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!

Bizzarro Bazar Contest 3

Today this blog crosses the milestone of 11 years of activity, and in order to celebrate, the Bizzarro Bazar Contest is back!
Are you ready to enter the challenge  and give free rein to your most eccentric and macabre fantasies?

The rules are the same as last time:

  1. Create an original work explicitly referring to Bizzarro Bazar;
  2. Post your work on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter using the hashtag #bizzarrobazarcontest — alternatively, you can send it by email;
  3. Deadline is September 10, 2020;
  4. Remember that the idea is to allow free rein to your weird creativity, to celebrate and above all to have fun among friends!

By “explicitly referring” to the blog I mean that Bizzarro Bazar (the website, logo, one of my books, even my beard if it comes to that) must be depicted/mentioned/included in the entry. Keep in mind that, while promoting your creations, I also want to promote this blog. Win-win.
My advise is to skim through the beautiful contributions from the first and second editions of the contest.

And now let’s take a look at the prizes:

1st prize: T-shirt of your choice + Mug of your choice + Mousepad of your choice from the official store
2nd prize: T-shirt of your choice + Mug of your choice from the official store
3rd prize: T-shirt of your choice from the official store

The best unclassified entries will be published on Bizzarro Bazar with links to the authors websites/profiles, and shared on social networks.

Have fun! Ready, set… Go!

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!)

Lashes & Cuddles: A Peculiar Evening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The Poet’s Brain

What does poet Walt Whitman have to do with an autopsy manual?

Here’s a post about a curious book, and a mystery that lasted more than a century.

THE BOOK

A few days ago I added to my library a book I had been looking for for some time: a 1903 first edition of Post Mortem Pathology by Dr. Henry Ware Cattell.

It is a well-known, thoroughly-illustrated autoptic manual detailing the methods used to carry out post-mortem examinations at the end of the 19th century.

On the title page one can find a tasty quote in Italian from the Divine Comedy:

These verses come from Chant XXVIII of Dante’s Inferno, describing the punishment inflicted on Muhammad (translation: “Rent from the chin to where one breaketh wind. / Between his legs were hanging down his entrails; / His heart was visible, and the dismal sack / That maketh excrement of what is eaten“), and they are quoted here as a clear allusion to autopsies, which offer a similar macabre spectacle.

Post Mortem Pathology is an interesting book for at least two historical reasons.

First, it contains some “advice” on how to obtain consent from the dead person’s relatives in order to perform an autopsy; but it would be more correct to say that Cattell gives indications on how to deceive the deceased’s family members, obtaining consent for example from someone “connected with the household, though not necessarily from the nearest relative“, taking care not to specify which anatomical parts are to be preserved, etc. Dr. Cattell also complains about the absence of a law allowing autopsies on all those who die in hospitals, without distinction.

As James R. Wright writes, these are “unique and important insights into local autopsy consent “practice” in Philadelphia in the 1880s which allowed […] pathologists to get away with performing autopsies at Blockley Hospital without legal consent. […] these questionable and highly paternalistic approaches to autopsy consent, although morally incomprehensible now, permitted outstanding clinicopathological correlations which made Blockley an excellent teaching environment.” (1)James R. Wright Jr., Henry Ware Cattell and Walt Whitman’s Brain, in Clinical Anatomy, 31:988–996 (2018)

Second, Cattell’s book describes the procedure, originally developed by the gynecologist Howard Kelly, to perform the removal of the internal organs per vaginam, per rectum, and per perineum. (2)Julius P. Bonello, George E. Tsourdinis, Howard Kelly’s avant-garde autopsy method, Hektoen International Journal of Medical Humanities (2020) .

The method consisted of incising the vagina in women, or the anus in men; by inserting the arm up to his shoulder inside the body, the anatomist proceeded to pierce the diaphragm and remove the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys and the rest of the organs through that single cut.

Why all this effort? One might ask.

The answer is unfortunately linked to what we said above: it was a trick to perform an autopsy in the absence of legal consent; the organs were removed without disturbing the external appearance of the body, so that the relatives would not notice anything unusual.

But the real curiosity linked to this book is the fact that its author was implicated in a very peculiar incident.

 

THE MYSTERY OF THE MISSING BRAIN

In 1892 one of the most famous and celebrated American poets, Walt Whitman, died.

By the end of the 19th century, phrenology had already been discredited, yet it was still believed that the brains of “geniuses” could show some difference compared to those of normal people; this was the reason why in Philadelphia, as in other cities, there existed a Brain Club, a nickname for the Anthropometric Society, a — more or less secret — lodge  of doctors and pathologists who took care of preserving the brains of illustrious men. (Clearly just male brains, not women’s, but that’s OK.)

Famous pathologist William Osler, a member of the “Brain Club”, performing a brain autopsy ath the Bockley morgue in Philadelphia.

A reunion of anatomists in Philadelphia.

Henry Cattell was part of it, and at the time of Whitman’s death he held the position of prosector, that is, the one who did the “dirty work” by opening and dissecting the body.
He was therefore the one who dealt with the poet’s corpse during the autopsy that took place at Whitman’s house in Mickle Street on March 27, 1892, under the supervision of prof. Francis Dercum.

The brain of the immortal cantor of the “electric body” was removed and entrusted to Cattell to join those of the other important intellectuals preserved in liquid by the Anthropometric Society.

At this point, though, something went horribly wrong, and the precious organ disappeared into thin air.

This enigmatic incident changed Cattell’s life forever, making him doubt his talents as a pathologist so much that he decided to increasingly rarefy his commitments in the autopsy room, and to devote himself to scientific publications. Post Mortem Pathology represents, in fact, the first release of his publishing house.

But what had really happened?

The first testimony about it was published in 1907 in a paper by Dr. Edward Spitzka, which was apparently based on Cattell’s confidences to some members of the Society. Spitzka wrote that “the brain of Walt Whitman, together with the jar in which it had been placed, was said to have been dropped on the floor by a careless assistant. Unfortunately, not even the pieces were saved.(3)Edward Spitzka, A study of the brains of six eminent scientists and scholars belonging to the American Anthropometric Society, together with a description of the skull of Professor E. D. Cope, in Trans Am Philos Soc 21:175–308 (1907)

The news caused quite a sensation, so much so that it evidently entered the common imagination: this episode was likely the inspiration for the Frankenstein (1931) scene in which the Doctor’s assistant, who breaks into the university in search of a brain for the Creature, drops the jar with the “normal” brain and steals the “abnormal” one.

But, as James R. Wright writes, “what could not be understood is why the fragments had been discarded as there still would have been some value in examining these. Less clear was whether it was an assistant or Cattell who destroyed Walt Whitman’s brain.

Be that as it may, in the absence of further clues, for more than a century this remained the official version. Then, in 2012, Cattell’s secret diary appeared on an eBay auction.

Henry W. Cattell during WWI.

The diary does not directly mention the autopsy, but from when it was performed in March 1892 until October of the same year Cattell’s notes have an optimistic tone — it had been a positive and finacially rewarding period of work. Then, starting from October 14, the entries in the diary become much more dark and worried: Cattell seems to suddenly doubt his own abilities, even coming as far as to have suicidal thoughts.

Here is the chronology of his entries, outlining a very different story from that of the assistant dropping the preparation on the ground:

13 ottobre 1892 — “Prepare specimens for path. soc. [Pathological Society of Philadelphia].”

14 ottobre 1892 — “I am a fool.”

16 ottobre 1892 — “I wish that I knew of the best way of keeping an account of my work. It often seems to me that I am so forgetful and yet I remember certain things which others might not be able to mind.”

13 aprile 1893 — “I am a peculiar man in many ways. Why did I get rid of Edwards—in all probability because I was jealous of him.”

15 maggio 1893 — “I am a fool, a damnable fool, with no conscious memory, or fitness for any learned position. I left Walt Whitman’s brain spoil by not having the jar properly covered. Discovered it in the morning. This ruins me with the Anthropometric Society, and Allen, perhaps with Pepper, Kerlin &c. How I ever got in such financial straights [I] do [not] know. When I broke with Edwards I should have told him to go to thunder. Borrowed over $500 more from P & M [Pa and Ma]. They are too good & kind. I would have killed my self before this a dozen times over if it had not been for them.”

18 settembre 1893 — “I should be happy and I suppose in my way I am. Except for my parents I could go to Africa or die and I w[ou]ld be in no way missed.”

30 settembe 1893 — “I look back on my confidence and self possession of last year as somehow wonderful. I now know that I do not know enough pathology for the position which I occupy.”

So here’s the truth: Cattell had badly sealed the jar containing Whitman’s brain; the liquid had probably evaporated, and the organ had dried out, decomposed or been attacked and damaged by some mold. Cattell blamed his assistant Edwards, who had probably started to blackmail him, threatening to tell the truth; this extortion, in addition to Cattell’s financial problems, had forced him to borrow money from his parents, throwing Cattell into a state of depression and mistrust in his abilities.

By publishing Cattell’s diary excerpts for the first time in 2014, Sheldon Lee Gosline wrote:

“Then, too, why put this incriminating evidence down on paper at all, risking public exposure? Clearly Cattell wanted to leave a confession that one day would become public—which now, 120 years later, has finally happened.” (4)Gosline, Sheldon Lee. “I am a fool”: Dr. Henry Cattell’s Private Confession about What Happened to Whitman’s Brain. Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 31 (2014), 158-162.

EPILOGO

June 9, 1924.

Cattell was now 61 years old, and 32 years had passed since Whitman’s unfortunate autopsy.

At the time, as Gosline points out, Cattell “not only had his university staff income, but also charged assistants to privately assist him, provided post-mortems and expert testimony for a fee, ran a medical journal for a profit, and was a successful and lauded author. All of this was possible because he had evaded disgrace from the Whitman incident.

His luck came from having kept silent regarding his incompetence in preserving the brain of a poet, and it is with a poem that, in a very proper way, the pathologist ends his diaries. These verses sound like a sort of balance sheet of his whole life. And the image that emerges is that of a guilt-ridden soul, convinced that his entire honored career has been earned through fraud; a man divided between a pleasant economic security, which he cannot give up, and the need to confess his imposture.

 

Perhaps the only one who could have smiled at this whole matter would have been Walt Whitman himself, aware that the individual body (container of “multitudes“) is nothing more than a mere transitory expression of the universal: “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.(5)Walt Whitman, ‘Song of Myself’, Leaves of Grass (1855)

Note

1 James R. Wright Jr., Henry Ware Cattell and Walt Whitman’s Brain, in Clinical Anatomy, 31:988–996 (2018)
2 Julius P. Bonello, George E. Tsourdinis, Howard Kelly’s avant-garde autopsy method, Hektoen International Journal of Medical Humanities (2020)
3 Edward Spitzka, A study of the brains of six eminent scientists and scholars belonging to the American Anthropometric Society, together with a description of the skull of Professor E. D. Cope, in Trans Am Philos Soc 21:175–308 (1907)
4 Gosline, Sheldon Lee. “I am a fool”: Dr. Henry Cattell’s Private Confession about What Happened to Whitman’s Brain. Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 31 (2014), 158-162.
5 Walt Whitman, ‘Song of Myself’, Leaves of Grass (1855)

A Sign From Above

1954. That morning in late November the air was particularly clear and cold in the little Alabama town of Oak Grove, actually just a handful of houses scattered among the trees on the outskirts of Sylacauga.
It looked like any other morning. Yet an extraterrestrial object, not of this world, was about to violently break into that small country reality.

Ann E. Hodges, 34, was not feeling well that day. She was home alone because her husband Eugene, a utility worker, had left early. So, around lunchtime, Mrs. Hodges decided to take a little siesta on her sofa. As she slipped under the quilt, she certainly did not imagine that nap would change her life forever.
Shortly afterwards a frightful noise shook the house and a sharp, stabbing pain at her side suddenly woke her.

Around the same time, Dr. Moody Jacobs left his office to grab a bite. As he walked out, he glanced at the clear sky and realized that it was cut in two by a streak of black smoke. Was that an aircraft in trouble? As he narrowed his eyes to get a better look, the silence was pierced by a huge blast and the dark trail opened in a corolla of white smoke. If it really was an airplane, it had just exploded in flight.
Returning to his office around one o’clock, Dr. Jacobs received a distress call: apparently, Mrs. Hodges had been “hit by a comet”.
As he was getting into his car, the doctor must have thought this was some kind of joke: he knew well that the Hodges’ white house stood right in front of the Comet Drive-In Theater, whose neon sign showed a shooting star.

When the doctor arrived on the spot, Mrs. Hodges was in shock. As she was sleeping on the living room sofa, a rock the size of a coconut had broken through the ceiling and, after hitting the radio and smashing it, had bounced off hitting her in the side and on her left hand.

The news spread immediately, so much so that when Mr. Eugene Hodges returned from work he had to make his way through the crowd of gawkers assembled in front of his house.
Geologist George Swindel, who was conducting field work nearby, put forward the hypothesis that the rock was a meteorite; but as this was the Cold War era, it was better to be sure, so the police brought the stone to the Air Force Intelligence authorities. As soon as they confirmed that this was a chondrite, an unprecedented media frenzy hit the small community of Oak Grove: Ann was the first known victim of such an extraordinary event in the modern era. And consequently, Dr. Jacobs became the only physician to have treated a meteorite trauma.

Ann was sure that the stone which fell down from outer space was a divine sign: “I think God intended it for me. After all, it hit me!”
Her husband Eugene was also convinced that they could make a fortune out of that heavenly gift. Furious because the police had taken the rock for analysis, he hired a lawyer to get it back. In the meantime, he even refused a generous offer from the Smithsonian Institute, determined to make the most of their unexpected luck: he could feel it deep down, their lives were about to change.
And indeed they changed — unfortunately not for the better.

Newspapers and televisions stormed the couple, and Ann even appeared on Gary Moore’s TV quiz show I’ve Got A Secret, in which celebrities had to guess the guest’s “secret”.
Soon after, however, the couple found themselves embroiled in a lawsuit: in fact Ann and Eugene were renters and their landlady, Birdie Guy, claimed possession of the space stone that had fallen on her property. Mrs. Guy won in numerous appeals, and in the end the Hodges paid her $500 for the possession of the meteorite.
But the litigation had been so long that by the time the rock finally returned to their hands, the interest of the media had long since vanished. The Hodges found themselves poorer and more sour than before.
They divorced in 1964.

The meteorite ended up being used as a door stop, until Ann Hodges decided to get rid of it once and for all by donating it to the Alabama Museum of Natural History, in Tuscaloosa, where it is still on display.
According to her husband and those who knew her, the woman never recovered emotionally from this whole ordeal; that stone fallen from the sky left far deeper scars on her than the physical ones. She died of kidney failure when she was 52-years-old, in 1972.

Perhaps that piece of rock — which had formed together with the solar system, and traveled through space for millions and millions of years before ending its trajectory in Mrs. Hodges’ living room — was truly a sign of heaven after all. A metaphor of the Unexpected breaking through our well-known everyday routine, upsetting all balances, reminding us of our own uncertainty. A symbol of how much our tiny individual stories, and our destinies, are intimately connected to the vast, boundless cosmos out there.

Or, perhaps, the divine sign meant something else.
Yes, because this is not the end of the story.

While it was passing through the atmosphere, the meteoroid had split in two.
As we have seen, the first fragment had impacted on Mrs Hodges, ruining her life. But the second fragment was found a few miles away by an African American farmer named Julius Kempis McKinney as he was driving a mule-drawn wagon with a load of firewood. The mules stopped in front of a strange stone on the edge of the road, McKinney moved the rock and continued home; but that evening, after hearing what had happened to the Hodges, he went back and collected the stone.

Unlike the Hodges, McKinney immediately sold it to the Smithsonian Institute; and although he never revealed the amount he earned, it was enough to buy his family a car and a new house.

That stone from deep space had brought luck only to a humble and poor family of black laborers, in 1954 Alabama; the same year in which the Supreme Court had declared, with a historic ruling, that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.

(Thanks, Cristina!)

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!)