Toward the year 1250, this edifice, originally called Palazzo Degli Anziani, or Podesta, was erected by Arnolfo di Lapo, and intended for the council and courts of justice, as also for the residence of three of the chief magistrates. These were the Gonfaloniere, whose special duty it was to administer justice; it Esecutore, to pre-side over criminal causes; and it Capitano, to protect and support these in the administration of their several departments. The office of Esecutore was a new charge, having effect for the first time at the period of the erection of the Podesta, and was filled by Matteo dei Terribile d’Amelia. We are told that this palace was the first whose decorations displayed a rising taste for the arts; but its magnificence was not of long duration. Towards the year 1299, the seat of government was removed to Palazzo Vecchio, at which time this edifice was converted into a prison, and took the appellation of Il Bargello.
The severe and gloomy grandeur peculiar to the style of Arnolfo accorded well with the disorderly times of the republic. The Podesta stands up, a vast and stern monument of the character of those days, In Its huge bulk, and deep impenetrable walls, within whose centre silence, solitude, and secrecy, seem to reign; whilst its ponderous tower, crowned with embrazures, frowns in sullen and proud defiance of the lapse of time. Ages may roll in vain over its heavy and massive bulwarks. It is not built according to the architecture of the rude and barbarous nations of the north, nor of the Saracen, Gothic, or Greek; but as if it had been conceived in some feverish dream, and were meant by its dismal aspect to terrify into subjection the spirit of a savage people.
This edifice was reared in times full of danger; when the state was divided by factions, assailed by secret conspiracies, or threatened by popular tumult. The magistrates and rulers, often the victims of these discontents, found safety only in vigilance and cruelty, and sought to supply by secret measures their defect of power.
At the portal of the palace gate was placed a silent monitor, termed Tamburazione through whose medium, as in the horrible era of revolutionary France, secret communications were conveyed to the state. The denunciation of the noble, or the citizen, was a safe and simple process. The anonymous informations being lodged in this receptacle, led to speedy and sure detection, the accused person being often hurried to prison without being aware that he was even suspected.
In the palace of the Podesta the judges sat in council, the affairs of state were deliberated upon, embassies received; and in days of revelry and public rejoicings, the festive board was here spread out for the illustrious stranger and royal guest, who not unfrequently graced their feasts; while far below, the prisoner, condemned on proof, or suspected of guilt, was thrust into secret cells, to suffer in silence. Dismal and full of danger as was the situation of the political offender thus delivered to the power of his enemies, his name might yet be re-membered, and an account of his disappearance demand-ed. But a reign of mysterious terror more fearful followed this period; for here, leading from the collateral and subterraneous passages of Santa Croce, the Inquisition was established, the secrets of which dread tribunal none might reveal; and which, even to this day, is spoken of with a sort of mysterious horror. Communications on the subject are uttered in a suppressed tone of voice, and with an anxious eye, glancing round with suspicious care, as if walls might report tales and reveal secrets. The proceedings of this institution, conducted in silence and mystery, were of a nature to strike terror into the most manly and resolute heart. From the moment of accusation and conviction, nearly synonymous terms, it was death to hold any communication with the prisoner, or to give him food or consolation during the last moments of life, or even the sacred aids of religion; none were suffered to approach him but his dark-minded tormentors. It is not long since the power of committing these legal crimes, as they may be truly styled, still existed; and a circumstance which brought to light some of the horrors of this institution occurred at a period not very remote.
A young man, convicted of the crime of eating meat on Friday, had been dragged from his native city, and lodged in the prisons of the Inquisition. In the interval of his tortures he found means to pass to his prince’s hands a letter and a sign. This prince, like Haroun Alraschid, was wont to sally forth, and to walk unattended and unknown through the streets of the city. At mid-night he knocked at the gate; the priests of these mysterious cells recognised the voice of their prince with consternation; he forced his way, and found them at their dreadful work, with instruments of torture, and their victims pale, and wild with terror.
Within these cells, now emptied of their wretched inmates, these frightful engines of cruelty are still to be seen, hung up in triumph, as a tribute to injured humanity.
These times of religious persecution, and their attend-ant terrors, are gone by; but many are the forms in which suffering is found still to exist. He who visits this prison, even in these days, may approach it with feelings burning from recollections of the times, when scenes of tumult and violence were found within its walls; yet soon will he cease to meditate on what is past, and turn to the present picture of misery, which in this mansion is displayed in every form of wretchedness.
It is difficult now to retrace in this dismal abode the spacious chambers and splendid galleries which once made it a palace. You pass through a square court of an antique gloomy cast; an arcade, which runs along the base, is supported by short thick columns, over which there is a second range of the same coarse form, with capitals of a mixed order; the whole of a dark grey stone, discoloured by time.
On the gate are two lions sitting on their haunches, the supporters of the arms of Florence; while the walls of the court within are covered with monumental stones, on which the names of the nobles and citizens who held the offices of podesta, captain, or judge, are inscribed, and on which are carved dragons, bears, and chained dogs, the arms of the palace. The staircase rises in flights, defended on one side by a coarse bulky railing of stone-work. Still as you advance in this dismal mansion, you behold, with increased pain, marks of desolation, and proofs of unnecessary severity in securing the wretched prisoners. The arched and grooved ceilings, and the ranges of magnificent pillars which once adorned this ancient edifice, are now intersected by strong masonry, dividing the cells, which are constructed by perforations in these deep and everlasting walls. A square aperture of three feet high forms the entrance into each of these dim abodes, each cell seeming rather a den than a chamber. The prisoner, forced to bend al-most double, passes in, when a strong door, secured with bolts and bars of massive iron, closes on him, excluding all sound, except, perhaps, the reverberation of the closing of another and another heavy door. The windows that run along this stupendous building are oblong, and from eight to twelve feet high. In these divisions are openings of the size of two feet, grated in double rows, with the addition of three strong bars across, through which light and air are admitted to the cells; and as you pass along, you behold a range of grim faces, some pale, and worn by the ravages of disease, others presenting an aspect of sullen and remorseless gloom, without hope or care of life, fit for the axe or guillotine, the mode adopted in this country to inflict death on the criminal. From stage to stage, as you ascend from one narrow staircase to another, you find the same kind of prison, the same horrid visages meet your eye, fixing on your mind, and painfully haunting the imagination. Whatever offences may have been committed, whether robbery, murder, petty larceny, or prostitution, to which the wretched female is too often driven by beggary and famine, the mode of confinement is the same; and there seems to be no gradation in punishment. The solitary prisoner is not more guilty than another, who, perhaps, forms a group with his family. All appears to be directed by chance: there is no order or regulation; no jailor guards the court or the stairs; each cell is a prison, deep and fast. As I proceeded along, my conductors led me through a dismal gallery, appointed for the receptacle of the dead; three men lay extended in this loathsome place. Arrested by a sight so piteous, I gazed with sorrow on the wretches, whose crimes, whatever they had been, seemed expiated by death under an imprisonment so merciless. Two melancholy simple men who attended me, perhaps mistaking the source of my reflections, and believing us acquainted with the secrets and mysteries of the prison, shaking their heads emphatically, answered (as it were to the supposed subject of my thoughts) sorrowfully, they believed it was very true that these men had indeed died of very want, ” Sono spenti della fame.” The start of horror they observed in me alarmed them, as fearful of having betrayed an undivulged tale; and when pressed again simply to avow their personal opinion, they shrugged up their shoulders, declaring that they had eat very little, adding, ” ma the vuole o’ signore pazienza;” an expression often used to imply consolation, or resignation to what can-not be remedied. We enter an abode like this with terror, and leave it under a despondency that does not soon subside. ” I’ll go no farther,” I said, and ]eft the place.