Saturday, December 5, 2009

Pistols! Treason! Murder!: Plausibility, Part 1

Pistols! Treason! Murder! describes the arrest, execution and posthumous exoneration of the Venetian noble Antonio Foscarini. Gerolamo Vano supplied (at least some of) the evidence against Foscarini. Given the eventual outcome of the case, why were the Council of Ten (the prosecuting magistrates) initially convinced of Foscarini’s guilt? In other words, why did Vano’s accusations initially seem plausible to them?

To answer this question, we need to begin by distinguishing the plausible from the true. Even if truth is absolute, plausibility is not. It is always defined by reference to a particular context because it depends on shared expectations and preconceptions about normal behaviour or probable outcomes. For example, in Venice, what we might call the ‘threshold of suspicion’ was very low after the exposure of the so-called Spanish conspiracy in 1618. The Council of Ten were expecting to find traitors, and specific accusations are always preferable to diffuse anxiety in such circumstances. And, while both Foscarini's arrest and the sentence against him were unexpected, none of the foreign ambassadors present in Venice who initially reported on the case doubted that he was guilty as charged. There were no cynics suggesting that the Ten had been deceived or that there were political motives behind the prosecution.[1]

The legal notion of indizii, ‘clues’ or circumstantial evidence, was undoubtedly crucial in Foscarini’s trial. Indizii were physical or other signs that permitted an investigating magistrate to make inferences in the absence of direct eyewitness testimony. Most such ‘clues’ fell under the category of what we would now call circumstantial evidence. For example, in a murder case, if the accused fled, or had previously threatened the victim, these were indizii of his guilt, whilst the presence of multiple wounds on a corpse served as evidence of deliberate intent to kill, and was therefore an indizio of premeditation. Theoretical discussion of this matter dwelt at inordinate length on the possibility of poisoning; that is, on circumstances that were by definition difficult to establish by eyewitness testimony.[2]

The biographer Girolamo Priuli, writing a few years after Foscarini’s death, explicitly tells us that Foscarini was suspected – the word used is inditiato, that is, ‘rendered suspect by indizii’ – on the basis of testimony from witnesses who had been corrupted by the wicked man [that is, Gerolamo Vano, although he is not named in Priuli’s account], since matters of State are so important and sensitive, that circumstantial evidence [indizii] has the force of proof [in such cases].[3] This last point was in contrast to normal criminal procedure, in which indizii alone might justify an arrest or investigation, but not a conviction.

Vano’s reports are indeed full of details that could be classed as
indizii of treachery or deceit: attempts at disguise, signs of emotional disturbance, and so on. However, many of these involve the sort of crude emotional signposting that only children and bad actors resort to nowadays: stamping feet, foaming mouths, and so on. To a modern reader, they seem highly implausible. How could the Ten possibly have been taken in? The point is that plausibility depends on local definitions of appropriate behaviour, and these in turn depend on the threshold of embarrassment (the phrase is Norbert Elias') regarding open displays of emotion. Vano lived in a world in which melodrama was part of the texture of everyday experience. Moreover, part of the point of Vano’s reports was that he was showing men with their guard down, when the demands and controls of civility had been relaxed.

This whole issue is further complicated by the fact that some of Vano’s characters actually were bad actors. His informants lived in the space between appearance and reality, whilst their real intentions always had to be subject to plausible denial. This posed an enormous psychological and cultural problem for them, just as it poses a retrospective interpretative problem for us, since people learn how to feel by acting their feelings out and having them validated by the response of others. By contrast, one learns to spy in the same way that one learns to lie.[4]

The difficulty of acting a part was compounded by the fact that, even in private, the word ‘spy’, like the word atheist or traitor, was usually applied to other people. Thus Vano used it exclusively to describe Spanish and Imperial familiars.[5]
Like executioners, spies were necessary instruments of government, but the men so employed were considered infamous by others.[6] As a result, it was difficult to explain one’s actions to oneself by adopting the role of spy. It was of course necessary to admit what one had done in certain circumstances – notably when asking for money from employers – but polite euphemisms were always observed: ‘loyal subject’ and so on.

The issue of infamy brings us to what plausibility meant in court, because evidence offered by infamous people traditionally carried little or no weight. A thief’s testimony always counted less than that of a gentleman. It was morally implausible. The get-out clause for the Council of Ten in using Vano’s testimony was the notion of ‘reason of state’, which justified a temporary suspension of normal moral and/or legal standards for political reasons. In other words, reason of state justified a redefinition of plausibility in light of a redefinition of morality, or in light of secret knowledge of statecraft.

On what basis were distinctions and legal judgements made? Thomas Cohen has argued in a recent article that witnesses in sixteenth-century Italian courts attempted to convince the judges by staking a claim to jeopardy. As he puts it, men with something to lose will flaunt their risks to prove serious intent. [7] He identified three forms of jeopardy invoked by witnesses. These were:

(1) Physical vulnerability: I cannot resist you. Torture me if you do not believe what I say and you will see that my story remains unchanged. Under torture, or faced with the threat of torture, I am incapable of dissimulation.

(2) Empirical proof: I am being so specific that it will be easy to prove whether I am lying by checking the details of my story.

(3) Honour: How dare you take this thief’s word over mine? May I lose my reputation if I am lying.

What then was Vano offering as a ‘stake’ to guarantee the truth of his information, the thing that he would forfeit if he was proved to be a liar? Not honour, obviously. As a spy, he was outside the honour code. He invoked empiricism most explicitly, apparently offering a rich accumulation of detail. However, there was a radical physical vulnerability behind this apparent empiricism. Vano staked himself and threw the dice, over and over again.

[Discussion continues in the next post:]

[1] There were four abstentions (out of seventeen votes) in the resolution on Foscarini’s condemnation, but since no one actually voted for absolution, the abstainers were probably just squeamish about getting noble blood on their hands.

[2] Antonio Barbaro, Pratica Criminale, Venice, 1739, pp. 41-6; Lorenzo Priori, Prattica Criminale, Venice, 1644, pp. 17-18, 123.

[3] Museo Correr, Venice, Codici Cicogna, 3782, G. Priuli, Pretiosi Frutti del Maggior Consiglio, fo. 29v.

[4] In light of all this, it is actually Vano’s restraint when faced with persistent threats to his life from the Spanish that is more difficult to explain. In other words, to reverse the terms of our original question, is it plausible that he should remain so impassive in a culture where stamping feet and foaming mouths were considered normal? There are two possible explanations for this. Firstly, his sang-froid might make more sense if we understand anger as a response triggered more by wounded honour than physical threat. Since Vano’s honour was not engaged, then he never got angry. Nor did he feel the need to justify or explain himself, since he could take the tacit support of his audience (i.e. the Inquisitors of State) for granted. Secondly, and more obviously, his role as narrator gave him a distance from the events he described.

[5] This generalisation is based on the use of the word spia in Italian sources. I cannot say whether it applies to the use of analogous terms in English or French. Venetian sources do sometimes refer to men in their own employ as spies. For example, the expense claims submitted by the Ten’s captain of police, Francesco Ongarin, and extant in Archivio di Stato, Venice, Inquisitori di Stato, busta 953, refer thus to individuals employed on an ad hoc basis for surveillance operations. The fact that no-one referred to Vano as a spy in his reports is actually rather suspicious. The single exception was an anonymous letter dropped off at Vano’s house, included as an insert in Inquisitori di Stato, busta 636, which (significantly) was written by an enemy.

[6] For example, this is how the spy is described in Tomaso Garzoni, La piazza universale, Venice, 1616, p. 306r, although spies were not considered ‘infamous’ in the technical, legal sense that a convicted felon was.

[7] Thomas V. Cohen, ‘Three Forms of Jeopardy: Honor, Pain, and Truth-Telling in a Sixteenth-Century Italian Courtroom’, Sixteenth Century Journal, vol. 29.4 (1998), pp. 976, 987.

No comments: