Once only open to academics, “Lombroso’s Museum” has opened its doors to the public.As the criminologist Cesare Lombroso examined the skull of the autopsied body of Giuseppe Villela, the notorious Italian criminal he had just dissected, he discovered a cranial anomaly known as a “median occipital fossette.” Lombroso was suddenly overtaken by flash of insight. As he would write many years later
“The sight of that fossette suddenly appeared to me like a broad plain beneath an infinite horizon, the nature of the criminal was illuminated, he must have reproduced in our day the traits of primitive man going back as far as the carnivores.”
What Lombroso felt he had discovered would become his legacy and known throughout the world as the “Italian school of criminology.” Lombroso felt that he now understood the true ‘scientific’ nature of crime and criminals. Put simply, according to Lombroso you didn’t learn to become a criminal, you were born to become one. Also called “biological determinism,” Lombroso’s theory of “anthropological criminology” and the upbeat sounding “positivist criminology” was that criminals were a kind of evolutionary throwback, physically de-evolved, and unfortunately for them they couldn’t change because it was part of their biology.
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.
Lombroso also believed that race was an indicator of evolution with blacks being the least evolved and whites being the most evolved, or in his words “only we white people have reached the ultimate symmetry of bodily form.” Interestingly despite these beliefs (which it should be added were commonly held at the time) Lombroso was not a particularly virulent man and was a believer in reform rather than punishment, and was against capital punishment.
As part of his studies Lombroso collected specimens, many biological, such as numerous skulls for study, but also weapons used in crimes and other criminological relics. In 1892 Lombroso opened a museum in Turin (narrowly escaping having his collection seized by Rome) bragging “our school has attracted and convinced the best scientists in Europe who did not disdain to send us, as proof of their support, the most valuable documents in their collections.”
Lomborso was a lifelong collector described by his daughter as “Although untidy and neglectful of what he possessed, Lombroso was a born collector – while he walked, while he talked, while he was engaged in discussion; in town, in the country, in court, in prison, on his travels, he was always studying something that no one could see, thus amassing or buying a wealth of curiosities, which at the time no one, not even he himself, could have placed a value on…”
Among the collections he acquired for the museum are 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, the Gallows of Turin, which were in use until the city’s final hanging in 1865 and the possessions of a man known as White Stag, a renowned impostor who convinced Europe he was a great Native American chief.”
The collection is topped off by the head of Lombroso himself, “perfectly preserved in a glass chamber.”
Visit Italy with Atlas Obscura Trips
Rome Behind Locked Doors: Music, Magic, and Secret Crypts
Join us as we go beneath Rome’s streets and behind its locked doors to explore hidden and overlooked places, witnessing a capital city that most tourists rarely experience—strange, magical, and filled with intrigue.