Tuscany – Museum of horrors

San Gimignano

A Halloween to remember (IT)

by Loretta N.Di Vita

It was Halloween in the medieval Tuscan hill town of San Gimignano when my husband and I spotted a life-size werewolf. Figuring the furry prop indicated something “Halloweeny” awaited inside, we decided to investigate. To our astonishment, we had stumbled upon the Museum of Torture, housing a collection of 100 medieval instruments of pain. Admittedly, the prospect of descending into a torture chamber of sorts presented a weird (and frightening) diversion, but morbid curiosity prevailed and we couldn’t step away.

Once inside, it was obvious that the exhibit had nothing to do with Halloween thrills. Rather, the collection is intended as a message about human rights abuses involving torture and the importance of tolerance. A museum statement posted on an interior wall read: “The horror aroused in our visitors viewing the instruments allows us to make them our allies against torture.”

The preamble failed to prepare us for the sight of so many tools created by human beings to inflict pain (most often fatally) on other human beings – for motives of coercion, humiliation, misguided retribution and sheer violence. The apparent creativity and ingenuity that went into their making was both mind-boggling and revolting.

San Gimignano

Within the collection, there were pieces with straightforward names, like the Interrogation Chair, a primitive, wooden contraption lined with metal spikes, used to punish prisoners and ‘persuade’ other prisoners to fess up while watching its victims.

Other inventions had been appointed oddly fanciful descriptors. For example, the Heretic’s Fork – used to extract confessions from liars, blasphemers and religious nonbelievers before their executions, or the Maiden of Iron – a grisly scarab-shaped prototype of unspeakable possibility, which historians claim (thankfully) was never actually implemented.

Bizarrely, many items had been executed (sorry!) with inexplicable flourish, adorned with floral and curlicue details (as if prettifying them could camouflage their savagery.) And, adding insult to injury: some instruments bore etched depictions presumably of the torturers’ sadistic facial expressions, as well as the anguished faces of the tortured.

Starving for a shred of comic relief, we were only slightly amused by long-nosed masks meant to be worn by civil offenders so that they’d be subjected to public ridicule. How ridiculous! I thought, until it struck me that comparable psychological torment is cast on individuals today when they’re publicly shamed through social media.

What was our personal take-away from the museum? We realized that criminal tendencies, as well as torturous forms of punishment, transcend history and defy civilization.

 It must be challenging for the museum to maintain objectivity without resorting to shock-value (remember the random werewolf?) But if a little sensationalism is what it takes to get people inside, reflecting on matters of humanity—then, fine. Clearly the exhibit isn’t for the faint of heart; and I, for one, was relieved that I hadn’t fainted. Back on the cobblestone streets of San Gimignano—shaken and dismayed—we took in deep breaths of crisp autumn air, and agreed that we’d never forget our Halloween in Tuscany.