In 2019, the New York Times celebrated it as “the Italian capital that is broadening its horizons»: yet a dip in history is enough to see a different and, above all, very violent Milan. This is done by the Labanof Center, the forensic anthropology and odontology laboratory born in a closet of the University of Milan 25 years ago, and a unique example in Europe. Today the center deals with the identification of the bodies of those who have no name, such as shipwrecked migrants, but has not lost its archaeological vocation, which uses the same methods to examine the bodies of those who died a violent death in the past, including the martyrs. “And not only. Centuries ago we had women abused, beheaded, men killed: with archeology and jurisprudence, it is interesting for us to understand how these episodes still repeat themselves.»Explains Cristina Cattaneo, director of Labanof and professor of forensic medicine at the University of Milan.
For Cattaneo, examining ancient skeletons is not just a way to reconstruct their history: “Martyrs are also the first victims of discrimination“, explains. For scientists investigating the past, the main problem is the absence of sources: “Historical documents speak of important personalities of the city, there is little about the most vulnerable. Science helps to draw a more precise picture: today we are talking about femicide and victims of violence, but do we know how the women of a city like Milan lived, for example?».
A great help in the reconstruction comes from Sant’Ambrogio, the very Milanese bishop who in the fourteenth century not only had the remains of the martyrs he had heard about – as in the case of San Nazario, found between 395 and 397 – but also transferred relics from other cities such as Lodi, where the emperor Maximian had executed three black soldiers, Nabore, Felice and Vittore. Out of racism and hostility to their religion, Christ’s early followers were subjected to violence and torture. Often their stories are so far-fetched that it is impossible to think that they really happened: who would believe that St. George – as the legend tells – was resurrected to be subjected to other tortures?
Yet, in order to show their heroic virtues, the legends hide a basic truth: in many late ancient and medieval cities, violence was widespread and carried out in the light of the sun.
A sensational example was studied by Labanof in 2018 and concerns two saints from Milan, Gervasio and Protasio. «It is a case in which legend and reality match “, explains Cattaneo. The story of the two martyrs, discovered by Saint Ambrose who wanted to be buried in their midst, tells of two brothers: “From the bones we saw that they were very tall, their biological profile tells us they were around 20 years old. We also know about their diet: they ate a lot of lentils“. But what does science tell us about their death? The scientific data are impressive: “On the body of Protasio, two cervical vertebrae were involved by a clear lesion, he is the beheaded», Explains Cattaneo, who underlines how the beheading took place, in all probability on a stump. But there is something more: “On Protasio’s ankles there were two injuries due to a quick foot infection: in all likelihood, he was imprisoned and chained 3/4 weeks before being executed.“. His brother Gervasio was not beheaded, but beaten to death: “On the phalanx of one hand there is a cut injury: perhaps the young man tried to defend himself while being flogged».
Labanof’s exams are a fine example of science and religion that match and show that violence was the order of the day in our cities. In the hagiographic sources, the martyrs are defined biaiothanès, which in Greek means “died of violent death“. In older history we tend to justify violence, thinking it was due to poverty or hunger. None of this, indeed the most violent were often also the richest: who does not remember the deadly duel between noble teams on the streets of Verona in the Shakespearean tragedy “Romeo and Juliet”?
In the book “The decline of violence “ the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker shows, with statistics in hand, that in the past life was very ruthless. Pinker cites the study of the martyrs because it reveals what he calls «murderous radicalism» towards some discriminated social groups.
In 1986, the scientific journal ofAmerican Medical Association conducted a study on the physical torture of Jesus Christ in Palestine, based on Christian and non-Christian written sources: the details of his martyrdom are bordering on splatter. The scourging was so violent, the study reports, that “the lacerations reached the skeletal muscles and produced quivering streaks of bloody flesh. ‘ Exsanguination was among the causes of death of those who were crucified, as much as suffocation, because the weight of the body that hung, held only by the nails at the wrists, dilated the rib cage preventing the victim from breathing. It is difficult for us to understand such persistence.
Nonetheless, today we cannot really rest assured, because violence has always accompanied man, even with the end of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the “modern” ones. The anthropologist René Girard Talks about “spontaneous lynchingAnd thus describes the violent episodes in Western metropolises. On March 14, 1891, for example, nine Sicilians who emigrated to New Orleans were barbarously lynched from the city. Alberto Bonanno has reconstructed the entire story on Repubblica: «Six prisoners who had tried to escape from a back staircase were met and taken to an internal courtyard, where they were shot and killed. Among them was Monasterio, who, mortally wounded, begged his executioners to fire the coup de grace. Abbagnato was hanged from a tree after being wounded. Polizzi was found in a basement stammering disconnected sentences: a rope was passed around his neck, and the wretch was hoisted onto a lamppost. The man managed to climb with his hands, but the crowd shot him down in grisly target practice. Only Matranga and Incardona were saved “. As the protagonist of the successful series Dexter, an alleged search for justice hides in metropolitan violence, a reflection of the classic “showdown”. Jurist Donald Black wrote about it in an article explains how, all in all, the crimes of modern societies are not all that different from those committed in the Middle Ages.
Coming to our days, the phenomenon has changed its skin: whether it is a terrorist attack or the various forms of relentlessness on the web, today a transformation is taking place that feeds a narcissism of violence. It is what Michael Ignatieff calls in “The lesser evil “ the syndrome of Herostratus, named after the young Greek who burned a temple just to remember his name. It is the same attitude implicit in most terrorists and haters: to destroy the other to make sense of one’s life. “I wouldn’t want us to think of ourselves as a better society by studying the past» – concludes Cattaneo – «just look at a boat to understand it. Today, however, we have more tools to improve our societies».