Rome, The Museo Criminologico

Museo Criminologico
Via del Gonfalone, just off Via Giulia
Hours: Tuesdays and Thursdays 9-1:00 then 2:30 – 6:30
Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays 9-1
Sundays and Mondays closed
Tickets: 2 euros

The Museo Criminologico is owned by the Department of Justice and is one of the few museums in the world where you buy your ticket from a uniformed prison guard (Polizia Penitenziaria.)

The late 1800’s were very interesting times for crime and punishment. Cesare Lombroso, the first criminal anthropologist, was studying delinquents, trying to understand why they was the way they was and why they do the things they do. He began to gather prison artifacts, filling up his house and later the University of Torino’s Museo di Psichiatria e Antropologia Criminale with his collection. But another prison director was also working on his own Museo di Criminologia at the Mantellate prison in Rome collecting anatomical samples, model prisons and restraint devices. Rome and Turin began to bicker over whose stuff was whose until finally in 1908 judges decided that they had to share the haul.

Maybe it’s not surprising that the Museo is housed in what used to be a prison, Le Nuove, built as a more humane alternative to the famously horrible Tor di Nona jail. What is surprising is that the new prison was on Via Giulia, both now and then an elegant and centrally located street. Before it was converted into a prison, Le Nuove used to be a convent, which Cassandra supposes is just a prison of another sort.

Small barred windows placed too high to see out of, narrow stairs and thick walls slathered in utilitarian whitewash still echo of times, perhaps even sentences, past.

The museum collection starts with real life systems for humiliation and torture and gesso models of the same by Pietro Simonelli. There are pillories, stocks and even a chastity belt. The most elegant display is a series of shackles, the most unusual a hippo skin kurbash. The most horrible? Between the iron maiden and the brazen bull it’s hard to choose.

The most surprising is the Poggio Catino skeleton.

The Poggio Catino skeleton: transgressor or victim?

The skeleton was found in 1933 when the tower of an old castle began to crumble. Workers clearing the rubble found a tiny walled cell. Inside a woman’s skeleton was huddled in the fetal position with shackles around its wrists and ankles. Maybe the local legend was true: Geppo Colonna’s wife really did fall in love with a soldier and was walled up by her angry husband and left to die of hunger. Here she is centuries later, sitting on a rock, her head against the cold stone wall, a monument to misery. But who was the greater criminal: the person inside this prison or the person out?

Another skeleton on the first floor of the Museo also has an incredible story to tell- through some buttons since it can no longer speak.

La Gabbia di Milazzo speaks your language

In 1928 a chain gang was digging along the outer wall of the prison in Milazzo, Sicily when they found a human-shaped iron cage buried under just a few inches of dirt. Inside the cage was a partially dismembered skeleton. Nearby some buttons, one that had “Enniskilling 27” written on it and one that said “Covent Garden.” British scholars confirmed that the 27th regiment of Enniskilling had fought against Napoleon’s troops in Calabria and Sicily and had occupied the Milazzo castle, where they were defeated. Digging deeper into their records they saw that a 25 year old soldier named Andrew Leonard had deserted, but was caught and sentenced to death. But first the bottom half of his legs, his left hand and half of his right arm were cut off and he was hung outside in the cage to discourage other members of his regiment from following his example. Is that punishment enough?

The Gabbia di Milazzo is set at the back of a kind of stage that has a couple of steps going up to it: it’s the gallows, a fine place for that formerly very popular spectacle called public execution. Alongside the gallows a couple of guillotines, complete with baskets for the catch and drainage systems to make sure things didn’t get too messy.  And plaster casts of hanged criminals’ heads.

No stage would be complete without a star actor, and if that stage is the gallows then the star is called the executioner. Rome’s second to last executioner or boia, Giambattista Bugatti, was affectionately called Mastro Titta. He worked for the Vatican for almost sixty eight years executing the full gamut of executions with skill and efficiency. Cassandra supposes that made him the Vatican’s executive executioner. He kept careful notes on his victims: their names, professions, crimes and punishments.

Giambattista Bugatti, or Mastro Titta, wore this red tunic and hood to perform executions. He would always confess and take communion before a sentence so, having executed a record 514 people, he was frequently in church.

The death sentence was only officially abolished in the Vatican State in 2001; they kept it on the books for Pope-icides. The Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo had already abolished it in Tuscany back in 1786.

A hallway leading to the narrow stairs up to the Museo’s second floor is lined with prints from Piranesi’s famous “Le Carceri” series. Unexpected, but truly apt decor.

Upstairs the fashion show continues with a exhibit of vintage police uniforms. There is also a little touch of home: a model of England’s Pentonville Prison that was similar to Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary. Penitentiaries were a new development, an alternative to public punishments and executions. The idea was that being alone with nothing to do and no one to talk to would give you time to think things over and mend your ways. When in fact the suicide rate was very high.

An oil portrait of the highway robber and brigand Gasparone, a kind of Italian Robin Hood, and photos of brigante’s girlfriends lead to “new technology” exhibits on fingerprinting and mug shots.

Holes through the temple and tattoos all over.

There is a section on Gentleman’s Crimes, or duels, and a kind of shrine to the anarchist Gaetano Bresci. Bresci had grown up in Tuscany but had moved to the States. He had come back on purpose from Paterson, New Jersey to kill Umberto I, the King of Italy. He succeeded, and was the first regicide not to receive the death sentence. At least not on paper; he was later “suicided” in prison.

Gaetano Bresci, the man who came all the way from New Jersey to kill the the king of Italy. The Museo has his camera, Harrington and Richardson pistol, spats and grooming products, all neatly displayed.

Past a display on “insider” outsider art and a few straightjackets you come to the room “devoted to theft, possession of stolen goods and smuggling.” A hollow framed bike used for liquor smuggling, double soled shoes used for smuggling something else.


There are fakes and forgeries of all kinds, from ID, to money, to VCR videos (remember those?) to art that doesn’t look much worse than what you find in your average trattoria.

Then it’s on the weapons of all kinds and mementos of some of Italy’s most horribly fascinating murders. William Vizzardelli, who had already hacked five men to death by the time he was 16. Dolorice Venturi who killed her own daughter and cut her into 5 (easy?) pieces. And Leonarda Cianciulli, the “Saponificatrice di Correggio,” who killed three lonely neighbors of hers, chopped them up, boiled them down, made soaps out of their fat and cookies out of their blood. Generously, she gave the cookies to friends and even ate a few herself.

Dolorice Venturi’s daughter after she made mommy mad and a few tools of the trade.

Anything will do in a pinch

Still further upstairs are exhibits celebrating both Italy’s most famous anti-mob investigators, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, who were both blasted to smithereenes and- right across the way- Pupetta Maresca, the mobster heroine who, six months pregnant, vindicated her husband’s elimination by pumping the lead of two guns into his assassin while he was sipping coffee at a fashionable cafe. Italy does seem to have an ambivalent attitude towards mobsters at times. And, by the way, the antimafia headquarters is right next door on Via Giulia.

Homage to Falcone and Borsellino right across from homage to Pupetta Maresca

From there it’s on to “Malizie Criminali,” the criminal’s little tricks. Improvised weapons, papier mache bars to mask the real ones that have been cut away, sheets torn and rolled for the big cut and run.

Malizie Criminali include a homemade guitar and a broken glass. Cassandra was horrified to read that it was once inside a prisoner, in a place where the sun doesn’t shine. He died having it extracted.

One very unusual exhibit is the “Baule della Spia,” the Spy’s Trunk. One morning in 1964 a United Arab Airlines plane landed in Fiumicino, a stop on its trip from London to Cairo. Customs officials thought they heard groans coming from a trunk that was labeled as diplomatic luggage and therefore couldn’t be opened. As the officials were wondering what to do, two Arabs drove up in a van, grabbed the trunk and sped off. The customs officers jumped into their car, turned on the sirens and chased them out of the airport. The chase continued through the Roman countryside until the trunk fell out of the back of the van. Inside was a man, an Israeli spy, who the Arabs had been trying to smuggle into Cairo. The trunk had been converted into a kind of tiny room with a bench and covers for him, but it couldn’t have been very comfortable because the spy had been drugged for the trip. He  was extradited to Tel Aviv where he was sentenced to 10 years in prison


Il Baule della Spia

There are a few more exhibits on gambling and other such crimes and then the tour of the Museo Criminologico is over. After her tour of all kinds of crimes and punishments Cassandra come out with a head full of bad ideas. But have they really touched all of the bases here? Cassandra noticed that there were no sex crimes, not much white collar crime either. Could it be that in crime, as in with so many other things, there is an element of fashion?

Suggested listening: Ain’t Misbehaving

Jailhouse rock



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