Mouse serenade

Even mice sing.
We have known that for 50 years, but we are only recently beginning to understand the complexity of their songs. Part of the difficulty of studying mice songs lies in their ultrasonic vocalizations, frequencies the human ear cannot perceive: in the wild, this kind of calls happen for example when a mouse pup calls for his mother.

In April, in Frontiers of Behavioral Neuroscience, a new Duke University research appeared, showing how mice songs are really much more intricate than expected.
Researchers Jonathan Chabout, Abhra Sarkar, David B. Dunson and Erich D. Jarvis have exposed the mice to different social contexts and, using new specifically elaborated software, they have analysed the frequency modulation and duration of these ultrasonic calls. Researchers have been able to break down the songs into “syllables” and clusters of sound repeated to a certain rythm, and to discover how they vary according to the situation.

If a male mouse is exposed to female urine, and therefore gets convinced that she is somewhere nearby, his singing becomes louder and more powerful, if somewhat less accurate; to awake a sleeping female, he utilizes the same song, but the “syllables” are now pronounced much more clearly.
Female mice seem to prefer songs that are complex and rich in variations; even so, when a male finds himself near an available female, his elaborate courting song switches to a simpler tune. Once the potential mate has been attracted, in fact, our little mouse needs to save energy to chase her around and try to mate.

The mouse’s ability to sing is not as articulate as in songbirds; and yet, changes in the syntax according to social context prove that the songs convey some meaning and serve a precise purpose. Researchers are not sure how much mice are able to learn to modify their vocalizations (as birds do) or how much they just choose from fixed patterns. Forthcoming studies will try to answer this question.

It is nice to better understand the world of rodents, but why is it so important?
The goal of these studies is actually also relevant to humans. In the last decade, we understood how mice are extremely similar to us on a genetic level; discovering how and to what extent they are able to learn new “syllables” could play a fundamental part in the study of  autism spectrum disorders, particularly in regard to communication deficits and neural circuits controlling vocal learning.

Male mice song syntax depends on social contexts and influences female preferences, Jonathan Chabout, Abhra Sarkar, David B. Dunson, Erich D. Jarvis. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, April 1, 2015.

Veneri anatomiche: l’ossessione del femmineo

C’è un’ossessione profonda, che attraversa i secoli e non accenna a placarsi. L’ossessione maschile per il corpo della donna.

Un corpo magnetico che conduce a sé (seduce), tirando i fili del simbolo; carne duttile e plasmabile, che nell’atto sessuale ha funzione ricettiva, eppure voragine abissale nella quale ci si può perdere; corpo castrante, che eccita la violenza e l’idolatria, corpo di dea callipigia da deflorare; scrigno che racchiude il segreto della vita, sessualità ambigua il cui piacere è sconosciuto e terribile.

Così è capitato che nel corpo femminile si sia scavato, per cavarne fuori questo suo mistero, aprendolo, smembrandolo in pezzi da ricombinare, cercando le occulte e segrete analogie, le geometrie nascoste, l’algebra del desiderio, come ha fatto ad esempio Hans Bellmer in tutta la sua carriera. Nei suoi scritti e nelle sue opere pittoriche (oltre che nelle sue bambole, di cui avevo parlato qui) l’artista tedesco ha maniacalmente decostruito la figura femminile disegnando paralleli inaspettati e perturbanti fra le varie parti anatomiche, in una sorta di febbrile feticismo onnicomprensivo, in cui occhi, vulve, piedi, orecchie si fondono assieme fluidamente, fino a creare inedite configurazioni di carne e di sogno.

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L’erotismo di Bellmer è uno sguardo psicopatologico e assieme lucidissimo, freddo e visionario al tempo stesso; ed è nella sua opera Rose ouverte la nuit (1934), e nelle successive declinazioni del tema, che l’artista dà la più esatta indicazione di quale sia la sua ricerca. Nel dipinto, una ragazza solleva la pelle del suo stesso ventre per esaminare le proprie viscere.

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L’atto di alzare la pelle della donna, come si potrebbe sollevare una gonna, è una delle più potenti raffigurazioni dell’ossessione di cui parliamo. È lo strip-tease finale che lascia la femmina più nuda del nudo, che permette di scrutare all’interno della donna alla ricerca di un segreto che forse, beffardamente, non si troverà mai.
Ma l’immagine non è nuova, anzi vuole riecheggiare lo stesso turbamento che si può provare di fronte alle numerose e meravigliose veneri anatomiche a grandezza naturale scolpite in passato da abili artisti, una tradizione nata a Firenze alla fine del XVII secolo.

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Queste bellissime fanciulle adagiate in pose languide aprono l’interno del loro corpo allo sguardo dello spettatore, senza pudore, senza mostrare dolore. Anzi, dalle espressioni dei loro volti si direbbe quasi che vi sia in loro un sottile compiacimento, un piacere estatico nell’offrirsi in questa nudità assoluta.
Perché questi corpi non sono rappresentati come cadaveri, ma essenzialmente vivi e coscienti?
L’esistenza stessa di simili sculture oggi può disorientare, ma è in realtà una naturale evoluzione delle preoccupazioni artistiche, scientifiche e religiose dei secoli precedenti. Prima di parlare di queste straordinarie opere ceroplastiche, facciamo dunque un rapido excursus che ci permetta di comprenderne appieno il contesto; sottolineo che non mi interesso qui alla storia delle veneri, né esclusivamente alla loro portata scientifica, quanto piuttosto al loro particolarissimo ruolo in riguardo al femmineo.

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Il dominio dello sguardo
Quando Vesalio, con incredibile coraggio (o spavalderia), si fece immortalare sul frontespizio della sua De humani corporis fabrica (1543) nell’atto di dissezionare personalmente un cadavere, stava lanciando un messaggio rivoluzionario: la medicina galenica, indiscussa fino ad allora, era colma di errori perché nessuno si era premurato di aprire un corpo umano e guardarci dentro con i propri occhi. Uomo del Rinascimento, Vesalio era strenuo sostenitore dell’esperienza diretta – in un’epoca, questo è ancora più notevole, in cui la “scienza” come la conosciamo non era ancora nata – e fu il primo a scindere il corpo da tutte le altre preoccupazioni metafisiche. Dopo di lui, il funzionamento del corpo umano non andrà più cercato nell’astrologia, nelle relazioni simbolico-alchemiche o negli elementi, ma in esso stesso.
Da questo momento, la dissezione occuperà per i secoli a venire il centro di ogni ricerca medica. Ed è lo sguardo di Vesalio, uno sguardo di sfida, altero e duro come la pietra, a imporsi come il paradigma dell’osservazione scientifica.

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Il problema morale
Bisogna tenere a mente che nei secoli che stiamo prendendo in esame, l’anatomia non era affatto distaccata dalla visione religiosa, anzi si riteneva che studiare l’uomo – centro assoluto della Natura, immagine e somiglianza del Creatore e culmine della sua opera – significasse avvicinarsi un po’ di più anche a Dio.

Eppure, per quanto si riconoscesse come fondamentale l’esperienza diretta, era difficile liberarsi dall’idea che dissezionare una salma fosse in realtà una sorta di sacrilegio. Questa sensazione scomoda venne aggirata cercando soggetti di studio che avessero in qualche modo perso il loro statuto di “uomini”: criminali, suicidi o poveracci che il mondo non reclamava. Candidati ideali per il tavolo settorio. La violazione che si osava infliggere ai loro corpi era poi ulteriormente giustificata in quanto alle spoglie dissezionate venivano garantite, in cambio del sacrificio, una messa e una sepoltura cristiana che altrimenti non avrebbero avuto. Grazie al loro contributo alla ricerca, avendo scontato per così dire la loro pena, essi tornavano ad essere accettati dalla società.

Lo stesso senso di colpa per l’attività di dissezione spiega il successo delle tavole anatomiche che raffigurano i cosiddetti écorché, gli scorticati. Per raffigurare gli apparati interni, si decise di mostrare soggetti in pose plastiche, vivi e vegeti a dispetto delle apparenze, anzi spesso artefici o complici delle loro stesse dissezioni. Una simile visione era certamente meno fastidiosa e scioccante che vedere le parti anatomiche esposte su un tavolo come carne da macello (cfr. M. Vène, Ecorchés : L’exploration du corps, XVIème-XVIIIème siècle, 2001).

L’uomo, che si è scorticato da solo, osserva l’interno della sua stessa pelle come a carpirne i segreti. Da Valverde, Anatomia del corpo humano (1560).

Dal medesimo volume, dissezione del peritoneo in tre atti. Nella terza figura, il personaggio tiene fra i denti la propria parete addominale per mostrarne il reticolo vascolare.

Dal medesimo volume, dissezione del peritoneo in tre atti. Nella terza figura, il personaggio tiene fra i denti il proprio grembiule omentale per mostrarne il reticolo vascolare.

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Spiegel e Casseri, De humani corporis fabrica libri decem (1627).

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Spiegel e Casseri, Ibid.

Venere detronizzata
Già nelle stampe degli écorché si nota una differenza fra figure maschili e femminili. Per illustrare il sistema muscolare venivano utilizzati soggetti maschili, mentre le donne esibivano spesso e volentieri gli organi interni, e fin dalle primissime rappresentazioni erano nella quasi totalità dei casi gravide. Il feto visibile all’interno del grembo femminile sottolineava la primaria funzione della donna come generatrice di vita, mentre dall’altro canto gli écorché maschi si presentavano in pose virili che ne esaltavano la prestanza fisica.

Spiegel e Casseri, Ibid.

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Un muscoloso corpo maschile posa per una tavola che in realtà descrive una dissezione del cranio. Dal De dissectione partium corporis humani libri tres di C. Estienne (1545).

Dal medesimo volume, l’anatomia degli intestini è baroccamente inserita all’interno di una corazza da guerriero romano.

Lo svelamento dell’utero, messa in scena simbolica della denudazione. Dal Carpi commentaria cum amplissimis additionibus super Anatomia Mundini (1521).

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La gravida di Pietro Berrettini (1618) si alza snella e graziosa per esibire il suo apparato riproduttivo.

Come si vede nelle stampe qui sotto, già dalla metà del ‘500 i soggetti femminili mostrano una certa sensualità, mentre si abbandonano a pose che in altri contesti risulterebbero indecenti e impudiche. L’artista qui si spinse addirittura a realizzare delle versioni anatomiche di celebri stampe erotiche clandestine, ricopiando le pose dei personaggi ma scorticandoli secondo la tradizione anatomica, “raffreddando” così ironicamente la scena.

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Donna che tiene la placenta di due gemelli. Ispirata a una stampa erotica di Perino Del Vaga. Dal De dissectione partium corporis humani libri tres di C. Estienne (1545).

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Dal medesimo testo, gravida che espone l’apparato riproduttivo. Il contesto di camera da letto dona alla posa una connotazione marcatamente erotica.

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Altra illustrazione ispirata a una stampa erotica di Perino del Vaga (vedi sotto).

Ecco il modello “proibito” per la stampa anatomica precedente. (G.G. Caraglio, Giove e Antiope, da Perino del Vaga)

Non bisogna dimenticare infatti che un altro sottotesto — decisamente più misogino — di alcune stampe anatomiche femminili, è quello che intende smentire, sfatare il fascino della donna. Tutta la sua carica erotica, tutta la sua bellezza tentatrice viene disinnescata tramite l’esposizione delle interiora.
Difficile non pensare a Memento di Tarchetti:

Quando bacio il tuo labbro profumato,
cara fanciulla, non posso obbliare
che un bianco teschio vi è sotto celato.

Quando a me stringo il tuo corpo vezzoso,
obbliar non poss’io, cara fanciulla,
che vi è sotto uno scheletro nascosto.

E nell’orrenda visïone assorto,
dovunque o tocchi, o baci, o la man posi,
sento sporgere le fredda ossa di morto.

(Disjecta, 1879)

Se dobbiamo credere a Baudrillard (Della seduzione, 1979), l’uomo ha sempre avuto il controllo sul potere concreto, mentre la femmina si è appropriata nel tempo del potere sull’immaginario. E il secondo è infinitamente più importante del primo: ecco spiegata l’origine dell’ossessione maschile, quel senso di impotenza di fronte alla forza del simbolo detenuto dalla donna. Pur con tutte le sue violente guerre e le sue conquiste virili, egli ne è sedotto e soggiogato senza scampo.
Ricorre dunque all’estrema soluzione: frustrato da un mistero che non riesce a svelare, finisce per negare che esso sia mai esistito.
Ecce mulier! Questa è la tanto vagheggiata femmina, che fa perdere la testa agli uomini e induce al peccato: soltanto un ammasso di disgustosi organi e budella.

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Da Valverde, Anatomia del corpo humano (1560).

La messa in scena dell’osceno
Alcune stampe cinquecentesche erano composte di diversi fogli ritagliati, in modo che il lettore potesse sollevarli e scostare poco a poco i vari “strati” del corpo del soggetto, scoprendone l’anatomia in maniera attiva. L’immagine qui sotto, del 1570 circa e poi numerose volte ristampata, è un esempio di questi antesignani dei pop-up book; pensata ad uso dei barbieri-chirurghi (l’uomo tiene la mano in una bacinella di acqua calda per gonfiare le vene del braccio prima di un salasso), consiste di quattro risvolti incollati da sfogliare in successione per vedere gli organi interni.

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Le veneri anatomiche, decomponibili, non erano dunque che la versione tridimensionale di questo genere di stampe. Gli studenti avevano la possibilità di smontare gli organi, studiarne la morfologia e la posizione senza dover ricorrere a un cadavere.

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Se la ceroplastica si propose quindi fin dal principio come sostituto o complemento della dissezione, ottimo strumento didattico per medici e anatomisti spesso in cronica penuria di salme fresche, le statue in cera costituirono anche uno dei primi esempi di spettacolo anatomico accessibile anche alla gente comune. Le dissezioni vere e proprie erano già un educativo divertissement per la buona società, che pagava volentieri il biglietto di entrata per il teatro anatomico approntato solitamente nei pressi dell’Università. Ma la collezione fiorentina di cere anatomiche contenute all’interno del Museo della Specola, voluto dal Granduca di Toscana, era visitabile anche dai profani.

Da sovrano illuminato e da appassionato di scienza qual era, si rese conto, con molto anticipo rispetto agli altri regnanti, di quanto fosse importante la cultura scientifica e di come questa dovesse essere resa accessibile a tutti. […] C’erano orari diversi per le persone istruite e per il popolo: quest’ultimo infatti poteva visitare il Museo dalle 8 alle 10 “purché politamente vestito” lasciando poi spazio fino “alle 1 dopo mezzogiorno… alle persone intelligenti e studiose”. Anche se ora questa distinzione ci suona un po’ offensiva, si capisce quanto fosse innovativa per quell’epoca l’apertura anche al grosso pubblico.

(M. Poggesi, La collezione ceroplastica del Museo La Specola, in Encyclopaedia anatomica, 2001)

Le cere anatomiche dunque, oltre ad essere un supporto di studio, facevano anche appello ad altre, più nascoste fascinazioni che attiravano con enorme successo masse di visitatori di ogni estrazione sociale, divenendo tra l’altro tappa fissa dei Grand Tour.

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Allo stesso modo delle stampe antiche, anche nelle statue di cera si ritrova la stessa esposizione del corpo della donna – passiva, sottomessa all’anatomista che (presumibilmente) la sta aprendo, spesso gravida del feto che porta dentro di sé, il volto mai scorticato e anzi seducente; e la figura maschile è invece ancora una volta utilizzata principalmente per illustrare l’apparato muscolo-scheletrico, i vasi sanguigni e linfatici ed è priva della sensualità che contraddistingue i soggetti femminili.

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Eros, Thanatos e crudeltà
Le veneri anatomiche fiorentine non potevano non suscitare l’interesse di Sade.
Il Marchese ne parla una prima volta, col tono discreto del turista, nel suo Viaggio in Italia; le menziona ancora in Juliette, quando la sua perversa eroina scopre con giubilo cinque piccoli tableaux di Zumbo che mostrano le fasi della decomposizione di un cadavere. Ma è nelle 120 giornate di Sodoma che le cere sono utilizzate nella loro dimensione più sadiana: qui una giovane fanciulla viene accompagnata all’interno di una stanza che racchiude diverse veneri anatomiche, e dovrà decidere in quale modo preferisce essere uccisa e squartata.

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Lo sguardo lucido di Sade ha dunque colto il volto oscuro, cioè l’erotismo perturbante e crudele, di queste straordinarie opere d’arte scientifica. Sono senza dubbio i volti serafici, in alcuni casi quasi maliziosi, di queste donne a suggerire un loro malcelato piacere nell’essere lacerate e offerte al pubblico; e allo stesso tempo questi modelli tridimensionali rendono ancora più evidente la surreale contraddizione degli écorché, che restano in vita come nulla fosse, nonostante le ferite mortali.
Si può discutere se il Susini e gli altri ceroplasti suoi emuli fossero o meno perfettamente coscienti di un simile aspetto, forse non del tutto secondario, della loro opera; ma è innegabile che una parte del fascino di queste sculture provenga proprio dalla loro sensuale ambiguità.
Bataille fa notare (Le lacrime di Eros, 1961) che, nel momento in cui l’uomo ha preso coscienza della morte, seppellendo i suoi morti con rituali funebri, ha anche cominciato a raffigurare se stesso, sulle pareti delle grotte, con il sesso eretto; a dimostrazione di quanto morte e sesso siano collegati a doppio filo, quali opposti che spesso si confondono.

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Le veneri anatomiche, in questo senso, racchiudono in maniera perfetta tutta la complessità di questi temi. Splendidi e preziosi strumenti di indagine scientifica, meravigliosi oggetti d’arte, misteriosi e conturbanti simboli; con il loro misto di innocenza e crudeltà sembrano ancora oggi raccontarci le intricate peripezie del desiderio umano.

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Ecco la pagina dedicata alle cere anatomiche del Museo di Storia Naturale di Firenze.

The witch girl of Albenga

And maybe it is for revenge, maybe out of fear
Or just plain madness, but all along
You are the one who suffers the most
If you want to fly, they drag you down
And if a witch hunt begins,
Then you are the witch.

(Edoardo Bennato, La fata, 1977)

Saint Calocero, Albenga. 15th Century.
A 13-year-old girl was being buried near the church. But the men who were lowering her down decided to arrange her face down, so that her features were sealed by dirt. They did so to prevent her from getting up, and raising back to life. So that her soul could not sneak off her mouth and haunt those places. They did so, ultimately, because that little girl scared them to death.
Not far from there, another woman’s body was lying in a deep pit. Her skeleton was completely burned, and over her grave, the men placed a huge quantity of heavy stones, so she could not climb out of her tomb. Because women like her, everybody knew, were bound to wake up from the dead.

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The “witch girl of Albenga”, and a second female skeleton showing deep signs of burning, are two exceptional findings brought to light last year by a team from the Pontifical Institute of Christian Archeology, directed by Professor Philippe Pergola and coordinated by archeologist Stefano Roascio and Elena Dellù. Scholars were particularly puzzled by the proximity of these two anomalous burials to the ancient church which hosted the relics of martyr Saint Calocero: if these two women were considered “dangerous” or “damned”, why were they inhumed in a privileged burial ground, surely coveted by many?

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One explanation could be that burying them there was a “sign of submission to the Church”. But there is still extensive analysis to be conducted on the remains, and already skeletons are revealing some clues which could shine a light on this completely forgotten story. Why would a child, not even 60 inches tall, instill such a deep fear in her fellow citizens?
Researchers found out small holes in her skull, which could show she suffered from severe anemia and scurvy. These pathologies could involve fainting, sudden bleeding and epileptic fits; all symptoms that, at the time, could have been easily interpreted as demonic possession.
A possible kinship between the two women has still to be confirmed, but both skeletons seem to show signs of metopism, a genetic condition affecting the suture of the frontal bones.
According to radiocarbon dating, the burials date back to a period between 1440 and 1530 AD – when the infamous witch hunts had already begun.

english-witches-making-a-spell-1489-engraving-b-w-photoIn 1326, the papal bull Super illius specula by Pope John XXII set the basis for witch hunts: as incredible as it may sound, until then intellctuals and theologists had dismissed the idea of a “commerce with the Devil” as a mere superstition, that had to be eradicated.

Therefore in those churches they are given custody of priests have to constantly predicate to God’s people that these things are completely false. […] Who has never experienced going out of one’s body during his sleep, or to have night visions and to see, while sleeping, things he had never seen while wide awake? Who could be so dull or foolish as to believe that all these things which happen in the spirit, could also happen in the body?

(Canon episcopi, X Century)

Instead, starting from the XIV Century, even the intelligentsia was convinced that witches were real, and thus began the fight not just against heresy, but also against witchcraft, a persecution the Church entrusted to mendicant orders (Dominicans and Franciscans) and which would last over four centuries. Following the publishing of Malleus Maleficarum (1487), an actual handbook about witchcraft repression, the trials increased, ironically in conjunction with the Renaissance, up until the Age of Enlightenment. The destiny of the “witch girl” of Albenga has to be framed in this complex historical period: it is not a real mystery, as some newspapers have claimed, but rather another tragic human story, its details vanishing in time. Hopefully at least a small part of it will be reconstructed, little by little, by the international team of researchers who are now working on the San Calocero excavations.

(Thanks, Silvano!)

Ballonfest 1986

On that saturday morning, September 27, 1986, Cleveland was ready for an explosion of wonder.
For six months a Los Angeles company, headed by Treb Heining, had been working to organize the event which would break, in a spectacular way, a weird world record held at the time by Disneyland: in the first hours of the afternoon, a million and a half helium-filled balloons would be released simultaneously in the city sky.

The event was planned by United Way, a nonprofit organization, as part of the fundraising campaign for its activities supporting families in Cleveland.
In Public Square, Heining and his team mounted a huge structure, 250×150 feet wide, supporting a single, huge net built from the same material of the Space Shuttle cargo nets. Under this structure, for hours and hours more than 2.500 students and volunteers had been filling the colored balloons which, held by the net, formed a waving and impressive ceiling. After a first few hours of practice, their sore fingers wrapped in bandage aids, they had begun working automatically, each one of them tying a balloon every 20 seconds. Originally two millions baloons were meant to be prepared, but since some “leaks” had occurred, with several hundreds balloons escaping the net, it was decided to stop at a lower number.

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Every precaution had been taken so that the release was completely safe: United Way worked together with the city, the Federal Aviation Administration, the fire and police department, to avoid unpleasant surprises.
Furthermore, the balloons were made of biodegradable latex, and organizers estimated that they would pop or deflate right over Lake Erie, only to decompose quickly and with no environmental impact.
With all this apparently meticulous preparation, no one could suspect that the joyful, colored party could turn into a nightmare.


Weather conditions were not the best: a storm was coming, so the organizers opted for an early release. At 1.50 pm the net was cut loose, and a gigantic cloud of balloons rose up against the buildings and the Terminal Tower, amidst cheering children, the applause and whooping of the crowd.

Like the mushroom cloud from an explosion, expanding in slow motion, the mass ascended in the sky to form a multicolored column.
That is when things took an unexpected turn.

The balloons met a current of cool air which pushed them back down, towards the ground. In little time, the city was completely invaded by a myriad of fluctuating balloons which covered the streets, moving in group, obscuring the sky, preventing drivers from seeing the road and hindering boats and helicopters. According to the witnesses, it felt like moving through an asteroid belt: some cars crashed because drivers steered to avoid a wave of balloons pushed by wind, or because they were distracted by the surreal panorama.

But the worse was yet to come: Raymond Broderick and Bernard Sulzer, two fishermen, had gone out the day before, and were reported missing; the Coast Guard, who was looking for them, spotted their boat near a a breakwater, but had to abandon the search because balloons filled the sky and covered the surface of the water, making it hard for both boats and helicopters.
The two bodies later washed ashore.

During the next days balloons kept raising concern: they caused the temporary shut down of an airport runway, and scared some horses in a pasture so much so that the animals suffered permanent damage. The balloons ended up on the opposite shore of Lake Erie, some 100 km away, so complaints began to come even from Canada. Also because, according to some environmentalists, the plastic was not at all “biodegradable” and would have soiled the coast for at least six months.
Other criticism involved the waste of such large quantities of helium, a gas that is a non-renewable resource on Earth, and which some scientists (including late Nobel Phisics Laureate R. Coleman Richardson) believe there already is a shortage of.

This attempt to create something unforgettable, in the end, was meant to be one of those joyful, purely aesthetic, wonderfully useless experiences that bring out the child in all of us. As laudable this idea was, it turned out to be maybe a little too naive and planned without taking into account with the due consideration all possible consequences. The game ended quite badly.
United Way was sued for several million dollars, turning the fundraising campaign into a failure. The due damages to one of the fishermen’s wife and to the horse breeder were settled for undisclosed terms. This disastrous stunt, which ended in the red and in wide controversy, is the perfect example of a world record nobody will attempt to break again.
Treb Hining and his company, in the meantime, still are in the balloon business, working for the Academy Award, the Super Bowl and many presidential conventions: his team is also in charge of dispersing three thousand pounds of confetti (yep, 100% biodegradable this time) on Times Square, every New Year’s Eve.

Death Salon: Mütter Museum

The French came up with a wonderful expression, l’esprit de l’escalier. It’s that sense of frustration when the right witty answer to someone’s question or criticism pops up in your mind when you have already left, and you’re heading down the stairs (escalier).
This summer a friend asked me the question I should have always been waiting for, and that ironically nobody – not even those who know me well – ever asked me: “Why are you so interested in death?

I remember saying something vague about my fascination with funeral rites, about the relevance of death in art, about every culture being actually defined by its relationship with the afterlife… Yet in my mind I was surprised by the triviality and impersonality of my answers. Maybe the question was a bit naive, like asking an old sailor what he finds so beautiful about ocean waves. But then again her curiosity was totally legitimate: why taking interest in death in a time when it is normally denied and removed? And how could I, after all these years of studying and writing, addressing far more complex issues, have not anticipated and prepared for such a direct question?

Maybe it was in an effort to make up for the esprit de l’escalier which had caught me that day, that I decided to meet up with like-minded people, who happen to cultivate my same interests, to try and understand their motivations.
Now, there is only one place in the world where I could find, all together, the main academics, intellectuals and artists who have made death their main focus. So, I flew up to Philadelphia.

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The Death Salon, for those who haven’t heard of it, is an event organized by the death-positive movement revolving around Caitlin Doughty, whom I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing not long ago. It consists of two days of meetings, conferences, music and games, all of which explore death – in its multiple artistic, cultural, social and philosophical facets.
This year Death Salon took place in an exceptional location, inside Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, one of the best-known pathological anatomy museums in the world.

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Besides the pleasure of finally meeting in person several “penfriends” and scholars I admire, I was interested in experiencing first-hand this new reality, to feel its vibes: I wanted to understand what kind of people could, in such a joyful and subversive way, define themselves as death aficionados, while trying to take this topic away from taboo through a more relaxed and open dialogue on everything death-related.

The variety of different Death Salon attendees impressed me from the start, and just like I expected every one of them had their own, very personal reasons to be there: there were writers researching ideas for their next novel, nurses who wanted to understand how they could better relate to the terminally ill, nice old ladies who worked as tour guides in nearby city museums, medical students, morticians, photographers and artists whose work for some reason included death, persons who were struggling to cope with a recent loss and who were hoping to find a more intimate comprehension for their suffering in that multicolored crowd.
The shared feeling was one of strange, subtle excitement: on a superficial level, it could almost seem like a gathering for “death nerds”, all enthusiastically chatting about grave robbers and adipocere in front of their coffee, just like others zealously discuss sports or politics. But that little sparkle in every participant’s eyes actually betrayed a more profound relief, one of being at last free to talk openly about their own fears, protected within a family which does not judge certain obsessions, feeling certain that even their most secret insecurity could be brought to light here.
We are all wounded, in the face of death, and it’s an ancient, ever open wound. The most memorable aspect of Death Salon is that the shame attached to such wound seemed to fade away, at least for the space of two days, and every pain or worry was channeled in a cathartic debate.

And in this context the various conferences, in their heterogeneity, little by little made it clear for me that there was not just one plain answer to the question that brought me there in the first place (“why are you so interested in death?”). Here is a summary of the works presented at Death Salon, and of the many concepts they suggested.

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Marianne Hamel is a forensic pathologist, and her report illuminated the differences between her real every-day job and its fictionalized version in movies and TV shows. To clarify the matter, she started off by declaring that she never performed an autopsy in the middle of the night under a single light bulb, nor she ever showed up at a crime scene wearing high heels; among the other debunked myths, “I can only guess the exact time of a victim’s death if they’ve been shot through their watch“. Some implications of her job, if they lack a Hollywood appeal, are actually incredibily important: to quote just one example, forensic pathologists have a clear idea of the state of public health before any other professional. They’re the first to know if a new drug is becoming trendy, or if certain dangerous behaviours are spreading through the population.
At Death Salon other peculiar topics were addressed, such as the difficulties in museum restoration of ancient Egyptian mummies (M. Gleeson), the correct way of “exploding” skulls to prepare them in the tradition of French anatomist Edmé François Chauvot de Beauchêne (R. M. Cohn), and the peptide mass fingerprinting method to assess whether a book is really bound in human skin (A. Dhody, D. Kirby, R. Hark, M. Rosenbloom). There were talks on illustrious dead and their ghosts (C. Dickey) and on Hart Island, a huge, tax-payed mass grave in the heart of New York City (B. Lovejoy).

Death can be fun
A hilarious talk by Elizabeth Harper, author of the delightful blog All The Saints You Should Know, focused on those Saints whose bodies miraculously escaped decomposition, and on the intricate (and far from intuitive) beaurocratic procedures the Roman Catholic Church has established to recognize an “incorrupt” relic from a slightly less prodigious one. It is interesting how certain things we Italians take for granted, as we’ve seen them in every church since we were children, come out as pretty crazy in the eyes of many Americans…
Can we turn a cemetery into a place for the living? At Laurel Hill cemetery, in Philadelphia, recreational activities, film screenings, charity marathons and night shows take place, as reported by Alexis Jeffcoat and Emma Stern.
If all this wasn’t enough to understand that death and entertainment are not enemies, on the last evening the Death Salon organized at the bar National Mechanics, in a jovial pub atmosphere, a Death Quizzo – namely a game show where teams battled over their knowledge of the most curious details regarding death and corpses.

Death is a painful poem
Sarah Troop, executive director of The Order of The Good Death and museum curator, bravely shared with the public what is probably the most traumatic experience of all: the loss of a young child. The difficulty Sarah experienced in elaborating her grief pushed her to seek a more adequate mindset in her Mexican roots. Here, small dead children become angelitos, little angels which the relatives dress up in embroidered clothes and who, being pure souls, can act as a medium between Earth and Heaven. The consolation for a mother who lost her child is in finding, inside a tradition, a specific role, wich modern secularized society fails to supply. And if pain can never go away, it is somehow shared across a culture which admits its existence, and instills it with a deeper meaning.

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Death tells us some incredible stories
Evi Numen illustrated the post-mortem scandal of John Frankford, who was victim of one of many truculent incidents that were still happening some thirty years after the Pennsylvania Anatomy Act (1867), due to the chronical lack of cadavers to dissect in medical schools.
And, speaking of gruesome stories, no tradition beats murder ballads, imported from Europe as a sort of chanted crime news. At the Death Salon, after a historical introduction by Lavinia Jones Wright, a trio of great musicians went on to interpret some of the most relevant murder ballads.

Death is a dialogue
Dr. Paul Koudounaris, Death Salon’s real rockstar, explained the difference between cultures who set up a soft border in relation to their dead, as opposed to other cultures which build a hard boundary: in the majority of cultures, including our own until recent times, taking care of the corpses, even years after their death, is a way to maintain ancestors active within the social tissue. What Norman Bates did to his mother in Psycho, in Tana Toraja would be regarded as an example of filial devotion (I talked about it in this article).

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Robert Hicks, director of Mütter Museum, explored the implications of displaying human remains in museums today, wondering about the evolution of post mortem imagery and about the politics and ownership of the dead.
David Orr, artist and photographer, offered a review of symmetry in the arts, particularly in regard to the skull, a symbol that refers to our own identity.

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Death must be faced and domesticated
Finally, various facets of dying were exposed, often complex and contradictory.
Death defines who we are, affirmed Christine Colby as she told the story of Jennifer Gable, a transgender who during her whole life fought to assert her identity, only to be buried by her family as a man. Death changes along with society, unveiling new layers of complexity.
Dr. Erin Lockard, despite being a doctor herself, while assisting her dying mother had to face other doctors who, maybe as a defense strategy, denied the obvious, delaying the old woman’s agony with endless new therapies.
In closing, here is someone who decided to teach death at the university. Norma Bowe‘s “Death in perspective” class has a three-years waiting list, and offers a series of practical activities: the students take field trips to hospices, hospitals and funeral homes, attend an autopsy, create spaces for meditation and build their own approach to death without philosophical or religious filters, through first-hand experience.

My opinion on Death Salon? Two intense and fruitful days, gone in a flash. Openly talking about death is essential, now more than ever, but – and I think this is the point of the whole Salon – it is also unbelievable, mind-bending fun: all that has been said, both by panelists and the audience, all these unexpected viewpoints, clearly prove that death is, even now, a territory dominated by wonder.

Still overloaded with stimuli, I pondered my unresolved question during the night flight back home. Why am I so fascinated with death?
Looking out the window towards the approaching coast of old Europe, with its little flickering lights, it became clear that the only possible answer, as I suspected from the beginning, was the most elementary one.
Because being interested in death means to be interested in life“.

Little Lost People

What was the last time you actually paid attention to the sidewalk?
Can the microcosm around our feet still hold some unexpected visions?
Does it still mean something to focus on small things and details, and to look down – beside avoiding stepping on something unpleasant?

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In a world where we are taught that everything, from skyscrapers to our own ambitions, should aim high, artists Slinkachu and Cordal – each their own way, each of them with a different and personal approach – seem to want to value all that is small, forgotten, invisible.
The works of these two street artists, who are both active, independently from one another, on the London scene, could be confused at a first glance: they both utilize tiny figurines, and install their provocative miniature sculptures inside the urban context, leaving them to their fate. But the similarities really stop there.

Slinkachu has an unmistakable satirical and sardonic vein, so much so that his installations are presented as snarky micro-stories; Slinkachu mini-men are mirrors, spoofs debunking our miseries, excesses and vanities. How intelligent, how civilized they must think they are – yet dimensions contradict their actions. Whether they believe they are criminals or superheroes, these microscopic little primates aren’t going anywhere.

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Their misadventures are evidently similar to ours, and the figurines sometimes even represent a pop and bizarre version of some of the most debated themes in the news.

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Cordal’s little men, on the other hand, are the nightmare of removal coming back to the surface.
The atmosphere here is apocalyptic, melancholic, surreal, and in his works the miniature cannot be separated from the (often hopeless) landscape in which it has been positioned.
There is something touching and strangely eerie in this anonymous people emerging from the puddles in our cities, or sinking back into them “following the leaders”; there is a Beckett quality to these sad ghosts haunting our drainpipes, to these lost tourists, to these victims of the cruelty of a much too large and heavy world, and to their tiny bodies disappearing in the surrounding filth.

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What haunts us, in these figurines, is the fact we recognize them all too well. We can identify, and yet we cannot shake the embarassement of a vague guilt. The world is, after all, custom-made to be our size, not theirs.
The poor, the troubled, the outsiders inhabit realities that are too small, they live on a scale which is too distant for us to realize that we are stepping on them. Still, it would suffice to watch.

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Here are the official sites for Slinkachu, and for Isaac Cordal.

Mors pretiosa

Mors Pretiosa

Here comes the third volume in the Bizzarro Bazar Collection, Mors pretiosa – Italian religious ossuaries, already on pre-sale at the Logos bookshop.

This book, closing an ideal trilogy about those Italian sacred spaces where a direct contact with the dead is still possible, explores three exceptional locations: the Capuchin Crypt in Via Veneto, Rome, the hypogeum of Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte in via Giulia, also in Rome, and the chapel of San Bernardino alle Ossa in Milan.
Our journey through these three wonderful examples of decorated charnel houses, confronts us with a question that might seems almost outrageous today: can death possess a kind of peculiar, terrible beauty?

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From the press kit:

There is a crack, a crack in everything: that’s how the light gets in” sings Leonard Cohen, and this is ultimately the message brought by the bones that can be admired in this book; death is an eternal wound and at the same time a way out. A long way from the idea of cemetery, its atmosphere of peace and the emotions it instils, the term “ossuary” usually evokes an impression of gloomy coldness but the three places in this book are very different. The subjects in question are Italy’s most important religious ossuaries in which bones have been used with decorative ends: the Capuchin Crypt and Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte in Rome, and San Bernardino alle Ossa in Milan. Thick with the sensation of mortality and vanitas, these ossuaries are capable of performing a completely unexpected role: on the one hand they embody the memento mori as an exhortation to trust in an afterlife for which the earthly life is a mere preparation and test, on the other they represent shining examples of macabre art. They are the suggestive and emotional expression – which is at the same time compassionate – of a “high” feeling: that of the transitory, of the inexorability of detachment and the hope of Resurrection. Decorated with the same bones they are charged with safeguarding, they pursue the Greek concept of kalokagathìa, namely to make the “good death” even aesthetically beautiful, disassembling the physical body to recompose it in pleasant and splendid arrangements and thereby transcend it. The clear and in-depth texts of the book set these places in the context of the fideistic attitudes of their time and Christian theological traditions whereas the images immerse us in these sacred places charged with fear and fascination. Page after page, the patterns of skulls and bones show us death in all of its splendour, they make it mirabilis, worthy of being admired.

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In the text are recounted some fascinating stories about these places, from sacred representations in which human remains were used as props, to the misadventures of corpse seekers; but mainly we discover that these bone arabesques were much more than a mere attempt to impress the viewer, while in fact they represented a sort of death encyclopedia, which was meant to be read and interpreted as a real eschatological itinerary.

As usual, the book is extensively illustrated by Carlo Vannini‘s evocative photographs.

You can pre-order your copy of Mors Pretiosa on this page, and in the Bookshop you can purchase the previous two books in the series.

Astral Colonel NOF4’s telepathic voyages

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To write is to travel without the hassle of the luggage, Salgari wrote. For Mauriac, “a writer is essentially a man who does not resign himself to loneliness“. Both these concepts, the mental voyage and the struggle with solitude, are good ways to understand the life and work of NOF4, whose original name was Oreste Ferdinando Nannetti.

We don’t get to choose life. We keep telling ourselves we are in control, but sometimes the boat’s wheel is broken from the beginning. The life that was destined to Oreste Ferdinando Nannetti was a painful one: born in Rome in  1927, on New Year’s Eve, son of Concetta Nannetti and of unknown father, he soon grew to be clearly different from other kids. At the time, this meant there was only one destination for him on the horizon – the insane asylum. Oreste entered a mental hospital for the first time at age 10, after having been committed to a charity institution three years before. In 1948 he was charged with insulting a public official, but the judge acquitted him on the grounds of deminished responsibility (“total mind defect“); he then spent some 10 years at the Santa Maria della Pietà psychiatric hospital, before being definitively transferred to Volterra. Oreste arrived to the asylum in Volterra in the worst possible moment, when the hospital was still ruled by a prison regime, with barred and locked windows and the order to address the male nurses as “guards”. Things slowly began to improve after 1963, but the police atmosphere continued, although with increasingly lighter tones, until the hospital was abandoned in 1979 after the Basaglia Law. In 1973 Nannetti was dismissed, and transferred to the Bianchi Institute. He died in Volterra in 1994, and to look at his life, now, it all seems to be spent under the sign of civil negation, beginning with that ignominious initials on his birth certificate, “NN”, “Non Noto” (“unknown”), where his father’s name was supposed to be. The life of a poor son of a bitch that ought to be removed, erased, forgot. Just another failed mutation.

But Oreste Ferdinando Nannetti, in spite of everyone, absolutely left a trace of his passage on this reality, in fact he cut it, sliced it, incised it. And he wrote, to travel with his mind and fight his way through loneliness.

During his years of internment in Volterra, Nannetti engraved his feverish masterpiece: a colossal, immense “graffiti book” on the wall of the Ferri section. 180 meters long (590ft) and 2 meters high (6ft), the graffiti was accomplished by using the buckle from his waistcoat (all the patients wore one) to carve the plaster.  Later, Nannetti began “writing” in this same way on the concrete banister of a big staircase, adding another 106 meters (347ft) by 20 centimeters (8in) to his work. His production also consists of more than 1.600 writings and drawings on papers, including several postcards: these postcards, which he never sent and which were adressed to imaginary relatives, are another attempt to win his battle over an unthinkable solitude.

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If his said and miserable biography, which you just read summarized in a single paragraph, was Nannetti’s “official” life, as one could see it from the outside, through his writings and graffiti his real story comes out, his true reality.
In this dimension, Oreste was not just Oreste, but rather an “astronautical mining engineer in the mental system“, “saint of the photo-electric cell“, and called himself Nanof, Nof, or mainly NOF4. This acronym meant indiscriminately “Nannetti Oreste Fernando”, “French Oriental Nuclear”, or even “French Oriental Nations”, while 4 was the identification number he received at the beginning of his internment. How many multitudes live inside a man who defines himself as “Nations”?
NOF4’s “mining” work consisted in studying and digging through reality, and his graffiti really was his “mining key” to access the unfathomable depths of the psyche. In it we read that “glass, metal sheets, metals, wood, the bones of the human being and of animals and the eye and the spirit are all controlled through the reflective magnetic cathode beam; all images who possess a body heat are living matter, and they can even die twice“.

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NOF4 can telepathically communicate with aliens: “Nannetti’s texts are about imaginary nations taking over other imaginary nations, about spaceflights, about telepathic connections, about fantastic characters, poetically described as tall, spinach-like and with a Y-shaped nose, about hypertechnological weapons, about mysterious alchemic combinations, about magical virtues of metals, ecc.“. (Quaderni d’altri tempi, II,6)

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As a paranoid agent under cover in Burroughs‘ Interzone, Nannetti received dispatches from beyond and reported his psychic investigation’s results on the concrete wall: “I have gathered some news by telepathic means, which will seem weird to you but are true: 1. The Earth is still, and stars turn on Earth’s side; 2. The woman has got no father, your father was a woman“. Heroic, borderline scientist inside his “nuclear observatory“, NOF4 measured magnetic fluxes, saw forests made of metal pylons and antennas with his mind’s eye, and kept carving his graffiti with his buckle.
The dense lines of text of which [the graffiti] is composed, with drawings and illustrations sometimes interrupting it, give the idea of a constant flow of words, sounds, images. An encyclopedia of the world almost treated as inner dialogue, and delivered to the world itself with urgence, maybe chaotically, but surely with a strong determination“, writes sociologist Adolfo Fattori, and his words are echoed by Lara Fremder: “Maybe this is how it went, it happened that a man with no history tried to write one for himself, and in order to do that he chose a wall, a big wall, a 180 meters surface, the whole facade of the psychiatric hospital. And he began to write and draw and to collect everything inside carved pages on the wall. […] What I think, what I love to think, is that NOF4 had other interlocutors to have a conversation with, and he showed them his drawings, and handed them the keys to his own mining system. I love to imagine these interlocutors really understood that lunatic well, studying with him projects and plans for other dimensions, surely not for this one, where day after day we witness a slow agony of meaning and beauty“.

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The psychiatric hospital in Volterra, closed in 1979, is in a state of complete abandon. Of Nannetti’s graffiti, which is considered a world masterpiece of outsider art, little was saved (a piece was detached in 2013 for preservation). Only some parts of it still stand, and we have just a few photocopies of his writings and drawings. If not for Aldo Trafeli, a male nurse who was the only one to talk to Nannetti, eventually becoming his friend, we probably wouldn’t even know his story.

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Among the still existing parts of the graffiti, one in particular is the visible trace of Nannetti’s kindness. In some points, the lines of text go up and down: when asked about this strange “wave”, Oreste replied that he did it because he didn’t want to disturb the other patients, who sat against the wall warming in the sun; he could have asked them to move, but he preferred to continue his carvings around their heads.

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Nannetti, the “nuclear safecracker”, the “astral colonel”, never went past elementary school. But, even without being a person of letters, in writing he found a spaceship to explore his own illness and pain.
NOF4 was not alone anymore, NOF4 could travel: “as a free butterfly singing, the whole world is mine… and everything makes me dream…

The only existing moving images of NOF4.

Here’s the italian Wiki page about NOF4. The quotes in the post come from a marvellous monographic number of  Quaderni d’altri tempi entirely dedicated to Nannetti.
(Thanks, gery!)