Upcoming September Events

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.

Creature invisibili nel cielo

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!

 

Skull Mold

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!):

 

Taxiderman

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.

At 9 p.m. inside the prestigious Zuckermann Palace there will be a screening of Taxiderman, directed by Rossella Laeng, a documentary focusing on the work of taxidermist Alberto Michelon.

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!

Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 26

Welcome to this Easter edition of the column that collects various treats and bizarre delicacies from the internet. Depicted above is a party I’d really feel comfortable, painted by an anonymous seventeenth-century Tuscan artist.
And we’re off and running!

  • Let us begin with a short collection of last words spoken on the guillotine stage.
  • And here is a bridge of ants.
  • During the work to rebuild the Notre-Dame Cathedral, after a fire devastated it three years ago, a mysterious leaden sarcophagus was unearthed. The casket in all probability dates back to the 14th century, and it will be opened shortly: who knows if it contains a hunchbacked skeleton.
  • How would you react if, searching for your home on Google Street View, you saw mom and dad sitting on the porch… who have been dead for years? Would that image distress you, make you suffer? Or, on the contrary, would you look at it with emotion and affection, because that picture still makes you feel close to them? Would you ask Google to remove the image, or keep it forever in memory? With the growth of Street View, this sort of thing is happening more and more often, and it’s just one of the many ways the internet is changing grief processing.

  • The gentleman above is one of the founding fathers of the United States, Gouverneur Morris, who had a particularly odd and eventful life: at the age of 28 he was run over by a carriage and lost a leg; he later helped write the Constitution, then was sent to France where he had a string of lovers and managed to escape the Revolution unscathed. Back in the US, he finally decided to put his head straight and marry Ann Cary Randolph, his housekeeper, who incidentally some years before had been accused of infanticide. In short, how could such a man close his existence with a flourish? In 1816 Gouverneur Morris, who suffered from prostate, died as a result of internal injuries caused by self-surgery: in an attempt to unblock the urinary tract, he had used a whale bone as an improvised catheter. (Thanks, Bruno!)
  • Ten years ago I posted an article (Italian only)  about the Dylatov Pass incident, one of the longest-running historical mysteries. In 2021, two Swiss researchers published on Nature a study that would seem to be, so far, the most scientifically plausible explanation for the 1959 tragedy: the climbers could have been killed by a violent and anomalous avalanche. Due possibly to the boredom of last year’s lockdown, this theory did once again trigger the press, social media, conspiracy theorists, romantic fans of the abominable snowmen, and so on. Before long, the two researchers found themselves inundated with interview requests. They therefore performed three new expeditions to Dylatov Pass and published a second study in which, in addition to confirming their previous findings, they also report in an amused tone about the media attention they received and the social impact of their publication.
  • An autopsy was held last October in Portland in front of a paying audience. The great Cat Irvin, who is curator of anatomical collections at the Surgeons’ Hall in Edinburgh, was interviewed on the ethical implications of pay-per-view autopsies. (Cat also runs a beautiful blog called Wandering Bones, and you can find her on Instagram and Twitter)
  • Below, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria dressed as a mummy for a souvenir photo, (circa 1895). Via Thanatos Archive.

  • If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? What if a bear plays the piano in an empty house?
  • A tweet that offers a novel (and, frankly, kind of gross) perspective on our skeleton.
  • On April 22, 1969, the most hallucinatory and shocking opera of all time was staged at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall: Eight Songs for a Mad King, by Peter Maxwell Davies. The protagonist of the drama is King George III, who suffered from an acute mental illness: consequently, the entire composition is intended to be a depiction of the schizophrenic cacophony inside his head. The six musicians (flute, clarinet, percussion, piano/harpsichord, violin and cello) played inside gigantic birdcages; interpreting the verses, the cries and the sudden changes of mood of the mad King, was a baritone with 5 octaves of extension (!) dressed in a straitjacket. The opera, lasting half an hour, was a completely unprecedented assault on conventional rules, as well as on the ears of the spectators who had certainly never heard anything like it: the one-act play culminated in the moment when the king stole the violin from the player and tore it to pieces. If you have 28 minutes and want to try your hand at this disturbing representation of madness — a unique example of classical punk music, at least for its attitude — here is a 2012 video in which the solo part is played by Kelvin Thomas who, at the time of filming, was 92 years old.

Now, two pieces of slightly more personal news.
The first is that my upcoming online lecture (in English) for Morbid Anatomy will take place on May 14, and will focus on the cult of the dead in Naples.
Info and tickets here.

Secondly, if you can read Italian, I would like to remind you that the Almanacco dell’Italia occulta, edited by Fabrizio Foni and Fabio Camilletti, has been published by Odoya: following the line of the previous Almanacco dell’orrore popolare, this volume collects several contributions by different authors. If the first book, however, focused on the rural dimension of our country, this new anthology examines the urban context, exploring its hidden, fantastic and “lunar” face. Among the essays by more than 20 authors included in the Almanacco there is also my study of the weirdest, most picturesque and unexpectedly complex newspaper in the history of the Italian press: Cronaca Vera, which with its pulp and fanciful titles has left an indelible mark on our imagination.

In conclusion, I wish you all the best and I take my leave with an Easter meme.
Until next time!

The Natural Mummies of Ferentillo

Italy is the country that, in all likelihood, boasts the largest number of mummies in the world. Apart from Egypt, in fact, no other culture has made mummification of the dead such a pervasive and long-lived practice as it has happened in our peninsula: in the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo alone, there are more than 1200 mummies, and the ancient “scolatoi” (drainers), used to dehydrate the remains of the deceased, are found almost everywhere, from Lombardy to Puglia.

In addition to artificial mummification, in Italy there are some cases of spontaneous mummification, in which the corpses escaped the normal processes of putrefaction due to the particular microclimate of the burial ground.
One of the most remarkable examples of natural preservation is found in the heart of Italy, on the southern border of Umbria.

Located in the Valnerina valley, the Umbrian municipality of Ferentillo remains perched at the foot of the ruins of its ancient fortress. The inhabited area, divided by the Nera river (and today by the provincial road) into two villages called Precetto and Matterella, was originally founded by the Lombards; it was later assigned by Pope Innocent VIII to his natural son Franceschetto Cybo.

Franceschetto, who over the years accumulated excellent fiefdoms and appointments, in reality always lived on income due to the fact that he was the legitimate son of the Pope and, it is said, was a somewhat dissolute character, utterly devoted to pleasures: it is no coincidence that he died in 1519 for indigestion during an official banquet. This did not prevent him, however, from making the small town of Ferentillo, which had been his first county, flourish architecturally; under his reign, and later that of his son Lorenzo, the village became an important cultural center.

In the half of the town called Precetto, the Cybo family had a church dedicated to Santo Stefano built on the foundations of a previous temple.

Thus, under the new church, the spaces which originally constituted the medieval place of worship were filled with resulting materials and used as a burial ground: the deceased of Precetto were entombed here until the second half of the 19th century.

About a decade before the cemetery was definitively abandoned, the remains were exhumed and 25 bodies were found to have spontaneously mummified.

In 1861, the doctor and politician Carlo Maggiorani examined some of these mummies, with the help of chemist Vincenzo Latini.
In his report to the Accademia dei Lincei(1)C. Maggiorani, Sulle Mummie di Ferentillo: notizie raccolte dal prof. C. Maggiorani: accompagnate dall’analisi chimica della terra di quel Cimitero istituita dal Chimico Farmacista signor Vincenzo Latini, in Atti dell’Accademia Pontificia de’ Nuovi Lincei, Vol XV 1861-62, Roma 1862., published the following year, Maggiorani noted how the mummification had maintained the somatic features of the deceased in an exceptional way: “There is a centenary mummy in which the descendants are able to recognize at a glance the features of their family, and if it were necessary to declare it before the Forum it could be easily determined whether it was Mr So-and-so, or not. […] The color of these mummies, which tends to yellowish, does not differ much from the natural color of corpses, and therefore does not inspire the disgust usually excited by dead bodies preserved by means of art. The hair, beard, eyelashes, eyebrows, armpit and pubic hair, nails remain to decorate the regions where they are distributed.

Over time, the mummies of Ferentillo have most likely lost much of the “freshness” that Maggiorani had found and praised so much, but hair and nails remain effectively visible and well preserved even today.

The scholar also reported, in rather colorful terms, the extreme lightness of the mummies, which in fact weigh only 6 or 7 kilos: “Once all the tissues are completely dried, the joints stiffen in such a way that by gripping the legs you can treat the corpse as if it were a pole. An operation that is all the easier to perform due to the singular lightness of these bodies […].”

Among the more curious passages, there’s one in which Maggiorani expresses a veiled hope that these mummies could be studied in order to replicate the technique for funerary purposes — a concern that in those years, given the very recent unification of Italy, was shared by many. I also mention this in my book on the petrifier Paolo Gorini: at the time, there were several experiments in alternative treatments of the remains, essentially aimed at taking away from the Church the dominion over the management of the corpses and, ultimately, over the world of the dead.

In fact, Maggiorani wrote: “Would it be utopian to wish that the conservative conditions of the corpses in Ferentillo were studied with scrupulous diligence to the point of reproducing them completely, for the purpose of preserving the dead from decay? When we read in Plutarch that the Egyptians, in their most solemn banquets, placed the embalmed corpses of the Ancestors around the table, our soft mind shuns the gloomy image of those sepulchral banquets, and we are induced to dismiss this as a barbaric custom. But that the remains of many relatives, instead of being condemned to become a pasture for worms, were, without danger to the living, so effectively preserved as to restore their effigy after a long time, and to spread over them some tears of tender remembrance in days of affliction — it is thought for which no one should be laughed at.

The scientific conclusion reached by Maggiorani’s study was that spontaneous mummification had occurred due to the particular chemical composition of the soil, and to the good ventilation of the crypt guaranteed by the four grated windows, near which — not surprisingly — the 25 mummies had been found.

In reality, however, there is still no definitive and completely exhaustive explanation, because a concomitance of factors often comes into play.
A 1991 study stated: “there are basic conditions that favor dehydration processes (good ventilation of the room, such as in the catacombs; sandy soil; etc.) but these are not sufficient to explain the complex chemical modifications that take place in soft parts of the body. Natural mummification begins with autolytic processes similar to those of normal putrefaction but for reasons not yet fully understood at a certain point the protein substances resist further decomposition. The action of other environmental factors cannot be excluded, such as plant roots invading the body and modifying its chemical conditions, microorganisms, fungi and microelements present in the soil or in the coffin. Natural mummification is probably the result of a combination of all these factors.(2)E. Fulcheri, P. Baracchini, C. Crestani, A. Drusini, Studio preliminare delle mummie naturali di Ferentillo. Esame istologico e immunoistochimico della cute, in Riv. It. Med. Leg. XIII, 1991.

Today the Museum of Mummies has been set up in the spaces of the medieval crypt, of which a faded remnant can be seen in some surviving frescoes. Inside glass cases (unfortunately, very poorly lit in order not to alter the delicate condition of the mummies) 24 dried bodies can still be admired: the oldest dates back to the 18th century, the most recent is from the 19th century.

Among the most particular mummies there is a Chinese woman, who died of the plague in the 18th century and whose feet show the characteristic deformation from binding called the “Golden Lotus”, which I talked about in this episode of the web series. But paleopathologists also found some cases of traumatic injuries, a macrocephalus infant, a face tumor and a suspected case of leprosy.

At the bottom of the crypt the skeletonized remains of most of the people who were buried here (about 270 skulls) are arranged in large display cases. However, some of these skulls also show signs of partial mummification. Also exhibited are an ancient, still sealed coffin, and an eagle which was mummified at the end of the 19th century during experiments on the chemical properties of the burial ground.

As anyone who follows my work knows, I have always been fascinated by the ways in which humanity has tried to preserve the likeness of their loved ones; and while I was looking with wonder at these dried bodies, the thought that went through me was exactly the same that opens the report by Maggiorani, which I quote here in closing:

The respect every cultured nation has shown for the deceased, the vanity of the Powerful wishing to free the bodies of their ancestors from the disgusting consequences of death, and the communal desire to keep the dear remains of the relatives uncorrupted, have always suggested artifices suitable to subtract this organic part of us from the empire of chemical laws that condemn it to decay. But while man by one means or another tries to achieve this goal, Nature, either alone or with a few aids from human craft, sometimes reaches it completely.

Here is the official website of the Museum of the Mummies of Ferentillo. The mummies are currently being studied by Dr. Dario Piombino-Mascali (University of Vilnius), who also wrote the preface of my volume on the mummies of the Catacombs of Palermo.

Note

Note
1 C. Maggiorani, Sulle Mummie di Ferentillo: notizie raccolte dal prof. C. Maggiorani: accompagnate dall’analisi chimica della terra di quel Cimitero istituita dal Chimico Farmacista signor Vincenzo Latini, in Atti dell’Accademia Pontificia de’ Nuovi Lincei, Vol XV 1861-62, Roma 1862.
2 E. Fulcheri, P. Baracchini, C. Crestani, A. Drusini, Studio preliminare delle mummie naturali di Ferentillo. Esame istologico e immunoistochimico della cute, in Riv. It. Med. Leg. XIII, 1991.

Black Bag

In the February 27, 1967 edition of the Associated Press this curious news appeared:

A mysterious student has been attending a class at Oregon State University for the past two months enveloped in a big black bag. Only his bare feet show. Each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 11:00 A.M. the Black Bag sits on a small table near the back of the classroom. The class is Speech 113 – basic persuasion… Charles Goetzinger, professor of the class, knows the identity of the person inside. None of 20 students in the class do. Goetzinger said the students’ attitude changes from hostility toward the Black Bag to curiosity and finally to friendship.

Ph.: Robert W. Kelly/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty

The masked student never spoke. The fact that only Goetzinger knew who was hiding under the sack, and that he had sworn to keep the secret, made many suspect that the professor himself was the author of the gimmick: was it perhaps a kind of psychological experiment? Was it just a prank, or some kind of political statement?

No one ever knew, and this could ultimately remain a quaint local story. And yet, in a short time, this event changed the world. The mysterious student nicknamed “Black Bag” is the reason why you see the huge arched M of McDonald’s soar in any city; it is the reason why all the beaches are plagued with the notes of summer hits; it is the reason why you will continue to see banner ads on every web page (except this one!) even if no one ever clicks on it.

Robert Zajonc

Robert Zajonc, one of the greatest pioneers of social psychology, learned of the news about Black Bag and saw in watermark the proof of the hypothesis he was working on, and which would occupy a good part of his career.
The following year, 1968, he published his landmark study entitled “Attitudinal Effects of Mere Exposure” (PDF) in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

In it, Zajonc took his cue from the case of Black Bag to explain the mere-expsoure effect, or the familiarity principle: when a new and unknown stimulus is presented to us, our first reaction is one of fear or distrust; but the more we are exposed to the same stimulus, the more we develop a positive attitude towards it.

This was exactly what had happened with Black Bag’s classmates: their attitude had changed due to the simple exposure to the presence of the mysterious student, and after the initial aggressive behavior shown towards him, they had gradually come to accept him, becoming friendly and even protective towards him.

Zajonc, for his part, had conducted various kinds of experiments in this regard. In some cases he had shown the participants different faces, words, ideograms; subsequently the subjects were asked to rate their liking of a series of images. And he found that participants were more likely to feel positive about the images they had already seen during the exposure phase.

The fact that mere exposure can create familiarity should obviously not be taken as an absolute rule, because several factors can come into play; Zajonc himself noticed that the effect tended to lessen if the exposure was too prolonged, and subsequent studies have confirmed his results but also shown that things are more complex.
The fact is that marketing, which until then had always focused on the “reasoned” account of product qualities, strengthened by Zajonc’s results, focused more on so-called brand awareness, that is, on making the brand as familiar and recognizable as possible. Less explanation, more repetition: a 2007 study showed that some students exposed to a banner ad while reading an article rated that brand more favorably than its competitors, even if they didn’t remember seeing the ad at all.

The idea that the human being privileges what is familiar was certainly not new even in 1968, but Zajonc had the merit of bringing together an impressive amount of experimental data, collected in multiple contexts and conditions, to support this thesis. In his experiments he showed that often human evaluations are not based so much on reasoning, but rather on emotional reactions — such as the positive response to familiarity. In other words: most of the time we choose what we like, and only in retrospect do we rationalize our choice, looking for logical reasons for a decision that we actually made on an emotional basis. And what we like is what we already know.

This peculiarity of our behavior, which in all probability has an evolutionary basis (choosing something well-known means limiting the unexpected), can easily become a cognitive fallacy, on which big brands make millions. We always choose the same type of pasta, or the path we have traveled a thousand times, and in doing so we lose opportunities and new discoveries.

Ph.: Gm/AP/Shutterstock

And yet … Going back to the mysterious Black Bag, are we sure that “mere exposure” can exhaust the topic? Was that all there was at stake?
One element, it seems to me, has never been taken into serious consideration in all the investigations on the episode, namely its intrinsic surrealism.

Think about it: you’re in class, and a guy dressed in a black sack walks in. This is the irruption of the fantastic into everyday life. It is the unpredictable, the weird that enters the austere and bare classroom of a university.
At first you feel staggered, perhaps a little scared but above all annoyed because that silent presence prevents you from concentrating on the words of your teacher. But then the simple fact that this “disturbing” element is breaking the monotonous routine begins to please you. Suddenly, the lesson becomes memorable.

Black Bag shows up again, and again. Will he come again on Friday? You can’t wait to know, you have to be there, who cares about the class, you need to check! And slowly you realize that there is nothing to fear in that black figure: indeed, it is making you think about many things that you had not considered before. In a formative place, where students are formed as in molds, Black Bag flaunts an irreducible individuality. A paradoxical individuality, given that his dress makes him anonymous and invisible. Invisible, yes, but heavy as a boulder: everyone knows that he’s right there, behind them. What does he think? Is he judging us? Is he snickering? And what would happen if we all went around in a bag? Maybe we would start judging people for who they really are?

In short, the essence of Black Bag’s appearance is intrinsically poetic. The fact that the students learned to love him means only one thing for me: that the bizarre opens the door to enchantment, and it is impossible, after a first, understandable reticence, not to be fascinated by it.

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!