The Journal of Aurelio Scetti: A Florentine Galley Slave at Lepanto (1565-1577)

The Journal of Aurelio Scetti: A Florentine Galley Slave at Lepanto (1565-1577)

The Journal of Aurelio Scetti: A Florentine Galley Slave at Lepanto (1565-1577)

The Journal of Aurelio Scetti: A Florentine Galley Slave at Lepanto (1565-1577)


On 9 August 1565, on the main square of Arezzo, Aurelio Scetti, a Florentine musician, was about to be beheaded for the murder of his wife. At the last minute, thanks to the intervention of some of Scetti's powerful acquaintances at the court of Duke Cosimo I de' Medici in Florence, his death sentence was commuted, and Aurelio was sentenced to life in the galleys and assigned to the captain of the Pisana. Barely more than a two-masted rowing boat, the Pisana was one of four galleys of the fleet of the Holy Military Order of Saint Stephen, which the duke had created in 1561 to fight the Barbary pirates who were pillaging the northern shores of the Mediterranean. The powers of southern Europe were in the midst of a giant struggle between the great maritime cities of Italy and the Turkish power. Helped by independent Moorish corsairs, whose home bases were in ports of northern Africa, Istanbul pursued a war of attrition and pillage on the coastal areas of Italy and Spain until most of the Catholic states joined together to fight the Islamic enemy at Lepanto, on 7 October 1571. This is the world described in Aurelio Scetti's manuscript, a chronicle of eleven years of captivity. He sent it to the duke of Florence, with a petition asking to be freed. We do not know whether he was finally released or died in jail; the archives are silent on this point. This text is an exciting account of life on a galley, full of details about naval battles with the Islamic fleet and internal fights among Christian admirals, enhanced by Scetti's own pen-and-ink drawings of galleys, harbors, and storms.


Little is known of the life of Aurelio Scetti, the author of this manuscript. There are several gaps in this autobiographical text which he sent to Francesco I de’ Medici in 1577, twelve years after boarding a Tuscan galley as a galeotto. Aurelio mentions very briefly the homicide that brought him to the galleys and offers few details of his professional life before his death sentence.

A Florentine musician, Aurelio Scetti had an honorable career before murdering his wife in Arezzo. He was friends with many cardinals in Rome, employed as a choirmaster (maestro di cappella) by the Fabbrica del Duomo in Milan and as a musician at the court of the Duke of Savoy, and was befriended by the Piedmontese aristocracy in Turin and respected by the Duke of Nemours and his brother Jacques, the Abbé of Talloires and Pinerolo.

Research in the archives of Milan (Archivio di Stato and Archivio Storico dell’Arcidiocesi), Florence and Pisa (Archivio di Stato), and in the Fondo Colonna at the Benedictine Monastery of Santa Scolastica in Subiaco failed to uncover any document that mentioned Aurelio Scetti by name. Aurelio’s name seems totally unknown in the overwhelming array of records housed in the Archivio di Stato in Florence, but his father, Tommaso, is mentioned in a document in the same archive (Miscellanea Medicea 224, fol. 70r), in the census taken in 1562. Tommaso is listed as a spadaio (swordmaker) who lived in the central quartiere of Santa Maria Novella, more specifically, within the “populo di San Brancatio” (the church of San Pancrazio, now

I Fiorentini nel 1562: descritione delle bocche della città et stato di Fiorenza fatta l’anno 1562, ed. S. Meloni Trkulja (Florence: Bruschi, 1991), 70.

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