In this episode of season 2 of Bizzarro Bazar, produced in collaboration with the Civic Museums of Reggio Emilia: the secret behind the grotesque wedding organized by Tsar Peter the Great; the story of a sperm whale cub that beached in Italy in the 1930s; the black flood that swept a neighborhood in Boston in 1919.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Today I’d like to introduce you to one truly extraordinary project, in which I am honored to have participated. This is Totentanz, created by engraver and paper maker Andrea De Simeis.
One of the depictions of death that, from the Middle Ages to the seventeenth century, enjoyed greater fortune is the so-called Triumph of Death.
I talked about it on YouTube in my video Dancing with death: the Black Queen who, armed with a scythe, crushes everyone under the wheels of her chariot – peasants, popes, rulers – was not just a pictorial representation, but a concrete part of the festivities of Carnival. In fact, the Triumph also paraded among the carnival floats, surrounded by people masked as skeletons who mocked the spectators by dancing and singing poems centered on memento mori.
This is the tradition that Andrea De Simeis drew on to invent his modern Triumph of Death, an actual musical chariot that will parade across Italy and, virus permitting, across Europe, bringing joy and poetry but at the same time reminding us of our finiteness.
Totentanz (German for “danse macabre”) is a large wooden music box on wheels; at the turn of the crank, the machine plays a dies irae and three cylinders start turning, thus rotating eighteen original illustrations.
The music box, at the end of its delicate motif, draws a booklet for its operator: an illustrated plaquette with a short dialogue, a maxim, an aphorism, a poem.
Each precious booklet is produced in only eleven copies; the illustrations and texts are printed on hand-laid paper in pure cotton cellulose, hemp and spontaneous fig from the Mediterranean vegetation.
The Italian authors who accepted the invitation to write these short texts are many and prestigious; you can discover some of them on the Facebook page of the project.
Among these, I too tried my hand at a poem to accompany the illustration entitled “The Hanged Man”. It is my small tribute to François Villon and his Ballade des pendus.
Clicca per ingrandire
The proceeds from these publications will fund the Totentanz music box’s trip from city to city, accompanied at each stage by performances by a musician or actor who will interpret the theme of the memento mori. Totentanz‘s initiatives are not for profit, but only serve to finance this tour.
If the initiative fascinates you, you can support it in many ways.
In the promotional video below you can see the fantastic machine in action; below is a 3D rendering by visual artist Giacomo Merchich.
È finalmente disponibile in preordine un libretto che, credo, farà la gioia di più di un lettore: si tratta di Memorie di un boia che amava i fiori, edito da Bakemono Lab, scritto da Nicola Lucchi, illustrato da Stefano Bessoni e corredato da un mio saggio sulla decapitazione.
La storia è quella di Charles-Henri Sanson, boia parigino che durante la rivoluzione francese eseguì circa 3000 esecuzioni tramite ghigliottina. Il racconto della vita di Sanson, che Nicola Lucchi ha voluto rivisitare con un esercizio di equilibrismo tra vicende sanguinose e toni delicati, ci svela un retroscena insospettato, e cioè che quest’uomo pur essendo uno dei boia più “prolifici” della storia rimase sempre combattuto riguardo alla pena di morte. Animo colto e gentile, suonatore di violino con l’hobby delle erbe medicinali, Sanson era noto per la caritatevole empatia che mostrava verso le sue vittime, a cui offriva spesso conforto prima dell’esecuzione. La sua figura contribuì a umanizzare il mestiere del carnefice anche agli occhi del pubblico.
Il volume è illustrato da Stefano Bessoni, che chi legge questo blog conosce ormai benissimo: i suoi disegni macabri e poetici sono il perfetto complemento per la storia stralunata del boia con la passione per i fiori.
L’ultima ventina di pagine è occupata da un mio saggio sulla decapitazione attraverso la storia, e su come l’introduzione della ghigliottina non solo cambiò il modo di guardare alle esecuzioni ma diede anche inizio a una querelle filosofica sulla metafisica dell’anima.