Mysteries Set in Italy (Secondo)

Volume 22, No. 1, Spring 2006

Mysteries Set in Italy - Secundo
Buy this back issue! Available in hardcopy or as a downloadable PDF.


  • Place, Food, Language and Sleaze: Setting in Italian Mysteries by Elizabeth Immirzi
  • Buon Appetito… by C. A. Accardi
  • The Website by Carlo Vennarucci
  • Murder Writ Large by Cathy Pickens
  • Martha Grimes’ The Blue Last: World War II Nostalgia and Romantic Italy by Carolyne Van Der Meer
  • Mediterranean Noir by Michael Reynolds


  • Today in Italy by Massimo Carlotto
  • Writing My Way Home by Camilla T. Crespi
  • Italian Noir by Giancarlo De Cataldo
  • The Italian Food Taster by Peter Elbling
  • There’s No Place Like Rome by R.F. Gainey
  • Stealing Parts of Italy by David Hewson
  • Not So Perfect Pasta by Maddy Hunter
  • Venice and Crime by Jane Jakeman
  • Florence: The Hidden City of the Dirty Duke by Magdalen Nabb
  • Italy: To Die For by Jonathan Santlofer
  • What Made the Matrons Murder? A Poison Plot in Ancient Rome by Steven Saylor
  • The Finity Case by Melissa Swaim
  • Intrigued by Italy by Gayle Wigglesworth


  • Mystery in Retrospect: Reviews by John Apostolou, M. Wayne Cunningham, Carol Harper, Ed Lynskey, Karen Meek
  • The Children’s Hour by Gay Toltl Kinman
  • Italy in British Crime Fiction by Philip Scowcroft
  • MRI MAYHEM by Janet A. Rudolph
  • Members in the News
  • Mystery Bookstores and Mail-Order Catalogues
  • Mystery Magazines
  • Mysterious Happenings
  • For Your Information
  • Awards
  • Letters to the Editor
  • From the Editor’s Desk by Janet A. Rudolph

Florence: The Hidden City of the Dirty Duke
by Magdalen Nabb (Florence, Italy)

I want to take you for a walk through Florence, a city many of you may know, or think you know. This is a city that hides its face from you, dodges you, deceives you and—on a sunny morning or a hot, torchlit night, seduces you into thinking “How charming and how artistic!” After thirty years, I still fall victim to this even though I know…

We’ll start right in the heart of the city, the Piazza della Signoria, and, of course, take our guide book with us:

“Florence’s civic showpiece square is dominated by the Palazzo Vecchio, the crenellated and corbelled building completed at the end of the thirteenth century…”

City Hall. I hate queuing for hours in there to get some document or other stamped but I love its tower, straight out of a fairy tale, and its gothic windows with their twisted marble columns. The piazza is usually noisy, full of tourists, licking ice cream, reading guide books. Clear them from the picture. On this day, the day I want to tell you about, the square is full but silent. An hour ago, there was noise enough, panic, galloping horses, screaming. And the nearby cathedral bell was ringing and ringing.

Now in the silence, the people are staring up at those pointed windows. Dangling from the columns are bodies, tortured, bloodstained, still. In the crowd below, a young man is making a sketch of one of the dangling bodies and, beside it, he writes a careful note of what it is wearing. It’s an archbishop in ecclesiastical clothing. Let’s move away from this scene but remember it.

Past an equestrian statue on our left is a smaller, prettier palace, the Palazzo Uguccioni. We won’t stop here, but remember that name. I lived there once for a while, when the Uguccioni family was still there, and on our walk we’ll come across one of my friend Gherardo Uguccioni’s unfortunate ancestors. Let’s leave the square and walk towards the mercato nuovo, sometimes called the straw market:

“A fine stone loggia erected between 1547 and 1551 on a site where there has been a market since the eleventh century…”

In a tiny square just behind the straw market there once lived a Duke, Giustino Canacci. Giustino was described by a chronicler of the time as “the ugliest, most tiresome and the dirtiest man in Florence.” Also, he had no sense because when he was a widow with grown up children and nearly seventy, he married a beautiful young woman, Caterina. The pretty Caterina soon found a Duke more to her taste, the Duke of Giuliano, but his Duchess, not at all pretty but very proud, was furious. She warned Caterina to leave her husband alone. When that didn’t work, she tried to poison her. Then, when that failed, she hired four assassins and hid them in the Cannaci house with the help of the dirty Duke’s sons who didn’t like their stepmother any more than she did. On New Year’s Eve, the assassins murdered Caterina and her servant girl, cut up their bodies and threw away the limbs and torsos, some down a well and the rest into the river Arno. But not Caterina’s head. The head was reserved for the furious Duchess. This is what the chronicler wrote:

“On Sundays and holidays she used to send to the Duke’s room a silver basin covered by a fair cloth, containing collars, cuffs and suchlike things. But on this first of January the present was of a different kind. Taking the head of Caterina which still preserved the beauty which had been the cause of her death, the Duchess placed it in the basin, covered it with the usual cloth and sent it to the Duke’s room. When he rose and lifted the cloth to take his clean linen, let his horror be imagined at seeing so pitiful a sight. Knowing full well that his wife had done this deed, he would have no more of her, and they say he was never seen to smile again.”

The dirty Duke’s reaction isn’t recorded but as well as losing his pretty Caterina he lost his son, Bartolomeo, who was beheaded for the murder.

Let’s walk on as far as the Ponte Vecchio:

“The higgledy-piggeldy buildings on the bridge and the views it affords of the Florentine hills have lent it the reputation as one of the most romantic spots in Italy on which to propose marriage…”

Marriage, yes… Do you remember the name of the Uguccioni and their palace near the Palazzo Vecchio? The full name of the family is Uguccioni dei Buondelmonti. That’s a family that has had so many misfortunes and many of them had to do with their being very handsome. Gherardo Uguccione dei Buondelmonti who told me this story is a very handsome man and the last of his line. The Buondelmonti were hard fighters as well as being attractive to women and the combination of the two in the person of Buondelmote dei Buondelmonte resulted not only in his murder but in years of civil war in Florence. It started with a ridiculous quarrel during a banquet at a castle outside the city. It began when a jester snatched a plate from one of the Buondelmonti guests. Offence was taken, a fight ensued and the quarrel between the Buondelmonti and Fifante families was only resolved after a very long time through an arranged marriage between Buondelmonte dei Buondelmonti and a Fifante daughter. Unfortunately, the girl was ugly and her fiancé jilted her in favour of ‘the most beautiful maiden in Florence’, according to contemporary reports. While he planned his wedding, the family of the jilted girl made other plans. At first, it was suggested that they should slice his beautiful face with their daggers. Then the famous words were pronounced: “Before thou beatest or woundest, dig thine own grave. Give him what he deserves. A thing finished is done with.”

On Easter morning, the beautiful bridegroom, Buondelmonte dei Buondelmonti, dressed in white and with a garland of flowers on his head, rode across the Ponte Vecchio on his favourite white horse. As he reached the other side, the doors of a palace flew open and his enemies knocked him from his horse and killed him. His beautiful young bride rode in the funeral carriage through the streets of Florence with his head in her lap, calling for vengeance, and so years of civil war began.

We’ll walk on now to the Palazzo Pitti:

“Its rusticated façade bearing down on it sloping forecourt…”

Marshal Guarnaccia’s station is in the left wing of the palace and I spend a lot of time there, talking over people, problems and cases. Let’s do what he does and take the short cut to via Maggio, down a dark and narrow alley. No tourists here. Usually, there are just people taking the short cut like us or taking their shopping home. But not on the day I’m telling you about. Earlier, a small crowd gathered and was dispersed. The few remaining people are now staring up at a window from which a tortured, bloodied corpse is hanging. Among the people below, a young man is taking notes. He write nothing about clothing because the man is naked. He is a cook.

The guide book take us on into via Maggio and the fine antique shops which Marshal Guarnaccia visits regularly with a list of stolen goods. Like him, we can take a rest now, have a coffee at the bar on the corner whilst I explain something about this walk we’ve done.

That first scene we saw in the Piazza della Signoria was the aftermath the Pazzi conspiracy, the murder of Giuliano de’ Medici and the attempted murder of Lorenzo during mass in the cathedral in 1478. The perpetrators were caught and, an hour later, were hanging from the windows of the Palazzo Vecchio. The young man standing below the windows, sketching, was the twenty six year old Leonardo da Vinci.

The last scene we saw, in that narrow, gloomy street, concerned the torture, strangulation and hanging outside of his window of the cook whose name was Angelo Carbone. The young man taking notes below the window was one of the marshal’s men from the carabiniere station at the Palazzo Pitti. This happened in 1993.

And why did I take you on this walk? Because everywhere I go to give readings or talks, the one question I am always, always asked is, “Why, when you live in such a charming, artistic city, do you write about murder?”

Magdalen Nabb was born in England and has lived in Florence since 1975. The latest book in her Marhal Guarnaccia series is The Innocent, published by Soho Press.

What Made the Matrons Murder? A Poison Plot in Ancient Rome
by Steven Saylor (Berkeley, California and Austin, Texas)

Rome is my bread and butter. When I was a boy growing up in rural Texas, watching gladiator movies, playing with my battery-operated Roman galley, and dressing up as Cleopatra (just kidding!), I could never have guessed that I would someday make a living writing about ancient Rome, but so it goes.

My series featuring Gordianus the Finder, sleuth of ancient Rome, is now up to 11 volumes (9 novels and 2 collections of short stories), translated into 18 languages. Despite a bit of a scare I put into some readers with the ambiguous ending of the latest novel,

The Judgment Of Caesar, Gordianus is still alive and well, and the series is not over. I’ve just signed a contract for the next two books.

Twice I’ve dared to venture away from Rome, both times back to my native Texas (and staying in the crime genre).

A Twist At The End recounted America’s first known serial murders in Austin in 1885 (and very gruesome they were);

Have You Seen Dawn? was a bit of autobiography-done-with-mirrors (to borrow a phrase from Gore Vidal) set in my tiny Texas hometown, with murder added to the mix.

Now I’m venturing out of the mystery genre (only temporarily!) but digging deeper than ever into Rome. My current project (to be published in late 2006 or in 2007) is

Roma: The Novel Of Ancient Rome, which follows the James Michener/Edward Rutherfurd model; the epic story follows the fortunes of a single bloodline over the course of a thousand years, from the earliest beginnings of an Iron Age settlement on the Tiber to the age of Caesar and Cleopatra and the end of the Roman Republic.

Yes, even before Julius Caesar there are a thousand years of Roman history, full of extraordinary people and events. Everybody’s heard of Romulus and Remus, the Sabine women, and Hannibal and his elephants. Hopefully, after Roma, readers will also know about the Gracchi brothers (left-wing politicians from a patrician family who were both assassinated; any resemblance to the Kennedy clan is strictly intentional), the capture and burning of Rome in 390 B.C. by invading Gauls (despite the honking alarms of the sacred Geese of Juno), and the tragic traitor Coriolanus (the fascinating subject of one of Shakespeare’s least-known plays).

None of the episodes in Roma is, strictly speaking, a murder mystery. But of course, amid all that research, it was inevitable that I would come across some criminal mayhem. One of the most intriguing tidbits involves what may be the first recorded mass murders in history. Here’s the tale as recounted by the Roman historian Livy (Book VIII, chapter 18), writing about Rome in the year 332 B.C.:

This year gained an evil notoriety, either because of pestilence or human guilt. Since the authorities are not unanimous on the point, I would gladly believe it was disease, not poison, that carried off so many victims. But lest I impugn the credibility of our sources, I shall relate the sordid details just as they’ve been handed down to us.

The foremost men in the state were being attacked by the same mysterious malady, which in almost every case proved fatal. A maid-servant went to the city magistrate, Quintus Fabius Maximus, and promised to reveal the cause of these suspicious deaths, provided the state would guarantee her safety. Fabius went at once to the consuls, who referred the matter to the senate, which authorized a promise of protection and immunity.

The maid-servant then accused certain women of concocting poisons. If officers would follow her at once, she said, they could catch the poison makers in the act. The officers followed the informant and did indeed find the accused compounding poisonous substances, along with batches of poisons which were already made up.

The evidence was seized and brought into the Forum. Twenty high-born matrons, at whose houses poisons were discovered, were brought before the magistrates. Two of the women, Cornelia and Sergia, both from ancient patrician families, contended that the concoctions were medicinal preparations. Accused of lying, the maid-servant suggested that the women should drink some the supposed medicine themselves, if they wishes to prove it was harmless.

The court was cleared of spectators. The accused women consulted among themselves. All consented to drink the potions, whereupon they all died.

Their attendants were arrested at once, and informed against a large number of matrons. Eventually, 170 women were found guilty.

Up to that time there had never been a public investigation of poisoning in Rome. The whole incident was regarded as a evil portent, and the women were thought to have acted out of madness rather than deliberate wickedness.

No wonder Livy couldn’t resist relating this episode—he knew a good story when he heard one! Here we have multiple murders among the high-born, betrayal by a servant, mass suicide, and an ever-expanding circle of accusation and guilt. There’s even an attempt to explain the event as the result of mass hysteria. But in ancient Rome, there was no insanity defense.

I come across such extraordinary material all the time in my research; when there’s murder involved, my interest is especially piqued. Naturally, I had to find a way to incorporate this incident in Roma, and so I set about uncovering all I could about the poisonings. In the end, the tale is only a small ingredient in what I hope will be a rich banquet of a book… but a little murder, like a powerful spice, goes a long way.

Steven Saylor‘s latest book is A Gladiator Dies Only Once (St. Martin’s Press).

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