The first thing Beccaria noticed was the stench of damp horse manure and the reek of fresh urine. He could barely suppress a shudder. The stench consumed this part of Milan, it seeped into every gap, seeping into every hole. No one around him seemed to notice. They were people of all ages; they slowly shuffled towards the raised platform in the middle of town square. Men, accompanied by their women and children, elbowed their way through the crowd – hoping to gain a better view. A crow shrieked overhead, eager for the afternoon’s events. As Beccaria strode over the dirty cobblestone, a stray tabby limped across his path and almost tripped him. In spite of its bloodied paws and exposed ribs, the cat continued on its way.
Readjusting his black beaver hat, Beccaria straightened himself and pushed his way through the throng. Faces layered with grime and sweat glared at him from all sides; rich men were a rare sight around here. He focussed his stare ahead, at a man supporting a small boy on his shoulders – who could not have been older than six. His unwashed face was bright with anticipation. Beccaria shook his head, and continued onwards.
Finally reaching the wooden stage, he took a deep breath – in relief from the reek of shit and piss. An epitaph was etched into the wood: ‘In memory of my mother Arianna Guccione (1715-1759).’ And whose mother was that? What crime did she commit? Does it not matter in the end – do we have more to spare? Beccaria grimaced as the stink of copper invaded his nose. They hadn’t bothered to clean their mess up. He looked up at the two prisoners on stage. Each had their hands tied and were wearing white linen – stained with red and brown. One trembled uncontrollably.
Then another, free from restraints, stepped forward and began to recite. He was well dressed; his purple coat and golden clasps complemented a well-kept tricorne hat and glossy black shoes.
“As the Governer of Milan, it is my duty to oversee the lawful execution of these two men, on this day March twenty-first, seventeen sixty.” The gathering silenced itself. “Ciriaco Maccioni, you have been sentenced to death by hanging, for treason against Maria Theresa and the Austrian Empire. Come.”
The man hobbled forward, shivering as though he was possessed by a chill, and stopped under a noose that hanged from a wooden beam. Then the figure in black tugged the rope over his head. Maccioni caught Beccaria’s gaze with his own. A stifled moan escaped his lips and the whites of his eyes grew large. Beccaria wiped his clammy hands on his coat.
There was renewed commotion as the noose tightened around his neck. Beccaria curled his lip at the sight. They had come here to watch and enjoy themselves. The six-year-old was whooping with delight, following everyone else’s lead.
“Your last words?” The Governor asked nonchalantly.
There was a pause, silence, and then a lever was pulled. Maccioni dropped through the stage. There was a snap – but he struggled nonetheless. He swung first to the left, then to the right; his feet thrashed violently. He died a minute later. His eyes had been trained on Beccaria the whole while.
Turning away, Beccaria struggled through the crowd. He remembered the portrait he had painted of her – how he had endeavoured to capture the visage of authority and power in the plump, content face of Maria Theresa. It made him bare his teeth, and he spat on the ground. Barely avoiding some fresh horse droppings strewn across the street, he left as the crowd cheered. Another man: killed in the eyes of the law. In the square, the tabby cat laid down and took a final breath, finally defeated by its superiors.