Eugenics, Phrenology, and the Concept of “Other” in 19th and 20th Century Italy

The Division of North and South

It cannot be denied that there is a division between the North and South. In the late 19th century through the early 20th century, many people were trying to make sense of the mechanics of this separation. What made the South inferior? To answer this, Cesar Lombroso turned to phrenology, a pseudoscience that studies the shape and size of one’s head in the hopes of understanding character and cognitive abilities. By his findings, Lombroso and other phrenologists like Alfredo Niceforo were able to make claims about the South that bolstered Northern views of the South. Using phrenology, the North was viewed as much more anatomically superior, and thus a rise in eugenic practices appeared. This was just one more way to categorize the South as “Other,” as their heads were not the same shape or size as those from the North.

Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909)

Cesar Lombroso grew up in a time of great civil unrest and was influenced greatly by what he experienced in the early-mid 1800s. Having grown up in Verona and educated in Pavia, Lombroso was surrounded by Pro-North and Anti-South views. Lombroso studied medicine and behavioral sciences before enlisting in the army as a surgeon during the brigandage. For years, Lombroso saw the brigands as brutish and primitive, and his anti-South observations grew in strength. Lombroso described his experience in the South as atavistic, or a reversion to an ancient and primitive way of life, and by 1870, had written on the theory of criminal atavism. His observations would lead to more hands-on data collection to understand the physiological mechanics behind behavior and cognitive abilities. In the 1890s, Lombroso had published his findings in “The Criminal Woman, the Prostitute, and the Normal Woman” and the final edition of “The Criminal Man.” Both publications included observations of the physiology of people’s heads and ties to Southern inferiority.

Lombroso was one of the first to delve into criminology via scientific processes. His discoveries and collection of data grandfathered in an entire method of criminology and typifying people. His first patient was a man named Guiseppe Villella, who was a thief and arsonist from Calabria. Lombardo worked with him to try to understand where these tendencies came from so he could categorize people as lunatic, criminal, and normal. Using prisoners as his test subjects, Lombroso began to collect data on the shape and size of each head. Even after the subjects died, Lombroso studied the cadavers for more details, bumps, and indents.

The Criminal Man

“It is apparent, then, that these crimes are most frequent in the provinces where the population is predominantly Semitic (Sicily, Sardinia, Calabria) or purely Latin (Latium, Abruzzo), as compared with those where the population is Teutonic, Liguarian, Celtic (Lombardy, Liguira, Piedmont), or Slavic (Venetia).”

Lombroso fully imparts all his knowledge on phrenology and the cause of criminal behavior. Some of these observations are ludicrous in and of themselves. Lombroso seemed to think that the weather and climate caused the rate of rape and assault to fluctuate. Higher temperature and nicer weather saw an increase of rape, and Lombroso thought that it meant better weather led to higher crime rate. One noteworthy table shows a trend in crime based on geographic location within Italy. The warmer climes of Southern and Insular Italy see an increased crime rate as opposed to Northern Italy. Lombroso also collected data on the number of indictments for homicide per million people in every Italian Province in 1881, which generally increase as you get further south.

These tables are supported by Lombroso’s claims about head shape and size. Lombroso argues that when the word of a criminal is not to be trusted, one can turn to the shape of his head to confirm or deny his confessions. Lombroso cites Fazio from Southern Italy as a likely murderer. Upon measuring his appendages, Lombroso found that Fazio was most likely the culprit. These observations pitted Fazio’s appearance as the main reasons for his behavior.

“Upon examination I found that this man had outstanding ears, great maxillaries and cheek-bones, lemurine appendix, division of the frontal bone, premature wrinkles, sinister look, nose twisted to the right—in short, a physiognomy approaching the criminal type; pupils very slightly mobile, reflexes of the tendons quicker on the right side than on the left, great tactile obtuseness, more in the right hand (5 mm.) than in the left (4 mm,); motor and sensorial mancinism; a large picture of a woman tattooed upon his breast…and on his arm the picture of a girl. He had an epileptic aunt and an insane cousin, and investigation showed that he was a gambler and idler. In every way, then, biology furnished in this case indications which…would have been enough to convict him…”

Describing his findings in this way make them seem more official and true. Lombroso also cites atavism, or a regression to primitive behavior, as a sign of criminality. On the back end of the Brigandage and a genera state of non-industrialization, this paints Southern Italy as a more likely culprit of criminal behavior. The entirety of The Criminal Man adds to the Northern belief that they are the superior race. Alfredo Niceforo expanded on Lombroso’s findings and added eugenic beliefs to the societal opinions of the North and South.

Alfredo Niceforo (1876-1960)

Alfredo Niceforo rode on the back of Lombroso and with him came more radical thought. While he was born in Catania, he was raised in Northern (and Teutonic) thought and worked with Lombroso extensively. One of Lombroso’s star students, Niceforo wrote Le Due Italie, which outlined the differences between the North and South. Uncovering the racist and eugenic history of Italy sheds light on the motives behind Naziism, anti-Semitism, and fascism. The separation of North and South were reason enough for people in positions of power to implement laws regarding criminology, and by extension, the North and South.

The desire for a superior race is based on Niceforo and Lombroso’s observations, as the criminal south was undesirable. Niceforo used statistics as well as Lombroso’s data collection to assert that the Southern propensity toward crime was something to be dealt with.

See the source image

Le Due Italie

Niceforo published Le Due Italie to explain how Italy seems more like two distinct countries than just the one. Arguing that those from the Arian North and Mediterranean South can be distinguished by physical features as well as skull shape and size, surface level analysis is no longer necessary.

“[The Arian race] had a thickset, short, spheroid, flat, voluminous, and heavy skull, with a large face, and a heavy lower jaw.”

Niceforo accurately describes the migration pattern of Europeans, including the Celts, German, and Slavic from the north and Mediterranean tribes from the west and south. The genetic differences established from these locations seemed like enough to explain behavioral differences, and Niceforo capitalized on it. Paired with the observed criminal activity of the South, Niceforo believed that skull shape was the basis of crime. As the Renaissance had just happened in the North, it could be noted that the South was much less developed. Niceforo took that to mean that the Arian race and superior skull shape led to a better and more civilized society.


After Lombroso died, Niceforo continued work in phrenology and statistics, looking at the material and physical attributes of a person and environment to find cues for crime. The publication of Le Due Italie allowed for social reform via laws and regulation to reduce the amount of crime in Southern Italy. Based on race, these laws were the backbone of eugenic movements that swept across Europe with the Nazis. Touting the superiority of the Arian race, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy had “science” to back up their claims. We now know that this science is not based on truth or accurate data, and the claims Lombroso and Niceforo made were racist and misguided. However, it is clear that these men’s work was instrumental in garnering distaste toward the South and has further segregated the country. Typifying the South as “Other” and not like the North helped the Nazi and Fascist movements grow in popularity, as it highlighted something the North ought to “fix.”

Works Cited

Caglioti, Angelo Matteo. “Race, Statistics, and Italian Eugenics: Alfredo Niceforo’s Trajectory from Lombroso to Fascism (1876-1960).” European History Quarterly, 3 July 2017.

Cassata, Francesco and Erin O’Loughlin, Building the Common Man: Eugenics, Racial Sciences, and Genetics in Twentieth Century Italy (2010)

“Cesare Lombroso.” Museo Di Antropologia Criminale Cesare Lombroso – Università Di Torino, 21 Jan. 2020,

Lombroso, Cesare. Crime, It’s Causes and Remedies. Translated by Henry P Horton, Montclair, 1968.

Niceforo, Alfredo. “Le Due Italie.”

“The ‘Born Criminal’? Lombroso and the Origins of Modern Criminology.” HistoryExtra, 14 Feb. 2019,

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