Hopeless or Harmless?

Hopeless or Harmless?

On the south and west faces of the Palazzo dei Priori in the center of Perugia, and on a few other buildings (such as an old arcade facing west onto Piazza Giacomo Matteotti), these wrought-iron objects hang from exterior walls, at varying heights from 4-7 feet. The top piece is a stylized head of a dragon (or perhaps the city-icon of a griffin); this serves as an anchor (through the transverse hole) for a broader, flatter W-shaped piece that hangs beneath. To the sides of some examples, a shallow arc has been cut away in the stone wall as if to allow for the object to swing side-to-side more easily. At some points along the wall, it is clear that the projecting anchors have been cut or have broken or rusted away, leaving just the stumps.

I first noticed them in February and I’ve asked around and done some initial research, but I’ve come up with nothing. My initial hypothesis — based on no real basis except their appearance and location — was that they were shackles for public punishment (like ‘stocks’); putting wrists through the wall-side of the two pendular elements, if the hands were secured on the other side so they couldn’t slide through, would force a victim to hang there quite uncomfortably in disgrace.

So of course I told the kids about the strict Perugian justice they might receive if they misbehave here.

Our five-year old believed this right away; I imagine that the older ones are skeptical, but we are in a medieval town, and they’ve seen, unfortunately, all-too-many signs in towns (even our beloved Montepulciano) for ‘Museums of Torture‘ (I can’t think of a kind of museum I’d rather visit less). So they might believe it. They key is not to emphasize it, but to say it in an off-hand way, as if it is just some dusty detail that adds an odd piece of topographical and historical knowledge. What good liars we can become in the cause of parental expediency…


Torch basket and flag anchors in Pienza, Italy

Sooner rather than later, as it dawns on them that they don’t see anyone ever clamped in those irons, they’ll realize the betrayal. But that still leaves unresolved the question of what these objects were, and when. At other towns in the area, I’ve been looking for comparable examples, in case they preserve additional clues.

In Pienza, at the northeast corner of the small main piazza, a palazzo has iron projections and rings that are used to support the flags that represent the neighborhoods of the city. (Take a spin around that piazza in GoogleMaps.) They sit below a tall iron basket that was once filled with material for torches to light street-corners. A similar torch basket adorns the corner of the Palazzo dei Priori at via dei Priori and via della Gabbia.

Iron rings of a similar sort at waist- or chest-height might also be reasonably used for tethering animals such as horses. The examples in Perugia seem too far off the ground for that (though see  Update 2 below). And there’s seemingly no way to set a flagpole in the Perugian examples because the upper element does not have a lateral element to catch the wood.

Plenty of other towns have interesting objects built into façades of public buildings; in Montepulciano, one can examine Etruscan and Etrusco-Roman funerary reliefs and inscriptions used as building blocks. They are fragments of ancient identities, aspirations, and values. Faces are embedded in many of these expressions: the flaring scrolls that represent ‘ears’ on reliefs and inscriptions and that request the attentive listening of the viewer to their story; the dangerous face of Medusa who acts as an apotropaic device to ward off bad stuff, especially the envy of the evil eye; portraits of individuals cut in stone and caught in shadow.


Etruscan and Roman reliefs and inscriptions in Montepulciano

I have some additional inquiries out about what the Perugian objects are; please make suggestions and theories in the comments (preferably referring or linking to evidence!), and I’ll post an update if I ever find out — for real — what they were used for.

And then I can decide whether or not to tell the kids.


The back side of the Palazzo dei Priori along Via della Gabbia: three of the objects in a nice neat row.

UPDATE 1, 23 SEPT. 2013: A Clue from Pinocchio


Dragon torch/flag post under the Arco dei Priori, Perugia

Sometimes clues come from the strangest places; sometimes answers were staring you in the face all along. Sometimes it is a combination of both. I had continued to inquire about these objects, asking local history buffs at the soccer club, looking through old pictures and photos in books at the Palazzo dei Priori museum shop, and asking staff at the Palazzo dei Priori what the objects were for. The books did not reveal anything; the locals weren’t sure, but thought they were places to tie up horses (though why one would put some of these hitching posts 6.5 to 7 ft. above street level I have no idea).

Meanwhile, under the Arco dei Priori, at the head of the street, I noticed a more elaborate version of the objects, with an extension coming from a dragon’s mouth that would serve to hold a torch or flag pole, anchored in one of the bays of the iron loop hanging below (as above in the photo from Pienza). This object, however, seems much more recent than the others along the street behind the building (much less wear on the metal), the loop on this one is much thinner, and the other examples don’t have any evidence for the extension attached to the dragon’s mouth. So there are some formal similarities, but the functional characteristics do not seem to match (there’s still no obvious way to anchor two parts of the bottom of a flag-pole in the other examples).

imageThis weekend we visited Firenze (Florence). While the family (accompanied by the Schindler grandparents and cousin Rachel) were touring the Michaelangelo’s works in the Accademia, I went across the street with Micah to the Accademia bookstore to read books with him (he was worn out from touring). We probably went through 10-12 picture books, and my head was hurting from translating the Italian into English for him, when he brought over a Pinocchio book. It was very short, and Micah wasn’t satisfied, so he returned to the shelf and brought back a longer version — this time the ‘Disney’ film version.  So we read, until we got to the part where Pinocchio skips school and runs away to perform with other (inanimate) marionettes. After the performance, Mangiafuoco (‘Stromboli’ in the Disney film) locks Pinocchio “in una gabbia.”

imageThis jarred a memory, because the name of the street on which these objects are set is called the ‘Via della Gabbia’. I knew this, of course (as evidenced in this original post), and we had even eaten a few times at the Ristorante La Gabbia, located right there (because Micah loves their Perugino pizza), but stupidly I hadn’t bothered to look up what the word meant. Since I knew the Pinocchio story, I slapped my head even before I turned the page of the book and saw this:


The Street of the Cage (or the Dock, as in ‘gabbia degli accusati’). Suddenly, after having nearly given up on the theory that these objects had something to do with medieval justice, that possibility seemed reasonable again. After returning home, an online search for ‘Via della Gabbia’ revealed a Commune di Perugia page on the Hidden Monuments and Symbols of the City, where it says:

Via della Gabbia. Questa via prende il nome dallo strumento di pena medievale, una gabbia sospesa fuori del Palazzo dei Priori dove il colpevole di qualche reato veniva rinchiuso e lasciato morire di inedia.

“Street of the Cage. This street takes its name from the medieval instrument of punishment, a cage suspended outside the Palazzo dei Priori, where someone convicted of some crime was locked up and left to die of starvation.”

Apparently the cages, made of metal or wood, were also ‘useful’ because their occupants were exposed to the elements and to abuse and stones hurled by passersby. There’s almost no sun at all on this street, and it is usually windy, so it would have been cold. There is the question of the singular ‘gabbia’ and the multiple objects — a cage could have been otherwise and otherwhere attached, with evidence no longer visible, leaving these iron objects still a mystery, but the Commune web page, under the description, chooses to display this photo:

from the Commune di Perugia website on ‘Via della Gabbia’

I’ll keep my ears and eyes open (hypotheses should always be adaptable to new and better evidence). What is certain, however, is that this was once a very sad street.

UPDATE 2, 29 NOV. 2013: Too Many Examples

There are too many examples of this object across town — several on the building façades of Via Mazzini, for instance. It seems unreasonable that its function could have been punitive. Despite the height of some of the clamps above ground (recommendations are 3.5-5 feet up), it seems now that the simplest and best explanation is that they were used to hitch animals.