Cradled in a tourist-trap Italian city, past hotel row, lies a stone building with blood red doors that is home to an impressive collection of medieval torture devices. Imposed upon a suggestive backdrop, one can not help but wonder what took these devices so long to go out of style.
Randi asked me if I wanted to go to Italy that summer. She knew about a farmhouse outside of Florence that slept six, for only $225 each. Of course I wanted to go, who wouldn't want to go to Italy if someone asked you at a party? Besides, I needed something promising to look forward to. I was waiting to hear whether I had cancer in my thymus gland.
My tests came back with the news less than a week later, and I had some pretty frightening choices to make. But, thanks to Randi, I also had something welcoming on the horizon. She'd already lined up the others -- all people I loved, or was ready to. So if I lived, I would go. If I didn't, at least my friends would be having a good time.
My operation was a breeze compared to follow-up radiation, which was a lot rougher than anyone had led me to expect. Sometimes, I couldn't get out of bed except to throw up; sometimes, I couldn't even walk across the hall and just puked where I was. I stopped and started radiation three times -- and only went back that last time when I saw the receptionist who I checked in with every morning asking a question from the audience at Ricki Lake and took it as an omen.
A few weeks after radiation ended, we were packing and calling the car service and then standing together in the airport lounge waiting to check in.
We topped our airplane ride with a five-hour drive from Rome to Colle val d'Elsa. The farms we'd sped by held nothing but brown plots of raw upturned earth where stilted crops had already been plowed under. The fields of yellow sunflowers we'd been expecting had all rotted on their stalks. We were witness to the worst drought in 40 years. Still, one look at the hilltop farmhouse Randi had rented and we knew we'd come to a magical place. The view from every window showed a handful of small, red-tile-topped houses scattered among olive trees, cedar trees, steeply planted vineyards, and tangled shoulderless two-lane roads. In the hot, clear light of our first day, we could make out tiny towers like tiny corrugated cardboard-boxes cresting another hill a few miles away. We'd been directed to go to San Gimignano, one of Tuscany's most popular hill towns. The locals felt it would resonate for us (city dwellers) because of the towers. We all agreed we would go.
Other, further away places came first though. We had rented a big American minivan and we were off -- day trips to Sienna, to Florence (twice), and three times to the coast. Returning to the house one midnight as we always did -- my friends ceding to my continuing recuperation -- we were greeted with blaring rock music that scrambled over the hills to us from San Gimignano. The towers were awash in lasers. We heard our own language blaring at us in familiar lyrics.
Of course, our game of chicken ended, and we got to San Gimignano the day before we were to leave. The main thoroughfare was strictly for tourists: back-to-back souvenir shops, wineries, restaurants, art galleries, cafes, gelato shops, stores with smoked wild boar legs (with the hairs still attached) hanging over the doorways. In our determination, it was necessary to see every single thing. So it was nearing 4 o'clock when we collapsed onto chairs in the plaza outside the one remaining tower that was still open to the public. We settled into a round of gelato but before long we were exploring anew. Someone noticed a decrepit-looking building hidden behind scaffolding, on which was a two-foot square plaque reading KRIMINALE MUSEUM. We had found The Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments, and Randi was gushing about wanting to find something just like this and pushing open the door and shouting, "let's go in."
I struggled with the heavy door while my friends charged ahead and left me staring at a naked, upright woman tied to a rack, mouth gaping and hair somehow streaming about her head in an impossible mixture of brutality and arousal. The others stormed the admission's desk and plunked down their 9,000 lire, then breezed past a remarkably clean, spike-covered chair and disappeared into the first gallery. I lumbered up the stairs after them.
The museum was set in an old, sanitized palazzo: a series of small dark galleries, cool white walls, low lighting. Captions explaining each of the devices were in English as well as Italian so we could grasp exactly what we were looking at while our brains held back in disbelief. Period blow-ups, showing the machines in use, likewise laid to rest any doubts these were instruments of torture. One of the first I came to, a large double-handled saw, was shown being used to split a man in half. Text on the wall explained the criminal, often a homosexual man, was tied upside down and, starting at the anus, sawed to death -- the upside-down position provided the advantage of rushing blood to the man's head so that he remained alive even as the saw reached his rib cage.
It never struck me to question why this would have been the very first exhibit as I stumbled to the next room, where Al, our designated photographer, snapped a picture of me looking deranged, then disappeared. I went back to my nausea and the rest of the exhibit. Somehow we all kept going in spite of wanting to bail. I saw the entire collection: garrotes, stocks, branding devices, pincers, guillotines, human-size grills, chastity belts, racks for stretching people, on and on. I even saw the famous Nuremberg Maiden, one of two extant, in which the victim was placed in a sitting coffin studded on the inside with nails that slowly pierced the person inside as the lid was closed.
A bigger shock waited in a room toward the back of the building, where I found myself penned in with a young boy and his parents. As they darted from one piece to the next, the child would glance at the exhibit, read a few words to himself, then laugh at the top of his voice as if it were a joke. His parents would then join him, and the small room filled with their shrieks. Everyone else I'd seen here had been grim-faced, shut down, or grunting or moaning. This family was having a gay old time. I looked around for an escape from their hysteria, saw a door to the outside, and stepped into a small courtyard, thankful for the air and the crunch of gravel underfoot.
Yet here too was an exhibit. This one consisted of two wheels -- wood pole and spokes, metal rim, metal joins -- each about four feet in diameter. For an instant I was reassured, then puzzled, remembering where I was. One wheel rested on the grass, the other stood upright like an umbrella, the pair looking like modern sculpture. I went to the caption on the corner of the building and read: the victim, nude, was put on the ground with his feet and hands bound in iron rings, pieces of wood were put under the shoulders, the elbows the knees and the calves, so the executioner ... broke all the bones of the condemned, crushing the limbs, but avoiding mortal wounds. [Then] the broken body of the victim is bent in half and tied to a carriage wheel
[and] left there for days, until he dies. They tell of bandits who were in agony for 20 days and that every night they were given sustenance so that the terrifying example could be prolonged as long as possible. I looked back at the wheels and tried to match this information to the playful display in front of me. Soon, another group of people made their way into the backyard. I turned and went inside.
I found a stairway that took me into a close, damp low-ceilinged basement where walls and floors had been left unpainted and the only lights were tiny spots the museum had installed. Here were prison cells containing leg and arm irons and ball and chains -- all lethal because of the wounds created as metal rubbed away skin. One stone had a face carved into it, possibly a self-portrait of the man who had been shackled to it, who had found a creative way to fill his last hours. Another device was designed to keep its wearer in a fetal position -- the victim would experience excruciatingly painful cramps after a matter of hours of being kept in the same position. The illustration was another disturbingly sexualized presentation -- a naked woman on her back, legs spread, delicate feet up in the air.
I turned back to the exhibits and came to a delicate metal funnel. It's caption explained that similar devices, for forcing water into a person's throat to recreate the terror-filled feeling of drowning, were still in use in such places as Latin America. And was pleased, if I may call it that, finally something was designated as currently in use. Of course this nod to a distant continent where torture still took place was puzzling and blatantly incomplete (indeed, Amnesty International's current report lists more than 100 countries where state-sponsored torture continues to take place). Still I felt some gratification in reference to the here-and-now. Next to it, a cage shown hanging from the outside of a building with a person standing on its rungs inside, was said to have been last used about 100 years ago.
I found my friends clustered together in the lobby. Randi was hauling out her wallet and buying the museum's catalog. When she presented the book to Al and threw her arms around him, I turned for the door and hurried outside to wait in the open air. Then we all trooped back up the hill and then slowly climbed the hundreds of steps to the top of the one tower that had been kept open for the public. I stood in the strong breeze and let myself be lulled again with the miles of countryside below. In the remaining daylight all looked quaint and manageable again.
Later that night, I lie in bed thinking of all that I'd set aside back home, my hospitalization and various treatments, and then about the devices we had seen earlier. I wondered which country would play host to the museum of contemporary torture instruments. What would they call it? And what skyscraper would be big enough to house them all?
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