Woman executed for witchcraft 299 years ago may get new trial

A woman who was convicted of witchcraft and executed in 1716 may get a new trial 299 after her death. The city council of Brentonico, the town in the Italian Alps where Maria Bertoletti Toldini was put to death for her ostensible crimes, has petitioned the court to reopen the case. Brentonico Mayor Christian Perenzoni believes Maria’s fate was the result of “folkloric excess around the trials and killings of so-called witches” and wants “to render justice and historical truth, and give back the condemned woman her ethical, moral and civil dignity.”

Maria Bertoletti Toldini, known as Toldina, was born and raised in Pilcante, a village eight miles southeast of Brentonico. She was widowed and remarried Andrea Toldini, sacristan of the church of San Martino in the neighboring town of Ala. Toldina had no children with either of her husbands. She was 60 years old when she was arrested for witchcraft, acts of evil, sorcery, sacrilege, idolatry, apostasy, sodomy, fornication, consorting with the devil and infanticide. The child murder allegations in particular inflamed the population against her and sealed her fate.

According to the prosecution, as recorded in an 18th century transcript of the sentencing, Toldina’s life of depraved ignominy began when she was 13 years old and was seduced to evil by her witch aunt Agostina Bertoletti. In the middle of a Monday night, Agostina took her niece to a meeting of demons presided over by the devil with goat’s hooves as hands and feet. Maria, on her knees before the devil, renounced God, the Trinity, the Holy Virgin and all the saints. She repudiated the Christian faith, the Catholic religion, the sacrament of Baptism and her first name of Maria which was odious to Satan. The demon gave her a new name, rebaptised her by pouring a foul black liquid down her back and marked her with a cold iron instrument on her left arm.

The 13-year-old then purportedly swore fealty to the demon and declared herself his vassal. She agreed to bewitch one child a month and perform every kind of evil on them, to spread grave illness among people. In return the devil would make miracles for her, satisfy her uncontrollable lusts and bless her after her death. From then on, Toldina attended witches’ sabbaths every night, using an ointment made of sacramental ashes, holy water, oil and wax from candles lit during Holy Week (all materials easily secured because of her sacristan husband) to fly to local meetups and far-flung ones. There she danced, stepping always to the left, and repeatedly kissed the devil’s ass. Toldina gave her virginity to the demon who appeared in the form of a young man and had sex with her, his touch freezing cold.

Using the ointment, Toldina killed a girl, Margarita, daughter of Saiano of Saiano of Pilcante, she had already afflicted with dropsy. In 1714 she smeared the unguent on a baby from the same family, Felice Saiano, who developed tumors and died. The year before she mixed ashes in butter and killed Lorenzo, son of Giovanni Ecchelli of the Iseppi of Pilcante, also with cancerous tumors. In 1711, she broke into the home of Giacomo Antonio Venturi of Pilcante and threw his five-year-old son Pietro in a bronze cauldron full of boiling cheese. Her unguent claimed another young victim — three-year-old Antonio, son of Carlo Balconi — after she spread it on his stomach. The same fate awaited Toldina’s own nephew, Adrea, son of her brother Giovanni Bertoletti, who was two years old, and Bartolomea, four-year-old daughter of Giovanni Maria of Vallarsa. Toldina killed the child of Maddalena, wife of Francesco Balconi, in the womb.

Her dark arts cut a swath through the adults of Pilcante and environs as well, most of them women. They weren’t killed, but struck with severe illnesses and their husbands were cursed with sterility. We can rest assured all of these things happened because witnesses testified to them and Toldina herself, under torture, confessed to these acts and more.

The trial took place at the Castle of Avio, the last witch trial ever held at the castle. After she was sentenced to death, on March 14th, 1716, Toldina was taken to Palù Park in Brentonico where a gallows stood. A headsman was paid 75 German florins to decapitate her before the assembled townspeople. Her body and head were then burned.

Toldina was tried by lay authorities, not the church, because Bretonica, part of the Prince-Bishopric of Trent since the Middle Ages, was reclaimed as a direct dominion of the Habsurg Holy Roman Emperors in the early 1700s. In fact, the town had just received its Captain of Justice — a role combining chief of police and criminal judge — a few weeks before Toldina’s trial. Unfortunately the municiple archives were destroyed during World War II so the only original records of the trial to survive were the sentence and the defense summary by Toldina’s lawyer, notary Giovanni Battista del Pozzo.

The legal challenges to reopening this case are significant, to put it mildly. Bretonico is in the nothern Italian autonomous region of Trentino so the court of appeals of regional capitol Trento will hear the case. They will have to establish the facts with only two original documents from her trial extant. Not only that, but the court will have to use the law applied to the original trial, the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina. That means the new advocates will have to be knowledgeable in 16th century German jurisprudence, a tall order if I’ve heard one. Historian Carlo Andrea Postinger, already commissioned by the city council to search for original documents, will be on hand to consult should the appeal be granted.

19 thoughts on “Woman executed for witchcraft 299 years ago may get new trial

  1. I cannot help but to wonder: is this really a good use of tax money? And what will they achieve with this? Dead is dead, justly or unjustly.

    And what of all the other cases of witchcraft?

    1. I’m not really interested in judging whether other people’s taxes are being judiciously spent. I imagine there are a thousand line items in the Trentino budget that would seem wasteful to me. It’s up to the people of Trentino to make those deliberations and vote accordingly. From my perspective, an appeal in a modern court tried according to a 16th century code is a fascinating excercise for history and legal buffs alike.

      As far as why Toldina’s case was chosen, it’s the best known and is used by the city to attract tourists via theatrical performances and other events. Brentonico’s culture assessor feels it’s only fair to extend a chance of justice given the fact that the city has made money for years off of the drama of her trial and execution.

  2. I agree, it sounds like an utter waste of time and effort. Are there no more pressing issues? Put simply, who cares? How does this effect any living person?

    1. Historical truth has no value beyond the direct impact on living people? Like I said to Sean, the city has been profiting for years on the lurid details of her trial and execution. If they want to set the historical record straight instead of just exploiting it, all the more power to them.

  3. Notably, ‘beheading sorcerers’ is a strategy against witchcraft that is still applied today. Moreover, a former colleague of mine, a convert to the ‘club’ that is stoning ‘the devil’ on a regular basis, once explained to me, yes of course, there were sorcerers amongst us, and as they will probably prevail, unless there would be a fundamental change, an Italian witch trial could also be seen as an investment into the future.


  4. Sounds like a fun way to explore history by immersing themselves in it, and a great way to raise awareness of how far legal systems have come (in this respect, at least!)

  5. I guess I just find it interesting (read that: dismaying), that people who are interested in history (and this site in particular), are more concerned about how taxes are being spent than on the historical interest of this case. There are plenty of political sites to address your concerns about taxes. Let’s leave this site for this history buffs.

  6. In recovering the wreckage of a 16th century Spanish treasure ship from the Caribbean sea floor, they found the ship was improperly built. Too few nails, too thin the planking, etc.

    Contractor fraud.

    What’s next? Shall we file a lawsuit against the descendants of the shipwrights?

    1. If you have standing, go for it. The law is replete with eternal entities and cases that last generations. Sometimes the statute of limitations doesn’t even begin to countdown until the crime or tort is revealed, ie, the shipwreck recovered.

      In any case, there’s a not inconsiderable difference between your reductio of an example and a government that is currently making money from an historical injustice seeking to redress the imbalance it has long profited from.

  7. Another farce from the ridiculos, asinine Italian “justice”…in a SANE country this idiocy would be denounced as a demented attemp by a vote seeking two bit politician in a desperate attempt to be “popular” and save his arse at the upcoming elections…in the farcical Italian justice system, where violent criminals are let go and yet WITHOUT ANY EVIDENCE people are jailed for YEARS ( Amanda teaches…) indecent things like this happen at all times…lets just hope the elections will wipe off the map these once for all…

  8. Is this a joke or are they really smoking some bad drugs in there ?

    This is not just a waste of taxpayers money !’ its a nail in the coffin of common sense !

    I hope the so called major and the judges involved are kicked out of office !

  9. I’ve seen something very similar in another thread. You can definitely find certain parts of that post helpful, not everything obviously, but I think it is worth looking into.


  10. A short while ago I’ve come across one post which I believe you can find useful. Somebody will take a steaming dump all over it, however it clarified some of my questions.

  11. I have seen something similar in a different thread. You might find some parts of that post helpful, not everything obviously, but I believe it is worth checking out.

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