdiction of the territory to various figures who had the right to exercise judicial powers. This situation had different implications but, substantially, it resulted in the creation of as many small prisons as there were juridical divisions. While for the most ancient examples there was a relative correspondence between the position of the medieval prisons and the Roman predecessors (as in Rome25, Milan26 and probably Verona27), along with the buildings on which they depended, in later times the functional aspect (i.e. the impenetrability) prevailed, and this is illustrated by the choice of underground structures, which was also attested in the Roman world.

In the beginning, therefore, the “functional aspect” prevails. This could refer to all those precautions aimed at discouraging access or escape from a given place, intimately linked to the concept of coercion, and closely related to the meaning of the word “carcer”, enclosure28. This aspect was achieved in two ways :

By choosing spaces already fit for the purpose. Initially, this necessity could be met by a simple wooden palisade, as in Parma in 124429, but more frequently the choice fell on disused locations that already naturally had characteristics suitable for discouraging breakouts, for example cisterns. As seen for the Tullianum of Rome, explained above, the cistern with the graffiti of Ansedonia (Grosseto)30, the demonsterion in Palermo31, and perhaps the large cistern under the monastery of the capuchin friars in Cagliari32. Substructions and ruins of ancient buildings, especially if located underground, were also seen as places fit for imprisonment purpose, and this solution became the norm for the Lombards33. Examples of this reuse have been identified in
Florence34, and in Lucca35, in addition to the cases already mentioned of Rome and Verona.

By making structural changes, essentially aimed at reducing the mobility of the prisoners. These included placing bars on windows and door locking systems36 ; limiting the number of the entrances and, subsequently, reducing the size of the doors37; finally, immobilising prisoners using logs and chains38. These are essentially the aspects that all buildings in use as prisons share from Late Antiquity to the central centuries of the Middle Ages.

A significant change in the perception of imprisonment occurred as a consequence of the new ideas and discussions that affected the Law between the XIIth and XIIIth c., which led to the definition of an initial form of “State justice”, able to proceed without the need for a formal accusation, which acted systematically even on issues of moral interest raised by public opinion. It was an inquisitorial justice, generally of ecclesiastical appointment, which required, demanded, and often obtained participation of the civil counterpart, interacting with it39. The public prison, which from the VIth c. had seen the co-presence of lay and religious people almost exclusively in the charitable aspect, became from this moment a political instrument shared between both sides. The results of the exercise of new type of justice, along with the increasingly widespread “penitential” use of prisons (in place of punishment), led to an increase in the number of subjects placed under investigation. This, in practice, resulted in an increasingly massive use of prisons with the consequent need for new structures located near the power that administrated them. In southern Italy, for example, the “imperial” nature of the administration of justice persisted, both in the most remote areas where the authorities who claimed ancient privileges remained settled in the traditional sites, and in the newly established areas, characterised by a number of territorial watchpoints, such as the network of castles in Regnum that belonged to the Norman conquest40. In the XIIIth c., the strong support that Frederick II gave to the inquisitorial instrument41 resulted in a massive use of the castles for detention purposes and in the creation of a proper planning to equip every fortification with prisons, many of which were already present in some Norman fortresses42. Inside the fortifications themselves, the position of the prisons was subject to the availability of space, but there was a general predisposition to choose underground locations43. The unhealthy conditions which often characterised these spaces made them unsuitable for hosting high-value prisoners who were instead held on the upper floors.

The sense of protection conveyed by the fortified building prompted the use of towers also elsewhere, which appears one of the most widespread choices44. In urban environments, towers are most often used as jails before the erection of a centrally administered prison. Nonetheless, as we shall see, there are further elements to consider that influence the position of a prison.

A conclusive thought on the functional aspect is that, although fundamentally important, it is not sufficient on its own to identify the prison. This is mainly because the measures taken to prevent prisoners from escaping are in essence similar to the measures meant to provide protection from the outside. It is indeed true that some types of prisoner were comparable to an economic resource, and as such, had to be protected from external actions45. However, in general, if isolated from the other indicators, the mere aspect of ‘impenetrability’ between outside and inside is not enough to distinguish a prison from a deposit of precious goods.

The reflection of power

The last of the recurrent elements identified concerns the position of the prison, which because of its inseparable link with the authority, was always in close relationship with the buildings where justice was dispensed, as well as where the administration of the territory was located.

The presence of a strong central authority and the sporadic recourse to imprisonment entailed that, initially, the establishment of a central prison, to which others were gradually added, was always subject to the same authority.

The central prison

The central prison, according to the Vitruvian model, was located near the curia, treasury (ærarium) and forum in the political heart of the city. In the communal age this arrangement is preserved more or less intact, and the prison is located near the town hall, the core building of the central authority at that time. Together with its headquarters (the archives, the treasury, the dogana), the prison became one of the main buildings in the square and a symbol of the power embodied in the exercise of justice. This identification is made mainly in theory rather than in practice, where the phenomenon is slow to establish itself46.

Prison moving towards the city centre

In some situations, it is possible to notice a progressive relocation of the prison towards the centre of the city, due to the transfer of the municipal headquarters, which “attract” their various dependencies, as can be found for example in Verona with the communal prison47, as well as Parma48, Lucca49 and Siena50. In these cases, when the authority that held the power was fully established, and the available spaces were no longer sufficient, the intention to create a unique and central prison organised into several rooms which could replace all the others gained ground. The prison that held a sort of autonomy, however small, was the one close to the town hall, which was destined almost exclusively to high-ranking political prisoners.

Different power, different prisons

When the powers remain well divided, it results in more prisons. This is what happened in Cividale (Udine), in the middle of the XVth c., with separate prisons depending on Gastaldo and Patriarch51 ; in Pistoia52 and in Verona53, where the archbishop’s prisons maintained their autonomy ; in Venice54 and Milan55 where the inquisitors worked only partially alongside the secular authority, which granted them separate spaces.

From multiple prisons to single prisons

These developments, as said, reflect how power changed in urban environments. An interesting example is Milan, where the arrangement described by the passion of S. Victor – who was imprisoned twice during the persecutions of Emperor Maximian – reflected more the situation of the VIIIth c., when the stories were written, rather than the IVthc., when the described facts happened. If the narration truly depicted an older scenario, we probably would expect a single prison56, situated in a more central position compared to the structures near the towers of the first walls, where S. Victor was imprisoned instead57. With the construction of the new walls, the function of the prison was directly transferred to the towers in the new gates. As a consequence of the progressive strengthening of the communal power, the need to gather the seats of the judiciary in the same area began to be prominent and the prison also participated in this centralisation, with the construction in 1272 of the Malastalla prison58. The aim of the operation was, as in Florence59, to create a unique prison by ceasing to use the old ones but, as in other situations, this process was slowed down and only took place after the XVIth c. The delay was due to different reasons. Firstly, it was caused by the existence of other internal authorities that somehow did not relinquish the “military” aspect, predominant in prisons used for private purposes. Secondly, the exponential increase in the number of prisoners made it difficult for the central prison to cope. However this was, at least in the intentions, a transitory situation. From the moment the central prison acquired (or rather found again) its fundamental role it became the pivotal model upon which all future developments in prison architecture would be based. The only need that could lead to a new subdivision concerned the nature of the prisoners but, in general, this was not a division due to a fractured authority, but rather a practical solution, consisting of subdividing the rooms or choosing others on the property under the jurisdiction of the same authority.

Relations with other buildings

A final consideration concerns the other buildings to which the prison relates. By paying attention to the area surrounding the prisons, it is possible to identify some distinctive relationships. Some can be more obvious, as in the case of Florence, where most of the prisons were situated in a rather circumscribed area, which had already a strong juridical background60. Some other relationships are more unusual but equally understandable, such as the presence of prisons in commercial districts61. Prisons located in these areas were generally temporary stalls available to police forces in an area with a lively human activity (as in Rome, the carcer ad elephantum, see n. 24). Some of these prisons could be supervised by magistrates affiliated to the trading activity, as for example in Venice, where the prison was subject to Rialto’s camerlenghi62. The least predictable correlation was the one between prisons and the Salt Office, attested in Parma63, Bologna64,
Lucca65, Siena66 and Rome67. This relationship is unusual, certainly at first glance less obvious than the others highlighted so far and is one that deserves more discussion. The key is to be found in the relationship that historically existed between the deposits of precious goods and the prisons, already auspicated by Vitruvius. The income earned through the salt trade was one of the main municipal revenues, making the salt a precious product in all respects. Prisons and warehouses share the same solid and impenetrable aspect, albeit in opposite directions. Generally, what happens in the area surrounding a deposit must always be supervised; conversely, the inclusion in an active social context was the simplest form of ensuring the prison was under control. This interconnection is in some cases emphasized by the mirrored position of the buildings that housed the prison and the treasury, and by the central position of the dogana. This is evidenced clearly in the Francesco di Giorgio Martini’s theories68 and Filarete’s ideal project for the market square in Milan69, as well as it is sometimes found in practice as, for example, in Palermo70. The relationship between prison and salt is still found in Venice in the XVIthc., where the Salt Office took charge of the improvements to the prisons and designed the new one on the other side of the canal71.


The multiplicity of scenarios described so far and the problem of the relationship between prison and settlement obviously is not restricted to the chronological span discussed in this paper, but somehow goes as far as the XXth c., when two significant developments occur. Firstly, and from a structural perspective, the prison finally resumes its role of symbol of Justice, turning into a monument rather than a mere utilitarian building. The canons proposed by Leon Battista Alberti and Filarete, inspired once again by the Vitruvian model, were embraced and reinterpreted. This time, however, they were revisited through the practical experience gained in the central centuries of the Middle Ages. The prison continues to respond primarily to functional needs but its symbolic role, as an extension of authority, becomes much greater. These same elements, with the contribution of the illuminist reformers72, evolve further in the project of a new, ideal prison, which was no longer a simple enclosure but a real penitentiary in which, through work, the prisoner could atone for his sins. According to Bentham’s Panopticon73, the prison is still unique and central; the guarantee of justice, however, is no longer to be found in the physical proximity of the prison to authority, but in a quality inherent in the very shape of the penitentiary where, in the centre, there is the perpetual vigilant eye of a superior and undisputed justice – almost divine – and the result of that same unification of powers that had generated the very first prisons. However, these theories barely touched the concrete reality of the prison. In practice, many of the prisons mentioned in this paper had a very long life, leaving indelible traces in the urban topography74. When eventually it was decided, in the 1920s, to modernise and choose new structures that would meet the demands of more recent times, what was perhaps the most dramatic change in the history of prisons occurred. Namely, the bonds that had always connected these buildings to the core of the political activity were undone, and the prisons started to be progressively pushed out from the heart of urban life, relegated to the extreme suburbs. This displacement, justified by the reclamation of large areas destined for residential or commercial activities, led to the expulsion of the prison from the active social context that in the past had implicitly guaranteed its survival. In the transition from an enclosure, to a place of imprisonment, to a house of penance, the prison eventually achieved its highest “corrective” purpose through isolation.

If this aspect was initially considered an undesirable side effect to be avoided75, the marginalisation became a more and more sought-after quality as it combined the loss of freedom with the vanishing of social identity. This has undoubtedly made the prison a more fearsome place for the modern man, and unfortunately, it has also turned the prison bars, osmotic barrier for hundreds of years, into an impassable wall.

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Notes •••

  1. This article draws heavily from the results of my doctoral thesis entitled « Archaeology of Prisons, Italy. VIth-XVth AD” discussed four years ago in 2016. My willingness to update the bibliography had to face all the limitations that researchers, but also all human beings, had to deal with this year (2020). While on the one hand, with the lockdowns, we were able to reflect intimately on some aspects of segregation and on the other the closure of the libraries obviously affected the update of the material. Despite these limitations, for which I apologize, this work is dedicated to the memory of Professor Letizia Ermini Pani, to whom I owe much of my academic activity, and who set me on the path for studying the Archaeology of the Prisons. Furthermore, I am grateful to Chiara Botturi and Chiara Innocenzi for their helpful comments on earlier drafts. Lesley Taylor and Matthew Kendall also kindly checked my English. Without their help and patience, throughout this world pandemic, this contribution would hardly have seen the light of day.
  2. Carrer & Gheller, ed. 2015.
  3. D. – Ulp. 9 de off. proc..
  4. The Latin word pœna in its first meaning meant “vengeance, reparation, punishment” and was used to identify the compensation due to the victim. However the meaning of the word underwent a transformation and gradually began to identify the punishment of the offender. For pœna carceris, therefore, it was intended the suffering that the culprit should have experienced. Pavón 2004, 112-113.
  5. Fairweather & McConville 2000, 239.
  6. Tonizzo Feligioni 2016.
  7. In the second half of the XVth c., Leon Battista Alberti conceived one of the first examples of prison architecture : Alberti, De Re Aedificatoria, I, V, XIII. See also Antonio Averlino called Filarete, Trattato di Architettura, mentioned later in text.
  8. Although the category of prison graffiti is recognized only in the Early Modern Ages (Miglio & Tedeschi 2012, 614-615), the phenomenon is sporadically attested already in medieval times; it is absolutely possible that this kind of evidence, probably in less elaborate and purely iconographic forms, were produced even in earlier times. For further reading on prison graffiti see Giovè Marchioli 2013, 47-74.
  9. A graffito representing the date “anno d(o)m(ini) MCCX”, two small ships, some crosses and perhaps a snake were found in a cistern in the medieval settlement of Ansedonia (Orbetello, GR) probably reused as a prison (Hobart 1995, 572-577). The survival of this type of graffiti becomes more frequent in later times. Among the examples : Pistoia, St. Niccolò chapel : [Franc]esco sta in prigione […] 1463 settembre (Rauty 1981, I, 303, n. 60) ; Verona, torre del Capitanio : W zuane Bozachin pistoro fu preso i<n> p(r)eson <a>di 12 (de) A(g)<o>s(t)<o> 1570 (Alloro 2009, 105).
  10. Petrucci 1996, 64.
  11. Miglio & Tedeschi 2012, 611-614 and bibliographic references.
  12. Gómez 1997, 214.
  13. De Jong 2001.
  14. Santangeli Valenzani 2015, 135-136.
  15. Aerarium, carcer, curia, foro sunt coniungenda, sed ita uti magnitudo <ac> symmetriae eorum foro respondeant. Vit. De Arch., V, 2.
  16. When the façade wall of the prison was built, Fortini 2012, 507. The dating of the structure is, however, controversial, see Karner et al. 2001, 389.
  17. This first church was lately overlaid by other structures, the Chapel of S. Crocifisso and a second church, dedicated to S. Giuseppe dei Falegnami, both built between XVIth and XVIIth c. Karner et al. 2001, 388-389.
  18. Coarelli 1985, 75-87 ; Pavón Torrejón 2003, 89-100.
  19. CIL VI 1539; 31674.
  20. Fest., verb. Sign. s.v. Tullius ; Ducati 1938, 14 ; Forchhammer 1839, 30-31. Further information about the spring can also be found in Karner et al. 2001, 388 and Fortini 2012.
  21. On the other tholos cisterns of the Palatine Hill see Ducati 1938, 13 ; Karner et al. 2001, 389 and bibliographic references. More generally on the hydraulic apparatus of the Palatine : Pensabene & Coletti 2018. Following the data that emerged from the archaeological excavations carried out in the Tullianum, a different interpretation has also been formulated, also related to the presence of the spring. Fortini 2012, 510-511.
  22. The lower part of the carcer was intended for those guilty of crimes against the state, crimes of the lese majesty and for the enemies of Rome. Coarelli 2014, 68.
  23. Juv, saturae, III, 312-314.
  24. In the forum of the city of Cosa a rectangular building dating back to the IIIrdc. AC. Pavón Torrejón 2003,118. Paestum, ibidem ; Pompei, idem 146.
  25. The Carcer publicus ad elephantum, mentioned in the Liber Pontificalis in the biography of Pope Hadrian I (Duchesne 1892, I, 490), was probably situated in the area of the Forum Holitorium where it was the simulacrum of the Elephas Herbarius (Steinby ed. 1995, 221). Nearby the memory of a Roman prison is preserved (Pavón 1997 ; Pavón Torrejón 2003, 100-108). Also, in Rome, the first record of the Capitoline Hill prison is found in the statutes of 1363 (Re ed. 1880, 3, 106, 255-256). It is not clear whether the name Cancellaria, by which it is known in the XIVth c. sources, derives from a corruption of the name of Porticus Camellaria (Romano 1994, 41) or from the presence of proper iron gates (Adinolfi 1998, 11) ; according to Flavio Biondo (Roma Instaurata, IV, n. 4) these were located in correspondence with the Temple of Janus, whose exact position is still uncertain.
  26. In Milan, it is quite difficult to identify what could be true in the tradition regarding to the place where St. Alexander was imprisoned, known as the Zebedeo prison (Vita Alexandri Guarnerius. Annotata e, in AS Aug. V, 26, 805 ; Grazioli 1735, 176). In the two passions related to the life of the saint, however, there are no references to the Zebedia/zebedeo prison, but rather the mention of Consistoria Carceris (S. Alexandrii passio altera, in AS Aug. V, 26, 806). Part of the underground complex was found during some excavations in the XVIIth c. and identified with the prisons of the Praetorium. Biffi 1884, 3.
  27. For Verona, the position of the Roman prison is still uncertain, although it can be hypothesized to be near the Forum ; the underground structures of Capitolium were used as a prison in the early Middle Ages. Fainelli 1940, II, doc. 214, 306, La Rocca Hudson 1986, 68-69.
  28. Carcer a coercendo, quod exire prohibentur. Varr., De Lingua Latina, V, 15 ; Isid. Hisp., Etymologiae, XV, II. The etymology of carcer is uncertain – seems to derive from cŏercĕo, but the existence of the term κάρκαρα in Greek, handed down by Festus (Fest., De verborum significatione, s.v. Querquerus), has opened a debate on its origin (Pavón Torrejón 2003, 74-75). This word, which kept its meaning unaltered until its entrance into the vernacular language, it is the only one that refers properly to the space in which detention takes place.
  29. Bonazzi 1902, a. 1244, 13.
  30. See n. 8.
  31. We have a description of this prison written in 878 regarding the imprisonment of the monk Theodosius, brought by the Arabs from Syracuse to Palermo. It was therefore a defunctionalised cistern, close to the urbis platea, used for temporary imprisonment. Theodosius, Epistola in Beltrani Scalia 1867, 203-204.
  32. Dadea 2001 and 2006.
  33. Unusquisque iudex in civitate sua faciat carcerem sub terra. Liutprandi leges 80, MGH, LL, 4, 115–116.
  34. The vaulted basements of the Roman amphitheatre, on whose structures the Palace and the Piazza dei Peruzzi were later built, were known as Burella delle vigne (ASF, Riformagioni, 20 February 1290, as mentioned in Chini 1900, 157). The substructures of the Roman theatre are also counted as the oldest prisons in the city. Davidsohn 1973, IV, 615-616 ; Papaccio 2007, 132.
  35. The first prisons in the city were located at the northern part of the amphitheatre (Belli Barsali 1973, 466). Because of their appearance they were traditionally known as “Grotte” or “prigioni del Sasso”. Barsotti 1630, 144.
  36. This type of intervention was the most frequent and easily became the signature, although not unique, of the prison. Morel 2004 ; Cassidy-Welch 2009 and 2011 ; Piccoli 2013, 178183.
  37. Aream in parte urbis tuta et non neglecta cingendam muro valido, alto, nullis apertionibus interscisso, turribus et decursoriis munito. Alberti, I, V, XIII. The small dimensions of the door are also visible in the fresco “Le opere di misericordia: visitare i carcerati” in the Oratorio of Buonomini di S. Martino, Florence.
  38. It is the oldest solution, widely documented by the written sources (as well as for the iconographic ones, see the bibliographical references for n. 35) but presents considerable difficulties regarding finding and dating. It is included here among the interventions aimed at increasing the security of the place because it is certainly one of those elements closely linked to the prison, but the fact that the chains – vincula or compedes– were not indissolubly attached to the structure makes it very difficult to identify their specific relationship with the building.
  39. Vallerani 2012 ; Vallerani 2013.
  40. Licinio 1994, 260-271.
  41. The Inquisition in Sicily was formally introduced before 1224 by Emperor Frederick II. With the constitution “Inconsutilem tunicam” he recognised heresy as a crimen publicum and as an attack to the divine maiestas; but, unlike the rest of the Empire, the inquire of heresy was reserved to royal officers. Fiori 2005.
  42. Bresc & Maurici 2009, 285.
  43. La torre principale è alta piedi 100, nella quale è in fondo una bella cisterna, un pristino, un forno, la canova, la prigione, la stufa e la munizione. Francesco Di Giorgio Martini, Trattato (1841), I, V, 289.
  44. Prisons in tower in Cittadella (Malta della Cittadella, PD), Milan (the towers of the medieval walls, near the porte (gates) Romana, Comassina, Nuova e di S.Ambrogio, Ticinense, Tonsa, Viergellina e Renza), Verona (Carceres Zerlorum e Carcere vescovile), Venezia (Torricella al palazzo ducale), Padova (Zilie), Ferrara (Torre dei leoni), Parma (Turris palacii), Alba (Turre de mollis), Bologna (Malpage), Pistoia (carcer Lombardorum and Bishop’s prison), Firenze (Volognana, Monfiorita, paliazza of S. Michele in palchetto, Alberghettino), Pisa (Carcer comunis qui est ad septem vias), Siena (Torre dell’Orsa, torre dei Caponsacchi, torre dei Maconi), Bolsena (turris horrenda in lacu Sanctae Christinae), Viterbo (torre della Malta), Palermo (Carceres in Turris Graeca). Tonizzo Feligioni 2016, catalogue.
  45. This is the case with prisoners of high rank. It was not just a matter of neutralization, but currency for a potential ransom. Licinio 1994, 285.
  46. […] questi palazzi, i quali avevano a stare in su la piazza de mercatanti : in prima disegnai la grandezza della piazza, e poi del palazzo del podestà, e ancora la zecca e la prigione del comune e la doana io disegnai. Filarete, Trattato, X.
  47. With the construction of the Town Hall, started in 1193 by the Podestà Guglielmo da Ossa, part of the building was probably intended to house the prisons, connecting them directly with the judicial offices. Parisio 1725, col. 647-648.
  48. With the Statutes of 1262 the Commune of Parma agreed to provide some rooms for the prisons ; Ronchini 1856, I, add. 1262, 444. The Camusina prison was built by order of the podestà Ugo da Savignano Modenese in 1263. Pezzana & Affò 1837, 444.
  49. Between 1539 and 1543 the General Council of Lucca had the prisons transferred to a building near the church of S. Dalmazio, close to the ducal palace (Ridolfi 1849, p. 306), but the new jail kept its popular name of “sassi” (decreti penali 1640, 59). See also n. 34 and n. 64.
  50. The main municipal prison was in the Palazzo degli Alessi which from 1276 to the construction of the new public palace housed the podestà and the magistracy officers. In 1330, it was necessary to build a new prison, Malcucinato (Cronaca senese, a. 1330, Lisini & Iacometti 1931, I, 142). This new building was similar in its characteristics to the Town Hall to which it is closely connected. Cairoli & Carli 1963, 34.
  51. AMC Definitiones n. 19, 61. Nazzi 2013, 2, 82, n. 100.
  52. The prisons of the bishop’s palace were located in the base of the ancient tower and in adjacent rooms that were still in use in the XVIth c. ; between 1460 and 1463 this use was extended also to the chapel of St. Nicholas, Rauty 1981, I, 159 (see also n. 8).
  53. The prison was in the tower next to the episcopal residence, as evidenced by the discovery of numerous graffiti that do not appear to be prior to 1386 (Laschi 1904, 60).
  54. This prison, located near the church of S. Giovanni Battista in Bragora (Tassini 1872, 163) was used by the court of the Holy Inquisition as a standoff for the defendants accused of heresy (Ioly Zorattini 1984, 3, 130.).
  55. The Inquisition office was established early in Milan, probably already in 1218 (Romussi 1875, 170). From the middle of the XIIIth c. the inquisitor resided in the convent of the church of S. Eustorgio. (Biffi 1884, 2). The nearest tower is the one of Porta Ticinense, was used as Inquisition prison at least since 1295. Tocco 1899, 130.
  56. Perhaps the praetorium prison, identified instead by the passion of S. Alessandro. See n. 25.
  57. AS, May, II, 3, 289.
  58. This prison seems to be part of a real plan of urban reorganization that involved several public offices and the new broletto from the mid-XIIIth c. Borghino 1989, 235-236, n. 40 ; Biffi 1884, 123-125.
  59. In 1299 the councils decided to erect a central prison, next to the church of San Simone (7 November  eroni C. and Francovich R., eds: 1299, as mentioned in Gaye & Reumont 1839, 444). Initially known as prigioni nove, Le Stinche obtained their popular name, which later became official, for having housed the prisoners of the Stinche fortress in Val di Greve, defeated in 1304. Davidsohn 1973, 3, 403. On the structure of the prison see Fraticelli 1834, 18-22 ; Geltner 2012, 193-196.
  60. Davidsohn 1973 IV 615-626.
  61. This natural connection had already been identified by Plato, laws, 908a.
  62. The public prison, known as the debtors’ jail (Geltner 2012, 36), was located near the Rialto commercial pole, the dogana and fine metal workshops (M. A. Sabellicus De situ Venetiae urbis, I, de secunda regione as mentioned in Rondelet 1841, 4-5.
  63. The prison cells were located on the lower floors of the building, while on the upper floor there were the communal offices and the Salt dogana. Bonazzi, 1902, a. 1277, p. 32.
  64. The prison of Malpaga was in via dei Pignattari, where there were also the wine dogana and salt warehouses Fanti 2000, 616.
  65. In the XVIth c. the rooms of the old “sassi” prisons were transformed into salt warehouse. Targioni Tozzetti 1752, 4, 241 t. 3.
  66. After the relocation of the prison (see n. 49) the palace was used as a salt customs house. Morandi 1963.
  67. From the XIVth c., part of the Tabularium housed the communal saltworks, whose deposits gradually occupied the prisons. Steinby ed. (2000), V, 17.
  68. La casa degli uffiziali, la prigione, la dogana, magazzino del sale e altri ridotti di uffiziali comuni […] siano propinqui alla principale piazza più che si può. Francesco Di Giorgio Martini, Trattato (1841), I, 3, 194.
  69. Mi piace per infino qui, ma la pregione dove farai ? Farolla, cioè la pregione grande che sia quella del comune, la farò appresso a questo palazzo da una delle teste della piazza. (Filarete, Trattato, X). See also n. 45. The disposition of the buildings is illustrated in the drawing of “piazza dei mercatanti”, related to chapter X, in : Finoli & Grassi, ed. 1972.
  70. Turrim Pisanam thesaurorum custodiæ destinatam illinc turrim Græcam ei civitatis parti quæ Khemonia dicitur imminentem. (Historia Hugonis Falcandi, col. 256). In ipso enim palatio circa campanarium, eamque partem quæ turris græca vocatur, carceres erant dispositi (idem, col. 286).
  71. Franzoi 1997, 210, doc. 110.
  72. Beccaria & Venturi, ed. 1973, 77.
  73. Bentham 1791. One of the very first buildings in the world to follow the principles of Panopticon was the prison on the island of Santo Stefano, in : Ventotene, Latina. Parente 2008, 36-44.
  74. Just to mention few of them : Malastalla prison remained in use until 1787 (Biffi 1884, 230) ; the Stinche prison enjoyed a discreet functional continuity that saw it maintain its function as a public prison until the dawn of the XIXth c. (Fraticelli 1834, 17). The prisons of the ducal palace are the theatre of Giacomo Casanova’s daring escape in 1756. Casanova & Di Giacomo 1911.
  75. Geltner 2008, 21, 23.
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Tonizzo Feligioni, Lara (2021) : “On the topography of medievals prisons in Italy”, in : Charageat, Martine, Lusset, Élisabeth et Vivas, Mathieu, dir., Les espaces carcéraux au Moyen Âge, Pessac, Ausonius éditions, collection PrimaLun@ 15, 2021, 153-166 [en ligne] https://una-editions.fr/on-the-topography-of-medieval-prisons-in-italy [consulté le 25 octobre 2021].
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•Besançon, BM, ms. 148, fol. 182
•Chambéry, BM, ms.1, fol. 203v
•Tours, BM, ms. 52, fol. 2
•Avignon Bibliothèques (Ville d’Avignon), Dépôt de l’État, ms. 136, fol. 330v (Carole Baisson, Ausonius).
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