The Museum of the Inquisition in Palermo tells the story of the city during the 17th century

Read English version

rsonally to his friend D’Alembert in a letter to “Mercure de France” on 1st June, 1782 confessing that for the one and only time he had had to “thank his lucky stars for having removed him from Paris to serve on this great work”; freeing from the prison tens of condemned men, polygamists, “formal heretics”, fortune tellers. A year later the entire archive was – unfortunately – burnt. Despite the fire, it has still been possible to find out about the Tribunal and its Palermitan Inquisition through correspondence between the Palermitan Tribunal and the Supreme and General Inquisition with its headquarters in Madrid, preserved in the National Spanish Archives. There were 6,393 court hearings that Maria Sofia Messana was able to uncover for census, enter into a database and study, offering irreplaceable knowledge of the Tribunal’s activities.





nd during the “administration of the torment”, as it was defined by sources, the boa exhorted the guilty to confess and tell the truth. Prior to torture, a doctor gave the prisoner a check-up and if he found him to be in a fit state to be tortured, it was registered that if something were to happen during those 30 minutes, it would be the prisoners fault. This penance could even be repeated up to three times. This prison was a place for inducing sufferance, not death. I remember a case in which an apostate, refused to repent and went on hunger strike. Fed up, the Inquisitor went to see him in person in his cell and exhorted him to eat, even going so far as to except the prisoners request to only receive food, rice and dates, from the hands of a Muslim. Torture was the tool used to extract a confession and thus prova plena of the offence. After torture, if they confessed, they were sentenced. The most common sentence was as an oarsman in the galleys, however an oarsman could not resist more than five years in the hard conditions of rowing on board, so a sentence of seven to ten years of rowing was as good as condemning them to death. Another punishment was exile or you could be incarcerated temporarily in a hospital, in a convent or condemned to life imprisonment. Amongst the worst was being burnt at the stake.


Blasphemers, witches, heretics; yet in the cells they found prayer and devotional expression.

Because the prisoners were believers, heretics are not atheists – it was just that they did not profess the Catholic faith which for the judges was the one and only “true Faith”, different and superior to all others that were considered on the par with sects which needed to be “confounded” and “converted”: the church of the time assumed they had the monopoly on “Salvation”. Among the many sacred painted images you can find, above all, the Passion of Christ and many martyred saints and there is a very simple reason: the penitents considered imprisonment as a personal Calvary, likening them to Christ and the saints who for their faith gave their lives. They convinced themselves that they were living in a sort of Purgatory, yet had the hope of salvation as can be seen in one of the graffiti on a cell wall:” each sin awaits justice at the end”, even if another wrote “Nixiti di spiranza vui chi intrati”… (No hope for those who enter).

Thinking about the methods of torture reserved for the women, could it be termed as feminicide?

No, our tribunal used the rope less on women than on men, they did not denude them, doctors gave them a medical check up to see if they were pregnant and the elderly were exempt from being tortured. Maria Sofia Messana studied the subject of witch hunting and in her book Inquisition, Necromancers and Witches in modern Sicily sustains that in Sicily it was mainly the men who practiced witchcraft. Our witches were more like medics who practiced white magic, a magic ad amorem (and not ad mortem), charms to make lovers return, propitiate pregnancy, protect new born babies. The burning at the stake of witches were few here.

Of what value are these heart breaking testimonies?

Inside that prison and on its walls is a wealth of information on the history of language, literacy, religious knowledge, devotion, the history of dress, rich in iconography from the Saints to Christ’s genealogy, the Battle of Lepanto, in a few words a small summary of 17th century history and not only of Sicilian history. If you bear in mind Palermo as the crossroads of the Mediterranean, you realize that there is a vast spectrum of information.

In one of the cells “O tu chi trasi ccà chi speri?” is written (O you who enter here, what hope?). Today Steri offsets its sad memories: as seat to the University of Palermo and soon to be Museum of the Inquisition.

It will compensate, if we really manage to make this building into a museum and a centre for research, debate, meetings, it is this that I am working for. I would like this to be a meeting point for religions that in the past have been in conflict, first of all the three monotheist religions in the Mediterranean. After all, that is what President Roberto Lagalla quoted on the placard on the occasion of Giorgio Napolitano’s visit: “Here, where Jews, Lutherans, Muslims, Quietists, Apostolates, Necromancers, Healers, Blasphemers were imprisoned is, today, a place of dialogue between religions, peoples and culture”.

When did this sad page in history close?

On the 16th march, 1782 a decree was signed abolishing the Tribunal of the Sant’Uffizio and Viceroy Caracciolo executed it on the 27th, retaining it to be a revolutionary gesture, equal to the taking of the Bastille. He proudly informed his French friends, and gave the news ped we have a tribunal of the faith, not dependent of papal or ecclesiastic authority, but on the Spanish monarchy.

Who were the Inquisition?

The Inquisition were Spanish, not necessarily aristocrats. Their nationality was one of the reasons why the Inquisition was unwelcomed by the Sicilians. These judges did not possess the requisites required by Sicilian custom and pragmatics dating back to the period of the Aragon who had established that Sicilians should be their own native judges. The custom had been that every Sicilian citizen had the right to be prosecuted by a judge from his own municipality. According to Constitutional Law and Custom, every public function in the kingdom, with the exception of Viceroy, should be carried out by a native Sicilian. On the contrary, the Holy Office was represented by the Spanish Inquisition. Secular justice had been separate to ecclesiastical justice on the island, whereas the Inquisition amalgamated them into a single jurisdiction.

Over the centuries, the Palermitan Senate and even some of the Viceroys had reacted and protested against the supreme power of the Inquisition. The fight against the “eretica pravità” of the Jews who had converted to Christianity (the neophytes), was not particularly felt in Sicily. In 1492, the edict for the expulsion of the Jews from Spain had actually provoked the opposite reaction of the Senate and the Viceroy in Palermo who were concerned over the damage these drastic measures would cause to Sicilian commerce and its economy. The solution which would require the Jews to convert to the Catholic religion, be Baptised and considered citizens and subjects, above all, be able to keep a part of their patrimony seemed reasonable to many Sicilians and was accepted by the Jews as a bitter necessity. Yet in 1500, Antonio La Peña, the head of the Sicilian Inquisition, emitted an edict of grace in which he asked the collaboration of all good Christians to denounce these presumed heretics and any who hid or tried to save their lives, gave them advice or support of any kind. The fires were lit (39 alone in 1513). The Sicilian Parliament of 1514 put forward a strong protest, requesting a limit to inquisitorial jurisdiction. Such requests fell on deaf ears and the Inquisitors who were already taking advantage of the patrimony that was consequently confiscated from the condemned, were even nominated custodians of these goods and their responsibilities were extended to the patrimonial aspects of the enquiries.

What were the judicial procedures?

The Inquisition emanated edictum fidei and asked the faithful to denounce whosoever was suspected of heresy, “communing with the devil” or to be in possession of forbidden books. The presumed felon was captured without warning; only those holding a position were sent a writ ordering them to appear. Officials and the families of the Holy Office would set about gathering proof and witnesses to their guilt, while a notary would proceed with drawing up an inventory of their goods and wealth, sequestering and holding it in custody. The informative process would close with the first interrogations of the defendant, hearing witnesses and the examination of the sites, only then would the defence commence with new interrogations. The procedural process was kept strictly secret. The defendant and the witnesses were kept secret, thus even information that had been gathered in Confession could be used. No appeal could be made to the sentence, a second judicial instance did not exist, even if it were repeatedly requested, together with the abolition of secrecy. The Inquisition justified their verdict only in front of the Supreme Court. Torture was the tool used to extract the “prova plena” of the crime. Afterwards, the sentencing; absolution (with the full formula or ad cautelam) followed by auto da fé (“act of faith”).

What is auto da fé?

It is a public rehabilitation ceremony, during which you are walked in a procession through the streets of the town, holding a palm (“the righteous will flourish like a palm tree”, according to Psalm 92:12) and a candle symbolizing the interior light of the faith. Thus, the penitent was reconciled with the faith, having retracted their doctrinal errors. You could say it was an act of public re-composition of Christian unity and of readmission into the church, in as much as, they had been excluded: they were then absolved pronouncing an abiura de levi, for less serious offences de vehementi , which did reconcile the accused, but imposed having to wear the sanbenito (penitential garment) for a while. They were continuously checked up on by the Tribunal, property was confiscated, they were banned from public office, could not write a public act, in a few words, they took away their civil responsibility. All due to an offence of a religious nature, for an error of faith. If it was to do with something from the past e.g. excommunication during a past trial that had been followed by an abiura , the condemned, having fallen yet again into error was excommunicated and considered unrepentant and persistent, relapsed in the eyes of the secularists who would have then seen to the enforcement of capital punishment.

Thus to be burnt at the stake?

Yes. The judges of the Sant’Uffizio entrusted the guilty party to the secularists, as they could not send “a brother in Christ” to death. The secularists were the ones to set the fire alight on “Piano della Marina”, in front of Steri, on “Piano di Sant’Erasmo” or in the square in front of the Cathedral. Jews, Lutherans, Muslims, Necromancers, as well as, witches were burnt at the stake. It became necessary to put into perspective the persistent stereotype of witches in Sicily: here men and women, dedicated to a varied range of magical practices did not confess to Satanic Masses or coupling with the Devil and only a few ended up at the stake.

Against which offences to the Faith did the Holy Tribunal intervene?

The first wave of oppression was against the Jews (Crypto-Judaism): there were 30 burnings at the stake by 1513. Due to the edict expelling the Jews from Spain, which had allowed them to keep some of their wealth, and those who converted to Catholicism saved their own lives; yet many pretended to have done so, then continued to practice their religious customs and the rights of their faith. However the Sant’Uffizio was particularly suspicious of the neophytes and willingly accepted the corroboration of neighbours who reported not having seen smoke from a chimney during the Sabbath or their eating habits. 1,965 accused underwent trial of which only five were absolved. Amidst the offences to the faith we find the apostates, that is to say, those who having been captured by the Turks and taken into slavery in Barberia converted to Islam, then if brought back home, were considered guilty of renegading the true faith. This was the case of the young Francesco Mannarino. During the XVI and XVII centuries, there was a strong attraction to Islam not only by those wanting to desert or escape the arm of the law, as well as, debts, but also by those wanting to profess a religion that was freer in countries renowned for their opportunities to gain wealth and where social mobility awarded audacity and ambition.

Many of the bureaucrats at the Grande Porta were renegade Christians and became pasha, alcayde (commanders of fortresses), raìs on pirate corsairs, janissaries or Grand Viziers. This was why many Christians became “Turks by profession”, as a priest once called them who had been sent to those countries to redeem them. They converted to Islam for the convenience, to ease their conditions as slaves, and “for the pleasure of a freer life and the carnal vices where the Turks lived”. And notoriously “with the Turks comes Mohammed”. There were 846 apostates who were presented to the Inquisition that absolved 392 and reconciled 282 of them.

Gradually, the Protestants appeared: in 1541 the first ones were condemned for Lutheran heresy and in 1547 the first auto da fé of neophytes and Lutherans. However, to those who were heretics in the strictest sense of the word have to be added 496 suspects who were accused of heretical propositions in their statements without the Inquisition being able to pin point their religious leanings within the cannons of heresy. Just by saying, “Who ever returned from Hell with his feet burnt?” was considered an offence, or to claim that the Madonna was a prophet or even, think that fornication was not a sin.

Heresy was often mixed up with magic. When the magical aspects led to the adoration of the Devil, to Black Masses, etc. This is why a further 90 defendants were put on trial who added to the 976 already on trial for witchcraft made 1,066. However, it was blasphemy that brought the toll up to an even higher number, to demonstrate the pedagogic vocation of the courts: among the 636 blasphemers were those who had been heard to say “Santu diavuluni!”(Holy Devil!), a very common exclamation on the island. Unfortunately, he who started out being accused of blasphemy, could end up being punished as a neophyte because that “Santu diavulun” was considered an invocation to the Devil, therefore judged as being extremely serious. Bigamy was another offence that was sought out, even trigamy and quatrigamy: above all sailors, soldiers and merchants were accused. Other offences were of a sexual nature (fornication, sodomy and sollecitatio ad turpia by clergymen).

What instruments of torture were used within the walls of this prison?

Torture was another aspect of this judiciary technique, yet here they were not brutal to a point. The Sicilian Inquisition used the rope. A rope was hung from a beam, the victim fell with their wrists tied behind their backs so that their arms and shoulders would be dislocated. There they would hang for 30 minutes, the time was measured by a clepsydra a


Presenting an interview with the historian Giovanna Fiume, consultant to the Director of the yet to be opened Museum of the Spanish Inquisition in Sicily and professor of Modern History at the University of Palermo.

The Museum of the Inquisition will open in what was once the prison. The graffiti and drawings left by prisoners of the Steri Inquisition will undoubtedly play the protagonists in the museum. So as to learn more about these “very much alive and direct testimonies of the drama that the Inquisition was for the people who fell victim to them”, as the one and same Leonardo Sciascia considered the graffiti to be. We interviewed the historian Giovanna Fiume, consultant to the Director of the yet to be opened Museum of the Spanish Inquisition in Sicily and professor of Modern History at the Faculty of Political Sciences, University of Palermo.

By Anna Casisa

Professor Fiume, what was the Inquisition to Sicily?

The Spanish Inquisition was a Tribunal of the Faith established by the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile to hunt down heresy, in other words, bring the crown in line with the unitary logic of un rey, una fé, una ley (one king, one faith, one law). In 1487, the Inquisition arrived on the island, yet only started being operative around 1500, when sufficient economic resources had been put in place. However, it should be remembered that during the Middle-Ages in Sicily there had already been the Papal Inquisition and from the 13th century on, the Inquisition had been delegated by the Pope (the Roman Inquisition). Jurisdiction over acts against the faith had normally been exercised by the Bishop, at times with the support of the Papal Inquisition. King Ferdinand II of Aragon availed of the privilege of the Apostolic Legazia bestowed by Urbano II on Roger I in 1098, according to which the sovereigns of the island were born legates to the pontiff. Thus the Sicilian kings could claim control over any ecclesiastic matter and, in 1579, Phillip II established the Tribunal of the Monarchy with the right to intervene in every single controversy relating to the rapport between the lay tribunals and ecclesiastic tribunals. In virtue of this privilege, no act by the Holy See could be sanctioned without executory letters from the Viceroys. Therefore on the islan