Damiens, a muscular fellow, was to be slowly tortured to death, building to a climax when each of his limbs would be yanked off by lashed horses, then his still living torso and head would be tossed upon a bonfire. This zealot had made the mistake of trying to kill the French king and failing.
While tens of thousands of commoners crowded the Place de la Greve in Paris on April 28, 1768, aristocrats by the dozens rented rooms overlooking the place of execution. Here, refreshments could be discretely served.
"Executions are intended to draw spectators," commented contemporary Samuel Johnson. "If they do not draw spectators, they do not answer their purpose." It was considered patriotic to witness the pain of a man who had tried to hurt their Louis XV. Included among the renters was would-be aristocrat Giacomo Casanova, who had decided to throw a small party to impress his fiancee and her family.
His party, unthinkable today, was commonplace then. This was the era of "Dangerous Liaisons", a few scant decades before the French Revolution.
Forty-two-year-old Casanova invited his 17 year-old fiancée, her wealthy devout guardian (who happened to be plump, sour-faced and sixtyish), a prostitute posing as the "niece of the pope" and a handsome young Italian, living on his charm and speaking no French. Picture the group; picture their elegant attire, the yards of silk and linen, the jewels.
The women stood in the front row at the only window, bending far forward, resting their elbows on the window sill so the men behind could see over them. The party lasted four hours during which very little small talk could be heard over the prisoner's screams.
Damiens was chained to a strong wooden table, his right hand slowly burned to the bone with sulphurous fire. The executioners gouged various parts of his body with red-hot pincers. Long straps were then wound up the length of his arms and his legs. Each heavy strap was attached to a rope tied to a strong horse. The horses were whipped but Damiens was an extremely muscular man and they couldn't yank off his limbs. For more than an hour, the horses were beaten and Damiens screamed in almost unrelenting agony.
Casanova, in his memoirs, recounts that the women never once turned their heads, but he says that he found himself after a while unable to watch so he turned his eyes away and just at the moment noticed that his young Italian friend had lifted up the voluminous dress of the devout older Frenchwoman in front of him.
Casanova marveled at the audacity and appetite of his friend, and then later at his endurance. Since women in those days did not wear between-the-legs underwear but rather sheafs of petticoats, an amorous act was quite feasible. As Peter the Great had remarked a half century earlier when a woman fell in front of his carriage and her legs spread as she attempted to avoid getting crushed by his horses, "The gates of Paradise are open." For the next two hours, Casanova noted the faintest rocking motion. Casanova studied the devout old lady and her face looked frozen, lips pursed, teeth clenched. Was it anger? Passion? Fear? Casanova was certain that this respectable lady above all did not want the "niece of the pope" or her own young relative to know what was happening, i.e., that she was being politely raped.
The executioners added two more cart horses but Damiens' limbs still would not come off. A little conference was held, the king consulted and it was agreed that the torturers could slash a few muscles and tendons to speed the process. After another hour and a half of the horses straining, a leg came off, then the other. They slashed his shoulder, and his arm came off. He screamed unearthly screams throughout. Casanova's friend, Tiretta, bobbed throughout.
After Damiens' final limb was off, the little party left in a carriage. Tiretta looked amazingly cheerful and composed. The older woman, however, looked furious and when she stepped down from the carriage, pointedly snubbed Tiretta, saying "Au Revoir" to everyone else. Over dinner that night, Casanova queried Tiretta who informed him that "the act was consummated four different times." (Tiretta, in his brief stay in Paris, had already earned the nickname "Monsieur Six Times"--from another Parisienne who had also spread word of the ample size of Tiretta's manhood.)
The next day Casanova was summoned to the older woman's house. Apologizing for her unchristian rage, she demanded revenge. Sly Casanova offered that the penniless Tiretta would marry her. She declined. Casanova, noting that her beauty was partly to blame, then offered that Tiretta would apologize to her. She started to cry, told Casanova he was missing the point. "You are thinking of a crime, which, with an effort, one could reasonably find a suitable amends but what the brute did to me is an infamy, which I would love to stop thinking about since it's driving me crazy."
Casanova, being Casanova, began to realize what had happened, i.e., a rear entry of a more painful sort. He struck a deal with Madame that Tiretta would be delivered to her home and that she could do anything to him short of kill him. (Casanova would be secretly hidden at her house to act as mediator if the need arose.)
Casanova met Tiretta and, and with comic sternness, explained the punishment. Tiretta mildly defended himself. "I don't say she's lying but? in the position in which I stood, it was impossible for me to know which apartment I was moving into."
The windup? Tiretta spent an evening alone in a room with Madame and the next morning she announced that she was putting him on retainer at her country estate with a generous yearly salary and a clothes allowance. "If you only knew how he much loves me," she enthused to Casanova, who had been busy as well the previous evening, taking the virginity of Madame's beautiful young relative.
The Place de la Greve, where Damiens' blood flowed, was eventually replaced as the main execution spot by the newly named Place de la Revolution. There, Louis XVI was guillotined and once again many small parties were thrown, this time by commoners, in rooms overlooking the square. And I wonder if any of the party-goers had the audacity to mirror Tiretta and slip it into the patriotic Frenchwoman perched in front of him. And, if so, did he move into her upstairs "apartment" or her downstairs? And did he time his "petite mort" with the king's "grande mort" and the royal head falling into the basket? We will never know, but I would like to believe some hardy Frenchman did just that. "Allons, enfants de la patrie, le jour de gloire est arrivé."
Copyright © 1997 Richard Zacks.