Posted on December 6, 2013 by 

La Balzana, beautiful Siena, the extravagant, the eccentric, sitting atop a hill in Tuscany, is another world. Once a medieval town of wealth and consequence; later marooned, isolated and preserved by the Black Death and the shifting alliances of the Italian City States. To sit in the Piazza Del Campo on a warm summer’s evening slowly turning to night, watching the transit and tumult of the crowds, is wonderful; climbing the 100 metre-high Torre del Mangia, (fortified by a doppio espresso), is exhausting and exhilarating.
Italia, Siena, Fontana di piazza del Campo, da...
Italia, Siena, Fontana di piazza del Campo, dalla Torre del Mangia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The view of the city and adjacent hills takes away what little breath you have left. The streets and buildings appear unchanged in five hundred years. Absent cars set the scenic journey into the past. Before and after the Palio, the twice-per-summer horse race around the oyster-shell Campo, there are parades in medieval costume, banners and flags aloft, drumming, and the wonder of a different time and place. Every time I visit, I find myself wanting to live here.

Siena has dark secrets too. Go down a small side street, the Vicolo del Bargello, and you find a quaint museum, the Museo Della Tortura. Retreating from the sunshine and the 21st Century into this thick-walled set of rooms is a journey to a different world. It is a world before car and computer; is a world before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and War Crimes Tribunals at The Hague. In this world, medieval judges, after due process of law, impose sentences of death after hearing confessions extracted under torture. The Museo is a dark, difficult and necessary place, a gateway to a different world: it is a cold warning from the past. The Museo displays an astonishing array of artefacts deriving from a strangely-perverted human ingenuity: the design and manufacture of artefacts used solely to impose exquisitely-controlled and pain and suffering on other helpless human beings. Some of the devices have names that have entered everyday use. The ‘iron maiden’, a standing coffin replete with sharpened iron spikes, is designed to multiply puncture the body, as well induce extreme feelings of claustrophobia. Victims would slowly bleed to death, as well as being slowly and inescapably being crushed to death. The ‘iron maiden’ is designed to maximise pain and suffering imposed, while slowing the approach of death. (There is a debate over the historical existence of the iron maiden – but its very construction, the fact of its existence and its appeal to the imagination, irrespective of use, is telling.) The ‘inquisitional chair’ is carpeted with thousands of sharpened spikes. The naked victim was strapped into the chair, and the straps progressively tightened, driving the spikes further into the flesh.

The breaking wheel, to which victims were tied and their limbs systematically smashed with a hammer. The contemporaneous description supplied for the breaking wheel cannot be bettered for the horror it describes: The victim became “…a sort of huge screaming puppet writhing in rivulets of blood, a puppet with four tentacles, like a sea monster, of raw, slimy and shapeless flesh mixed up with splinters of smashed bones.”

Torture was also routinely practiced against supposed witches, especially during the witch-hunting craze of the late 1400s and early 1500s. Images of souls being tortured in Hell are a commonplace in paintings held in the great art galleries of the world. Paintings of Christian martyrs undergoing extremes of torture and appalling deaths are the common motif too. The images are sufficiently extreme, and the reality sufficiently terrible, that the very word ‘medieval’ has taken on a non-historical meaning. The online slang dictionary describes ‘getting medieval’ as ‘to torture terribly, in the medieval style’. The movie director and screenwriter Quentin Tarantino, is renowned for the wit, effervescence and referential dialogue of his movies. One of his most famous, celebrated and influential movies, Pulp Fiction, has the character Marsellus Wallace (played by Ving Rhames) say to another character: ‘You hear me talkin’, hillbilly boy? …. I’ma get medieval on your ass.’ And we know he means something very unpleasant indeed will be visited upon ‘hillbilly boy’. The threatened use of ‘a pair of pliers and a blow torch’ simply reinforces the relationship between ‘getting medieval’ and torture. Indeed, when we think of torture, our thinking is deeply coloured by images of medieval cruelty: the rending of flesh, the breaking of bones, and pain made visible through scar and scream.

Many European cities have torture themed museums. London has a torture museum which is very different to Siena’s – the “London Dungeon”. The London Dungeon offers actors and re-enactments of the darker side of London’s history. It makes an excursion through plagues, fires, hanging and the Ripper murders in Whitechapel. A little space is given to the torture exhibition, and there are instruments of torture on display. The dark, cold torture chamber, modelled on some ancient cell, is forgivably unpleasant. The torture instruments are presented here as legal punishments, as a sentence for some transgression, rather than for extracting a confession under duress. One instrument brings forth some hesitant laughter from the tour group: it is the ‘scold’s bridle’ (or ‘brank’ as they were known in Scotland), a metal face mask with an inward-facing extended narrow metal plate which pressed down the tongue, and a chin-grab designed to restrict movement of the jaw. In this way, women (for it was principally used on women) were prevented from speaking. The bridle was used as a punishment for nagging, scolding, excessive gossiping and other similar transgressions. Another device, the ‘tongue tearer’, was heated until it was red-hot, and part or all the tongue was removed and the remaining portion of the tongue cauterised.

The Museo is very different to the London Dungeon. There are no actors, nor re-enactments of differing periods from Italy’s history. No serial killers or all-consuming fires or representations of horrific and communicable diseases. No interactive exhibits. The horror is all in the imagination, from reading the exhibit notes and studying the devices present, and is all the worse for it.

(Image credit: wikimedia commons) The right brachial plexus with its short branches, viewed from in front. The Sternomastoid and Trapezius muscles have been completely, the Omohyoid and Subclavius have been partially, removed; a piece has been sawed out of the clavicle; the Pectoralis muscles have been incised and reflected. (Spalteholz.)

The ‘stretching rack’ is a simple device, a table, fitted with turning wheels at its extremities, onto which the victim is tied. Using the turning wheels, linear and torsional forces are applied to the limbs via straps tied to the arms and legs. These forces pull the arms and legs from their sockets, tearing muscle, nerve and sinew, and causing terrible injuries, but without necessarily causing death. Victims “stretched” in this way will be terribly crippled, and crippled without hope of recovery for the rest of their lives. Constant paralysis and pain will be the legacy of their torture. This badge of suffering would be visible to others, sending out a terrible warning about the cost of offending the law, or the King, or the Church. Partial injuries approximating this torture appear occasionally in hospitals today. Motorcyclists, if they crash and are thrown over the handlebars of the motorbike, often retain a grasp of the handlebar, and as a result suffer avulsion (or tearing away) of both the brachial plexus and of the arm from the shoulder socket. The brachial plexus is the nerve network (at about where the neck and the shoulder meet) providing the nerves controlling the movement of the shoulder, arm, hand and fingers. Ripping this structure causes paralysis of the arm. Lesser injuries can lead to a partial paralysis so that fine finger movement or arm movement is lost. Even with modern microsurgical techniques, severe avulsion injuries of this type are still more-or-less irremediable.

Strappado is a simpler form of stretching. The victim’s arms are tied behind their back at the wrists. A rope or chain is attached to the binding, is then thrown over a beam or laced through a pulley, and the victim is slowly lifted up from the wrists. This will result in the arms being rotated out of the shoulder sockets, with terrible damage to nerve, sinew and muscle. Machiavelli was subjected to strappado during his fall from grace. In modern times, John McCain, the US Republican Senator, suffered a variant of strappado during his imprisonment during the Vietnam War.

Down the steps to the underground room.  On the floor rests a medieval waterboard – this one used to force water into the stomach.  A simple wooden device – a set of wooden traps for the feet, perhaps a meter or so from the ground; a narrow wooden block perhaps a metre or a metre and a half distant from the foot traps; finally a set of metal chains a metre or so distant again. The feet are suspended above the level of the head in the traps; the back is supported by the narrow wooden block at the base of the spine. This is an adaptable device – the relative positions of the head and feet can be changed easily. A funnel rusts near a bucket, its work done.  The description reads in part: “Among the most atrocious ordeals was and is the water torture… The terror of drowning, endlessly repeated, is by itself an agonising torment… the victim is tilted head-down, to that the pressure on the heart and lungs causes unimaginable anguish which the executioner [sic] exacerbates by beating on the abdomen…”

Nearby there is a quotation from Napoleon Bonaparte which should be the first thing taught to all who would interrogate another:

“The barbarous custom of having men beaten who are suspected of having important secrets to reveal must be abolished. It has always been recognized that this way of interrogating men, by putting them to torture, produces nothing worthwhile”.

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About tcin

Multidisciplinary Neuroscience Institute
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