Medieval Torture Museum of San Gimignano

Tuscany is filled with both man-made and natural beauty from the Middle Ages. That makes it hard to conceive of some of the more grisly things that were common during the period. The Museo della Tortura in San Gimignano will provide visitors with a look into just what some of those were.

Ironically, housed inside the Torre del Diavolo (The Devil’s Tower) located in the Piazza della Cisterna, the museum has over 100 items on display. It opened in 1992 and since then has been making visitors’ skins crawl ever since. A brief survey of some of those items makes it easy to see why.

San Gimignano

San Gimignano

Mask of Infamy

One of the less severe punishments of the time, iron masks sported a pig’s snout or other animal appearance. Effects could range from hot and uncomfortable to excruciating (with the addition of inner spikes). An iron ball was often part of the mechanism, which would be forced into the person’s mouth to prevent screaming.

The Heretic’s Fork

A common part of the Inquisition priest’s toolkit, this iron rod had forked tines at both ends. A collar secured the device to the neck and the forks made contact under the chin and on the chest. Since they didn’t penetrate vital organs, the severe pain could last for hours.

Cat’s Paws

Like their natural counterpart, these iron claws shredded flesh. Prisoners had their hands tied together and were often suspended from ropes. Torturers would then scrape the back, chest, legs and other areas. The pain alone was enough to cause most to faint and death often resulted from bleeding.

The Garotte

Though the modern term refers to a thin wire used to slice neck arteries with a squeeze, the medieval form was cruder and slower. A pole was driven into the ground and a rope tied around the victim’s neck. Often a short stick or rod was used to tighten the rope at whatever pace was desired. Asphyxiation was only one possible problem. The spinal cord was often crushed. Pain and death could be slow in coming or over in a moment.

The Saw

A multi-purpose tool, the serrated saw could be used to hack off limbs or merely make cuts. But commonly, the unfortunate object of the torture was hung upside down by the legs and the body sawed in half, starting at the groin. One could only hope the femoral artery was severed quickly, bringing an end to consciousness.

The Iron Maiden

Far from the gentle image the name might suggest, this large sarcophagus tortured in multiple ways. The hapless human was placed inside a full-sized ‘mummy’ enclosure that just happened to have spikes embedded in the interior. Closing the lid might be thought to bring instant death. But the diabolically clever designers made sure the spikes only penetrated a little way. Victims might die of heat stroke before the pin-cushion effect drew enough blood to end his or her misery.

Not for the squeamish, the euphemistically alternately-named Museum of Medieval Criminology, provides a grim look into the not-so-distant past. Many of the instruments on display were in use as late as the 19th century.