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The Renaissance and the Italian Witch-Trials :: History 229: The Age of the Witch Hunts

The Renaissance and the Italian Witch-Trials

While the witch-trials in Italy were far less frequent and intense than those in central Europe, beliefs in magic and witchcraft were as widespread throughout Italy, and records show that a few large-scale, violent witch-hunts occurred in rural areas of Northern Italy. However, these witch-crazes were exceptions, and on the Italian peninsula, witch-hunters’ paranoia was by no means pervasive and the witch-trials that did occur were handled with extreme caution. As the center of the Renaissance, the Italian states flourished as the most economically, politically, and especially culturally advanced in Europe.[1] The caution and restraint of witch-trials can be credited to the intellectual framework of the Renaissance. The Renaissance undoubtedly impacted the understanding of witchcraft in the Italian states and while demonological works circulated throughout Italy, many Renaissance humanists published and spread counter-arguments, bringing back sources of antiquity and using reason to rebuke the existence of witches. Furthermore, during the Renaissance, members of all social classes in Italy accepted and glorified the individual’s ability to practice magic, giving many types of magic a positive connotation that by no means involved invoking demons or entering into a demonic pact. Because Italian cities were the center of these intellectual movements, the caution and restraint Italian authorities used when prosecuting witchcraft can be attributed to the Renaissance.

The large witch-hunts that did occur in Italy began at the beginning of the sixteenth century in places isolated from Renaissance ideas. The most affected areas were all located north of the Apennines, taking place in primarily rural, mountainous areas that were isolated from the culture and ideas of larger Italian cities.[2] The trials occurred in the later half of the fifteenth century and beginning of the sixteenth century, and were lead by foreign inquisitors who used torture to gain confessions and executed dozens of innocent individuals.[3] The case of Inquisition of Como (Lombardy) is one of the first and large-scale witch-hunts that occurred in Italy. While the trial documents were likely destroyed, these trials are admirably mentioned in the Malleus Maleficarum.[4] Heinrich Kramer describes how, “The Inquisitor of Como in the space of one year, which was the year of grace 1485, caused forty-one witches to be burned; who all publicly affirmed, as it is said, that they had practiced these abominations with devils.”[5] The fact that Kramer used these trials as an example to include in Malleus, which rapidly spread across the continent and became a uniform witch-hunters manual, proves that the Inquisition of Como followed the narrative of stereotypical witch-trials. These trials were by no means cautious, consisting of accusations based on ideas and fears involving the demonic pact and the sabbat, the use of leading question and torture to gain specific confessions, followed execution based on these confessions.

Two large-scale witch-hunts also occurred in Val Camonica, a small, remote and mountainous area then under the republic of Venice. While part of the Venice, Val Camonica was entirely different than and isolated from Venetian society. An educated local observer in 1518 wrote an account on the witch-trials that occurred in this area and described the inhabitants, who practiced pagan beliefs, as “largely ignorant, goitrous, and almost entirely deformed and lacking all the finer point of civil society.”[6] Because of the lack of Christianity in the area, it became a target for Inquisitors who sought to purify the republic of Venice of heretics and enemies of Catholicism. Foreign inquisitors carried out witch-hunts in these areas from 1505 until 1510 and from 1518 until 1521.[7] These trials, like those of the Inquisition of Como, gained confessions through leading question and the use of torture, and an estimated one hundred individuals were burned alive. When news of these trials reached Venice, the Council of Ten, which was one of the main ruling bodies of the republic, were baffled and doubted the existence of witchcraft in the area. Piero Tron, the Venetian podesta of Brescia, wrote, “these all seem grave and strange matters, rather beyond me, which I do not believe.”[8] The Council quickly removed the leading inquisitor from the area and discredited the validity of the accusations and confessions of the trials. When expressing their grief and complete opposition of the trials, they wrote, “These poor creatures of the Val Camonica are simple people with the coarsest understanding” and died as martyrs.[9] Like the Inquisition of Como, the trials in Val Camonica occurred in isolated areas, removed from central governing bodies of the Renaissance Italian city-states and separated from their culture.

While the mass witch-hunts that occurred in these isolated, alpine areas were characteristic of the stereotypical trial that brought the cumulative concept of witchcraft to life, cases of witchcraft in urban Italy played out a completely different narrative. These cases were isolated, individual trials that rarely involved the demonic pact and sabbat.[10] Cases of alleged witchcraft were approached with extreme caution and rarely ended with guilty convictions. During the Venetian Inquisition, the height of the Church’s concern of magic and witchcraft, out of over one hundred malefic trials, not a single defendant was convicted. [11] While the Inquisitors in these areas approached witchcraft in a cautious and skeptical manner, they carried out over 500 trials dealing with other types of magic in which defendants were often convicted.[12] This is not to say that the ideas of witchcraft were nonexistent in Italian cities. Like other areas in Europe that experienced mass witch-crazes, demonological works had been circulating throughout the Italian city-states for centuries, and the ideas of Henrich Kramer disseminated throughout Italy and were read by the elites and church authorities.[13] Furthermore, news of the mass-trials in bordering, Alpine regions had likely disseminated amongst the Italian populace.[14] However, Italy approached these ideas and beliefs with extreme skepticism, and the witchcraft paranoia failed to grab hold of the Italian city-states.

The Renaissance can be given much credit for the lack of convictions experienced in Italy. During the Renaissance, lasting from the late 1300s until 1600, Italy embraced a climate of cultural and social change as Renaissance thinkers brought back and relied upon the literary, scientific, and philosophical works of ancient Greece and Rome. [15] The Renaissance began in Florence and as it spread rapidly throughout the Italian city-states, humanism became the most defining intellectual movement. Humanism was based on the glorification of the individual and Renaissance thinkers shifted away from the collective conscious, centering the world on human beings. Based on the idea that humans are perfectly rational and the ultimate judges in all issues, humanism emphasized the potential of the human mind, ushering in an environment of questioning and learning that encouraged individuals to investigate and define the laws of nature and the physical world.[16] Renaissance scholars challenged the accepted intellectual views and approaches to philosophy, medicine, law and science of the Middle Ages and universities became hubs for innovative research in these fields.[17] While many Renaissance thinkers clashed with religious authorities, many prominent Church figures in Italy embraced the ideas of humanism and Church leaders of prosperous Italian cities grew more interested in politics than religion. Unlike other places in Europe where individuals were quick to accept the beliefs of the Church, this cultural shift towards the individual mind as the center of the universe empowered Italians to gain truths through looking inward, rather than turning to the Church. While Catholic religion remained important to every day life in Italy, the Renaissance in many ways ushered in a feeling of secularism through its glorification of intellectual achievement.

The intellectual innovations of the Renaissance certainly set Italy apart from other European nations and caused Italian cities to respond differently as ideas of the cumulative concept of witchcraft began to spread. Demonological sources spread the cumulative concept of witchcraft amongst the elites during the 1400s. While the Renaissance began in the fourteenth century, it truly took hold of the Italian city-states during the 1400s. Therefore, the cumulative concept of the witch and the demonic pact came to Italy at the height of the humanist intellectualism. In other areas of Europe, elites took the concept of the demonic pact as truth, however, Renaissance thinkers responded with criticisms and counter-arguments, often disproving the reality of witchcraft. During the 1400s, a large, diverse front of “theologians, philosophers, physicians, and jurists—many coming from Italian states—never ceased urging caution and voicing doubts, if not outright disbelief, in matters relating to witchcraft.”[18] Many intellectuals challenged the possibility of witchcraft relying on ancient theological texts. These skeptics argued that witchcraft, based on the demonic pact was virtually impossible based on the very nature of the Devil.[19] For instance, Augustinian monk, Guglielmo Becchi, bishop of Fiesole and friend to Lorenzo de’ Medici, asserted “that demons did not have any physical body, and therefore were unable to have any material contact with humans.”[20] Furthermore, these intellectuals believed that the devil had great delusory skills and made many women have visions or dreams that they were actually witches. Witches’ images occurred only because of their weak mind that was easily upset by the Devil’s powers.[21] Many of these skeptics relied upon ancient folk sources to show how these delusions were exactly like those of the old followers of Diana. [22] Through this reference, they undermined the reality of sabbat, describing it as a mere mental vision. In humanist fashion, many argued that based on his great, unwavering love of humankind, God would never “give the devil free reign so as to enable the witches to carry out such nefarious crimes.”[23] While many Italian Church authorities had steadfast beliefs in the threat of witchcraft or other types of bad magic that relied upon the powers of the Devil, they were challenged by this intellectual movement that considered the witches’ confessions harmless dreams.[24]

Many prominent jurists approached the idea of witchcraft with caution as well, warning against the lack of evidence available to adequately prove witchcraft. These jurists emphasized that witch-trials should be approached with caution based on the legal difficulties courts would face in an attempt to prosecute a witch.[25] In the second half of the 1400s, Ambrogio Vinati and Ulrich Molitor, both lawyers who practiced in Italy, published work that doubted the reality of many aspects of witchcraft, primarily the sabbat.[26] Relying on the power of the human mind to define reality through experience, these thinkers were unable to understand and justify the idea of the sabbat, something that no one had ever before seen. Even if the sabbat were a real phenomenon, a court would never have adequate evidence to prove its existence based on the non-existence of eyewitnesses. Lawyer Giovanni Francesco Ponzinibio from Piacenza emphasized the risks of trusting the rough countrywomen of low social and moral level to his favor who were the stereotypes of a witch.[27] He argued that because witchcraft did not exists and was only a condition of the imagination, experienced primarily by deluded and degraded country folk, “inquisitors not only had to refuse to proceed against the witches, but should actually prosecute those who believed in the reality of the sabbat.”[28] The legal arguments emphasized the use of reason when dealing with witchcraft, encouraging looking beyond the ideas of the inquisitors.

The arguments extended beyond theology and law, and many gave medical explanations justifying the myth of witchcraft. During the Renaissance, the study of the human body and medicine caused a transformation in the understanding of the potential causes behind illnesses. Milanese Andrea Alciato described witches from a psychological level, who suffered a “disease of the imagination that had been described by scientists and physicians from classical antiquity.”[29] In De Rerum Varietne, Girolama Cardano said that the imaginings of the so-called witches occurred because of their meager diet.[30] In De Praestigiis Daemonum, Johann Wier claimed that these illusions occur because of the unbalanced bodily humors, which inevitably disrupted their ability to think rationally.[31] Over the course of the Renaissance, individuals outside of the field of medicine began to rely upon physician’s knowledge and understand the natural caused behind illnesses, which is crucial to understanding the caution in the persecution of witches, especially cases of maleficia.

The Renaissance also impacted the reluctance to embrace the concept of witchcraft based on the positive connotation it put upon magic. As Christianity became more black and white, most places during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries condemned the practice of magic as heresy. Church authorities, fearing that magic would undermine the authority of God, claimed that individuals could only practice magic through association with the Devil and the use of his power. However, during the Renaissance, Italians understood magic in an entirely different way. Through the revival of ancient sources, many humanists emphasized that because of the power of humanity, magic could be performed at the hands of ordinary individuals. The Renaissance was a cultural world where magical powers and supernatural forces were a reality, active in daily lives of most Italians.[32] Renaissance revival of sources caused the diffusion of books based on magical themes, resting on the “deep knowledge of the connections of linking the earth to the higher heavens could enable humans to produce wondrous effects through the manipulation of the hidden properties of the natural world.”[33] In describing the characteristics of a natural magician, Giambattista della Porta, leading philosopher in early modern natural magic, wrote, “a natural magician must be an exact and very perfect philosopher with a deep knowledge on the characteristics of plants, metals, minerals, gems, and sons, as well as optics, the mathematical sciences and especially astrology- for the sundry motions and aspects of the heaves… many things receive both active and passive powers, and their manifold purposes.”[34] While different types of people in Italian society practiced different types of magic, almost all believed in and often relied upon magic. While lower-class women practiced love magic, educated elite males practiced natural magic, the type of magic described by the philosophers above.[35]

Italian Renaissance philosophers believed in both bad and good types of magic, shown by Pico della Mirandola, statement that, “Magic has two forms, one of which depends entirely on the work and authority of demons, a thing to be abhorred. The other is nothing else than the utter perfection of natural philosophy.”[36] Magic was even central to the lives of many Italian Church leaders and many Catholic priests depended on magic. Because the prevalence of magic extended from Church to one’s home, it was hard for Italians to associate magical acts with the Devil. Individuals witnessed the miracle of mass that occurred many times each day in churches. Both exorcists and lay leaders performed exorcisms through the use of prayer and herbal treatments.[37] At home, Italians practiced magic in a variety of ways, ranging from “divination ceremonies to find lost or stolen items to petitions for intercession directed at saints.”[38] Because Renaissance Italy embraced magic in this way, most Italians did not view magic, including witchcraft, as heresy and involvement with the Devil. The Inquisitors who attempted to spread ideas of the demonological pact and the cumulative concept of witchcraft were met with extreme skepticism and challenged based on the lack of connection between magic and devil worship.[39]

Because of the cultural and intellectual environment that the Renaissance created, the witch-trials in Italy were handled with extreme caution and restraint. Although the Church initially looked down upon the skeptical and rational arguments against the existence of witchcraft, during the Counter-Reformation, the Holy Office adopted many of these skeptics’ ideas.[40] Over time, historians believe that these intellectual arguments against witchcraft filtered up to Roman authorities, likely through skeptical jurists. Unlike most areas, where the Reformation spurred and began large-scale hunts for witches, who were considered heretics, the Counter-Reformation in Italy experienced an opposite trend. Because of the blurred lines between good and bad magic and the prevalence of magic in Renaissance Italy, leaders of the Counter-Reformation were more focused on rooting out other types of magic that people actually practiced, and was not an imagined crime.[41] In order to purify the Church, they focused on rooting out magic that was anti-Catholic or blatantly heretical. From 1600s onward, Italy experienced a virtual disappearance of trials for diabolical witchcraft, even though just years before, Sixtus V had called for the stiffening of all unorthodox practices.[42] The authorities and leaders of the Counter-Reformation read and adopted the intellectual debates of Renaissance humanists and accepted their claims that the idea of the sabbat was a delusory experience and illnesses are more likely linked to natural phenomenon, not maleficia. In 1589, the Roman Inquisition issued a “De Facto” disbelief in the reality of the sabbat.[43] Shortly after, they required that all cases of supposed maleficia contain the corpus delicti, or proof of the connection between a harmful spell and the sickness or death of someone. Furthermore, medical opinions were often required in trials. In 1620, the Instructio por formandis processibus in causis strigum, the Italian version of Malleficia Malleus was published.[44] It became the sole resource used by the Roman Inquisitors in prosecuting witch-trials. Contrasting sharply with the guide used elsewhere in Europe, the overarching message of the Instructio stressed that above all, witch trials should be approached with caution. It emphasized the value of medical experts, the ambiguity of evidence in maleficia cases, and the likelihood that witchcraft is a delusion.[45]

Because of both the acceptance of humanist ideas undermining the reality of witchcraft and the weak link between witchcraft magic and a demonic pact, the Italian witch-trials took a different course than the stereotypical witch-craze of mainstream Europe.[46] Unlike the witch-trials elsewhere that spiraled out of controlled through accusations gained through torture, most individuals convicted of witchcraft by the Venetian Inquisition could be linked to an obvious, public or repeated act that could be explicitly tied to heresy. While the Venetian Inquisition brought many accused witches to trial, the measures in place made guilty verdicts of maleficia impossible and not a single defendant went to the stake as an accused witch through 1650.[47] In the majority of instances, the trial would end with the release of the individual, based on a legal or medical argument preventing a guilty verdict. Alessandro Giroldo, captain of the Holy Roman Office, brought a report of a witch before the tribunal, and the narrative of the trial effectively illustrates the typical Venetian witch-trial.[48] Giroldo reported that a woman, who had weird things in her possession, such as wool, hair, hosts, rags, books, and an agnus Dei (small devotional wax medallion), went behind the alter of a church during the mass and began chanting spells and performing witchcraft.[49] The church-members sent her out of the church, and crowds gathered around her, yelling that she was a witch. She was not accused for a meaningless and illogical reason such as gender, age, social standing or looks, like those accused in the typical trials of Europe. Instead, she performed a blatant and public act of heresy by performing spells behind the alter. The way the tribunal handled this case is also indicative of a normal Italian witch-trial. When she was brought before the Holy Office, the records claim that “From her manner of speaking, and as much from her appearance as from [her] chatter, her empty-headedness and unhealthy mind was sufficiently established” and the tribunal “ordered the woman to be released from prison.”[50] Furthermore, a report regarding the woman’s insanities was written after the trials, claiming, “In sum, there is nothing harmful here except that the woman is out of her mind.”[51] Even though she acted in such an obviously heretical, at the time of the Counter-Reformation when anxieties of heretics and corruption of the Church were at a high, the tribunal quickly gave a medical explanation for her behavior. The rational and skeptical approach clearly sets the Italian witch-trials apart from those in other areas.

The Renaissance created a new worldview amongst Italians that ultimately prevented Italy from experiencing the widespread witch paranoia of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Renaissance glorified magic and emphasized the power of humankind to use supernatural forces. With this positive connotation and through magic’s prevalence in Italian’s daily life, creating a tie between magic and the Devil was nearly impossible. In other areas of Europe, over the course of multiple centuries, demonological works disseminated amongst and were used by the elites and ruling Church authorities to carry out the witch-trials. In Italy, the opposite occurred, and works arguing against the reality of witchcraft were used during the trials, approaching witchcraft as unlikely, or even impossible. While mass witch-hunts did occur in Italy, they occurred in areas isolated from Renaissance culture and society. Through examining the Italian witch-trials in this manner, the Renaissance truly can be seen as a bridge between the medieval times and the Modern Age.



[1] Duni, Matteo, Under the Devil’s Spell: Witches, Sorcerers, and the Inquisition in Renaissance Italy, Syracuse University Press, 2008, 5.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Bowd, Stephen. Honeyed Flied and Sugard Rats: Witchcraft, Heresy, and Superstition in the Bresciano, Past and Present, (2008) 143.

[4]Duni, Under the Devil’s Spell, 35.

[5]Institoris, Heinrich, and Jakob Sprenger. The Malleus Maleficarum of Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger. New York: Dover, 1971. Part II, Chapter IV.

[6] Bowd, Honeyed Flied and Sugard Rats: Witchcraft, Heresy, and Superstition in the Bresciano, 136.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 149.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Duni, Under the Devil’s Spell, 31.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13]Herzig, Tamar, “Bridging North and South: Inquisitorial Networks and Witchcraft Theory on the Eve of the Reformation,” Journal of Early Modern History 12, no.5 (2008): 361.

[14]Seitz, Jonathan. Witchcraft and Inquisition in Early Modern Venice. Cambridge University Press, 2011, 64.

[15] Grendler, Paul. “Renaissance.” Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopeida of the Early Modern World. New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, (2004) 117-185.



[18] Duni, Under the Devil’s Spell, 20.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 20.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., 5.

[25] Ibid., 21.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid., 22.

[30] Ibid., 22.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Seitz, Wichcraft and Inquisition in Early Modern Venice, 50.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid., 15.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Burke, Italian Renaissance: Culture and Society in Italy, 30.

[37] Seitz, Wichcraft and Inquisition in Early Modern Venice, 15.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Seitz, Wichcraft and Inquisition in Early Modern Venice, 15.

[40] Duni, Under the Devil’s Spell, 30.

[41] Ibid., 30.

[42] Ibid., 24.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Seitz, Wichcraft and Inquisition in Early Modern Venice, 40.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Duni, Under the Devil’s Spell, 24.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Seitz, Wichcraft and Inquisition in Early Modern Venice, 55.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Seitz, Wichcraft and Inquisition in Early Modern Venice, 38.

[51] Ibid.


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