Heads Will Roll! Museum And Relatives Fight Over Skulls Of 19th Century Criminals

Category: Media & Culture / Feb 06, 2013 12:23PM EDT
The Cesare Lombroso Museum of Criminal Anthropology in Turin could be classed as a house of horrors. Stuffed with skulls, brains and skeletons from the 19th century it represents the life's work of Cesare Lombroso an Italian physician and psychiatrist who began his collection in 1878. Hundreds of wax-covered heads line the shelves, some with the words "Thief" or "Murderer" written underneath, all part of Lombroso's research into the nature of criminal behaviour. Lombroso espoused the view that criminality was not part of the normal human condition, nor was it caused by society. Rather, it resided in individuals who were, by nature, savage throwbacks and who could be identified by body type, mainly skull and facial features. Physical characteristics tied to being a "natural born criminal" were many and included large jaws, forward projection of jaw, low sloping foreheads, high cheekbones, flattened or upturned nose, handle-shaped ears, large chins, hawk-like noses or fleshy lips, hard shifty eyes, scanty beard or baldness, insensitivity to pain and long arms. Many of the body parts on display in the museum were taken from prisons without any permission from family members. Now hundreds of years later some distant relatives and local communities are saying it is time to get the body parts back. The museum insists it is not some kind of a ghoulish C.S.I lab but rather a unique testimony to an important era in Italian science. "We must clarify what we mean by a 'horror'. Obviously we have various human skulls on show and you can find these in many Italian museums let alone abroad. Museums of anatomical history, history of science, archaeological museums, in Egyptian museums you can see human remains - they are on show everywhere today" said Director of the Lombroso Museum Silvano Montaldo. "If we are talking about the political correctness here, there's a polemic mainly because of the Lombroso persona and also directly against this museum. It's not even a police forensic laboratory, because obviously we aren't doing research here. It's a testimony to the history of Italian science from the 1800's" Montaldo said. Much of Lombroso's work was later discredited, but he is credited with being one of the first scientists to move away from focusing on the nature of the crime towards the criminal's motivations and habits and is considered by some as being the father of modern criminology. Lombroso's emphasis on external marks and 'primitiveness' were part of a broader movement in the late 1800's. This movement believed biology and inheritance explained human behaviour. On display there are 400 skulls, photos, casts, and models of criminals heads. The nucleus of the museum was Lombroso's private collection which he had started as a military doctor in the late 1860s including hundreds of skulls of soldiers and civilians, natives from "far-off lands" as well as those of criminals and madmen, dozens of complete skeletons, brains, and wax models of "natural criminals" as well as "drawings, photos, criminal evidence, anatomical sections of 'madmen and criminals' and work produced by criminals in the last century. Also on display are weapons used to commit crimes, a crucifix with a hidden dagger fills one display unit. Hundreds of prisoners' food bowls have also been preserved with intricate drawings and doodles etched in them by the inmates. One of the skulls on display belonged to the brigand Giuseppe Villella and it was used by Lombroso to develop his theory of the "median occipital fossa", a cranial anomaly that he believed contributed to deviant behaviour. Villella, according to official records, had a long and varied life of crime, dying in prison aged 69 in November 1872. According to Villella's local municipality of Motta Santa Lucia in Calabria, he was a poverty stricken small-holder, father of 5 and his only crime was to steal a lamb to feed his hungry family. But now Villella's descendents want there ancestor's remains returned. "There is the request from two municipalities, in particular the municipality of Motta Santa Lucia to have the skull of Giuseppe Villella returned. However, there is an ongoing legal dispute about this, so I can't make any comment," explained Museum Director Silvano Montaldo. Museum Director Montaldo is convinced that the museum collection should remain intact, as Lombroso intended. "This is an important testimony for scientific history because these are human remains that were used to develop a scientific theory that reverberated around the world. So yes, they are human remains, but also they are an historic document because Lambroso left an inscription on this skull. So it has a double meaning. It's not just a human skull, it's also a document - an important testimony to historic scientific methods from the 1800s," Montaldo explained. Before his death Lombroso wrote a last request saying he would donate his own body for display in the museum. A century down the line, perfectly preserved, Lombroso himself can still be admired, his skeleton standing proudly in the midst of his collection. (Video Source: Reuters)