The Criminology Museum

I’ve got a bit of time between editing jobs and so I am taking the opportunity to play tourist in Rome, something I’ve not done enough of in recent years. In particular, I am interested in off-beat or quirky sites in the manner of my beloved Museo delle Cere. So yesterday I visited the Criminology Museum on Via del Gonfalone, just off of Via Giulia. It’s a pretty fascinating place.

But first, a sidebar.

Via Giulia was built in the early 1500s by Pope Julius II after whom it was named (you also have him to thank for the Sistine Chapel). Julius’ goal was to open up an elegant approach to Saint Peter’s and he paid for the street by taxing prostitutes. Very Renaissance-y. Via Giulia was populated with fancy churches and palaces. It remains a swanky address to this day.

The southern end of beautiful Via Giulia

Interestingly, for 200 years it was also the site of a prison, the Nuovo Carcere (meaning new prison), which was built around 1650 in an attempt at prison reform. One doesn’t normally think of thieves, cutthroats, heretics and aristocrats as born neighbours (at least I imagine the aristocrats would not have been thrilled: property values and all that). But the prison was certainly conveniently located at the edge of Campo di Fiori, the site of numerous executions, most famously Giordano Bruno who was burned as a heretic in 1600 (and whose statue stands on the exact spot where he met his match. Hee).

Giordano Bruno, well-known dead heretic who perished in Campo di Fiori

By the way, the prison is now the headquarters of Italy’s anti-Mafia offices, which I think is pretty cool. I wanted to take a photo but there were lots of scary looking anti-Mafia police types with guns hanging around so I left it till another time.

One more Via Giulia observation before we move on. At the southern end is a pretty bridge over the road and just under that is the church of Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte (Holy Mary of Prayer and Death), which was built in 1575 by a brotherhood responsible for burying the abandoned corpses of the poor. There are lots of creepy, deathy symbols (skulls, flying hourglasses) both inside and outside of the church.

The cheery facade of the Church of Holy Mother of Prayer and Death

Ok, now that you’re in the mood, it’s on to the museum!

The Museum of Criminology (MUCRI to its friends and a great name for a runny nose medication by the way) was established in 1931 and is run by the Department of Prison Administration of the Ministry of Justice. Its location in Via del Gonfalone—in a 19th Century reformatory for underage criminals and “ne’er-do-wells” (according to the website)—dates to 1975. However, the fact that the museum opened during the Years of Lead period when Italy was rife with terrorism meant that only authorized visitors were allowed to visit. There weren’t many of those as it turns out and the museum closed soon after. Fortunately, as often happens here, someone with influence took it on as a project and the museum was reopened—and access given to the public—in 1994.

The Criminology Museum is on three floors and rather rabbit-warreny (presumably because the building was originally based around cells for those ne’er-do-wells). The first section features lots of instruments of torture and French import guillotines (including the one that stood in Piazza del Popolo until 1869) and includes the sword used to decapitate Beatrice Cenci in 1599. This young noblewoman conspired with her family to kill her horrible and abusive father and they all got decapitated and hacked up for their troubles. For the Romans, Beatrice became a symbol of resistance against the corrupt and immoral aristocracy. They say that each year on the night before her death (that would be 10 September), she appears on the Ponte Sant’Angelo where she was killed, carrying her head. Mwaa ha ha ha.

Beatrice before she lost her head (painting attributed to Guido Reni)

You can also see the red robe worn by Mastro Titta, who racked up 516 deaths in his 69 years as papal executioner. The job did not pay well so he worked as an umbrella painter in his spare time. (Say what now?).

A papal guillotine and something called the Milazzo Cage, which was used to display the mutilated remains of particularly odious criminals

The second section of the museum is devoted to the development of the Italian prison system in the 19th Century. There are displays on criminology and criminal anthropology, for example, a plaster cast of the skull of the guy that Cesare Lombroso used to ‘discover’ the proof of inherited criminal tendencies. (Lombroso believed criminality was inherited and that a ne’er-do-well could be identified by certain physical characteristics, e.g. big ears, sloping forehead, unusually long arms).  There are mementoes from political crimes, like the pistol and personal effects of Gaetano Bresci, who killed King Umberto I in 1878.

Breschi's gear, including cologne and tooth powder

There are also displays on gambling and organized crime.

The last section of the museum features notorious criminals of the 19th and 20th Century. This was particularly fun. It includes the murder weapon used by (married) Countess Pia Bellentani to bump off her (married) lover Carlo Sacchi for dissing her at a dinner party; a kitchen knife used by Cesare Serviatti, a coarse looking ex-butcher and nurse, who convinced wealthy older women to marry him and then chopped off their heads. He did this at least 8 times in the 1920s and 30s. My favourite is Leonarda Cianciulli, the ‘Soapmaker of Correggio’, who, having lost 13 of her 17 children to miscarriage or early death, went a bit nuts when she heard that her eldest boy was going off to fight in the Second World War and decided to make some human sacrifices to protect him. She convinced three of her friends—lonely, middle-aged women—that she had found them husbands and/or jobs. Then she killed them with an axe and made them into soap and teacakes, which she gave to her neighbours. Sadly, none of the soap was on display, but I did see lots of hammers and hacksaws.

If your taste runs a trifle to the macabre (as mine most assuredly does), you could do worse than to spend a few hours poking around MUCRI (Gesundheit!). A few of the signs are in English and–mirabile dictu–seem to have been written by a native speaker and there’s a very good catalogue in English as well. The entrance fee is a very reasonable 2 Euros.

The Criminology Museum, Via del Gonfalone, 29 – 00186 Roma
tel. +39 06 68899442


3 responses to “The Criminology Museum

  1. Why didn’t you ever take us there? Sound very interesting.

  2. Pingback: Ovo Pinto | My Life: Part Two

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