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Cesare Bonesana di Beccaria


  1. Dei delitti e delle pene has translation author


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Beccaria was the son of the Marchese Gian Beccaria Bonesana, an aristocrat from the Austrian Habsburg Empire. He received his early education in the Jesuit college at Parma before graduating in law from the University of Pavia in 1758. Initially inclined towards mathematics, his study of Montesquieu redirected his attention towards economics and his first publication was a tract on the disorder of the currency in the Milanese states (1762) .

In Milan, Beccaria became close friends with the aristocratic Pietro and Alessandro Verri, who formed a literary society in 1761, playfully named 'L'Accademia dei pugni' (Academy of Fists), and later, a periodical, Il Caffè. Much of the group's discussion focused on reforming the criminal justice system and through this group, he became acquainted with French and British political philosophers, such as Diderot, Helvétius, Montesquieu, and Hume.

His best known work is his brief and highly quotable, utilitarian treatise, 'Dei delitti e delle pene' ('An Essay on Crimes and Punishments') (1764), which he initially published anonymously with the encouragement of the Verri brothers, one of whom had firsthand experience of Milan prison's appalling conditions. Beccaria's celebrated essay marked the high point of the Milan Enlightenment. In it, Beccaria put forward some of the first arguments against the death penalty and advocated wholesale reform of the criminal law system based on rational principles. It was almost immediately translated into French and English and went through several editions.

Through his French translator abbé Morellet, Beccaria accepted an invitation to Paris to meet the leading philosophes, accompanied by Alessandro Verri, intending to continue on to London. However, the shy Beccaria made a poor impression and missing his young wife, returned after three weeks to Milan, never travelling abroad again. The break with the Verri brothers was irreparable as they could never understand why Beccaria had left Paris at the peak of his success.

Back in Italy, he was appointed to several nominal political positions, but failed to produce another text of equal importance. Beyond Italy, a myth grew that his literary silence was due to Austrian restrictions on free expression, but in fact it was mainly due to his periodic bouts of depression and misanthropy.

Legal scholars across Europe hailed Beccaria's treatise, and several rulers vowed to follow it. While many reforms in the penal codes of the principal European nations can be traced to the treatise, they were less convinced by his arguments against the death penalty, with the exception of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. In the anglophone world, Beccaria's ideas fed into the writings on punishment of William Eden (Baron Auckland) and Jeremy Bentham, and to a lesser extent, Sir William Blackstone.

In 1768, Beccaria was appointed to the chair of law and economy founded expressly for him at the Palatine College of Milan. His lectures on political economy, based on strict utilitarian principles, awere inspired by the theories of the English school of economists. In 1771, Beccaria was made a member of the supreme economic council, and in 1791, he was appointed to the board for the reform of the judicial code. During this period he also spearheaded a number of other reforms, including the standardisation of weights and measurements.