April 27, 2010

Cesare Lombroso’s Barbaric Legacy

On Saturday May 8th, 2010 there will be a major demonstration at the newly renovated Cesare Lombroso Museum in Turin (Piedmont) to protest the political marginalization of Southern Italians and the desecration of the human remains contained therein. 

Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909) was the father of Italian Positivist Criminology, a school of thought advocating biological determinism (the belief that human behavior is innate and unalterable) as the cause of human criminality. He contended that the born criminal could be detected by certain physical characteristics, such as high cheekbones and upturned noses, among other “atavistic stigmata.” He “proved” his theories by taking skull measurements of “criminal” Southern Italians and comparing them with soldiers loyal to Piedmont.  His gruesome collection of decapitated heads harvested from Southern Italy is currently displayed at the Cesare Lombroso museum. 

It would be very easy to attack Lombroso based on modern and politically correct philosophical grounds, which tend to be violently opposed to anything resembling his theories. However, modern philosophy is often as politically motivated as it was in Lombroso’s day; so while is seems ironic, it is not surprising that many international human-rights groups are silent when the targets of discrimination are Southern Italians, and defending us doesn’t further their interests.

It would also be simple to discredit Lombroso’s ideas based on new scientific data, but it would also be unfair. The founders of many sciences were often grossly incorrect about some of their core theories, only to have others revise them and come up with viable alternatives. Modern science is finding abundant evidence of both positive and negative behavioral tendencies linked to certain genes, which can appear across many diverse populations. Such discoveries may be very different from Lombroso’s primitive conclusions, but are not completely incompatible with other aspects of his theories.

The problem with Lombroso, and his adherents, is one of motivation. Lombroso’s conclusions had less to do with science than providing a justification for his political agenda. Lombroso was a loyal supporter of Piedmont’s invasion and occupation of Southern Italy, and served as a doctor for the invading army. Many of the “brigands” that he studied were not “criminals” at all, but Bourbon soldiers who continued to fight against Piedmont after the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies fell. Some were interred in POW camps in the North, others were killed in the South, treated like hunting trophies, and had their heads removed for transport to Lombroso’s laboratory. One can argue that these Southern “brigands” were just as loyal as the Northern soldiers that Lombroso compared them to, and their only “crime” was being on the losing side of the war.

(L-R) Ghoul posing with his trophy; slain 'brigands' on display; 
violated corpse of Michelina De Cesare; severed heads in cages.

Lombroso’s ideas were not restricted to Southern Italians, but experimenting on Southerners was of special interest to him. He was Jewish himself, born Ezechia Marco Lombroso, and was appalled by anti-Semitism and very protective of his ethnic group, but like many persecuted groups or individuals, it doesn’t necessarily translate into tolerance or sympathy for others.

Cesare Lombroso’s politically motivated experiments continue to haunt us, both in the stereotype of the Southern Italian criminal and the disdainful treatment of the Southern people. A museum about Lombroso in itself might not be a bad thing, but the way it is done can have a powerful influence on the minds of its visitors. That the uncivilized display of Piedmont’s victims is permitted in today’s so-called enlightened and progressive society only underscores the hypocrisy and barbarism behind that society. Their remains should be returned to their true homeland, either for proper burial, or at least preservation in a dignified manner.

Silvano Montaldo, the director of the Cesare Lombroso Museum, claims that they are not promoting discrimination and go to great lengths to point out Lombroso's errors. I’m sure that at some level he believes that, but the disgraceful display of Southern Italian remains is very much in tune with the negative attitude toward Southerners that survives to this day. Can you envision the reaction of the British or Americans if the remains of their soldiers were treated with such disrespect? Would they remain silent on seeing the skulls of their Marines displayed as an inferior criminal type?

Submitted by Lucian