Mastro Titta (1779–1869): Er dilettante de Ponte

Mastro_TittaA slurred pronunciation of Maestro di Giustizia, or Master of Justice “The dilettante of the bridge”, the name he got from Romanesco poet Giuseppe Gioachino Belli, the bridge being Ponte Sant’ Angelo which connects Rome’s left bank with the Vatican. Belli also credited him as a sure cure for headache.

Titta’s real name was Giovanni Battista Bugatti. He was a short, round, amiable man who, with his wife, made his living by manufacturing, decorating, and selling umbrellas to the tourists who visited the nearby Vatican.

As jobs go, it is easily overlooked, and presumably it was neither steady enough nor profitable enough to make ends meet. At age seventeen he found a second income stream.

He was, in the years between 1796 to 1864, the Vatican’s official executioner

He was responsible for 516 deaths in the course of his career. He kept careful record of each one, a mark presumably of a scrupulous nature. The number sounds high, and so it is, but then, the total is spread across a considerable number of years. In all, he was called into service about every other month.

Nor were these undeserving wretches. Charles Dickens describes see Mastra Titta doing his job on a man who had discovered a noble Bavarian woman walking to Rome as a penitent. In a village some ways outside the city, she made the mistake of paying for something in gold. The fellow followed her and when they out of sight of others, he attacked, robbed, and killed her. He would have gotten away with it had he not given some article of clothing to his fiancée who recognized the work as belonging to the German pilgrim and turned him in.

Once sentence was passed, the events were foregone and routine. The day of execution may not have been announced beforehand, but word traveled quickly that Mastra Titta was crossing the bridge.

Significant because, curiously, it was only for work that he did cross the bridge. (Indeed, his general failure to cross the Tiber gives us the Roman expression, “Boia nun passa Ponte “, the executioner isn’t crossing the river, loosely, “All’s right in the world”.) Accounts differ as to why. Dickens suggests that angry relatives would make life unsafe for him to leave his home in Trastevere. Others claim that he was following Vatican rules, perhaps because his appearance on the left bank was invariably noticed and crowds would come out to see if there was going to be a killing that day.

Justice was, after all, a public affair.

How public? Considerably. Enough certainly that  tradesmen (Dickens mentions cigar sellers and pastry merchants) wandered the crowd, hawking their goods. Adults laid bets on how the execution would go, how many gouts of blood would exit the neck. Parents brought their young children as a warning against wicked living, and clouted them on the neck just as the blade came down to underscore the lesson.

Children, being children, soon incorporated the man into rhyme. Two boys would pull back and forth on a piece of rope while reciting:

“Sega, sega, Mastro Titta,
’na pagnotta e ‘na sarciccia
Un’ a mme, un’a tte,
un’a mmàmmeta che sso’ttre

Slice, slice, Mastro Titta
A loaf of bread and a sausage
One for me, one for thee
One for Mama, that makes three.*

Not that he minded his celebrity. On the contrary, he eschewed the usual head cover that ensured the executioner’s anonymity. It was a job, one he did with professionalism and even compassion. To those about to die, he offered snuff, a kind word, and assurances of a quick end. When not in his red robed executioners gown, (or, according to Lord Byron who saw him in 1817, “half naked”), he dressed with some flair and style, making up in dress what he lacked in height and slimness. The job done, he was back across the river to work on his umbrellas until the next criminal was condemned to die.

He retired at the age of 85 on a papal pension, and lived a further five years, just short of seeing the Unification of Italy and the abolition of his part-time trade. A phony autobiography Memorie di un Carnefice Scritte da Lui Stesso, Memoirs of an Executioner by Himself, was published in 1891, mixing the ghoulish with the anti-clerical (absent evidence, we cannot hope to know his politics.)

His red robe, and his white Klan hood, are on display at Rome’s Museum of Criminology, along with some tools of his trade, including the guillotine that Dickens described. His added value once technology made his job less a skill than a chore was in giving the condemned a few moments of comfort at the final minutes. That, and being a public institution in his own right.

Today, his name lives on as a marker for at least on restaurant in Rome. He also figures in the 1962 musical comedy Rugantino, a film version of which was made in 1973.

Which is more than can be said of any of his clients.

*His song appears to have been downgraded in Naples to Mastu Ciccio, “Master Fatty”, presumably a grocer, and lacking the same frisson that one gets in the original. It can be heard here and elsewhere.

(It is, of course, him on the left in the illustration, offering snuff to the about to die. Who the man on the left is is anyone’s guess.)

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