Sunday, March 24, 2013

Gone to Tuscany

I regret failing to blawg upon the 50th anniversary of the landmark decision Gideon v. Wainwright, in which the Supreme Court recognized that the Constitution requires that an indigent person charged with a criminal defense has the right to the assistance of counsel. I was busy preparing for an event meant to educate people that, although Gideon is indeed something to be proud of, the United States still has a ways to go in terms of its criminal justice system. Suffice it to say that my contribution to this particular event involved drawing a contrast between Tuscany and Texas. The former has an annual event—La Festa della Toscana—devoted to promoting the concepts of “international peace, justice and liberty.” The day chosen for the initial festival, November 30, was the same date as the day in 1786 when a law, promulgated by Tuscany’s Grand Duke, Peter Leopold, abolished the death penalty in Tuscany with a mere stroke of his autocratic pen. The law also banned torture and mutilation, which Leopold saw as being of a piece with the death penalty, all instruments of “barbaric people.” Peter Leopold’s legislative decree made Tuscany the first state in the world to take this bold step—for good. By contrast, try imagining Texas, which continues to execute more people than virtually all other U.S. states[1] combined, hosting a similar festival: “Join us for Fiesta Tejas—beer and barbeque will abound as the state celebrates Attorney General Greg Abbott’s leadership in pursuing a legislative repeal of the death penalty. Everyone welcome!”

Okay, some things defy imagination.

Yet imagining reasons to enjoy a visit to Tuscany are not so hard. If you need further assistance, I suggest hunkering down to watch the 1993 film version of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, starring Emma Thompsons and Kenneth Branagh. The film was shot entirely in a Tuscan villa: Although marred somewhat by Branagh’s decision to cast certain American stars who couldn’t quite handle the Bard’s poetry, the film is still a delight—particularly because most everyone involved seemed to be having such a grand time. And who wouldn’t have fun romping in the hills of Tuscany? As Roger Ebert’s review stated at the time: “In the opening scene of Much Ado About Nothing, Kenneth Branagh insists on the tone the movie will take: These are healthy, joyful young people whose high spirits will survive anything, even the dark double-crosses of Shakespeare's plot.” Treating yourself to a vicarious trip to Tuscany through that version of Much Ado would be a fantastic way to celebrate the arrival of spring and to commemorate the unfulfilled promises of Gideon. Much Ado teaches that human beings, in their dealings with their fellows, are capable of grave injustices, bumbling incompetence, and hopeful leaps of faith. This complexity is hardly “nothing” about which “much ado” should not be made. But among other things, old WS was a master of irony.

Come you, sir: if justice cannot tame you, she
shall ne'er weigh more reasons in her balance: nay,
an you be a cursing hypocrite once, you must be looked to.

“Officer Dogberry,” Much Ado About Nothing, V.1

[1] The United States is the only Western democracy that retains the death penalty, which places it in the same club as countries like China, Iran, Saudia Arabia, and Somalia. See

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