Here’s another plate of fresh links and random weirdness to swallow in one bite, like the above frog did with a little snake.
In Madagascar there is a kind of double burial called famadihana: somewhat similar to the more famous Sulawesi tradition, famadihana consists in exhuming the bodies of the departed, equipping them with a new and clean shroud, and then burying them again. But not before having enjoyed one last, happy dance with the dead relative.
Whining about your writer’s block? Francis van Helmont, alchemist and close friend of famed philosopher Leibniz, was imprisoned by the Inquisition and wrote a book in between torture sessions. Besides obviously being a tough guy, he also had quite original ideas: according to his theory, ancient Hebrew letters were actually diagrams showing how lips and mouth should be positioned in order to pronounce the same letters. God, in other words, might have “printed” the Hebrew alphabet inside our very anatomy.
Speaking of primates: in an Italian natural park a female macaque held her dead baby for 25 days, cradling and hugging it. When the little body was unrecognizable, she ate the remains (warning: heartbreaking photos).
Wood carver artist Caspicara, who lived in Ecuador in the 1700s, is believed to be the autghor of this spectacular work which represents Death, Paradise, Purgatory and Hell. I don’t know about you, but the one on the right looks like Keith Richards to me.
James Ballard was passionate for what he called “invisible literature”: sales recepits, grocery lists, autopsy reports, assembly instructions, and so on. I find a similar thrill in seeking 19th-century embalming handbooks: such technical, professional publications, if read today, always have a certain surreal je ne sais quoi. And sometimes they also come with exceptional photographs, like these taken from a 1897 book.
In closing, I would like to remind you of two forthcoming appointments: on October 29, at 7pm, I will be in Rome at Giufà Libreria Caffe’ to present Tabula Esmeraldina, the latest visionary work by my Chilean friend Claudio Romo.
On November 3-5, you will find me at Lucca Comics & Games, stand NAP201, signing copies of Paris Mirabilia and chatting with readers of Bizzarro Bazar. See you there!
They give birth astride of a grave,
the light gleams an instant,
then it’s night once more.
(S. Beckett, Aspettando Godot)
An Italian Horror Story
Castel del Giudice, Italy. On the 5th of August 1875, a pregnant woman, indicated in the documents with the initials F. D’A., died during labor, before being able to give birth to her child. On the following day, without respecting the required minimum waiting time before interment, her body was lowered into the cemetery’s fossa carnaria. This was a kind of collective burial for the poorest classes, still common at the time in hundreds of Italian communes: it consisted in a sealed underground space, a room or a pit, where the corpses were stacked and left to rot (some inside coffins, others wrapped in simple shrouds).
For the body of F. D’A., things began to get ugly right from the start:
She had to be lowered in the pit, so the corpse was secured with a rope, but the rope broke and D’A.’s poor body fell from a certain height, her head bumping into a casket. Some people climbed down, they took D’A. and arranged her on her back upon a nearby coffin, where she laid down with a deathly pale face, her hands tied together and resting on her abdomen, her legs joined by stitched stockings. Thus, and not otherwise, D’A. was left by the participants who buried her.
But when, a couple of days later, the pit was opened again in order to bury another deceased girl, a terrible vision awaited the bystanders:
F. D’A.’s sister hurried to give a last goodbye to her dead relative, but as soon as she looked down to the place where her sister was laid to rest, she had to observe the miserable spectacle of her sister placed in a very different position from the one she had been left in; between her legs was the fetus she had given birth to, inside the grave, and together with whom she had miserably died. […] Officers immediately arrived, and found D’A.’s body lying on her left side, her face intensely strained; her hands, still tied by a white cotton ribbon, formed an arch with her arms and rested on her forehead, while pieces of white ribbon were found between her teeth […]. At the mother’s feet stood a male newborn child with his umbilical cord, showing well-proportioned and developed limbs.
Imagine the horror of the poor woman, waking up in the dark in the grip of labor pains; with her last remaining energy she had succeeded in giving birth to her child, only to die shortly after, “besieged by corpses, lacking air, assistance or food, and exhausted by the blood loss suffered during delivery“. One could hardly picture a more dreadful fate.
The case had ahuge resonance all across Italy; a trial took place at the Court of Isernia, and the town physician, the mayor and the undertaker were found guilty of two involuntary murders “aggravated by gross negligence“, sentenced to six months in jail and fined (51 liras) – but the punishment was later cut by half by the Court of Appeal of Naples in November 1877. This unprecedented reduction of penalty was harshly criticized by the Times correspondant in Italy, who observed that “the circumstances of the case, if well analyzed, show the slight value which is attached to human life in this country“; the news also appeared in the New York Times as well as in other British and American newspapers.
This story, however scary – because it is so scary – should be taken with a pinch of salt. There’s more than one reason to be careful.
First of all, the theme of a pregnant woman believed dead and giving birth in a grave was already a recurring motif in the Nineteeth Century, as taphophobia (the fear of being buried alive) reached its peak.
Folklorist Paul Barber in his Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality (1988) argues that the number of people actually buried alive was highly exaggerated in the chronicles; a stance also shared by Jan Bondeson, who in one of the most complete books on the subject, Buried Alive, shows how the large majority of nineteenth-century premature burial accounts are not reliable.
For the most part it would seem to be a romantic, decadent literary topos, albeit inspired by a danger that was certainly real in the past centuries: interpreting the signs of death was a complex and often approximate procedure, so much so that by the 1700s some treatises (the most famous one being Winslow‘s) introduced a series of measures to verify with greater accuracy the passing of a patient.
A superficial knowledge of decomposition processes could also lead to misunderstandings. When bodies were exhumed, it was not uncommon to find their position had changed; this was due to the cadaver’s natural tendency to move during decomposition, and to be sometimes subjected to small “explosions” caused by putrefaction gasses – explosions that are powerful enough to rotate the body’s upper limbs. Likewise, the marks left by rodents or other scavengers (loose dirt, scratches, bite marks, torn clothes, fallen hair) could be mistaken for the deceased person’s desperate attempts at getting out.
Yet, as we’ve said, there was a part of truth, and some unfortunate people surely ended up alive inside a coffin. Even with all our modern diagnostic tools, every now and then someone wakes up in a morgue. But these events are, today like yesterday, extremely rare, and these stories speak more about a cultural fear rather than a concrete risk.
If being buried alive was already an exceptional fact, then the chances of a pregnant woman actually giving birth inside a grave look even slimmer. But this idea – so charged with pathos it could only fascinate the Victorian sensibility – might as well have come from real observations. Opening a woman’s grave and finding a stillborn child must have looked like a definitive proof of her premature burial. What wasn’t known at the time is that the fetus can, in rare circumstances, be expelled postmortem.
Anaerobic microorganisms, which start the cadaver’s putrefactive phase, release several gasses during their metabolic activity. During this emphysematous stage, internal tissues stretch and tighten; the torso, abdomen and legs swell; the internal pressure caused by the accumulation of gas can lead, within the body of a woman in the late stages of pregnancy, to a separation of amniotic membranes, a prolapse of the uterus and a subsequent total or partial extrusion of the fetus. This event appears to be more likely if the dead woman has been pregnant before, on the account of a more elastic cervix. This strange phenomenon is called Sarggeburt (coffin birth) in early German forensic literature.
The first case of postmortem delivery dates back to 1551, when a woman hanged on the gallows released, four hours after her execution, the bodies of two twins, both dead. (A very similar episode happened in 2007 in India, when a woman killed herself during labor; in that instance, the baby was found alive and healthy.) In Brussels, in 1633, a woman died of convulsions and three days later a fetus was spontaneously expelled. The same thing happened in Weißenfels, Saxony, in 1861. Other cases are mentioned in the first medical book to address this strange event,Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine, published in 1896, but for the most part these accidents occurred when the body of the mother had yet to be buried. It was John Whitridge Williams who, in his fortunate Obstetrics: a text-book for the use of students and practitioners (1904), pointed to the possibility of postmortem delivery taking place after burial.
Fetal extrusion after the mother’s death has also been observed in recent times.
A 2005 case involved a woman who died in her apartment from acute heroine intoxication: upon finding her body, it was noted that the fetus head was protruding from the mother’s underwear; but later on, during the autopsy, the upper part of the baby’s torso was also visible – a sign that gasses had continued to build in the abdominal region, increasing interior pressure. In 2008 a 38 year-old, 7 months pregnant woman was found murdered in a field in advanced state of decomposition, accelerated by tropical climate. During the autopsy a fetus was found inside the woman’s slips, the umbilical cord still attached to the placenta (here is the forensic case study – WARNING: graphic).
Life In Death
So, going back to that unfortunate lady from Castel del Giudice, what really happened to her? Sure, the autopsy report filed at the time and quoted in the trial papers mentioned the presence of air in the baby’s lungs, a proof that the child was born alive. And it’s possible that this was the case.
But on one hand this story fits all too perfectly within a specific popular narrative of its time, whose actual statistical incidence has been doubted by scholars; on the other, the possibility of postmortem fetal extrusion is well-documented, so much so thateven archeologists sometimes struggle to interpret ancient skeletal findings showing fetuses still partially enclosed within the pelvic bone.
The only certain thing is that these stories – whether they’re authentic or made up – have an almost archetypal quality; birth and death entwined in a single place and time.
Maybe they’re so enthralling because, on a symbolic level, they remind us of a peculiar truth, one expressed in a famous verse from Manilius‘ Astronomica:
Nascentes morimur, finisque ab origine pendet.
“As we are born we die, our end commences with our beginning.”
I look above me, towards the movable hooks once used to hang the meat, and I visualize the blood and pain that these walls had to contain – sustain – for many long years. Death and pain are the instruments life has to proceed, I tell myself.
I’m standing inside Padua’s former slaughterhouse: a space specifically devised for massacre, where now animals are living a second, bizarre life thanks to Alberto Michelon’s artworks.
When I meet him, he immediately infects me with the feverish enthusiasm of someone who is lucky (and brave) enough to be following his own vocation. What comes out of his mouth must clearly be a fifth of what goes through his mind. As John Waters put it, “without obsession, life is nothing“.
Animals and taxidermy are Alberto’s obsession.
Taxidermy is traditionally employed in two main fields: hunting trophies, and didactical museum installations.
In both context, the demand for taxidermic preparations is declining. On one hand we are witnessing a drop in hunting activities, which find less and less space in European culture as opposed to ecological preoccupations and the evolution of the ethical sensitiviy towards animals. On the other hand, even great Natural History Museums already have their well-established collections and seldom acquire new specimens: often a taxidermist is only called when restoration is required on already prepared animals.
“This is why – Alberto explains – I mainly work for private customers who want to preserve their domestic pets. It is more difficult, because you have to faithfully recreate the cat or dog’s expressiveness based on their photographs; preparing a much-loved and familiar pet requires the greatest care. But I get a huge satisfaction when the job turns out well. Customers often burst into tears, they talk to the animal – when I present them with the finished work, I always step aside and leave them a bit of intimacy. It’s something that helps them coming to terms with their loss.”
What he says doesn’t surprise me: in a post on wunderkammern I associated taxidermy’s second youth (after a time in which it looked like this art had become obsolete) to the social need of reconfiguring our relationship with death.
But the reason I came here is Alberto is not just an ordinary taxidermist: he is Italy’s only real exponent of artistic taxiermy.
Until November 5, here at the ex-slaughterhouse, you can visit his exhibition Inanimus – A Contemporary Bestiary, a collection of his main works.
To a casual observer, artistic non-naturalist taxidermy could seem not fully respectful towards the animal. In realuty, most artists who use animal organic material as a medium do so just to reflect on our own relationship with other species, creating their works from ethical sources (animals who died of natural causes, collected in the wild, etc.).
Alberto too follows such professional ethics, as he began his experiment using leftovers from his workshop. “I was sorry to have to throw away pieces of skin, or specimens that wouldn’t find an arrangement“, he tells me. “It began almost like a diversion, in a very impulsive way, following a deep urge“.
He candidly confesses that he doesn’t know much about the American Rogue Taxidermy scene, nor about modern art galleries. And it’s clear that Alberto is somewhat alien to the contemporary art universe, so often haughty and pretentious: he keeps talking about instinct, about playing, but must of all – oh, the horror! – he takes the liberty of doing what no “serious” artist would ever dream of doing: he explains the message of his own works, one by one.
His installations really have much to say: rather than carrying messages, though, they are food for thought, a continuous and many-sided elaboration of the modernity, an attempt to use these animal remains as a mirror to investigate our own face.
Some of his works immediately strike me for the openness with which they take on current events: from the tragedy of migrants to GMOs, from euthanasia to the present-day fear of terrorist attacks.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen any other artist using taxidermy to confront the present in such a direct way.
A roe deer head covered in snake skin, wearing an orange uniform reminiscent of Islamic extremists’ prisoners, is chained to the wall. The reference is obvious: the heads of decapitated infidels are assimilated to hunting trophies.
To be honest, I find this explicit allusion to current events imagery (which, like it or not, has gained a “pop” quality) pretty unsettling, and I’m not even sure that I like it – but if something pulls the rug out from under my feet, I bless it anyways. This is what the best art is supposed to do.
Other installations are meant to illustrate Western contradictions, halfway through satire and open criticism to a capitalistic system ever harder to sustain.
A tortoise, represented as an old bejeweled lady with saggy breasts, is the emblem of a conservative society based on economic privilege: a “prehistoric” concept that, just like the reptile, has refused to evolve in any way.
A conqueror horse, fierce and rampant, exhibits a luxurious checked fur composed from several equines.
“A social climber horse: to be where he stands, he must have done away with many other horses“, Alberto tells me with a smile.
An installation shows the internal organs of a tiger, preserved in jars that are arranged following the animal’s anatomy: the eyes, tomgue and brain are placed at the extremity where the head should be, and so on. Some chimeras seem to be in the middle of a bondage session: an allusion to poaching for aphrodisiac elixirs such as the rhino horn, and to the fil rouge linking us to those massacres.
A boar, sitting on a toilet, is busy reading a magazine and searching for a pair of glass eyes to fill his empty eye sockets.
The importance of freedom of choice regarding the end of life is incarnated by two minks who hanged themselves – rather than ending up in a fur coat.
The skulls of three livestock animals are hanged like trophies, and plastic flowers come out of the hole bored by the slaughterhouse firearm (“I picked up the flowers from the graves at the cemetery, replacing them with new flowers“, Michelon tells me).
As you might have understood by now, the most interesting aspect of the Inanimus works is the neverending formal experimentation.
Every installation is extremely different from the other, and Alberto Michelon always finds new and surprising ways of using the animal matter: there are abstract paintings whose canvas is made of snake or fish skin; entomological compositions; anthropomorphic taxidermies; a crucifix entirely built by patiently gluing together bone fragments; tribal masks, phallic snakes mocking branded underwear, skeletal chandeliers, Braille texts etracted from lizard skin.
Ma gli altri tassidermisti, diciamo i “puristi”, non storcono il naso?
“Certamente alcuni non la ritengono vera tassidermia, forse pensano che io mi sia montato la testa. Non mi importa. Cosa vuoi farci? Questo progetto sta prendendo sempre più importanza, mi diverte e mi entusiasma.”
On closer inspection, there’s not a huge difference between classic and artistic taxidermy. The stuffed animals we find in natural science museums, as well as Alberto’s, are but representations, interpretations, simulachra.
Every taxidermist uses the skin, and shape, of the animal to convey a specific vision of the world; and the museum narrative (although so conventional as to be “invisible” to our eyes) is maybe no more legit than a personal perspective.
Although Alberto keeps repeating that he feels he’s a novice, still unripe artist, the Inanimus works show a very precise artistic direction. As I approach the exit, I feel I have witnessed something unique, at least in the Italian panorama. I cannot therefore back away from the ritual prosaic last question: future projects?
“I want to keep on getting better, learning, experimenting new things“, Alberto replies as his gaze wanders all around, lost in the crowd of his transfigured animals.
Inanimus – un bestiario contemporaneo Padova, Cattedrale Ex-macello, Via Cornaro 1
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