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Bringing an Italian Vampire Back to Life (With a Brick in Her Mouth!)

Bringing an Italian Vampire Back to Life (With a Brick in Her Mouth!)

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A woman who lived in 16th century Italy was buried in a most unusual fashion. Originally excavated in a mass grave of medieval plague victims several years ago, the woman’s skull was found with a brick lodged in its jawbone, indicating that this hard and bulky object had been shoved into her mouth before she was entombed.

Researchers eventually concluded that those responsible for this strange act believed she had been an Italian vampire, and the brick was intended to prevent her from feeding off the flesh of the plague victims buried beside her. Now, through the technique of facial reconstruction, this Italian vampire has been resurrected.

The facial reconstruction of the so-called Italian vampire used facial profile and projections based on tomography measurements of the woman’s skull unearthed in Venice. (Cicero Moraes / CC BY 4.0)

The facial reconstruction of the so-called Italian vampire used facial profile and projections based on tomography measurements of the woman’s skull unearthed in Venice. (Cicero Moraes / CC BY 4.0)

Facial Reconstruction Brings Italian Vampire to Life

Thanks to the meticulous work of a facial reconstruction expert, we know know exactly what this supposedly voracious Italian “vampire” actually looked like. Using scans of the human remains along combined with historic data, Brazilian 3D designer and illustrator Cicero Moraes recreated her precise features in a detailed, 3D-style computer model.

In an article published on the open access site Figshare, Moraes displayed his impressive handiwork to the public for the first time. He presented multiple images of a normal-looking, middle-aged woman who appears to have been around 60 years old at the time of her death.

Moraes’ images show the so-called “Italian vampire” with a pointed chin, wrinkled skin, a slightly off-center nose and straight silvery hair. One of his recreations shows the woman with the brick inserted in her mouth just after her death, vividly demonstrating a bizarre practice that reflects the fear and paranoia that swept through medieval Europe following the arrival of the killer disease that caused the mid-14th century catastrophe known as the Black Death (and other devastating plague outbreaks that continued up through the 17th century).

Of Plagues and Vampires: Times of Paranoia and Fear

The discovery of the woman’s remains dates back to 2006, when the Archaeological Superintendency of Venice initiated an extensive excavation of medieval burial pits at Nuovo Lazzaretto, a medieval site located on the outskirts of Venice. A sanitorium dedicated to the care of plague victims was opened sometime during the 14th century, and it was especially busy during a severe outbreak of the bubonic plague that decimated the population of Venice in 1576.

The woman’s skull was one of many mixed in with an assortment of bones from individuals who had been buried side-by-side over the course of many years after succumbing to the plague. But the presence of a stone brick stuffed into her jaw made this skull an entirely unique find. Studies on the positioning of the brick made it clear its insertion was intentional. That’s when researchers first began to link this discovery with stories from medieval European folklore about vampiric plague carriers.

“When they identified a vampire, one of those responsible for the plague according to popular myth at the time, they introduced the stone as a protective element, preventing it from feeding and also from infecting other people,” Moraes explained in the new article about his work, entitled “The Facial Approximation of the “Vampira” from Venice, 15th—17th Centuries.”

The process of creating the facial reconstruction of the Italian vampire was complex. Comparison of projections and adjustment of the final bust. (Cicero Moraes / CC BY 4.0)

The process of creating the facial reconstruction of the Italian vampire was complex. Comparison of projections and adjustment of the final bust. (Cicero Moraes / CC BY 4.0)

A Historical Inquiry into the Italian Vampire

Over years of research into the Italian vampire, scientists carried out various studies of the woman’s skull and learned a few details about her life. “Studies indicated that the skull belonged to a woman of European ancestry, who died around 61 (±5) years of age, belonged to the lower class and ate mainly grains and vegetables,” Moraes wrote.

While these facts revealed interesting information about the woman’s background and lifestyle, Moraes was intrigued enough by the story of her discovery to want to learn more. This motivated his quest to create realistic 3D-style re-creations of her face and head, which he was able to accomplish using 3D images obtained during scans of the skull that revealed its dimensions from different angles. These scans were taken with the brick removed, to prevent any distortion of her natural features.

Because there was no way to recreate the shape of her nose exactly from such scans, Moraes relied on data taken from measurements of living people who shared the woman’s ancestral background and general skull shape to determine its likely features. He made her hair grey and straight based on a similar understanding of the tendencies of her ethnic type.

One thing that the discoverers of the skull had debated was whether the insertion of the brick would have damaged her teeth and mouth in a significant way. To answer this question, Moraes made an artificial brick out of styrofoam that was cut to the same dimensions as the medieval brick, and he then performed an experiment where he stuck the brick in his own mouth to see how it would work.

As it turned out he was able to insert the artificial brick without excessive difficulty. He then created an image showing what the woman would have looked like with the brick in her mouth in the same position.

Facial reconstruction took into account structural adjustment for placing the brick in the oral cavity of the 3D model. (Cicero Moraes / CC BY 4.0)

Facial reconstruction took into account structural adjustment for placing the brick in the oral cavity of the 3D model. (Cicero Moraes / CC BY 4.0)

Italian Vampire Provides Breakthrough in Vampire Archaeology

The hypothesis that the woman was believed to be a vampire by the people of 16th century Venice emerged from a 2009 analysis by John Moores University forensic anthropologist Matteo Borrini, who in recent years has been best known for his study of the Shroud of Turin. As Borrini explained in an interview with Reuters, his research represented “the first time that archaeology has succeeded in reconstructing the ritual of exorcism of a vampire.”

According to Borrini, in the medieval era the decomposition process of a dead body was not well understood. When gravediggers were repeatedly called on to reopen mass graves for plague victims they would sometimes find bodies bloated by gas or with their fingernails and hair still growing. Sometimes they discovered blood leaking from their mouths, which led them to conclude that the corpses were somehow still alive.

Inflaming public opinion further, burial shrouds laid over the deceased would sometimes develop holes over the mouth area, caused by the activity of bacteria inside the mouth of the dead person. This left their bared teeth displayed and made it look like they had been eating through their shrouds. Vampires were sometimes referred to as “shroud eaters” as a result.

From observing or hearing these kinds of stories, medieval people who lived through the mass casualty events caused by European plague outbreaks  between the 14th and 17th centuries developed a complex mythology about vampires that has lived on in one form or another to the present day.

Face of the reconstructed Italian vampire with a brick inserted in her mouth. (Cicero Moraes / CC BY 4.0)

Face of the reconstructed Italian vampire with a brick inserted in her mouth. (Cicero Moraes / CC BY 4.0)

Vampire Legends of Medieval Europe

In its original formation, the vampire legend of medieval Europe claimed that these demonic creatures would intentionally spread the plague among the living to kill as many of them as possible. They would then feed off their flesh and blood once they were entombed underground.

The vampires wouldn’t really die from the plague themselves, but would pretend to, so they could be buried in mass graves beside the true victims. Supposedly, the vampire would gain great strength from their copious consumption of decaying human remains, which would reenergize them and allow them to rise from the dead to prey on the living once again.

The completed facial reconstruction of the “Italian vampire” unearthed in Venice. (Cicero Moraes / CC BY 4.0)

The completed facial reconstruction of the “Italian vampire” unearthed in Venice. (Cicero Moraes / CC BY 4.0)

Once a vampire had been identified hiding among a group of real plague victims, the only way to stop the cycle of death and destruction was to make sure these inhuman monsters couldn’t consume their normal form of nourishment. “To kill the vampire you had to remove the shroud from its mouth, which was its food like the milk of a child, and put something uneatable in there,” said Borrini. “It's possible that other corpses have been found with bricks in their mouths, but this is the first time the ritual has been recognized.”

It isn’t known how many medieval Europeans really believed in vampires. It is nevertheless clear that those responsible for the 16th-century Italian woman’s burial were among those who did. Their reasons for concluding that she was an Italian vampire are unclear, however, and without any written records from the time there will be no way to solve the mystery of what she did to provoke such an extreme judgment and equally extreme response.

Top image: Facial reconstruction of Italian vampire with a brick in her mouth. Source: Cicero Moraes / CC BY 4.0

By Nathan Falde]

 
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Nathan

Nathan Falde graduated from American Public University in 2010 with a Bachelors Degree in History, and has a long-standing fascination with ancient history, historical mysteries, mythology, astronomy and esoteric topics of all types. He is a full-time freelance writer from... Read More

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