Tuscany is like a Renaissance painting; its beauty and mystique enthral those who step inside its frame. Take your pick, each city has its own story: Florence, Pisa, Pienza, Lucca, Siena. And that’s where this story lays its roots, in Siena, the bejewelled brooch that clasps the tapestry of Tuscany.
There are many things to love about Siena. Further down the palio track I’ll write more about its medieval charisma, but for this story, Siena’s black humour is my focus.
Had I been squeamish, I might have continued walking through the gloomy Vicolo del Bargello and into the bustle of Siena’s enchanting campo to enjoy a coffee in the sunlight. But the combination of the medieval laneway, the meaning of bargello (a zigzag stitch resembling flames) and the macabre blurb on the poster outside the Museo della Tortura (Museum of Torture) “these instruments show just how much human fantasy knew no limits …” reels me in, hook, line and tongue cutter.
A skeletal hand reaches out from the Highwayman’s Coffin and points to the museum’s first dark chamber. This weathered wretch has been hanging around in his iron cage for centuries. He’s been swaying in the breeze outside town halls, ducal palaces and cathedrals, through winter winds and summer storms until his bones have fallen apart.
Not too far inside the first cold stone and brick cavern, reality sobers me to the horrors of human cruelty. It puzzles me to think of the hours of creativity that went into designing and decorating these devices of humiliation, oppression and torture. Take the iron sandals with the bell at the toe that was fitted to clumsy servants. Every time the bell rang, the master tightened the heel.
There are many gruesome original and reproduced items on display that reflect the time in history where public hangings and punishments were seen as entertainment. Behind a glass panel I examine a beheader’s sword. It looks like an oversized butter knife. It took a long apprenticeship to become professional beheader. With each victim, the apprentice had three goes to get the decapitation right. Who was going to worry about the occasional severed shoulder, arm or brainpan?
No detail is spared of how each instrument worked, which orifice the device was meant for, which limb was dislocated and who was the usual customer. Women were particularly well represented with breast rippers, shrew fiddles, scold bridles, chastity belts and the ornately designed Pear of Anguish, a disturbing device inserted and expanded in the offensive orifice.
Rioting prisoners would have been well ventilated, as the wardens in those poxy medieval dungeons wore leather jackets pierced with iron spikes in Hannibal Lecter fashion.
The wry comment on the Inquisitor’s Chair bridges the gap of centuries. “Often a brazier of hot coals was used to heat the spikes before the victim was placed inside. Today, updated versions are used, improved by electricity to minimise tell-tale marks.”
I’ve spent about an hour examining racks, iron maidens and head crushers that inflicted pain and death on heretics, blasphemers and the promiscuous. You may think that the idea of a visiting a torture museum is no better than attending the public spectacle of torture in the past. Yet, it’s the professional display and insightful (often tongue-in-cheek) explanations that make me question how civilised we are meant to be today.