Turin, Italy: Cesare Lombroso Museum of Criminal Anthropology (and the Fruit Museum)

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I recently turned thirty, and rather than sit at home eating a cake of sadness and mourning the loss of my youth (not sure what a cake of sadness would even involve.  Probably raisins, because I hate them), I thought it would be better to go on a short trip somewhere, especially as my birthday tends to fall right around the August Bank Holiday weekend.  Italy is not normally high on my list when it comes to museums (aside from the few I visited in Rome last year), since I’m not a big fan of religious art or architecture, but I’m always in the mood to eat some gelato and focaccia, so my stomach overpowered my mind this time.  In the end, we managed to plan a driving holiday that would take us to some less-than-culturally-exciting destinations on the Ligurian Coast, because focaccia, but would also give us a couple days in Turin, which fortunately did have quite a few museums I was interested in seeing.  On the top of my list was the Cesare Lombroso Museum of Criminal Anthropology, located on the University of Turin campus.

I think it’s been well-established that I love both crime and medical museums, so combining the two was sure to be a winner.  Especially when the collection was primarily from the 19th century, and Cesare Lombroso himself was still residing in the museum (in a way).  Finding the museum wasn’t too tricky, since it was well sign-posted, for all that we had to go up a couple floors inside an old university building, and unusually for Italy, it was not only open on time, it was even open a bit early (it opens at 10, but we got there about five minutes before and there was already someone at the admissions desk).  There are currently three museums that are part of the university (they also have a normal anthropology museum that looks pretty cool, but it’s closed for renovation): criminal anthropology, an anatomy museum (which I was also keen to visit), and a fruit museum, which came as a surprise to me, as I’d only noticed the first two on their website.  Admission is 5 euros for one museum, or 10 euros for all three, which we went with as I knew I would definitely want to see the museum of anatomy as well.

The museum did not allow photography (most likely because of the human remains and all), but I was relieved to see that there were large boards throughout the museum providing English translations of each gallery description, as well as translations of most of the item captions.  Obviously, this greatly enhanced the experience.

On walking in, we were greeted with a mock-up of a court room, and a dialogue between a young man and an old man debating all the changes that took place during the Victorian era (or Italian equivalent, which I guess would include Garibaldi), followed by a room showcasing some of Lombroso’s equipment, and a description of his work.  Basically, Lombroso was the Chair of Forensic Medicine at the University of Turin from the 1870s onward, and he had a special fascination with criminals and mental illness that led to him combining forensics, anthropology, medicine, and a hefty dose of pseudoscience into a discipline known as criminal anthropology.  It relied heavily on phrenology and physiognomy, so has essentially been proven to be complete nonsense, but nonetheless, Lombroso was seen as producing some revolutionary work in his time, and he also had an influence on introducing more humane treatment of prisoners and asylum inmates.  And he left this amazing museum behind, so he clearly wasn’t all bad.

The main gallery, Lombroso’s original museum, was probably the most interesting part.  It’s here that his skeleton resides, along with an impressive collection of criminal skulls and wax death masks taken of prisoners (people who died in prison, mind, they weren’t specially killed for this or anything).  There is also some wooden furniture  featuring human figures with elongated heads made by an asylum inmate called Eugenio Lenzi; his stuff was really awesome, and I’d love to get my hands on a piece.

There were actually quite a few things created by prisoners and people suffering from mental illness, including a costume made from clothing fibres that weighed forty kilos, which a certain psychiatric patient insisted on wearing every day (and considering how damn hot it was when we were there, I have no idea how he didn’t just pass out or die of heat exhaustion).  I also loved the collection of water jugs made by prisoners, including one featuring a mustachioed man and cat motif.

Speaking of prisoners, another room contained little wooden models of cells from four different prisons, as well as a larger model of the notorious Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania (which is supposed to have an amazing haunted house in it for Halloween…part of me really wants to go, and part of me is kind of glad I don’t live anywhere near there so I don’t have to).  Eastern State specialised in the silent treatment, where prisoners even had their own private exercise yards built at the ends of their cells so they never came into contact with the other prisoners.  Little wonder many of them were driven insane.

The museum closed with a re-creation of Lombroso’s study (very cosy, with a couch and some plush chairs, I’d have it) and a hallway explaining some of his theories in more detail, and refuting them with modern science.  Like most people back then, he had some racist ideas based around physiognomy, though a bit unusually, because he was Jewish, believed that “Semitic peoples” were the highest race.  He also didn’t seem too keen on women, which is again not surprising given the time period he lived in, but didn’t do much as far as winning me over.  However, I can’t knock the museum, which is delightful, especially all the wax masks and inmate-made artefacts, and I’d definitely recommend checking it out if you’re passing through Turin.  4/5.

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I also mentioned that there was a fruit museum.  I love fruit, but I probably wouldn’t have bothered going in if we hadn’t got the museum pass that meant it was essentially free.  Also, it was right across the hall from the Lombroso Museum, so I really had no excuse not to venture inside.  Disappointingly, unlike the other museums, nothing here was translated into English, but that didn’t stop me from appreciating the many, many beautiful models of fruit that adorned cabinets around the museum.  Seriously, there were hundreds of different apples alone.  I never knew there were so many varieties!  There were also tonnes of pears, and assorted cherries, plums, and melons…even a few root vegetables. (I just found out, via the brochure, that it is predominantly a pomological museum, which explains why it was mostly apples and pears.  Which I am admittedly not big on unless they are baked into a crumble or covered in caramel or smashed into cider (or perry), but I ate a lot of plums when I was in Italy (since I missed cherry season), and they were fantastic).

The other item of note was a small display about caterpillars.  Longtime readers will know that I am absolutely terrified of butterflies, but I was fairly indifferent towards caterpillars until I saw these paintings.  A caterpillar when enlarged is a hideous creature, and especially when cut in half in giant 3D model form.  Ick.

I wasn’t terribly impressed with the fruit museum, but if you’ve gone for the multi-pass, it’s worth popping in just to marvel at those plastic fruits.  It might well be better if you can read Italian, because it seemed like there was quite a lot in there about the science of agriculture, and the history of fruit growing in Italy.  And Francesco Garnier Valletti, who started the museum.  So I’ll only give it a 1.5/5, but you might be able to bump it up a couple of points if you can understand Italian.  By the way, I didn’t forget about the anatomical museum…more on that in the next post!

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