First of all some quick updates on my upcoming activities.
On November 1st, together with my friend Luca Cableri, I will be a guest of the Trieste Science+Fiction Festival. We will talk about wunderkammer and space, in a conference entitled The Space Cabinet of Curiosities. — November 1st, 10 am, Teatro Miela in piazza L. Amedeo Duca degli Abruzzi 3, Trieste.
On November 3rd I will speak at Sadistique, the BDSM party organized every first Sunday of the month by Ayzad. The title of my speech: “Pains are my delight”: Erotics of martyrdom. Obviously, given the private context, access is forbidden to the curious and to those who have no intention of participating in the party. Consult prices, rules of conduct and dress code on the event’s official page. — November 3rd, 3-8 pm, Nautilus Club, via Mondovì 7, Milano.
[BTW, Ayzad recently launched his own podcast Exploring Unusual Sex, you can listen to it on Spreaker and Spotify]
I remind you that on November 14 we will inaugurate the collective art exhib REQVIEM at Mirabilia Gallery in Rome. The exhibition, organized by l’Arca degli Esposti and curated by Eliana Urbano Raimondi and myself, will feature works by 10 international artists within the context of the only Roman wunderkammer. — November 14th, 7 pm, Galleria Mirabilia, via di San Teodoro 15, Roma.
Without further ado let’s start with our selection of links & weirdness!
In his encyclopedia of natural history L’univers. Les infiniment grands et les infiniments petits (1865) Felix A. Pouchet recounts this case which allegedly happened in 1838 in the French Alps: “A little girl, five years old, called Marie Delex, was playing with one of her companions on a mossy slope of the mountain, when all at once an eagle swooped down upon her and carried her away in spite of the cries and presence of her young friends. Some peasants, hearing her screams, hastened to the spot but sought in vain for the child, for they found nothing but one of her shoes on the edge of a precipice. The child was not carried to the eagle’s nest, where only the two eagles were seen surrounded by heaps of goat and sheep bones. It was not until two months later that a shepherd discovered the corpse of Marie Delec, frightfully mutilared, and lying upon a rock half a league from where she had been borne off.“
Fungi that turn insects into zombies: I’ve already written about them a few years ago in my little ebook (remember it?). But this video about the cute Entomophthora muscae has some truly spectacular images.
When the obsession for shows becomes art: here are some of the fiberglass sculptures by Costa Magarakis. (Thanks Eliana!)
Italian creativity really tops itself when it’s time to put up a scam. A small business car ran over a wild boar in the Gallura countryside, forest rangers were alerted so that the accident damage could be reimbursed by the municipality. It turned out the boar had been just taken out of a freezer. (Article in Italian, via Batisfera)
In 1929, the Australian writer Arthur Upfield was planning a detective story and while chatting with a friend he came up with a method for the perfect murder. So perfect in fact, that his novel couldn’t even work, because the detective in the the story would never have solved the case. He needed to find a flaw, one small detail that could expose the culprit. To get out of the impasse the frustrated writer began to discuss the plot with various people. Little did he know that one of these listeners would soon decide to test the method himself, by killing three men.
“The law is clear: everyone who kills another person will have his head cut off.”
A little anecdote on the healing power of music. At the end of the 1950s the great pioneer of free jazz Sun Ra (who claimed to be an alien from Saturn) played a gig at Chicago mental hospital, as an experiment of musical therapy. It is said that a patient, who hadn’t moved or talked in years, got up from her chair, walked over to the piano, and shouted: “You call that music?“
What would you like to happen to your social media accounts after your death? Here is a handy guide to digital death discussing your various options. (Thanks Kaylee!)
In the photo above, model Liliana Orsi exhibits the new “atomic hairdo” created by the Roman hairdresser Eusebio De Luca in 1951, and inspired by the atomic mushrooms of the infamous Bikini atoll tests. Apparently, making this masterpiece of dubious taste took 12 hours of coiffure.
An since we’re talking about beheadings, I took the above photograph at Vienna’s Kriminalmuseum di Vienna. It is the head of criminal Frank Zahlheim, and on the cultural implications of this kind of specimens I wrote a post last year that you might want to re-read if you’ve got five minutes.
Today Bizzarro Bazar is 10 years old.
I don’t want to indulge in self-congratulations, but allow me a little pride because this is quite an achievement — for all of us.
August 2009. In a dimly lit room, a thirty year old man is typing on a laptop.
The Internet was a different place then, so much so that it feels like a century ago.
Michael Jackson had died less than two months earlier, the news causing all major word websites to crash. Facebook was starting to outnumber MySpace. SMS were the only way to text your friends; in Italy perhaps a dozen people were testing this new esoteric thing called Whatsapp.
The Web looked promising. Many were convinced the internet would be the key to improving things, canceling boundaries and distances, promoting solidarity, forging a new, connected and cooperative humanity.
One fundamental tool for the imminent social revolution (there was no doubt about this) would be blogs, as they were the main tools to democratize culture, making it freely available to all.
If you were looking for a website dedicated to the macabre and the marvelous, you would have surely come across the glorious Morbid Anatomy, which back then was at its peak; there were a few good thematic blogs, but nothing in Italian.
So that afternoon of August 20th I registered the name of this blog on WordPress, wrote a welcome post (with a nod to Monty Python), and I sent an email to a dozen friends inviting them to take a look. My hope was that at least some of them would be interested for a month or two. I needed to tell someone how incredible, terrible and amazing this reality we often take for granted seemed to me. How many unexpected treasures hide behind those things that terrify us most, if we only care to understand.
CUT TO: August 2019. In a dimly lit room, a forty year old man is typing on a laptop.
The magical world of the internet has changed, and it no longer feels that magical.
Many feel harassed by its ubiquitous tentacles that crush every cell of time and life. Users have become customers, and you don’t need to be a hacker to know that the Web is full of dangers and traps. The Internet is today a privileged tool for those who want to spread fear and hatred, erase all diversity, strengthen barriers and boundaries instead of overcoming them. At first glance it would seem that the dream has been crushed.
Yet I am still here, writing on the very same blog. The Internet has remained in many ways an extraordinary space in which new initiatives are organized, different points of view are discovered, in which at times you may even change your mind.
What has all this got to do with a little blog about death, taboos, freakshows, bizarre collections and historical oddities?
In a sense I believe that here, you and I are doing an act of resistance. Not so much in a political sense — the polis cares about what happens inside or around the city walls — but some kind of cultural resistance. One might say we are resisting banality, and reduction of complexity. The lovers of the bizarre are people who prefer questions over answers, and want to explore ever stranger places.
In spite of the incalculable hours I spent studying, writing, answering all the questions from readers (and fixing bugs and server issues, damn), Bizzarro Bazar has always remained an ad-free, uncensored space.
With its 850 posts, it now looks like a mini-encyclopedia of the weird & wonderful. And if I reread some bits here and there, I can see my writing style gradually evolve thanks to your advice and your criticisms.
The web series I released this year on YouTube is a fundamental step in this long journey, carried out with passion and some sacrifices. We have invested so much effort, so many resources in it, and your response has been enthusiastic.
Many of you have expressed the hope that there might be a second season, so let’s get to the point: for the first time Bizzarro Bazar is summoning its army of freak and heretic followers!
We started a campaign on the Italian crowdfunding website produzionidalbasso.com to finance the new season.
Here is the video for our project (be sure to turn on the English subtitles):
This is our only chance at the moment to keep the most anomalous Italian web series alive. But in reality it means much more.
If you help us, what will see the light will no longer be “the Bizzarro Bazar series”, but your own series.
The (Google-translated) page for our campaign is available at THIS LINK.
Shortlink to copy and share with friends: bit.ly/bizzarrobazar Note: for us, the best method to receive a donation is by credit card/wire transfer, because PayPal is bleeding us with very high commissions, but shhhh, I didn’t tell you anything. 😉
Thank you all for these unbelievable ten years, thanks if you’ll be kind enough to consider donating… and to those who will shamelessly spam our project among their acquaintances.
Still and always, vive la Résistance! — in other words,
“Boy, am I bored. Luckily, there’s a new collection of links on Bizzarro Bazar.” (Photo:Tim Walker)
Forget icecream: to fight the heat, nothing better than some icy and chilling reads, directly from my (mortuary) freezer!
James Hirst (1738-1829) used to ride on a bull he had trained; he kept foxes and bears as pets; he built a wicker carriage so large that it contained a double bed and an entire wine cellar; he installed a sail on his cart, so as to navigate on land, but at the first road bend he ended up flying through a tailor’s window; he saved himself from a duel to the death by placing a dummy in his place; he received dozens of garters from English noblewomen in exchange for the privilege of standing inside his self-constructed eccentric coffin; he refused an invitation from the King because he was “too busy” teaching an otter the art of fishing. (I, on the other hand, have vacuumed the house today.)
Jason Shulman uses very long exposures to photograph entire films. The result is spectacular: a one-image “summary” of the movie, 130,000 frames compressed in a single shot. “Each of these photographs — says Shulman — is the genetic code of a film, its visual DNA“. And it is fascinating to recognize the contours of some recurring shots (whose imprint is therefore less blurry): the windows of the van in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the static scenic desing in Méliès movies, the bokeh street lights of Taxi Driver. And I personally never thought about it, but there must be so many close-ups of Linda Lovelace in Deep Throat, in order to make that ghostly face appear… (Thanks, Eliana!)
Since we’re talking about photography, take a look at Giovanni Bortolani’s manipulations. In his Fake Too Fake series he has some fun slicing up and reassembling the body of beautiful male and female models, as in the example above. The aesthetics of fashion photography meets the butcher counter, with surreal and disturbing results.
It’s still taboo to talk about female masturbation: so let’s talk about it.
A nice article on L’Indiscreto [sorry, Italian only] recounts the history of female auto-eroticism, a practice once considered pathological, and today hailed as a therapy. But, still, you can’t talk about it.
I thought I’d found the perfect summer gadget, but it turns out it’s out of stock everywhere. So no beach for me this year. (Thanks, Marileda!)
You return to your native village, but discover that everyone has left or died. So what do you do to make this ghost town less creepy? Easy: you start making life-size rag dolls, and place them standing motionless like scarecrows in the fields, you place them on benches, fill the empty classrooms, you position them as if they were waiting for a bus that’ll never come. Oh, and you give these puppets the faces of all the dead people from the village. Um. Ms. Ayano Tsukimi is so lovely, mind you, and her loneliness is very touching, but I haven’t decided yet whether her work is really “cheerful” and poetic, as some say, or rather grotesque and disturbing. You decide.
If you can readItalian well, there is a beautiful and fascinating study by Giuditta Failli on the irruption of the Marvelous in medieval culture starting from the 12th century: lots of monsters, skeleton armies, apparitions of demons and ghosts. Here is the first part and the second part. (Thanks, Pasifae!)
What is this strange pattern above? It is the demonstration that you can always think outside the box.
Welcome to the world of heterodox musical notations.
But then again music is supposed to be playful, experimental, some kind of alchemy in the true sense of the term — it’s all about using the elements of the world in order to transcend them, through the manipulation and fusion of their sounds. Here’s another great nonconformist, Hermeto Pascoal, who in this video is intent on playing a freaking lagoon.
“I am going to seek a great perhaps“, said François Rabelais as he laid dying.
“Now I am about to take my last voyage, a great leap in the dark“, Thomas Hobbes whispered.
“Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough!” Karl Marx muttered in his last breath.
Have you prepared your grand, romantic, memorable last words? Well, too bad that you probably won’t get to say them. Here is an interesting article on what people really say while they’re dying, and why it might be important to study how we communicate during our last moments.
Speaking of last words, my favorite ones must be those pronounced by John Sedgwick on May 9, 1864 during the Battle of Spotsylvania. The heroic general urged his soldiers not to retreat: “Why are you dodging like this? They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” Soon after he had said this, a bullet reached him under his left eye, killing him on the spot.
Sedgwick: 0 – Karma: 1.
The always great Nuri McBride on the Great Stink of London, a.k.a. that time when the Thames was “a Stygian pool, reeking with ineffable and intolerable horror“.
“Let’s get this party started!” These cheerful and jovial gentlemen who, with admirable enthusiasm, pop their eyes out of their sockets with knives, are celebrating the Urs festival, an event held every year at Ajmer in Rajasthan to commemorate the death of Sufi master Moʿinoddin Cishti. You can find more photos of this merry custom in this article.
And finally here is a really wonderful short film, recommended by my friend Ferdinando Buscema. Enjoy it, because it is the summary of all that is beautiful in mankind: our ability to search for meaning in little things, through work and creation, and the will to recognize the universal even in the humblest, most ordinary objects.
The 2019 edition of the Eurovision Song Contest is open, the audience waves their flags in the stalls or collapses on the couch at home to watch the live event on TV: everyone is dazzled by the glittering, ever-smiling singers, by catchy songs obsessively repeating “love, love, love”.
It is now Iceland’s turn, a small competitor which never turned out to be very successful or surprising, and suddenly the stage turns blood red. With a harsh metallic beat, the scene is revealed: there’s a cage, and a group of androgynous creatures dressed in leather and latex; one of the singers lies like a dying man on a staircase; the other does not sing, he screams from the top of his lungs. With a growl that is not wild or liberating, but rather cold and hallucinated, the lyrics deliver a terrible message: HATRIÐ MUN SIGRA, “hatred will prevail”.
“What’s this? How could this happen?”, the shocked audience ask themselves.
Let’s take a step back.
Four years ago, on a bright summer evening, as the midnight sun was shining, two boys strolled through Reykjavík contemplating the rise of populism, the ruin of capitalism and the crimes of growing individualism in Europe. To them, the only possible answer was: Hatari.
Meet the band
Hatari translates as “haters”. The band defines itself as an “award-winning performative, anti-capitalist, anti-systemic, industrial, techno-dystopic, BDSM” band, modifying and adding adjectives at their will. Hatari is a multimedia project, chaired by a nebulous company going by the suspicious name of Svikamylla ehf. (“Relentless Scam/Web of Lies Inc. “).
The project is based on the musical band founded by the two boys of the story, singers Klemens Hannigan and Matthías Tryggvi Haraldsson, together with their “drummer gimp” Einar Hrafn Stefánsson. Joining the trio is a variable team of performers, dancers, choreographers, visual artists and independent stylists responsible for a keenly designed fetish wardrobe, as well as a series of branded gym wear for the band’s moments of relax.
The legend of Hatari’s foundation is a brazen ironic hoax, regularly administered to the press by Klemens and Matthías, but there are some irrefutable facts: Hatari has indeed won several awards, and most of its members actually graduated from the Art Academy of Reykjavík. Matthías, aged twenty-five, already gained some recognition as a playwright and his writing is at the heart of Hatari’s nihilistic lyrics. Klemens is a carpenter and set designer, Einar also plays in the indie-pop band Vök.
Defining Hatari’s musical genre is a tricky task, because the band is eager to reinvent its style whenever it gets too close to being apprehended. Asking Klemens or Matthías will result in the usual long list of adjectives created on the spot: it might start off with almost fitting terms such as “techno-punk”, but will soon turn to “pop”, “bondage” and “doomsday”, and eventually end up being defined as “cabaret” and “bonanza”. Among their musical influences are Rammstein, Die Antwoord, Rage Against The Machine, Abba (“if only they were more Marxist“), the Spice Girls, Naomi Kline, Noam Chomsky, Donald Trump and Theresa May.
Hatari’s songs feature an electronic rhythmic base, enhanced by Einar’s live drumming, and two contrasting voices: Matthías’ growl delivers the main part, while Klemens will usually sing the melodic line in a soft, imploring and plaintive tone which can rise to a shrill falsetto, as in the song Hatrið mun sigra performed at Eurovision.
Music, however, is just one specific feature in Hatari’s wider concept, which is carried out through different performances: their act consists in staging a fascist dystopia set at the end of humanity, in the unmasking of the relentless scam we are subjected to in everyday life, in dismantling capitalism… and maybe, in the meantime, sell some CDs and T-shirts. After all, as the band put it, “it’s not cheap to bring down capitalism“.
Hatari’s key feature is precisely this love of contradiction, paradox, opposition. The BDSM clothing aesthetic is deemed necessary, because BDSM “liberates you, but it constrains you at the same time […], just like capitalism“.
But their use of contrast is also evident in the relationship between the singers Klemens and Matthías, a dualism ceaselessly exhibited on and off stage, which, as we shall see, might be the true focus of the entire project.
Matthías, the leader of the group, plays the role of the absolute ruler and dictator in Hatari’s dystopia. He is brown-haired, cold and imposing, and his voice has a solemn and cavernous tone. The tyrant Matthías is characterized by rigidity, repressed movements, and a blank expression. He barely moves when he’s onstage, and he addresses the audience with a few controlled gestures, dry and theatrical, a Nazi-inspired reference. Angry screams rise from his granite, absent face, lost in a hateful frenzy of self-assertion. Even when he is not singing, Matthías maintains his apathetic composure; if he utters ironic and paradoxical sentences, he does so avoiding any hint of hilarity.
Klemens is Matthías’ right-hand man, an innocent martyr that the dictator subdues and persecutes. He’s a victim whose torment becomes obscene ecstasy: Klemens represents the compassionate undertaker of a dying humanity. He is small, with blond or sometimes bright-red hair, sparkling and ephebic. Like Matthías, he exhibits Hatari’s odd rhetoric with the utmost seriousness, but does not follow the same self-discipline. The inspiration for his body language and expressive range comes from a variety of traditionally feminine incarnations: the tender and fragile angel, the cheeky lolita sporting a blatant look, the bored prostitute, the sleepy men-eating vamp.
Beside a frozen Matthías, Klemens staggers without peace along the stage and dances to the rhythm. His arms are raised, hips swaying, his body is softly disjointed, keeping the pelvis as a center of gravity. With his skimpy costumes and orgasmic moans, Klemens becomes the spokesperson for the erotic element in Hatari’s performance: he symbolizes light, life, sex, against the darkness and dryness of Matthías.
Einar, the drummer gimp, is a silent character. But then again, he always wears a studded leather mask which hides the lower half of his face, limiting his communication possibilities. Contact lenses blacken his sclera, or narrow the pupil, so that his features are unrecognizable and the only noticeable trait is his gigantic stature.
During performances Einar beats on the drums with a metronome’s stolidity, or he spins around a spiked mace. Sometimes he just stands motionless behind the band and stares at the audience, like a fearsome Golem disguised as a sex toy. The only sentence he has spoken so far, the one time Klemens generously opened the zipper over his mouth, is the prophetic title of the song Hatrið mun sigra.
Some dancers who collaborate in Hatari’s performances complete the whole picture: the elegant and lanky slave Sigurður Andrean Sigurgeirsson and the pale, robotic dominatrices Sólbjört Sigurðardóttir and Ástrós Guðjónsdóttir. Female dancers are no less dressed than men, and even if they happen to interact with male performers, they never do so in an allusive way: in Hatari’s choreography the sensuality remains exclusively homoerotic and masculine.
Rise and scandal at the Eurovision
So how could this freakshow ever get to arrive at Eurovision?
The first step was to win the Söngvakeppnin, the Icelandic musical competition where every year the national representative at Eurovision is chosen.
The band’s participation in a television pop competition made a sensation, not only because so far the band only played the underground scene, but also because Hatari in theory just split up – with a farewell concert and a press statement on Iceland Music News (the “most honest information channel in Iceland“, actually another fictitious company of theirs). The motivation behind the split up is the aknwledgemtn that their pojects has failed: “We could not bring an end to capitalism, in the two years we gave ourselves“. But this farewell lasted just ten days.
Their taking part in Söngvakeppnin was announced with a promotional video designed to reassure the event’s pop audience: in the video, the smiling group is dressed in middle-class clothes (Einar’s without his trademark mask, for the first time ) and gets together to eat a cake. In order to make this family picture more intimate, Klemens’ daughter also participates, along with the daughter of Einar and Sólbjört, who are engaged in private life.
Did Hatari become a family-friendly and bourgeois band? Not exactly: the script of the video is a copycat of the electoral campaign of Bjarni Benediktsson, a controversial politician who devotes himself to cake design.
When, during the award ceremony, Hatari was proclaimed the winner, taking everyone by surprise, Matthías nodded condescendingly and repeated Hatari’s leitmotiv: “Everything’s according to the plan“. Capitalism shall be dismantled starting from the Eurovision contest, he reasoned, since having Hatari as national representative will at least cause the collapse of the Icelandic economy. Hatari already prepared an apology letter to the government, in case of victory.
So let’s get back to the Eurovision, a festival that supports peace and friendship among peoples. The 2019 edition took place in Israel, in Tel Aviv, in the scenario of an occupation that is not at all peaceful and inclusive.
It was clear that Hatari was the ideal candidate to exploit this paradox, and the band was seen as an inconvenient competitor since their first public statements. The group clamied to be backed by an imaginary sponsor, a carbonated water called SodaDream – which echoes the name of the Israeli brand SodaStream but which unlike the latter “has never operated in any kind of occupied territory“, as Hatari was eager to specify.
A video appeared in which the band challenged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to a match of glíma (Icelandic wrestling), raffling Icelandic or Israeli territories to be colonized at will by the winner.
In the European Broadcasting Union headquarters, anxiety was growing about Hatari’s stunts and interviews: what is this “plan” they were constantly talking about? Were they planning to disregard the competition guidelines?
Warned by the EBU, Hatari agreed to change their attitude: they switched to a more glittering look, and shunned any question that could can be seen as political, including the ones about their favorite foods. They made it clear that their song Hatrið mun sigra wasn’t really meant to incite hatred, but rather to inspire the same spirit of union at the base of Eurovision: an invitation to love, before Hatari’s dystopia might come true.
Everyone began to relax. All in all, maybe Hatari were just a clique of funny jokers, and any Eurovision edition must have their “freak” contestants. As the final evening approached, it seemed clear enough that no such thing as “the plan” really existed. The very idea of bringing capitalism to an end was nothing but a joke.
But then, just as the final score was being announced, the unthinkable happened. While the band was to appear live from the Eurovision’s “green room”, a second before going on air, Matthias exchanged a quick nod with Klemens.
He then extracted from one of his kinky boots some scarves decorated with the Palestinian flag, which the band secretly managed to smuggle past the Israeli military checkpoints.
As soon as it was announced that Iceland had gained tenth place, and as the crowd booed, security broke in to seize the scarves. Meanwhile, on Hatari’s Instagram profile, a giant Palestine flag appeared, while on YouTube a new videoclip was published: a collaboration with Palestinian gay artist Bashar Murad, shot in the desert of Jericho.
Male intimacy, the ultimate provocation
Besides their transparent political alignment, and having the nerve to remind the Eurovision audience that we do not live in the best possible world, Hatari also offered one final provocation – a perhaps more subtle but insidious provocation, destined to polarize and upset even their fans: the emotional and physical harmony between Klemens and Matthías.
In public appearances Klemens and Matthías coordinate perfectly their gestures and words, finishing each other’s sentences and sometimes even talking in sync. Yet sometimes the dynamics of domination and submission they exhibit during their musical performances seem to reverse: one of their running gags during the interviews is Klemens whispering some words in the ear of his “master” Matthías, who then just reports them impassively.
Still, what’s really confusing to the public is not even this inversion of dom/sub roles, but rather the peculiar intimacy between the two characters.
Klemens often leans against Matthías and reclines his head on his partner’s shoulder; Matthías, on the other hand, holds his friend to his chest, wraps him in his arms with a protective attitude.
The two singers claim to have a special, intense and long-standing relationship: Klemens supports and encourages the stoic Matthías to express himself completely, while Matthías acts like a shield and safe haven for that “very unconstrained emotional being”. They are two opposites completing each other, the feminine and the masculine, the Yin and the Yang.
Yet – and here is where gender prejudice arise – the two singers are cousins, childhood friends and above all heterosexuals.
The reactions are of dismay. “Impossible! Are they bisexual? Is it just a hoax? They must be lovers! ”
It seems that the public prefers to imagine a homosexual incest, rather than admitting that two heterosexual males can share such a mutual trust and fondness for physical contact; the affection and tenderness Klemens and Matthias show during their effusions is an even stronger taboo than homosexuality, as it seems to question the traditional and all too fragile concept of masculinity.
In spite of all their paraphernalia, their trickster attitude, their parodistic smoke screens and raw, gloomy aesthetics, Hatari’s real message lies in the group dynamics, which stand out as a true antidote. They give each other strength and courage, they trust in one another, they consciously abandon their bodies in the hands of their fellow members. They know how to nurture each other’s most unruly and dark sides, and how to mix them as if they were ingredients of a cake “full of love, but a bit sticky“.
Hatari’s quixotic struggle against capitalism is perhaps just another one of their jokes; yet if we want to avoid living in the toxic and deadly world they foreshadow, our only tools are empathy, trust, respect, bonding.
We just need someone to accept us, support us and – why not – cuddle us, without fear of ridicule, without it making us feel less masculine; here lies the strength we need to express ourselves.
And when self-expression, creativity and vitality are allowed to shine, then hatred cannot prevail.
The surgical tool kit that was used to perform the autopsy on Napoleon’s body at Saint Helena is on display at the Museum of History of Medicine in Paris.
But few people know that those scalpels probably also emasculated the Emperor.
In his last few months on Saint Helena, Napoleon suffered from excruciating stomach pains. Sir Hudson Lowe, the governor of the island under whose control Bonaparte had been confined, dismissed the whole thing as a slight anemia. Yet on May 5, 1821 Bonaparte died.
The autopsy conducted the following day by Napoleon’s personal physician, Francesco Carlo Antommarchi, revealed that he had been killed by a stomach tumor, aggravated by large ulcers (although the actual causes of death have been debated).
But during the autoptic examination Antommarchi apparently took some liberties.
Francesco Carlo Antommarchi
The heart was extracted and put in in a vase filled with spirit; it was meant to be delivered to the Emperor’s second wife, Maria Luisa, in Parma. In reality, she must have been hardly impressed by such a token of love, since a few months after Napoleon’s death she already married her lover. The stomach, that cancerous organ responsible for Napoleon’s death, was also removed and preserved in liquid. Antommarchi then made a cast of Bonaparte’s face, from which he later produced the famous death mask displayed at the Musée de l’Armée.
But at this point the doctor from Marseilles decided he’d grab a further, macabre trophy: he severed Napoleon’s penis. Antommarchi’s motives for this extra cut are unclear. Some speculate it might have been some sort of revenge for the way the irascible Napoleon mistreated him in the last few months; according to other sources, the doctor (sometimes described as an ignorant and disrespectful man) simply thought he could make a profit out of it.
But perhaps it was not even Antommarchi who took the controversial specimen. Thirty years later, in 1852, Mamluk Ali (Louis-Etienne Saint-Denis, Napoleon’s most faithful valet) published a memorial in the Revue des Mondes. In the article, Ali attributed the responsibility of this mutilation to himself and to Abbot Angelo Paolo Vignali, the chaplain who administered extreme unction to Bonaparte. He stated that he and Vignali had removed some unspecified “portions” of Napoleon’s corpse during the autopsy.
All these stories are quite dubious; it seems unlikely that such a disfigurement could go unnoticed. Five English doctors, plus three English and three French officers, were present at Napoleon’s autopsy. After the embalming, his faithful waiter Marchand dressed his body in uniform. How come no one noticed the absence of manhood on the body of the “little corporal”?
In any case, what may or may not have been Napoleon’s true penis, but a penis nonetheless, began to circulate in Europe.
And even if it’s unclear who was responsible for severing it, in the end it was chaplain Vignali who smuggled it back to Corsica, along with more conventional mementos (documents and letters, a few pieces of silverware, a lock of hair, a pair of breeches, etc.), and the organ passed to his heirs upon Vignali’s death in a bloody vendetta in 1828. It remained in the family for almost a century, and was finally purchased by an anonymous buyer at an auction in 1916, together with the entire collection. In the auction catalog, the penis was described with a euphemism: “mummified tendon“.
After being bought by the famous antiquarian bookstore Maggs of London, the lot was resold in 1924 to Philadelphia collector Abraham Simon Wolf Rosenbach, who exhibited it three years later at the Museum of French Art in New York. Here the penis of Napoleon was on public display for the first and only time, and a jouranlist described it as a “maltreated strip of buck-skin shoelace or a shriveled eel“.
In 1944 Rosenbach sold the collection once again, and it continued to be passed from hand to hand. But despite the historical value of these memorabilia the market proved to be less and less interested, and the Vignali collection remained unsold at various auctions. In 1977 a major part of the collection was acquired by the French government, and destined to join the remains of Napoleon at Les Invalides. Not the penis, however, which the French refused to even acknowledge. It was John K. Lattimer, an American urologist, who bought it for $ 4,000. His intention, it seems, was to permanently remove it from circulation so that it would not be ridiculed.
The urologist had amassed an impressive collection of macabre historical curiosities – from the blood-stained collar that President Lincoln wore on the night of his murder at Ford’s theater, to one of the poison capsules Göring used to commit suicide. Lattimer kept the infamous “mummified tendon” locked away in a suitcase under his bed for years, protecting it from the public’s morbid curiosity, and he always refused any purchase proposal. He X-rayed the specimen, and it turned out to actually be a human penis.
After Lattimer’s death in 2007, his daughter took on the laborious task of archiving this incredible collection.
The penis is still part of the collection: Tony Perrottet, author of the book Napoleon’s Privates, is among the very few who have had the opportunity to see it in person. “It was kind of an amazing thing to behold. There it was: Napoleon’s penis sitting on cotton wool, very beautifully laid out, and it was very small, very shriveled, about an inch and a half long. It was like a little baby’s finger.”
Here is the video showing the moment when the writer finally found himself face to face with the illustrious genitals:
One can understand Perrottet’s obvious excitation in the video: the author declared that, to him, Napoleon’s penis is the symbol “of everything that’s interesting about history. It sort of combines love and death and sex and tragedy and farce all in this one story“. And certainly all these elements do contribute to the fascination we feel for such a relic, which is at once comic, macabre, obscene and titillating. But there’s more.
The body of a man who – for better or for worse – so profoundly changed the history of the world, possesses an almost magical aura. Why then does the thought of it being disrespected and desecrated provoke an unmentionable, subtle satisfaction? Why did Lattimer fear that showing that small, withered and mummified penis would result in public derision?
Perhaps it’s because that little piece of meat looks like a masterpiece of irony, a perfect retaliation.
As comedian George Carlin put it,
men are terrified that their pricks are inadequate and so they have to compete with one another to feel better about themselves and since war is the ultimate competition, basically, men are killing each other in order to improve their self-esteem. You don’t have to be a historian or a political scientist to see the Bigger Dick foreign policy theory at work.
George Carlin, Jammin’ In New York (1992)
The controversial POTUS tweet (01/03/2018) on who might have the “bigger button”.
On the other hand, this relic also reminds us that Napoleon was mortal, after all, and brings his figure back to the concreteness of a corpse on the autopsy table. The mummified penis takes the place of that hominem te memento (“Remember that you are only a man”) that was repeated in the ear of Roman generals returning from a victory so they wouldn’t get a big head, or the sic transit that the protodeacon pronounced at the passage in San Pietro of the newly elected Pope (“thus passes the glory of the world”).
That flap of shrunken and withered skin is at once a symbol of vanitas, and a mockery of the typical machismo so often exhibited by leaders and rulers. It reminds us that “the Emperor has no clothes”.
Worse: he has no clothes, no life, and no manhood.
Part of the informations in this article come from Bess Lovejoy’s wonderful book Rest In Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses (2014).
One chapter of my book Paris Mirabilia is devoted to the Museum of History of Medicine. Tony Perrottet’s Napoleon’s Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzippedis essentially a collection of spicy anecdotes about famous historical figures. Among these, one in particular is relevant. During the WWII, Stalin asked Winston Churchill to help out with the Russian army’s “serious condom shortage”. The British Prime Minister had a special batch of extra-large condoms prepared, then sent them to Russia with the label “Made in Britain – Medium“. This glaring example of foreign policy would have delighted George Carlin.
In the fifth episode of the Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: the incredible case of Mary Toft, one of the biggest scandals in early medical history; an antique and macabre vase; the most astounding statue ever made. [Be sure to turn on English captions.]
The ladies and gentlemen you see above are practicing the sexual roleplay called pony play, in which one of the two participants takes on the role of the horse and the other of the jockey. This is a quirky niche within the wider field of dom/sub relationships, yet according to the alternative sexuality expert Ayzad
aficionados can reach impressive levels of specialization: there are those who prefer working on posture and those who organize real races on the track, some live it as a sexual variant while others tend to focus on the psychological experience. Ponygirls often report loving this game because it allows them to regress to a primordial perception of the world, in which every feeling is experienced with greater intensity: many describe reverting to their usual “human condition” as harsh and unpleasant. Although there are no precise figures, it is believed that pony play is actively practiced by no more than 2,000 people worldwide, yet this fantasy is appreciated by a far greater number of sympathizers.
But few people know that this erotic mis-en-scene has an illustrious forerunner: the first unwilling ponyboy in history was none other than the greatest philosopher of ancient times1, Aristotle!
(Well, not really. But what is reality, dear Aristotle?)
At the beginning of the 1200s, in fact, a curious legend began to circulate: the story featured Aristotle secretly falling in love with Phyllis, wife of Alexander the Macedonian (who was a pupil of the great philosopher) .
Phyllis, a beautiful and shrewd woman, decided to exploit Aristotle’s infatuation to teach a lesson to her husband, who was neglecting her by spending whole days with his mentor. So she told Aristotle that she would grant him her favors if he agreed to let her ride on his back. Blinded by passion, the philosopher accepted and Phyllis arranged for Alexander the Great to witness, unseen, this comic and humiliating scene.
The story, mentioned for the first time in a sermon by Jacques de Vitry, became immediately widespread in popular iconography, so much so that it was represented in etchings, sculptures, furnishing objects, etc. To understand its fortune we must focus for a moment on its two main protagonists.
First of all, Aristotle: why is he the victim of the satire? Why targeting a philosopher, and not for instance a king or a Pope?
The joke worked on different levels: the most educated could read it as a roast of the Aristotelian doctrine of enkráteia, i.e. temperance, or knowing how to judge the pros and cons of pleasures, knowing how to hold back and dominate, the ability to maintain full control over oneself and one’s own ethical values.
But even the less educated understood that this story was meant to poke fun at the hypocrisy of all philosophers — always preaching about morality, quibbling about virtue, advocating detachment from pleasures and instincts. In short, the story mocked those who love to put theirselves on a pedestal and teach about right and wrong.
On the other hand, there was Phyllis. What was her function within the story?
At first glance the anecdote may seem a classic medieval exemplum designed to warn against the dangerous, treacherous nature of women. A cautionary tale showing how manipulative a woman could be, clever enough to subdue and seduce even the most excellent minds. But perhaps things are not that simple, as we will see.
And finally there’s the act of riding, which implies a further ambiguity of a sexual nature: did this particular type of humiliation hide an erotic allusion? Was it a domination fantasy, or did it instead symbolize a gallant disposition to serve and submit to the beloved maiden fair?
To better understand the context of the story of Phyllis and Aristotle, we must inscribe it in the broader medieval topos of the “Power of Women” (Weibermacht in German).
For example, a very similar anecdote saw Virgil in love with a woman, sometimes called Lucretia, who one night gave him a rendez-vous and lowered a wicker basket from a window so he coulf be lifted up to her room; but she then hoisted the basket just halfway up the wall, leaving Virgil trapped and exposed to public mockery the following morning.
Judith beheading Holofernes, Jael driving the nail through Sisara’s temple, Salome with the head of the Baptist or Delilah defeating Samson are all instances of very popular female figures who are victorious over their male counterparts, endlessly represented in medieval iconography and literature. Another example of the Power of Women trope are funny scenes of wives bossing their husbands around — a recurring theme called the “battle of the trousers”.
These women, whether lascivious or perfidious, are depicted as having a dangerous power over men, yet at the same time they exercise a strong erotic fascination.
The most amusing scenes — such as Aristotle turned into a horse or Virgil in the basket — were designed to arouse laughter in both men and women, and were probably also staged by comic actors: in fact the role reversal (the “Woman on Top”) has a carnivalesque flavor. In presenting a paradoxical situation, maybe these stories had the ultimate effect of reinforcing the hierarchical structure in a society dominated by males.
And yet Susan L. Smith, a major expert on the issue, is convinced that their message was not so clearcut:
the Woman on Top is best understood not as a straightforward manifestation of medieval antifeminism but as a site of contest through which conflicting ideas about gender roles could be expressed.
The fact that the story of Phyllis and Aristotle lent itself to a more complex reading is also confirmed by Amelia Soth:
It was an era in which the belief that women were inherently inferior collided with the reality of female rulers, such as Queen Elizabeth, Mary Tudor, Mary, Queen of Scots, Queen Catherine of Portugal, and the archduchesses of the Netherlands, dominating the European scene. […] Yet the image remains ambiguous. Its popularity cannot be explained simply by misogyny and distrust of female power, because in its inclusion on love-tokens and in bawdy songs there is an element of delight in the unexpected reversal, the transformation of sage into beast of burden.
Perhaps even in the Middle Ages, and at the beginning of the modern period, the dynamics between genres were not so monolithic. The story of Phyllis and Aristotle had such a huge success precisely because it was susceptible to diametrically opposed interpretations: from time to time it could be used to warn against lust or, on the contrary, as a spicy and erotic anecdote (so much so that the couple was often represented in the nude).
For all these reasons, the topos never really disappeared but was subjected to many variations in the following centuries, of which historian Darin Hayton reports some tasty examples.
In 1810 the parlor games manual Le Petit Savant de Société described the “Cheval d’Aristote”, a vaguely cuckold penalty: the gentleman who had to endure it was obliged to get down on all fours and carry a lady on his back, as she received a kiss from all the other men in a circle.
The odd “Aristotle ride” also makes its appearance in advertising posters for hypnotists, a perfect example of the extravagances hypnotized spectators were allegedly forced to perform. (Speaking of the inversion of society’s rules, those two men on the left poster, who are compelled to kiss each other, are worth noting.)
In 1882 another great philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, brought to the stage his own version of Phyllis and Aristotle, himself taking on the role of the horse. In the photographs, he and his friend Paul Rée are at the mercy of the whip held by Lou von Salomé (the woman Nietzsche was madly in love with).
And finally let’s go back to the present day, and to those pony guys we saw at the beginning.
Today the “perversion of Aristotle”, far from being a warning about the loss of control, has come to mean the exact opposite: it has become a way to allow free rein (pun intended) to erotc imagination.
Ponies on the Delta, a ponly play festival, is held every year in Louisiana where a few hundred enthusiasts get together to engage in trot races, obstacle races and similar activities before a panel of experts. There are online stores that specialize in selling hooves and horse suits, dozens of dedicated social media accounts, and even an underground magazine called Equus Eroticus.
Who knows what the austere Stagirite would have thought, had he known that his name was going to be associated with such follies.
In a certain sense, the figure of Aristotle was really “perverted”: the philosopher had to submit not to the imaginary woman named Phyllis, but to the apocryphal legend of which he became the unwilling protagonist.
In the fourth episode of the Bizzarro Bazar Web Series we talk about the most incredible automatons in history, about the buttocks of a girl named Fanny, and about a rather unique parasite. [Be sure to turn on English captions.]
In the 3rd episode of the Bizzarro Bazar Web Series we talk about some scientists who tried to hybridize monkeys with humans, about an incredible raincoat made of intestines, and about the Holy Foreskin of Jesus Christ.
[Be sure to turn on English subtitles.]
To boost-start this new trip around the sun, I’d like to reveal the secret project I have been absorbed in for the last few months… the Bizzarro Bazar Web Series!
Produced in collaboration with Theatrum Mundi (Luca Cableri’s wunderkammer in Arezzo) and Onda Videoproduzioni, and directed by Francesco Erba, the series will take you on a journey through strange scientific experiments, eccentric characters, stories on the edge of impossible, human marvels — in short, everything what you might expect from Bizzarro Bazar.
Working on this project has been a new experience for me, certainly exciting and — I won’t deny it — rather demanding. But it seems to me that the finished product is quite good, and I am very curious to know your reactions, and to see what effect it will have on an audience that is less accustomed to strange topics than the readers of this blog.
In case you’re wandering: all episodes will be captioned in English. I’ll post them on here too, but if you want to make sure you don’t miss an episode you can follow my Facebook page and especially subscribe to my YouTube channel, which would make me really happy (numbers count).
And above all, if you happen to like the videos, please consider sharing them and spreading the word!
So, along with my best wishes for the new year, here’s a sneak peak of the opening credits for the weirdest web series of 2019 — coming soon, very soon.