Two hours into a walking tour of the famously steep cobblestone streets of Montepulciano, a Medieval hill town in Southern Tuscany, I thought I knew what torture was. Then I find the actual Torture Museum of Montepulciano.
La Museo della Tortura is like a lot of scary attractions in tourist towns. There’s a fake skeleton in a cage beckoning the morbidly curious in the entrance. A glass case offers a sample of disturbing objects on display inside: a jaws-like wooden spiked device, an iron mask that looks like a long-lost member of Slipknot, etc.
Was the Torture Museum of Montepulciano a real house of horrors?
The woman who takes our money explains the museum is housed in the former residence of one Robert Bellarmine, born in Montepulciano in 1542. Officially, he’s a Catholic Saint. But he was also involved in the inquisition of Galileo and others. She says it with dramatic effect. My friends and I nod, interested, but wondering if that’s cool, or just genuinely creepy. She also tells us the items in the museum are not reproductions, but actual torture devices used in from the 1400s to 1600s. That’s definitely creepy.
You see, we’ve been in Italy for a few days marvelling at churches and cathedrals, in awe of the splendid artworks devoted to Jesus and the Saints. But I’ve had an uneasy feeling in those spaces.
I have an uneasy feeling in this place….
I was baptized Catholic, but rejected the teachings of the Church shortly after Confirmation when I determined that it had done more harm than good in this world. And we’ve come from Canada, in the summer where the bodies of hundreds of Indigenous children were being “discovered” on the sites of former Residential schools, victims of shameful tactics by the Catholic Church and our government to kill off the native peoples of our land.
All this to say that walking into a museum of artifacts the powers-that-be used to torture and kill heretics and other miscreants during a time of intellectual Renaissance felt a bit heavy. We enter quietly.
The museum itself is fairly small, one large room you can circle around. The lights are bright, the displays clean. This isn’t a cheesy house of horrors with scary music or cobwebs.
One of the first items that catches my eye is a spiked belt. It’s not dissimilar to the bondage belt I wore as a teen goth, or what can be found at most heavy metal festivals. Closer inspection reveals nasty looking barbed wire loops – 220 of them, says the museum – which, when locked onto a body, cause rips in the flesh with every motion. If that’s not torturous enough, apparently executioners would apply carnivorous worms to the open wounds.
The Torture Museum of Montepulciano has many items that were clearly designed for women.
In the cases, we see chastity belts, gags, and breast rippers. These were used to punish women who committed the sins of adultery, blasphemy, heresy, or just “erotic white magic. Most disturbing is the “Vaginal Pear”: a device sort of like a speculum, but with nasty rusty prongs. Once forced into the body it could be expanded by the turning of screws. The one on display here even has ornamental designs on it. Because who wouldn’t want to look at some pretty arts and crafts while mutilating a screaming victim?
There are plenty of gender-neutral instruments of terror inside, too.
If one can use the word “showstopper” to describe such artifacts, the Torture Museum of Montepulciano has two: an Interrogation chair covered in spikes, and the Judas Cradle, which is like a tall wooden ladder with a very pointed pyramid shape on top. A victim would be restrained by the waist then lowered down and forced to sit until… well. We get the unpleasant picture.
I’m not curator, or an expert on museum design. But I have to wonder if it’s intentional, to put all these objects in one big room, rather than in a series of small rooms. Because there’s nowhere to avert your gaze. Everywhere you look, there’s another example of humanity’s cruelty.
In fact, so full of badness is the Torture Museum of Montepulciano that it makes the guillotine in the middle of the room a bit hum-drum. Oh yes, of course, a guillotine…
What about modern horrors?
As I near the exit, I realize it’s not really the instruments of torture on display that are grotesque. It’s knowing that torture isn’t a historical relic. Maybe some of these objects didn’t make it beyond Medieval times. But humans, especially women, are most definitely still subject to physical and mental torture. And so as we step back out into the light, into vacation mode, I appreciate that the Torture Museum of Montepulciano is a matter-of-fact, rather sombre experience. What it lacks in thrills, it more than makes up for in chills.
Info: As of October 2021, The Torture Museum of Montepulciano costs 8Euro and is open daily from 10h to 19h (weekends only in the winter). Check for updates here. Buy tickets on site.
Post Script: So after we left Montepulciano and went to Siena, we saw banners advertising the Torture Museum of Siena. They look quite familiar. It turns out this is a chain of museums across Tuscany, also including the Torture Museums of San Gimignano and Volterra. This makes me question their claim to use no reproductions, only actual artifacts. My history-researching-companion also could find no evidence that Robert Bellarmine ever lived in that particular building. And so…perhaps there is a bit of the old carny in the Torture Museum after all.