One method of torture used in Florentine jails during the glorious days of the Renaissance was the strappado: a prisoner was hoisted into the air by a rope attached to his wrists, which had been tied behind his back, and then suddenly dropped toward the floor as many times as it took to get him to confess. Since the procedure usually dislocated the shoulders, tore the muscles, and rendered one or both arms useless, it is remarkable that Niccolò Machiavelli, after reportedly undergoing six such “drops,” asked for pen and paper and began to write. Machiavelli had nothing to confess. Although his name had been found on an incriminating list, he had played no part in a failed conspiracy to murder the city’s newly restored Medici rulers. (Some said that it was Giuliano de’ Medici who had been targeted, others that it was his brother Cardinal Giovanni.) He had been imprisoned for almost two weeks when, in February, 1513, in a desperate bid for pardon, he wrote a pair of sonnets addressed to the “Magnificent Giuliano,” mixing pathos with audacity and apparently inextinguishable wit. “I have on my legs, Giuliano, a pair of shackles,” he began, and went on to report that the lice on the walls of his cell were as big as butterflies, and that the noise of keys and padlocks boomed around him like Jove’s thunderbolts. Perhaps worried that the poems would not impress, he announced that the muse he had summoned had hit him in the face rather than render her services to a man who was chained up like a lunatic. To the heir of a family that prided itself on its artistic patronage, he submitted the outraged complaint “This is the way poets are treated!”
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