A World of Hurt, Then and Now

I was in rural Italy earlier this month, in a tiny village in Tuscany. Rural Italy is a lot like rural Vermont, except the women wear better shoes and everyone inhales olive oil the way we go through maple syrup. (Note to self: Do not try putting olive oil on pancakes.) Also, they speak English with less of an accent.
In any case, one of my Italian guidebooks listed “10 things to do with children.” Though my hairline shows clearly that I haven’t been even a teenager in well over a quarter century, I still have the emotional maturity of an 8-year-old. To wit: I still find my cats’ hairballs funny. And so I perused the suggestions and saw that one was the San Gimignano Museum of Torture.
San Gimignano is a spectacularly beautiful medieval village built on a hill, which pretty much describes 7,000 other villages in Tuscany. If you look at a map of Tuscany, you’ll see that every other village is Montesomething. If I had wanted, I could have taken a day and biked in a circle from Montisi to Montefollonico to Montepulciano to Montalcino and then back to Montisi.
The difference between San Gimignano and most villages is that it has seven massive medieval towers looming over the town, and more tourists per cobblestone than the Ben & Jerry’s factory in Waterbury. Imagine Stowe at the peak of the foliage season, and then squeeze in a few thousand additional tourists, five separate parking lots and two dozen gift shops that sell nothing but maple syrup and snow globes of Mount Mansfield.
And, of course, add that torture museum. While my wife and daughter had the common sense to eat gelato and relax by a fountain in the midst of those medieval skyscrapers, I paid my seven euros and went in.
The museum is a collection of antiquarian torture devices, most of which involve wrought iron, ropes or very sharp points. Its ostensible message, if it has one, is that once humans had little regard for human life and were capable of inflicting frightening pain on one another in the name of religion or country or mere self-righteousness. There are the basics, of course, such as the rack and the iron maiden and a functioning guillotine — which was actually supposed to end torture by killing the victim instantly. There is a dungeon. And there are displays of devices that only a real psychopath could have come up with, a disproportionate number of which seemed to involve impaling people. Everything is explained in five languages, and the diagrams can only be called grisly. I grew up on old Vincent Price movies, but I was getting nauseated and decided to leave.
I was just wondering what sort of lunatic this travel writer must have been to suggest this museum for children, when I came across a group of six Americans: Three teenagers and three adults. They were staring at an exhibit I hadn’t noticed. It was a form of water torture, and the diagram explaining the process looked inexplicably familiar. Then I remembered: I had seen an illustration a little like this in 2007, in an article examining whether American interrogators were using torture in the present.
Teenagers, I believe, have pretty sound moral compasses. For every teen who thought it made sense (for example) to vandalize the Robert Frost cabin in Ripton, there were many more who were appalled. And so I wasn’t surprised when one of the teens, a boy, turned to his mother or his aunt and observed, “Man. TiVo and torture. I wonder if that’s going to be the U.S. legacy in a hundred years.”
He was a tad unnerved, as was the rest of the group, and together we all filed out of the museum. Here, it seemed, was yet another parallel between the United States and Italy — though, unfortunately, it might have been medieval Europe and modern America.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on July 20, 2008.)

Chris Bohjalian
Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of eighteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Guest Room. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, and The Double Bind.

One thought on “A World of Hurt, Then and Now

  1. Neil says:

    Our former Attorney General Ashcroft testified this week that torture was the best source of actionable intelligence. It hard to know whether to believe him or not. Everything else I’ve heard is that torture is not effective, that the tortured will admit to anything to make it stop.
    The fact there is a debate about whether waterboarding is torture or not has been an effective strategy for advocates of torture. It creates the question, where there never was a question before.
    It sounds like the Bohjalians had a great vacation in Italy. Best!

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