Turin’s Big Brains and Deviant Apples

The other day I had an hour to kill in Turin’s Crocetta district, so I went to three museums in the same building—the “Luigi Ronaldo” Museum of Human Anatomy, the “Cesare Lombroso” Museum of Criminal Anthropology and the “Francesco Garnier Valletti” Museum of Fruit.  All three are historical museums, in the sense that their pieces were collected in the nineteenth century, though multimedia and informative signs provide some historical context.

The “Luigi Rolando” Museum of Human Anatomy

Luigi Rolando (1773-1831) was an anatomist who spent most of his career at the University of Turin devoted to the study of brain anatomy. He pioneered research in brain localization of function—partly through experiments involving electrical stimulation. At least eight neurological entities are named after him, which must be confusing for brain surgeons. Rolando willed his skeleton to the museum and I spent a few moments noting that he was pretty tall and had a good mouth of teeth. His brain was between his feet, looking like a bumpy toupee.

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The Rolandic fissure aka the sulcus.

Medical students have to get used to looking at stomach-turning things because that’s part of being a doctor, surgeon, nurse or medical researcher. I, however, am not a medical student. When I see a pickled brain, my only reaction is to immediately wish I hadn’t. A shelf full of foetal skeletons arranged to stand like little monkey soldiers from The Wizard of Oz fills me with horror. And a skinless wax cadaver may provide useful information as to the whereabouts of the femoral artery, that’s fine, but for God’s sake don’t just stick it there in full view of everybody without any warning signs.

In short, I got out of that museum pretty quickly, feeling nauseous and ashamed. Where would the human race be if everyone had my weak stomach? Not very far along! Dry heaving two steps from the Cenozoic starting line.

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Rolando

The “Cesare Lombroso” Museum of Criminal Anthropology

Ezechia Marco Lombroso (1835-1909) spent the last three decades of his life in Turin, during which time he founded the Italian school of criminology, holding that criminality is apparent and measurable in certain physical features. He believed that about 30% of criminals were ‘born that way’ and recognizable by such signs as a protruding jaw, drooping eyes and large ears. In his view, criminality was by and large an inherited trait. This was at odds with the Classical School of criminology championed by Cesare Beccaria, which held that criminal actions were fully in the control of each individual.

Lombroso

In the museum, special care has been to contextualize the collection in the age of Positivism, when people believed Science could cure all manner of social ills. It was a time of revolutionary inventions and discoveries: electric light, the telephone, the car, antiseptic surgery, the Theory of Evolution and a bunch of vaccines.

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The Delinquent Woman, lecturing pigs

The museum visitor is introduced to this era through old film reels, as well as clips of psychiatric patients in bowler hats walking in the courtyard of Turin’s Cottolengo Hospital. Next we see a variety of medical equipment like something out of a Steampunk comic book. The museum proper, though, begins with Dr. Lombroso in a glass case. The most striking thing about him (apart from being human remains) is that he seems quite small—these days he’d need to shop in the children’s shoe section.

According to an excerpted letter on display, Lombroso started out his research by keeping skullls in his room, a ‘bugbear’ for his landlady. Once, whilst carrying a sack full of old skulls, he was surprised by Piedmontese villagers, who fortunately assumed they were pumpkins. Anyway, the point is that Lombroso certainly collected a lot of skulls and spent a long time measuring them.

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One room in particular, containing artefacts made by mentally ill people, is quite sad—half-finished embroideries, writing and pictures scratched on to water jugs and little clay figurines dramatizing the moment that must have loomed large in every prisoner’s life—the trial.

Lombroso was interested in the link between genius and madness. In 1897, he attended the Twelfth International Medical Conference in Moscow and chaired a session on mental illness. During this time he conceived the idea of haring off to Yasnaya Polyana, 200km to the south, to meet Lev Tolstoy and measure his skull, supposing (based on the sublimity of his work) that Tolstoy would be “cretinous and degenerate looking”. The meeting did no go well. Tolstoy recorded the occasion in his diary on 27th August, 1897: “Lombroso came. He is an ingenuous and limited old man.”

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“Hold still Lev! I just want to measure your cretinous bumps!”

By the time I got to the end, I was feeling a little overwrought. After an hour or so, I tend to reach saturation point when it comes to museums, and besides it’s wearing to be confronted with an endless succession of skulls and innards. If I saw another cranium I’d probably launch into Hamlet’s bit about fellows of infinite jest. So a museum about fruit seemed much more my speed.

The “Francesco Garnier Valletti” Museum of Fruit

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This museum showcases 1,100 pieces of artificial fruit. When you have said that you have pretty much said it all.

Most of the pieces were modelled by Valletti himself, who was an industrious artist and botanist. He was very good at making models of fruit—most of them look so life-like that I felt like taking a bite out of them just to see what they’d taste like. Beyond that, there wasn’t much I gathered from it. Part of this was, as I said, I’d reached museum-saturation point, and part of it was also my deficient Italian but I do think it could have been made a bit more interesting. For example, there might have been more about Valletti himself, or information about growing fruit trees or recipes… or something.

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A pear

 

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