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© Jeff Matthews   entry Feb 2010     

A Museum of Southern Italian Criminal Types?

As Italy prepares for a year-long run-up to celebrate her 150th anniversary as a unified state, a Neapolitan journalist by the name of Angelo Forgione has written a column of outrage at the reopening in Torino of the "Cesare Lombroso" Museum of Criminal Anthropology (photo, right).

Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909) was the founder of what is called Italian Positivist criminology, Positivism being the 19th-century philosophical movement that said we can only know what our senses tell us. (That is, we shall not worry about God, innate knowledge, free will, or anything else that you can't line up and itemize.) That philosophy was, thus, at the heart of a great push to measure and catalog, to dot i's and cross t's and, in the field of criminology, to explain and predict criminal behavior. Lombroso espoused the view that criminality was not part of the normal human condition, nor was it caused by societal conditions. Rather, it resided in individuals who were, by nature, savage throwbacks and who could be identified by body type, mainly skull and facial features such as large jaws, low sloping foreheads, high cheekbones, shape of the ears, etc. The criminal, Lombroso says (in Criminal Man, 1876), is " atavistic being who reproduces in his person the ferocious instincts of primitive humanity and the inferior animals."

The Museum of Criminal Anthropology is a showcase for Lombroso's idea of the “born criminal.” There are on display 400 skulls plus photos, casts, and models of headsexamples of the criminal "Southern race type" as Lombroso described it in 1902 in his article "The Last Brigand,” in the journal La Nuova Antologia, which focused on the recently arrested Calabrian outlaw, Giuseppe Musolino. The nucleus of the museum was Lombroso's private collection of skulls, skeletons and brains, which he had started to collect as a military doctor in the late 1860s. In 1878 Lombroso became professor of forensic medicine at the University of Torino, and the collection then moved into the university laboratory of forensic medicine and experimental psychiatry. The collection grew and was displayed publicly on various occasions in the 1880s such as the Torino Exposition in 1884, the International Penitentiary Congress in Rome in 1885, and the Second International Criminal Anthropology Exposition in Paris in 1889.

From the hey-day of the 1880s and 1890s, criminal anthropology went into decline very quickly because there began to develop other sociological points of view. These views saw societal factors such as poverty, membership in subcultures, and low levels of education as plausible causes of criminality; even more radically, Émile Durkheim said (in On the Normality of Crime, 1895) that crime was not a degenerate condition but was part of the "fundamental conditions of all social life." Some crime even served the social function of releasing tensions and thus had a cleansing or purging effect in society! And in 1913, British criminologist Charles Goring published The English Convict, a comparative study of jailed criminals and law-abiding persons and found no correlation between criminality and physical type. Criminology had become much more complicated than cataloging facial features, and Lombroso's criminal anthropology lost its scientific credibility. His collection was eventually relegated to somewhat of a curiosity housed within the Dept. of Forensic Medicine of the University of Torino.

Enter the objections to the reopening of the museum. Here, we do well to remember that the idea of superior and inferior races was very much a part of mid- and late-19th-century thought (usually white northern European thought) that said of course (!) white Nordic peoples were superior to darker southern ones. If you then search out proof to support only what you already believe, you can wind up with such things as display cases full of "criminal types." And that is the essential accusation by Forgione and thousands of supporters from southern Italy who are preparing to demonstrate in Torino. The museum is a fraud, they say, and contains not real outlaws, but mostly examples of southern Italians politically defined as "bandits" because they were part of the small but unyielding body of soldiers in the armies of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, thousands of southerners who rejected the unification of Italy. They refused to lay down their arms after the Bourbon surrender in early 1861 and were then captured and shipped north to concentration camps (camps for which the columnist uses the German word Lager, just so you don’t miss the point). There they languished between 1863 and 1872. Many died and again, still according to the columnist— their remains were later picked over for display in Lombroso’s museum as examples of the so-called southern Italian criminal type. They were simply soldiers who lost a war, and whose remains were desecrated and put on display.

    Some of Lombroso's criminal types                   

Forgione uses the occasion to cite statistics of the numbers of southern towns razed by northern troops in order to capture "bandits' after the unification of Italy. That number is 54. He cites the total number of post-war (!) southern dead at an astonishing one million, all of it done under the Pica Law, which put the new part of Italy (the south) under martial law in order to combat "banditry" and crush resistance to national unity through military courts, executions, and reprisals against civilians. The columnist also chose a day for his column when most newspapers were focused on the remembrance of the Holocaust — again, just so you don't miss the point.

The charge is serious. In the arena of international criminology, Lombroso's work is still reported to be based on his comparisons of criminals in jail to law-abiding soldiers in the Italian army, and modern criminology has for many decades been straightforward in its judgment: Lomroso's ideas simply don't hold up. Here, however the charge is not that the science was weak or flawed or even downright wrong (that is no longer controversial —it was all of those), but rather that Lombroso willfully front-loaded his museum in an attempt to support his idea of the southern criminal type. If that is what happened —if the "bandits" committed no other crime than rejecting the new Italythen the museum was founded on a political agenda and is a fraud. On the one hand, we don't close museums because they show how wrong some science used to be. As a matter of fact, that may be all the more reason to keep them open. The director of the museum, Silvano Montaldo, has said, in defense of the museum, that the museum is not peddling racist views and that it goes to great lengths to point out Lombroso's errors. The museum is, however, part of the history of Positivism in 19th-century and is an important part of the history of science. If, on the other hand, the museum displays were willfully skewed to support a political goal, that should come out. Those are all very big if's. To my knowledge, non-Italian criminologists have not shown awareness of the political, north/south Italian prejudices at the heart of this current dispute.

I am not quite prepared to believe that Cesare Lombroso was dishonest. His views, however, may have been shaped by his service as a doctor in the northern armies during the wars of unification, decades of struggle during which the north widely believed itself to be the bringers of light to the dark and backward south. I still want to think that he would be anguished to know that his museum would later come to be seen as the forerunner of racist displays in Nazi Germany, where he, himself, a Jew [born Ezechia Marco Lombroso], might have wound up in a display case. Also, it is not my intent to ridicule him in hindsight or to set him up as a strawman for an attack on theories of the biological basis of human behavior. There is certainly modern interdisciplinary work in what is broadly termed "sociobiology" that bears on the subject.

[Also see "Risorgimento, anti-Risorgimento & Bandits".]


(I am indebted to Profs. Warren Johnson and William Henderson of the University of Maryland for their comments on a draft of this item. I remain responsible for any mistakes or oversimplifications.)

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