The Nicolucci’s Cranioteca of the Anthropology Museum of the University of Naples Federico II

Rediscovery of a precious cultural heritage between study and dissemination

The Anthropology Museum, belonging to the Museum Centre of Natural and Physical Science, was founded in 1881 by Francesco De Sanctis, the Kingdom of Italy’s Education Minister. It represents one of the first anthropological institutions that arose in Europe. The Museum’s heritage consists of over 26,000 exhibits divided into Osteological, Archaeological and Ethnographic Collections. Most of them from 19th century are made up of specimens of the Giustiniano Nicolucci’s research, Museum’s first Director and eminent anthropologist.

Initially kept in the Institute of Anthropology, the most significant finds of the heritage, illustrating biodiversity and the anatomical and cultural evolution of mankind, were exhibited in two rooms of the Collegio Massimo dei Gesuiti from 1999. In June 2019, the Museum obtained a new exhibition room that was set up with finds recovered from the deposits after a thorough rediscovery and study work in particular of the Nicolucci’s prestigious Cranioteca.

The Cranioteca, made up of more than 2,000 specimens collected between the late 19th and early 20th century, primarily testifies the researchers’ attention toward the skull as the main tool to analyse biological variability. In addition to skulls from different parts of the world, it includes specimens with obvious malformations, so far only described in ancient publications. The recent reconnaissance allowed to bring to light further findings affected by developmental anomalies and, moreover, skulls with trauma and diseases (infectious, metabolic, congenital and neoplastic).

Therefore, the Nicolucci’s Cranioteca represents a real biological archive that documents the presence in past populations of pathologies that still afflict humanity. Studies with modern investigation techniques are in progress in the main Cranioteca findings to update the available information and give to the researchers and the public a vision of the Collection in step with current scientific knowledge.

The cranial development anomalies and pathological alterations

The main researcher of the cranial malformations of the Cranioteca was Abele De Blasio, doctor and pupil of Nicolucci. De Blasio, in order to make a contribution to the Criminal Anthropology of the South Italy, described, how he did on living beings, the anatomical and morphological aspects of the main malformed skulls, considering them as indicators of mental illness or atypical behaviour. According to the criteria of the positive anthropological school, De Blasio considered the “abnormal” as people with psychiatric disorders or delinquents and identified in the physical differences with “normal” people the imprint of moral degeneration to sanction the biological inferiority of the “different”.

The findings described by De Blasio were mostly affected by macrocephaly, microcephaly, plagiocephaly and scaphocephaly, anomalies of cranial development known today as craniosynostosis and facial dysmorphisms, caused by mutations in some genes correlated with the ossification process, such as those coding for fibroblast growth factor receptors.

The most emblematic Cranioteca find is the skull of Maria D. described by De Blasio as megalocephalus (1600 cm3) and pyramoid, with a flat forehead and nasal bones shaped like a donkey’s back. Maria, who died at the age of 52 at the Incurables Hospital in Naples, probably was suffering from epilepsy during her lifetime and, due to her “triangular” head, the ears unglued from the skull, the bulging eyes and the seizures she suffered from, she was nicknamed the Witch by the inhabitants of the Neapolitan district Pendino.

Of considerable historical and scientific value is the rediscovery of some skulls of human foetuses in different stages of development presenting premature closure of one or more cranial sutures. In relation to the pathological skulls, very interesting are some crania, never examined before, with signs attributable to syphilis, a disease that was a serious epidemiological problem between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. From the morphological analysis of the traces that this illness leaves on the skull (pits, nodular cavitations and caries sicca) and on the teeth (typical mulberry shape with evident perforations of the enamel), it emerged that the Museum possesses dozens of specimens affected by the congenital or venereal syphilis.

Pyramoid skull of Maria D. and of an individual with venereal syphilis
From the Museum to the public

The most significant finds of the Nicolucci’s Cranioteca presented in the new exhibition room, thanks also to the studies in progress, contribute to enrich the educational paths created for school groups and for citizenship in the field of museum teaching and dissemination of the culture of which Museum is the promoter. The wide range of proposals provides the opportunity to deepen, also thanks to laboratory activities, various scientific topics related to the study of man. The new path on the recovery of human skeletal remains allows us to understand how the paleopathologists reconstruct the lifestyle and the state of health of ancient populations. The didactic approach provides the active involvement especially of the high school students who experiment with modern morphological and molecular investigation techniques also using innovative digital and multimedia technologies.

Biotechnology laboratory

Following the health emergency, the Museum, in line with the objectives of the Museum Centre, has revised the educational paths, adapting them to the safety regulations. In addition to reorganize the guided tours modality, in laboratory activities the individual work of students was enhanced and theoretical-practical lessons on biotechnologies were introduced. The Museum has also made several videos to disseminate the most recent works of the Collections enhancement, some of which are available on the Museum Centre website and on social channels.

Lucia Borrelli

Lucia Borrelli

Biologist, Specialized in Biomedical Technologies, PhD in Evolutionary Biology, she is an official of the Museum Centre of Natural and Physical Sciences of the University of Naples Federico II. She takes care of the study and enhancement of the Anthropology Museum collections, museum teaching and scientific dissemination. Tutor in educational projects for school groups, she collaborates in the realization of exhibitions and cultural events. She is author of scientific and educational publications in national and international journals.

Mariailaria Verderame

Mariailaria Verderame

Graduated in Biological Sciences, PhD in Advanced Biology. She was Developmental Biology Professor and De Concilis award winner "Last Frontiers of Molecular Biology". She obtained the National Scientific Qualification -associate professor and from several years she studies the molecular mechanisms regulation of reproduction and development. Winner of a grant from the Biologists Order she is carring out a biomolecular research on the malformed human skulls of the Anthropology Museum. She is author of numerous international scientific publications.