Scholars of early modern Europe rarely get the opportunity to hear the voices of ordinary people, let alone children. That is why the judicial records of Venice’s criminal tribunals are so rich and important. In Paolina’s Innocence historian Larry Wolff offers us a microscopic view of the sexual experiences of an eight-year old girl whose case came before the four judges of the Esecutori contro la Bestemmia (Executors against Blasphemy) in 1785.
Paolina was the daughter of Maria Lozaro, a humble Friulian immigrant who came to Venice from northeast Italy to eke out a living selling spoons and ladles. Maria was enticed one day to allow her daughter to serve in the home of a sixty-year-old gentleman, the scion of prosperous silk manufacturers in the Vicentine. While Maria had reservations about relinquishing her daughter to a stranger, ultimately the prospect of additional income persuaded her to allow her daughter to spend the night at this potential benefactor’s home. But she quickly regretted her decision. The chatter of women friends suggesting Paolina might be in harm’s way moved her to retrieve the girl, but not before the youngster was subjected to touching and groping in the gentleman’s bed. The parish priest denounced Gaetano Franceschini to the Bestemmia. An inquiry that included extensive interviews with neighbors in Franceschini’s vicinity as well as clients who patronized the café below his apartment followed. Franceschini was indicted, thrown into jail, and instructed to acquire an attorney and prepare a defense. Ultimately, however, for this wayward gentleman social class prevailed: Franceschini was slapped with a minor fine to be paid to Paolina’s family for the violation of her innocence and then set free.
With engaging prose, Wolff meticulously dissects every aspect of the judicial investigation, from the secret denunciation that the Venetian state still permitted despite Enlightenment debates calling for judicial reform, to the range of deposed witnesses that included the child and her abuser but also the patrons of [End Page 165] the Venetian coffee house that served, in Jürgen Habermas’s terms, as a center of community life. The author tells a riveting story rich in social context and human interaction. At the same time he situates the incident within the histories of childhood and of the European Enlightenment, with opera, literature, and natural philosophy as points of reference.
Venice’s Executors of Blasphemy were first and foremost defenders of the Republic’s moral fiber. Their purpose was to stamp out scandal as well as to defend virtue and innocence. Although the Venetian judges recognized Franceschini’s “wicked” inclinations, terms such as pedophilia or sexual perversion were not part of their lexicon. Another century would pass before the Viennese physician Richard Kraft-Ebing would publish Pschopatia Sexualis, characterizing adult sexual relations with children as a perversion. That was very different, Wolff contends, from the eighteenth-century Venetian tribunal’s religious and moral concept of social perniciousness and the disruption of social order. Franceschini’s lawyer, on the other hand, defended his client’s right to libertinage, an eighteenth-century concept that celebrated men’s sexual exploits, and portrayed him as the victim of malicious defamation. Here Wolff calls attention to how Franceschini’s indictment resembled both Leporello’s catalogue aria of the conquests of his master Don Giovanni in Mozart’s famous opera and the infamous adventures of Casanova as described in the celebrated rogue’s memoirs. Both music and literature immortalized the sexual libertine, creating cultural ambiguity, Wolff concludes, in the eighteenth-century court case over whether Franceschini had actually committed a crime. Despite the Bestemmia’s defense of the innocence of childhood, celebrated two decades earlier in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile (1762), judicial procedure did not yet incorporate the modern concept of child abuse. The Venetian case serves as an example, Wolff concludes, of “the historical frontier between the recognizable libertinism of the eighteenth century and the emerging modern conception of psychopathological perversion” (p. 175...