100 books like The Art of Executing Well

By Nicholas Terpstra (editor),

Here are 100 books that The Art of Executing Well fans have personally recommended if you like The Art of Executing Well. Shepherd is a community of 10,000+ authors and super readers sharing their favorite books with the world.

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Book cover of The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century

Una McIlvenna Author Of Singing the News of Death: Execution Ballads in Europe 1500-1900

From my list on the history of capital punishment.

Who am I?

When I started researching the history of early modern public execution, I read a few eyewitness accounts in which people behaved so strangely that I realised I understood nothing about the realities of this once-common historical practice. By reading the books on this list, I quickly discovered that the ceremony of capital punishment was a performance in which the entire community participated, filled with rituals and behaviours that had enormous emotional and spiritual significance for everyone involved, not just the ‘poor sinner’ on the scaffold. I also discovered that music and singing were crucial parts of the performance, with ballads being sung about the event for years afterwards. 

Una's book list on the history of capital punishment

Una McIlvenna Why did Una love this book?

What must it have been like to be an executioner? In this detailed and moving study, Harrington explores the extraordinary diary of Meister Franz Schmidt, the 16th-century executioner of Nuremberg, who kept notes on every one of the 394 people he executed, as well as the countless others he tortured, whipped, and disfigured according to the law's demands. This book is therefore essential for understanding exactly how this mysterious craft was carried out, but the surprising twist in the tale is how Schmidt spent his entire life seeking to have his family's honour restored in a period when executioners were believed to be able to ritually 'pollute' another human simply by touch. Harrington's real achievement here is explaining how dishonour was the central force within public punishment—something we too easily forget today.

By Joel F. Harrington,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Faithful Executioner as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In a dusty German bookshop, the noted historian Joel F. Harrington stumbled upon a remarkable document: the journal of a sixteenth-century executioner. The journal gave an account of the 394 people Meister Frantz Schmidt executed, and the hundreds more he tortured, flogged, or disfigured for more than forty-five years in the city of Nuremberg. But the portrait of Schmidt that gradually emerged was not that of a monster. Could a man who practiced such cruelty also be insightful, compassionate - even progressive?

In The Faithful Executioner, Harrington teases out the hidden meanings and drama of Schmidt's journal. Deemed an official…


Book cover of Tyburn's Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675-1775

Una McIlvenna Author Of Singing the News of Death: Execution Ballads in Europe 1500-1900

From my list on the history of capital punishment.

Who am I?

When I started researching the history of early modern public execution, I read a few eyewitness accounts in which people behaved so strangely that I realised I understood nothing about the realities of this once-common historical practice. By reading the books on this list, I quickly discovered that the ceremony of capital punishment was a performance in which the entire community participated, filled with rituals and behaviours that had enormous emotional and spiritual significance for everyone involved, not just the ‘poor sinner’ on the scaffold. I also discovered that music and singing were crucial parts of the performance, with ballads being sung about the event for years afterwards. 

Una's book list on the history of capital punishment

Una McIlvenna Why did Una love this book?

McKenzie looks at the extraordinary phenomenon of the 'last dying speech' that condemned prisoners in Britain got to give from the scaffold. In particular, she explores events at Tyburn, London's most notorious execution site, in the 18th century, exploring how this period saw an explosion of printed literature that featured the criminal as an Everyman from whom everyone could learn a harsh lesson in morality. It's a fantastic exploration of the reality of the gallows versus what one could read in print: from the 'game' highwayman who refused to bow to society's expectations to the fearful, trembling prisoner who begged for mercy. Totally fascinating. 

By Andrea McKenzie,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Tyburn's Martyrs as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The public execution at Tyburn is one of the most evocative and familiar of all eighteenth-century images. Whether it elicits horror or prurient fascination - or both - the Tyburn hanging day has become synonymous with the brutality of a bygone age and a legal system which valued property over human life.But, as this fascinating cultural and social history of the gallows reveals, the early modern execution was far more than just a debased spectator sport. The period between the Restoration and the American Revolution witnessed the rise and fall of a vast body of execution literature - last dying…


Book cover of The Thief, the Cross and the Wheel: Pain and the Spectacle of Punishment in Medieval and Renaissance Europe

Una McIlvenna Author Of Singing the News of Death: Execution Ballads in Europe 1500-1900

From my list on the history of capital punishment.

Who am I?

When I started researching the history of early modern public execution, I read a few eyewitness accounts in which people behaved so strangely that I realised I understood nothing about the realities of this once-common historical practice. By reading the books on this list, I quickly discovered that the ceremony of capital punishment was a performance in which the entire community participated, filled with rituals and behaviours that had enormous emotional and spiritual significance for everyone involved, not just the ‘poor sinner’ on the scaffold. I also discovered that music and singing were crucial parts of the performance, with ballads being sung about the event for years afterwards. 

Una's book list on the history of capital punishment

Una McIlvenna Why did Una love this book?

An art history book might not seem like the most obvious choice for a list like this, but this one is a revelation: we often forget that Crucifixion paintings are scenes of capital punishment. Merback looks at crucifixion images of northern European masters of the late medieval and early modern period, and reveals that the often mangled positions of the limbs of the two thieves on either side of Christ are depictions of the kinds of mutilations that spectators regularly witnessed on the bodies of those broken on the wheel (where the limbs were smashed and then 'woven' through the spokes of a cartwheel - no, really). This study is important not only for understanding the physical practices of execution on the Continent, but also for exploring the profound religious significance of the entire execution ritual. 

By Mitchell B. Merback,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Thief, the Cross and the Wheel as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This text reconstructs the religious, legal and historical context of the Crucifixion and of other images of public torture. The result is an account of a time when criminal justice and religion were entirely interrelated and punishment was a visual spectacle devoured by a popular audience. Mitchell Merback compares the images of Christ's Crucifixion with those of the two thieves who met their fate beside Jesus. In paintings by well-known Northern European masters and provincial painters alike, Merback finds the two thieves subjected to incredible cruelty, cruelty that artists could not depict in their scenes of Christ's Crucifixion because of…


Book cover of Seeing Justice Done: The Age of Spectacular Capital Punishment in France

Una McIlvenna Author Of Singing the News of Death: Execution Ballads in Europe 1500-1900

From my list on the history of capital punishment.

Who am I?

When I started researching the history of early modern public execution, I read a few eyewitness accounts in which people behaved so strangely that I realised I understood nothing about the realities of this once-common historical practice. By reading the books on this list, I quickly discovered that the ceremony of capital punishment was a performance in which the entire community participated, filled with rituals and behaviours that had enormous emotional and spiritual significance for everyone involved, not just the ‘poor sinner’ on the scaffold. I also discovered that music and singing were crucial parts of the performance, with ballads being sung about the event for years afterwards. 

Una's book list on the history of capital punishment

Una McIlvenna Why did Una love this book?

Many think that the medieval period was the era of cruel and sadistic punishment, but it was, in fact, the Renaissance that saw the rise of the great spectacle of the 'theatre of horror': scaffolds erected to display the brutal dismemberment and suffering of executed prisoners in front of thousands of spectators. Although it focuses on France, Friedland's study explores why, all across Europe, this period saw an appetite for something so graphic. It explores the history of capital punishment from the Romans onwards, so it's essential reading for the theory behind executions, but the real strength lies in its exploration of the gulf between what theorists believed and what the general public actually did at executions, and why they attended in their thousands. 

By Paul Friedland,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Seeing Justice Done as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the early Middle Ages to the twentieth century, capital punishment in France, as in many other countries, was staged before large crowds of spectators. Paul Friedland traces the theory and practice of public executions over time, both from the perspective of those who staged these punishments as well as from the vantage point of the many thousands who came to "see justice done". While penal theorists often stressed that the fundamental purpose of public
punishment was to strike fear in the hearts of spectators, the eagerness with which crowds flocked to executions and the extent to which spectators actually…


Book cover of Love and Death in Renaissance Italy

Nicholas Scott Baker Author Of In Fortune's Theater: Financial Risk and the Future in Renaissance Italy

From my list on exploring what what Renaissance Italy was really like.

Who am I?

I teach the histories of early modern Europe and European worlds at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. I developed a fascination for the period and, especially, for the Italian Renaissance as an undergraduate before going on to complete a PhD at Northwestern University in the United States. I love the contradictions and tensions of the period: a society and culture in transition from what we call medieval understandings and worldviews to what we see as more modern ones. These are some of the books that helped to fuel my passion for Renaissance Italian history and to answer some of my questions about what life was really like in Renaissance Italy.

Nicholas' book list on exploring what what Renaissance Italy was really like

Nicholas Scott Baker Why did Nicholas love this book?

This book presents six vignettes of sex and violence plucked by Thomas Cohen from the archives of the papal governor of sixteenth-century Rome.

I love Cohen’s passion for telling a good story without losing sight of its broader historical significance. Examining the everyday lives of people in the streets, Cohen reveals how a clash between the contradictory currents of Italian Renaissance society fueled much of its conflicts and discontents.

On the one hand, Christian religion preached mercy, forgiveness, and community, on the other the compelling codes of honor, familial loyalty, and unwritten social rules promoted violence and vengeance.

The book also reveals how women and other socially marginalized figures could navigate and manipulate these codes to find space and freedom in a world dominated by powerful men. 

By Thomas V. Cohen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Love and Death in Renaissance Italy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Gratuitous sex. Graphic violence. Lies, revenge, and murder. Before there was digital cable or reality television, there was Renaissance Italy and the courts in which Italian magistrates meted out justice to the vicious and the villainous, the scabrous and the scandalous. As dramatic and as moving as the television show The Borgias, and a lot more true to life, Love and Death in Renaissance Italy retells six piquant episodes from the Italian court just after 1550, as the Renaissance gave way to an era of Catholic reformation. Each of the chapters in this history chronicles a domestic drama around which…


Book cover of The Renaissance in Italy: A Social and Cultural History of the Rinascimento

Celeste McNamara Author Of The Bishop's Burden: Reforming the Catholic Church in Early Modern Italy

From my list on Renaissance Italy.

Who am I?

I teach medieval and early modern European history at Dublin City University, with a particular interest in 16th-18th century Italian history. My own research focuses on the religious, legal, and popular culture of northern Italy, particularly Venice and the Veneto region. I became fascinated with Renaissance Italian history as an undergraduate at the College of William and Mary, and then went on to do a masters and a PhD at Northwestern University. I have taught at Northwestern, the College of William and Mary, the University of Warwick/Warwick in Venice, and the State University of New York at Cortland.

Celeste's book list on Renaissance Italy

Celeste McNamara Why did Celeste love this book?

This book is a fantastic, broad overview of the Italian Renaissance (or rinascimento, the term Ruggiero prefers and which his subjects would have recognized). The Italian Rinascimento was a period, according to Ruggiero, of vibrant cities, social change, and cultural expression, in which intellectuals, politicians, and artists both looked back to an idealized classical past and forward to uncharted territory.

I love the way this book focuses on issues that preoccupied the people he studies and incorporates topics often absent from works on the Renaissance, including women, sexuality, economics, disease and death, and religion, among others. Even more important, perhaps, is that it is clear, accessible, and engaging, and demonstrates a wealth of knowledge developed over an illustrious career as a historian of early modern Italy.

By Guido Ruggiero,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Renaissance in Italy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book offers a rich and exciting new way of thinking about the Italian Renaissance as both a historical period and a historical movement. Guido Ruggiero's work is based on archival research and new insights of social and cultural history and literary criticism, with a special emphasis on everyday culture, gender, violence and sexuality. The book offers a vibrant and relevant critical study of a period too long burdened by anachronistic and outdated ways of thinking about the past. Familiar, yet alien; pre-modern, but suggestively post-modern; attractive and troubling, this book returns the Italian Renaissance to center stage in our…


Book cover of The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy

Peter Elbling Author Of The Food Taster

From my list on the brilliance of the Italian Renaissance.

Who am I?

Folk-singing was my first vocation, but I made a sudden left turn into comedy, becoming one-half of The Times Square Two. After a few years touring the world, I settled in Hollywood and became an actor, writer, and director. I was inspired to write The Food Taster by the maître d’ of a famous restaurant in Los Angeles. When I complained that my meal had made me ill, he smiled and said I should get myself a food taster.

Peter's book list on the brilliance of the Italian Renaissance

Peter Elbling Why did Peter love this book?

Burckhardt’s encyclopedia became my bible. Whatever I needed to know about the clothing, or the buildings, or the politics—or anything else about that period, I only had to open Burckhardt’s book, and it was all there for me. The information was easy to find and eminently readable; and while I am hardly a scholar of the Renaissance, after devouring his book a thousand times I believe I can now call myself an honorable student.

By Jacob Burckhardt,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For nineteenth-century Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt, the Italian Renaissance was nothing less than the beginning of the modern world - a world in which flourishing individualism and the competition for fame radically transformed science, the arts, and politics. In this landmark work he depicts the Italian city-states of Florence, Venice and Rome as providing the seeds of a new form of society, and traces the rise of the creative individual, from Dante to Michelangelo. A fascinating description of an era of cultural transition, this nineteenth-century masterpiece was to become the most influential interpretation of the Italian Renaissance, and anticipated ideas…


Book cover of Cosimo De' Medici and the Florentine Renaissance: The Patron's Oeuvre

Francesca Fiorani Author Of The Shadow Drawing: How Science Taught Leonardo How to Paint

From my list on the art and culture of Renaissance Florence.

Who am I?

I am an art historian from Rome and a professor at the University of Virginia, where I also served as associate dean for the arts and humanities and chair of the art department. Ever since as an undergraduate I heard a lecture from a professor on how important science was for Renaissance artists, I have been fascinated with this topic. I look at scientific images, such as maps and diagrams, as works of art, and interpret famous paintings, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, as scientific experiments. Among my books are The Marvel of Maps: Art, Cartography and Politics in the Renaissance, The Shadow Drawing. How Science Taught Leonardo How to Paint, and the digital publication Leonardo da Vinci and His Treatise on Painting.

Francesca's book list on the art and culture of Renaissance Florence

Francesca Fiorani Why did Francesca love this book?

Most art in the Renaissance was commissioned by specific patrons and this book superbly illustrates the complex interaction among patron, artist, and society by focusing on the greatest patron of art and architecture in fifteenth-century Florence. Cosimo de’ Medici was the most powerful figure in the city’s political and economic life, a fabulously wealthy banker, a devout Christian, but he had also an impeccable nose for great art. With the help of about 200 images, the book examines the religious, personal, and dynastic motivations behind Cosimo’s artistic patronage, both his direct commissions for the Medici palaces, villas, and chapels as well as his active involvement in the works officially commissioned by the republic. What you’ll get out of this book is a profound understanding of how art was commissioned, created, and viewed in Renaissance Florence.

By Dale Kent,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Cosimo De' Medici and the Florentine Renaissance as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Cosimo de' Medici (1389-1464), the fabulously wealthy banker who became the leading citizen of Florence in the fifteenth century, spent lavishly as the city's most important patron of art and literature. This remarkable book is the first comprehensive examination of the whole body of works of art and architecture commissioned by Cosimo and his sons. By looking closely at this spectacular group of commissions, we gain an entirely new picture of their patron and of the patron's point of view. Recurrent themes in the commissions-from Fra Angelico's San Marco altarpiece to the Medici Palace-indicate the main interests to which Cosimo's…


Book cover of The Marriage Portrait

Gill Paul Author Of A Beautiful Rival: A Novel Of Helena Rubinstein And Elizabeth Arden

From my list on historical novels based on real people.

Who am I?

I’ve written fourteen historical novels now and most of them include real historical characters. I particularly like writing about women I feel have been misjudged or ignored by historians, and trying to reassess them in the modern age. Fiction allows me to imagine what they were thinking and feeling as they lived through dramatic, life-changing experiences, giving more insight than facts alone could do. Sitting at my desk in the morning and pretending to be someone else is a strange way to earn a living but it’s terrific fun! 

Gill's book list on historical novels based on real people

Gill Paul Why did Gill love this book?

I was delighted when Maggie O’Farrell started writing historical fiction, and this one is a masterclass in novel writing.

It opens as teenaged Lucrezia is taken to a remote hunting lodge by her husband Alfonso, the Duke of Ferrara. He has ordered all her personal servants to remain behind and as they eat dinner, she realizes he is planning to kill her. What a beginning! The writing is lush and colorful, the characterizations subtle, and the story utterly gripping.

By Maggie O'Farrell,

Why should I read it?

13 authors picked The Marriage Portrait as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WOMEN'S PRIZE FOR FICTION FINALIST • REESE’S BOOK CLUB PICK • NEW YORK TIMES BEST SELLER • The author of award-winning Hamnet brings the world of Renaissance Italy to jewel-bright life in this unforgettable fictional portrait of the captivating young duchess Lucrezia de' Medici as she makes her way in a troubled court.

“I could not stop reading this incredible true story.” —Reese Witherspoon (Reese’s Book Club Pick)

"O’Farrell pulls out little threads of historical detail to weave this story of a precocious girl sensitive to the contradictions of her station...You may know the history, and you may think you…


Book cover of The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini

Peter Elbling Author Of The Food Taster

From my list on the brilliance of the Italian Renaissance.

Who am I?

Folk-singing was my first vocation, but I made a sudden left turn into comedy, becoming one-half of The Times Square Two. After a few years touring the world, I settled in Hollywood and became an actor, writer, and director. I was inspired to write The Food Taster by the maître d’ of a famous restaurant in Los Angeles. When I complained that my meal had made me ill, he smiled and said I should get myself a food taster.

Peter's book list on the brilliance of the Italian Renaissance

Peter Elbling Why did Peter love this book?

I appreciate people who don’t shrink from celebrating their own genius, and Benvenuto Cellini was indeed a genius at it. Still, I didn’t mind his boasting, whether it was about his intricate works as a goldsmith or his killing of a rival, for his sense of humor about himself more than made up for his monstrous ego. And even if he had left us nothing else but his autobiography, he bequeathed to us a brilliant record of the Renaissance.

By Benvenuto Cellini,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Benvenuto Cellini was a celebrated Renaissance sculptor and goldsmith - a passionate craftsman who was admired and resented by the most powerful political and artistic personalities in sixteenth-century Florence, Rome and Paris. He was also a murderer and a braggart, a shameless adventurer who at different times experienced both papal persecution and imprisonment, and the adulation of the royal court. Inn-keepers and prostitutes, kings and cardinals, artists and soldiers rub shoulders in the pages of his notorious autobiography: a vivid portrait of the manners and morals of both the rulers of the day and of their subjects. Written with supreme…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Italy, capital punishment, and the Renaissance?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Italy, capital punishment, and the Renaissance.

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