This is the account of a peculiar exploration, different from any other abandonded places I had the chance to visit: this place, besides being fascinating, also had a macabre and mysterious twist.
It was November, 2016. We were venturing — my father, my sister, two friends and I — towards an ex convent, which had been abandoned many years before.
The air was icy-cold. Our objective stood next to a public, still operational structure: the cemetery.
The thorny briers were dead and not very high, so it was simple for us to cut through the vegetation towards the side of the convent that had the only access route to the building, a window.
With a certain difficulty, one by one we all managed to enter the structure thanks to a crooked tree, which stood right next to the small window and which we used as ladder.
Once we caught our breath, and shook the dust off our coats, we realized we just got lost in time. That place seemed to have frozen right in the middle of its vital cycle.
The courtyard was almost entirely engulfed in vines and vegetation, and we had to be very careful around the porch, with its tired, unstable pillars.
Two 19th-Century hearses dominated one side of the courtyard, worn out but still keeping all their magnificence: the wood was dusty and rotten, but we could still see the cloth ornaments dangling from the corners of the carriage; once purple, or dark green, they now had an indefinable color, one that perhaps dosen’t even exist.
We went up a flight of stairs and headed towards a series of empty chambers, the cells where the Friars once lived; some still have their number carved in marble beside the door.
Climbing down again, we stumbled upon a sort of “office” where we were greeted by the real masters of the house – two statues of saints who seemed to welcome and admonish us at the same time.
As we were taking some pictures, we peeked inside the drawers filled with documents and papers going back to the last years of the 18th Century, so old that we were afraid of spoiling them just by looking.
We got back out in the courtyard to enjoy a thin November sun. We were still near the cemetery, which was open to the public, so we had to move carefully and most silently, when all of a sudden we came upon a macabre find: several coffins were lying on the wet grass, some partly open and others with their lid completely off. Just one of them was still sealed.
My friends prefer to step back, but me and my sister could not resist our curiosity and started snooping around. We noted some bags next to the coffins, on which a printed warning read: ‘exhumation organic material‘.
A vague stench lingered in the air, but not too annoying: from this, and from the coffins’ antiquated style, we speculated these exhumations could not be very recent. Those caskets looked like they had been lying there for quite a long time.
And today, a year later, I wonder if they’re still abandoned in the grass, next to that magical ghost convent…
Photo @ Archives of the Chicago Historical Society
Frances Willard Hospital, Chicago. First decade of the nineteenth century.
Doctor Jacob Bolotin was examining a young woman. Three other doctors had already visited her, declaring her healthy as a horse – the causes of her condition were definitely psychological.
Bolotin placed his ear on her chest. Suddenly, he thought he heard the typical sound generated by an obstructed heart valve. He lightly touched her skin: it was sticky with sweat. Pressing his ear against her rib cage again, the doctor focused and heard, more clearly this time, the laboured and muffled sound of a mitral stenosis.
He told the woman to put back on her clothes and rushed into his superior’s office, communicating his discovery. And that’s how she survived.
Nothing special about this story, except for a small detail.
Doctor Jacob Bolotin was totally blind from birth.
Born in 1888 in Chicago from Polish Jewish immigrants, Bolotin was the last of seven children and the third suffering from total congenital blindness. A particularly brilliant mind, since his adolescence Bolotin showed an unbreakable spirit. At the time, life for the blind was not rosy at all: they were considered disabled, unsuited for working, and were frequently destined to end up begging in the streets. Regardless of this, the young Jacob cherished the impossible dream that one day he would graduate in medicine and obtain the occupational licence.
After getting his high school diploma at 14, Jacob found a job as a door-to-door seller of paint brushes and typewriters. Every day he walked for hours on end, all by himself, finding his way with his cane through the traffic of Chicago. With his earnings, he started to pay college tuition fees.
His life has been an uphill struggle. He had to fight to be admitted to the medical programme. Even after graduating with honours at the age of 24, he encountered several obstacles: a blind person taking the licensing examination was simply inconceivable.
To say the truth, during his internship Bolotin’s expertise and excellent cardiopulmonary knowledge had been vastly recognised by both patients – who loved him – and doctors, who frequently asked for his consultation. But that was far from granting him a professional qualification.
After years of strenuous fights to achieve the well-deserved acknowledgements, finally, Jacob successfully became the first blind doctor in the whole world.
Let’s picture him while he opens the long-awaited medical practice, filled with pride. He sits in his leather chair, and waits. For months, not a single patient.
Then a couple of Chicago Tribune journalists came in, drawn by the chance of writing a pulp story about the decline of humanity: the patients now had to rely on the cares of a “poor blind man”.
And Bolotin answered with unexpected passion: “Well, what is so remarkable about it? Because a man has no eyes, does it mean he hasn’t any brains either? That is the trouble with the world and the blind man. All the blind man asks is fair play. Give him an equal chance without prejudice, and he generally manages to hold his own with his more fortunate colleagues”.
So, shall we overlook the moral strength he proved, something really “remarkable” stands out anyway: his words about equal opportunities pronounced almost a century before the rise of disability rights movements.
Thanks also to the press attention, Jacob Bolotin became a successful doctor. Specialised in cardiopulmonary diseases, he was a skilful public speaker as well, and a fighter for the rights, career opportunities and social inclusion for the blind and visually impaired. He died in 1924 at the young age of 36, probably due to the strenuous amount of work, as he was constantly torn between the medical practice and public speeches.
After all his fights, Jacob Bolotin’s greatest reward consisted in the love of his colleagues and patients: he was so well-liked that more than 5000 people attended his funeral.
The first Bizzarro Bazar Contest ended on Sunday at midnight.
In the last few weeks I found myself facing a problem I, quite naively, had not forseen: I didn’t expect the entries to be so many and of such high quality.
Nearly fifty works, all so diverse and imaginative — I assure you I’m not exaggerating, in a few lines you’ll see for yourself. Choosing just three among them to be awarded was very tough: I hesitated for days, and kept changing my mind, going through all of them over and over. But again, this is also part of the game.
And to me it was not just a game.
This blog is alive by virtue of passion, and even passions sometimes need to be revived: so I owe all of you, who spent time and energy to participate, way more than a simple thank you. The love and enthusiasm you showed during these days gave me more strength than you can imagine.
But enough talking.
Before unveiling the three awarded works, here’s a selection of the others. I cannot post all the entries, so don’t be offended if you do not see yours: in the next weeks I will publicize on social media all the works that couldn’t be included here, with links to the authors.
Alright, let the weird parade begin!
When you really need some sleep, but your parasitic twin wants to keep on reading Bizzarro Bazar.
(Greta Fantini: Facebook, Instagram)
Francesco Barbera contributed with a suggestive short story, entitled The Original Sin, which for its atmosphere reminded me of Ray Bradbury’s narrative style: you can read it here [Italian only].
Breaking news: good old Ed Gein was crazy.
Crazy about Bizzarro Bazar’s merchandise.
(Big Man Illustrator: Instagram)
Giorgia built a real homepage for this blog, complete with HTML code to click through the various categories (the code is not implemented here, this is just the picture). The result is a gorgeous wunderkammer-like collage that would certainly appeal to Terry Gilliam.
The blog as a wunderkammer is also the concept behind Eleonora’s personal artistic vision.
(Eleonora Helbones: Instagram, Facebook)
Embarassing moments: you’re about to waltz with your siamese skeleton, but you forget having hidden your collection of flying eyeballs inside the grammophone. I hate it when that happens. (Domenico Venezia: Instagram)
Sara designed the essential gadget for the stylish, who care about details and who wish to stand out even in the most trivial situations.
Never end up in the morgue again without a customized Bizzarro Bazar toe tag!
(Sara Crimilde: Facebook)
OrcheStrafottente wrote a jingle called Bizzarro Bazar, and performed it on the most unusual and weird instruments: dan moi, practice chanter, hulusi, toy piano, plastic hose, nose whistle, bird call, voices, elephant bell.
This is me, in magician mode.
This is me, in memento mori mode.
(Vicky Void: Instagram)
This is me, in Fiji mermaid mode, the most classic of sideshow gaffs. (A mermaid with a goatee, I say, what is this world coming to.)
(Esoterismo Simon Mago: Facebook)
This is me, in anatomical specimen mode, and subjected to a fitting retaliation.
(Gli inetti: Instagram)
This is me, in voodoo doll mode. Death pulls my strings, but I pull the strings of a second puppet with his features. In your face, Mr. Grim Reaper!
Like saying: we’re all puppets in the hands of death, there’s no way around that, but maybe we can learn to control fear by domesticating it and “playing” with it…. (Kiria Eternalove: Instagram, Facebook)
This is me when I’m invited to a birthday party and I didn’t have time to buy a proper present.
(Il Decimo Mese: Instagram, Facebook)
A wunderkammer necklace, to turn yourself into a walking museum of wonders.
Alice submitted an autobiographical short tale, Story of A. [Italian only], that really moved me: it’s about a moment in her life many of us can relate to — when we discover that our curiosity, often considered too “morbid”, in time can turn out to be our greatest asset.
Cecilia sends her “double” wishes for the blog’s birthday.
(Cecilia Murgia: Instagram)
Long-time reader Pina Fantozzi dedicated a spectacular acrostic to the blog (even if she had some trouble, she says, due to the “abundance of voiced alveolar sibilant affricates“).
The most colorful and psychedelic of the contest entries.
(Elena Macrelli: Instagram)
Lon Chaney, sporting a Bizzarro Bazar top hat, and an authentic little child’s skeleton are featured in this picture taken by one of the greatest human skull collectors and photographers.
(Gnat Tang: Instagram, Facebook)
A chemical-alchemical vanitas drawn by da Marco, who is a wunderkammer antique dealer by trade.
(Marco Genzanella: Instagram, Facebook)
A mysterious crate from Papua New Guinea? What’s inside?
Of course, an exclusive Bizzarro Bazar penis gourd (koteka)! Wear it at the next cocktail party to redefine the concept of ethnic style!
(Mala Tempora: Instagram, Facebook)
Third prize goes to Nicole Beffa who created this skeleton intnto on drawing the Bizzarro Bazar logo.
I was struck by the originality of the technique (pyrography) together with the unusual base material (deer scapula), but most of all by the “meta-narrative” vertigo this work entails: a bone containing a skeleton drawing a skull. Could you ask for more?
(Nicole Beffa: Facebook)
This gouache by Emanuela Cucchiarini, known professionally as Eeriette, is a feast for the eyes and conquered me for its use of color, for the choice of represented “wonders” (those seashells are just beautiful) and for the strong personality displayed throughout the whole work.
(Emanuela “Eeriette” Cucchiarini: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter)
Paola Cera’s oil painting earned the first prize for its essential elegance: the hydrocephalic skull (which has been this blog’s icon right from the start, and always looked to me like a metaphore for a mind ready to “swell” with curiosity) is placed within the picture in a perfectly contextualized way, between the two other emblems of the strange and the marvellous. Such a refined synthesis of circus references and naturalistic and macabre allusions was no easy task; Paola succeeded in creating a work that, in my opinion, is stylistically excellent.
(Paola Cera: Instagram, Facebook)
I wish to express once again my gratitude to all the entrants, and remind you that in the next few weeks I will be posting on social media the many wonderful works that did not appear here.
If you would like to congratulate some artist that in your opinion was unjustly excluded from my Top 3, feel free to do so in the comment setion below.
Just three days left till the end of the Bizzarro Bazar Contest. I received so many fantastic entries, which you will discover next week when the winners are announced. So if you’re among the procrastinators, hurry up and don’t forget to review the guidelines: this blog has to be explicitly mentioned/portrayed within your work.
On October 1st I will be at Teatro Bonci in Cesena for the CICAP Fest 2017 [CICAP is a skeptical educational organization.]
As this year’s edition will focus on fake news, hoaxes and post-truth, I was asked to bring along some wonders from my wunderkammer — particularly a bunch of objects that lie between truth and lies, between reality and imagination. And, just to be a bit of a rebel, I will talk about creative hoaxes and fruitful conspiracies.
As we are mentioning my collection, I wanted to share my enthusiasm for one of the last arrivals: this extraordinary work of art.
I hear you say “Well, what’s so special about it?“. Oh, you really don’t understand modern art, do you?
This picture, dated 2008, was painted by the famous artist Jomo.
Here’s Jomo as a bronze statuette, acquired along with the painting.
Exactly, you guessed it: from now on I will be able to pull the good old Pierre Brassau prank on my house guests.
I was also glad the auction proceeds for the gorilla painting went to the Toronto Zoo personnel, who daily look after these wonderful primates. By the way, the Toronto Zoo is an active member of the North American Gorilla Species Survival Plan and also works in Africa to save endangered gorillas (who I was surprised to find are facing extinction because of our cellphones).
And now let’s start with our usual selection of goodies:
She’d given me rendez-vous in a graveyard / At midnight – and I went: / Wind was howling, dark was the sky / The crosses stood white before the churchyard; / And to this pale young girl I asked: / – Why did you give me rendez-vous in a graveyard? / – I am dead, she answered, and you do not know: / Would you lay down beside me in this grave? / Many years ago I loved you, alive, / For many a year the merciless tomb sealed me off… / Cold is the ground, my beloved youth! / I am dead, she answered, and you do not know.
This is a poem by Igino Ugo Tarchetti, one of the leading figures in the Scapigliatura, the most bizarre, gothic and “maudit” of all Italian literary movements. (My new upcoming book for the Bizzarro Bazar Collection will also deal, although marginally, with the Scapigliati.)
And let’s move onto shrikes, these adorable little birds of the order of the Passeriformes.
Adorable, yet carnivore: their family name, Laniidae, comes from the Latin word for “butcher” and as a matter of fact, being so small, they need to resort to a rather cruel ploy. After attacking a prey (insects but also small vertebrates), a shrike proceeds to impale it on thorns, small branches, brambles or barbed wire, in order to immobilize it and then comfortably tear it to pieces, little by little, while often still alive — making Vlad Tepes look like a newbie.
Let’s change the subject and talk a bit about sex toys. Sexpert Ayzad compiled the definitive list of erotic novelties you should definitely NOT buy: these ultra-kitsch, completely demented and even disturbing accessories are so many that he had to break them into three articles, one, two and three. Buckle up for a descent into the most schizoid and abnormal part of sexual consumerism (obviously some pics are NSFW).
Up next, culture fetishists: people who describe themselves as “sapiosexuals”, sexually attracted by intelligence and erudition, are every nerd’s dream, every introverted bookworm’s mirage.
But, as this article suggests, choosing an intelligent partner is not really such a new idea: it has been a part of evolution strategies for millions of years. Therefore those who label themselves as sapiosexual on social networks just seem pretentious and eventually end up looking stupid. Thus chasing away anyone with even a modicum of intelligence. Ah, the irony.
Meanwhile The LondoNerD, the Italian blog on London’s secrets, has discovered a small, eccentric museum dedicated to Sir Richard Francis Burton, the adventurer whose life would be enough to fill a dozen Indiana Jones movies. [Sorry, the post is in Italian only]