The curious case of the anarchist’s pickled brain

passannante.jpgThe International Herald Tribune recently ran a very interesting story about the Italian anarchist Giovanni Passannante. In Naples, on 17th November, 1878, Passannante tried to assassinate Italy’s king, Umberto I of Savoy, using a small kitchen knife. The king was only slightly wounded, but was assassinated on 29th July, 1900, by another anarchist, Gaetano Bresci, who shot him four times with a revolver. Passannante was arrested and sent to Portoferraio Prison on the island of Elba. His mother and siblings were also jailed, and the name of his hometown, in the Basilicata region of southern Italy, was changed from Salvia to Savoia di Lucania.

Passannante’s 32-year imprisonment is the longest in Italian history. During his time in jail, Passannante spent 10 years in solitary confinement in a tiny cell, and was subjected to torture with branding irons. He eventually went mad, and was taken to the criminal asylum at Montelupo Fiorentino, where he died on 4th February 1910. At the time, the theories of anthropologist Cesar Lombroso (1835-1909) were popular. Lombroso, who is considered to be one of the founders of modern criminology, believed that criminality was genetic, and that a congenital criminal could be identified by certain facial characteristics, such as high cheekbones, protruding jaw and ears. He also believed that all criminals had long arms and an insensitivity to pain. Lombroso, whose theories were long ago discredited, also argued that criminality could be predicted by the shape of the skull. When Passannante died, he was decapitated, and his body was fed to pigs. His brain was removed and preserved in formaldehyde, so that sociologists could look for abnormalities.

In 1935, the brain and skull were sent to the Museo Criminologico in Rome. In 1998, Oliviero Diliberto, the then Italian Minister of Justice, wrote a decree allowing for Passannante’s remains to be returned to his hometown and buried. But the decree was never acted on, and the brain and skull remained in the criminology museum, in a neon-lit display case. Passannante’s brain and skull were set to be returned to his hometown on May 11th for burial; this was to be done in the presence of reporters and photographers. But on the night of Thursday, May 10th, the remains were removed and buried secretly. The campaigners who had been urging the Italian government to give Passannante’s remains a proper burial believe this was done by monarchists who did not want the anarchist to receive any publicity.

(via Table of Malcontents)

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