The Italian Almanac

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graffiti from prisoners of the Holy Inquisition

Italian News - June 17

Graffiti charting the hopes, dreams and fears of prisoners waiting to be tortured or killed by the Inquisition is being uncovered on the walls of former jail cells in the Sicilian city of Palermo. Complex pictures and writing are emerging from beneath four centuries of plaster, giving historians vital clues about those who were held there.

While graffiti from other eras is fairly common, its creators are usually anonymous. Yet many of those held in the Palermo prison left details that are helping experts reconstruct their lives, including names and dates.

The latest excavations have revealed an entire wall covered in a beautiful naval scene, depicting the 1571 Battle of Lepanto, when the Christian powers of Western Europe defeated a force of Ottoman galleys. Prayers, invocations and saints' faces fill up other parts of the walls.

The inscriptions were uncovered during renovation work in the ancient complex of the Steri, the Palermo headquarters of the dreaded Inquisition, the Catholic Church's judiciary tasked with stamping out heresy. From 1601 till 1782, the Inquisition tortured and tried countless prisoners from its still largely mysterious headquarters in the Steri. Anyone dragged there was unlikely to emerge alive, as the Inquisition was notoriously ruthless with suspected heretics, soothsayers and blasphemers.

Work to convert the complex into a museum began in 2004 and should be completed by 2007. The museum, which will include a library, auditorium and documentation centre, will be unique, as these are the only surviving testimonies of Inquisition victims anywhere in the world.