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Tag Archives: anatomica
Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 17
We’re back with our bizarre culture column, bringing you some of the finest, weirdest reads and a new reserve of macabre anecdotes to break the ice at parties.
But first, a couple of quick updates.
First of all, in case you missed it, here’s an article published by the weekly magazine Venerdì di Repubblica dedicated to the Bizzarro Bazar web series, which will debut on my YouTube channel on January 27 (you did subscribe, right?). You can click on the image below to open the PDF with the complete article (in Italian).
Secondly, on Saturday 19 I’m invited to speak in Albano Laziale by the theater company Tempo di Mezzo: here I will present my talk Un terribile incanto, this time embellished by Max Vellucci’s mentalism experiments. It will be a beautiful evening dedicated to the marvelous, to the macabre and above all to the art of “changing perspective”. Places are limited.
And here we go with our links and curiosities.
- In the 80s some lumberjacks were cutting a log when they found something extraordinary: a perfectly mummified hound inside the trunk. The dog must have slipped into the tree through a hole in the roots, perhaps in pursuit of a squirrel, and had climbed higher and higher until it got stuck. The tree, a chestnut oak, preserved it thanks to the presence of tannins in the trunk. Today the aptly-nicknamed Stuckie is the most famous guest at Southern Forest World in Waycross, Georgia. (Thanks, Matthew!)
- Let’s remain in Georgia, where evidently there’s no shortage of surprises. While breaking down a wall in a house which served as a dentist’s studio at the beginning of the 20th century, workers uncovered thousands of teeth hidden inside the wall. But the really extraordinary thing is that this is has already happened on three other similar occasions. So much so that people are starting to wonder if stuffing the walls with teeth might have been a common practice among dentists. (Thanks, Riccardo!)
- The state of Washington, on the other hand, might be the first to legalize human composting.
- Artist Tim Klein has realized that puzzles are often cut using the same pattern, so the pieces are interchangeable. This allows him to hack the original images, creating hybrids that would have been the joy of surrealist artists like Max Ernst or Réné Magritte. (via Pietro Minto)
- The sweet world of our animal friends, ep. 547: for some time now praying mantises have been attacking hummingbirds, and other species of birds, to eat their brains.
- According to a NASA study, there was a time when the earth was covered with plants that, instead of being green, were purple.
- This year, August 9 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most infamous murders in history: the Bel Air massacre perpetrated by the Manson Family. So brace yourselves for a flood of morbidity disguised as commemorations.
In addition to the upcoming Tarantino flick, which is due in July, there are at least two other films in preparation about the murders. Meanwhile, in Beverly Hills, Sharon Tate’s clothes, accessories and personal effects have already been auctioned. The death of a beautiful woman, who according to Poe was “the most poetical topic in the world“, in the case of Sharon Tate has become a commodity of glam voyeurism and extreme fetishization. The photos of the crime scene have been all over the world, the tomb in which she is buried (embracing the child she never got to know) is among the most visited, and her figure is forever inseparable from that of the perfect female victim: young, with bright prospects, but above all famous, beautiful, and pregnant.
- And now for a hypnotic dance in the absence of gravity:
- Meanwhile, Hollywood’s most celebrated actors are secretly 3D-scanning their faces, so they can continue to perform (and earn millions) even after death.
- In the forests of Kentucky, a hunter shot a two-headed deer. Only thing is, the second head belonged to another deer. So there are two options: either the poor animal had been going around with this rotting thing stuck between its horns, for who knows how long, without managing to get rid of it; or — and that’s what I like to think — this was the worst badass gangster deer in history. (Thanks, Aimée!)
- Dr. Frank Netter’s illustrations, commissioned by pharmaceutical companies for their fliers and brochures, are among the most bizarre and arresting medical images ever created.
- This lady offers a perfect option for your funeral.
- Who was the first to invent movable-type printing? Gutenberg, right? Wrong.
- Sally Hewett is a British artist who creates wonderful embroided portraits of imperfect bodies. Her anatomical skills focus on bodies that bear surgical scars or show asymmetries, modifications, scarifications, mastectomies or simple signs of age.
Her palpable love for this flesh, which carries the signs of life and time, combined with the elegance of the medium she uses, make these artworks touching and beautiful. Here’s Sally’s official website, Instagram profile, and a nice interview in which she explains why she includes in all her works one thread that belonged to her grandmother. (Thanks, Silvia!)
- Prof Andrew Chestnut, a Santa Muerte expert, has written together with prof. Kate Kinsbury a very interesting article on the recent surge in exorcisms across the world, which is likely caused by the growth of Pentecostalism in Christianity.
- The feud between the two greatest 17th-century Dutch anatomists, Govert Bidloo and Frederik Ruysch, was essentially a battle over which kind of aesthetics this new science should have.
- The feud between the two greatest seventeenth-century Dutch anatomists, Govert Bidloo and Frederik Ruysch, was essentially a battle on the right aesthetics to be given to this new science.
- In closing, here is the danse macabre according to British animator Ciriak:
Unearthing Gorini, The Petrifier
This post originally appeared on The Order of the Good Death
Many years ago, as I had just begun to explore the history of medicine and anatomical preparations, I became utterly fascinated with the so-called “petrifiers”: 19th and early 20th century anatomists who carried out obscure chemical procedures in order to give their specimens an almost stone-like, everlasting solidity.
Their purpose was to solve two problems at once: the constant shortage of corpses to dissect, and the issue of hygiene problems (yes, back in the time dissection was a messy deal).
Each petrifier perfected his own secret formula to achieve virtually incorruptible anatomical preparations: the art of petrifaction became an exquisitely Italian specialty, a branch of anatomy that flourished due to a series of cultural, scientific and political factors.
When I first encountered the figure of Paolo Gorini (1813-1881), I made the mistake of assuming his work was very similar to that of his fellow petrifiers.
But as soon as I stepped foot inside the wonderful Gorini Collection in Lodi, near Milan, I was surprised at how few scientifically-oriented preparations it contained: most specimens were actually whole, undissected human heads, feet, hands, infants, etc. It struck me that these were not meant as medical studies: they were attempts at preserving the body forever. Was Gorini looking for a way to have the deceased transformed into a genuine statue? Why?
I needed to know more.
A biographical research is a mighty strange experience: digging into the past in search of someone’s secret is always an enterprise doomed to failure. No matter how much you read about a person’s life, their deepest desires and dreams remain forever inaccessible.
And yet, the more I examined books, papers, documents about Paolo Gorini, the more I felt I could somehow relate to this man’s quest.
Yes, he was an eccentric genius. Yes, he lived alone in his ghoulish laboratory, surrounded by “the bodies of men and beasts, human limbs and organs, heads with their hair preserved […], items made from animal substances for use as chess or draughts pieces; petrified livers and brain tissue, hardened skin and hides, nerve tissue from oxen, etc.”. And yes, he somehow enjoyed incarnating the mad scientist character, especially among his bohemian friends – writers and intellectuals who venerated him. But there was more.
It was necessary to strip away the legend from the man. So, as one of Gorini’s greatest passions was geology, I approached him as if he was a planet: progressing deeper and deeper, through the different layers of crust that make up his stratified enigma.
The outer layer was the one produced by mythmaking folklore, nourished by whispered tales, by fleeting glimpses of horrific visions and by popular rumors. “The Magician”, they called him. The man who could turn bodies into stone, who could create mountains from molten lava (as he actually did in his “experimental geology” public demonstrations).
The layer immediately beneath that unveiled the image of an “anomalous” scientist who was, however, well rooted in the Zeitgeist of his times, its spirit and its disputes, with all the vices and virtues derived therefrom.
The most intimate layer – the man himself – will perhaps always be a matter of speculation. And yet certain anecdotes are so colorful that they allowed me to get a glimpse of his fears and hopes.
Still, I didn’t know why I felt so strangely close to Gorini.
His preparations sure look grotesque and macabre from our point of view. He had access to unclaimed bodies at the morgue, and could experiment on an inconceivable number of corpses (“For most of my life I have substituted – without much discomfort – the company of the dead for the company of the living…”), and many of the faces that we can see in the Museum are those of peasants and poor people. This is the reason why so many visitors might find the Collection in Lodi quite unsettling, as opposed to a more “classic” anatomical display.
And yet, here is what looks like a macroscopic incongruity: near the end of his life, Gorini patented the first really efficient crematory. His model was so good it was implemented all over the world, from London to India. One could wonder why this man, who had devoted his entire life to making corpses eternal, suddenly sought to destroy them through fire.
Evidently, Gorini wasn’t fighting death; his crusade was against putrefaction.
When Paolo was only 12 years old, he saw his own father die in a horrific carriage accident. He later wrote: “That day was the black point of my life that marked the separation between light and darkness, the end of all joy, the beginning of an unending procession of disasters. From that day onwards I felt myself to be a stranger in this world…”
The thought of his beloved father’s body, rotting inside the grave, probably haunted him ever since. “To realize what happens to the corpse once it has been closed inside its underground prison is a truly horrific thing. If we were somehow able to look down and see inside it, any other way of treating the dead would be judged as less cruel, and the practice of burial would be irreversibly condemned”.
That’s when it hit me.
This was exactly what made his work so relevant: all Gorini was really trying to do was elaborate a new way of dealing with the “scandal” of dead bodies.
He was tirelessly seeking a more suitable relationship with the remains of missing loved ones. For a time, he truly believed petrifaction could be the answer. Who would ever resort to a portrait – he thought – when a loved one could be directly immortalized for all eternity?
Gorini even suggested that his petrified heads be used to adorn the gravestones of Lodi’s cemetery – an unfortunate but candid proposal, made with the most genuine conviction and a personal sense of pietas. (Needless to say this idea was not received with much enthusiasm).
Gorini was surely eccentric and weird but, far from being a madman, he was also cherished by his fellow citizens in Lodi, on the account of his incredible kindness and generosity. He was a well-loved teacher and a passionate patriot, always worried that his inventions might be useful to the community.
Therefore, as soon as he realized that petrifaction might well have its advantages in the scientific field, but it was neither a practical nor a welcome way of dealing with the deceased, he turned to cremation.
Redefining the way we as a society interact with the departed, bringing attention to the way we treat bodies, focusing on new technologies in the death field – all these modern concerns were already at the core of his research.
He was a man of his time, but also far ahead of it. Gorini the scientist and engineer, devoted to the destiny of the dead, would paradoxically encounter more fertile conditions today than in the 20th century. It’s not hard to imagine him enthusiastically experimenting with alkaline hydrolysis or other futuristic techniques of treating human remains. And even if some of his solutions, such as his petrifaction procedures, are now inevitably dated and detached from contemporary attitudes, they do seem to have been the beginning of a still pertinent urge and of a research that continues today.
The Petrifier is the fifth volume of the Bizzarro Bazar Collection. Text (both in Italian and English) by Ivan Cenzi, photographs by Carlo Vannini.
The Punished Suicide
This article originally appeared on Death & The Maiden, a website exploring the relationship between women and death.
Padova, Italy. 1863.
One ash-grey morning, a young girl jumped into the muddy waters of the river which ran just behind the city hospital. We do not know her name, only that she worked as a seamstress, that she was 18 years old, and that her act of suicide was in all probability provoked by “amorous delusion”.
A sad yet rather unremarkable event, one that history could have well forgotten – hadn’t it happened, so to speak, in the right place and time.
The city of Padova was home to one of the oldest Universities in history, and it was also recognized as the cradle of anatomy. Among others, the great Vesalius, Morgagni and Fallopius had taught medicine there; in 1595 Girolamo Fabrici d’Acquapendente had the first stable anatomical theater built inside the University’s main building, Palazzo del Bo.
In 1863, the chair of Anatomical Pathology at the University was occupied by Lodovico Brunetti (1813-1899) who, like many anatomists of his time, had come up with his own process for preserving anatomical specimens: tannization. His method consisted in drying the specimens and injecting them with tannic acid; it was a long and difficult procedure (and as such it would not go on to have much fortune) but nonetheless gave astounding results in terms of quality. I have had the opportunity of feeling the consistency of some of his preparations, and still today they maintain the natural dimensions, elasticity and softness of the original tissues.
But back to our story.
When Brunetti heard about the young girl’s suicide, he asked her body be brought to him, so he could carry out his experiments.
First he made a plaster cast of the her face and upper bust. Then he peeled away all of the skin from her head and neck, being especially careful as to preserve the girl’s beautiful golden hair. He then proceeded to treat the skin, scouring it with sulfuric ether and fixing it with his own tannic acid formula. Once the skin was saved from putrefaction, he laid it out over the plaster cast reproducing the girl’s features, then added glass eyes and plaster ears to his creation.
But something was wrong.
The anatomist noticed that in several places the skin was lacerated. Those were the gashes left by the hooks men had used to drag the body out of the water, unto the banks of the river.
Brunetti, who in all evidence must have been a perfectionist, came up with a clever idea to disguise those marks.
He placed some wooden branches beside her chest, then entwined them with tannised snakes, carefully mounting the reptiles as if they were devouring the girl’s face. He poured some red candle wax to serve as blood spurts, and there it was: a perfect allegory of the punishment reserved in Hell to those who committed the mortal sin of suicide.
He called his piece The Punished Suicide.
Now, if this was all, Brunetti would look like some kind of psychopath, and his work would just be unacceptable and horrifying, from any kind of ethical perspective.
But the story doesn’t end here.
After completing this masterpiece, the first thing Brunetti did was showing it to the girl’s parents.
And this is where things take a really weird turn.
Because the dead girl’s parents, instead of being dismayed and horrified, actually praised him for the precision shown in reproducing their daughter’s features.
“So perfectly did I preserve her physiognomy – Brunetti proudly noted, – that those who saw her did easily recognize her”.
But wait, there’s more.
Four years later, the Universal Exposition was opening in Paris, and Brunetti asked the University to grant him funds to take the Punished Suicide to France. You would expect some kind of embarrassment on the part of the university, instead they happily financed his trip to Paris.
At the Exposition, thousands of spectators swarmed in from all around the world to see the latest innovations in technology and science, and saw the Punished Suicide. What would you think happened to Brunetti then? Was he hit by scandal, was his work despised and criticized?
Not at all. He won the Grand Prix in the Arts and Professions.
If you feel kind of dizzy by now, well, you probably should.
Looking at this puzzling story, we are left with only two options: either everybody in the whole world, including Brunetti, was blatantly insane; or there must exist some kind of variance in perception between our views on mortality and those held by people at the time.
It always strikes me how one does not need to go very far back in time to feel this kind of vertigo: all this happened less than 150 years ago, yet we cannot even begin to understand what our great-great-grandfathers were thinking.
Of course, anthropologists tell us that the cultural removal of death and the medicalization of dead bodies are relatively recent processes, which started around the turn of the last century. But it’s not until we are faced with a difficult “object” like this, that we truly grasp the abysmal distance separating us from our ancestors, the intensity of this shift in sensibility.
The Punished Suicide is, in this regard, a complex and wonderful reminder of how society’s boundaries and taboos may vary over a short period of time.
A perfect example of intersection between art (whether or not it encounters our modern taste), anatomy (it was meant to illustrate a preserving method) and the sacred (as an allegory of the Afterlife), it is one of the most challenging displays still visible in the ‘Morgagni’ Museum of Anatomical Pathology in Padova.
This nameless young girl’s face, forever fixed in tormented agony inside her glass case, cannot help but elicit a strong emotional response. It presents us with many essential questions on our past, on our own relationship with death, on how we intend to treat our dead in the future, on the ethics of displaying human remains in Museums, and so on.
On the account of all these rich and fruitful dilemmas, I like to think her death was at least not entirely in vain.
The “Morgagni” Museum of Pathology in Padova is the focus of the latest entry in the Bizzarro Bazar Collection, His Anatomical Majesty. Photography by Carlo Vannini. The story of the ‘Punished Suicide’ was unearthed by F. Zampieri, A. Zanatta and M. Rippa Bonati on Physis, . , 2012
“We Were Amazed”: Anatomy Comes to Japan
Imagine living in a country whose government decided to block any scientific discovery coming from abroad.
Even worse: imagine living in this hypothetical country, at the exact time when the most radical revolution of human knowledge in history is taking place in the world, a major transformation bound to change the way Man looks at the Universe — of which you ignore every detail, since they are prohibited by law.
This was probably a scientist’s nightmare in Japan during sakoku, the protectionist policy adopted by the Tokugawa shogunate. Enacted around 1640, officially to stop the advance of Christianity after the Shimabara rebellion, this line of severe restrictions was actually devised to control commerce: in particular, what the Shogun did was to deny access and trade above all to the Portuguese and the Spanish, who were considered dangerous because of their colonial and missionary ambitions in the New World.
China, Korea and the Netherlands were granted the opportunity of buying and selling. Being the only Europeans who could carry on trading, in the enclave of Dejima, the Dutch established with the Land of the Rising Sun an important economic and cultural relationship which lasted for more than two centuries, until the sakoku policy was terminated officially in 1866.
As we were saying, Japan ran the risk of being cut off from scientific progress, which had begun just a century before, in that fateful year of our Lord 1543 when Copernicus published De revolutionibus orbium coelestium and Vesalius his Fabrica — two books which in one fell swoop dismantled everything that was believed was above and inside Man.
If the nightmare we previously mentioned never became true, it was because of the Rangaku movement, a group of researchers who set out to carefully study everything the Dutch brought to Japan.
Although for the first eighty years of “isolation” the majority of Western books were banned, ideas kept on circulating and little by little this quarantine of culture loosened up: the Japanese were allowed to translate some fundamental works on optics, chemistry, geography, mechanical and medical sciences.
In the first half of the XIX Century there were several Rangaku schools, translations of Western books were quite widespread and the interaction between japanese and foreign scientists was much more common.
Medical studies were recognized since the beginning as a field in which cultural exchange was essential.
In Japan at that time, physicians followed the Chinese tradition, based on religious/spiritual views of the body, where precise anatomical knowledge was not seen as necessary. Human dissections were prohibited, according to the principles of Confucianism, and those doctors who really wanted to know the inside of the human body had to infer any information by dissecting otters, dogs and monkeys.
The very first autopsy, on an executed criminal, took place in 1754 and was conducted by Yamawaki Tōyō. The dissection itself was carried out by an assistant, because it was still a taboo for higher classes to touch human remains.
All of a sudden, it appeared that the inside of a human body was much more similar to the Dutch illustrations than to those of traditional Chinese medicine books. The account of the autopsy signed by Yamawaki caused the uproar of the scientific community; in it, he strongly supported an empyrical approach, an unconceivable position at the time:
Theories may be overturned, but how can real material things deceive? When theories are esteemed over reality, even a man of great widsom cannot fail to err. When material things are investigated and theories are based on that, even a man of common intelligence can perform well.
(cit. in Bob T. Wakabayashi, Modern Japanese Thought)
In 1758, one of Yamawaki’s students, Kōan Kuriyama, conducted the second dissection in Japanese history, and was also the first physician to cut up a human body with his own hands, without resorting to an assistant.
Sugita Genpaku was another doctor who was shocked to find out that the illustrations of Western “barbarians” were more accurate than the usual Chinese diagrams. In his memoir Rangaku Koto Hajime (“Beginning of Dutch Studies”, 1869), he recounts the time when, together with other physicians, he dissected the body of a woman called Aochababa, hanged in Kyoto in the Kozukappara district (now Aeakawa) in 1771. Before starting the autopsy, they examined a Western anatomy book, the Ontleedkundige Tafelen by Johann Adam Kulmus:
Ryotaku opened the book and explained according to what he had learned in Nagasaki the various organs such as the lung called “long” in Dutch, the heart called “hart,” the stomach called “maag” and the spleen called “milt.” They looked so different from the pictures in the Chinese anatomical books that many of us felt rather dubious of their truths before we should actually observe the real organs. […] Comparing the things we saw with the pictures in the Dutch book Ryotaku and I had with us, we were amazed at their perfect agreement. There was no such divisions either as the six lobes and two auricles of the lungs or the three left lobes and two right lobes of the liver mentioned in old medical books. Also, the positions and the forms of the intestines and the stomach were very different from the traditional descriptions. [Even the bones] were nothing like those described in the old books, but were exactly as represented in the Dutch book. We were completely amazed.
(1771: Green Tea Hag, the beginning of Dutch Learning)
Genpaku spent the following three years translating the Dutch textbook. The task had to be carried out without any knowledge of the language, nor dictionaries available for consultation, by means of constant interpretations, deductions, and discussions with other doctors who had been in contact with the Europeans in Nagasaki. Genpaku’s colossal effort, similar to an actual decryption, was eventually published in 1774.
The Kaitai Shinsho was the first Japanese illustrated book of modern anatomy.
As Chinese traditional medicine gradually began to pale in comparison to the effectiveness and precision of knowledge coming from Europe, in Japan the practice of dissection became widespread.
This was the context for the real masterpiece of the time, the Kaibo Zonshishu (1819), a scroll containing 83 anatomical illustrations created by Doctor Yasukazu Minagaki.
Minagaki, born in Kyoto in 1785, attended public school and became a physician at a clinic in his hometown; but he also was a better and more gifted artist than his predecessors, so he decided to paint in a meticulous way the results of some forty autopsies he had witnessed. The scroll was part of a correspondence between Minagaki and the Dutch physician Philipp Franz von Siebold, who praised the admirable drawings of his Japanese collegue.
There are several online articles on the Kaibo Zonshishu, and almost all of them claim Minagaki was obviously distant from the classicist European iconography of the écorchés — those flayed models showing their guts while standing in plastic, Greek poses. The cadavers dissected here, on the other hand, are depicted with stark realism, blood trickling down their mouth, their faces distorted in a grimace of agony.
But this idea is not entirely correct.
Already since the XVI Century, in Europe, the écorchés paired with illustrations of an often troubling realism: one just needs to look at the dissection of the head by Johann Dryander, pre-Vesalian even, but very similar to the one by Minagaki, or at the cruel anatomical plates by Dutch artist Bidloo in his Anatomia Hvmani Corporis (1685), or again at the corpses of pregnant women by William Hunter, which caused some controversy in 1774.
These Western predecessors inspired Minagaki, like they had already influenced the Kaitai Shinsho. One clear example:
Anyway, aside from aesthethic considerations, the Kaibo Zonshishu was probably the most accurate and vividly realistic autoptic compendium ever painted in the Edo period (so much so that it was declared a national treasure in 2003).
When finally the borders were open, thanks to the translation work and cultural diffusion operated by the Rangaku community, Japan was able to quickly keep pace with the rest of the world.
And to become, in less than a hundred years, one of the leading countries in cutting-edge technology.
You can take a look at the Kaitai Shinsho here, and read the incredible story of its translation here. On this page you can find several other beautiful pics on the evolution of anatomical illustration in Japan.
A precariously balanced wonder
An interview with a pathologist
Some days ago I was contacted by a pathologist who recently discovered Bizzarro Bazar, and said she was particularly impressed by the website’s “lack of morbidity”. I could not help but seize the opportunity of chatting a bit about her wonderful profession: here is what she told me about the different aspects of this not so well-known job, which is all about studying deformity, dissimilarities and death to understand what keeps us alive.
What led you to become a pathologist?
When I was sixteen I decided I had to understand disease and death.
The pathologist’s work is very articulated and varied, and mostly executed on living persons… or at least on surgically removed parts of living persons; but undoubtedly one of the routine activities is the autoptical diagnosis, and this is exactly one of the reasons behind my choice, I won’t deny it. Becoming a pathologist was the best way to draw on my passion for anatomy, turning it into a profession, and what’s more I would also have the opportunity of exorcising my fear of death by getting accustomed to it… getting my hands dirty and looking at it up close. I wanted to understand and investigate how people die. Maybe part of it had to do with my visual inclination, and pathology is a morphologic discipline which requires sharp visual memory and attention to macro and microscopic details, to differences in shape, to nuances in color.
Is there some kind of common prejudice against your job? How did you explain your “vocation” to friends and relatives?
Actually the general public is not precisely aware of what the pathologist does, hence a certain morbid curiosity on the part of non-experts. Most of them think of Kay Scarpetta, from Cornwell’s novels, or CSI. When people asked me about my job, at the beginning of my career, I gave detailed explanations of all the non-macabre aspects of my work, namely the importance of an hystological diagnosis in oncology, in order to plan the correct treatment. I did this to avoid a certain kind of curiosity, but I was met with puzzled looks. To cut it short, I would then admit: “I also perform autopsies”, and eventually there was a spark of interest in their eyes. I never felt misjudged, but I sometimes noticed some sort of uneasiness. And maybe some slightly sexist prejudice (the unasked question being how can a normal girl be into this kind of things); those female sexy pathologists you find in novels and TV series were not fashionable yet, and at the postgraduate school I was the only woman. As for friends and relatives… well, my parents never got in the way with my choices… I believe they still haven’t exactly figured out exactly what I do, and if I try to tell them they ask me to spare them the details! As for my teenage kids, who are intrigued by my job, I try to draw their attention to the scientific aspects. In the medical environment there is still this idea of a pathologist being some kind of nerd genius, or a person who is totally hopeless in human interactions, and therefore seeks shelter in a specialization that is not directly centered on doctor-patient relationship. Which is not necessarily true anymore, by the way, as often pathologists perform biopsies, and therefore interact with the patient.
Are autopsies still important today?
Let’s clarify: in Italy, the anatomopatologo is not a forensic pathologist, but is closer to what would be known in America as a surgical pathologist. The autopsy the pathologist performs is on people who died in a hospital (and not on the deceased who fell from a height or committed suicide, for instance) to answer to a very specific clinical inquiry, while the legal autopsy is carried out by the legal MD on behalf of the DA’s office.
One would think that, with the development of imaging radiology tests, the autoptic exam would have by now become outdated. In some facilities they perform the so-called “virtual autopsy” through CAT scans. In reality, in those cases in which a diagnosis could not be determined during the deceased’s life, an autopsy is still the only exam capable of clarifying the final cause of death. Besides direct examination, it allows to take organ samples to be studied under the microscope with conventional coloring or to be submitted for more refined tests, such as molecular biology. In the forensic field, direct examination of the body allows us to gather information on the chronology, environment and modality of death, all details no other exam could provide.
There is of course a great difference (both on a methodological and emotional level) between macroscopic and microscopic post mortem analysis. In your experience, for scientific purposes, is one of the two phases more relevant than the other or are they both equally essential?
They are both essential, and tightly connected to each other: one cannot do without the other. The visual investigation guides the following optic microscopy exam, because the pathologist samples a specific area of tissue, and not another, to be submitted to the lab on the grounds of his visual perception of dissimilarity.
In my experience of autopsy rooms, albeit limited, I have noticed some defense strategies being used to cope with the most tragic aspects of medical investigation. On one hand a certain humor, though never disrespectful; and, on the other, little precautions aimed at preserving the dignity of the body (but which may also have the function of pushing away the idea that an autopsy is an act of violation). How did you get used to the roughest side of your job?
I witnessed my first autopsy during my first year in medical school, and I still remember every detail of it even today, 30 years later. I nearly fainted. However, once I got over the first impact, I learned to focus on single anatomical details, as if I were a surgeon in the operating room, proceeding with great caution, avoiding useless cuts, always keeping in mind that I’m not working on a corpse, but a person. With his own history, his loved ones, presumably with somebody outside that room who is now crying for the loss. One thing I always do, after the external exam and before I begin to cut, is cover up the face of the dead person. Perhaps with the illogical intent of preventing him to see what I’m about to do… and maybe to avoid the unpleasant feeling of being watched.
Are there subjects that are more difficult to work with, on the emotional level?
Are autopsies, as a general rule, open to a non-academic public in Italy? Would you recommend witnessing an autopsy?
No, all forensic autopsies are not accessible, for obvious reasons, since there is often a trial underway; neither are the diagnostic post mortem examinations in hospitals. I wouldn’t know whether to recommend seeing an autopsy to anyone. But I do believe every biology or medicine student should be allowed in.
One of the aspects that always fascinated me about pathological anatomy museums is the vitality of disease, the exuberant creativity with which forms can change: the pathological body is fluid, free, forgetful of those boundaries we think are fixed and insurmountable. You just need to glance at some bone tumors, which look like strange mineral sponges, to see the disease as a terrible blooming force.
Maybe this feeling of wonder before a Nature both so beautiful and deadly, was the one animating the first anatomists: a sort of secret respect for the disease they were fighting off, not much different from the hunter’s reverential fear as he studies his prey before the massacre. Have you ever experienced this sense of the sublime? Does the apparent paradox of the passionate anatomist (how can one be a disease enthusiast?) have something to do with this admiration?
To get passionate, in our case, means to feel inclined towards a certain field, a certain way of doing research, a certain method and approach which links a morphologic phenomenon to a functional phenomenon. We do not love disease, we love a discipline which teaches us to see (Domine, ut videam) in order to understand the disease. And, hopefully, cure it.
And yes, of course there is the everyday experience of the sublime, the aesthetic experience, the awe at shapes and colors, and the information they convey. If we know how to interpret it.
Speaking of the vitality of disease: today we recognize in some teratologic specimens a proof of the attempts through which evolution gropes around, one failed experiment after the other. How many of these maladies (literally, “being not apt”) are actually the exact opposite, an adaptation attempt? Is any example of mutation (which a different genetic drift might have elected to dominant phenotype) always pathological?
What I really mean to ask is, of course, another one of those questions that any pathological anatomy museum inevitably suggests: what are the actual boundaries of the Norm?
The norm is established on a statistical basis following a Gaussian distribution curve, but what falls beyond the 90th percentile (or before the 10th) is not forcibly unnatural, or unhealthy, or sick. It is just statistically less represented in the general population in respect to the phenotype we are examining. Whether a statistically infrequent character will be an advantage only time will tell.
The limits of the norm are therefore conventionally established on a mathematical basis. What is outside of the norm is just more uncommon. Biology undergoes constant transformation (on the account of new medicines or therapies, climatic and environmental change, great migrations…), and therefore we are always confronted with new specimens coming in. That is why our job is always evolving, too.
I didn’t expect such a technical answer… mine was really a “loaded” question. As you know, for years I have been working on the concepts of dissimilarity, exoticism and diversity, and I wanted to provoke you – to see whether from your standpoint a mutant body could also be considered as a somewhat revolutionary space, a disruptive element in a context demanding total compliance to the Norm.
Ask a loaded question… and you’ll get a convenient answer. You’re talking about a culture demanding compliance to a social norm, I replied in terms of the biology demanding compliance to a norm that is established by the scientific community on a frequency-based statistic calculation — which is therefore still conventional. In reality, deformity appears in unexpected ways, and should be more correctly described following a probabilistic logic, and not frequency. But I’m beginning to sound technical again.
I have seen respected professors lighten up like children before some pathological wet specimens. The feeling I had was that the medical gaze in some ways justified an interest for extreme visions, usually precluded to the general public. Is it an exclusively scientific interest? Is it possible to be passionate about this kind of work, without being somehow fascinated by the bizarre?
There could be a little self-satisfaction at times. But in general there is sincere passion and enthusiasm for the topic, and that surely cannot be faked. It is a job you can only do if you love it.
All our discipline is based on the differential diagnosis between “normal” and “pathological”. I could say that everything pathological is dysmorphic in respect to the norm, therefore it is bizarre, different. So yes, you have to feel a the fascination for the bizarre. And be very curious.
The passion for the macabre is a growing trend, especially among young people, and it is usually deemed negative or cheap, and strongly opposed by Italian academics. This does not happen in other realities (not just the US, but also the UK for instance) in which a common element of communication strategies for museums has become the ability of arousing curiosity in a vast public, sometimes playing on pop and dark aspects. Come for the macabre, stay for the science. If young people are drawn to the subject via the macabre imaginary, do you think in time this could lead to the education of new, trustworthy professionals?
Yes, it’s true, there is a growing interest, I’m thinking of some famous anatomical exhibitions which attracted so many visitors they had to postpone the closing date. There is also my kids’ favorite TV show about the most absurd ways to die. I believe that all this is really an incentive and should be used as a basis to arouse curiosity on the scientific aspects of these topics. I think that we can and must use this attraction for the macabre to bring people and particularly youngsters closer to science, even more so in these times of neoshamanic drifts and pseudo-scientific rants. Maybe it could also serve the purpose of admitting that death is part of our daily lives, and to find a way to relate to it. As opposed to the Anglo-Saxon countries, in Italy there still is a religious, cultural and legislative background that partially gets in the way (we have laws making it hard to dissect bodies for study, and I also think of the deeply-rooted idea that an autopsy is a violation/desecration of the corpse, up to those prejudices against science and knowledge leading to grotesque actions like the petition to close the Lombroso Museum).
Has your job changed your relationship with death and dying in any way?
I would say it actually changed my relationship with life and living. My worst fear is no longer a fear of dying. I mostly fear pain, and physical or mental decay, with all the limitations they entail. I hope for a very distant, quick and painless death.
With your twenty years experience in the field, can you think of some especially curious anecdotes or episodes you came across?
Many, but I don’t feel comfortable relating episodes that revolve around a person’s remains. But I can tell you that I often do not wonder how these people died, but rather how in the world they could be alive in the first place, given all the diseases I find! And, to me, life looks even more like a precariously balanced wonder.
Il pietrificatore di pazzi
Abbiamo già parlato dei più famosi pietrificatori in questo articolo. Ritorniamo sull’argomento per esaminare la figura del torinese Giuseppe Paravicini (1871-1927), e la peculiare storia dei suoi preparati.
Paravicini ricoprì la carica di anatomista presso l’Istituto di Anatomia Patologica del più grande manicomio d’Italia, a Mombello di Limbiate, dal 1901 al 1917, e dal 1910 al 1917 fu appuntato direttore del suddetto nosocomio. Avendo accesso diretto ai cadaveri dei pazienti deceduti da poco all’interno dell’istituto, Paravicini sperimentò su di essi alcune tecniche conservative, costituendo una notevole collezione di preparati.
Fra i reperti perfettamente conservati, si contavano (nelle parole del Paravicini stesso), “una bella serie di encefali di idioti, epilettici, paralitici, dementi precoci, dementi senili, alcoolisti […] intestini con ulcere tifose e tubercolari […] polmoni […] con vaste caverne, fegati affetti da cirrosi atrofica, ipertrofica, da sarcomi e noduli cancerigni, una milza sarcomatosa di eccezionali dimensioni, reni con neoplasmi, cisti, ecc.“; i cervelli, in particolare, erano tutti suddivisi lombrosianamente secondo la malattia mentale che li aveva afflitti. Vi erano anche uno scheletro deforme affetto da nanismo e delle preparazioni in liquido di teste e feti.
Ma i pezzi più straordinari erano i busti interi, che ancora mostravano perfette espressioni del volto. Fra di essi, anche il busto di un acromegalico e quello di alcune donne.
E, infine, i due corpi interi pietrificati dal Paravicini: quello di Angela Bonette, morta il 3 giugno del 1914 e affetta da demenza senile, e Evelina Gobbo, un’epilettica morta di polmonite il 16 novembre 1917.
Giuseppe Paravicini pare fosse gelosissimo del suo metodo segreto, e come altri pietrificatori ne portò le formule nella tomba.
Quello che si può dedurre dai documenti e dalle testimonianze oculari è che per la conservazione dei corpi interi egli utilizzasse una pompa a pressione costante per iniettare, mediante un’incisione sull’inguine del defunto, soluzioni a caldo di cera, solventi e paraffina (secondo altri, olii balsamici e qualche tipo di fissante). Il liquido entrava dall’arteria femorale, attraversava tutti gli organi, il derma e lo strato sottocutaneo per poi uscire dalla vena.
Per quanto riguarda le parti anatomiche più piccole, invece, egli si affidava all’uso di formolo, alcol e glicerina. Si trattava di metodi complessi e non certo rapidi, molto simili per alcuni versi a quelli utilizzati dal suo ben più celebre predecessore Paolo Gorini.
Il risultato era, se possibile, ancora più incredibile delle pietrificazioni del Gorini. Scrive infatti Alberto Carli: “le opere di Paravicini appaiono al tatto più morbide e umide di quelle goriniane, che dimostrano, invece, un eccezionale stato di secchezza lignea.” Le sue preparazioni mantenevano un aspetto talmente realistico che, immancabile, si diffuse la leggenda che egli eseguisse le sue mummificazioni mentre il soggetto era ancora in vita, essendo in grado di sperimentare in corpore vili (cioè su corpi di persone di scarsa importanza). Certo è che la sua collezione, proprio per il fatto d’esser stata realizzata sui cadaveri di degenti del manicomio, aveva un elemento disturbante ed eticamente imbarazzante che spinse i responsabili a tenerla sempre nascosta negli scantinati dell’istituto.
I reperti vennero in seguito trasferiti all’Ospedale Psichiatrico Paolo Pini, il cui direttore prof. Antonio Allegranza fece installare delle teche a protezione dei corpi interi, e dei supporti in legno per i busti. Sempre Allegranza sostiene di aver visto la pompa con cui presumibilmente Paravicini iniettava la sua formula, prima che andasse persa nel trasloco da Mombello al Paolo Pini.
Dal Paolo Pini, la collezione venne spostata brevemente al Brefiotrofio di Milano, poi nella Facoltà di Scienza Veterinaria.
In tutti questi decenni, gli straordinari preparati rimasero dietro porte chiuse, visibili soltanto agli studiosi.
Infine, l’Università di Milano li affidò in deposito gratuito alla Collezione Anatomica Paolo Gorini per poterli degnamente esporre. Oggi sono finalmente visibili all’interno dell’Ospedale Vecchio di Lodi, nelle sale adiacenti alla collezione Gorini.
I volti di questi anonimi pazienti del manicomio di Mombello rimangono, al di là dell’interesse anatomico, una drammatica testimonianza di un’epoca: ombre di vite spezzate, spese in condizioni impensabili oggi.
L’ex-manicomio di Mombello è tutt’ora un’enorme struttura abbandonata: i lunghissimi corridoi ricoperti di murales, le scalinate fatiscenti, i cortili divorati dalla vegetazione, i padiglioni dove arrugginiscono i letti e le sedie d’epoca sono ormai esplorati soltanto da fotografi in cerca di location suggestive.
NOTA: le foto a colori presenti nell’articolo ci sono state gentilmente offerte dal nostro lettore Eros, che ha visitato la collezione quando era ancora in stato di abbandono nei sotterranei di una palazzina della Provincia di Milano; le foto in bianco e nero (precedenti di almeno una decina d’anni) sono opera di Attilio Mina. Le foto del manicomio sono invece di Emma Cacciatori.
Speciale: James G. Mundie
In esclusiva per Bizzarro Bazar vi proponiamo l’intervista da noi realizzata all’artista James G. Mundie, disegnatore, fotografo e incisore. I suoi lavori più noti sono due serie di opere: la prima, intitolata Prodigies, è un’iconoclasta rivisitazione di alcuni classici della pittura di ogni epoca, all’interno dei quali i soggetti originali sono stati rimpiazzati dai freaks più famosi. Quello che ne risulta è una sorta di ironica storia dell’arte “parallela” o “possibile”, in cui la deformità prende il posto del bello, e in cui per una volta gli emarginati divengono protagonisti.
Il suo altro lavoro molto noto è Cabinet of curiosities, una serie di fotografie, schizzi e incisioni riguardanti le maggiori collezioni anatomiche e teratologiche conservate nei musei di tutto il mondo.
Le fotografie fanno parte dei tuoi progetti tanto quanto i disegni. Ti ritieni più un fotografo o un illustratore?
Mi piace pensarmi come un creatore di immagini che utilizza qualsiasi strumento o mezzo sia appropriato. Questo significa talvolta disegnare, altre volte incidere su legno o fotografare. Comunque, ho cominciato ad considerare la fotografia come mezzo a sé solo da poco tempo. Ho sempre usato le fotografie come riferimenti, o come fossero dei bozzetti per altri progetti. Con il tempo, invece, ho cominciato ad apprezzare le foto che facevo nei loro propri termini estetici. Specialmente da quando sono diventato padre, la relativa immediatezza dell fotografia è stata un cambiamento benvenuto rispetto ai metodi più laboriosi che uso nei disegni e nelle incisioni, che possono prendere settimane o mesi (addirittura anni!) per emergere.
Riguardo alla serie Prodigies, come è nata l’idea di unire il mondo dei freakshow con quello dell’arte classica, e perché?
Ho sempre disegnato ritratti, e intorno al 1996-97 stavo cercando nuove ispirazioni. Ho cominciato a pensare alle fotografie di strane persone, come Jojo il Ragazzo dalla Faccia di Cane, che avevo visto decadi prima, e pensai che sarebbe stato divertente lavorarci. Cominciai a fare ricerche sui sideshow, e presto scoprii qualcosa di molto più bizzarro di quello che ricordavo dalla mia infanzia. Iniziai a trovare anche dettagli sulle vite di questi performer che li fecero risultare molto più veri ai miei occhi – cioè, più di qualcosa di semplicemente anomalo e strampalato. Prodigies è cominciato come una sfida, per vedere se sarei riuscito a mescolare questi inquietanti e affascinanti performer di sideshow ai miei quadri preferiti.
Mi resi conto che la presentazione circense dei freaks era spesso basata sull’esagerazione – ai nani venivano assegnati titoli militari come Generale o Ammiraglio, le persone molto alte venivano reinventate come giganti, ecc.; e nella storia dell’arte succedeva lo stesso, quello che vediamo nei quadri era, all’epoca, una commissione commerciale all’artista da parte di una persona benestante che voleva lasciare un ricordo di sé e del suo successo. In questo senso, un ritratto di Raffaello di un qualsiasi cardinale o poeta non è molto differente dalle cartoline di presentazione dei freaks vendute dal palcoscenico. Entrambe le cose cercano di proiettare e/o vendere un’identità. “Perché non portare il tutto a uno stadio successivo, e permettere ai freaks di abitare o rimodellare le storie raccontate nei dipinti classici?”, pensai. Ovviamente non volevo procedere a casaccio. Dovevo avere un buon motivo per collegare un performer con un certo quadro, che fosse una storia in comune, o un atteggiamento, o un elemento compositivo che mi ricordava la figura di un freak. Questo significa che sto ancora cercando l’accoppiata ideale per alcuni fra i miei performer preferiti, come ad esempio Grady Stiles l’Uomo Aragosta. Dall’altra parte, ci sono dipinti così iconici che risulta difficile utilizzarli senza apparire risaputi o pigri.
La serie Prodigies è percorsa da una vena di humor iconoclasta. Potrebbe essere letta come una “legittimazione” dei diversi, a cui viene data la possibilità di essere protagonisti della storia dell’arte; ma anche come una specie di sberleffo nei confronti del concetto storico e assodato di “bellezza”. Quale interpretazione ti sembra più corretta?
Sono entrambe corrette. Anche se è di moda oggi denigrare i freakshow come una reliquia culturale barbarica da dimenticare, credo che servissero una funzione necessaria nella società – e che non è ancora sparita. E vedo queste persone che lavoravano nei freakshow – anche se spesso sfruttate – come degli eroi, per aver affrontato le circostanze peggiori e averne tratto il maggiore successo possibile. Queste erano persone che non sarebbero mai state accettate nella società beneducata, eppure trovarono una comunità che si strinse attorno a loro e li celebrò. Invece di essere chiusi negli istituti, vissero bene la loro vita con la loro famiglia, recitando sul palcoscenico un ruolo creato ad arte. C’è un certo carattere di nobiltà, in questo. Sì, la gente guardava e di tanto in tanto li scherniva, ma almeno ora pagavano per il privilegio. Quindi, chi è che era veramente sfruttato? Anche ora vogliamo guardare, ma la maggior parte di noi non è abbastanza sincero da ammetterlo.
Molte delle presentazioni utilizzate nei freakshow erano intenzionalmente umoristiche, quasi ridicole. Credo che quello humor servisse perché il pubblico si sentisse meno a disagio, e anche per dare al performer una protezione emotiva. Una parte del fascino dei freakshow è di confrontarsi con le proprie paure. Vedi qualcuno sul palco a cui mancano degli arti oppure deforme, e naturalmente pensi “E se quello fossi io?”. Quindi ho spesso inserito dei piccoli tocchi scherzosi, per aiutarmi a metabolizzare queste domande, e per tirare un salvagente allo spettatore. Allo stesso tempo sto prendendo in giro alcuni dei pilastri della storia dell’arte. C’è un sacco di materiale esilarante con cui lavorare, se lo guardi con mente aperta. Per esempio alcune convenzioni formali che troviamo in antiche istoriazioni sugli altari: è piuttosto divertente, oggi, vedere come i santi sono raffigurati cinque volte più grandi dei meri mortali. È liberatorio camminare in un museo e permetterti di ridere, anche se per molte persone è puro sacrilegio.
Gran parte di ciò che oggi reputiamo “bello” è semplicemente regolare, uniforme. Le nostre idee moderne di bellezza ci vengono propinate dai giornali di moda, televisione e affini. Eppure, in queste strane persone che io disegno – con le loro proporzioni imperfette – andiamo oltre il bello per avvicinarci al sublime. Uno dei principi guida per me in questo progetto è quello che Sir Francis Bacon scrisse nel 1597: “non c’è beltà eccellente che non abbia in sé una qualche misura di stranezza”.
In uno dei tuoi disegni, ti autoritrai nei panni di un anatomista dilettante, e molti dei tuoi lavori raffigurano anomalie patologiche. Qual è il tuo rapporto con i tuoi soggetti? Ritieni di avere un occhio freddo e clinico oppure c’è un’empatia con la sofferenza che spesso implica l’anatomia patologica? E, ancora, cosa vorresti che provasse chi guarda i tuoi disegni?
Anche se un certo distacco è necessario per rimanere oggettivi, non posso impedirmi di immedesimarmi nei miei soggetti. Queste erano persone reali che affrontavano circostanze che non posso nemmeno immaginare. Quando attraverso una collezione anatomica, mi ritrovo a chiedermi chi fosse la persona da cui questa o quella parte è stata tolta e preservata. Oggi, i casi sono presentati in maniera anonima, ma negli scorsi secoli era comune accludere informazioni biografiche sul paziente. Credo che in questa fissazione di proteggere la privacy degli individui stiamo inavvertitamente negando la loro umanità, perché ora ciò che vediamo è una malattia invece che una persona. Anche se non è mia intenzione forzare nello spettatore alcuna emozione o idea (e spesso la gente trova nei miei lavori dei significati che non ho mai inteso esprimere), spero che almeno porti con sé il senso che i miei soggetti sono o erano persone vere, degne di considerazione.
Il tuo nuovo progetto, Cabinet of curiosities, è basato sulle tue visite ai musei anatomici americani ed europei. Cosa ti attrae nei reperti anatomici e teratologici?
Sono sempre stato interessato a come le cose funzionano, in particolare all’anatomia. Quello che mi interessa delle collezioni patologiche o teratologiche è che questi strani esemplari ci mostrano cosa sta succedendo a livello cellulare, genetico. Esaminando il sistema danneggiato, impariamo come funziona quello in salute. Sono anche affascinato dagli antichi sistemi usati per catalogare e organizzare il mondo naturale, e la teratologia – lo studio dei mostri – è un esempio particolarmente interessante. Anche l’idea del museo, nato come collezione personale per diventare istituzione pubblica è affascinante, e condivide molti aspetti con i freakshow. Alcuni di questi preparati sono strani e bellissimi, e presentati in maniera molto elaborata. Quindi Cabinet of Curiosities è un tentativo di documentare il punto in cui questi due mondi si intersecano.
Quale pensi sia il rapporto fra medicina ed arte, e più in generale fra scienza ed arte?
La medicina è stata considerata un’arte per molto più tempo di quanto non sia stata vista come scienza. La società non si libera da una simile associazione da un giorno all’altro, così ancora oggi continuiamo a parlare dell’abilità di un chirurgo come fosse quella di uno scultore. Ma anche da un punto di vista strettamente pratico, i dottori hanno bisogno degli artisti perché le rappresentazioni artistiche sono da sempre una componente essenziale nell’educazione medica e nella sua comunicazione. Sin dal Rinascimento gli illustratori hanno insegnato l’anatomia a generazioni di medici, e in quel modo la pratica artistica dell’osservazione ha aiutato la medicina ad uscire dalla via puramente teorica. Penso che possiamo affermare che questo ruolo comunicativo valga anche per le scienze in generale, perché l’arte può aiutare a spiegare complesse teorie anche a persone che non masticano la materia. Un artista può fungere da legame tra lo scienziato e il pubblico, rendendo comprensibili le scoperte scientifiche – ma può anche servire come critico. In questo modo, l’arte può divenire una sorta di specchio morale per la scienza.
Nelle tue parole, “questi preparati anatomici rappresentano il punto di intersezione fra scienza, cultura, emozione e mito”. Credi che ci sia bisogno di miti moderni? Pensi che questi nuovi miti possano provenire dal mondo della scienza, invece che da quello magico-religioso come nel passato? Il tuo lavoro fotografico e di illustrazione può essere letto come un tentativo di dare una dimensione mitica ai tuoi soggetti? Sei religioso?
Penso che noi creiamo in continuazione nuovi miti, o che ne risvegliamo e reinventiamo di vecchi. Fa parte della natura umana.
La scienza per molte persone ha sostituito la religione come fondamentale via d’ispirazione, ma in realtà sappiamo ancora così poco dell’universo, che c’è ancora molto terreno fertile per la fantascienza. Con la nascita di Scientology abbiamo visto addirittura la fantascienza trasformarsi in religione! Io non sono assolutamente una persona religiosa, ma penso che spesso cerchiamo di riporre le nostre speranze in un potere che sta al di fuori di noi. Per alcuni, questo significa una divinità che è personalmente interessata a come ci vestiamo, o a cosa mangiamo il venerdì; per altri vuol dire l’idea che il genere umano troverà finalmente la cura per il cancro e imparerà i segreti per viaggiare nel tempo. Così nel mio lavoro mi ritrovo a raccontare storie, o quantomeno a predisporre il seme di una storia che ognuno può trasformare nel racconto che desidera.
Anche tua moglie Kate è un’artista, ma i suoi quadri sembrano essere completamente distanti dal tuo mondo – solari, impressionisti, colorati. Se non sono indiscreto, come vi rapportate l’uno con l’arte dell’altra?
Siamo i migliori critici l’uno dell’altra. Siccome i nostri lavori sono così differenti, non c’è competizione fra noi, e ci diamo costantemente dei pareri e delle idee.
Chi è appassionato di stranezze, corre il rischio di essere reputato egli stesso strano. Cosa pensano delle tue passioni gli amici e i parenti?
Alcune persone amano stare a guardare i treni, o ascoltare gli Abba. Io amo i freaks. Tutte le persone più interessanti sono strambe.
Ecco i siti ufficiali di Prodigies, e di Cabinet of Curiosities.
Body Worlds a Roma
Abbiamo già trattato, in uno dei primissimi (e ancora timidi!) articoli apparsi su Bizzarro Bazar, di Gunther von Hagens, anatomopatologo inventore della tecnica della plastinazione. Torniamo a parlarne perché, finalmente, la sua celebre mostra itinerante intitolata Body Worlds è sbarcata in Italia, a Roma, dove resterà aperta al pubblico fino al 12 febbraio 2012.
La nuova tecnica di conservazione dei tessuti messa a punto da Von Hagens si basa sulla sostituzione dei liquidi con dei polimeri di silicone; questo permette ai reperti organici di rimanere virtualmente inalterati nel tempo, rigidi e inodori, ma di mantenere perfettamente i colori originari. Così Von Hagens, grazie alle numerose donazioni di cadaveri a scopo scientifico, ha potuto raccogliere un’impressionante collezione anatomica, specialmente preparata per illustrare al pubblico il funzionamento dell’organismo in modo inedito e incisivo.
I cadaveri esibiti nella mostra sono tutti reali, anche se talvolta possono sembrare sculture moderne: sono stati sezionati in modo da mostrare il corpo umano nella sua intricata armonia, lasciando scoperti di volta in volta i differenti sistemi, e le relazioni che intercorrono tra le diverse parti del corpo. Body Worlds offre l’opportunità più unica che rara di sbirciare direttamente dentro il corpo umano come fosse un mondo alieno, di osservare con i propri occhi il posizionamento degli organi, l’incredibile perfezione dei vasi sanguigni o delle fasce muscolari, e di guardare “in diretta” lo sviluppo di un feto.
Un’esperienza da non mancare assolutamente, e che nonostante le mille polemiche continua ad attirare milioni di visitatori; infatti, al lato più squisitamente didattico, unisce anche un inedito livello umano, perché ognuno di quei corpi che oggi ci “insegnano” l’anatomia era un tempo una donna, o un uomo. E, grazie alla loro generosa decisione, anche noi possiamo rimanere stupiti di fronte alla straordinaria complessità del nostro stesso corpo.
Trovate tutte le informazioni sulla mostra sul sito ufficiale.
Hans Bellmer nel 1926 possedeva una compagnia pubblicitaria, quando, disgustato dalla piega che stava prendendo il nazionalsocialismo e prevedendo la prossima ascesa del partito Nazista al potere, decise che non avrebbe collaborato in alcun modo alla nascita del nuovo stato tedesco. Iniziò così un suo progetto artistico sovversivo, che gli sarebbe costato l’esilio ma che l’avrebbe portato ad essere accolto fra le braccia dei surrealisti francesi di Breton. Quello che era iniziato, nelle intenzioni di Bellmer, come una parodia e un attacco all’idea nazista del perfetto corpo ariano, però, divenne in brevissimo tempo qualcosa di più profondo, una vera e propria finestra sulle forme archetipiche del desiderio e dell’ossessione.
Lavorando in isolamento, Bellmer costruì alcune bambole a grandezza naturale, che avevano delle giunture a sfera simili a quelle che aveva potuto osservare in un paio di manichini in legno del ‘500, conservati al Bode Museum di Berlino. Diede alle bambole le fattezze di giovani ragazzine. Le bambole potevano essere articolate e composte in maniera differente, e Bellmer cominciò a fotografarle in diversi assetti e posizioni.
Così nacque la raccolta pubblicata anonima nel 1934 sotto il titolo di Die Puppe (“La bambola”); il lavoro di Bellmer fu dichiarato “degenerato” dal partito Nazista, ma dopo la fuga a Parigi e la consacrazione sul giornale surrealista Minotaure arrivò la fama. Eppure Bellmer abbandonò le sue bambole, e si dedicò per il resto della vita a disegni e fotografie erotiche, più o meno espressamente surrealiste; è come se quel primo progetto avesse sondato già gli abissi, e tutta l’opera successiva dell’artista tedesco fosse un più leggero rimuginare sul pozzo di nere acque dischiuso dalle bambole.
Le bambole di Hans Bellmer, infatti, sono fra le più estreme e toccanti rappresentazioni del desiderio sessuale e della violenza, il vero lato oscuro dell’erotismo così come teorizzato da Bataille (e preconizzato da Sade). Ci mostrano il corpo femminile, centro focale dell’ossessione, come un insieme di membra dislocate senza volto, puri oggetti dell’inconscio desiderio di violazione. La passione che anima le fantasie più nere si risolve in un tentativo di smembramento e di riconfigurazione, come se il corpo femminile nascondesse un segreto, e occorresse violare, frugare e ricombinare la carne per riuscire a coglierlo.
Eppure, nonostante la brutalità di queste “dissezioni”, le bambole sembrano quasi uno specchio sui nostri sogni infranti; sulla tristezza e impotenza del desiderio maschile, che non può concepire il mistero del corpo. La dolce sensualità delle bambole, infatti, resiste a qualsiasi esplosione, rifiuta di essere posseduta.
Il corpo è paragonabile ad una frase che vi spinge a disarticolarla, affinché, attraverso una serie di anagrammi infiniti, si ricompongano i suoi veri contenuti.