The Poet’s Brain

What does poet Walt Whitman have to do with an autopsy manual?

Here’s a post about a curious book, and a mystery that lasted more than a century.

THE BOOK

A few days ago I added to my library a book I had been looking for for some time: a 1903 first edition of Post Mortem Pathology by Dr. Henry Ware Cattell.

It is a well-known, thoroughly-illustrated autoptic manual detailing the methods used to carry out post-mortem examinations at the end of the 19th century.

On the title page one can find a tasty quote in Italian from the Divine Comedy:

These verses come from Chant XXVIII of Dante’s Inferno, describing the punishment inflicted on Muhammad (translation: “Rent from the chin to where one breaketh wind. / Between his legs were hanging down his entrails; / His heart was visible, and the dismal sack / That maketh excrement of what is eaten“), and they are quoted here as a clear allusion to autopsies, which offer a similar macabre spectacle.

Post Mortem Pathology is an interesting book for at least two historical reasons.

First, it contains some “advice” on how to obtain consent from the dead person’s relatives in order to perform an autopsy; but it would be more correct to say that Cattell gives indications on how to deceive the deceased’s family members, obtaining consent for example from someone “connected with the household, though not necessarily from the nearest relative“, taking care not to specify which anatomical parts are to be preserved, etc. Dr. Cattell also complains about the absence of a law allowing autopsies on all those who die in hospitals, without distinction.

As James R. Wright writes, these are “unique and important insights into local autopsy consent “practice” in Philadelphia in the 1880s which allowed […] pathologists to get away with performing autopsies at Blockley Hospital without legal consent. […] these questionable and highly paternalistic approaches to autopsy consent, although morally incomprehensible now, permitted outstanding clinicopathological correlations which made Blockley an excellent teaching environment.” (1)James R. Wright Jr., Henry Ware Cattell and Walt Whitman’s Brain, in Clinical Anatomy, 31:988–996 (2018)

Second, Cattell’s book describes the procedure, originally developed by the gynecologist Howard Kelly, to perform the removal of the internal organs per vaginam, per rectum, and per perineum. (2)Julius P. Bonello, George E. Tsourdinis, Howard Kelly’s avant-garde autopsy method, Hektoen International Journal of Medical Humanities (2020) .

The method consisted of incising the vagina in women, or the anus in men; by inserting the arm up to his shoulder inside the body, the anatomist proceeded to pierce the diaphragm and remove the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys and the rest of the organs through that single cut.

Why all this effort? One might ask.

The answer is unfortunately linked to what we said above: it was a trick to perform an autopsy in the absence of legal consent; the organs were removed without disturbing the external appearance of the body, so that the relatives would not notice anything unusual.

But the real curiosity linked to this book is the fact that its author was implicated in a very peculiar incident.

 

THE MYSTERY OF THE MISSING BRAIN

In 1892 one of the most famous and celebrated American poets, Walt Whitman, died.

By the end of the 19th century, phrenology had already been discredited, yet it was still believed that the brains of “geniuses” could show some difference compared to those of normal people; this was the reason why in Philadelphia, as in other cities, there existed a Brain Club, a nickname for the Anthropometric Society, a — more or less secret — lodge  of doctors and pathologists who took care of preserving the brains of illustrious men. (Clearly just male brains, not women’s, but that’s OK.)

Famous pathologist William Osler, a member of the “Brain Club”, performing a brain autopsy ath the Bockley morgue in Philadelphia.

A reunion of anatomists in Philadelphia.

Henry Cattell was part of it, and at the time of Whitman’s death he held the position of prosector, that is, the one who did the “dirty work” by opening and dissecting the body.
He was therefore the one who dealt with the poet’s corpse during the autopsy that took place at Whitman’s house in Mickle Street on March 27, 1892, under the supervision of prof. Francis Dercum.

The brain of the immortal cantor of the “electric body” was removed and entrusted to Cattell to join those of the other important intellectuals preserved in liquid by the Anthropometric Society.

At this point, though, something went horribly wrong, and the precious organ disappeared into thin air.

This enigmatic incident changed Cattell’s life forever, making him doubt his talents as a pathologist so much that he decided to increasingly rarefy his commitments in the autopsy room, and to devote himself to scientific publications. Post Mortem Pathology represents, in fact, the first release of his publishing house.

But what had really happened?

The first testimony about it was published in 1907 in a paper by Dr. Edward Spitzka, which was apparently based on Cattell’s confidences to some members of the Society. Spitzka wrote that “the brain of Walt Whitman, together with the jar in which it had been placed, was said to have been dropped on the floor by a careless assistant. Unfortunately, not even the pieces were saved.(3)Edward Spitzka, A study of the brains of six eminent scientists and scholars belonging to the American Anthropometric Society, together with a description of the skull of Professor E. D. Cope, in Trans Am Philos Soc 21:175–308 (1907)

The news caused quite a sensation, so much so that it evidently entered the common imagination: this episode was likely the inspiration for the Frankenstein (1931) scene in which the Doctor’s assistant, who breaks into the university in search of a brain for the Creature, drops the jar with the “normal” brain and steals the “abnormal” one.

But, as James R. Wright writes, “what could not be understood is why the fragments had been discarded as there still would have been some value in examining these. Less clear was whether it was an assistant or Cattell who destroyed Walt Whitman’s brain.

Be that as it may, in the absence of further clues, for more than a century this remained the official version. Then, in 2012, Cattell’s secret diary appeared on an eBay auction.

Henry W. Cattell during WWI.

The diary does not directly mention the autopsy, but from when it was performed in March 1892 until October of the same year Cattell’s notes have an optimistic tone — it had been a positive and finacially rewarding period of work. Then, starting from October 14, the entries in the diary become much more dark and worried: Cattell seems to suddenly doubt his own abilities, even coming as far as to have suicidal thoughts.

Here is the chronology of his entries, outlining a very different story from that of the assistant dropping the preparation on the ground:

13 ottobre 1892 — “Prepare specimens for path. soc. [Pathological Society of Philadelphia].”

14 ottobre 1892 — “I am a fool.”

16 ottobre 1892 — “I wish that I knew of the best way of keeping an account of my work. It often seems to me that I am so forgetful and yet I remember certain things which others might not be able to mind.”

13 aprile 1893 — “I am a peculiar man in many ways. Why did I get rid of Edwards—in all probability because I was jealous of him.”

15 maggio 1893 — “I am a fool, a damnable fool, with no conscious memory, or fitness for any learned position. I left Walt Whitman’s brain spoil by not having the jar properly covered. Discovered it in the morning. This ruins me with the Anthropometric Society, and Allen, perhaps with Pepper, Kerlin &c. How I ever got in such financial straights [I] do [not] know. When I broke with Edwards I should have told him to go to thunder. Borrowed over $500 more from P & M [Pa and Ma]. They are too good & kind. I would have killed my self before this a dozen times over if it had not been for them.”

18 settembre 1893 — “I should be happy and I suppose in my way I am. Except for my parents I could go to Africa or die and I w[ou]ld be in no way missed.”

30 settembe 1893 — “I look back on my confidence and self possession of last year as somehow wonderful. I now know that I do not know enough pathology for the position which I occupy.”

So here’s the truth: Cattell had badly sealed the jar containing Whitman’s brain; the liquid had probably evaporated, and the organ had dried out, decomposed or been attacked and damaged by some mold. Cattell blamed his assistant Edwards, who had probably started to blackmail him, threatening to tell the truth; this extortion, in addition to Cattell’s financial problems, had forced him to borrow money from his parents, throwing Cattell into a state of depression and mistrust in his abilities.

By publishing Cattell’s diary excerpts for the first time in 2014, Sheldon Lee Gosline wrote:

“Then, too, why put this incriminating evidence down on paper at all, risking public exposure? Clearly Cattell wanted to leave a confession that one day would become public—which now, 120 years later, has finally happened.” (4)Gosline, Sheldon Lee. “I am a fool”: Dr. Henry Cattell’s Private Confession about What Happened to Whitman’s Brain. Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 31 (2014), 158-162.

EPILOGO

June 9, 1924.

Cattell was now 61 years old, and 32 years had passed since Whitman’s unfortunate autopsy.

At the time, as Gosline points out, Cattell “not only had his university staff income, but also charged assistants to privately assist him, provided post-mortems and expert testimony for a fee, ran a medical journal for a profit, and was a successful and lauded author. All of this was possible because he had evaded disgrace from the Whitman incident.

His luck came from having kept silent regarding his incompetence in preserving the brain of a poet, and it is with a poem that, in a very proper way, the pathologist ends his diaries. These verses sound like a sort of balance sheet of his whole life. And the image that emerges is that of a guilt-ridden soul, convinced that his entire honored career has been earned through fraud; a man divided between a pleasant economic security, which he cannot give up, and the need to confess his imposture.

 

Perhaps the only one who could have smiled at this whole matter would have been Walt Whitman himself, aware that the individual body (container of “multitudes“) is nothing more than a mere transitory expression of the universal: “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.(5)Walt Whitman, ‘Song of Myself’, Leaves of Grass (1855)

Note   [ + ]

1. James R. Wright Jr., Henry Ware Cattell and Walt Whitman’s Brain, in Clinical Anatomy, 31:988–996 (2018)
2. Julius P. Bonello, George E. Tsourdinis, Howard Kelly’s avant-garde autopsy method, Hektoen International Journal of Medical Humanities (2020)
3. Edward Spitzka, A study of the brains of six eminent scientists and scholars belonging to the American Anthropometric Society, together with a description of the skull of Professor E. D. Cope, in Trans Am Philos Soc 21:175–308 (1907)
4. Gosline, Sheldon Lee. “I am a fool”: Dr. Henry Cattell’s Private Confession about What Happened to Whitman’s Brain. Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 31 (2014), 158-162.
5. Walt Whitman, ‘Song of Myself’, Leaves of Grass (1855)

A Sign From Above

1954. That morning in late November the air was particularly clear and cold in the little Alabama town of Oak Grove, actually just a handful of houses scattered among the trees on the outskirts of Sylacauga.
It looked like any other morning. Yet an extraterrestrial object, not of this world, was about to violently break into that small country reality.

Ann E. Hodges, 34, was not feeling well that day. She was home alone because her husband Eugene, a utility worker, had left early. So, around lunchtime, Mrs. Hodges decided to take a little siesta on her sofa. As she slipped under the quilt, she certainly did not imagine that nap would change her life forever.
Shortly afterwards a frightful noise shook the house and a sharp, stabbing pain at her side suddenly woke her.

Around the same time, Dr. Moody Jacobs left his office to grab a bite. As he walked out, he glanced at the clear sky and realized that it was cut in two by a streak of black smoke. Was that an aircraft in trouble? As he narrowed his eyes to get a better look, the silence was pierced by a huge blast and the dark trail opened in a corolla of white smoke. If it really was an airplane, it had just exploded in flight.
Returning to his office around one o’clock, Dr. Jacobs received a distress call: apparently, Mrs. Hodges had been “hit by a comet”.
As he was getting into his car, the doctor must have thought this was some kind of joke: he knew well that the Hodges’ white house stood right in front of the Comet Drive-In Theater, whose neon sign showed a shooting star.

When the doctor arrived on the spot, Mrs. Hodges was in shock. As she was sleeping on the living room sofa, a rock the size of a coconut had broken through the ceiling and, after hitting the radio and smashing it, had bounced off hitting her in the side and on her left hand.

The news spread immediately, so much so that when Mr. Eugene Hodges returned from work he had to make his way through the crowd of gawkers assembled in front of his house.
Geologist George Swindel, who was conducting field work nearby, put forward the hypothesis that the rock was a meteorite; but as this was the Cold War era, it was better to be sure, so the police brought the stone to the Air Force Intelligence authorities. As soon as they confirmed that this was a chondrite, an unprecedented media frenzy hit the small community of Oak Grove: Ann was the first known victim of such an extraordinary event in the modern era. And consequently, Dr. Jacobs became the only physician to have treated a meteorite trauma.

Ann was sure that the stone which fell down from outer space was a divine sign: “I think God intended it for me. After all, it hit me!”
Her husband Eugene was also convinced that they could make a fortune out of that heavenly gift. Furious because the police had taken the rock for analysis, he hired a lawyer to get it back. In the meantime, he even refused a generous offer from the Smithsonian Institute, determined to make the most of their unexpected luck: he could feel it deep down, their lives were about to change.
And indeed they changed — unfortunately not for the better.

Newspapers and televisions stormed the couple, and Ann even appeared on Gary Moore’s TV quiz show I’ve Got A Secret, in which celebrities had to guess the guest’s “secret”.
Soon after, however, the couple found themselves embroiled in a lawsuit: in fact Ann and Eugene were renters and their landlady, Birdie Guy, claimed possession of the space stone that had fallen on her property. Mrs. Guy won in numerous appeals, and in the end the Hodges paid her $500 for the possession of the meteorite.
But the litigation had been so long that by the time the rock finally returned to their hands, the interest of the media had long since vanished. The Hodges found themselves poorer and more sour than before.
They divorced in 1964.

The meteorite ended up being used as a door stop, until Ann Hodges decided to get rid of it once and for all by donating it to the Alabama Museum of Natural History, in Tuscaloosa, where it is still on display.
According to her husband and those who knew her, the woman never recovered emotionally from this whole ordeal; that stone fallen from the sky left far deeper scars on her than the physical ones. She died of kidney failure when she was 52-years-old, in 1972.

Perhaps that piece of rock — which had formed together with the solar system, and traveled through space for millions and millions of years before ending its trajectory in Mrs. Hodges’ living room — was truly a sign of heaven after all. A metaphor of the Unexpected breaking through our well-known everyday routine, upsetting all balances, reminding us of our own uncertainty. A symbol of how much our tiny individual stories, and our destinies, are intimately connected to the vast, boundless cosmos out there.

Or, perhaps, the divine sign meant something else.
Yes, because this is not the end of the story.

While it was passing through the atmosphere, the meteoroid had split in two.
As we have seen, the first fragment had impacted on Mrs Hodges, ruining her life. But the second fragment was found a few miles away by an African American farmer named Julius Kempis McKinney as he was driving a mule-drawn wagon with a load of firewood. The mules stopped in front of a strange stone on the edge of the road, McKinney moved the rock and continued home; but that evening, after hearing what had happened to the Hodges, he went back and collected the stone.

Unlike the Hodges, McKinney immediately sold it to the Smithsonian Institute; and although he never revealed the amount he earned, it was enough to buy his family a car and a new house.

That stone from deep space had brought luck only to a humble and poor family of black laborers, in 1954 Alabama; the same year in which the Supreme Court had declared, with a historic ruling, that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.

(Thanks, Cristina!)

Dancing With Death

During the great waves of plague in the Middle Ages, two allegorical motifs arose: the Triumph of Death and the Danse Macabre. What can they teach us today?

Here’s a video I made for the University of Padua, for the project Covid Catalog of Losses and Findings.[Remember to turn on English Subtitles.]

Visions of the Retrofuture

We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been
enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed.
A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes,
like serpents of explosive breath—a roaring car
that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful
than the Victory of Samothrace.
(Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, The Futurist Manifesto, 1909)

At the beginning of the 20th century, the world was rapidly changing.
In the cities, people began to go out at night thanks to the electricity that had started to illuminate the streets; film cameras had been recently invented; in 1901 thanks to his wireless telegraph Guglielmo Marconi launched the first transoceanic radio signal.

Above all, the transport sector was making great strides.
The number of cars increased every day, assembly lines speeded up production times more and more; Paris and Berlin were building underground metropolitan transportation systems, just like the one in London.
Not only that, railways began to be built, that were even suspended above the houses: in 1901, the Wuppertailer Schewebebahn was built in the German town of Wuppertal, a 13.3km-long double-track railway with 23 stops, still in operation today. A bold and innovative work, which as we will see had an immediate impact on the collective imagination.

Even the sky no longer seemed so impossible to conquer.
In 1900 Ferdinand Von Zeppelin had flown over Lake Constance with its new rigid airship which, unlike the hot air balloons, could be controlled and guided.
From overseas news were coming of some reckless engineers who were trying to launch themselves into the air on new types of aircraft equipped with wings and rudders.

All these innovations contributed to fueling utopian fantasies of a radiant and hyper-technological future that awaited humanity. What would the cities of tomorrow look like?

We can take a peek at this possible future, this dreamed future, thanks to the postcards that circulated at the beginning of the century. Stefano Emilio, reader of Bizzarro Bazar, has collected several examples: these are real photographs of various cities — from Genoa to San Francisco — reinvented in a futuristic key, with added balloons, airplanes, flying ships. As you can see, the railway suspended in the style of that of Wuppertal is a constant presence, since it evidently had left its mark on popular imagination as an emblem of urban transformation.

Szombathely

Miskolcz

Atlantic City

Boston

Genova

Leominster

Boston

Revere Beach

But were these visions really so naive and utopian? In reality, upon closer examination, many images also included several kinds of accidents: pedestrians getting run over, cars colliding.

These postcards therefore had a double purpose: on one hand they proposed the unprecedented awe of seeing a city crowded with sci-fi vehicles, on the other they had a satirical intent (note the ship below, which is covering a route from Genoa to Mars!). In short, most of these images seem to ask, ironically, “where will we end up with all these devilries?”

La linea Marte-Genova

A final curiosity concerns a real accident, which happened on the suspended Wuppertal railway.
On 21 July 1950, the director of the Circus Althoff had a 4-year-old female elephant travel on the Wuppertailer Schewebebahn as a publicity stunt. While the suspended train was passing over the river, the animal began to trumpet and run inside the wagon, causing panic among the passengers. Terrified, she broke through a window and fell into the waters of the Wupper River, after falling for some 12 meters. Fortunately the baby elephant was saved, and after the accident she was named Tuffi (from the Italian word for “diving”). The circus director and the officer who had allowed the ride were fined, but on the other hand Tuffi became a small celebrity: the facade of a house near the railway still features a painting of the elephant, and the tourist office sells an assortment of Tuffi-related souvenirs.
The inevitable postcard was produced, with a photomontage that reconstructed the accident.

The future illustrated by early-20th century postcards may make us smile today, but it remains a fundamental element of the sci-fi imagery which then permeated the rest of the century, from Metropolis (1927) to steampunk subculture and to retrofuturism.

Blimps still float in the skies in Blade Runner (1982).

(Thanks, Stefano Emilio!)

Bizzarro Bazar Gadgets!

In this complicated period, my work, like that of many people, also suffered a rather heavy setback (halted publishing, canceled conferences and events, etc.).

Since many had been asking for it for some time, I decided to open an online shop on Hoplix, an Italian on-demand platform: it already contains gadgets and goodies of various kinds — T-shirts, mugs, pillows, masks.
I figured it would be a fun way to feel your support, offering something nice in return, which you can use to proudly show off your weird side!

I will continue to update the offer by creating new gadgets and graphics. For now you can take a look at the available products by following this link or by clicking on the image above. Thanks!

Death As A Friend

In 1851 the German artist Alfred Rethel (who three years before had already signed an overtly political Danse Macabre) produced the sketches for two twin engravings: Death as an Enemy and Death as a Friend.

If his Death as an Enemy (above), although elegant and refined, is not so original as it is inspired by a long tradition of “Triumphs of Death” and skeletal figures towering over piles of dead bodies, it is instead the specular Death as a Friend which always fascinated me.
I recently managed to get a reproduction of this etching, taken from a late 19th-century book, and I was finally able to scan it properly. Much of the charm of this lithograph, in fact, derives from the attention given to the smallest details, which need to be carefully examined and interpreted; for this reason, admiring it in high quality is fundamental. At the end of this article you will find the link to download it; but I’d like to show you first why I love this image so much.

The scene takes us to the topmost room inside the bell tower of a medieval cathedral.
The environment is modest, the only discreet frieze present above the window arch is certainly nothing compared to how the church should look from the outside: we can guess it from a glimpse at the gargoyle in the upper left corner, and from the carved finials of the spire we see from the window.


Between these four walls the old sexton and bell ringer spent his whole life; we can imagine the cold of harsh winters, when the wind whistled entering from the large window, causing the snow to swirl in the room. We can feel the fatigue of those wooden stairs that the man must have climbed up and down Lord knows how many times, in order to reach the top of the tower.
Now the guardian has come to the end of his days: his horn remains silent, hanging on the handrail.


The frail limbs of the old man (his right foot turned to the side, under the leg’s weight), his sunken figure in the armchair, his hands abandoned in his lap and weakly united in one last prayer — everything tells us that his life is coming to an end.

His was a humble but pious life. We can guess it from the remains of his last poor meal, a simple piece of bread and a glass that allude to the Eucharist. We also understand it from the crucifix, the only furnishing in addition to the table and chair, and from the open book of scriptures.
The bunch of keys hanging from his belt are another element bearing a double meaning: they identify his role as a sacristan, but also reference the other bunch of keys that await him, the ones Saint Peter will use to unlock the gates of Paradise.

The real vanishing point is the sun setting behind the horizon of a country landscape. It is the evening of the day, the evening of a life that has run its course just like the river we see in the distance, the emblem of panta rei. Yet on its banks we see well-cultivated and regular fields, a sign that the flowing of that water has borne fruit.
A little bird lands on the windowsill of the large window; is she a friend of the old man, with whom he shared a few crumbs of bread? Did the bird worry when she didn’t hear the bells ringing as usual? In any case, it is a moving detail, and an indication of life carrying on.

And finally let’s take a look at Death.
This is not the Black Lady (or the Grim Reaper) we find in most classic depictions, her figure could not be further from the one that brought scourge and devastation in the medieval Triumphs of Death. Of course she is a skeleton and can inspire fear, but the hood and saddlebag are those of a traveler. Death came a long way to visit the old man, so much so that she carries a scallop on his chest, the sea shell associated with Saint James, symbol of the Pilgrim; her bony feet have trampled the Earth far and wide, since time immemorial. And this constant wandering unites her, in spirit, with the old man — not surprisingly, the same shell is also pinned on the sexton’s hat, next to his staff and a bundle of herbs that he has collected.

This Death however, as indicated by the title, is “a friend”. When facing such a virtuous man, that same Death who knows how to be a ruthless and ferocious tyrant becomes a “sister” in the Franciscan sense. Her head lowered, her empty orbits turned to the ground, she seems almost intent on a secret meditation: from the beginning of time she has carried out her task with diligence, but here we see she is not evil.
And in fact, she makes a gesture of disarming gentleness: she rings the bells one last time, to announce vespers in the place of the dying man who is no longer able to do it.

It is time for the changing of the guard, the elderly man can now leave the post he has occupied for so long. With the quiet arrival of the evening, with the last tolling of those bells he has attended to throughout his life, a simple and devoted existence ends. Everything is peaceful, everything is done.

Few other images, I believe, are able to render so elegantly the Christian ideal (but, in general, the human ideal) of the “Good Death”.
Unfortunately, not everyone will be able to afford such an idyllic end; but if Death were really so kind, caring and compassionate, who wouldn’t want to have her as a friend?

To download my high-quality scan (60Mb) of Death as Friend, click here.

Wunderkammer Live!

A few years ago I organized the Accademia dell’Incanto, a series of meetings with anthropologists, artists, pathologists, filmmakers and scholars of oddities – which I hosted in the wunderkammer Mirabilia in Rome.

Now that we are enduring this period of isolation, the curator of Wunderkammer Zurich, Christian D. Link, has come up with something very similar: his project is called Wunderkammer Live!, and it consists in two days of live streaming in the company of eccentric and exceptional guests.

Chris D. Link (Photo by Raisa Durandi)

The first two dates are April 18th and 19th, for a total of twelve guests (six every day, live from 4pm to 10pm European time).
The lineup is truly remarkable: in addition to myself and my friend Luca Cableri, whom you should be familiar with if you’ve seen my web series, the program features forensic anthropologist Matteo Borrini, Dutch taxidermist Marjolein Kramer, collector Viktor Wynd (another old acquaintance for those who follow Bizzarro Bazar), the great Swiss artist Thomas Ott, mentalist Luke Jermay, and many others.

Live streaming will take place within the Wunderkammer Live! Facebook group, so make sure you sign up; during these two weeks preceding the event you will also have the opportunity to get to know the speakers better through dedicated posts.

In this peculiar time we’re living, it is more essential than ever to keep our sense of wonder alive; Chris’ initiative is intended to inspire, entertain, amaze and share the heterogeneous knowledge of some professionals of the enchantment. And ok, I’m also among the interviewees, but personally I can’t wait to hear what the other guests will tell us.
We look forward to seeing you for a couple of out-of-the-ordinary evenings: we all need it!

Dragons of the Alps

Article by guestblogger Giovanni Savelli

In a mountain landscape which is getting increasingly civilized, anthropized and crowded by tourists, it is difficult to find the bizarre. Monsters have left for some faraway, inaccessible places. A teratological migration that concerned the Alps, even before other liminal areas such as the Carpathians or the mountain of northern Norway, where maybe some small group of trolls still barely survives escaping the expansion of human settlements.

Yet for centuries, until the mid-1700s, the most impressive and grandiose mountain range in Europe was a natural object better observed from a distance. People looked at the peaks only through binoculars or by means of some other natural observations which did not imply any dangerous approach to the observed object. The modern passion for heights, and the even more recent determination to set foot on the highest peaks in the world, did not interest travelers or naturalists back then at all. In the midst of civilized Europe, the Alps and its highest mountains were regarded with a slight indifference by explorers and with total distrust on the part of those who were forced to live with the reality of those landscapes.

A troublesome and uncomfortable reality for those who dwelled in the Chamonix valleys or the nearby village of Courmayeur during the Little Ice Age, when ice tongues became more intrusive and insidious.
The very toponymy of those places confirms this perception of danger and fear, as it makes use of names that are anything but reassuring, Maudit or Dolant, to indicate places which instilled a sense of suspicion, if not sheer terror.

Etching by H. G. Willink – Wilderwurm Gletscher (1892)

As Elisabetta Dall’Ò points out (in I draghi delle Alpi. Cambiamenti climatici, Antropocene e immaginari di ghiaccio), the reason is to be found in the progressive growth of ice tongues near Alpine villages, which began the 15th century with often fatal consequences for the inhabitants. The detachment of gigantic blocks of ice caused frequent obstructions of watercourses with in turn resulted in terrible floodings. The  glaciers’ progressive extension subtracted fertile soil to agriculture and pastures to cattle farms. It is in this ecological and socio-economic context that the legends about dragons and monsters first began to emerge. A folklore that has its roots in the etymology of the word “dragon”, which is associated with water: both in its liquid and solid form. The dragons of the Alps haunted the local imagination, fierce beasts capable of destroying entire villages in one night. The glaciers descending into the valley turned into threatening and unpredictable dragon tongues. And unpredictable they were, both for the superstitious inhabitants of the villages and for scientists or naturalists who, until the end of the 17th century, had been careful not to set foot on the cold alpine moors. Exploring exotic, remote islands was thought to be more interesting — and meteorologically more welcoming.

We mentioned the relationship between dragons and water, and across the Alps we find the term dragonàre with the meaning (in the Napoleonic era) of flooding, or the word dracare as a synonym for a heavy snowfall. The history of dragons in the Alps, however, goes back even further in time, since the foothills regions often mention the presence of dragons in their founding myths. It was a dragon that threatened the town of Augusta Taurinorum (the ancient Turin), until a red bull defeated it. Another dragon infested the Loo area (in the Aosta Valley region) and was once again put to flight by a young bull.

But let’s go back to the properly alpine dragons, which is the topic we are interested in. Just like it interested many 18th-century naturalists and scholars who collected several accounts of dragon sightings. Edward Topsell, an English cleric who lived between the 17th and 18th centuries, provided a brief classification in his work The History of Serpents. In the section dedicated to dragons we find that:

There be some Dragons which have wings and no feet, some again have both feet and wings, and some neither feet nor wings, but are only distinguished from the common sort of Serpents by the combe growing upon their heads, and the beard under their cheeks.

Topsell’s scientific “consultant” was one Conrad Gessner, a native of the Alpine region; born in Zurich in 1516, he was the author of some of the drawings that appeared in the book. It seems unlikely that Topsell actually believed in the existence of these creatures, but what matters is his bizarre and detailed description of (real) animals alongside monsters and naturalistic oddities.

The fact that Edward Topsell himself had never set foot in the Alps makes his account not particularly unreliable; other naturalists and explorers, such as Johann Jakob Scheuchzer, could boast a much greater familiarity with the Alpine landscape. Scheuchzer was born and raised in Switzerland, he was a member of the Royal Society and undertook his first scientific journeys in the Alps starting from 1693. Not immune from huge mistakes, such as interpreting fossils as remains of the Universal Flood, he was nonetheless a careful and curious explorer who during his research collected some terrible and picturesque tales about the dragons inhabiting the Alps at the time.
In his 1723 expedition account (Itinera for Helvetiae alpinas regiones) we find a series of curious and intriguing representations of mountain dragons, bearing striking similarities with the dracological classification present in Topsell’s work. Scheuchzer wrote about the two most common dragons of the Alpine arc, according to the collected evidence: the Tatzelwurm and the Lindworm.

Unless you are an expert in dragons, it might be useful to summarise the morphology of the different dragon species we encountered so far:

  • Tatzelwurm: body of a snake, long tail, two or four legs;
  • Lindworm: dragon-serpent with two legs and no wings;
  • Iaculo: body of a snake and two wings;
  • Viverna: body of a snake with two wings and two legs;
  • Anfittero: winged dragon, no legs;

According to collected oral evidence, the first two species seem to be the most common in the Alps; the other three can be found in the films of Hayao Miyazaki, in the books of George R. R. Martin, and the dragon which infested the hills around Bologna is mentioned in Ulisse Aldrovandi’s Serpentum et Draconum historiae libri duo, published in 1604. If you have never heard of Aldrovandi, it is worth taking a look at Dario Carere’s article about him, here on Bizzarro Bazar. If you want to see the famous Bologna dragon as Aldrovandi described it, follow this link (the creature in question is on page 404).

And since Ulisse Aldrovandi was certainly fond of monstrous and bizarre figures, in his Serpentum and Draconum historiae he provided a series of four drawings of winged dragons, both bipedal and legless.

Ulisse Aldrovandi was a typical 17th-century scholar, combining scientific curiosity with a wider interest in all things bizarre, monstrous and amazing. A disposition which was not shared by Swiss naturalist and scientist Horace Bénédict de Saussure who, in fact, in his numerous explorations of the Alpine mountains, found no evidence of drangons. In the second half of the 18th century the alpine folklore regarding dragons underwent a slow and inexorable impoverishment. Where monstruous and fearsome dragon tongues were once ready to swallow entire villages, de Saussure’s scientific curiosity only meets natural objects and phenomena that must be understood, studied and explained.
This was the same scientific curiosity which led to the first tourist incursions in one of the largest and most fearsome “dragons” in the Alps: the Chamonix glacier. We can trace the discovery of the Mer de Glace to the summer of 1741, as a party of reckless British mountaineers undertook an adventurous climb and came in view of a glacier which until a few years before was populated by dragons and demons.

This marked the beginning of glaciological tourism which, in the decades to come, would make the French resort of Chamonix famous among mountain enthusiasts. Chased away by crowds of tourists and mountaineers, the dragons of the Alps were forced into retreat, as they witnessed from a distance the rising of hotels, cable cars and accommodation facilities. Of course, their territory was still scary, arousing awe and wonder in those who came to see those mountains. Mary Shelley set a scene of Frankenstein on the Mer de Glace, which she visited in the company of her husband in 1816. But it was a fascination akin to the one which can still be felt by riding the Mont Blanc cable car, looking down on the breath-taking view of the glacier from a suspended cabin. Quite different, that is, from the fear of the unpredictable, the terror of what cannot be explained or controlled.
Within a century, the Alpine territory changed so radically that today it is difficult to believe those places were once populated by dragons and demons. It is natural to associate the withdrawal of dragons with the current conditions alpine glaciers are facing. Natural, of course, but also necessary: because envisaging a snowless Mont Blanc can help understand where the fearsome dragons of the Alps have gone. This is how folklore, legends and traditions are linked to ecology; when a landscape is transformed, the representation that its inhabitants make of it changes accordingly.
The dragons have disappeared from the Alps; and not just them.

Links, Curiositites & Mixed Wonders – 22

∼ PANDEMIC SPECIAL! ∼

Are you forced to stay home because of the virus?

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Sorry, no links this time.

In this period of self-reclusion, I am sure that you will have no problem exploiting your forced retreat in an inspired or culturally relevant way. Because on the internet everyone — EVERYONE — is recommending endless lists of books and films and TV series and myriads of other ways of employing the empty hours.

Personally, compared to other “content creators” (awful definition), I have been a little hesitant these days in proposing reading/viewing/listening suggestions. I keep posting some curious finds on social networks, as I always do, but no lists or tips to get distracted.
Maybe it’s because I would not feel comfortable riding the wave of such a dramatic event (even make-up tutorials now contain the coronavirus hashtag), perhaps lowering myself to the point of advertising my books once again; or maybe it’s because I have the feeling that we are destroying the possibility of enjoying a bit of boredom and existential ennui, as incapable as we are of detoxifying ourselves from constant hyperstimulation. Ours might end up being a frantic isolation, more dense and crowded with things to do than usual.

But the real reason is that we live in unusual times.
Times traversed by widespread and meandering anxieties, by the sensation an imminent redefinition, as if we were all — I would say: as a living species — on the brink of an uncertain future, very different from the reassuring and predictable one that awaited our grandparents or great grandparents when they were young.
Sometimes we feel that the tip of our feet has reached this invisible border, this limen beyond which we cannot foresee what lies ahead. However, a step forward must be taken. And it becomes increasingly evident that we must all take that step together. That’s the “solidarity” we so often confuse with charity, but which etymologically means to be “solid”, compact — I would say: as a living species.

What awaits us is unknown, and the unknown is fearful, exciting, unsettling. This is the dimension that for many years I have tried to indicate as the true meaning of wonder, the original thauma which is a mixture of amazement, enchantment and terror.
Such a feeling is not easy, nor comforting. But it is fertile: new thoughts arise, new perspectives, even new philosophies. It is an opportunity to improve.

We live in an unusual time.
That’s why I do not intend to propose anything to “kill” it: because, if you are reading these lines, there is a good chance that you are yourself unusual individuals. People who seek wonder, who better than others know how to balance the attractions and deceptions of Awe.
So this is your time, your moment. Tune in, enjoy it, make it count.
As good old Hunter S. Thompson said:

Curiosa autobiografia d’un sacerdote extrapervertito

Sorry, this entry is only available in Italian.