Even the hospital, in Venice, is a Renaissance masterpiece: the facade of the Scuola Grande di San Marco, which opens into Campo SS. Giovanni e Paolo, is considered one of the greatest architectural and artistic jewels of the lagoon city.
Right next to the main entrance, located in the spaces of the former Scuola di Santa Maria della Pace, it is possible to visit the small “Andrea Vesalio” Museum of Pathological Anatomy.
The birth of the collection can be traced back to 1874, when the hospital’s anatomical dissector was recommended to preserve the most relevant anatomopathological specimens. From that time on, the collection was regularly supplemented, particularly thanks to the work of Giuseppe Jona. The museum houses the death mask of Jona himself, an extraordinary figure of a physician and a man who under in 1943 committed suicide in order not to reveal to the German authorities the names of the Jews left in Venice.
The museum consists of one small room, and has nine display cases with dry and liquid preparations. Among the osteological exhibits are bone tumors, hyperostosis, trauma, a collection of 10 femurs and 32 skull caps showing various pathologies. A collection of ancient calculi shows how this affliction, in the days when it could not be treated promptly, could become a very serious problem. The liquid preparations, on the other hand, are principalmnte designed to illustrate certain diseases that affected the Venetian lagoon in particular, related to epidemics (tuberculosis), to once-common diseases (leprosy), or to glassmaking.
But it is one preparation in particular that attracts attention, in a display case placed right in the center of the room: the whole body of a male affected by various malformations, including kyphosis and dwarfism.
The striking details of this find, with a stature of 67 cm and an estimated age of around 50 years, are many. The shrunken body still possesses hair, facial hair, but most importantly-uncommon detail-it still has eyes in situ.
The visible incision on the skull is typical of an autopsy, but it is the two large sutures on the chest and back that are unusual. After the autopsy, evidently this gentleman was prepared for museum purposes. Initially scholars thought the method used was tannization by Lodovico Brunetti, the same anatomist who prepared the “Punished Suicide“. Tannization was an anatomical preservation process that involved, after cleaning and degreasing the tissues, ultilizing them with tannic acid diluted with demineralized water and dehydrating them with compressed hot air.
But when this Venetian artifact was inspected radiographically, it was discovered that it was devoid of internal organs, which had been replaced by a filling material. This gentleman was eviscerated, his skin removed, dehydrated, and finally repositioned on his previously treated skeleton by filling the remaining empty cavities with tow or other material. This is thus an authentic human taxidermy, the same procedure used for stuffing animals.
I have often been asked over the years why we do not “stuff” human beings. The answer is that it’s been tried, but the results are not particularly good. Over time, dried human skin tends to shrink, becomes brittle and easy to crack, and any prosthetic eyes eventually emerge unnaturally. The color of the epidermis is also not kept particularly true, and the questionable results of this technique can be seen in the few taxidermies in anatomical museums (below is a display case of human taxidermies at the Museum of Sanitary Art in Rome).
The taxidermied human specimen from Venice is truly unique, both because of the decision to prepare it in this rather unusual way and because of the pathologies it illustrates. And, like all “integral” anatomical specimens, it also encourages our emotional reaction: it is impossible not to wonder what kind of life this man, dwarfed and hunchbacked, had in the Venice of the second half of the 19th century; what hardships and pains he suffered, but also what desires and happiness he might have known, before ending up eternalized in a museum. The treatment meted out to him, commonly used for animals, might seem like a final affront, but it actually relates back to a fervent period of continuous experimentation, in which countless different techniques were tried out to perfect the art of anatomical preparation.
Personally, therefore, I find both specular aspects, pathos and pietas, moving and humane. The pathos of the human subject that forms the basis of the anatomical object, the often anonymous existence behind any preparation, with its sometimes tragic uniqueness; and the pietas that is inherent in the medical vocation as well as in the desire to preserve deformity and disease for the purpose of study, to understand their mystery and to try, if possible, to cure and alleviate the suffering of others.
The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.
Welcome back! Before we dive into our new harvest of wonders, I begin by inviting you on Sunday, April 16 at Defrag in Rome: I will be giving a talk in the truly extraordinary context of Danza Macabra Expo, an event curated by CRUSH – Collective Visual Art. In addition to a collective art exhibition, over the course of this month the event will be enriched by a packed schedule of events including performances, live music, role-playing games, workshops and lectures. You can take a look at the program here.
And now, on with the weird stuff!
In 2021 at the Nagasaki Zoo, the female gibbon Momo gave birth to a cub. In itself this would not be big news, except that Momo lives alone and has never had contact with other males. How could this virginal conception happen? After two years of research, and DNA tests, those in charge came to the conclusion that Momo became pregnant… through aglory hole.
In Shakespeare’s plays, monstrosity is made explicit in deformed bodies, nefarious instincts, and through language itself. Michela Compagnoni has explored all this in a new book reviewed in this insightful and fascinating article [in Italian]. (Thanks, Bruno!)
The first lab-grown meat burger was presented in London 10 years ago. Since then, technologies have evolved, costs are gradually coming down, and synthetic meat seems to be on its way to becoming a possible ethical and ecological alternative to traditional meat in the future. But at this point, why limit ourselves to producing beef slices when we can create recipes from extinct animals?
The one below, produced by an Australian company, is a mega-meatball made from the DNA of a mammoth.
Yet I would not recommend tasting it, because the scientists themselves have no idea of the allergic problems a 5,000-year-old protein could cause in humans. (And so goes my idea for a new fast food chain, “Jurassic Pork.”)
On L’indiscreto, a great piece by Alessio Montagner [in Italian] on Jesus’ penis, Mary’s vagina and more generally the symbolic density of genitalia in sacred art. (Thanks, Gaberricci!)
Park Van Tassel (1853-1930) was an American aerial stunt pioneer. Originally a bartender in Albuquerque, he became interested in areostatic flying beginning in 1879 and decided to become a professional daredevil; his performances consisted of parachuting from his hot air balloon. But although today he is considered an important figure for some technical innovations and for introducing women (i.e., his wife and daughters) to the sport, at the time not everyone thought him particularly skilled. Many of his shenanigans did not end exactly as planned, and Van Tassel often ended up injuring himself or crashing-landing so much so that the crowd often booed him or even sabotaged the balloon. As Jan Bondeson reports in Strange Victoriana, in one case a spectator ended up lying unconscious because of a ballast carelessly thrown by Van Tassel; in another, the reckless aeronaut risked being killed when his legs got caught in the balloon’s support ropes while his parachute had already opened; in yet another, a wedding that was to take place in the air had to be cancelled because no priest or justice of the peace agreed (understandably) to ascend in a balloon along with Van Tassel.
And they were right: flying with him was really not good business, as the 1889 incident in Honolulu tragically demonstrated. Van Tassel and his co-pilot Joe Lawrence had just taken flight in front of a cheering crowd when the hot air balloon was displaced by the wind toward the ocean; unable to control it, Van Tassel and his colleague jumped by parachute, but as they gently descended they realized that an even worse fate awaited them below… Van Tassel managed to reach the shore unharmed, but the poor assistant ended up mauled by sharks.
In the first of my Milan anatomy lectures, I mentioned a peculiar court proceeding that took place in France in 1659, in which on trial came the poor erectile capacities of a nobleman, accused by his wife of failing to fulfill his marital duties — impotence, at the time, was almost the only reason for a woman to file for divorce. This trial, in which the defendant had to prove his manhood by attempting copulation before an attentive jury of doctors and magistrates, was not an isolated case. Here is an article about the history of impotence trials.
There are those who look at a photo from when they were 16 years old, think back to that time and say, “I was a little immature, but I was still me after all.” And there are those who wonder, “but was that really me?” as if they no longer recognize themselves.
Some of us, in short, naturally see a continuity (a “narrative arc,” as a screenwriter would put it) in our life experience, while others feel subject to metamorphoses so continuous and profound that the past is crowded with many outdated and now extraneous versions of themselves. I certainly belong to the second category.
By now there is a good deal of psychological research showing precisely how perception about one’s own past identity varies greatly from person to person, so much so that scholars have even coined two terms to denote the two different types of approach. Are you continuers or dividers?
“It was about four bells in the middle watch, the “churchyard” watch, as the four hours after midnight is called, that it happened. We of the mate’s watch were on deck–the men for’ard, Burton and I under the break, and Mr. Thomas pacing the poop above our heads. Suddenly, apparently close aboard on the port hand, there came howling out of the darkness a most frightful, wailing cry, ghastly in its agony and intensity. Not of overpowering volume–a score of men shouting together could have raised as loud a hail-it was the indescribable calibre and agony of the shriek that almost froze the blood in our veins. […] Even the old man was awakened by it and came up on deck. Everyone was listening intensely, straining their eyes into the blackness that enveloped us. A moment or two passed and then as we listened, wondering, and silent, again that appalling scream rang out, rising to the point of almost unbearable torture and dying crazily away in broken whimperings. No one did anything, or even spoke. We stood like stones, simply staring into the mystery-laden gloom.”
This sounds like a passage from a William Hope Hodgson short story, but instead it is a truthful account of a nighttime scream heard at sea by the crew of a sailing ship in the early twentieth century and still left unexplained.
How did the idea of the Martians come about? The one above is one of the maps of Mars made by Schiaparelli in the late 1800s. The astronomer christened those mysterious rectilinear formations “canals”-a term mistranslated into English as canals, which by definition implies the idea that they are artificial. Soon many other scholars became convinced that those strange structures were too regular to be mere rivers, and from there to the idea that intelligent beings might inhabit the planet’s surface was a short step. When the first probes photographed and mapped Mars more closely, it was realized that the channels were just optical illusions; but without this mistake who knows if we would ever have science fiction as we know it today.
At Waterloo, one of the bloodiest battles in history, 20,000 soldiers died, plus thousands of horses. But then where did all those bones end up? A recent historical study has provided a surprising answer: they were illegally unearthed between 1834 and 1860 to refine and bleach sugar.(Thanks Vito, RIP)
Let’s keep talking about bones. In just one year, in 1657, Genoa lost two-thirds of its population to the plague. There were so many dead that numerous mass graves had to be resorted to. One of these was found in 1835, during renovation work in the city park of Acquasola; it was then decided to move the remains to the tunnels that develop underground in the area. So even today, just a few meters below the feet of dog walkers and children playing, mountains of stacked bones hide.
The tunnels cannot be visited, but here are some photos taken by speleologists.
The Essentials of Smallpox is a manuscript compiled (probably in a single copy) in the late 17th or early 18th century by Japanese physician Kanda Gensen. The sheets have been worked in such a way as to illustrate the plagues of smallpox in relief.
Growing, in the shadow of the gallows, is a monstrous fruit. It is a prodigious aphrodisiac, but it also serves as an indispensable ingredient in the witch’s recipe book-who, according to legend, mixes it with the fat of stillborn children, thus creating an ointment with which she can fly to the sabbath.
As Pliny and Dioscorides relate, this anodyne natural was applied as an analgesic before surgical operations because of the discrete soporific and sedative properties attributed to it by learned medicine prior to the 16th century, which made use of it in various forms-from the extract of the fruit, to the seeds, to the actual root.
Countless ailments were said to be cured by the mandrake: it was used both for external and internal use, as well as to heal infertility and impotence (its renowned value as an erotic stimulant is even attested by one of the epithets of the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite Mandragoritis, and, by the more puritanical, by nicknames for it as the apple or even testicle of the devil), both against menstrual disorders, quartan fever, excess black bile (the dreaded melancholia, the cause of numerous ailments, including mental ones), diseases characterized by inflammation of one or more parts of the body, from the eyes to the anus, against abscesses, indurations, and even tumors.
Mandrake was used according to the many uses suggested by premodern pharmacopoeia, but also as a fetish: it was sold as an amulet by the root-diggers, a branch of merchants who specialized in extracting the plant-who, however, apparently peddled in its place roots of bryony or other common plants, tactically carved.
A vegetable at the intersection with the other kingdoms-the mineral, because of its chthonic origin, and the animal, indeed, even human… – sought after yet feared, admirable and deadly, the mandrake belongs to the family of the infamous nightshade, associated like its “sister” with witchcraft for its psychoactive properties due to its high concentration of scopolamine, a tropane alkaloid found mainly in its roots. It is a solanacea, whose intricate, vaguely anthropomorphic shaped roots have intrigued the human imagination since ancient times, so much so that it has been attributed a sex (which determines its shape and color), human-like genitalia and a rather difficult character, which causes it, for example, to hide from impure people and allow itself to be tamed only by those who show it a cross or spray it with menstrual blood or urine.
This sort of personification has resulted in the plant sometimes being treated as a small individual, made of living flesh: a homunculus, literally, endowed among other things with a power execrable. Around the figure of this prodigious plant, in fact, hovers for centuries a gloomy legend : it is said that it screams, when extracted from the earth, with such shrieks as to make the unwary “pickers” lose their senses or even kill them on the spot. This deadly capacity of the prized booty then necessitates complex contrivances by which those about to dig the mandrake out of the ground can preserve their health (and survive it).
The most common contrivances follow a common pattern: at the center of all variants, there is in fact the sacrifice of a dog (the only exception is the one Frazer attributes to the Jewish tradition, in which a donkey), most often with black fur; to this animal before dawn on Friday-not coincidentally, the day named after the goddess of love-the plant is tied, of whose roots a single strand is left still buried. The dog, purposely hungry, is then made to run away with the call of a tasty morsel; in doing so it snatches the entire plant from the ground, which bursts into deadly squeals, which, unfortunately, cause the sudden death of the unsuspecting animal. The humans present-who up to that point have kept their ears well covered or even plugged with cotton sealed with pitch or wax-can then approach and pick up the plant, which, thus “let loose,” is now rendered harmless.
A fascinating aspect of the mandrake is its origin, according to legend, which makes it a literal fruit of hanging-the product of thecross between man and the earth(Zarcone).
Certain Anglo-Saxon and Germanic traditions call this plant gallows man, mad plant e dragon doll, terms that evoke the human and somewhat monstrous origin of the mandrake. Indeed, the seed from which this fabled “capestro flower” is formed would be precisely the human one, scattered on the ground at the moment of death by the criminal subjected to the infamous execution par excellence.
Already climbing the steps of the gallows, the dying man imagines himself suspended between heaven and earth, thrown into a limbo from which only divine forgiveness could pull him to safety, as well as rejected by the community gathered there to voraciously admire his agony, in all its physiological aspects.
The suspension of which the condemned man was a victim would obliterate his body(Tarlow – Battel Lowman), annihilating it as a social object, placing it in exile in a liminal zone both geographically and metaphorically (as, moreover, also occurred in the display of the corpse through gibbet); the rope, the instrument of execution, which although theoretically should have fractured or dislocated the upper cervical vertebrae of the condemned man, leading him quickly to death, most often ended up strangling him, thus disrupting his features and causing him to inevitably evacuate feces, urine and, depending on the sex of the victim, menstrual blood or seminal fluid.
Not to be overlooked is the fact that, by virtue of the magical-medical theory of the transfer of life energy from the dead person to his or her survivor, people eagerly sought contact with the body of the punished offender, still imbued with vitality (which gave him or her invaluable medical potency). These are the secrets of the corpse, passed down in a veritable consumer literature in which, as Camporesi explains, therapeutic occultism combines with necromantic pharmacopoeia and natural magic to crown a Faustian dream of long life and eternal youth.
According to a logic that considers putrefaction a black copulation capable of making the dead a “wellspring of health,” the living can keep healthy by preying on the deceased; it can even transmit its own ills to it, deriving from them the energy that the spirits, in turmoil in those last moments, still bestow on the corpse. The dead person is thus paradoxical dispenser of life (Camporesi).
That is why the stroke, or the touch of the hanged man, was believed to be curative: the hand of the corpse was shaken or put in contact with the parts of the body affected by skin diseases, blemishes, goiters and excrescences (from leek to wart to sebaceous cyst), as Davies and Matteoni masterfully explain. Imagine, then, how much power may reside in the seminal legacy left by the hanged man: the mandrake, inhuman progeny of the gallows!
The plant that ignites eros and brings death arises from the intersection of these same two principles, that is, from the climax reached in so-called “angelic lust.”
This euphemism designates the post-mortem priapism observed since antiquity in the corpse of the executed, especially if it died by strangulation. This is a phenomenon that has inspired not only various essays on sexology and the psychology of deviance but also great novelists such as Sade, Musset, Joyce and Burroughs. We are thus speaking of a “mortal erection” that was sometimes followed even on the scaffold by ejaculation, and it was to this very phenomenon that ancient herbaria traced the origin of the mandrake, which arose from the semen emitted by the condemned at the moment of death.
The ability to exhibit an erection literally terminal and culminating in ejaculation, among other things, was a decisive component in the name that qualified this mode of execution as an “infamous death.” Indeed, hanging appears as the most shameful of departures throughout Western history (but not only, according to Old Testament Deuteronomy, where it is associated in this ignominious aura with crucifixion, another example of death by suspension). Whether it was considered degrading because it was imposed on criminals of the humblest background and/or despicable crime, or conversely imposed on them precisely because it was felt to be dishonorable, hanging was in any case the most common type of execution; according to tradition, it was also the death of the last and worst, as the apocryphal last events of Judas, the victim of a grotesque and studiously humiliating agony, remind us. Such an aura of infamy is probably why, as Owens notes in Stages of Dismemberment, hanging is almost absent in hagiography, and may have arisen precisely from the “embarrassing” physiological phenomena that accompany this particularly spectacular form of death.
Among these bodily events, the celestial orgasm we have already discussed-which in the female corpse has its counterpoint in the possibility of a loss of blood from the vagina, accompanied by a sprinkling of the labia and clitoris, in a spontaneous menstruation caused by the action of gravity on the uterus resulting in prolapse of the sexual organs-is simply the most “scandalous” because it involves the genitals. As Hurren vividly recounts in Dissecting the Criminal Corpse, many condemned men urinated and/or defecated, at the fatal moment; others, victims of suggestion, stained their robes with ejaculated semen; there were gaseous exchanges caused by the deceased’s digestion, and decaying blood leaked from the mouth and nostrils, in a purgation made all the more disconcerting by the rigor mortisduring which the gases, unable to escape entirely through the anus or nose, passed through the trachea, giving the impression that the corpse groaned and croaked as if it had still been alive and aching.
Although life, as commonly understood, no longer resided in the limbs of the hanged man, something remained that seemed to defy the justice that had been done. From the invicible erection, that is, from the last “tears”-as this ejaculation was poetically called in articulo mortis – shed by the criminal on the ground, would then form, under his corpse left hanging, the mandrake.
This therapeutic and dangerous plant-a veritable pharmakon, remedy and poison, in the dual Greek sense – constitutes in short, on a par with the rope used to execute the criminal or the healing touch of the hanged man’s hand, another example of the posthumous ways by which the condemned man, once dead, goes from nefarious to salvific for the community that expelled him. In fact, once he repents, it is as if the criminal is reintegrated into the community through his own execution, moving from the status of a tainted and defiling individual to that of a “salutary” element.
The corpse of the executed criminal, through the medicinal virtues of his mortal remains or through the generation of the mandrake, thus acquires a “posthumous” social life through the distribution of his energies, and becomes the site where, in a tangible way, the salvation that resides in repentance occurs.
Costanza De Cillia has a PhD in Philosophy and Science of Religions. Her main fields of research are the aesthetics of violence and the anthropology of capital execution
Another year is behind us, a new one begins.
This may seem like something to do with the passage of time, but it is relative to space: the year exists because we are moving, carried by our planet-arch along its sidereal trajectory around a fiery star.
In short, the New Year reminds us that even when we seem to be standing still, we are actually always on the move.
And I have been traveling the length and breadth of Italy again for a few months now, at work on some books whose details I will reveal in the coming times. I hope the fruits of my wanderings will be enticing enough to make you want to indulge in the very surreal thrill of travel!
For now, I wish you all my warmest wishes for a 2023 full of oddities and quirks… Keep The World Weird!
A few days after Elizabeth II’s death, a bizarre piece of news went around the world: the Royal Palace beekeeper, John Chapple, reportedly alerted the bees to the Queen’s death.
The strange custom of notifying these insects of their master’s death, as explained by several folklorists questioned on the matter, is a centuries-old tradition and stems from the superstition that if the event was not communicated, the bees might die or abandon the hives.
Indeed, even in the rest of Europe this type of funeral announcement is a well-documented tradition, and several studies have shown that there are stereotypical formulas for presenting the news to the hives. Sometimes these standard formulas served to incite the bees to produce more wax for candles to be used during the funeral, as in this little poem used in Navarre:
Little bees, little bees, make some wax!
The master is dead
and there is a need for light in the church.
It should be noted that bees in particular have always enjoyed a special status, compared to other domestic animals. The human-bee relationship has always been interwoven with dense symbolism, which is reflected in the sacred importance of wax and honey, and translated into a whole series of specific rituals and customs. In almost all traditions there are, for example, prohibitions and cautions regarding how to get possession of the first hive (it is said that it must be stolen, or on the contrary absolutely not stolen, that it must be a gift or categorically cannot be, etc.). The proper way to address bees is also codified, complete with words that are to be avoided and formulas of respect that prevent insult.
Bees, however, are not unique. In peasant cultures, with a rural-pastoral structure, life is spent in close contact with animals, on which subsistence depends; they are central to the daily concerns of the household, with which they share, willingly or unwillingly, labors and vicissitudes. Farmyard and barn animals thus become a true offshoot of the family.
It is not surprising, then, that mourning can also be “extended” to the other farm animals, which to some extent are reputed to be affectively close to those who care for them; what is more interesting, however, is how mourning can be extended even to objects.
Di Nola writes:
In the Lucanian territory, in Latronico (Potenza) and Miglionico (Matera) it is customary to put a black ribbon on mules and horses belonging to the family of the deceased. In Calabria in the area of Siderno (Reggio Calabria) the red stripe that supports the bell of sheep and oxen is replaced for thirty days or a whole year with a black stripe. In Bagnara Calabra (Reggio Calabria), when the master hunter dies, a black handkerchief is placed around the dog’s neck. If the dead man was a farmer, it is placed at the cow’s horns. It was also observed that black ribbon was applied not only to animals but also to bicycles and mopeds. In some villages a black band is placed on the back of the bed where the person died. The door of the house affected by misfortune is black-lined and the black band is left there until it is worn away by time and weather. In Sicily in some villages that observe strict mourning, black ribbons and cords are attached to the pack animals, and the halters, bows and other harnesses are dyed black. In Ucriva (Messina) strips of black cloth are attached to cats and dogs and to the feet of hens, and a bow is tied to donkey halters. In our days some people put it on cars. In Gallura, in Olbia, the dog’s collar is removed, and the clapper is removed from the bell that hangs from the necks of those beasts (goats, cows, sheep) that guide the herds. In Calangianus, a black ribbon is tied to the favorite horse and oxen of the deceased. Similar information appears in most Italian demological sources.
(Alfonso Maria di Nola, The Black Lady. Anthropology of Death and Mourning, 2003)
The custom of covering mirrors in the dwelling where someone has just died, though on the one hand related to some popular beliefs (the soul of the deceased person could be “trapped” in the mirror), on the other hand appears to be in line with this extension of mourning to the objects of the home, in this particular case going to prohibit a vanity — the gazing at oneself — that would be out of place during a social moment when a state of contrition and grief is required.
Such practices are intended to express a grief, a loss that is so great and irreparable that it also affects for a time all that surrounds the bereaved family, all those things that in one way or another had to do with the deceased person. In this sense, it is also a way for relatives to express the extent and depth of their affliction.
From a broader perspective, the relationship between individual and society is made explicit not only in life but also in lack, in the vacancy left by the deceased person. There is something terrible and at the same time poetic in all these black ribbons appearing, multiplying on animals and objects… in this image of death spreading, like a dark oil stain, all around the place from which the absence “springs.”
Certain watershed moments in our lives happen by accident, at least on the surface.
While attending university in Siena, it happened at one point that some of the lectures in the course of study were held not on the premises of my faculty, but located in the classrooms of theAccademia dei Fisiocritici, one of the oldest scientific institutions in Italy.
So one day I was in class in there, and to dilute the inhuman torment (no one should be subjected, without prior informed consent, to a general linguistics class) I got up to look for a bathroom. I asked the janitor how to get there, and he pointed to a door specifying that I had to go through the whole room because the restrooms were at the back.
When I entered, the shutters at the windows were ajar, and it took me a moment to adjust my eyes to the dimness. I finally distinguished, half a meter away from me, a strange silhouette… I focused with difficulty, and what I saw was this:
My memory is usually ragged and lazy, but that shock I remember as if it were a thing of today: the rush of adrenaline left me shaky. I found myself surrounded by other teratological specimens, although I didn’t even know the term at the time: in addition to the Siamese calf taxidermy, there were skeletons of thoracopagus lambs, malformed fetuses and human preparations.
I could have looked for an escape route, pulled straight for the restrooms cursing the janitor who had not warned me what I would be facing; instead, something clicked. I stood paralyzed for I don’t know how long, then the dismay faded, giving way to the most all-encompassing wonder I had ever felt. Precipitated in a paradoxical state, at once hypnotic and euphoric, I forgot about the bathroom, about class.
I did not leave that room until, an hour later, a fellow student came looking for me. Leaving the Academy, intoxicated and inebriated, I knew that moment would define at least in part all the rest of my life.
Why was that experience such an epiphany?
There was a hallucinatory quality to those deformed bodies that made me feel like a lost child, or at least get back in touch with a childlike trait that tends to be blunted by time: the inability to distinguish sharply between dream and reality.
(I wrote “inability to distinguish,” instead it would be better to say: the ability not to distinguish. But we’ll get to that.)
Now that I have been involved for many years precisely with anatomical or natural history museums, and their relationship to the uncanny, I understand well why that moment was so foundational for me. Without that surprise, that unexpected and cruel thrill, that cutaneous horripilation, that primal trauma, I would not have arrived at the approach that I believe informs much of my work: that of valuing the “Fantastic in science,” a concept around which I have long orbited, though without defining it explicitly until now.
Scientific and fantasy fiction are contradictory only in appearance, just as specious is the opposition between the Fantastic and Realism. Whether we are talking about film, literature or art, a double misunderstanding has plagued these disciplines for quite a while: on the one hand, Realism is merely a mode of exposition, laden with conscious choices and omissions — thus a clever pretense of verisimilitude. On the other, under the allegorical veneer, any fantastic narrative is a meditation (more or less conscious) on the reality of its own time.
In other words: realism is always a fable in disguise, while a fantastic narrative is always about concrete and current concerns.
The great difference between the two expressions is similar to what in music is called timbre; different are the instruments that play it, different are the filters, effects, distortions, and vibrations that are produced, but the note may well be the same.
In the artistic-literary sphere, therefore, such a dialectic never goes beyond the epidermis of the story, but I am convinced that on serious examination it does not hold between scientific language and the fantastic dimension either. While we are accustomed to recognizing the scientific themes that sometimes populate art or fantastic literature (think of Frankenstein), at first glance the presence of fantastic elements that run through scientific narratives — which are nothing more than a realist register taken to extremes — is less obvious.
It is the study of anatomy, human and animal, that in my eyes encapsulates more than other disciplines a propensity for the Marvelous.
On the one hand it is infused with all the epic of the heroes of science, the pioneering cartography of the body as a virgin continent to be explored, the esoteric toponymy and nomenclature; but the medical rhetoric of case reports — despite having developed a predilection for aseptic language honed over the centuries — is still descended from the accounts of prodigies and monstrous births of the Sixteenth Century. It is not uncommon to encounter medical papers that resemble veritable short stories.
Pietro da Cortona, Tabulae anatomicae, 1741
On the other hand, I have always been fascinated by anatomical plates (with their unintentional surrealism) and especially by the spectacular aspect of some museum preparations — such as those that treacherously stood before me at the Accademia dei Fisiocritici.
Precisely in the monstrous preparations, but also in certain dissections that unfold the body in unexpected visual distortions, there is an element of transfiguration of matter that I think is necessary for one to be able to speak properly of the Fantastic.
Honoré Fragonard, Écorché of Horse and Rider (1771), Fragonard Museum, Paris.
12-part human skull section, preparation by Ryan Matthew Cohn.
In short: If I were asked to name a place that perfectly represents my idea of the Fantastic, I would not think of any enchanted glade inhabited by fairies and goblins, nor of a crumbling mansion haunted by some evanescent ghost. Nor would I address distant hypothetical planets populated by inconceivable life forms.
I would direct the interlocutor to an anatomy museum.
Prepared in liquid twins, MUSA, Naples.
Tracing the fantastic in science, then, has broader and deeper repercussions. It means reconsidering the distance between mathematical-scientific and artistic-humanistic disciplines.
There is a widespread idea that the artist is predominantly irrational and emotional, but anyone who has ventured to produce any form of art knows very well that it is a work of ingenuity considered as an inseparable whole: it is necessary to guarantee space for the unknown to intervene in order to harmonize and elaborate it thanks to the control that technique guarantees.
On the other hand, the researcher or scientist proceeds in a kindred way — in spite of the different timbre, semiotic register, and tools — that is, in perennial balance between the describable and the indescribable, putting their faculties to good use indiscriminately, tuning the scruple of reasoning with those vast unfathomable areas from which intuition and unexpected illuminations spring.
“Eureka!” Archimedes in the bath, 16th-century woodcut.
No human quest, in other words, is wholly rational or irrational: for we only move in an attempt to untangle the thicket of symbols we have inherited or created ourselves, and to overcome them. The poet and the scientist who intend to reach some truth must strain in a constant effort against the traps of language, of categories, of preconceptions.
In this, as I said, the child’s ability not to make big distinctions between dream and reality would be a discipline to cultivate since, when needed, it allows us to place ourselves beyond traditional separations.
It is useful to access that privileged vantage point from time to time, because from there the heterogeneous stimuli that animate our thinking are no longer judged a priori: and the multiple currents, coming from all directions, that churn and eddy under our keel, are still the same ocean.
(This post is dedicated to that janitor who at the time did not warn me of what I was getting into. I don’t know his name, but he was infinitely more important to my education than the linguistics professor.)