AAR Resident Mary Gibson FAAR’03 Explores History of Rome’s Prisons after Italian Unification

Bell from Mantellate women’s prison, Rome, Museo Criminologico

“The attitude toward history of crime and women’s history—which are my two main fields of interest—has radically changed since I started my dissertation research in the 1970s on prostitution”, explains current Academy Resident Mary Gibson FAAR’03. “At that time there didn’t seem to be much understanding on the part of either archivists or colleagues in the contemporary field on why you would study groups without power.”

For more than three decades, Mary Gibson’s research has focused on the history of crime, criminology, women, and sexuality in modern Italy. Her groundbreaking publications include Prostitution and the State in Italy (1986, second edition 1999; Italian translation 1995) and Born to Crime: Cesare Lombroso and the Origins of Biological Criminology (2002; Italian translation 2004). She also has translated, with Nicole Hahn Rafter, the two major works of the Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909): Criminal Woman, the Prostitute and the Normal Woman (2004), and Criminal Man (2006). Mary Gibson is Professor of History at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in NYC, and also teaches in the History and the Criminal Justice Programs at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

AAR Resident Mary Gibsom FAAR’03 at Rome’s Museo Criminologico

So does Gibson still get the same surprised looks in Rome when she says she is studying the history of women and crime? “That has completely changed,” she says, “thanks to the development of women’s history and criminal justice history. In particular, there has been a broadening of legal history in Italy to include social aspects of the legal system, including interest in the lives of criminals themselves.”

At the Academy this spring Mary Gibson has started to write a new book on the history of prisons in Italy from unification in the mid-nineteenth century to World War I.  The book aims to look at prison policy at the national level in the new kingdom of Italy, attempting to trace developments from the era of the Papal States to that of the new system of parliamentary government.

Three Roman prisons: ex-Carceri Nuove (1655), top; Regina Coeli (1880-1882), middle; women’s prison at S. Michele (1735), bottom

One important question for Gibson’s book has to do with the impact of new Italian citizenship status on the incarcerated—that is, whether the condition of prisoners changed significantly during the transition from Papal to secular parliamentarian rule. Here Gibson is focusing on treatment of groups according to age and gender—adults, children, men, women.

A youthful nineteenth-century prisoner (Museo Criminologico); the ex-girls’ reformatory of Buon Pastore, now the Casa Internazionale delle Donne

Plus in her study Mary Gibson is paying special attention to examples of different types of prisons, including their architecture and representation in popular culture. This was the topic of her 4 March lecture at the Academy’s Villa Aurelia, “The Prisons of Rome: Mapping Punishment after Italian Unification.”

Mary Gibson at the Villa Aurelia

For Rome, which became the new capital of Italy in 1870, those prisons include famous buildings such as Castel Sant’Angelo, San Michele, and the new prison of Regina Coeli, whose radial design in itself was felt to show the progress of modernity. Gibson in her study makes much of precisely where prisons were located in the urban fabric. In many important respects, it will be a book about Rome as a new capital—but from the bottom up.

Above, views of the S. Michele boys’ prison constructed (1703) by Clement XI. Inscription from the main cell area: “It avails little to punish the wicked unless you reform them by discipline.”

“A new experience”, says Gibson of her time at the Academy in spring 2010, “was getting permission through the good offices of the AAR to see the chapel of the Mantellate convent. This was a church for female prisoners, that had just reopened after some decades in 2005. This was new for me and something I had never done.”

Mary Gibson with AAR group visit the Mantellate chapel as part of 5 March walk to key Roman prison sites

Gibson adds, “I also went for the first time to the Academy’s Photographic Archive.  It was wonderful to see aerial photographs to understand the spatial organization of the San Michele complex, which included prisons as well as various welfare institutions.”

For many in the AAR community, thanks to Mary Gibson, a walk along the Tiber—where pretty much all of the historic prisons are situated—will never be quite the same!

At San Michele ex-boys’ prison: Mary Gibson with AAR Visiting Scholars Anton Jansen (Brock University); Allison Cooper (Colby College)


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