Cesare Lombroso and Italian Criminal Anthropology

  • Chiara Beccalossi
Part of the Genders and Sexualities in History book series (GSX)


Cesare Lombroso is best remembered as the founder of modern criminology and author of ‘odd’ theories of the ‘born criminal’ that strike modern sensibility as both ridiculous and horrific. However mocked, at the time of their inception, Lombroso’s descriptions of the physiognomic characteristics of criminals — their heads were meant to be asymmetrical, their upper lips thin, their ears large and protruding, their bushy eyebrows met over the nose, their eyes were deep-set, and even their toes were pointy — were neither unprecedented nor unique. By relying on constitutional explanations of deviancy, Lombroso, like contemporary British psychiatrists such as Maudsley, conflated crime and disease as part of the same phenomenon. Educated by positivism’s ideals, Lombroso followed the trend of Italian psychiatry of the last three decades of the nineteenth century and believed that there existed a continuity between phenomena like madness and normal physiological states, so that the passions of the insane person were considered an exaggeration of tendencies present in healthy people. Studying pathological behaviours was thus a way to gain a better understanding of the nature of ‘normal’ men.1 Nevertheless, Lombroso’s endless catalogues of deviancy appear to stand at odds with this assumption because his extensive lists of physiognomic markers made the abnormal visually distinguishable and separate from the ‘normal’. It was this last aspect of Lombroso’s research that made his theories very popular: the international medical community was the first to be seduced by it, and the popular imagination of places like Italy, Europe, and North and Latin America soon followed.


Psychiatric Category Mental Pathology Sexual Inversion Sexual Instinct Female Criminal 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    G. Canguilhem, Il normale e il patologico (1998) [ 1966 ].Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    G. Colombo, La scienza infelice (1975), 41–53.Google Scholar
  3. 16.
    N. H. Rafter, Creating Born Criminals (1997), 81.Google Scholar
  4. 21.
    D. Pick, (1988) ‘“Terrors of the night”: Dracula and “Degeneration” in the Late Nineteenth Century’, Critical Quarterly, 1988, vol. 30, 71–87.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 22.
    J. M. Guy (ed.), The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (2007), vol. 4, 79; Oscar Wilde wrote to the Home Secretary on 2 July 1896, reprinted in M. Jay and M. Neve (eds.), 1900: A Fin-de-siècle Reader (1999).Google Scholar
  6. 81.
    D. G. Horn, The Criminal Body (2003), 52. The English version omitted all parts dealing with sexual psychopathologies.Google Scholar
  7. 126.
    H. Kurella, ‘Osservazioni sul significato biologico della bisessualità’, AP, 1896, vol. 17, 424–5. Kurella was a Lombroso follower.Google Scholar
  8. 135.
    M. Gibson, ‘Cesare Lombroso and the Italian Criminology’, in P. Becker and R. F. Wetzell, Criminals and Their Scientists (2006), 150.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Chiara Beccalossi 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Chiara Beccalossi
    • 1
  1. 1.Centre for the History of European DiscoursesUniversity of QueenslandAustralia

Personalised recommendations