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!

Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 21

“My vanitas painting has more skulls than yours!” (Aelbert Jansz. van der Schoor, high def)

  • Mariano Tomatis tells the amazing story of Doña Pedegache, a Portuguese 18-century mentalist woman; and, as usual, his writing proves to be surprising and touching.
  • Since we’re in Portugal, we might as well take a tour of the Capela dos Ossos with this nice post by Cat Irving.
  • August 21, 1945: physicist Harry Daghlian was stacking a nice pile of tungsten carbide bricks around a plutonium sphere when a brick slipped from his hand and brought the core into supercritical condition. Daghlian died 25 days later.
    May 21, 1946: physicist Louis Slotin was working on a plutonium sphere — but not just any sphere: the very same that had killed Daghlian. To separate the two halves, he had the bad idea of using a screwdriver. The screwdriver slipped, the top fell off. Slotin died 9 days later.
    From that moment on, the poor plutonium sphere no longer enjoyed a good reputation, and it also earned an unflattering nickname.

  • But nuclear history is full of incredible incidents. There is one aspect regarding the Manhattan Project, which led to the creation of atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that is not often talked about: human experiments on unsuspecting subjects. Take for instance Albert Stevens, who survived the highest dose of radiation ever accumulated in a human’s body when, without his knowledge or consent, scientists injected him with 131 kBq of plutonium.
  • Everybody speaks ill of poor HAL, but perhaps it is time to reevaluate the guy. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the infamous supercomputer kills some astronauts, and gets eventually killed itself. Now that artificial intelligence is a reality, we’d better start asking ourselves some questions about the ethics of murder by machines, but also of the murder of machines.
  • A brief history of children sent through the mail.

  • The always excellent Lindsey Fitzharris (author of The Butchering Art) delights us with some anecdotes about beauty hacks from the past. For example, a method that was used to make 18th-century wigs look attractive by spreading them with lard. Attractive, that is, for fleas and lice.
  • A geologist discovered an ancient cave, but he immediately noticed that it was not a natural cavity. Someone or something must have bored it. And what were those huge scratch marks, produced by gigantic claws, on the walls…? When reality surpasses Lovecraft: here are the underground tunnels excavated by the mysterious prehistoric megafauna.
  • Take a look at the picture below. It’s entitled Franz de Paula Graf von Hartig and his wife Eleanore ad Caritas Romana, and it’s a 1797 painting by Barbara Krafft. When you are done laughing and/or feeling uncomfortable, check out the meaning of that “Caritas Romana in the title, and enjoy other examples of young girls breastfeeding old geezers.

  • Paranormeow activity.
  • The next time you need to remodel your bathroom, I suggest you take inspiration from these 18th-century toilets for bibliophiles.
  • There are those who spend hours scrolling through the photos of influencers. I would spend days watching the Russian poet, body-builder and futurist Vladimir Goldschmidt hypnotizing a chicken.

  • Idea for an action film / comedy drama.
    Title: White Trip.
    Concept: think The Revenant meets Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
    Plot: Finnish soldier Aimo Koivunen, during the Second World War, is ski patrolling a mountain area when his unit is suddenly caught under Soviet fire. Aimo begins to escape from the ambush, but after skiing for a long time he feels exhausted; the enemies are still on his tail, and they are getting closer and closer. So he decides to take one of the methamphetamine tablets that the commander has entrusted him with; but, partly because of the big gloves he’s wearing, and partly because he has to keep skiing to save himself, he can’t take the tablet out of the package. To hell with it, he thinks, and swallows the whole jar of pills. Suddenly he starts skiing again with renewed, exceptional energy, but after a while everything becomes blurred, and Aimo passes out: he wakes up alone, lost in the snow and separated from his patrol, without any food and in full overdose delusion. He keeps on skiing frantically, and avoids some more Soviet soldiers. At one point he manages to catch a bird which, in his hallucination, appears to him like a wonderful crispy chicken skewer; he swallows it raw, feathers and everything. Then he runs into a land mine that blows him up in the air. Although badly injured, he continues to ski. After covering 250 miles and spending a week in the open, bleeding and now reduced to skin and bones, he finally manages to return to the Finnish front. When they take him to the infirmary, his heart rate is still twice the average. As soon as he sees the doctor Aimo says: “Hello dear, you don’t happen to have some chamomile tea? I feel a bit nervous and your antennae look ridiculous.”
    Based on a true story. (Thanks, David!)
  • Philosophical thought of the day. If the eyes are the mirror of the soul, then the soul is a kind of black chasm, a bottomless crater:

  • Welcome to the scariest church in the world. (Thanks, Serena!)
  • Simon Sellars (author of Applied Ballardianism), tells us about the dazzling beauty of Google Earth — which doesn’t so much reside in panoramas or virtual tours, but rather in 3D glitches, rendering errors, misaligned joints that reveal the collage behind 360 views, thus creating altered and distorted perceptions. The map may not be the territory, but it is a territory of the mind.
  • I like to imagine that when the human species has long since become extinct, alien archaeologists coming to Earth to study mankind will find this video as the only remaining clue:

Mors in fabula

Sorry, this entry is only available in Italian.

La Carne e il Sogno: la conferenza

Sorry, this entry is only available in Italian.

Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 20

Monday morning according to Gustave Doré.

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.
  • The Halloween special which caused the death of a young boy, pushing the BBC to pretend it never even aired: a nice video tells its story. (Thanks Johnny!)
  • 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.

  • 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.
  • I sometimes think back to a little book I had as a kid, Idées Noires by Franquin. Here is an example of the Belgian cartoonist‘s very dark humor.

“The law is clear: everyone who kills another person will have his head cut off.”

  • 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.
  • Greta Thunberg becomes a pretext to clarify what autism and Asperger’s syndrome really are (article in Italian).
  • In England, back in the days, whenever someone died in the family the first thing to do was tell the bees.
  • To conclude, I leave you with a picture of a beautiful Egyptian mummified phallus (circa 664-332 a.C.). See you next time!

The funeral portraits of Filippo Severati

It is said that there is nothing more flattering for artists than to see their works stolen from the museum in which they are exhibited. If someone is willing to risk jail for a painting, it is ultimately a tribute — however questionable — to the painter’s skills, and an index of high market value.

Yet there is an artist who, if he were alive today, would certainly not appreciate the fact that thieves have stolen almost a hundred his portraits. Because in his case the works in question weren’t displayed in the halls of a museum, but among the rows of gravestones of a cemetery, and there they should have remained so that everyone could see them.

The monumental cemetery of Campo Verano in Rome, with its 83 hectares of surface, strikes the viewer for the sumptuousness of some chapels, and appears as a rather surreal place. Pharaonic mausoleums, exquisitely crafted statues, buildings as big as houses. This is not a simple cemetery, it resembles a metaphysical city; it just shows to what extent men are willing to go in order to keep the memory of their loved ones alive (as well as the hope, or illusion, that death might not be definitive).

Scrolling through the gravestones, along with some weather-worn photos, some particularly refined portraits catch the eye.
These are the peculiar lava paintings by Filippo Severati.

Born in Rome on April 4, 1819, Filippo followed in the footsteps of his father who was a painter, and from the early age of 6 he began to dedicate himself to miniatures, making it his actual job from 11 years onwards. Meanwhile, having enrolled at the Accademia di S. Luca, he won numerous awards and earned several merit mentions; under the aegis of Tommaso Minardi he produced engravings and drawings, and over the years he specialized in portraiture.

It was around 1850 that Severati began using enamel on a lava or porcelain base. This technique was already known for its property of making the colors almost completely unalterable and for the durability of completed works, due to the numerous cooking phases.

In 1859 he patented his fire painting on enamelled lava procedure, which was renewed and improved over previous techniques (you can find a detailed description of the process in this article in Italian); in 1873 he won the medal of progress at the Vienna Exhibition.

1863 was the the turning point, as Severati painted a self-portrait for his own family tomb: he can still be admired posing, palette in hand, while next to him stands a portrait of his parents placed on an easel — a true picture inside the picture.

After that first tomb painting, funeral portraits soon became his only occupation. Thanks to the refinement of his technique, the clipei (effigies of the deceased) made by Severati were able to last a long time keeping intact the brilliance and liveliness of the backgrounds.

This was the real novelty introduced by Severati: he was able to “reproduce in the open air the typology and formal characteristics of the nineteenth-century portrait intended for the interiors of bourgeois houses(1) M. Cardinals – M.B. De Ruggieri – C. Falcucci, “Among the most useful and wonderful discoveries of this century…”. The paintings of F. S. al Verano, in Percorsi della memoria. Il Quadriportico del Verano, a cura di L. Cardilli – N. Cardano, Roma 1998, pp. 165-170. Quoted in Treccani. . Instead of hanging it at home, the family could place a portrait of the deceased directly on the tombstone, even if in small format. And some of these clipei are still striking for their vitality and the touching rendering of the features of the deceased, immortalized by the lava painting process.

Severati died in 1892. Forgotten for almost a century, it was rediscovered by photographer Claudio Pisani, who in 1983 published in the Italian magazine Frigidaire an article of praise accompanied by several photos he had taken at Campo Verano.

Today Filippo Severati remains a relatively obscure figure, but among the experts his talent as a painter is well recognized; so much so that the thieves mentioned at the beginning vandalized many graves by removing about ninety of his portraits from the tombstones of the Roman cemetery.

(I would like to thank Nicola for scanning the magazine. Some photos in the article are mine, others were found online.)

 

Note   [ + ]

1. M. Cardinals – M.B. De Ruggieri – C. Falcucci, “Among the most useful and wonderful discoveries of this century…”. The paintings of F. S. al Verano, in Percorsi della memoria. Il Quadriportico del Verano, a cura di L. Cardilli – N. Cardano, Roma 1998, pp. 165-170. Quoted in Treccani.