The Cesare Lombroso Museum’s History
From 1866 onwards, the year in which he began to work as a military doctor, Cesare Lombroso collected skulls, skeletons, brains and various other types of objects, which formed the core collection of a private museum, first housed at his home in Turin.
To the collection of skulls of soldiers and civilians from all the various regions in Italy, he soon added craniums from far-off lands, and even those of criminals and madmen, which he collected in prisons and asylums. In 1878, when he became Professor of Forensic Medicine at the University of Turin, Lombroso succeeded in obtaining two rooms in the seventeenth-century Monastery of San Francesco da Paola, a building which was later remodelled and became the premises of the laboratory of forensic medicine and of experimental psychiatry, and the home of the collection.
Gina Lombroso, Cesare’s daughter and biographer, describes her father’s avid interest in collecting objects for his museum: “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, but which in his unconscious formed a link with some past or present research.” (G. Lombroso Ferrero, 1921: 355)
Lombroso held his first public exhibition of the pieces he assembled during the course of his ceaseless activities in 1884, within the ambit of the National Exposition in Turin and, though the number of pieces on display was relatively small, the collection attracted a vast public and provided the impetus both for organizing subsequent exhibitions and for establishing the Psychiatric and Criminology Museum that was officially founded in 1892.
The collection displayed by Lombroso at the International Penitentiary Congress in Rome in 1885 was more varied, thanks also to the many pieces sent by other scholars who had been won over by his theories and who responded enthusiastically to his invitation “to send to Rome skulls, brains, photographs of criminals, the morally insane and epileptics, and their work; charts and maps indicating European crime trends”, which Lombroso himself and Professors Sciamanna and Sergi from Rome sent to prison doctors, psychiatrists, directors of asylums and anatomo-pathologists. Concerning the success obtained by both the Congress and the Criminal Anthropology Exposition, as it was called, Lombroso wrote:
“It has meant even more, namely that our theories are based on a mass of facts that are there for all to see; it has proved that despite the opposition from distinguished men, 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.” The exposition was to be repeated in 1889 on the occasion of the Second International Criminal Anthropology Congress in Paris.
In 1892, just as Lombroso’s museum was being opened, a dispute arose between the Prison Administration and the Turin museum over the acquisition of material from prisons and the clerk of the court’s offices. The right of pre-emption that the museum had exercised until then had so far prevented the Prison Administration from creating its own museum. That same year Martino Beltrani Scalia proposed that the collection held at the school for prison guards in Rome be enlarged. Lombroso reacted swiftly to such a possibility and, to prevent the project from going forward, wrote a letter to the Undersecretary of the Ministry of the Interior, the Hon. Lucca (Di Rudinì was the Minister and had shown an interest in Lombroso’s theories), asking him to officially assign the contested material to the Turin museum. The Authorities granted his request, “With a simple letter Lombroso succeeded in officially obtaining what he considered to be real treasures. He was more than lucky, because he did not overdo it. Without losing a minute, without counting the cost, he was in Rome forty-eight hours later, he had packed everything in crates and had brought it back with him to Turin. A good thing too, because the Ministry fell three days later, and action was immediately taken by those who wanted to revoke the generous decree. But the ‘loot’ had already been officially installed in Turin.” (G. Lombroso Ferrero, op. cit.: 361 and ff.) In March 1892 Lombroso also secured financing for his museum in the form of an extraordinary subsidy of 500 lire, an annual grant, and a contribution from the Ministry of Education, while the Criminal Psychiatry Museum was recognized as an instrument of scientific research. Lombroso’s aim of making his museum the only centre that housed a collection of and conserved criminology exhibits was fully realized when the Prisons Department of the Ministry of the Interior issued a circular on 15 March 1892, in which instructions were given to the heads of prisons concerning the despatch of objects, texts and documents of scientific and criminological interest.
On 30 September the following year the Ministry of Justice issued a circular instructing all the clerk of the court’s offices to consign to the Turin museum weapons or other instruments with which crimes had been committed. These instructions were confirmed on 21 June 1909, and it was also specified that the material evidence be equally divided between the museum in Turin and the museum in Rome, established in 1904 by the police doctor Salvatore Ottolenghi, a former student of Lombroso’s, at the first school of criminology, located in the Carceri Nuove building in Via Giulia. (Ministry of the Interior, 1910).
Meanwhile, Lombroso’s museum, which had been allocated more exhibition space by the University of Turin, was accorded scientific status. The new, larger museum was inaugurated in 1898 on the occasion of the First National Congress on Forensic Medicine.
In 1904 Mario Carrara, then director of the museum, supervised the transfer of the exhibits to the new premises of the Institute of Forensic Medicine at the Valentino in Via Michelangelo, and their arrangement. When Cesare Lombroso died in 1909 his remains – skeleton, head, brain and internal organs – went to the museum. The anthropologist’s death, however, marked the beginning of the museum’s decline: from 1910 onwards, the instructions in the circular stipulating that the exhibits be equally divided between the two cities were no longer obeyed, and the material of greater scientific interest was sent to the museum founded by Ottolenghi. In the meantime, the skeletons of criminals who died in the city’s prisons – the citizens’ gallows – continued to arrive at the Turin museum, while Lombroso’s family donated his entire study, complete with library, desk, handwritten notes and personal effects. In 1932 the head of the faculty, Vergano, became director of the museum, followed by Giorgio Canuto (1932-1933), and lastly Ruggero Romanese, who held the post until 1962. The character of the museum changed and it became more and more a museum of forensic medicine, also because at that time positivist theories had lost scientific credibility. After the Second World War, in 1948, the museum was once again transferred, this time to the premises built for the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Corso Galileo and destined for the Institute of Criminal Anthropology.