The Italian Almanac


Beccaria

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Of Crimes and Punishments


Cesare Beccaria

Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794)

Cesare Beccaria was born the eldest son in an aristocratic family and educated at a Jesuit school. In his mid twenties Beccaria became close friends with Pietro and Alessandro Verri, two brothers who formed an intellectual circle called "the academy of fists" which focused on reforming the criminal justice system. Through this group Beccaria became acquainted with French and British political philosophers, such as Hobbes, Hume, Diderot, Helvetius, Montesquieu, and Hume.

At the encouragement of Pietro, Beccaria wrote "On Crimes and Punishments" (1764). Some background information was provided by Pietro, who was in the process of authoring a text on the history of torture, and Alessandro was an official at a Milan prison had first hand experience of the prison's appalling conditions. The brief work relentlessly protests against torture to obtain confessions, secret accusations, the arbitrary discretionary power of judges, the inconsistency and inequality of sentencing, using personal connections to get a lighter sentence, and the use of capital punishment for serious and even minor offenses.

Almost immediately, the work was translated into French and English and went through several editions. Philosophers of the time hailed it, and several European emperors vowed to follow it. With great hesitation, Beccaria acted on an invitation to Paris to meet the great thinkers of the day. A chronically shy person, Beccaria made a poor impression at Paris and returned to Milan after three weeks.

Beccaria continued to gain official recognition and held several nominal political positions in Italy. Separated from the invaluable input from his friends, though, he failed to produce another text of equal importance. Outside Italy, an unfounded myth grew that Beccaria's literary silence owed to Austrian restrictions on free expression in Italy.