Cesare Bonesana di Beccaria, Marquis of Gualdrasco and Villareggio

Cesare Bonesana di Beccaria, Marquis of Gualdrasco and Villareggio

A look at the fascinating life of the historical figure.

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Tue 09 Jan 2024 10:37 AM

The future T3 tramline from piazza della Libertà to Bagno a Ripoli will soon boast a stop in piazza Beccaria, not far from Porta alla Croce al Gorgo, the gate in the fourth set of walls built around Florence towards the end of the 13th century. The gate was named after the place where Saint Minias, as he is known in English, was decapitated. Legend has it that the city’s first Christian martyr stood up, tucked his severed head under his arm and walked over the Arno until he reached the hillside where he had lived as a hermit and where the eponymous San Miniato al Monte Basilica would later be built.

While the story of Saint Minias is undoubtedly colourful, Beccaria’s biography is equally intriguing. Cesare Bonesana di Beccaria, Marquis of Gualdrasco and Villareggio, was born in Milan, formerly part of the Austrian Hapsburg Empire, on March 15, 1738 to the Marchese Gian Beccaria Bonesana and his second wife, Maria. Initially educated by Jesuits at a college in Parma, the city of his father’s origins, Beccaria went on to study law and philosophy at the University of Parma in 1758. Although his early interest was in mathematics, after discovering the works of Montesquieu (1689-1755), he began concentrating on economics and philosophy.

In February 1761, Beccaria married the flighty Teresa de Blasco, a Spanish aristocrat, against his father’s wishes. She was 16, while he was 22. His father was so furious that he had his son placed under house arrest for three months, but once free, Beccaria went ahead and married Teresa regardless. This caused his father to disinherit him, although as his firstborn he allowed him to retain his title. Reduced to a state of penury, the couple were forced to accept the generosity of Beccaria’s friend Pietro Verri to have a roof over their heads. During their marriage, the couple had four children: Giulia (1762-1841), Maria (1766-88), who died at a young age due to serious health problems, Giovanni Annibale (1767) and Margherita (1772) who both died soon after birth. Two years after Margherita’s death, Teresa died of syphilis, not yet 30 years old.

Beccaria began writing during his first marriage. In 1762, he published a work on how the Milanese states could remedy their economic problems. Between 1764 and 1765, he founded a small literary society in Milan with Pietro Verri and his novelist brother, Alessandro, under the patronage and protection of the powerful diplomat, Count Firmiani. This began the publication of a short-lived Enlightenment periodical called Il Caffè

Nonetheless, it was Beccaria’s trailblazing work Dei delitti e delle pene, a treatise that condemned torture and the death penalty published in 1764 and first translated into English as On Crimes and Punishments in 1767, which established his reputation as one of the founders of modern criminal law and justice, and a pioneer in penology and criminology. Within 18 months, six editions had been printed, which increased to 32 editions, including four in English, within a short period of time, as well as a French edition with an introduction by Voltaire. The text would reverberate throughout Europe and had a significant influence on the American Founding Fathers in drafting the US Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights. 

Although Beccaria was not the first to demand penal reform, his reputation was based on its accomplishment. His intention was not to reform the whole penal system, but to abolish the worst barbaric aspects, as he saw them, saying that, “it was better to prevent crimes than to punish them” and that “the death penalty is not a matter of right… but is an act of war on the part of society against the citizen that comes about when it is deemed necessary or useful to destroy his existence. But if I can go on to prove that such a death is neither necessary nor useful, I shall have won the cause of humanity”. The death penalty was first abolished in Europe in 1786 in Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo’s Tuscany. Despite the critics who accused Beccaria of impiety and sedition, Catherine the Great of Russia invited him to Saint Petersburg in 1766 to reform the country’s criminal code, but he refused. At the time, Beccaria was in Paris with Alessandro Verri, where he had been given a triumphant welcome. Missing Teresa, he quickly returned home, never to leave Milan again. It was also in Paris where his relationship with the Verri brothers ended. 

After the loss of Teresa, Beccaria wasted no time in replacing her. He signed another wedding contract just 40 days later, marrying Anna dei Conti Barnaba Barbò 82 days after Teresa’s death. They had a son, Giulio (1774-1856). By marrying Pietro Manzoni (1736-1807), his daughter Giulia made Beccaria the maternal grandfather of Alessandro Manzoni, author of the famous novel The Betrothed, although apparently he only met his grandson once before Alessandro was sent to boarding school as a child. Some scholars believe that the boy was the illegitimate child of Giovanni (1745-1818), the youngest Verri brother, with whom Giulia had been in love.

Cesare Beccaria died of a stroke on November 28, 1794, aged 56. He is buried at the Mojazza Cemetery in Milan. 

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