In this episode of the second season of Bizzarro Bazar, produced in collaboration with the Civic Museums of Reggio Emilia: a doctor who wanted to solve psychiatric disorders with dentist pincers; a strange and monstrous fish that belonged to Lazzaro Spallanzani; the goth prostitutes of ancient Rome.
In this strange period dominated by a sense of distance, together with my association L’Arca degli Esposti we decided to give life to a collective and shared dream: therefore I call out for all the artists, creatives, writers, poets, musicians, surrealists and ‘pataphysicists who follow this blog!
Our new project is called Inventarium, a real multimedia illustrated dictionary of Fantastic Gnosis, signed by contemporary artists who are invited to coin a term, define it and provide an iconic and / or audiovisual representation of it.
A surreal collection of figurative neologisms, of fantastic binomials and evocative connections which, following the lead of the Codex Seraphinianus (a fantasy encyclopedia written in asemic characters and illustrated by Luigi Serafini in the seventies, widely appreciated by notable authors such as Italo Calvino, Federico Fellini, Tim Burton, etc.), intends to map an alternative world dreamed and composed, piece by piece, by the artists.
A visionary enterprise that will take the form of a permanent and constantly evolving collective exhibition / encyclopedia, which can be consulted online on the association’s social channels and, in an organic way, on the association website.
Inventarium currently includes the following thematic/oneiric sections:
● ETHNOGRAPHY Impracticable Customs, Dictionary of Chimeric Fashion, Pataphysical Culinary Art
● NATURE Fantastic Bestiary, Magical Herbarium, Anthology of Non-existent Fossils and Minerals
● SYMBOLS & PSEUDOSCIENCES Insurrectional Physiognomy, Capricious Anatomy, Alchemy of Contemporary Ether
● GEOGRAPHY Atlas of Metaphysical Cities
Alongside the artists invited by the curators, sumbissions from every geographical area are welcome.
Contributions must be submitted via email at [email protected]
So bring it on, unleash your imagination, invent new words and give them life through your works!
On March 21, 2021, the Bizzarro Bazar web series will be back on my YouTube channel with 10 new episodes produced in collaboration with the prestigious Civic Museums of Reggio Emilia.
The episodes, as for the first season, will be published every other week.
By now you know what to expect: strange scientific experiments, quirky characters, human wonders, stories bordering on the impossible — in short, all the classic Bizzarro Bazar repertoire.
As usual, the direction and fantastic animations have been curated by Francesco Erba, but this time we shot the live parts in the exceptional historical collections of the Palazzo dei Musei: in each episode, in the Show & Tell section, one of the museum curators will open a display case just for us, and allow us to discover the most emblematic and curious objects and pieces.
Here is a little trailer to lighten the wait, and see you soon!
I am sure we all remember vividly the first sex scene we saw in a movie that really struck our imagination. In my case the film in question was Excalibur (1981) by John Boorman, and more precisely the carnal congress which happens about fifteen minutes into the film. A sequence that deeply troubled me, leaving me in a mixture of attraction and repulsion, without my being able to understand why.
Here Uther Pendragon, who thanks to Merlin’s spell has assumed the appearance of Duke Gorlois, violently possesses the duke’s wife, Igraine (from this fleeting relationship extorted with deception King Arthur will be born). The montage sequence shows this intercourse obtained by deception alernated with the simultaneous death of the true duke on the battlefield: Eros and Thanatos.
Excalibur (1981) by John Boorman
The element that struck me most was a detail with a very powerful visual impact: in the scene Uther, falling prey to erotic fury, does not bother to take off his armor and rushes on the woman who, believing him to be her husband, gives in to his impetus. Leaving aside the dubious realism of the scene (would it really be possible to do certain things while wearing an armor?), it was the contrast – the contact – between the shiny steel and the white female skin that was indelibly engraved in my imagination. I doubt it is a coincidence that, many years later, my graduation thesis ended up focusing on Crash by Cronenberg, another film in which flesh and metal clash and merge, thanks to the car accident, in a perverse erotic dimension.
When I saw Excalibur for the first time I could not know, but the iconography of a knight in armor facing a naked woman is a recurring theme in the history of art – “too frequent, too varied, too insistent to be judged random”, as noted by Roger Caillois in Au cœur du fantastique (1965).
The motif is connected to the broader topos of the clothed male figure vs. an undressed female figure: many nineteenth-century paintings are based on this one-sided nudity, in particular the representations of harems or slave markets which were very fashionable among Orientalist painters, but also famous paintings like Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe.
But, as we shall see, in the case of the fully-armored knight a much more interesting level of ambiguity can be identified.
Giuseppe Ferrauto states that there are “a whole kind of depictions of beautiful, naked and chained female prisoners, destined for the more or less openly morbid tastes of gentlemen of the past. […] Ariosto described Angelica chained to the rock of Ebuda, about to be the victim of a sea monster. Many took possession of this scene, from Ingres to Doré, who used it for his illustrations for Orlando furioso, up to Polish artist Chodowiecki, who also made a series of engravings, again for Orlando furioso , in 1772, to end up in the folklore scenes of Sicilian carts’ painted sides.” (Arcana, vol. II, Sugar 1969)
Painters looking for contexts that lend themselves to this type of representation obviously found a perfect anecdote in the episode of Angelica and Ruggero (or in the similar classic myth of Andromeda freed by Perseus). One of the most famous examples is the aforementioned Ruggero Freeing Angelica by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1819), an oil painting that at the time caused a scandal for its representation of female nudity.
Matthias Gerung, Allegory of Love (Amor omnia vincit), 1535
Pieter Paul Rubens, Perseus Freeing Andromeda, 1620
Pieter Paul Rubens, Perseus and Andromeda, 1640
But there were illustrious and varied precedents. In 1530 Lucas Cranach had chosen the Judgment of Paris in order to show the three naked goddesses in front of the Trojan prince, while Tintoretto associated the theme with the liberation of Arsinoe, where the rescue set at the Lighthouse of Alexandria becomes the occasion for showing the armor in contact with bare skin; also worth noting is the sensual detail of the chain which slides sinuously over the queen’s private parts. As Mario Praz summarized well, “the contact of naked limbs with the chains and the steel of the armor seems to have the precise purpose of exciting special senses” (Erotismo in arte e letteratura, in I problemi di Ulisse, 1970).
Lucas Cranach The Elder, The Judgement of Paris, ca. 1528
Jacopo Tintoretto, The Liberation of Arsinoe, ca. 1556
Francesco Montelatici a.k.a. Cecco Bravo, Ruggero and Angelica, 1660
Michaelis Majeri, Secretioris naturae secretorum scrutinium chymicum, 1687
“All this – wrote Caillois – undoubtedly gives rise to an emotion which is in a certain sense natural, inevitable, and does not owe its effectiveness to the illustrated anecdote. André Pieyre de Mandiargues, describing Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara […], reports that licentious tournaments were held in the hall on the first floor in which naked girls contended with knights in arms. If the rumor is true, the strange game convinces me only of the fact that the power of suggestion of that image is even greater than I imagined. If it is unfounded, the fact that it was taken up by Mandiargues convinces me almost as much of the secret and persistent virulence of that fantasy.”
William Etty, Britomart Redeems Faire Amoret, ca. 1833
Arthur Hughes, La Belle Dame sans Merci, 1863
Joseph Paul Blanc, The Liberation – Ruggero and Angelica, 1876
In time the motif no longer needed much historical anecdotes to lean on. Millais’s Knight Errant does not refer to any precise mythological or literary episode – if not, perhaps, to John Keats’ ballad La Belle Dame Sans Merci (1819) – as it will happen with other variations on the theme by the Pre-Raphaelites.
John Everett Millais, The Knight Errant, 1870
Edward Burne-Jones, The Doom Fulfulled, 1885
Charles Napier Kennedy, Perseus and Andromeda, 1890
Arthur Hacker, The Temptation of Sir Percival, ca. 1894
One of the most interesting declinations is undoubtedly the one chosen by Delacroix in 1852, in which the knight-errant is actually a woman: it is Marfisa, once again a character drawn from Ariosto.
It is worth summing up the background story of this scene: the warrior-woman on her steed is giving a passage across the river to the witch Gabrina, when they meet the knight Pinabello and her beautiful but insolent lover, who laughs at the old woman. Determined to avenge this offense, Marfisa defeats the knight in a duel and forces Pinabello’s mistress to strip off her rich garments and give them to her old woman.
In stripping the knight’s cheeky lover, Marfisa seems to parody the very artistic motif we are talking about. In fact unlike all the other armored knights we’ve seen so far, who fall at the feet of the girl in déshabillé, here the intrepid warrior, being a woman, does not let herself be duped: to the pretty girl (to paint which, according to Armando Sodano, Delacroix had rediscovered “the lyricism of odalisques of his youth”) Marfisa prefers the old hag she carries on her steed. Who certainly isn’t beautiful, but intelligent.
An ironic punishment for female vanity that comes from a female in armor, one that I find amusing to read in a metanarrative sense: “if you are a woman who cannot go beyond appearances”, Marfisa seems to warn, “then you deserve to be naked , as happens to all the other maidens in this very type of paintings!”
Eugène Delacroix, Marfisa, 1852
Finally, let me go back to Excalibur. Over the years I have often found myself wondering what was special about that scene, and why did it end up being engraved so strongly in my imagination.
Uther’s passion is cruel, compelling, violent. He encompasses all the arrogance of the well-known masculinity centered on possession: a vision made of fury, of rights arrogated and obtained even by deception, a vision in which the longed-for woman must be taken by force. It could be said that the character of Uther, who even recurs to a magic spell in order to satisfy his desires, is “blinded by passion”: a phrase that is sometimes used even today as an extenuating circumstance for rapes and femicides. This is why it is a dark, disturbing sex scene; it is no coincidence that it is interpolated by Boorman with the images of the massacre on the battlefield and with the shots of the innocent child (Morgana) who witnesses this furious embrace, while the soundtrack by Trevor Jones, through pulsating strings and choirs of wavering voices, creates a surreal and deadly atmosphere.
Excalibur (1981) by John Boorman
Yet Igraine does not shy away from aggression: perhaps because she truly believes that he is her husband – or perhaps because there is a subtle complacency in causing such a fury in any lover. Which of the two is dominant, the knight who attacks, or the female who has the power to make him fall prey to passion?
The scene is therefore suspended, as its power relationship is ambiguous. This ambiguity is also intrinsic to the artistic theme we have talked about. On the one hand, the artists tend to highlight the contrast between feminine weakness and fragility, as symbolized by the tempting softness of naked flesh, and strong masculinity as signified by the hard appearance of metal. On the other hand, however, the very armor that should be a symbol of might and virility almost seems like a shell that encloses and constrains all impulses.
John William Waterhouse, La Belle Dame sans Merci, 1893
John William Waterhouse, Lamia and the Soldier, ca. 1905
Such a representation inevitably raises questions: is the knight’s “macho” allure amplified by this encounter with a beautiful lady in Evitic costume, or does he on the contrary appear to be mocked? After being victorious in countless battles, isn’t the warrior conquered by the irresistible seduction of women? Is his armor a symbol of power or rather impotence (as it prevents intercourse)? Is the naked woman, in all her soft and helpless charm, really a compliant prey or is she the one who bewitches and leads the game?
Rose O’Neill, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, 1905
The opposition between these two extremes (manhood enclosed in war vestments, and naked seductive femininity) is the embodiment of a dialectic between the sexes that has been handed down for a very long time as if it were an immutable truth. Yet the dynamics of the relations of power, domination and submission, are never as univocal as they might seem; the mechanism is delicate, and the opposing components at its core are in constant tension towards overturning one another.
The strength of the image of the knight and the naked woman lies precisely in the fact that, at a deep level, its balance remains undecidable.
Vereker Monteith Hamilton (1856 – 1931), The Rescue
Quiz: which animal is portrayed in the photo? The solution at the end of the article!
When workers broke down a brick wall inside a convent in Leicestershire, they found a couple of skeletons. However, these are anatomical preparations, the bones are numbered and in some cases still articulated with wire. How they got behind a convent wall is still a mystery.
In 1968 Barbara Mackle, then 20 years old, became the victim of one of the most infamous kidnappings in history. The girl was locked up in a reinforced box equipped with two tubes for air circulation, then buried in the woods as her kidnappers awaited ransom. Here you find the letter she found upon waking up in her coffin. She spent more than three days underground before she was located and brought to safety.
If Charlotte Thornley hadn’t survived a terrifying cholera epidemic, we might had never had Dracula. Because Charlotte was Bram Stoker’s mother, and with her chilling tales she probably influenced the concept for the most famous gothic novel ever. Here is a wonderful article (in Italian) by Sofia Lincos and Giuseppe Stilo.
“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark“: at least some critical voices seem to think so, as they protest against an animated series for children whose protagonist is a little man with a very long and prehensile penis. Given the contemporary efforts to change the macho/phallocentric mentality, this concept does not strike as very thoughtful, but others claim the cartoon is actually harmless, free from sexual references, respectful towards women and kindly goliardic. A good article (in Italian) on Il Post summarizes the scandal and the different opinions, also embedding some episodes that you can see to get an idea. (Thanks, Massimiliano!)
Italy is the country that boasts the largest number of mummies in the world, a unique historical and anthropological heritage (as I explained in this video). Still we are not capable of giving value to this heritage. In May 1999, two more mummies were found in an excellent state of natural conservation and still dressed in period clothing and jewels, under the Church of the Santissima Annunziata in Siena. And what happened following this exceptional discovery? “We regret the mummified bodies are once again hidden under the floor of the church; as for the ancient clothes, the jewels, medals and coins found on them, we do not know where they are, nor if they have ever been restored”, a researcher said. Meh.
“You are stupid. And not only are you stupid, but you are nasty. ” So said one of the letters that arrived in the editorial office of the French magazine Hara-Kiri, founded in 1960. From that moment on, the subtitle of the magazine became “A stupid and nasty newspaper”. A strange editorial case, Hara-Kiri was a satirical, incorrect and in many cases openly obscene magazine, so much so that in the course of its 29 years of activity it went through various judicial troubles (it was after one of these interdictions that the team gave birth to the collateral project Charlie Hebdo, now sadly famous for the terrorist attack of 2015). But perhaps the most distinctive elements of Hara-Kiri remain its covers: shocking, extreme, vulgar, deliberately unpleasant, designed with the intent of épater les bourgeois. Here is a collection of 45 covers that are even today an example of explosive, unhinged and unrestrained punk graphics. (Thanks Marco!)
Mariano Tomatis gave me a heads-up about a curious text, available for free online, detailing the method devised in the late nineteenth century by the Swedish physiotherapist Thure Brandt to treat numerous female genital pathologies through massages, stretching, lifting. Mariano tells me that “the curious figures employed in the book are an attempt to de-sexualize the subjects’ appearance”; too bad the result looks like a manual of esoteric rituals for aliens.
The representation of death often relies on euphemization or symbolic rendering, in order to avoid the “scandal” of the corpse, that is, to avoid being obscene. The approach is different for the kind photography which is aimed at social criticism, where shock is an essential element in order to convey a moral position. This is the case of the series Grief by Hungarian photographer Peter Timar, who between 1980 and 1983 documented the disrespectful and questionable treatment of bodies at the Funeral Institute in Budapest: the corpses piled on top of each other, the collapsed coffins on the floor, the bodies stretched in pairs on the autopsy tables caused a huge controversy when the Mucsamok gallery in Budapest exhibited Timar’s photographs. The exhibition was closed by the authorities a few days after it opened. You can see the Grief series at this link (warning: graphic images).
The effects of the torture on Guy Fawkes emerge from his writing: above, his signature (“Guido”) just after being tortured at the Tower of London; below, the same signature a week later, when he had regained his strength.
Lee Harper is an Oxford-based artist passionate about the darkest side of history; in her works she decided to revisit those bizarre episodes that most struck her imagination, by creating detailed dioramas. “All of the pieces — says the artist’s statement — are about real people, events or customs from some point in this crazy world.” Those range from Countess Bathory’s bloodbaths to sin-eaters, from Freeman’s Lobotomobile to body snatchers. But, as if the events represented weren’t enough to make you shiver with morbid delight, Lee Harper’s grotesque miniature scenes are all played out by little skeleton actors. You can see her creations on History Bones and on her Instagram profile.
But COVID also took away Kim Ki-Duk, one of the major Korean directors. If many remember him for 3-Iron, Pietà or Spring Summer…, here on these pages it seems just right to remember him for his most disturbing and extreme film, The Isle (2000). One of the best Italian reviews, written by Giuseppe Zucco, called it a “powder-keg film”: a cruel and moving representation of incommunicability between human beings, which can be overcome only at the cost of hurting each other, tearing the flesh to the point of erasing oneself into the Other.
sleeping: “I dreamt I had done it. I awoke to find it
(Evening Star, August 14, 1924) <ahref=”https://t.co/JO7J96LwUs”>pic.twitter.com/JO7J96LwUs
Sturgeons smashing doors, candles that “sulk”, rotting cats under the bed, panthers exhumed and tasted… This article (in Italian) on the larger-than-life figure of Frank Buckland is a true riot of oddities.
The Taus is an Indian chordophone musical instrument, originating from Punjab. Created, according to tradition, by the sixth Sikh Guru, Guru Hargobind (1595-1644), it is composed of a 20-fret neck and a body sculpted in the shape of a peacock. Real peacock feathers were often added to the instrument to complete the illusion.
There is always an unexpected point in a celebration where an embarrassed silence falls for a moment.
Then a tiny crack of uncertainty opens, in which the diners seem to realize the futility of the party itself. It’s just a small treacherous blow, under the belt of smiles and jokes, an imperceptible hesitation from which we recover immediately.
But as a boy I hated parties and secretly enjoyed those moments of estrangement: “Human beings have been partying for centuries, for millennia, but what the hell is there to celebrate? Don’t they see the cosmos out there, how scary and cold and terrible it is? ”
Perhaps, I said to myself – with the classic haughtiness of the adolescent who thinks he’s the first to notice certain things – perhaps it is precisely in order not to see the void, to dispel the thought of nonsense, that these pathetic fools dance and they shout and laugh like madmen!
It took me a shamefully long time, and a lot of effort, to get over this thought. To admit the colossal courage necessary for the affirmation of joy; to understand the mystery, still alive today, of the ancient Dionysian fury; to recognize that the urgency of dance is just as powerful as the need for poetry.
This year that we are denied any kind of partying, its cardinal importance is even more evident: the flesh itself seems to claim its right to be unleashed, released.
My wish, therefore, for anyone who is reading, is to soon go back to dancing together, each following their own rhythm – unique, funny, deviant, rambling, capricious, clumsy or irregular … in the face of convention, but also in the face of that universe we imagine to be cold and inhospitable.
Perhaps, dancing for no reason is just what the stars have always been doing.
I haven’t been updating the blog lately, because it has been an intense period. Together with director Francesco Erba we completed the filming of the second season of the Bizzarro Bazar web series inside the spectacular Civic Museums of Reggio Emilia, and now post-production has begun.
However, I did not miss the opportunity to have a little chat with The Thinker’s Garden, one of the most stimulating spaces on the web: during the interview we talked about my relationship with Padua (and in particular about an autobiographical episode that ties me to the Morgagni Museum), about the Master in Death Studies organized by prof. Ines Testoni, and about the latest news regarding the series.
And with this little update, I wish you happy holidays!
This image is perhaps my favorite anatomical plate ever, from Valverde‘s Historia de la composicion del cuerpo humano, 1556. From a philological point of view it is one of those images that demonstrate how sacred iconography influenced anatomical illustration (the reference here is San Bartolomeo), but my love for this figure is motivated by another aspect.
Not only is it a refined, metaphysical, surreal, grotesque and disturbing plate, but above all it is philosophically programmatic. The man is holding the dagger in his hand, so he just skinned himself: this is an autopsy not only in the etymological sense of seeing for oneself, looking with one’s own eyes, but above all autopsy as seeing oneself.
The famous warning of the temple of Delphi, “Know Thyself”, involves an act of cruelty: every introspection implies stripping away from appearances (the superficial skin) and making a scorched earth of one’s own certainties. To look “inside” in a honest way you have to flay yourself, a process that is anything but pleasant.
The mosaic of San Gregorio in Rome, in the second image, bears the inscription gnōthi sautón, know thyself: and it is no coincidence that it represents another écorché ante litteram, this time used as a memento mori.
Knowing oneself means considering one’s own mortality, but each of us has to decide: is accepting impermanence the end of any quest, or just the beginning?
The English term ‘bonehouse’, referring to an ossuary or charnel where large quantities of exhumed skeletal remains are stacked and displayed, derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘beinhaus’. In its original use, this word referred to the human body rather than any structure as the house of bones. With the bones of the living inhabiting bodies and the bones of the dead inhabiting charnel houses, distinctions between life and death remain clear and accommodated. However, the emergence of animal life within the bones of the dead offers one further twist, repurposing bones as houses in and of themselves.
Reports of birds nesting in human skulls were surprisingly common in the 19th and early 20th centuries, attracting the attention of Victorian ornithologists and curiosity-seekers alike. Numerous reports survive through popular books and magazines of the period, including wrens nesting in a skull left outside to whiten by an anatomy student (Blanchan 1907), as well as one uncovered during building works at Hockwold Hall, Norfolk, during the 1870s (Chilvers 1877). Following its discovery, the Hockwold skull was hung from a nail on a potting shed wall by a local man, who was later surprised to find that a wren seen flying in and out of it had laid four or five eggs within.
Also in Norfolk, earlier in the century, birds were found nesting in the exposed skeletal remains of a local murderer. Following execution, the body was left to rot in a gibbet suspended outside the village of Wereham, serving as a grizzly warning to others who might threaten local lives. Around five years later, in 1810 or thereabouts, a child climbed the scaffold and discovered several blue-tits living within the skull (Stevenson 1876).
Though the Wereham gibbet is no longer extant, the surviving Rye gibbet shows how a skull would be retained. (Postcard. Author’s collection.)
Further accounts pepper books both historic and recent. When a Saxon cemetery was excavated at Saffron Walden during the 1870s, a Redstart raised four children in the skull of an exposed skeleton (Travis 1876). More recently, in an expedition to Cape Clear Island, Ireland, the ornithologist Ronald M. Lockley discovered a robin’s nest inside a skull within a ruined chapel, which had presumably tumbled from an old stone grave within the walls (Lockley 1983).
FIG 2: Illustration of a bird’s nest in a human skull, c.1906.
Skulls do not form the only morbid homes of nesting birds, with the Chinese Hoopoe, or coffin-bird, so named on account of its habit of nesting in caskets which were frequently left above-ground in 19th century China. Furthermore, the Arctic-dwelling Snow Bunting has been rumoured to seek shelter in the chest cavities of those unfortunate enough to die on the tundra (Dixon 1902). While nooks and crannies in modern cemeteries also provide helpful shelter in mortuary environments (Smith/Minor 2019), these nesting sites are not driven by any macabre mechanism. Rather, they express the versatile ability of birds to seek shelter wherever it might be conveniently found.
Birds nesting in locations as mundane as flowerpots and old boots (Kearton 1895), through to desiccated animal carcasses, including those of other birds (Armstrong 1955), demonstrate the indifferent resourcefulness of our feathered friends. It is therefore unsurprising that when skulls of the dead have been left exposed to the elements, they have occasionally provided shelter in much the same way as any other convenient object might. As charnels and ossuaries have historically accommodated large quantities of such remains, from time to time they have offered several such convenient homes for nesting birds.
Within England, two charnel collections remain extant. The first of these, at St. Leonard’s Church in Hythe, Kent, houses hundreds of skulls including one which contains a bird’s nest. The nest is rumoured to have been built in the mid-20th century after the church’s windows were shattered by a bomb which fell nearby in the Second World War, allowing birds to enter the structure (Caroline 2015).
FIG 3: The bird’s nest skull in St. Leonard’s, Hythe.
England’s second accessible charnel collection is located in the crypt of Holy Trinity Church in Rothwell, Northamptonshire. Newspapers in 1912 reported the discovery a nest in a skull there, which was believed to have been made by a bird who snuck into the crypt through a hole in a ventilator (Northampton Mercury 12.7.12). However, a lack of references in more recent sources suggest that the nest has not survived to the present day.
In Austria, the ossuary of Filialkirche St. Michael in der Wachau contains the remains of local people as well as soldiers who died during the 1805 Battle of Dürenstein (Engelbrecht). Several skulls bear bullet holes attesting death by conflict, while one with a large portion missing from its vault is displayed side-on to reveal the bird’s nest that it contains.
FIG 4: Nest skull at the Filialkirche St. Michael in der Wachau.
Further examples exist in the Breton region of North-Western France, where ossuaries were common until hygienic and cultural changes in the 19th and 20th centuries led to most of them being emptied. The ossuary of l’Église Saint-Grégoire in Lanrivain is one where bones still remain, with one skull there accommodating a nest.
FIG 5: Nest skull in Lanrivain Ossuary, Brittany.
A further example with a difference can be found in the ossuary of l’Église Saint-Fiacre. Within Breton ossuary practices, skulls were frequently retained separately from other remains in biographically inscribed boxes which recorded details of the deceased such as names and dates alongside invocations of prayer (Coughlin 2016). Boxes possessed viewing apertures which exposed the remains, as well as pitched roofs which led to 19th century travellers describing them as resembling dog kennels. However, one at Saint-Fiacre is decidedly distant from these canine comparisons, having been adopted and transformed into the uncanniest of birdhouses.
Birds are not the only animals to have found happy homes among charnel remains. In her book ‘A Tour of the Bones’, Denise Inge noted a mouse living in the ossuary of Hallstatt, Austria. More recently, rat bones in the ossuary of Gdańsk, Poland, have been used to shed new light on the dispersal of plague in medieval Europe (Morozova et al 2020). Plants as well as animals have their own established charnel histories too, with moss removed from human skulls finding historic employment within folk medicine as a cure for conditions of the head such as seizures and nosebleeds (Gerard 1636).
Fig 7: Medical moss on a human skull in the late 17th century.
While cemeteries have attracted increased attention in recent times as urban green spaces which accommodate and facilitate nature within settlements (Quinton/Duinker 2018), the study of charnel houses as ecosystems remains a further promising project which is yet to be conducted.
As most instances of birds nesting in ossuary skulls which have been described here were discovered accidentally during the course of broader research, it is inevitable that the present list remains incomplete. It is hoped that by bringing such examples together in one place, this strange phenomenon might receive recognition for the curiosity that it is, and that more instances might be noticed and added to the list. While it is widely seen that life often finds compelling ways to perpetuate among environments of the dead, nesting birds in ossuary skulls provide a particularly uncanny example – from bodies as the houses of bones, to bones as the houses of bodies.
Thomas J. Farrow (mail, Twitter) holds an MA in the Archaeology of Death and Memory from the University of Chester, UK. A previous article on the history of charnelling in England may be found here (Farrow 2020), while a paper addressing folk medical and magical uses of skull moss and ossuary remains is forthcoming in the Spring 2021 issue of The Enquiring Eye.