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!

 

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!

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.

Season Two of Bizzarro Bazar is coming!

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!

Armors and Nudity

I am sure we all remember vividly the first sex scene we saw in a movie that really struck our imagination. In my case the film in question was Excalibur (1981) by John Boorman, and more precisely the carnal congress which happens about fifteen minutes into the film. A sequence that deeply troubled me, leaving me in a mixture of attraction and repulsion, without my being able to understand why.

Here Uther Pendragon, who thanks to Merlin’s spell has assumed the appearance of Duke Gorlois, violently possesses the duke’s wife, Igraine (from this fleeting relationship extorted with deception King Arthur will be born). The montage sequence shows this intercourse obtained by deception alernated with the simultaneous death of the true duke on the battlefield: Eros and Thanatos.

Excalibur (1981) by John Boorman

The element that struck me most was a detail with a very powerful visual impact: in the scene Uther, falling prey to erotic fury, does not bother to take off his armor and rushes on the woman who, believing him to be her husband, gives in to his impetus. Leaving aside the dubious realism of the scene (would it really be possible to do certain things while wearing an armor?), it was the contrast – the contact – between the shiny steel and the white female skin that was indelibly engraved in my imagination. I doubt it is a coincidence that, many years later, my graduation thesis ended up focusing on Crash by Cronenberg, another film in which flesh and metal clash and merge, thanks to the car accident, in a perverse erotic dimension.

When I saw Excalibur for the first time I could not know, but the iconography of a knight in armor facing a naked woman is a recurring theme in the history of art – “too frequent, too varied, too insistent to be judged random”, as noted by Roger Caillois in Au cœur du fantastique (1965).

The motif is connected to the broader topos of the clothed male figure vs. an undressed female figure: many nineteenth-century paintings are based on this one-sided nudity, in particular the representations of harems or slave markets which were very fashionable among Orientalist painters, but also famous paintings like Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe.
But, as we shall see, in the case of the fully-armored knight a much more interesting level of ambiguity can be identified.

Giuseppe Ferrauto states that there are “a whole kind of depictions of beautiful, naked and chained female prisoners, destined for the more or less openly morbid tastes of gentlemen of the past. […] Ariosto described Angelica chained to the rock of Ebuda, about to be the victim of a sea monster. Many took possession of this scene, from Ingres to Doré, who used it for his illustrations for Orlando furioso, up to Polish artist Chodowiecki, who also made a series of engravings, again for Orlando furioso , in 1772, to end up in the folklore scenes of Sicilian carts’ painted sides.” (Arcana, vol. II, Sugar 1969)

Gustave Doré, Ruggero and Angelica, 1879

Daniel Chodowiecki, Ruggero and Angelica, 1772

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Ruggero Freeing Angelica, 1819

Painters looking for contexts that lend themselves to this type of representation obviously found a perfect anecdote in the episode of Angelica and Ruggero (or in the similar classic myth of Andromeda freed by Perseus). One of the most famous examples is the aforementioned Ruggero Freeing Angelica by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1819), an oil painting that at the time caused a scandal for its representation of female nudity.

Matthias Gerung, Allegory of Love (Amor omnia vincit), 1535

Pieter Paul Rubens, Perseus Freeing Andromeda, 1620

Pieter Paul Rubens, Perseus and Andromeda, 1640

But there were illustrious and varied precedents. In 1530 Lucas Cranach had chosen the Judgment of Paris in order to show the three naked goddesses in front of the Trojan prince, while Tintoretto associated the theme with the liberation of Arsinoe, where the rescue set at the Lighthouse of Alexandria becomes the occasion for showing the armor in contact with bare skin; also worth noting is the sensual detail of the chain which slides sinuously over the queen’s private parts. As Mario Praz summarized well, “the contact of naked limbs with the chains and the steel of the armor seems to have the precise purpose of exciting special senses” (Erotismo in arte e letteratura, in I problemi di Ulisse, 1970).

Lucas Cranach The Elder, The Judgement of Paris, ca. 1528

Jacopo Tintoretto, The Liberation of Arsinoe, ca. 1556

Francesco Montelatici a.k.a. Cecco Bravo, Ruggero and Angelica, 1660

Michaelis Majeri, Secretioris naturae secretorum scrutinium chymicum, 1687

“All this – wrote Caillois – undoubtedly gives rise to an emotion which is in a certain sense natural, inevitable, and does not owe its effectiveness to the illustrated anecdote. André Pieyre de Mandiargues, describing Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara […], reports that licentious tournaments were held in the hall on the first floor in which naked girls contended with knights in arms. If the rumor is true, the strange game convinces me only of the fact that the power of suggestion of that image is even greater than I imagined. If it is unfounded, the fact that it was taken up by Mandiargues convinces me almost as much of the secret and persistent virulence of that fantasy.”

William Etty, Britomart Redeems Faire Amoret, ca. 1833

Arthur Hughes, La Belle Dame sans Merci, 1863

Joseph Paul Blanc, The Liberation – Ruggero and Angelica, 1876

In time the motif no longer needed much historical anecdotes to lean on. Millais’s Knight Errant does not refer to any precise mythological or literary episode – if not, perhaps, to John Keats’ ballad La Belle Dame Sans Merci (1819) – as it will happen with other variations on the theme by the Pre-Raphaelites.

John Everett Millais, The Knight Errant, 1870

Edward Burne-Jones, The Doom Fulfulled, 1885

Charles Napier Kennedy, Perseus and Andromeda, 1890

Arthur Hacker, The Temptation of Sir Percival, ca. 1894

One of the most interesting declinations is undoubtedly the one chosen by Delacroix in 1852, in which the knight-errant is actually a woman: it is Marfisa, once again a character drawn from Ariosto.
It is worth summing up the background story of this scene: the warrior-woman on her steed is giving a passage across the river to the witch Gabrina, when they meet the knight Pinabello and her beautiful but insolent lover, who laughs at the old woman. Determined to avenge this offense, Marfisa defeats the knight in a duel and forces Pinabello’s mistress to strip off her rich garments and give them to her old woman.

In stripping the knight’s cheeky lover, Marfisa seems to parody the very artistic motif we are talking about. In fact unlike all the other armored knights we’ve seen so far, who fall at the feet of the girl in déshabillé, here the intrepid warrior, being a woman, does not let herself be duped: to the pretty girl (to paint which, according to Armando Sodano, Delacroix had rediscovered “the lyricism of odalisques of his youth”) Marfisa prefers the old hag she carries on her steed. Who certainly isn’t beautiful, but intelligent.
An ironic punishment for female vanity that comes from a female in armor, one that I find amusing to read in a metanarrative sense: “if you are a woman who cannot go beyond appearances”, Marfisa seems to warn, “then you deserve to be naked , as happens to all the other maidens in this very type of paintings!”

Eugène Delacroix, Marfisa, 1852

Finally, let me go back to Excalibur. Over the years I have often found myself wondering what was special about that scene, and why did it end up being engraved so strongly in my imagination.

Uther’s passion is cruel, compelling, violent. He encompasses all the arrogance of the well-known masculinity centered on possession: a vision made of fury, of rights arrogated and obtained even by deception, a vision in which the longed-for woman must be taken by force. It could be said that the character of Uther, who even recurs to a magic spell in order to satisfy his desires, is “blinded by passion”: a phrase that is sometimes used even today as an extenuating circumstance for rapes and femicides. This is why it is a dark, disturbing sex scene; it is no coincidence that it is interpolated by Boorman with the images of the massacre on the battlefield and with the shots of the innocent child (Morgana) who witnesses this furious embrace, while the soundtrack by Trevor Jones, through pulsating strings and choirs of wavering voices, creates a surreal and deadly atmosphere.

Excalibur (1981) by John Boorman

Yet Igraine does not shy away from aggression: perhaps because she truly believes that he is her husband – or perhaps because there is a subtle complacency in causing such a fury in any lover. Which of the two is dominant, the knight who attacks, or the female who has the power to make him fall prey to passion?

The scene is therefore suspended, as its power relationship is ambiguous. This ambiguity is also intrinsic to the artistic theme we have talked about. On the one hand, the artists tend to highlight the contrast between feminine weakness and fragility, as symbolized by the tempting softness of naked flesh, and strong masculinity as signified by the hard appearance of metal. On the other hand, however, the very armor that should be a symbol of might and virility almost seems like a shell that encloses and constrains all impulses.

John William Waterhouse, La Belle Dame sans Merci, 1893

John William Waterhouse, Lamia and the Soldier, ca. 1905

Such a representation inevitably raises questions: is the knight’s “macho” allure amplified by this encounter with a beautiful lady in Evitic costume, or does he on the contrary appear to be mocked? After being victorious in countless battles, isn’t the warrior conquered by the irresistible seduction of women? Is his armor a symbol of power or rather impotence (as it prevents intercourse)? Is the naked woman, in all her soft and helpless charm, really a compliant prey or is she the one who bewitches and leads the game?

Rose O’Neill, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, 1905

The opposition between these two extremes (manhood enclosed in war vestments, and naked seductive femininity) is the embodiment of a dialectic between the sexes that has been handed down for a very long time as if it were an immutable truth. Yet the dynamics of the relations of power, domination and submission, are never as univocal as they might seem; the mechanism is delicate, and  the opposing components at its core are in constant tension towards overturning one another.

The strength of the image of the knight and the naked woman lies precisely in the fact that, at a deep level, its balance remains undecidable.

Vereker Monteith Hamilton (1856 – 1931), The Rescue

Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 24

  • 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.

  • Do you see an ox or an elephant? The one above is among the oldest optical illusions in history.
  • 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!)
  • By the way, in Greek mythology even obscenity had its own goddess.
  • 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 hangovers of Ancient Egpyptians.
  • 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.

  • In this tweet, I joked about COVID-19 killing off one of the most picturesque sideshow routines. Here’s an old post (Italian only) I wrote on Melvin Burkhardt, the legendary inventor of the performance in question.
  • 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.

  • 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.

Quiz solution: The animal pictured at the beginning of the post is a moth that’s been parasitized by a Cordyceps fungus. And that’s all for now!

The Ouija Sessions: Paul Grappe

In the sixth and final episode of The Ouija Sessions, you will hear the exceptional story of Paul Grappe, who fled from war using an unsuspected disguise.

If you liked the series, consider subscribing to my YouTube channel… soon there’ll be more surprises!

Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 23

Welcome to the collection of online resources designed to provide you with lots of nice conversation starters. We will talk about people who died badly, about menstruation, voodoo rites, sexually arousing vegetables and the fact that reality does not exist.

  • Let’s start with a great list of videogames about death.
  • Here’s my idea for a post-apocalyptic TV series with a Ballardian flavor.
    On Earth, after the ecological catastrophe, only a few hundred inhabitants remain. The survivors are divided into two warring factions: on the one hand the descendants of rich capitalists, called “The Travises”, on the other the last representatives of what was once the middle class, who call themselves “The Talbots”. (The poorest, with no means to protect themselves, were the first to become extinct.) Natural resources are limited, so the two tribes have built two neighboring cities, in constant war tension.
    The cold war between the Travises and the Talbots, which has lasted for decades, is about to reach breaking point with the arrival of one hallucinated stranger, a sandstorm survivor, who claims to have seen an immense oasis across the desert where men have mutated into cold-blooded hybrids…
    Ok, I only got this far with the story. But the great thing is that you don’t even have to build the sets, because the whole thing can be shot on location.
    Here is the Talbots citadel:

And this instead is the city of the Travises, composed solely of small castles meant to underline their ancient economic superiority:

These two alienating places are Pardis, near Tehran, and the ghost village of Burji Al Babas in Turkey.

  • But wait, I’ve got another fabulous concept for a series ready here! An exorcist priest, who is an occultist and paranormal investigator in the 1940s, builds a wunderkammer in a small town in the Sienese Chianti (article in Italian only). Netflix should definitely hire me on the spot. (Thanks, Paolo!)
  • Since we talked about doomsday scenarios, which animal has the best chance of surviving a nuclear holocaust? Probably a cockroach. Why? Well, for starters, that little rascal can go on quietly for weeks after being beheaded.
  • Ok, we have arrived at our philosophy moment.
    Our brain, trapped in the skull, creates a representation of things based on perception, and we all live in that “map” derived from mere stimuli.
    There’s no sound out there. If a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one around to hear it, it creates changes in air pressure and vibrations in the ground. The crash is an effect that happens in the brain. When you stub your toe and feel pain throbbing out of it, that, too, is an illusion. That pain is not in your toe, but in your brain. There’s no color out there either. Atoms are colorless.
    The quote comes from this article which is a short but clear introduction to the hallucinatory nature of reality.
    The problem has long been discussed by the best thinkers, but in the end one might ask: does it matter whether the pain is in my finger, in my brain, or in a hypothetical alien software simulating the universe? Bumping your foot hurts as hell anyway.
    At least this is my interpretation of the famous anecdote starring Samuel Johnson: “After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley‘s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, ‘I refute it thus.’
    (This is to say that as a young man I was intrigued by what reality really was, “out there”, but now I think more and more often about Samuel Johnson’s aching little finger.)

  • The image above hides a sad and macabre story now forgotten. Alessandro Calzolaro has investigated the “prisoner of Mondovi” in this article, in Italian only. (Thanks, Storvandre!)
  • The photo below, on the other hand, was taken in 1941, when a well-known occultist and a group of “young idealists” tried to kill Hitler… by throwing a voodoo curse upon him.

  • One hell of a headline.
  • In Indonesia, there is a community of riders crazy dudes who have redefined the concept of “tricked out Vespa”.  (Thanks, Cri!)

  • Old but gold:Vice interviews a menstruation fetishist.
  • The medieval village of Fabbriche di Careggine in Italy has been lying on the bottom of an artificial lake since the 1950s. The basin was emptied only 4 times for maintenance, the last one in 1994. But in 2021 the submerged village could finally resurface for good, to become a tourist attraction and a museum site dedicated to “raising awareness and cultural growth on the subject of clean and renewable energy“.

  • Finally a sly, tongue-in-cheek video essay on the spiritual value of exploding heads in the movies.
  • And here is an interesting esoteric, alchemical and intiatic reading of David Lynch’s cinema (Italian only).
  • London, 1876. A carpenter with money problems rents an apartment, then one evening he is seen returning home with two large wooden planks and a double blade similar to those used to tan leather. But the neighbors, as per tradition, don’t pay attention to it. The Police Illustrated News  tells the epilogue as follows:
    On Monday his suicide was discovered his head having been cut off by a guillotine. The two planks had been used as uprights at the top of which the knife had been placed. Grooves had been cut in the inner side of the planks for the knife to run easily and two heavy stones were bound to the upper side of the knife to give it weight. By means of the pulley he had drawn up the knife and let it fall on his throat, the head being cut clean off.

  • And we close with one of the most incredible psychiatric reports ever: the case, documented in 2005, of a man who suffered simultaneously from Cotard syndrome (the delusion of being dead) and clinical lycanthropy.
    Although the condition of this unfortunate individual is anything but comical, the results of the report stand out as an unsurpassed masterpiece of medical surrealism:
    A patient meeting DSM-IV criteria for bipolar mood disorder, mixed type with psychotic feature had the delusion of being transformed into a dog. He also deluded that he was dead. He was restless and had a serious sense of guilt about his previous sexual contact with a sheep.

That’s all folks, see you next time!

Lashes & Cuddles: A Peculiar Evening

In November last year I was invited to Sadistique, a BDSM party organized by my friend Ayzad. I talked about the “erotica of martyrdom” in front of an attentive, colorful and half-dressed crowd, in the dungeon-style room where at the end of my conference quite appropriately a Saint Andrew’s cross was mounted.
I have mulled over the possibility of recounting that evening; I was afraid that capturing its unique atmosphere, and making it palpable, goes beyond my poor literary skills.
In the end, since this blog is still a diary of my explorations, I decided to transcribe the notes I took that very night when I got back to my hotel room. They already had some kind of basic form, although not as refined as I would have preferred, so I publish them here without too many revisions.

(All images come from Sadistique’s website, and are NSFW.)

The first intense sensory overload that I become aware of is sound.
Constant, incessant symphony of slaps and shouts, a narcotic torpor, like those morning half-sleeps in which hormones suggest only vaguely erotic — but really more subterranean — visions. The syncopated hissing and popping of the whips, the dry bumps of paddles and bare hands slapping on butts and legs, as hypnotic as my memory of the African drums — that night in the slums of Dar-Es-Salaam when I met that woman possessed by a demon. Reiteration induces the trance: back and gluteus and gluteus and back — the same body parts get hit again, again, again. Even when you want to be imaginative, sex is always repetitive. Variations at first sight seem very, very sporadic: however the tools keep changing, and the discerning public knows how to recognize the progression, taste the effect, knowing al the different nuances and sensations. (Note: every sadist identifies with the victim, or there would be no pleasure in inflicting a punishment; every masochist identifies with the executioner, or there would be no joy in seeing oneself so humiliated and hurt.)

One big central arena for “public” games, before spectators. In reality almost all the sessions, even those on the most secluded sofas, earn their group of admirers. But only  the most exhibitionist, or at least the most confident, dare to appear on the central stage. And you really have to be quite self-confident, because the audience doesn’t just watch, the spectators keep judging your performance, making technical considerations as if they were commenting a football match. “There, look, that knot should not be done like that, I say, at least loosen it during the transition!” “You must not miss this flogger, he has a wonderful wrist action. You won’t get to that level of mastery in a month or two.” “Look at that, if you use a cane like that, just to hurt, you’re missing the point. Where did all the poetry go? “

The most disarming thing: the constant alternation of sweetness and brutality. Brutality administered as part of a journey done together — even if it lasts just the time of one session — exploration and alteration of space-time… Three well-adjusted lashes, then the Dom approaches the Sub and caress him, whispers in his ear, makes sure they’re both going in the right direction. He needs to have the most precise understanding, because they’re proceeding together, united so the satisfaction is mutual. He asks if it is too much or too little. As if following the shaking of a divining rod, what they’re looking for here is the hidden vein of desire. An extreme spanking scene has been going on for almost half an hour on a nearby sofa: “Will you let me give you one last smack, with all my strength?” “No, not with all your strength…” (She is already almost crying, she writhes, her marked buttocks where two or three drops of blood adorn the purple bruises.) “Half strength then, can I?” “Half. But only once. “

A man is explaining to a girl how she will have to jump on him when he is lying on the ground. “Here, and here,” he says pointing at his naked torso. “Not here.” She is hesitant, terrified at the idea of breaking his ribs. “Number one: if I tell you to jump on my belly or chest, it’s because I know you won’t hurt me. Number two — and here he lowers his voice and leans towards her, in doing so he also comes closer to me, so I can hear what he’s whispering to her — remember that you to me are a gift.” She begins to cry with emotion. She shall jump on him several times that night, from the top of a stool, sinking her heels into his belly.

Evening proceeds not without comic moments. Even the Grotesque has a right of citizenship here — it couldn’t be otherwise, in such a mental space hanging on the edge of the precipice.
I love it when even the most experienced Master misses a hit. A whip spins around badly and hits the floor; a knot gets tangled and needs to be tied all over again; a cat o’ nine tails swooping through the air comes too close to a spectator (“Hey, be careful!”). Very human moments: wonderful contrast between the general sophisticated pose — we are in Milan after all, the city of fashion — and the surfacing of  carnivalesque tones.
One flashy girl is wearing a fetish mask with a zipper that covers her mouth, she walks up to the counter. The bartender: “What do I give you?” “Mmmfmmmfmsssmchhh,” she replies. (I have to walk away to keep from laughing.)
Involuntary but also voluntary comedy: I am told of a legendary session in which the safeword was the squawking of chicken, complete with elbow movement, QUACK!

One gentleman introduces himself to a couple asking if he can act as their footstool. “But what should we do?” “Nothing, I’ll just lie here, you put your feet upon me, every now and then pull on the leash, that’s all.” After ten minutes of this treatment the gentleman gets up, politely thanks them, then leaves.
And this sketch, with its dry surrealism, pushes me to another consideration.
The man under the couple’s has maintained a serious and discreet attitude the whole time, light years away from the drooling and horny slaves à la Tokyo Decadence. I couldn’t even say if he got excited. In fact in the common areas it very seldom happens to witness actual sex (there are private rooms for that); yet everything is sex. “I specialize in knives and cutting, but my wife is a needle artist”, one guy tells me. And in fact, shortly after, here she is poking the finger of a fifty-year-old man sporting hipster mustaches, slowly, several times. He sits there, as in a normal lounge bar, a cocktail in one hand and a young lady sticking a surgical needle deeply into the index finger of his other hand. Can this be called “sex”? I have no idea. Maybe it is sex, without being it.

A beautiful and almost totally naked  girl approaches me.
(I’m not one of those men who can’t help staring at a cleavage, but I wonder: in a situation like this, would it be considered rude as in the world out there? What’s the social rule, here?)
We chat a bit, she tells me about her degree thesis she’s just about to complete, and then says: “These thing need planning”. It is essential for her to separate these evenings from romantic commitments, she explains. She is only into ropes and whipping, the latter exclusively with the same trusted partner. I ask her what is the frequency. “Ropes I could do even once a week. Whipping just once a month, because then you have to recover and those marks take some time to disappear. This is why I say that it has to be carefully planned. Because if you go out with a guy shortly after a session, and things get hot, you might have to explain those marks, and you’ll end up looking crazy. “

My host Ayzad, an expert in alternative sexualities, often explains in his work how, in a context in which one person consensually inflicts pain on another, a “culture of respect” is even more congenital than in normal/normative sex. Here everything seems to confirm this idea.
The crowd is multi-ethnic, from all walks of life, encompassin all ages, sexual orientations, genders or genderbending possibilities, body types — including disabilities. Fashion outfits along with absolutely “proletarian” clothing solutions. Bodies that seem to come straight out of a Vogue cover, but here even adipose or withered skin is considered beautiful — in the end it does not really matter what you look like as long as you are good at handling a whip or enduring it.
I suppose the much heralded and a bit annoying “exclusivity” of the event, which I was discussing with M. the other day, is just a due facade; because on the whole, there seems to be a very high level of inclusiveness. I even see a guy wearing simple jeans, although clearly the fetish aesthetic, all studs and latex, is the prevailing one; even though a little corny by now, it’s a sort of established uniform of this subculture.

I think about how ambiguous, complex the BDSM imaginary is — one must never make the mistake of taking it at face value: echoes of slavery, imprisonment, torture… But it is, in fact, an image, a projection. And what are erotic fantasies if not a way of metabolizing the Obscene — if not even a social trauma — take f.i. Nazi exploitation films.
Translating fears, unconfessable drives and real horrors into the world of representation, of simulacra. Mise-en-scène of the obscene. (This is the reason why most of erotic literature is made up of functional characters, bi-dimensional figurines, puppets to move and recombine at will.)

I look at a woman locked in a cage. A naked female body in there would be a terrible image, if real. Instead this is what everyone here calls a “game” (again, a mise-en-scène): the woman in the cage is far from being a victim, and this whole pantomime is all but humiliating; she is delicately caressed by three or four people, men and women — and she’s the one pushing away those hands should they get too impudent, she’s deciding what’s approrpiate, she is the absolute protagonist of this theatrical tableau in which she can imagine herself as a sacrificial victim, or a captive Goddess.

A “game”. “Let’s play a game”. Everyone keeps repeating that, but is it really just a game?
Of course, there are the circus moments — sometimes I feel like I’m wandering down a sideshow’s midway. No fire eaters in sight, but plenty of fakirs: a man has 3 half-gallon bottles of water hanging from his scrotum (note: he seems to feel worse when he holds them still, so he keeps a swinging motion while his mistress is whipping his back).


There is all the picturesque panoply that one would expect: there are women hanging upside down, men trampled by stiletto heels, multicolored wax melted on breasts and genitals, male and female slaves, laces and handcuffs, collars, leashes and people on all fours.

But then I see this couple, two young people of a blinding beauty, she’s tied with her arms over her head to a metal structure… a clamped clothespin on her tongue… he’s fiercely belt-spanking her buttocks and back… the boy is methodical and expressionless, he seems almost an automaton, focused on his work. She pants and keeps her eyes closed, never opening them, not even when he comes over to say something in her ear (from what I can hear — I am very close — they seem words of encouragement). The clothespin forces her to the humiliation of a constant thread of saliva dripping down on her bare breasts, which he occasionally dries with a forgiving gesture. The body is a tuning fork, and to make it resonate it must be taken to the extreme. Curious animal, the human primate. How I would like to hide behind their eyes, understand what’s going on in their nervous system: is this public punishment a performance, a ritual, a pastime, a gym routine? A simple way of being and expressing oneself? Or is it really what it seems, an intimate moment of transcendence and total abandon to each other?
This strange crowd of people, who are always so sure of what they want or don’t want, down to the smallest contractual detail — how conscious are they of what they’re seeking?

At the end of the session, every now and then someone bursts into a liberating flood of tears. All the cuddling, the hugging, the murmured words, “you to me are a gift”… others instead laugh, chat, or they go for a cigarette break in the smoking room.
Right there I meet a 67-years-old man with whom I already spoke at the beginning of the evening, a retired employee in a copier company. Now he is caressing his wife’s shoulders. He tenderly examines the streaks he imprinted on her skin shortly before, as if those red tongues were an abstract work of art. He whispers to her, “You look like a baby tiger”. Her face lights up, and they both smile.

Here is perhaps the most surprising thing.
In this kaleidoscope of clamps, lashes, ropes, bruises, canes, screams — and that soporific, neverending slapping sound — I saw no trace of cruelty.