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The scientist that did not shine with brightness

· The eclectic Lombroso continues to make himself talked about ·

“Cesare Lombroso is no longer among the living; our great friend departed from us only a few days ago, but the impetus he gave to the modern mind will not cease:  he will live on in it and  for some time to come”. These words were written by the anthropologist Giuseppe Sergi in 1909 to commemorate the deceased teacher. He was not altogether wrong, for after more than a century since this Veronese doctor's death the need to confront this eclectic scholarly figure is still alive.

This persistent interest is confirmed by the recent publication of the volume containing the papers given at the Cesare Lombroso Congress, dedicated to him, that was held in Turin in 2009. Gli scienziati e la nuova Italia, edited  by  Silvano Montaldo  (Bologna,  il  Mulino, 2011, 296 pages,  € 24). The book begins with an analysis of  Lombroso's good fortune, continues with the European background of his opus and, lastly, focuses on the relationship between science and politics in Italy.

In her initial essay Mary Gibson maintains that among the causes of the criminologist's success was first of all the determination with which he proposed new means of social defence to which States –  and especially Italy – at the end of the 19th-century, had recourse in order “to identify their enemies”, especially brigands, anarchists, and other “dangerous categories”.

Factors crucial to Lombrosi's fortunes were, in addition, the complexity of his thinking as well as  his teaching role that was acknowledged by several generations of scholars who disseminated his ideas “with missionary zeal”. His intense journalistic activity contributed to popularizing both these factors, sometimes criticized for their lack of strictness. One particular case of the acceptance of Lombrosian doctrine at a European level is the work of Oskar Panizza, on which Federico La Manna has reflected. In 1891, the visionary German writer, an irreverent flogger of Catholicism,  gave a lecture, subsequently published, on a theme dear to Lombroso's heart: the relationship between genius and madness. In spite of denying that these two phenomena were one and the same, Panizza identified certain elements, such as hallucinations and visionary delirium,  as being  common to both geniuses and the insane.

After experiencing alternating fortunes in the course of the 20th century, Lombroso's work seems to have orchestrated a comeback,  in a somewhat disputable manner, to the centre of the stage, if, as Peter Becker says, it is true that today's champions of biological theories concerning crime and deviation exploit his research to confer greater credibility on their own studies and to legitimize their concrete applications of biological explanations of human behaviour.

Lombroso's theories are certainly not brilliant for their clarity. Antonello La Vergata focuses on the complex concept of degeneration to which the anthropologist had recourse in his study of both criminality and the phenomenon of genius. Because of a pronounced propensity for indiscriminately accumulating facts and evidence to support his own theses, circumventing any definition, the author of Uomo delinquente added to the confusion on this subject, already  “protean” in itself. Nevertheless one factor, according to La Vergata, seems to emerge: Lombroso does not share either the condemnation of modernity or “the pessimistic diagnoses” typical of the degeneration theories. Although in his texts he never said he was in favour of eugenics, it is undeniable, as La Vergata himself maintains, that  Lombroso in his opus made use of them to support selective practices.

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