The mystery of the severed heads of Pisa

The University of Pisa was historically one of the first to have an anatomical school; consequently the Museum of Human Anatomy, established at the beginning of the nineteenth century, is very rich in both dry and wet preparations.

It also houses some archaeological collections, including Egyptian and pre-Columbian mummies, and a whole series of artifacts coming in particular from South America.

When I visited it last year, among the many amazing preparations, a cabinet display in particular caught my eye.
It contains eight perfectly mummified heads, which immediately seemed different to me from the rest of the collection. And in fact I was not wrong: even today a mystery surrounds them.

To understand a little bit of the history of these heads we must start from the date of their arrival in Pisa, that is 1869, a period of particular ferment.

Five years earlier, Darwin’s Origin of Species had been translated into Italian, causing quite a stir. Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, the theory of the evolution fueled the curiosity of researchers and laymen.
In an academic speech delivered in 1874, prof. Pietro Duranti said:

Everyone discusses it, people of all ages, of all sexes, of all conditions; and the desire to descend from the Orangutan or the Gorilla has become a fever. Aside from the exaggeration and the ridicule, the matter is serious; scholarly and distinguished men support it here and there; and Ethnology hopes to solve it.(1)P. Duranti, Discorso pronunziato dal Cav. Prof. Pietro Duranti nel giorno 17 novembre 1874. Tipografia Nistri, Pisa (1875)

To “solve” the question, that is, to understand how evolution works, it was necessary, however, to “gather the appropriate materials“.

Carlo Regnoli, a young Pisan physician and paleontologist, decided to make his contribution, traveling twice to South America (in 1869 and 1872) in search of mummies and pre-Columbian finds. As Duranti said in that same speech:

[Regnoli] crosses the ocean twice; he directs and extends his research to a large part of South America, from the tombs of Argentina to those of the beaches of the Strait of Magellan and of the anthropophagous Patagonia; from the burial grounds of Araucania, of Chile, to those of the very high mountains of Bolivia, to the hypogea of the great Titicaca lake, to the caves of Peru. And everywhere, rummaging and searching, he collects both the remains of the Spaniards, who brought Columbus there, and the remains of the very ancient and unknown aborigines; and he sends everything back to Europe, to his beloved Pisa.

Regnoli sent several crates to Pisa with the antiquities “which he earned at the price of money, inconvenience and dangers“, although not all of them reached their destination because some were lost during shipwrecks: “as soon as they were unearthed from the ground, they were buried again in the deep whirlpools of the ocean“.

However, the amount of material that survived, and which today is part of the Museum of Anatomy in Pisa, was truly remarkable. Among other things, there are various examples of pottery, funeral and votive objects, skulls, fardos — “cocoons” of cloth containing the remains of the deceased — as well as two natural Peruvian mummies, curled up in the classic fetal positioning.(2)G. Natale, A. Paparelli, F. Garbari, Una lettera di Giovanni Arcangeli su alcuni reperti botanici precolombiani della Collezione Regnoli (Museo di anatomia umana dell’Università di Pisa), in Atti della Società toscana di scienze naturali, Mem., Serie B, vol. 113 (2006)

Unfortunately, Carlo Regnoli died shortly after his return to Italy, at the age of 35 in 1873; consequently very little information accompanies the pre-Columbian finds, regarding the dates and places of their discovery.

In the inventory, the eight mummified heads are vaguely cataloged as “Chilean heads”. But who were these individuals, when and how did they die?

The first analyzes, conducted by a multidisciplinary study group(3)P. Barile, M. Longhena, R. Melli, S. Zampetti, P. Lenzi, G. Natale, D. Caramella, El estraño caso de las cabezas decapitadas, Revista DM MD – Ciencia y Cultura Médica, N. 26 (Giugno 2015), have already begun to shed some light on this enigma, even if many questions remain unsolved.

Five heads are male, one female, and two belong to children. The study of the teeth and sutures on the skulls of the two babies indicates that they were less than 16 months old.

The truly macabre detail, however, comes from the examination of the neck: all the heads show clean cuts at the level of the second and third cervical vertebrae; these eight individuals were executed by beheading.

Before being killed, the woman received a blow to the face so violent as to break her nose and swell one eye: there are in fact signs of a ptosis (lowering of the eyelid) of traumatic origin, and the nasal septum is deviated in the same direction where the right eyelid is folded.

Radiocarbon dating made it possible to establish with a high probability that these finds date back to an era between 1440 and 1690.

Right in the middle of this period of time, around 1546, began the longest conflict in history, the Arauco war, fought in Chile between the Mapuche of the Araucania region and the Spanish colonists. The bloody execution of these eight individuals could therefore be linked in some way to the war massacres, but in the absence of further information this remains speculation.

As for the identity of the eight individuals, there is a further element of interest. The anthropological characteristics of the heads of adult males (scalp, hair and beard, shape of the incisors, etc.) seem to suggest that they were Europeans of Caucasian ethnicity; the female, on the other hand, wears two long braids which have similarities with some pre-Columbian cultures and the shape of her teeth would also confirm her indigenous origin. For this reason, a plausible hypothesis is that this was a mixed family, made up of male settlers married to native women.

Was this family massacred in the course of some reprisal or pillage?

DNA analysis will be able to confirm or deny any degree of kinship, but anyways it seems difficult that we can ever trace the true, complete story of these tragically killed people; nor the exact circumstances in which Regnoli came into possession of the heads.

On this subject, it is worth making a final, brief clarification.

To modern eyes, the attitude of a European academic buying human remains or funeral objects belonging to different cultures may seem utterly colonial. And, let’s face it, it is.

Certainly at the time the scruples on the methods of archaeological “collection” were almost non-existent, especially for a discipline such as ethnology which was taking its first steps; but if today these methods seem questionable, it is interesting to remember that the intentions and implications of these studies were often, paradoxically, anti-colonial and anti-racist.

We have already mentioned, at the beginning of this article, the fuss raised by Darwin. From that debate two currents emerged, in many ways opposite to each other: on the one hand, social Spencerism, which was eager to use the evolution of the species and the survival of the fittest to motivate racism and class differences (an idea strongly opposed by Darwin himself); and on the other hand the ethno-anthropological evolutionism, which instead denied the existence of races, claiming that all societies proceeded on the same line of progress. For evolutionists, studying “savage” populations — who were not seen as inferior to the white man but merely situated at a more immature stage of progress — could provide clues as to how the ancestors of Europeans also lived.

Today even this kind of nineteenth-century anthropological evolutionism is outdated (following the decline of the positivist idea of a linear “progress” which, coincidentally, always saw Western societies as the most advanced ones); but it had the merit of countering the scientific claim of racist and colonial theories.

It seems a contradiction, but it’s one of those apparent incongruities history is full of: with the anthropological study of “primitive societies”, carried out by looting tombs and acquiring ethically questionable finds, the historical foundations were laid for the confutation of the existence of races, now proven also at the genetic level.

The eight heads remain silent on the shelf of the Museum, united by a tragic destiny: they are a complex symbol of the violence, oppression and cruelty of which the human being is capable. Their identity, the life they spent, the carnage in which they found their end and even their post-mortem history remain hidden secrets in the folds of time.

Here is the official site of the “Filippo Civinini” Museum of Human Anatomy in Pisa; it is also possible to make a 360 ° virtual visit.

Note

Note
1 P. Duranti, Discorso pronunziato dal Cav. Prof. Pietro Duranti nel giorno 17 novembre 1874. Tipografia Nistri, Pisa (1875)
2 G. Natale, A. Paparelli, F. Garbari, Una lettera di Giovanni Arcangeli su alcuni reperti botanici precolombiani della Collezione Regnoli (Museo di anatomia umana dell’Università di Pisa), in Atti della Società toscana di scienze naturali, Mem., Serie B, vol. 113 (2006)
3 P. Barile, M. Longhena, R. Melli, S. Zampetti, P. Lenzi, G. Natale, D. Caramella, El estraño caso de las cabezas decapitadas, Revista DM MD – Ciencia y Cultura Médica, N. 26 (Giugno 2015)

The Anatomical Woman

I am publishing here, as a free ebook, a research that has engaged me for several years: it’s an essay on the iconographic and conceptual motif of the “dissected woman” — a rhetorical device which, starting at least from the Middle Ages up to these days, was intended to sabotage the female seductive power by breaking down / opening up the woman’s body.

I made a short video presentation in which I talk about the project (please turn on English subtitles):

And here are the links to dowload the PDF file for free:

The Anatomical Woman (English version) — 34 Mb

La donna anatomica (versione italiana) — 34 Mb

This book is free, but if you’d like to support my research you might consider making a donation through PayPal.

Mummified Penises (S02E10)

Here we are at the end of Season 2 of Bizzarro Bazar!

In this episode:  the obsession with the genitals of famous men; an incredible deformed skull; the REAL tomb of Jesus Christ.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the Musei Civici di Reggio Emilia for their hospitality and for the openness with which they supported our slightly unconventional work, and in particular the extraordinary curators Georgia Cantoni, Silvia Chicchi and Riccardo Campanini: if the Museums are today a lively and always vibrant place it is thanks to their dedication and enthusiasm.

As always, this episode was directed and animated by Francesco Erba and co-produced by Erika Russo. I remind you that you can (re)watch all the episodes on my YouTube channel, where there are also other curiosities such as the one-minute Bizzarro #Shorts, and much more.

Turn on the English subtitles & enjoy!

 

Gruesome Barbers (S02E09)

In this episode of season 2 of Bizzarro Bazar: the surprising and bloody history of the barber’s profession; Spallanzani’s bizarre experiments on frogs, snails and salamanders; the mysterious Skeleton Lake.

Produced in collaboration with the Musei Civici di Reggio Emilia.
Directed & animated by Francesco Erba.

Body Modifications (S02E08)

In this episode of season 2 of Bizzarro Bazar: the voluntary deformation of parts of the body, a practice that is present in all human societies; a spectacular taxidermy; a legendary explorer.

Produced in collaboration with the Musei Civici di Reggio Emilia.
Directed & animated by Francesco Erba.

Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 25

Here is a new collection of various oddities!

  • First of all, above you can see one of the photos of LIVE animals in anthropomorphic poses made by Harry Whittier Frees.
  • Man of a thousand identities and unsurpassed cheater with cards; capable of deceiving bankers as well as the most hardened criminals (but isn’t that a bit the same thing?), and even capable of defrauding scammers; and, above all, the man who managed to sell the Eiffel Tower. All this was Victor Lustig, one of the greatest deceit artists ever.
  • A wishlist for any respectable bibliophile.

  • At the end of the nineteenth century, a Russian doctor proposed a cutting-edge treatment to counter the damage caused by syphilis: being hung by the head. Suspension soon became a medical trend, spreading almost everywhere in Europe and even reaching the United States. But did it really work? Sofia Lincos and Giuseppe Stilo retrace the history of the bizarre treatment in this beautiful article (in Italian only).

  • The skeleton above belongs to a girl who died 300 years ago, and is perplexing archaeologists for two reasons: 1) her body was found in a cave in Poland, which in itself is already strange because in the area the latest cave burials date back to the Middle Ages; but if that wasn’t enough 2) she was buried with a finch’s head in her mouth. Maybe even two.
  • If you think geology is boring, the Spooky Geology website could make you change your mind, as it tackles underground mysteries, alternative theories, strange buried objects, anomalous phenomena, bottomless pits, extreme and dangerous places.

  • This gentleman wearing a mask and a wig might look creepy if you don’t know the context of the image: this is Dr. Anonymous, who delivered a historic and, in many ways, heroic speech at the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting in 1972.
    Why this camouflage? The answer is contained in the first words of his speech: “I am a homosexual. I am a psychiatrist.”
    At that time, coming out — besides causing discrimination, dismissals and evictions — was still reason enough to be interned in a psychiatric institution, subjected to brutal treatments such as electroshock, lobotomy, chemical castration. The fact that a psychiatrist came forward, albeit hiding his identity, to admit he was gay and protest the classification of homosexuality as a mental pathology, was a shock to the world of psychiatry. The name of the doctor who hid under the mask was John E. Fryer, and his speech was essential for homosexuality to be de-listed from the official list of mental disorders the following year.
  • One of the very first uses of the microwave oven was not at all to reheat the leftover pizza from the day before, but to revive frozen rats and hamsters in the laboratory. In this wonderful video Tom Scott not only tells the reasons and the challenges that were at the basis of this scientific research, but even interviews the inventor and scientist James Lovelock (102 years in July!): at the time he was the one who had the idea of using microwaves because, well, he felt sorry for the little frozen rodents.
    (Thanks, Riccardo!)

17-year-old Bianca Passarge of Hamburg dances on wine bottles, June 1958.

  • A couple of urban explorers entered a recently abandoned house, and found something macabre and unexpected: on the corridor floor the body stain left by the corpse of the elderly owner was still visible.
    The two decided to share all the photographic material taken inside the house on their blog, because the story reminds us “how elderly & alone people can often be forgotten & that we, us, everyone needs to do their part & check in on them.”
    The most important question raised by this “reportage” might not be, in my opinion, the one heralded by the authors, but it concerns the ethical issues of entering a home, photographing every detail of the life of a recently deceased person, including the ghastly proof of her lonely death, and put it all online.
  • Let’s keep on talking about decomposition, but this time in a positive sense: here is a nice article that summarizes the fundamental ecological function of a carcass.

  • I took the photo above a few years ago, when I made a pilgrimage to the Castle of Valsinni, where the poet Isabella Morra spent her short and tragic life — first a recluse, and then murdered by her brothers who suspected her of an extramarital affair. Despite the very limited literary production (ten sonnets and three songs in all, here’s the only English edition I’ve found), the figure of Isabella Morra assumed importance thanks to the studies of Benedetto Croce and, in France, by Mandiargues who reinterpreted her life in a surrealist key in one of his plays.
    Here is a passage from one of her most beautiful songs (‘Poscia che al bel desir…’); these verses demonstrate how Isabella’s work is inseparable from her condition of a young woman who, segregated in dramatic isolation, only found a glimmer of beauty in poetry, and in verses veiled in infinite melancholy.

Among the harsh customs
of irrational, unintelligent people,
where without support
I am forced to lead my life,
here left by everyone in blind oblivion. […]
I have passed what is called the flowery age,
all dry and dark, lonely and herm
here blind and infirm,
without ever knowing the value of beauty.

  • Riddle: The maternity / paternity test proves that your child is not yours. Exchanges of babies in cribs or extramarital affairs are to be excluded. So how is this possible?
    Solution: He is the son of your unborn brother, who you absorbed into your body when you were still in the womb… since then you’ve been carrying two different DNAs.
    A case of male and female chimerism.
    (Thanks, Paolo!)

  • The animal pictured above is neither a tick nor a spider, but an adorable wingless, eyeless fly of the Nycteribiidae family; a highly specialized parasite, it can be only found on the body of certain bats.
    (Thanks, Andrea!)
  • In closing: Everybody Dance Now, 1518 edition.

That’s all, see you next time!

Spiders on Acid (S02E07)

In this episode of season 2 of Bizzarro Bazar: the scientist who drugged spiders; a Ticuna ritual mask; the secret hidden in a bishop’s coffin.

Produced in collaboration with the Musei Civici di Reggio Emilia.
Directed & animated by Francesco Erba.

Strange Connections (S02E06)

In this episode of season 2 of Bizzarro Bazar: the mysterious ways in which your day is influenced by events far away in time and space; a series of curiosities from the Cabinet of Comparative Anatomy; a formidable weapon capable of terrifying enemies.

Produced in collaboration with the Civic Museums of Reggio Emilia.
Directed & animated by Francesco Erba.

Dr. Incubator (S02E05)

In this episode of season 2 of Bizzarro Bazar, produced in collaboration with the Civic Museums of Reggio Emilia: how the Luna Park in Coney Island saved thousands of lives; two strange objects from the cabinets of Lazzaro Spallanzani; the Doctor who shrunk corpses.

Make sure you tun on English subtitles, and enjoy!

Directed & animated by Francesco Erba.

Dr. Cotton’s Horrible Operations (S02E02)

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.

Directed & Animated by Francesco Erba.