The main user of the capital punishment in the history of Italy was the Holy Inquisition, although formally the ecclesiastical court did not execute people, but was authorized by Pope Innocent IV (1252) only to torture during the investigation. The Church was to use every effort to return the heretic to the Church; if he persisted, or if his conversion was feigned – at first the verdict was a simple condemnation for heresy and was accompanied by excommunication or declaration that the defendant was no longer under the jurisdiction of the Church and was passed to the temporal authorities. Over time, the sentences for the transmission to the secular authorities started being accompanied with the words “debita animadversione puniendum”, “shall be punished according to merit”.

Originally directed against the Cathars and Waldensians, the Inquisition soon turned against other heretical sects – Beguines and Fraticelli, and then against "witches" and blasphemers. Those who were condemned by the Inquisition were transferred to civilian authorities and subjected to secular punishment. A “heretic who “repented” in the course of the process was to be sentenced to life imprisonment, which inquisitorial tribunal had the right to shorten; this kind of punishment was an innovation for the penitentiary system of the medieval West. Starting from 1226-1227, the most severe punishment for "crimes against the faith" in Germany and Italy was burning at the stake.

The population of Italy tried to resist lawlessness whenever it could. In particular, in 1252 Pierre Verona, the Inquisitor of northern Italy, was killed.

With the advent of the Enlightenment the Inquisition went to decline. Officially, the Inquisition was abolished in 1835 by Pope Gregory XVI, leaving only the Holy Office, whose activity since then has been limited to excommunication and the publication of the Index of prohibited books.

The use of the death penalty by secular courts had different practices, as the country was divided into separate domains with their own laws. However, a significant event not only in Italy, but in Europe, as well as in America and Russia, was the release in 1764 of the book "On Crimes and Punishments" by Cesare Beccaria (listed in the aforementioned index). His work played a significant role in shaping the modern court procedure and the formation of a new science of criminology, having declared many of the principles of a fair trial – public trial, equality of punishment for all citizens regardless of class, professionalism of judges, the presumption of innocence, and much more. Cesare Beccaria was also the first to declare the prohibition of torture and the abolition of the death penalty. Already in 1786, the ideas of Beccaria became the basis for the first modern Penal Code, which was published in Tuscany and in which the death penalty was completely abolished for the first time in Europe. Pitifully enough, it was brought back to use by the ruling party in 1790.

At the time of the unification of Italy in 1861, the laws of all united states, (including the Kingdom of Sardinia) provided for the death penalty. In anticipation of approval of a single Penal Code, the jurisdiction of the Criminal Code of the Kingdom of Sardinia was extended to Italy. In 1889 the death penalty was abolished in the Kingdom of Italy, almost unanimously by both houses. The decision did not concern the military penal code, though.

When Benito Mussolini came to power, the death penalty was reinstated in the Italian criminal law in 1926. The new Penal Code, which entered into force in July 1931, increased the number of crimes against the state punishable by death and re-introduced the death penalty for certain serious criminal offenses. During the 1931-1940 decade, juries sentenced to death at least 118 people for serious crimes, 65 of whom were executed. In addition, the Special Court, which operated from 1927 to 1943, investigating political crimes, issued 65 death sentences, 53 of which were executed (most of them on charges of espionage in 1940-1942).

In 1943, the fascist government was defeated. In September, the country was divided into two parts: the North was occupied by the German troops, headed by Mussolini, while the South was liberated by Allied troops. One of the first decisions of the new government was the abolition of the death penalty – on August 10, 1944, Decree No. 224 abolished the death penalty for all offenses under the Criminal Code of 1930. However, the death penalty was provided by Decree No. 159 of July 27, 1944 for collaboration with the Nazis.

After the war, on May 10, 1945 the death penalty was applied on the territory of the newly unified Italy as a temporary and exceptional measure for serious crimes, such as "participation in an armed group, robbery with violence and extortion". The last death sentence on these grounds was imposed for murder during a robbery in the autumn of 1945. Head of the State dismissed the petition for clemency on March 4, 1947 and the three men were executed.

Also in the period from April 1945 to March 1947, 88 people were executed for collaboration with the Germans during the Second World War.

The last execution took place on March 5, 1947 at about 5 a.m. in Fort Bastia. The convicted persons were a former agent of the Italian SS Aurelio Gallo, the former chief of the SS Emilio Battisti and the former Marshal of the Republican National Guard Aldo Morelli. They were sentenced to death in May 1946 by a jury for collaboration with the Nazis, torturing and deporting thousands of people to the death camps. There occurred some problems during the execution: the first volley killed Morelli, Battisti was wounded and Gallo did unhurt. Before the second volley Gallo asked not to shoot.

The new Constitution of the Italian Republic, which entered into force on January 1, 1948, prohibits the death penalty for ordinary and military crimes committed in time of peace. Article 27 reads:
Criminal responsibility is personal. The defendant shall not be considered guilty until final sentence has been passed upon him. Punishments may not consist of measures contrary to a sense of humanity and shall aim at re-educating the convicted. The death penalty shall not be admitted save in cases specified by military laws in time of war.

5 years after the abolition of the death penalty, a poll among Italian citizens showed that a half of them didn't know that the death penalty was no longer applied. However, a decrease in the number of premeditated murders was observed.

Military Criminal Code provided for the death penalty for a wide range of crimes, but also gave the President of the Republic the right to mitigate sentences or pardon convicts. The bill to abolish the death penalty in the Military Penal Code was presented to and approved by the Chamber of Deputies in July 1994. The law states that the maximum penalty for the offenses covered by the Military Criminal Code and the military laws will be life imprisonment.

Italy has also ratified Protocol 13 of European Convention on Human Rights in October 2007.