Today, a head in a jar. The Honors College at the University of Houston presents this program about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
A man creates a museum, and later he has put on display there his own head in a jar. Clearly a madman, you might say. Yet the man in question was one of the great psychiatric authorities of the nineteenth century. We’re talking about Cesare Lombroso, an Italian who founded the field of criminal anthropology, as it was known.
Criminal anthropology was just one of the many new fields that emerged from positivistic science in the nineteenth century. The newly united country of Italy faced many serious problems throughout the 1800s. Poverty daunted its prosperity; banditry challenged its authority; epidemics decimated its population, while crime and corruption in the cities undermined its moral vigor. Intellectuals from the new secular middle class, men like Lombroso, sought to use science to identify and address these woes. They also hoped to use the new power of the state to correct centuries of neglect and abuse.
In retrospect, it’s hard not to see the great dangers of their approach. Lombroso’s criminal anthropology sought to isolate the “born criminal” as a deviant type of human being—in fact, criminals were outright evolutionary throwbacks in his thinking. That’s why he studied them not just like a separate culture, but a different species.
For a positivist like Lombroso, science meant mountains of facts; so he obsessively collected not just statistics, but actual objects and anatomical specimens. He amassed an enormous collection of materials, which he destined for a Museum of Psychiatry and Criminology in his native city of Turin.
The museum was difficult to access for some years, but recently it reopened in a new location. The collection reveals a maniacal urge to assemble every detail and aspect of criminal life. Besides literal piles of skulls, there are vats of brains, carefully made death masks of murderers, rapists, thieves, and brigands. There are plaster casts of ears showing the degenerate shape characteristic of delinquents and the insane. There are drawings, carvings, poems and songs by criminals, showing their remorseless glory in their evil deeds. There is an impressive collection of prison graffiti, most of it unsuitable for radio. Photos and drawings of prisoners’ tattoos make the argument that criminals are indeed a primitive race; there are even tattooed patches of preserved skin—for every collector knows the value of an original work. And of course, there are murder weapons: daggers, icepicks, cleavers, hatchets, axes, guns, ropes—a whole cornucopia of murder and mayhem.
Perhaps every passionate collector yearns to become a part of his collection; Lombroso certainly did. In his will, he left his body to be autopsied by a colleague, so his own skull could be measured and his brain analyzed according to his own theories. His remains were then put in the collection, where still today his whiskered face floats dreamily in a jar.
This museum, like the science behind it, is of course quite problematic. But it’s become something we should have the courage to view more often: one of science’s closed galleries, or a museum that belongs in a museum.
I’m Richard Armstrong, at the University of Houston, where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work.
For an illustrated description of the museum in English, see
For a good view of his theories of criminality, see the newly reissued edition of Lombroso’s Criminal Man, Duke UP, 2006.
Colombo, Giorgio. La Scienza Infelice: Il Museo di Antropologia Criminale di Cesare Lombroso. Bollati Boringhieri, 2000.
Gibson, Mary. Born to Crime: Cesare Lombroso and the Origins of Biological Criminology. Praeger, 2002.
Horn, David. The Criminal Body: Lombroso and the Anatomy of Deviance. Routledge, 2003.
Cesare Lombroso portrait is a Wikipedia image.
The other images are from http://www.thenautilus.it/Mu_Lombroso.html.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2012 by John H. Lienhard.