Two écorchés: a brief consideration

This image is perhaps my favorite anatomical plate ever, from Valverde‘s Historia de la composicion del cuerpo humano, 1556. From a philological point of view it is one of those images that demonstrate how sacred iconography influenced anatomical illustration (the reference here is San Bartolomeo), but my love for this figure is motivated by another aspect.
Not only is it a refined, metaphysical, surreal, grotesque and disturbing plate, but above all it is philosophically programmatic. The man is holding the dagger in his hand, so he just skinned himself: this is an autopsy not only in the etymological sense of seeing for oneself, looking with one’s own eyes, but above all autopsy as seeing oneself.

The famous warning of the temple of Delphi, “Know Thyself”, involves an act of cruelty: every introspection implies stripping away from appearances (the superficial skin) and making a scorched earth of one’s own certainties. To look “inside” in a honest way you have to flay yourself, a process that is anything but pleasant.
The mosaic of San Gregorio in Rome, in the second image, bears the inscription gnōthi sautón, know thyself: and it is no coincidence that it represents another écorché ante litteram, this time used as a memento mori.

Knowing oneself means considering one’s own mortality, but each of us has to decide: is accepting impermanence the end of any quest, or just the beginning?

Totentanz

Today I’d like to introduce you to one truly extraordinary project, in which I am honored to have participated. This is Totentanz, created by engraver and paper maker Andrea De Simeis.

One of the depictions of death that, from the Middle Ages to the seventeenth century, enjoyed greater fortune is the so-called Triumph of Death.
I talked about it on YouTube in my video Dancing with death: the Black Queen who, armed with a scythe, crushes everyone under the wheels of her chariot – peasants, popes, rulers – was not just a pictorial representation, but a concrete part of the festivities of Carnival. In fact, the Triumph also paraded among the carnival floats, surrounded by people masked as skeletons who mocked the spectators by dancing and singing poems centered on memento mori.

This is the tradition that Andrea De Simeis drew on to invent his modern Triumph of Death, an actual musical chariot that will parade across Italy and, virus permitting, across Europe, bringing joy and poetry but at the same time reminding us of our finiteness.

Totentanz (German for “danse macabre”) is a large wooden music box on wheels; at the turn of the crank, the machine plays a dies irae and  three cylinders start turning, thus rotating eighteen original illustrations.

The images in this carousel are inspired by the most famous European macabre dances: from the Holy Innocents’ Cemetery in Paris to Guy Marchant‘s woodcuts; from Holbein’s superb engravings to the magnificent silhouettes by Melchior Grossek; up to the ironic Mexican skeletons by José Guadalupe Posada, the inventor of the iconic Calavera Catrina.

The music box, at the end of its delicate motif, draws a booklet for its operator: an illustrated plaquette with a short dialogue, a maxim, an aphorism, a poem.

Each precious booklet is produced in only eleven copies; the illustrations and texts are printed on hand-laid paper in pure cotton cellulose, hemp and spontaneous fig from the Mediterranean vegetation.

The Italian authors who accepted the invitation to write these short texts are many and prestigious; you can discover some of them on the Facebook page of the project.

Among these, I too tried my hand at a poem to accompany the illustration entitled “The Hanged Man”. It is my small tribute to François Villon and his Ballade des pendus.

Clicca per ingrandire

The proceeds from these publications will fund the Totentanz music box’s trip from city to city, accompanied at each stage by performances by a musician or actor who will interpret the theme of the memento mori. Totentanz‘s initiatives are not for profit, but only serve to finance this tour.
If the initiative fascinates you, you can support it in many ways.
In the promotional video below you can see the fantastic machine in action:

Totentanz – Paramusica del Chiarivari: official website, Facebook page.

Il boia gentile

Sorry, this post is only available in Italian.

È finalmente disponibile in preordine un libretto che, credo, farà la gioia di più di un lettore: si tratta di Memorie di un boia che amava i fiori, edito da Bakemono Lab, scritto da Nicola Lucchi, illustrato da Stefano Bessoni e corredato da un mio saggio sulla decapitazione.

La storia è quella di Charles-Henri Sanson, boia parigino che durante la rivoluzione francese eseguì circa 3000 esecuzioni tramite ghigliottina. Il racconto della vita di Sanson, che Nicola Lucchi ha voluto rivisitare con un esercizio di equilibrismo tra vicende sanguinose e toni delicati, ci svela un retroscena insospettato, e cioè che quest’uomo pur essendo uno dei boia più “prolifici” della storia rimase sempre combattuto riguardo alla pena di morte. Animo colto e gentile, suonatore di violino con l’hobby delle erbe medicinali, Sanson era noto per la caritatevole empatia che mostrava verso le sue vittime, a cui offriva spesso conforto prima dell’esecuzione. La sua figura contribuì a umanizzare il mestiere del carnefice anche agli occhi del pubblico.

Il volume è illustrato da Stefano Bessoni, che chi legge questo blog conosce ormai benissimo: i suoi disegni macabri e poetici sono il perfetto complemento per la storia stralunata del boia con la passione per i fiori.

L’ultima ventina di pagine è occupata da un mio saggio sulla decapitazione attraverso la storia, e su come l’introduzione della ghigliottina non solo cambiò il modo di guardare alle esecuzioni ma diede anche inizio a una querelle filosofica sulla metafisica dell’anima.

Fino al 31 ottobre 2020, chi ordinerà il libro a questo link avrà diritto a uno sconto sul prezzo di copertina e riceverà la sua copia con disegno di Stefano Bessoni.

 

BB Contest Awards 3

The third Bizzarro Bazar Contest has ended, and once again the contributions have been many, original and completely extravagant!

Without further ado, let’s scroll through the special mentions right up to the winning works, which I really struggled to select given the overall quality of the works. Let’s go!

Let’s start with La marci who, inspired by my article on the flea circus, built one for herself.

(La marci: Instagram)

Sambuco bursts in with a bit of healthy rock’n’roll, by customizing an electric guitar. Gabba gabba hey!

(Sambuco: Instagram)

Paraphrasing Forrest Gump we could say: “Bizzarro Bazar is like a can of tuna: you never know what you’re gonna get.”
Lapeggiocosa finds it out the hard way:

(Lapeggiocosa: Instagram)

Cristina Galleri decided to depict an idyllic family scene: there is the branded umbrella, there’s me taking a bath, there is a VERY undressed young lady sunbathing, and a little boy who scurries off his jar of formalin . (The only euphemistic detail is those unlikely body-builder shoulders, as the only gymnastics I ever do is move books from shelf to table and back.)

(Cristina Galleri: Instagram)

Gloria Ramones De Lazzari alias Glokyramone, taking inspiration from the macrocephalous skull of my logo, imagined what kind of child he would have become if he had survived and grown healthy: “his notable defect would not have stopped him in the least from becoming a classic late-1800s/early-1900s little brat.”

(Glokyramone: Instagram)

Flavio Masiero told me that he had little time to work on his submission, because he had to leave for a trip — and what do you do when you have little time?
Of course, you make a collage on an authentic coffin lid!

(Flavio Masieroo: Instagram)

Chiara Scarpitta, known online as Kiria Eternalove, has written a delightful story inspired by the Punished Suicide, accompanying it with a drawing.
I find it moving that after more than a century and a half the story of this anonymous girl still touches many people deeply; you can read The girl with the sand-colored hair (in Italian) by clicking here.

(Kiria Eternalove: Facebook, Instagram, YouTube)


Milla, tattoo artist, created this poetic psychedelic brain.
I don’t know if the subtext is “Yeah, man, Bizzarro Bazar is, far out, like, you know, a fantastic trip, bro“, or “Bizzarro Bazar can cause severe mycosis“. But in both cases, it’s stuff that needed to be said.

(Milla: Instagram)

The contribution of Greta Fantini, both sensual and a little gory, has appeared censored on social media. Here I can finally show it to you in all its explosive… mammary charge.

(Greta Fantini: Facebook, Instagram)

Andrè El Ragno Santapaola, wundermaker and winner of the last contest with his “Bizzarroscope”, made a short stop-motion animation: this is what happens in a wunderkammer when everyone is asleep!

(Elragno’s Weird Stuff World: Facebook, Instagram)

The gifted painter and illustrator Chiara Olmi Rol gives us two beautiful and melancholic Siamese twins:

(Chiara Olmi Rol: Facebook, Instagram)

Conjoined twins, this time thoracopagus, are also the protagonists of this beautiful floral artwork by Pamela Annunziata:

(Pamela Annunziata: Instagram)


Emanuela Sommi, with a fantastic and refined collage, invites us to take flight on a bizarre hot air balloon towards unexplored shores.
Even though, to be honest, I would be a little hesitant to get on board, given the gorgonic hair and that not-so-friendly hyena.

(Emanuela Sommii: Facebook)

Chiara Toniolo decreed that mine is “a mind that must be preserved“, and so she literally put it under glass. She even included in her beautiful painting my cat, Barnum — who, as usual, seems completely untroubled. Bloody ungrateful little rascal.

(Chiara Toniolo: Facebook, Instagram)

Here is a classy mini title sequence for the blog, by Contu!

(Contu: Instagram)

The illustrator Matteo Moscarelli portrays me as some kind of creepy Cryptkeeper, inside a studio-wunderkammer that is a delight for the eyes.

(Matteo Moscarelli: Facebook, Instagram)

WINNERS

3rd Prize

And we got to the winners!

The third prize goes to Gaberricci. At first glance his work, a reinterpretation of a famous Banksy stencil, may seem simpler than many others. But the idea behind it is very powerful, and I’d like to quote the words with which the author presented it to me:

I make no claim of having created anything particularly “wonderful”, and indeed my homage to such an iconic work might seem a bit cheesy. But I wanted to create something more “conceptual” which, moreover, signals a continuity that seems clear to me between you and Banksy: you both explore the territory of the uncanny, in order to suggest how much the imposition of a ” normality” is an overbearing and deeply reactionary act. If it’s quite simple to recognize this revolutionary nature in the work of the artist from Bristol, I believe that it goes more “unnoticed” in your extraordinary work of exploration and popularization, which goes well beyond the mere “Here are some extreme curiosities”. It is this aspect of what you do (and for which I thank you) that I have tried to highlight with this simple image: a guerrilla, as the writing says, conducted by throwing wonders in our face. Which is something we need.

This comparison with Banksy is way too generous, but the resistance against the flattening power of the Norm is a theme I care a lot about, and I am happy that someone emphasized it so explicitly.

(Gaberricci’s blog, in Italian, is Suprasaturalanx)

2nd Prize

For Umberto Eco, wunderkammern are essentially “visual lists”, encyclopedic inventories of wonder.
Elena Simoni (a.k.a. psychonoir) has also assembled in her work some sort of compendium of many of the topics I covered on this blog: martyrs, relics, Victorian hairworks, cannibal forks, tsantsas, taxidermies, monstrous dildos, and much more.
Just like a real cabinet of wonders, which is often pervaded by a certain horror vacui, her drawing is overflowing with detail, so much so that the gaze gets lost in it. Yet the graceful female figure and the delicate trait make the atmosphere welcoming: an invitation to always follow one’s curiosity, however eccentric, and to let oneself sink into wonder.

(Elena Simoni Psychonoir: Facebook, Instagram)

1stPrize

Diletta De Santis wrote to me:

Bizzarro Bazar has always been a source of great inspiration for me, so much so that just last year I founded my own company that has the ambition to become a Wunderkammer of sorts.
I was keen to make my tribute to your work, and I wondered what would happen if you, Ivan Cenzi, were one of the top pieces of a Wunderkammer.
So I combined my master’s degree in digital arts and my (former) job as a restorer to turn you into a wonderful reliquary, one I would definitely buy if only it existed!

The result of her effort — a mixture of painting and photographic processing — is nothing short of spectacular, thus earning the first prize: from now on, call me Saint Bizzarro!

(Diletta De Santis, Mundi Wunderkammer: Facebook, Instagram)

If you liked some work in particular, be sure to show your appreciation to the authors in the comment section.
In the coming weeks I will also post these beautiful works on social networks.
Thanks again to all the participants, you have brightened my days; I hope you enjoyed it too!

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!

Homo Algus

Strange primordial figures, half human and half vegetal, emerge from the mud of the swamp… They may appear disturbing at first, but in truth they do nothing but observe us, half hidden among the vegetation. Their motionless faces, tinged with sadness, seem to spy on our movements: we are the intruders, the real danger, the offspring who have disowned their origins, we are those who have violated, spoiled and worn out nature.
These hieratic creatures, on the other hand, live with the rhythm of the tides; the wind dries and cracks their muddy skin, but does not affect their calm balance — that serenity which only belongs to those who have accepted the fluid pulsations of time.

They are the work of the French sculptor and artist Sophie Prestigiacomo.
Living near the brackish marshes that make up the Réserve Naturelle des Marais de Séné, in Brittany, one of her passions has always been to go into the swamp, walking along creaking wooden bridges, watching the landscape change with the ebb and flow of the tides that cyclically submerge part of the land.

During one of these excursions, as Sophie recounts, a fateful encounter took place: her encounter with an alga.

Having noticed that the texture of this seaweed resembled that of human skin, and that if left to dry it assumed the consistency of fabric, Sophie realized the ductility that this material could have in the artistic field.

Apart from the metal armor that keeps the desired position, Sophie Prestigiacomo’s Homo algus are sculpted solely with mud and algae. A type of ephemeral art, which natural elements continuously affect and modify. The artist occasionally does some restoration work, when the sculptures are falling apart; but their ultimate fate is to wear out completely, sooner or later.

Initially there were only two Homo algus. Intrigued and reassured by the welcome given to these first two ambassadors, other beings of algae and mud have begun to emerge from the stagnant waters, perhaps convinced that there may still be a relationship tie with this awkward primate called Man.

Thanks to the interest of the curator of the Nature Reserve, and to a crowdfunding campaign, today the swamp feature about ten sculptures.

Sophie Prestigiacomo is still in love with the marsh, and the way it transforms. She often returns to visit her creatures, which change from morning to evening, depending on the rains, winds, humidity: as vulnerable and sensitive as the ecosystem they are part of.

They just wait for someone to walk along the path, between the tidal flats and the marshes, to whisper in tune with the breeze that comes from the immense ocean: remember, human, that this landscape is yours, as you belong to it.

(Thanks, Roger!)

Dancing With Death

During the great waves of plague in the Middle Ages, two allegorical motifs arose: the Triumph of Death and the Danse Macabre. What can they teach us today?

Here’s a video I made for the University of Padua, for the project Covid Catalog of Losses and Findings.[Remember to turn on English Subtitles.]

Visions of the Retrofuture

We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been
enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed.
A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes,
like serpents of explosive breath—a roaring car
that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful
than the Victory of Samothrace.
(Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, The Futurist Manifesto, 1909)

At the beginning of the 20th century, the world was rapidly changing.
In the cities, people began to go out at night thanks to the electricity that had started to illuminate the streets; film cameras had been recently invented; in 1901 thanks to his wireless telegraph Guglielmo Marconi launched the first transoceanic radio signal.

Above all, the transport sector was making great strides.
The number of cars increased every day, assembly lines speeded up production times more and more; Paris and Berlin were building underground metropolitan transportation systems, just like the one in London.
Not only that, railways began to be built, that were even suspended above the houses: in 1901, the Wuppertailer Schewebebahn was built in the German town of Wuppertal, a 13.3km-long double-track railway with 23 stops, still in operation today. A bold and innovative work, which as we will see had an immediate impact on the collective imagination.

Even the sky no longer seemed so impossible to conquer.
In 1900 Ferdinand Von Zeppelin had flown over Lake Constance with its new rigid airship which, unlike the hot air balloons, could be controlled and guided.
From overseas news were coming of some reckless engineers who were trying to launch themselves into the air on new types of aircraft equipped with wings and rudders.

All these innovations contributed to fueling utopian fantasies of a radiant and hyper-technological future that awaited humanity. What would the cities of tomorrow look like?

We can take a peek at this possible future, this dreamed future, thanks to the postcards that circulated at the beginning of the century. Stefano Emilio, reader of Bizzarro Bazar, has collected several examples: these are real photographs of various cities — from Genoa to San Francisco — reinvented in a futuristic key, with added balloons, airplanes, flying ships. As you can see, the railway suspended in the style of that of Wuppertal is a constant presence, since it evidently had left its mark on popular imagination as an emblem of urban transformation.

Szombathely

Miskolcz

Atlantic City

Boston

Genova

Leominster

Boston

Revere Beach

But were these visions really so naive and utopian? In reality, upon closer examination, many images also included several kinds of accidents: pedestrians getting run over, cars colliding.

These postcards therefore had a double purpose: on one hand they proposed the unprecedented awe of seeing a city crowded with sci-fi vehicles, on the other they had a satirical intent (note the ship below, which is covering a route from Genoa to Mars!). In short, most of these images seem to ask, ironically, “where will we end up with all these devilries?”

La linea Marte-Genova

A final curiosity concerns a real accident, which happened on the suspended Wuppertal railway.
On 21 July 1950, the director of the Circus Althoff had a 4-year-old female elephant travel on the Wuppertailer Schewebebahn as a publicity stunt. While the suspended train was passing over the river, the animal began to trumpet and run inside the wagon, causing panic among the passengers. Terrified, she broke through a window and fell into the waters of the Wupper River, after falling for some 12 meters. Fortunately the baby elephant was saved, and after the accident she was named Tuffi (from the Italian word for “diving”). The circus director and the officer who had allowed the ride were fined, but on the other hand Tuffi became a small celebrity: the facade of a house near the railway still features a painting of the elephant, and the tourist office sells an assortment of Tuffi-related souvenirs.
The inevitable postcard was produced, with a photomontage that reconstructed the accident.

The future illustrated by early-20th century postcards may make us smile today, but it remains a fundamental element of the sci-fi imagery which then permeated the rest of the century, from Metropolis (1927) to steampunk subculture and to retrofuturism.

Blimps still float in the skies in Blade Runner (1982).

(Thanks, Stefano Emilio!)

Death As A Friend

In 1851 the German artist Alfred Rethel (who three years before had already signed an overtly political Danse Macabre) produced the sketches for two twin engravings: Death as an Enemy and Death as a Friend.

If his Death as an Enemy (above), although elegant and refined, is not so original as it is inspired by a long tradition of “Triumphs of Death” and skeletal figures towering over piles of dead bodies, it is instead the specular Death as a Friend which always fascinated me.
I recently managed to get a reproduction of this etching, taken from a late 19th-century book, and I was finally able to scan it properly. Much of the charm of this lithograph, in fact, derives from the attention given to the smallest details, which need to be carefully examined and interpreted; for this reason, admiring it in high quality is fundamental. At the end of this article you will find the link to download it; but I’d like to show you first why I love this image so much.

The scene takes us to the topmost room inside the bell tower of a medieval cathedral.
The environment is modest, the only discreet frieze present above the window arch is certainly nothing compared to how the church should look from the outside: we can guess it from a glimpse at the gargoyle in the upper left corner, and from the carved finials of the spire we see from the window.


Between these four walls the old sexton and bell ringer spent his whole life; we can imagine the cold of harsh winters, when the wind whistled entering from the large window, causing the snow to swirl in the room. We can feel the fatigue of those wooden stairs that the man must have climbed up and down Lord knows how many times, in order to reach the top of the tower.
Now the guardian has come to the end of his days: his horn remains silent, hanging on the handrail.


The frail limbs of the old man (his right foot turned to the side, under the leg’s weight), his sunken figure in the armchair, his hands abandoned in his lap and weakly united in one last prayer — everything tells us that his life is coming to an end.

His was a humble but pious life. We can guess it from the remains of his last poor meal, a simple piece of bread and a glass that allude to the Eucharist. We also understand it from the crucifix, the only furnishing in addition to the table and chair, and from the open book of scriptures.
The bunch of keys hanging from his belt are another element bearing a double meaning: they identify his role as a sacristan, but also reference the other bunch of keys that await him, the ones Saint Peter will use to unlock the gates of Paradise.

The real vanishing point is the sun setting behind the horizon of a country landscape. It is the evening of the day, the evening of a life that has run its course just like the river we see in the distance, the emblem of panta rei. Yet on its banks we see well-cultivated and regular fields, a sign that the flowing of that water has borne fruit.
A little bird lands on the windowsill of the large window; is she a friend of the old man, with whom he shared a few crumbs of bread? Did the bird worry when she didn’t hear the bells ringing as usual? In any case, it is a moving detail, and an indication of life carrying on.

And finally let’s take a look at Death.
This is not the Black Lady (or the Grim Reaper) we find in most classic depictions, her figure could not be further from the one that brought scourge and devastation in the medieval Triumphs of Death. Of course she is a skeleton and can inspire fear, but the hood and saddlebag are those of a traveler. Death came a long way to visit the old man, so much so that she carries a scallop on his chest, the sea shell associated with Saint James, symbol of the Pilgrim; her bony feet have trampled the Earth far and wide, since time immemorial. And this constant wandering unites her, in spirit, with the old man — not surprisingly, the same shell is also pinned on the sexton’s hat, next to his staff and a bundle of herbs that he has collected.

This Death however, as indicated by the title, is “a friend”. When facing such a virtuous man, that same Death who knows how to be a ruthless and ferocious tyrant becomes a “sister” in the Franciscan sense. Her head lowered, her empty orbits turned to the ground, she seems almost intent on a secret meditation: from the beginning of time she has carried out her task with diligence, but here we see she is not evil.
And in fact, she makes a gesture of disarming gentleness: she rings the bells one last time, to announce vespers in the place of the dying man who is no longer able to do it.

It is time for the changing of the guard, the elderly man can now leave the post he has occupied for so long. With the quiet arrival of the evening, with the last tolling of those bells he has attended to throughout his life, a simple and devoted existence ends. Everything is peaceful, everything is done.

Few other images, I believe, are able to render so elegantly the Christian ideal (but, in general, the human ideal) of the “Good Death”.
Unfortunately, not everyone will be able to afford such an idyllic end; but if Death were really so kind, caring and compassionate, who wouldn’t want to have her as a friend?

To download my high-quality scan (60Mb) of Death as Friend, click here.

Wunderkammer Live!

A few years ago I organized the Accademia dell’Incanto, a series of meetings with anthropologists, artists, pathologists, filmmakers and scholars of oddities – which I hosted in the wunderkammer Mirabilia in Rome.

Now that we are enduring this period of isolation, the curator of Wunderkammer Zurich, Christian D. Link, has come up with something very similar: his project is called Wunderkammer Live!, and it consists in two days of live streaming in the company of eccentric and exceptional guests.

Chris D. Link (Photo by Raisa Durandi)

The first two dates are April 18th and 19th, for a total of twelve guests (six every day, live from 4pm to 10pm European time).
The lineup is truly remarkable: in addition to myself and my friend Luca Cableri, whom you should be familiar with if you’ve seen my web series, the program features forensic anthropologist Matteo Borrini, Dutch taxidermist Marjolein Kramer, collector Viktor Wynd (another old acquaintance for those who follow Bizzarro Bazar), the great Swiss artist Thomas Ott, mentalist Luke Jermay, and many others.

Live streaming will take place within the Wunderkammer Live! Facebook group, so make sure you sign up; during these two weeks preceding the event you will also have the opportunity to get to know the speakers better through dedicated posts.

In this peculiar time we’re living, it is more essential than ever to keep our sense of wonder alive; Chris’ initiative is intended to inspire, entertain, amaze and share the heterogeneous knowledge of some professionals of the enchantment. And ok, I’m also among the interviewees, but personally I can’t wait to hear what the other guests will tell us.
We look forward to seeing you for a couple of out-of-the-ordinary evenings: we all need it!