Riccardo Giacconi

Riccardo Giacconi and Andrea Morbio
The Variational Status
Notes around the assassin Simone Pianetti (1858 - ?)

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La mémoire d'une société s'étend jusque-là où elle peut, c'est-à-dire jusqu'où atteint la mémoire des groupes dont elle est composée. Ce n'est point par mauvaise volonté, antipathie, répulsion ou indifférence qu'elle oublie une si grande quantité des événements et des figures anciennes. C'est que les groupes qui en gardaient le souvenir ont disparu. Si la durée de la vie humaine était doublée ou triplée, le champ de la mémoire collective, mesuré en unités de temps, serait bien plus étendu.[1]

– Maurice Halbwachs

Flyer about Simone Pianetti, by cantastorie Domenico Scotuzzi, 1914.

Flyer about Simone Pianetti, by cantastorie Camillo Marulli.

At the end of their performances, those wandering artists we call cantastorie (singer-songwriters from Northern Italy between 1850 and 1950) would sell printed flimsy flyers containing the lyrics of the song they had just performed. As well as words, there were often one or more illustrations summing up the main theme of the song: they were either vignettes printed on the top of the flyer or single pictures placed to the side of the lyrics. The range of themes a singer-songwriter could cover was wide and varied: crime, inventions and new technology, fashion, wars, recent or remote historical events, bandits and gangsters, love and betrayal. The stories centered on existing people and objects that took on a legendary status within the performance. The singer-songwriter would stress the most engrossing aspects of the story he was narrating. Although the narrated events originated in real life, in their dramatization they were changed from time to time according to the singer-songwriter's personality. Most of cantastorie flyers share the same layout: a title, the lyrics of a song, one or more illustrations. All these conventional elements are gathered from the actual facts that inspired them but, in line with the oral tradition they stem from, they naturally undergo constant change.

A popular subject among northern Italy’s singer-songwriters in the early 20th century was Simone Pianetti, the avenger from Camerata Cornello (in the Brembo valley north ofBergamo, Lombardy). On the morning of 13 July 1914, in a fit of lucid rage, Pianetti (aged 56) used his rifle to shoot and kill seven people whom he believed had unjustly treated him thus ruining his life. Among them were figures of power in the village, including the town clerk, the parson and the doctor. Soon after the killings, Pianetti fled to the Alps. Due to the beginning of World War I, he was never arrested and his body was never found.

Shortly after the events, local puppeteers and cantastorie started performing adaptations of Pianetti’s story, some of which were passed on and were still being performed in the 1990s. In two songs written by two different authors after the carnage, the avenger from Bergamo is presented, respectively, as a wild animal and as the sad protagonist of a cruel affair without justification. These two songs, reported on two different printed flyers, represent two examples of the art of those cantastorie who still performed in the squares of northern Italy until the 1960s.

In the song by Domenico Scotuzzi, published as a flyer in Milan in 1914 (just after the events), Simone Pianetti is presented as a man-beast. The reader of the flyer and the audience of the performance are immediately faced with a clear stance, where Pianetti is portrayed as an exclusively negative character, with which they cannot and must not empathize. This position is strongly reiterated by the illustration at the top of the flyer, where the capture of the outlaw is presented as imminent.

Cantastorie Camillo Marulli chooses instead to have the ballad sung by the protagonist of the story himself. Here, Pianetti describes firsthand the reasons that led him to mete out his revenge on those who had ruined him, trying to state the motives to justify his act of violence: “Del sudato lavoro ogni frutto / mi distrusser per odio crudel / Sopportai tanta infamia, fintanto / che il mio cor non gridommi vendetta! / Il fucile mi stava d’accanto.../ E tremenda in me l’ira scoppiò”[2]. Pianetti asserts having been an esteemed man, attracting ever more customers to his various ventures, until the hatred of a group of people began to hamper his business. It would seem, from the lyrics of this song, that the figure of the avenger from Bergamo may somehow benefit from at least mitigating factors, if not a full justification. Although the song cannot be considered as evidence of complete identification with the character, there is a certain degree of ambivalence and semantic plurality.

Title page of the book Crimes of Violence and Revenge, by Harry Ashton-Wolfe, The Riverside Press, Boston 1929.


Although Mario Simone Pianetti killed seven people as the result of a vendetta sworn in utter anguish of soul on the effigy of the Madonna, I have never been able to think of him as a criminal. […] Rightly or wrongly, Pianetti was, in my eyes, a man, and I am glad to be able to tell his story.[3]

American writer Harry Ashton-Wolfe, in a book published in Boston in 1929, focused on a heterogeneous series of revenge stories, among which is the massacre by Simone Pianetti. The author, who in his previous books had taken an interest in criminology, deals here with a number of outlaws he had personally been in touch with. The chapter entitled Pianetti, the Chamois Hunter – A Tale of the Black Hand is an interesting account that allows us to discover a hitherto unknown part of the biography of the avenger from Bergamo. Having emigrated to the U.S. in the late 80s of the nineteenth century, he founds – together with fellow Italian immigrant Antonio Allegri – a food import company in New York. Through their dealings, the two run up against a criminal organization known as the Black Hand, which brings pressure to bear on Pianetti for protection money. Reluctant to pay, he decides to report the situation to two local police investigators, Commander Shirley and French Inspector Lacassagne, long-time collaborators of criminologist Harry Ashton-Wolfe. It is through the offices of these two policemen that the Bergamask bandit-to-be and the American writer meet for the first time. The complaint merely exacerbates the conflict with the Black Hand, which carries out the murder of Allegri and kidnaps his daughter, who meanwhile has become Pianetti’s fiancée. High drama ensues but Pianetti manages to rescue her, with whom he secretly flees to San Francisco. However, this bitter and economically unsuccessful experience pushes Pianetti to return to his homeland, where a few years later he will be the victim of further persecution and the protagonist of blood-stained revenge.

The Chamois Hunter raises a number of epistemological issues. In 1914 Ashton-Wolfe, returning from Sarajevo where he had gone to collect information on the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, learns about the massacre of Pianetti (whom he had known in the U.S.) and decides to rush to the small village of Camerata Cornello to document the incident. It is thanks to such geographical and temporal coincidences that the American writer is able to produce an exclusive and exhaustive account of the massacre and escape of Simone Pianetti. The Chamois Hunter is a story where real elements fit together almost perfectly with masterfully engineered fiction. Ashton-Wolfe is a writer but also a criminologist, who made of his ‘scientific’ career the emblem of his artistic inspiration (he is thought to have had a friendship with Sherlock Holmes’ creator Arthur Conan Doyle). While reading his account, we are not able to clearly perceive the dividing line between real events and literary invention.

Detail from the chapter “Pianetti, the Chamois Hunter” from the book Crimes of Violence and Revenge, by Harry Ashton-Wolfe

One element that reinforces the impression of trustworthiness is the presence, within the chapter, of two photographs documenting the funerals of the victims. These images have probably been included in order to certify the authenticity of the literary testimony. They do not seek to play on gruesome or gory details, but rather invite the reader to concentrate on the social consequences of the massacre, on the mourning of the community. These photographic choices immediately evoke a journalistic reportage rather than illustrations for a storybook account.

The uneasiness we experience towards The Chamois Hunter, stems from the fact that we cannot be certain of the reliability of the events narrated by Ashton-Wolfe, while at the same time we must recognize that the method and the elements used to reconstruct the revenge story tend to persuade us that the writer was actually a witness to the events. For certain, the randomness with which the American author, within a few years and on two different continents, happened to witness the two most dramatic episodes in the life of Pianetti, cast a shadow of doubt on the authenticity of his statements. Nevertheless, the overall impression of plausibility and the concordance of numerous details cannot but point, even though by way of conjecture, to the reliability of this document. Ashton-Wolfe’s recontruction constitutes an ambivalent testimony, in which literary artifice and historical trustworthiness assume, in equal measure, documentary value.

After having studied the cantastorie flyers and the puppet plays about Pianetti that have survived until today, as well as the book by Ashton-Wolfe, a historian couldn’t but realize that, for many elements related to his killings, there is no official version, no certified truth. Introducing his story cannot be done without relying on the mysterious, unofficial, marginal and latent ways in which it has been transmitted. By choosing to mention this story, we have sought to offer an example of the document’s variational status. This expression defines a series of elements orbiting around an empty nucleus, a series of variations on a conjectural and inaudible theme we calltruth.The truth is just the idea of the events we build up from the scattered and multiple traces they have left behind – an empty core, in short. In the various accounts of Simone Pianetti’s killings and escape, the so-called documents are arranged around such an empty core that functions as the origin of the axes; it is on this basis that their coordinates are defined.

It is perhaps worth reflecting on the fact that a document is not an object. Rather, it is a certain modality of existence of the object, a certain use of the object, a certain performance of it. It is a signature: a surplus, a mark we leave on the object in order to include it in a certain narrative, theory, storytelling. It is one manner in which man confronts his milieu, entertains and treats it. An object becomes a document after an intensity, a current, has flowed through it, as electricity does – a use, an act of reading or of speech is always needed.

An object is a document only when we use it as such. In other words, a document is a certain performance of a certain object. In order to better grasp what the term “performance” points at here, it will be useful to come back to a definition of theatre Peter Brook provided in 1968: “A man walks across this empty stage whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged”[4].

An object (be it a footstep, an FBI statement, a corpse, a photograph, a written testament) can acquire the status of a document only when it has been seen and inserted in a certain space-time context (here, it’s easy to notice the similarities with Brook’s definition of theatre). In other words, only when it has been performed. Such footsteps, FBI statements, corpses, paintings, testaments, are not documents per se, but only when a certain narrative, theory, storytelling act runs through them; and only in a certain context. The message in a bottle in the middle of the ocean becomes a document only when it is read. In the same way, a written statement becomes a document only when it is used as such. The paradox of the document in the dark: if nobody uses it, an object is not a document, but simply an object (such as a sheet of paper, a corpse, a footstep).

It comes as no surprise, then, that the context of the performativity of the document par excellence is the juridical trial. A closed, theatrical temenos (a temple, a separate and closed space) where the production of the truth is staged. The proximity and mutual necessity of the terms “document” and “evidence” are not to be forgotten. Wikipedia defines the document using a quotation from Suzanne Briet, which highlights the connections between the documentary performance of an object and a (and not the) truth: a document is “any concrete or symbolic indication, preserved or recorded, for reconstructing or for proving a phenomenon, whether physical or mental”[5]. The word “reconstructing” points directly to a narrative act, while the term “proving” points to the juridical production of a truth: these are the two components of the current, of the intensity that, when it runs through an object, allows us to call such an object a document.

Detail from the chapter “Pianetti, the Chamois Hunter” from the book Crimes of Violence and Revenge, by Harry Ashton-Wolfe

To acquire the status of document, an object needs a sort of validation, a signature; it must pass through a series of procedural conventions that are accurate, not debatable and related to a fixed context.[6] The object is removed from its common use and introduced into a different field, in which it is withdrawn from its usual purpose and from the external mechanisms of value, assuming an alternative mode of existence. Such ‘conventional’ dimension of the document exhibits a kinship with the mechanisms through which the sacred is produced. In them, human things and actions are emptied of their ordinary uses and made inoperative; religion then intervenes to separate and assign them a new telos through its conventional-ceremonial apparatus. To better appreciate how document status is assigned, it will be useful at this point to more closely examine the workings of such mechanisms.

templum = consecrated piece of ground, enclosure. Usually referred to Proto-Indo-European root *tem-, “to cut”, on notion of “place reserved or cut out”, that gave as an outcome, in Ancient Greek, τέμενος (temenos, temple), derived from the verb τέμνω, “I cut”.

The etymology of the word ‘temple’ refers to an act of separation: a space is separated from what surrounds it. It is easy to trace the religious acceptation that the act of cutting has assumed. The temple (temenos), a space dedicated to the cult of the gods (therefore to kinds of practices that need to be separated from the common space in order to assume a specific social status), inevitably refers to the category of the sacred. The space defined by the temple circumscribes and produces the conditions of existence for a series of acts that are removed from common reality and to the mechanisms of everyday meaning in order to embody a language of their own. The sacred is a category that contains actions that are separated from life (others, different than the ordinary) and that, at the same time, enjoy a sort of precise and sanctioned validation.

If the religious temenos can help us reconsider the nature of the juridical temenos of the trial, where the status of the document appears to us most clearly, it is then worth focusing on some aspects that link the two spheres of law and of religion. We can start by returning to the concept of performance mentioned earlier. Émile Benveniste, in his essay Subjectivity in Language, conducts a brief analysis of “performative verbs”; verbs carried out simply by means of uttering them aloud. A perfect example is the expression “je jure” (I swear):

I swear is a form of peculiar value in that it places the reality of the oath upon the one who says I. This utterance is a performance; "to swear" consists exactly of the utterance I swear, by which Ego is bound. The utterance I swear is the very act which pledges me, not the description of the act that I am performing. In saying I promise, I guarantee, I am actually making a promise or a guarantee. The consequences (social, judicial, etc.) of my swearing, of my promise, flow from the instance of discourse containing I swear, I promise. The utterance is identified with the act itself. But this condition is not given in the meaning of the verb, it is the "subjectivity" of discourse which makes it possible.[7]

It is no coincidence that Benveniste chooses precisely the oath to provide a paradigm for linguistic performance. The thesis we want to argue here is that such a mode of performance is comparable to the one carried out by an object when it becomes a document. Just as a proposition requires an oath to become performative, in the same way an object, to assume the status of a document, needs a validation – that essentially can be considered an oath.

Again, at the heart of the question is that empty space we call “truth”. Both the proposition and the object are removed, by the oath, from their level of existence and their common use in order to assume a performative status. The truth (and therefore the validation of their status) is, in both cases, merely a signature on them, a tension that runs through them; it is something attached to them, it is not part of them.

Such signature, such tension, cannot but be an act of speech: the oath is nothing but the involvement of a subject binding him performatively to the truth of his assertion. Again Benveniste: “The oath (sacramentum) implies the notion of making something sacer. To the oath is connected the quality of the sacred, the most terrible among those that a man could receive: the oath appears as an operation that consists in making something sacer in a conditional way.”[8] Sacer, that is, separated, placed on a different level (as discussed above, one must be careful to consider the term sacer as belonging to both realms of religion and law).

To shed light on the mechanism of conventions through which an object assumes the status of a document, we can follow the commentary that Giorgio Agamben develops about Benveniste’s theories. According to Agamben, ius and religio are born to guarantee the trustworthiness of the utterance of the oath, through obsessive and scrupulous care with respect to the appropriate formulas and rites – in short, about conventions (the term religio may mean: “observing scrupulously”):

The “religious affirmation” is a word guaranteed and sustained by a religio, which removes it from common use and, consecrating it to the gods, makes it the object of a series of ritual prescriptions. […] The oath represents precisely the threshold by means of which language enters into law and religio.[9]

Both law and religion, according to Agamben, “seek to tie speech to things and to bind speaking subjects to the veritative power of their speech, to their oath”[10]. Between ius and religio, the contact point is truth, and this is what concerns us here: the document requires a conventional validation that is nothing but an oath.

Finally, following Agamben, we can find, again, the immateriality of the document, and its nature of intensity, of current: “the oath does not create anything, does not bring anything into being, but keeps unitedand conserves what something else has brought into being”[11]. Thus, the document exists only as a supplement, as an ‘act of authorship’ on an object that, in itself, does not testify about anything. It is a veritable signature. It is not situated in the objective world; it does not compose a definable and recognizable substance. Rather, it always happens on the level of a ‘speech act’ on the world: an object does not become a document by virtue of a shared and objective signification (a langue), rather it is always defined by the hand-to-hand encounter (the oath) between an object and an act of speech (an utterance) that runs through it.

Detail from the chapter “Pianetti, the Chamois Hunter” from the book Crimes of Violence and Revenge, by Harry Ashton-Wolfe

Coming back to the aforementioned definition of the document by Suzanne Briet (“any concrete or symbolic indication, preserved or recorded, for reconstructing or for proving a phenomenon, whether physical or mental”), we can end this essay by putting forward the hypothesis of a pure document – that is, a document that would not constitute any indication of any sort; that would not reconstruct or prove anything. How to imagine a document that does not document anything, but that keeps its status nonetheless? In which form could the intensity (the signature) that produces a document exist without any link to any theory to prove, to any hypothesis to validate, to any truth to confirm? What would remain? One option would be to describe this document of nothing with the same words used by Scholem in a well-known letter to Benjamin: “it does not signify, yet still affirms itself by the fact that it is in force”[12]. Or we might define it as a bare document (a reference to the concept of bare life): such an entity would be a document not linked to any act of speech, unlinked to logos before or beyond it.

In any case, reflecting about such a degree zero of the document shall be a necessary task for further analyses.

We have presented two examples of how the massacre of Simone Pianetti has been transmitted: the flyers and the literary account by Ashton Wolfe. Needless to say, such sources take up the status of variations themselves. In both cases, their status as historical documents is purely a matter of convention, of acceptance, of context. The readers’ attention will be drawn to the difficulties we experience when trying to accept something – anything, actually – as a document, which means crediting it with an absolute and undeniable connection to the idea of truth.

[1] Maurice Halbwachs, La mémoire collective, Presses
Universitaires de France, Paris 1950.

[2] “They destroyed all the fruits of my labour through cruel hatred. I endured such infamy until my heart claimed revenge! The rifle was beside me... and a tremendous anger erupted inside me.”

[3] Harry Ashton-Wolfe, Crimes of Violence and Revenge, The Riverside Press, Boston 1929.

[4] Peter Brook, The empty space, Touchstone 1968.

[5] Suzanne Briet, Qu'est-ce que la documentation?, Éditions documentaires, industrielles et techniques, Paris, 1951.

[6] An object can operate as a document in one context but not in another: for example, if a war fiction movie may not be considered a document for a history of war, it may be for a history of cinema.

[7] Émile Benveniste, Problèmes de linguistique générale, 1, Gallimard, Paris 1966.

[8] Émile Benveniste, Le vocabulaire des institutions indo-européennes, Editions de Minuit, Paris 1969.

[9] Giorgio Agamben, Il sacramento del linguaggio. Archeologia del giuramento. Homo sacer II, 3, Laterza, Roma-Bari 2008.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Benjamin-Scholem, Briefswechsel 19333-40, Frankfurt am Main 1988, quoted in Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer, Einaudi, Torino 1995.