Inquisition in Palermo’s Prison

Final year PhD student Aisling Reid reports on her recent research trip to Palermo, Italy.

Inquisition in Palermo’s Prison

Palermo’s Piazza Marina is filled with Moreton Bay fig trees, some standing at heights of sixty metres (fig. 1). The seeds of these trees germinate in the canopy of a host tree, which is slowly strangled as the fig tree grows. For this reason, Moreton Bay trees are known as ‘strangler figs’. It seems fitting that the strangler trees have chosen to grow there, given the cruel history that unfolded in the piazza where their roots have spread. While the Piazza Marina is nowadays filled with children who attend the Ludoteca Garibaldi playgroup, from 1601–1782 the site was the seat of the Spanish Inquisition in Sicily. At the corner of the piazza stands a fourteenth century building, the Palazzo Chariamonte-Steri, which in the sixteenth century was adapted to function as a prison where thousands of people accused of witchcraft, heresy or insurrection were interrogated, tortured and burned (fig. 2).


Fig. 1. Moreton Bay Fig in Palermo’s Piazza Marina.


Fig. 2. Palazzo Chiaramonte-Steri, Palermo.

Twenty-one percent of the eight thousand people interrogated in the palazzo were women. The cells built to contain prisoners were small with high ceilings and only one small window. For extra security, each cell was fitted with a double door to prevent prisoners from attacking their guards en masse. Using fire charcoals, or even excrement mixed with soil, the incarcerated recorded their thoughts by writing on the walls of their cells. Some drew religious images and wrote prayers in Latin, English, Sicilian and Arabic, while others composed poems lamenting their conditions. Disease was rife, as is evident from the prisoners’ devotional images of Saint Roch, the patron saint of plague victims and also the falsely accused (fig. 3). A prison inscription written in Sicilian gives an indication of the ill health prisoners suffered (fig. 4):

Cavuru e fridu sintu ca mi piglia
La terzuru tremu li vudella
Lu cori e l’alma s’assuttiglia

(Standard Italian)
Sento freddi e caldo, mi ha preso
La febbre malarica,
Mi tremano le budella,
Il cuore e l’anima si rimpicciolicono

I feel hot and cold, I have
My stomach trembles
My heart and soul are fading


Fig. 3. Saint Roch at the Palazzo Chiaramonte-Steri.


Fig. 4. Description of Illness at the Palazzo Chiaramonte-Steri.

Elsewhere, prisoners conceptualised their suffering in terms of Dante’s Inferno; a depiction of Hellmouth includes the quotation (fig. 5):

Nixiti di speranza vui chi intrati.

(Standard Italian)
Laciate ogne speranza, voi che intrate.

Abandon all hope, you who enter.


Fig. 5. Hellmouth at the Palazzo Chiaramonte-Steri.

Other images ridicule the inquisitors by painting them in proximity to the prisoners’ latrine. In one instance, the inquisitor is depicted astride a turding horse (figs. 6–7). The inquisitors’ hypocrisy is similarly laid bare in a nearby inscription which reads (fig. 8):

Ore suo benedicebant et
Corde suo maledicebant

With his mouth he blesses
And with his heart he curses


Fig. 6. Prisoners’ latrine at the Palazzo Chiaramonte-Steri, at the top right the inquisitor on horse is shown.


Fig. 7. Scurrilous drawing of an inquisitor on a turding horse at the Palazzo Chiaramonte-Steri.


Fig. 8. Inscription criticising the inquisitors’ duplicity at the Palazzo Chiaramonte-Steri.

The prison writings provide a unique insight into the inquisition in Sicily; many were signed and dated by their authors. Unfortunately the prison archive was burned in 1783 on the orders of the Viceroy Caracciolo, who sought to conceal the inquisitors’ activities. The inquisitors were, however, required to send written copies of all trials to their Spanish counterparts who would assess trial verdicts and make any necessary amendments. Documents relating to the prison can therefore be found at the National Archive in Madrid and have been examined extensively by Maria Sofia Messana, who published a fascinating book entitled Inquisitori, Negromanti e Streghe nella Sicilia Moderna: 1500–1782. Her television discussion of the prison can be accessed by clicking here. A full account of the jail’s graffiti is available in Giuseppe Pietrè’s work Urla senza suono. Graffiti e disegni dei prigionieri dell’Inquisizione.

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