The criminal question in the public sphere. Cesare Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments and Eighteenth-Century Britain: A Two-Way Perspective. Introduction

Rosamaria Loretelli

John Dunkley

... jamais, dans aucune autre période de l’ histoire, le problème pénal n’a été aussi débattu qu’au Siècle des Lumières. Matière autrefois confidentielle et hautement spécialisée, le droit criminel s’ouvre brusquement à une sphère plus large de dis-cussions publiques. Jadis formulée en latin dans d’ épais volumes de doctrine, la question pénale ‘tombe dans le domaine public’. […] Or, il est à la fois banal et frappant de constater que l’ événement déclencheur de ces débats est la publication des Délits et des peines.

It would be difficult to find more apposite words than these by Philippe Audegean and Luigi Delia to set the background for the present collection of essays. In the eighteenth century, the question of criminal law and practice not only sparked furious debates among specialists but also entered public opinion in general, appearing in newspaper articles, in journals and letters, and even in dictionaries and novels.

The focus of this collection of essays is the two-way relation of On Crimes and Punishments with Britain. It is, to the best of our knowledge, the first to be entirely devoted to this subject, although a conference, organized by the Società italiana di studi sul secolo diciottesimo, the British Society for Eighteenth-century Studies and the Associazione Antigone preceded it in 2017, on the 250th anniversary of the first English translation of Beccaria’s treatise. Some, though not all, participants in the conference are also contributors to the present volume.

Dei delitti e delle pene was first published in Livorno in 1764. The event caused an instantaneous sensation in Europe: the first edition sold out immediately and, in the course of less than two years, three more authorised Italian editions appeared, each with new additions by the author. Over the same period, many pirated editions also circulated.In the summer of 1765, the French philosophes discovered Beccaria, and started corresponding with him. They promptly invited him to Paris, where he went in 1766 accompanied by Alessandro Verri, and was fêted and honoured in the most prestigious salons. In the mean-time, the first French translation had been published in December 1765 (although dated 1766), a few months before the Italian fifth edition, the last to be edited by the author himself.

This French translation, authored by philosophe and éncyclopédiste André Morellet, gave a powerful boost to a further dissemination of Beccaria’s book and ideas in Europe. In 1766, Voltaire published his Commentaire sur leTraité des délits et des peines. Other European countries responded just as rapidly. In October 1765, Switzerland honoured the book with a medal, at the initiative of the Berne Patriotic Society. In 1766, Catherine II invited its author to go to Russia as her advisor on the penal reform she was planning.

Beccaria, however, declined. Reforms along the lines the book had indicated were passed in Europe. In Prussia, Frederick II promulgated a new criminal code. In 1786, in Tuscany, Grand Duke Leopold, the future Leopold II emperor of Austria, promulgated a new code which abolished the death penalty. Judicial torture declined. In England, where stories about real criminals were very popular and, since the previous century, had given rise to a thriving production of printed matter, the interest in criminal legislation grew considerably and the need for reform was felt by a growing number of people.


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