In this new video: secret experiments, diabolical infestations and bloody miracles!
Three mysterious events that took place over seven centuries are linked by a surprising secret…
[Turn on English subtitles!]
In this new video: secret experiments, diabolical infestations and bloody miracles!
Three mysterious events that took place over seven centuries are linked by a surprising secret…
[Turn on English subtitles!]
Even the hospital, in Venice, is a Renaissance masterpiece: the facade of the Scuola Grande di San Marco, which opens into Campo SS. Giovanni e Paolo, is considered one of the greatest architectural and artistic jewels of the lagoon city.
Right next to the main entrance, located in the spaces of the former Scuola di Santa Maria della Pace, it is possible to visit the small “Andrea Vesalio” Museum of Pathological Anatomy.
The birth of the collection can be traced back to 1874, when the hospital’s anatomical dissector was recommended to preserve the most relevant anatomopathological specimens. From that time on, the collection was regularly supplemented, particularly thanks to the work of Giuseppe Jona. The museum houses the death mask of Jona himself, an extraordinary figure of a physician and a man who under in 1943 committed suicide in order not to reveal to the German authorities the names of the Jews left in Venice.
The museum consists of one small room, and has nine display cases with dry and liquid preparations. Among the osteological exhibits are bone tumors, hyperostosis, trauma, a collection of 10 femurs and 32 skull caps showing various pathologies. A collection of ancient calculi shows how this affliction, in the days when it could not be treated promptly, could become a very serious problem. The liquid preparations, on the other hand, are principalmnte designed to illustrate certain diseases that affected the Venetian lagoon in particular, related to epidemics (tuberculosis), to once-common diseases (leprosy), or to glassmaking.
But it is one preparation in particular that attracts attention, in a display case placed right in the center of the room: the whole body of a male affected by various malformations, including kyphosis and dwarfism.
The striking details of this find, with a stature of 67 cm and an estimated age of around 50 years, are many. The shrunken body still possesses hair, facial hair, but most importantly-uncommon detail-it still has eyes in situ.
The visible incision on the skull is typical of an autopsy, but it is the two large sutures on the chest and back that are unusual. After the autopsy, evidently this gentleman was prepared for museum purposes. Initially scholars thought the method used was tannization by Lodovico Brunetti, the same anatomist who prepared the “Punished Suicide“. Tannization was an anatomical preservation process that involved, after cleaning and degreasing the tissues, ultilizing them with tannic acid diluted with demineralized water and dehydrating them with compressed hot air.
But when this Venetian artifact was inspected radiographically, it was discovered that it was devoid of internal organs, which had been replaced by a filling material. This gentleman was eviscerated, his skin removed, dehydrated, and finally repositioned on his previously treated skeleton by filling the remaining empty cavities with tow or other material. This is thus an authentic human taxidermy, the same procedure used for stuffing animals.
I have often been asked over the years why we do not “stuff” human beings. The answer is that it’s been tried, but the results are not particularly good. Over time, dried human skin tends to shrink, becomes brittle and easy to crack, and any prosthetic eyes eventually emerge unnaturally. The color of the epidermis is also not kept particularly true, and the questionable results of this technique can be seen in the few taxidermies in anatomical museums (below is a display case of human taxidermies at the Museum of Sanitary Art in Rome).
The taxidermied human specimen from Venice is truly unique, both because of the decision to prepare it in this rather unusual way and because of the pathologies it illustrates. And, like all “integral” anatomical specimens, it also encourages our emotional reaction: it is impossible not to wonder what kind of life this man, dwarfed and hunchbacked, had in the Venice of the second half of the 19th century; what hardships and pains he suffered, but also what desires and happiness he might have known, before ending up eternalized in a museum. The treatment meted out to him, commonly used for animals, might seem like a final affront, but it actually relates back to a fervent period of continuous experimentation, in which countless different techniques were tried out to perfect the art of anatomical preparation.
Personally, therefore, I find both specular aspects, pathos and pietas, moving and humane. The pathos of the human subject that forms the basis of the anatomical object, the often anonymous existence behind any preparation, with its sometimes tragic uniqueness; and the pietas that is inherent in the medical vocation as well as in the desire to preserve deformity and disease for the purpose of study, to understand their mystery and to try, if possible, to cure and alleviate the suffering of others.
The cure for boredom is curiosity.
There is no cure for curiosity.
Welcome back! Before we dive into our new harvest of wonders, I begin by inviting you on Sunday, April 16 at Defrag in Rome: I will be giving a talk in the truly extraordinary context of Danza Macabra Expo, an event curated by CRUSH – Collective Visual Art. In addition to a collective art exhibition, over the course of this month the event will be enriched by a packed schedule of events including performances, live music, role-playing games, workshops and lectures. You can take a look at the program here.
And now, on with the weird stuff!
That’s all, see you next time!
Growing, in the shadow of the gallows, is a monstrous fruit. It is a prodigious aphrodisiac, but it also serves as an indispensable ingredient in the witch’s recipe book-who, according to legend, mixes it with the fat of stillborn children, thus creating an ointment with which she can fly to the sabbath.
As Pliny and Dioscorides relate, this anodyne natural was applied as an analgesic before surgical operations because of the discrete soporific and sedative properties attributed to it by learned medicine prior to the 16th century, which made use of it in various forms-from the extract of the fruit, to the seeds, to the actual root.
Countless ailments were said to be cured by the mandrake: it was used both for external and internal use, as well as to heal infertility and impotence (its renowned value as an erotic stimulant is even attested by one of the epithets of the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite Mandragoritis, and, by the more puritanical, by nicknames for it as the apple or even testicle of the devil), both against menstrual disorders, quartan fever, excess black bile (the dreaded melancholia, the cause of numerous ailments, including mental ones), diseases characterized by inflammation of one or more parts of the body, from the eyes to the anus, against abscesses, indurations, and even tumors.
Mandrake was used according to the many uses suggested by premodern pharmacopoeia, but also as a fetish: it was sold as an amulet by the root-diggers, a branch of merchants who specialized in extracting the plant-who, however, apparently peddled in its place roots of bryony or other common plants, tactically carved.
A vegetable at the intersection with the other kingdoms-the mineral, because of its chthonic origin, and the animal, indeed, even human… – sought after yet feared, admirable and deadly, the mandrake belongs to the family of the infamous nightshade, associated like its “sister” with witchcraft for its psychoactive properties due to its high concentration of scopolamine, a tropane alkaloid found mainly in its roots. It is a solanacea, whose intricate, vaguely anthropomorphic shaped roots have intrigued the human imagination since ancient times, so much so that it has been attributed a sex (which determines its shape and color), human-like genitalia and a rather difficult character, which causes it, for example, to hide from impure people and allow itself to be tamed only by those who show it a cross or spray it with menstrual blood or urine.
This sort of personification has resulted in the plant sometimes being treated as a small individual, made of living flesh: a homunculus, literally, endowed among other things with a power execrable. Around the figure of this prodigious plant, in fact, hovers for centuries a gloomy legend : it is said that it screams, when extracted from the earth, with such shrieks as to make the unwary “pickers” lose their senses or even kill them on the spot. This deadly capacity of the prized booty then necessitates complex contrivances by which those about to dig the mandrake out of the ground can preserve their health (and survive it).
The most common contrivances follow a common pattern: at the center of all variants, there is in fact the sacrifice of a dog (the only exception is the one Frazer attributes to the Jewish tradition, in which a donkey), most often with black fur; to this animal before dawn on Friday-not coincidentally, the day named after the goddess of love-the plant is tied, of whose roots a single strand is left still buried. The dog, purposely hungry, is then made to run away with the call of a tasty morsel; in doing so it snatches the entire plant from the ground, which bursts into deadly squeals, which, unfortunately, cause the sudden death of the unsuspecting animal. The humans present-who up to that point have kept their ears well covered or even plugged with cotton sealed with pitch or wax-can then approach and pick up the plant, which, thus “let loose,” is now rendered harmless.
A fascinating aspect of the mandrake is its origin, according to legend, which makes it a literal fruit of hanging-the product of thecross between man and the earth(Zarcone).
Certain Anglo-Saxon and Germanic traditions call this plant gallows man, mad plant e dragon doll, terms that evoke the human and somewhat monstrous origin of the mandrake. Indeed, the seed from which this fabled “capestro flower” is formed would be precisely the human one, scattered on the ground at the moment of death by the criminal subjected to the infamous execution par excellence.
Already climbing the steps of the gallows, the dying man imagines himself suspended between heaven and earth, thrown into a limbo from which only divine forgiveness could pull him to safety, as well as rejected by the community gathered there to voraciously admire his agony, in all its physiological aspects.
The suspension of which the condemned man was a victim would obliterate his body(Tarlow – Battel Lowman), annihilating it as a social object, placing it in exile in a liminal zone both geographically and metaphorically (as, moreover, also occurred in the display of the corpse through gibbet); the rope, the instrument of execution, which although theoretically should have fractured or dislocated the upper cervical vertebrae of the condemned man, leading him quickly to death, most often ended up strangling him, thus disrupting his features and causing him to inevitably evacuate feces, urine and, depending on the sex of the victim, menstrual blood or seminal fluid.
Not to be overlooked is the fact that, by virtue of the magical-medical theory of the transfer of life energy from the dead person to his or her survivor, people eagerly sought contact with the body of the punished offender, still imbued with vitality (which gave him or her invaluable medical potency). These are the secrets of the corpse, passed down in a veritable consumer literature in which, as Camporesi explains, therapeutic occultism combines with necromantic pharmacopoeia and natural magic to crown a Faustian dream of long life and eternal youth.
According to a logic that considers putrefaction a black copulation capable of making the dead a “wellspring of health,” the living can keep healthy by preying on the deceased; it can even transmit its own ills to it, deriving from them the energy that the spirits, in turmoil in those last moments, still bestow on the corpse. The dead person is thus paradoxical dispenser of life (Camporesi).
That is why the stroke, or the touch of the hanged man, was believed to be curative: the hand of the corpse was shaken or put in contact with the parts of the body affected by skin diseases, blemishes, goiters and excrescences (from leek to wart to sebaceous cyst), as Davies and Matteoni masterfully explain. Imagine, then, how much power may reside in the seminal legacy left by the hanged man: the mandrake, inhuman progeny of the gallows!
The plant that ignites eros and brings death arises from the intersection of these same two principles, that is, from the climax reached in so-called “angelic lust.”
This euphemism designates the post-mortem priapism observed since antiquity in the corpse of the executed, especially if it died by strangulation. This is a phenomenon that has inspired not only various essays on sexology and the psychology of deviance but also great novelists such as Sade, Musset, Joyce and Burroughs. We are thus speaking of a “mortal erection” that was sometimes followed even on the scaffold by ejaculation, and it was to this very phenomenon that ancient herbaria traced the origin of the mandrake, which arose from the semen emitted by the condemned at the moment of death.
The ability to exhibit an erection literally terminal and culminating in ejaculation, among other things, was a decisive component in the name that qualified this mode of execution as an “infamous death.” Indeed, hanging appears as the most shameful of departures throughout Western history (but not only, according to Old Testament Deuteronomy, where it is associated in this ignominious aura with crucifixion, another example of death by suspension). Whether it was considered degrading because it was imposed on criminals of the humblest background and/or despicable crime, or conversely imposed on them precisely because it was felt to be dishonorable, hanging was in any case the most common type of execution; according to tradition, it was also the death of the last and worst, as the apocryphal last events of Judas, the victim of a grotesque and studiously humiliating agony, remind us. Such an aura of infamy is probably why, as Owens notes in Stages of Dismemberment, hanging is almost absent in hagiography, and may have arisen precisely from the “embarrassing” physiological phenomena that accompany this particularly spectacular form of death.
Among these bodily events, the celestial orgasm we have already discussed-which in the female corpse has its counterpoint in the possibility of a loss of blood from the vagina, accompanied by a sprinkling of the labia and clitoris, in a spontaneous menstruation caused by the action of gravity on the uterus resulting in prolapse of the sexual organs-is simply the most “scandalous” because it involves the genitals. As Hurren vividly recounts in Dissecting the Criminal Corpse, many condemned men urinated and/or defecated, at the fatal moment; others, victims of suggestion, stained their robes with ejaculated semen; there were gaseous exchanges caused by the deceased’s digestion, and decaying blood leaked from the mouth and nostrils, in a purgation made all the more disconcerting by the rigor mortisduring which the gases, unable to escape entirely through the anus or nose, passed through the trachea, giving the impression that the corpse groaned and croaked as if it had still been alive and aching.
Although life, as commonly understood, no longer resided in the limbs of the hanged man, something remained that seemed to defy the justice that had been done. From the invicible erection, that is, from the last “tears”-as this ejaculation was poetically called in articulo mortis – shed by the criminal on the ground, would then form, under his corpse left hanging, the mandrake.
This therapeutic and dangerous plant-a veritable pharmakon, remedy and poison, in the dual Greek sense – constitutes in short, on a par with the rope used to execute the criminal or the healing touch of the hanged man’s hand, another example of the posthumous ways by which the condemned man, once dead, goes from nefarious to salvific for the community that expelled him. In fact, once he repents, it is as if the criminal is reintegrated into the community through his own execution, moving from the status of a tainted and defiling individual to that of a “salutary” element.
The corpse of the executed criminal, through the medicinal virtues of his mortal remains or through the generation of the mandrake, thus acquires a “posthumous” social life through the distribution of his energies, and becomes the site where, in a tangible way, the salvation that resides in repentance occurs.
Certain watershed moments in our lives happen by accident, at least on the surface.
While attending university in Siena, it happened at one point that some of the lectures in the course of study were held not on the premises of my faculty, but located in the classrooms of theAccademia dei Fisiocritici, one of the oldest scientific institutions in Italy.
So one day I was in class in there, and to dilute the inhuman torment (no one should be subjected, without prior informed consent, to a general linguistics class) I got up to look for a bathroom. I asked the janitor how to get there, and he pointed to a door specifying that I had to go through the whole room because the restrooms were at the back.
When I entered, the shutters at the windows were ajar, and it took me a moment to adjust my eyes to the dimness. I finally distinguished, half a meter away from me, a strange silhouette… I focused with difficulty, and what I saw was this:
My memory is usually ragged and lazy, but that shock I remember as if it were a thing of today: the rush of adrenaline left me shaky. I found myself surrounded by other teratological specimens, although I didn’t even know the term at the time: in addition to the Siamese calf taxidermy, there were skeletons of thoracopagus lambs, malformed fetuses and human preparations.
I could have looked for an escape route, pulled straight for the restrooms cursing the janitor who had not warned me what I would be facing; instead, something clicked. I stood paralyzed for I don’t know how long, then the dismay faded, giving way to the most all-encompassing wonder I had ever felt. Precipitated in a paradoxical state, at once hypnotic and euphoric, I forgot about the bathroom, about class.
I did not leave that room until, an hour later, a fellow student came looking for me. Leaving the Academy, intoxicated and inebriated, I knew that moment would define at least in part all the rest of my life.
Why was that experience such an epiphany?
There was a hallucinatory quality to those deformed bodies that made me feel like a lost child, or at least get back in touch with a childlike trait that tends to be blunted by time: the inability to distinguish sharply between dream and reality.
(I wrote “inability to distinguish,” instead it would be better to say: the ability not to distinguish. But we’ll get to that.)
Now that I have been involved for many years precisely with anatomical or natural history museums, and their relationship to the uncanny, I understand well why that moment was so foundational for me. Without that surprise, that unexpected and cruel thrill, that cutaneous horripilation, that primal trauma, I would not have arrived at the approach that I believe informs much of my work: that of valuing the “Fantastic in science,” a concept around which I have long orbited, though without defining it explicitly until now.
Scientific and fantasy fiction are contradictory only in appearance, just as specious is the opposition between the Fantastic and Realism. Whether we are talking about film, literature or art, a double misunderstanding has plagued these disciplines for quite a while: on the one hand, Realism is merely a mode of exposition, laden with conscious choices and omissions — thus a clever pretense of verisimilitude. On the other, under the allegorical veneer, any fantastic narrative is a meditation (more or less conscious) on the reality of its own time.
In other words: realism is always a fable in disguise, while a fantastic narrative is always about concrete and current concerns.
The great difference between the two expressions is similar to what in music is called timbre; different are the instruments that play it, different are the filters, effects, distortions, and vibrations that are produced, but the note may well be the same.
In the artistic-literary sphere, therefore, such a dialectic never goes beyond the epidermis of the story, but I am convinced that on serious examination it does not hold between scientific language and the fantastic dimension either. While we are accustomed to recognizing the scientific themes that sometimes populate art or fantastic literature (think of Frankenstein), at first glance the presence of fantastic elements that run through scientific narratives — which are nothing more than a realist register taken to extremes — is less obvious.
It is the study of anatomy, human and animal, that in my eyes encapsulates more than other disciplines a propensity for the Marvelous.
On the one hand it is infused with all the epic of the heroes of science, the pioneering cartography of the body as a virgin continent to be explored, the esoteric toponymy and nomenclature; but the medical rhetoric of case reports — despite having developed a predilection for aseptic language honed over the centuries — is still descended from the accounts of prodigies and monstrous births of the Sixteenth Century. It is not uncommon to encounter medical papers that resemble veritable short stories.
On the other hand, I have always been fascinated by anatomical plates (with their unintentional surrealism) and especially by the spectacular aspect of some museum preparations — such as those that treacherously stood before me at the Accademia dei Fisiocritici.
Precisely in the monstrous preparations, but also in certain dissections that unfold the body in unexpected visual distortions, there is an element of transfiguration of matter that I think is necessary for one to be able to speak properly of the Fantastic.
In short: If I were asked to name a place that perfectly represents my idea of the Fantastic, I would not think of any enchanted glade inhabited by fairies and goblins, nor of a crumbling mansion haunted by some evanescent ghost. Nor would I address distant hypothetical planets populated by inconceivable life forms.
I would direct the interlocutor to an anatomy museum.
Tracing the fantastic in science, then, has broader and deeper repercussions. It means reconsidering the distance between mathematical-scientific and artistic-humanistic disciplines.
There is a widespread idea that the artist is predominantly irrational and emotional, but anyone who has ventured to produce any form of art knows very well that it is a work of ingenuity considered as an inseparable whole: it is necessary to guarantee space for the unknown to intervene in order to harmonize and elaborate it thanks to the control that technique guarantees.
A five-week course on the representation of death through the ages, a meeting at a curious film festival, a conference about a major archaeological find… here are September’s events!
Starting September 3, and continuing with a date every Saturday, I will teach a 5-week online course for Morbid Anatomy on the iconology of death from antiquity to social networks. It will be a richly illustrated journey spanning three thousand years, tracing the historical variations and semantic richness of allegories of death: from the depictions of the ancient world (Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Etruscans) to the medieval danse macabre, from the “Triumphs of Death” to Flemish vanitas, from dissected corpses in early modern anatomical illustrations to the morbid infatuations of nineteenth-century Romanticism, from surrealist experiments to contemporary artists who include authentic corpses in their works. Find more information and the opportunity to register on the Morbid Anatomy page; the course will be held via Zoom in English.
On Sept. 6, I will be a guest at Garofano Rosso, Italy’s “smallest and coldest” film festival to be held in Forme di Massa d’Albe (AQ). It’s been many years since this tiny hamlet in the heart of the Abruzzo Apennines served as the location for John Houston’s The Bible (1966) and Valerio Zurlini’s The Desert of the Tartars (1976); but, thanks to the good spirits of a group of passionate young folks, once a year Forme gets to “breathe cinema” again, with a surprisingly rich program of free screenings and events. When they invited me, I accepted enthusiastically, because on the one hand such an initiative cannot leave my cinephile soul cold (cinema has been my first love, and was my main job for almost twenty years), and on the other hand this is a moving example of cultural commitment and resistance.
Finally, on September 9, I will take part in a major conference, where the details of an exceptional historical find will be released. Nothing was known about the whereabouts of the remains of the Marquises Pallavicino, one of Italy’s most important feudal families, until a wooden box containing human bones and bearing the names of Gian Lodovico I, Anastasia Torelli, Rolando II and Laura Caterina Landi was discovered in 2020, walled inside the Basilica of Cortemaggiore (PC).
During the meeting (to be held at 9 p.m. at the Eleonora Duse Theater in Cortemaggiore) the results of the archaeological investigations carried out on the remains will be announced, and I will be in prestigious company: speakers include paleopathologist Dario Piombino-Mascali, bioarchaeologist Alessandra Morrone and historian Marco Pellegrini.
Here is a new video: until now I had never talked about UFOs and similar topics, but this time I made an exception, because… well, by watching the video you will understand what my motivations are.
What if the sky that seems empty to us is actually inhabited by invisible beings?
Turn on the English subtitles and enjoy!
Human usnea — that is, the mold that grew on skulls — was believed to be an extraordinary pharmaceutical remedy for many ills.
Here is a new video of mine discussing it (turn English subtitles on!):
On Friday, June 17, I will be in Padua for a very unique event, an evening devoted entirely to taxidermy and the sociological, psychological and cultural implications of the art of stuffing animals.
I wrote about him five years ago, in this post: besides being the only taxidermist in Italy to offer “artistic” (i.e., non-naturalistic) taxidermy creations, Alberto also specializes in taxidermy of pets.
I have always found it very moving that different species manage to create a deep relationship with each other, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the coldness of the world; when the affection between a human being and another animal becomes so intense, it is clear that grieving can be difficult and painful. For this reason, on Friday we will also discuss taxidermy in relation to pet grief with various personalities from science and culture: in addition to the meeting with Alberto Michelon and director Rossella Laeng, the evening will therefore include talks by Anna Cordioli (psychoanalyst), Stefania Uccheddu (Head of the Service of Behavioral Medicine, Clinic S. Marco), Gianni Vitale (journalist, President Promovies), and myself. I will talk about the history of taxidermy and its relationship to other types of remains preservation, such as relics.
If you would like to reserve your ticket for the evening, you can do so on Eventbrite. I look forward to seeing you there!