The thousand-year-old history of tattooing in Italy

An exhibition in Bologna showcases the history of tattoos in Italy, covering the Copper Era, Ancient Rome, the 1300 Adriatic sailor age and 1800s Turin prostitutes...

Where do tattoos come from? Some say they are from the Pacific Islands, brought to Europe by Thomas Cook in the eighteenth century. Others state they came from 1960s USA and the cultural revolution. But tattoos never really ‘arrived’, because they had always existed in Europe, and Italy in particular. Just think about Ötzi, the Similaun mummy of a man who died 3000 years before Christ: he had 61 tattoos on his body, possibly for therapeutic or magical purposes.

Over the centuries, the practice of tattooing never left the Peninsula. Roman soldiers were tattooed so they could be identified if they died in battle; Adriatic sailors in the fifteenth century used tattoos to differentiate themselves from their Saracen enemies; nineteenth-century prostitutes in Turin used tattoos to mark themselves as high-class escorts. Then came Lombroso, who proposed an interpretation that quickly became popular: tattoos signified the criminal and delinquent side of mankind. After that, the art of tattooing began its decline in Italy.

To learn the full story of tattoos in Italy, visit the Medieval Town Museum in Bologna from March 29th to April 30th, and enjoy Stigmata, a rare and interesting exhibition, where you can rediscover a cultural practice that has often been despised and subjected to social ‘stigmas’. Let it reveal how what is found on the outside often comes from within, and that people, wherever they are from, always have a common history.

Federico Flamminio