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Isola non isolata. Le Stinche in the Middle Ages
By Guy Geltner
Annali di Storia di Firenze, Vol.3 (2008)
Introduction: The Italian government’s Department of Penal Administration (DAP) publishes a monthly journal, aptly entitled «Le due città». But rather than seeking to evoke a central theme in Augustinian thought, the name consciously attempts to critique (and redress) the growing gulf between two social entities: the city and the prison. As if lifted from some Durkheimian textbook, this disjunction is symptomatic of how ‘mainstream’ and ‘deviant’ societies have come to construe themselves as profoundly and almost irrevocably at odds with one another – an ideology that reached its strongest manifestation in the Anglo-American world, where prisons are being relocated to rural areas or otherwise camouflaged as downtown office buildings. And although the process is not nearly as pronounced in Italy (or in Europe generally), it is certainly a strong trend, as the DAP’s journal emphatically stresses.
The disjuncture between convicts and free society, however idealized, was simply unimaginable when prisons were first widely introduced into communal justice systems, that is, between the mid thirteenth and the early fourteenth centuries. In this sense, Florence is not merely a case in point, but perhaps the case in point, for c. 1300 the commune created the flagship prison of late-medieval Italy and a unique facility in all of western Europe. Indeed, Le Stinche – as the compound soon came to be known – ranks high among the city’s political, legal, administrative, and social achievements in its late-medieval period. And that this fact remains obscured today reflects our own mentality of «the two cities» rather than the original, socially integrative thinking behind the foundation of medieval prisons.
Ignorance about the real ‘birth’ of the prison as an institution (as distinct from that of modern penology) and about life within it dictates the two main goals of the present essay: first, to delineate the early history of Florentine incarceration, from its diverse and disparate origins to the foundation and routinization of Le Stinche as an exclusive facility by the close of the fourteenth century; second, to illuminate the organization of prison life and the considerable degree to which it relied on external intervention, be it by independent supervisors, charitable confraternities, or concerned individuals. For Le Stinche’s location, regime, and the social permeability of its walls ensured that inmates and society at large interacted daily, thereby avoiding the creation of «a city within a city».
After briefly introducing the sources and available scholarship on the topic (sections 1-2), we will advance through three main sections (3-5): the first sketches a profile of Le Stinche mainly from an administrative point of view; the second analyzes the facility’s financial aspects; and the third deals with prison society and the inmates’ daily life. The conclusion (section 6) briefly situates Le Stinche within the wider context of two parallel and overlapping developments: the proliferation of prisons across late-medieval western Europe and the shifting of attitudes from exclusion to containment of social deviants at that time. For, contrary to the still prevalent view of late medieval society as imbued with a «persecuting mentality», identifying deviants in that period entailed a greater deal of tolerance than is usually recognized.