August 21, 1945: physicist Harry Daghlian was stacking a nice pile of tungsten carbide bricks around a plutonium sphere when a brick slipped from his hand and brought the core into supercritical condition. Daghlian died 25 days later.
May 21, 1946: physicist Louis Slotin was working on a plutonium sphere — but not just any sphere: the very same that had killed Daghlian. To separate the two halves, he had the bad idea of using a screwdriver. The screwdriver slipped, the top fell off. Slotin died 9 days later.
From that moment on, the poor plutonium sphere no longer enjoyed a good reputation, and it also earned an unflattering nickname.
But nuclear history is full of incredible incidents. There is one aspect regarding the Manhattan Project, which led to the creation of atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that is not often talked about: human experiments on unsuspecting subjects. Take for instance Albert Stevens, who survived the highest dose of radiation ever accumulated in a human’s body when, without his knowledge or consent, scientists injected him with 131 kBq of plutonium.
Everybody speaks ill of poor HAL, but perhaps it is time to reevaluate the guy. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the infamous supercomputer kills some astronauts, and gets eventually killed itself. Now that artificial intelligence is a reality, we’d better start asking ourselves some questions about the ethics of murder by machines, but also of the murder of machines.
The always excellent Lindsey Fitzharris (author of The Butchering Art) delights us with some anecdotes about beauty hacks from the past. For example, a method that was used to make 18th-century wigs look attractive by spreading them with lard. Attractive, that is, for fleas and lice.
A geologist discovered an ancient cave, but he immediately noticed that it was not a natural cavity. Someone or something must have bored it. And what were those huge scratch marks, produced by gigantic claws, on the walls…? When reality surpasses Lovecraft: here are the underground tunnels excavated by the mysterious prehistoric megafauna.
Take a look at the picture below. It’s entitled Franz de Paula Graf von Hartig and his wife Eleanore ad Caritas Romana, and it’s a 1797 painting by Barbara Krafft. When you are done laughing and/or feeling uncomfortable, check out the meaning of that “Caritas Romana“ in the title, and enjoy other examples of young girls breastfeeding old geezers.
There are those who spend hours scrolling through the photos of influencers. I would spend days watching the Russian poet, body-builder and futurist Vladimir Goldschmidt hypnotizing a chicken.
Idea for an action film / comedy drama.
Title: White Trip.
Concept: think The Revenant meets Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Plot: Finnish soldier Aimo Koivunen, during the Second World War, is ski patrolling a mountain area when his unit is suddenly caught under Soviet fire. Aimo begins to escape from the ambush, but after skiing for a long time he feels exhausted; the enemies are still on his tail, and they are getting closer and closer. So he decides to take one of the methamphetamine tablets that the commander has entrusted him with; but, partly because of the big gloves he’s wearing, and partly because he has to keep skiing to save himself, he can’t take the tablet out of the package. To hell with it, he thinks, and swallows the whole jar of pills. Suddenly he starts skiing again with renewed, exceptional energy, but after a while everything becomes blurred, and Aimo passes out: he wakes up alone, lost in the snow and separated from his patrol, without any food and in full overdose delusion. He keeps on skiing frantically, and avoids some more Soviet soldiers. At one point he manages to catch a bird which, in his hallucination, appears to him like a wonderful crispy chicken skewer; he swallows it raw, feathers and everything. Then he runs into a land mine that blows him up in the air. Although badly injured, he continues to ski. After covering 250 miles and spending a week in the open, bleeding and now reduced to skin and bones, he finally manages to return to the Finnish front. When they take him to the infirmary, his heart rate is still twice the average. As soon as he sees the doctor Aimo says: “Hello dear, you don’t happen to have some chamomile tea? I feel a bit nervous and your antennae look ridiculous.”
Based on a true story. (Thanks, David!)
Philosophical thought of the day. If the eyes are the mirror of the soul, then the soul is a kind of black chasm, a bottomless crater:
Simon Sellars (author of Applied Ballardianism), tells us about the dazzling beauty of Google Earth — which doesn’t so much reside in panoramas or virtual tours, but rather in 3D glitches, rendering errors, misaligned joints that reveal the collage behind 360 views, thus creating altered and distorted perceptions. The map may not be the territory, but it is a territory of the mind.
I like to imagine that when the human species has long since become extinct, alien archaeologists coming to Earth to study mankind will find this video as the only remaining clue:
Welcome to the column which — according to readers — is responsible for many wasted worktime hours, but also provides some fresh conversation starters.
Allow me the usual quick summary of what happened to me over the last few weeks: in addition to being on the radio, first as a guest at Miracolo Italiano on RaiRadio2, and then interviewed on Radio Cusano Campus, a couple of days ago I was invited to take part in a broadcast I love very much, Terza Pagina, hosted by astrophysicist and fantasy author Licia Troisi. We talked about the dark meaning of the carnival, the upcoming TV series adapted from Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a rather weird scientific research, and one book that is particularly close to my heart. The episode is available for streaming on RaiPlay (but of course it’s in Italian only).
Let’s start with some wonderful links that, despite these pleasant distractions, I have collected for you.
Every week for forty years a letter written by a Japanese gentleman, Mr. Kaor, was delivered to Hotel Spaander in Holland. The handwritten message was always the same: “Dear Sirs, how are you and how is the weather this week?”. Finally in 2018 some journalists tracked down the mysterious sender, discovering that 1) he had never set foot in that Dutch hotel in his entire life, and 2) some rather eccentric motivations were behind those 40 years of missives. Today Mr. Kaor even has his own portrait inside the hotel. Here is the full story. (Thanks, Matthew!)
Ever heard of the Holocene Extinction, the sixth mass extinction ever occurred on our planet?
You should, because it’s happening now, and we’ve caused it.
As for me, perhaps because of all the semiotics I studied at the university, I am intrigued by its linguistic implications: the current situation is so alarming that scientists, in their papers, are no longer using that classic, cold, distant vocabulary. Formal language does not apply to the Apocalypse.
For example, a new research on the rapid decline in the population of insects on a global scale uses surprisingly strong tones, which the authors motivate as follows: “We wanted to really wake people up. When you consider 80% of biomass of insects has disappeared in 25-30 years, it is a big concern. […] It is very rapid. In 10 years you will have a quarter less, in 50 years only half left and in 100 years you will have none.“
On a more optimistic note, starting from the second half of this year new emojis will arrive on our smartphones, specifically dedicated to disability and diversity. And yes, they will also include that long-awaited emoticon for menstruation.
Thomas Morris’ blog is always one of my favorite readings. This gentleman tirelessly combs through 19th-century medical publications in search of funny, uplifting little stories — like this one about a man crushed by a cartwheel which pushed his penis inside his abdomen, leaving its full skin dangling out like an empty glove.
There is one dramatic and excruciating picture I can not watch without being moved. It was taken by freelance photographer Taslima Akhter during the rescue of victims of the terrible 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh (which took the life of 1129 people, and wounded more than 2500). The photo, entitled Final Embrace, has won numerous awards and you can see it by clicking here.
Jack Stauber is a brilliant madman: he produces nonsense music videos that seem salvaged from some 1980s VHS, and are among the most genuinely creepy and hilarious things you’ll see on YouTube. Below I prresent you with the wonderful Cooking with Abigail, but there’s plenty more on his channel.
A new book on Jack The Ripper has been released in the UK.
“Another one?”, I hear you say.
Yes, but this is the first one that’s all about the victims. Women whose lives no scholar has ever really been interested in because, you know, after all they were just hookers.
Let’s say you’re merrily jumping around, chasing butterflies with your little hand net, and you stumble upon a body. What can you do?
Here’s a useful infographic:
Above are some works by Lidia Kostanek, a Polish artist who lives in Nantes, whose ceramic sculptures investigate the body and the female condition. (via La Lune Mauve)
On this blog I have addressed the topic of head transplants several times. Still I did not know that these transplants have been successfully performed for 90 years, keeping both the donor and the recipient alive. Welcome to the magical world of insect head transplants. (Thanks, Simone!)
Last but not least, a documentary film I personally have been waiting for a while is finally opening in Italian cinemas: it’s called Wunderkammer – Le Stanze della Meraviglia, and it will disclose the doors of some of the most exclusive and sumptuous wunderkammern in the world. Among the collectors interviewed in the film there’s also a couple of friends, including the one and only Luca Cableri whom you may have seen in the Bizzarro Bazar Web Series. Here’s the movie trailer, and if you happen to be in Italy on March 4th, 5th and 6th, here’s a list of theatres that screen the film.
Christmas is approaching, and with it comes the usual risk of choosing banal and trivial gifts. Fear no more!Here is a selection of 20 absolutely weird gadgets, to refuel your consumerist creativity and to satisfy your relatives and acquaintances with tailor-made presents!
For your goth friends, nothing is better than a melancholic cup of tea while dreaming of sepulchres by the sea. This delightful Edgar Allan Poe tea set includes: a hand-stamped muslin bag, a bag of “Midnight Dreary” herbal tea, and a limited edition charmed tea ball.(Crow not included.)
A book is a classic but always welcome gift.Especially when, besides being a compelling read, it also proves useful and educational. Someone you know will certainly appreciate this very practical guide.
It takes you a whole afternoon to set up your Christmas tree, but only 2 minutes for your cat to destroy all the hard work.
The problem is solved with this pet-proof Half Tree. Also available in the snowy version.
Since we’re talking cats, it is a real pity that this kitty saucy boat is no longer on the market. It was a Kickstarted a few years ago, and it’s now sold out. I’m listing it here anyways because, who knows, maybe you can find a secondhand one to shock your guests at Christmas.
Enough about cats, just one last thing: here is an action figure for your crazy cat lady friend.
Here’s another useful, exquisite gift.
When the cold gets intense, and it makes the eyes water and the nose run, these double-sided “Snittens” offer two solutions in one: they’re specifically designed to dry tears on one side, and to absorb mucus on the other. Specifically designed, mind you. Just imagine the team of scientists working on this ground-breaking project, and be thankful you live in such enlightened times of sophisticated technology.
Lastly, we need to come up with something for those sexually liberated friends — or boy/girlfriends, why not— who are constantly looking for a new sex toy. We want it to be Xmas-themed, but something more than the usual kinky Santa outfit.
When you give them this awesome reindeer penis dildo (well, if we believe the producer’s description), you’ll know you’ve made their Christmas a bit happier.
Available on Amazon. (By the way: Amazon’s suggested combined purchase is a thing of beauty.)
Before concluding, I would like to suggest two gadgets which are not really gifts but rather tools that you can use yourself, in case of need. A survival kit for the festive season, to defend yourself against relatives visiting, long dinners that can sometimes turn into Kafkian nightmares, etc.
The first remedy allows you to noncalantly approach your Christmas tree, unscrew a ball and drown your sorrows in alcohol.
The second is designed for real emergencies.
Instructions: get up from the table, make up an excuse for leaving your guests, head into the other room and, once you’re there, scream your lungs out in the scream-absorbing jar. This essential accessory will allow you to let off steam without spoiling that pure, touching Christmas spirit.
This week you can come and meet me in two particular events.
On November 9th at 6 pm I will be in Bologna, at the extraordinary wunderkammer/library Mirabilia in via de ‘Carbonesi, to talk about my two guide books on Paris and London. The library is called Mirabilia, my book series is called Mirabilia — you can’t go wrong.
The next day (10 November) I will move to Pescara where I have been invited for the annual edition of the book festival FLA. At 22.30 at the aptly named Bizarre Club I will hold a talk entitled Un terribile incanto: il Macabro e il Meraviglioso tra arte, scienza e sacro (“A Terrible Enchantment: The Macabre and the Wonderful between Art, Science and the Sacred”). I will be honest: talking about Thanatos in a night club dedicated to alternative sexuality and to the cultural implications of Eros, I think it’s an appropriate and remarkable goal for my career as a specialist of the bizarre!
(Second and last part – you can find the first one here.)
In the Nineteenth Century, wunderkammern disappeared.
The collections ended up disassembled, sold to private citizens or integrated in the newly born modern museums. Scientists, whose discipline was already defined, lost interest for the ancient kind of baroque wonder, perhaps deemed child-like in respect to the more serious postitivism.
This type of collecting continued in sporadic and marginal ways during the first decades of the Twetieth Century. Some rare antique dealer, especially in Belgium, the Netherlands or Paris, still sold some occasional mirabilia, but the golden age of the trade was long gone.
Of the few collectors of this first half of the century the most famous is André Breton, whose cabinet of curiosities is now on permanent exhibit at the Centre Pompidou.
The interest of wunderkammern began to reawaken during the Eighties from two distinct fronts: academics and artists.
On one hand, museology scholars began to recognize the role of wunderkammern as precursors of today’s museal collections; on the other, some artists fell in love with the concept of the chamber of wonders and started using it in their work as a metaphor of Man’s relationship with objects.
But the real upswing came with the internet. The neo-wunderkammer “movement” developed via the web, which opened new possibilities not only for sharing the knowledge but also to revitalize the commerce of curiosities.
Let’s take a look, as we did for the classical collections, to some conceptual elements of neo-wunderkammern.
A Democratic Wunderkammer
The first macroscopic difference with the past is that collecting curiosities is no more an exclusive of wealthy billionaires. Sure, a very-high-profile market exists, one that the majority of enthusiasts will never access; but the good news is that today, anybody who can afford an internet conection already has the means to begin a little collection. Thanks to the web, even a teenager can create his/her own shelf of wonders. All that’s needed is good will and a little patience to comb through the many natural history collectibles websites or online auctions for some real bargain.
There are now children’s books, school activities and specific courses encouraging kids to start this form of exploration of natural wonders.
The result of all this is a more democratic wunderkammer, within the reach of almost any wallet.
We talked about the classic category of exotica, those objects that arrived from distant colonies and from mysterious cultures.
But today, what is really exotic – etymologically, “coming from the outside, from far away”? After all we live in a world where distances don’t matter any more, and we can travel without even moving: in a bunch of seconds and a few clicks, we can virtually explore any place, from a mule track on the Andes to the jungles of Borneo.
This is a fundamental issue for the collectors, because globalization runs the risk of annihilating an important part of the very concept of wonder. Their strategies, conscious or not, are numerous.
Some collectors have turned their eyes towards the only real “external space” that is left — the cosmos; they started looking for memorabilia from the heroic times of the Space Race. Spacesuits, gear and instruments from various space missions, and even fragments of the Moon.
Others push in the opposite direction, towards the most distant past; consequently the demand for dinosaur fossils is in constant growth.
But there are other kinds of new exotica that are closer to us – indeed, they pertain directly to our own society.
Internal exoticism: not really an oxymoron, if we consider that anthropologists have long turned the instruments of ethnology towards the modern Western worold (take for instance Marc Augé). To seek what is exotic within our own cultre is to investigate liminal zones, fringe realities of our time or of the recent past.
Thus we find a recent fascination for some “taboo” areas, related for example to crime (murder weapons, investigative items, serial killer memorabilia) or death (funerary objecs and Victorian mourning apparel); the medicalia sub-category of quack remedies, as for example electric shock terapies or radioactive pharamecutical products.
Building a wunderkammer today is an eminently artistic endeavour. The scientific or anthropological interest, no matter how relevant, cannot help but be strictly connected to aesthetics.
There is a greater general attention to the interplay between the objects than in the past. A painting can interact with an object placed in front of it; a tribal mask can be made to “dialogue” with an other similar item from a completely different tradition. There is undoubtedly a certain dose of postmodern irreverence in this approach; for when pop culture collectibles are allowed entrance to the wunderkammer, ending up exhibited along with precious and refined antiques, the self-righteous art critic is bound to shudder (see for instance Victor Wynd‘s peculiar iconoclasm).
An example I find paradigmatic of this search for a deeper interaction are the “adventurous” juxtapositions experimented by friend Luca Cableri (the man who brought to Moon to Italy); you can read the interview he gave me if you wish to know more about him.
Wearing A Wunderkammer
Fashion is always aware of new trends, and it intercepted some aspects of the world of wunerkammern. Thanks mainly to the goth and dark subcultures, one can find jewelry and necklaces made from naturalistic specimens: on Etsy, eBay or Craigslist, countless shops specialize in hand-crafted brooches, hair clips or other fashion accessories sporting skulls, small wearable taxidermies and so on.
Conceptual Art and Rogue Taxidermists
As we said, the renewed interest also came from the art world, which found in wunderkammern an effective theoretical frame to reflect about modernity.
The first name that comes to mind is of course Damien Hirst, who took advantage of the concept both in his iconic fluid-preserved animals and in his kaleidoscopic compositions of lepidoptera and butterflies; but even his For The Love of God, the well-known skull covered in diamonds, is an excessively precious curiosity that would not have been out of place in a Sixteenth Century treasure chamber.
Hirst is not the only artist taking inspiration from the wunderkammer aesthetics. Mark Dion, for instance, creates proper cabinets of wonders for the modern era: in his work, it’s not natural specimens that are put under formaldeyde, but rather their plastic replicas or even everyday objects, from push brooms to rubber dildos. Dion builds a sort of museum of consumerism in which – yet again – Nature and Culture collide and even at times fuse together, giving us no hope of telling them apart.
In 2013 Rosamund Purcell’s installation recreated a 3D version of the Seventeenth Century Ole Worm Museum: reinvention/replica, postmodern doppelgänger and hyperreal simulachrum which allows the public to step into one of the most famous etchings in the history of wunderkammern.
Besides the “high” art world – auction houses and prestigious galleries – we are also witnessing a rejuvenation of more artisanal sectors.
This is the case with the art of taxidermy, which is enjoying a new youth: today taxidermy courses and workshops are multiplying.
Remember that in the first post I talked about taxidermy as a domestication of the scariest aspects of Nature? Well, according to the participants, these workshops offer a way to exorcise their fear of death on a comfortably small scale, through direct contact and a creative activity. (We shall return on this tactile element.)
A further push towards innovation has come from yet another digital movement, called Rogue Taxidermy.
Initially born as a consortium of three artists – Sarina Brewer, Scott Bibus e Robert Marbury – who were interested in taxidermy in the broadest sense (Marbury does not even use real animals for his creations, but plush toys), rogue taxidermy quickly became an international movement thanks to the web.
The fantastic chimeras produced by these artists are actually meta-taxidermies: by exhibiting their medium in such a manifest way, they seem to question our own relationship with animals. A relationship that has undergone profound changes and is now moving towards a greater respect and care for the environment. One of the tenets of rogue taxidermy is in fact the use of ethically sourced materials, and the animals used in preparations all died of natural causes. (Here’s a great book tracing the evolution and work of major rogue taxidermy artists.)
So we are left with the fundamental question: why are wunderkammern enjoying such a huge success right now, after five centuries? Is it just a retro, nostalgic trend, a vintage frivolous fashion like we find in many subcultures (yes I’m looking at you, my dear hipster friends) or does its attractiveness lie in deeper urgencies?
It is perhaps too soon to put forward a hypothesis, but I shall go out on a limb anyway: it is my belief that the rebirth of wunderkammern is to be sought in a dual necessity. On one hand the need to rethink death, and on the other the need to rethink art and narratives.
(And While We’re At It, Why Not Domesticate It)
Swiss anthropologist Bernard Crettaz was among the first to voice the ever more widespread need to break the “tyrannical secrecy” regarding death, typical of the Twentieth Century: in 2004 he organized in Neuchâtel the first Café mortel, a free event in which participants could talk about grief, and discuss their fears but also their curiosities on the subject. Inspired by Crettaz’s works and ideas, Jon Underwood launched the first British Death Café in 2011. His model received an enthusiastic response, and today almost 5000 events have been held in 50 countries across the world.
Meanwhile, in the US, a real Death-Positive Movement was born.
Originated from the will to drastically change the American funeral industry, criticized by founder Caitlin Doughty, the movement aims at lifting the taboo regarding the subject of death, and promotes an open reflection on related topics and end-of-life issues. (You probably know my personal engagement in the project, to which I contributed now and then: you can read my interview to Caitlin and my report from the Death Salon in Philadelphia).
What has the taboo of death got to do with collecting wonders?
Over the years, I have had the opportunity of talking to many a collector. Almost all of them recall, “as if it were yesterday“, the emotion they felt while holding in their hands the first piece of their collection, that one piece that gave way to their obsession. And for the large majority of them it was a naturalistic specimen – an animal skeleton, a taxidermy, etc.: as a friend collector says, “you never forget your first skull“.
The tactile element is as essential today as it was in classical wunderkammern, where the public was invited to study, examine, touch the specimens firsthand.
Owning an animal skull (or even a human one) is a safe and harmless way to become familiar with the concreteness of death. This might be the reason why the macabre element of wunderkammern, which was marginal centuries ago, often becomes a prevalent aspect today.
Ryan Matthew Cohn collection – photo Dan Howell & Steve Prue, from Morbid Curiosities (courtesy P. Gambino)
Rethinking Art: The Aesthetics Of Wonder
After the decline of figurative arts, after the industrial reproducibility of pop art, after the advent of ready-made art, conceptual art reached its outer limit, giving a coup the grace to meaning. Many contemporary artists have de facto released art not just from manual skill, from artistry, but also from the old-fashioned idea that art should always deliver a message.
Pure form, pure signifier, the new conceptual artworks are problematic because they aspire to put a full stop to art history as we know it. They look impossible to understand, precisely because they are designed to escape any discourse.
It is therefore hard to imagine in what way artistic research will overcome this emptiness made of cold appearance, polished brilliance but mere surface nonetheless; hard to tell what new horizon might open up, beyond multi-million auctions, artistars and financial hikes planned beforehand by mega-dealers and mega-collectors.
To me, it seems that the passion for wunderkammern might be a way to go back to narratives, to meaning. An antidote to the overwhelming surface. Because an object is worth its place inside a chamber of marvels only by virtue of the story it tells, the awe it arises, the vertigo it entails.
I believe I recognize in this genre of collecting a profound desire to give back reality to its lost enchantment.
Lost? No, reality never ceased to be wonderous, it is our gaze that needs to be reeducated.
Eventually, a wunderkammer is just a collection of objects, and we already live submerged in an ocean of objects.
But it is also an instrument (as it once was, as it has always been) – a magnifying glass to inspect the world and ourselves. In these bizarre and strange items, the collector seeks a magical-narrative dimension against the homologation and seriality of mass production. Whether he knows it or not, by being sensitive to the stories concealed within the objects, the emotions they convey, their unicity, the wunderkammer collector is carrying out an act of resistence: because placing value in the exception, in the exotic, is a way to seek new perspectives in spite of the Unanimous Vision.
The time has finally come to unveil the project I have been spending a good part of this year on.
Everything started with a place, a curious secret nestled in the heart of Rome, a stone’s throw away from the Circo Massimo. Very likely, my favorite haven in the whole city: the wunderkammer Mirabilia, a cabinet of wonders recreating the philosophy and taste of sixteenth-century collections, from which modern museums evolved.
Taxidermied giraffes and lions, high-profile artworks and rarities from all over the world were gathered here after many years of research and adventures by the gallery owner, Giano Del Bufalo, a young collector I previously wrote about.
This baroque studio, where beauty marries the macabre and the wonderful, has become for me a special spot in which to withdraw and to dream, especially after a hard day.
Given these premises, it was just a matter of time before the idea of a collaboration between Bizzarro Bazar and Mirabilia was born.
And now we’re getting there.
On October 9, within this gallery’s perfect setting, the Academy of Enchantment will open its doors.
What Giano and I have designed is an alternative cultural center, unprecedented in the Italian scenario and tailor-made for the lovers of the unusual.
The Academy will host a series of meetings with scientists, writers, artists and scholars who devoted their lives to the exploration of reality’s strangest facets: they range from mummification specialists to magic books researchers, from pathologists to gothic literature experts, from sex historians to some of the most original contemporary artists.
You can easily guess how much this project is close to my heart, as it represents a physical transposition of many years of work on this blog. But the privilege of planning its ‘bursting into’ the real world has been accorded only by the friendly willingness of a whole number of kindred spirits I have met over the years thanks to Bizzarro Bazar.
I was surprised and actually a bit intimidated by the enthusiasm shown by these extraordinary people, whom I hold in the highest regard: University professors, filmmakers, illusionists and collectors of oddities all warmly responded to my call for action, which can be summarized by the ambitious objective of “cultivating the vertigo of amazement”.
I address a similar appeal to this blog’s followers: spread the word, share the news and participate to the events if you can. It will be a unique occasion to listen and discuss, to meet these exceptional lecturers in person, to train your dream muscles… but above all it will be an opportunity to find each other.
This is indeed how we like to think of the Academy of Enchantment: as a frontier outpost, where the large family of wonder pioneers and enthusiasts can finally meet; where itineraries and discoveries can intersect; and from which, eventually, everyone will be able to head off towards new explorations.
In order to attain the meetings you will be requested to join the Mirabilia cultural association; on the Accademia dell’Incanto website you will soon find all about the next events and application methods. The Accademia dell’Incanto is also on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
“Keep the World Weird!”
If you have some old books at home, you might be acquainted with those decorated covers and flaps showing colorful designs that resemble marble patterns. Paper marbling has very ancient origins, probably dating back to 2.000 years ago in China, even though the technique ultimately took hold in Japan during the Heian period (VIII-XII Century), under the name of suminagashi. The secret of suminagashi was jealously kept and passed on from father to son, among families of artists; the most beautiful and pleasant examples were used to adorn poems or sutras.
From Japan through the Indies, this method came to Persia and Turkey, where it became a refined art called ebru. Western travellers brought it back to Europe where marbled paper was eventually produced on a large scale to cover books and boxes.
Today in Turkey ebru is still considered a traditional art. Garip Ay (born 1984), who graduated from Mimar Sinan University in Istanbul, has become one of the best-known ebru artists in the world, holding workshops and seminars from Scandinavia to the United States. Thanks to his extraordinary talents in painting on water, he appeared in documentaries and music videos.
His latest work recently went viral: painting on black water, and using a thickening agent so that the insoluble colors could better float on the surface, Garip Ay recreated two famous Van Gogh paintings, the 1889 Starry night and the iconic Self-portrait. All in just 20 minutes (condensed in a 4-minute video).
The magic and wonder of this suprising exploit reside of course in Ay’s precise artistic execution, but what is most striking is the fluidity, unpredictability, precariousness of the aqueous support: in this regard, ebru really shows to be a product of the East.
There is no need to stress the major symbolic role played by water, and by harmonizing with its movements, in Eastern philosophical disciplines: painting on water becomes a pure exercise in wu wei, an “effortless action” which allows the color to organize following its own nature, while the artist gently puts its qualities to good use in order to obtain the desired effect. Thus, the very obstacle which appeared to make the endeavour difficult (the unsteady water, disturbed by even the smallest breath) turns into an advantage — as long as the artist doesn’t oppose it, but rather uses its natural movement.
At its heart, this technique teaches us a sublime lightness in dealing with reality, seen as a tremulous surface on which we can learn to delicately spread our own colors.
Tomorrow I will be at Winchester University to take part in a three-day interdisciplinary conference focusing on Death, art and anatomy. My talk will focus on memento mori in relation to the Capuchin Crypt in Rome — which, together with other Italian religious ossuaries, I explored in my Mors Pretiosa.
Waiting to tell you more about the event, and about the following days I will spend in London, I leave you with some curiosities to savour.
SynDaver Labs, which already created a synthetic cadaver for autopsies (I wrote about it in this post), is developing a canine version for veterinary surgery training. This puppy, like his human analogue, can breathe, bleed and even die.
Even if it turned out to be fake, this would still be one of the tastiest news in recent times: in Sculcoates, East Yorks, some ghost hunters were visiting a Nineteenth century cemetery when they suddenly heard some strange, eerie moanings. Ghost monks roaming through the graves? A demonic presence haunting this sacred place? None of the above. In the graveyard someone was secretely shooting a porno.
Speaking of unusual places to make love, why not inside a whale? It happened in the 1930s at Gotheburg Museum of Natural History, hosting the only completely taxidermied blue whale inside of which a lounge was built, equipped with benches and carpets. After a couple was caught having sex in there, the cetacean was unfortunately closed to the public.
In case you’ve missed it, there was also a man who turned a whale’s carcass into a theatre.
The borders of medieval manuscripts sometimes feature rabbits engaged in unlikely battles and different cruelties. Why? According to this article, it was basically a satire.
If you think warmongering rabbits are bizarre, wait until you see cats with jetpacks on their backs, depicted in some Sixteenth century miniatures. Here is a National Geographic article about them.
One last iconographic enigma. What was the meaning of the strange Sixteenth century engravings showing a satyr fathoming a woman’s private parts with a plumb line? An in-depth and quite beautiful study (sorry, Italian only) unveils the mystery.
Adventurous lives: Violet Constance Jessop was an ocean liner stewardess who in 1911 survived the Olympia ship incident. Then in 1912 she survived the sinking of the Titanic. And in 1916 the sinking of the Britannic.
The French came up with a wonderful expression, l’esprit de l’escalier. It’s that sense of frustration when the right witty answer to someone’s question or criticism pops up in your mind when you have already left, and you’re heading down the stairs (escalier).
This summer a friend asked me the question I should have always been waiting for, and that ironically nobody – not even those who know me well – ever asked me: “Why are you so interested in death?“
I remember saying something vague about my fascination with funeral rites, about the relevance of death in art, about every culture being actually defined by its relationship with the afterlife… Yet in my mind I was surprised by the triviality and impersonality of my answers. Maybe the question was a bit naive, like asking an old sailor what he finds so beautiful about ocean waves. But then again her curiosity was totally legitimate: why taking interest in death in a time when it is normally denied and removed? And how could I, after all these years of studying and writing, addressing far more complex issues, have not anticipated and prepared for such a direct question?
Maybe it was in an effort to make up for the esprit de l’escalier which had caught me that day, that I decided to meet up with like-minded people, who happen to cultivate my same interests, to try and understand their motivations.
Now, there is only one place in the world where I could find, all together, the main academics, intellectuals and artists who have made death their main focus. So, I flew up to Philadelphia.
The Death Salon, for those who haven’t heard of it, is an event organized by the death-positive movement revolving around Caitlin Doughty, whom I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing not long ago. It consists of two days of meetings, conferences, music and games, all of which explore death – in its multiple artistic, cultural, social and philosophical facets.
This year Death Salon took place in an exceptional location, inside Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, one of the best-known pathological anatomy museums in the world.
Besides the pleasure of finally meeting in person several “penfriends” and scholars I admire, I was interested in experiencing first-hand this new reality, to feel its vibes: I wanted to understand what kind of people could, in such a joyful and subversive way, define themselves as death aficionados, while trying to take this topic away from taboo through a more relaxed and open dialogue on everything death-related.
The variety of different Death Salon attendees impressed me from the start, and just like I expected every one of them had their own, very personal reasons to be there: there were writers researching ideas for their next novel, nurses who wanted to understand how they could better relate to the terminally ill, nice old ladies who worked as tour guides in nearby city museums, medical students, morticians, photographers and artists whose work for some reason included death, persons who were struggling to cope with a recent loss and who were hoping to find a more intimate comprehension for their suffering in that multicolored crowd.
The shared feeling was one of strange, subtle excitement: on a superficial level, it could almost seem like a gathering for “death nerds”, all enthusiastically chatting about grave robbers and adipocere in front of their coffee, just like others zealously discuss sports or politics. But that little sparkle in every participant’s eyes actually betrayed a more profound relief, one of being at last free to talk openly about their own fears, protected within a family which does not judge certain obsessions, feeling certain that even their most secret insecurity could be brought to light here.
We are all wounded, in the face of death, and it’s an ancient, ever open wound. The most memorable aspect of Death Salon is that the shame attached to such wound seemed to fade away, at least for the space of two days, and every pain or worry was channeled in a cathartic debate.
And in this context the various conferences, in their heterogeneity, little by little made it clear for me that there was not just one plain answer to the question that brought me there in the first place (“why are you so interested in death?”). Here is a summary of the works presented at Death Salon, and of the many concepts they suggested.
Death is damn interesting
Marianne Hamel is a forensic pathologist, and her report illuminated the differences between her real every-day job and its fictionalized version in movies and TV shows. To clarify the matter, she started off by declaring that she never performed an autopsy in the middle of the night under a single light bulb, nor she ever showed up at a crime scene wearing high heels; among the other debunked myths, “I can only guess the exact time of a victim’s death if they’ve been shot through their watch“. Some implications of her job, if they lack a Hollywood appeal, are actually incredibily important: to quote just one example, forensic pathologists have a clear idea of the state of public health before any other professional. They’re the first to know if a new drug is becoming trendy, or if certain dangerous behaviours are spreading through the population.
At Death Salon other peculiar topics were addressed, such as the difficulties in museum restoration of ancient Egyptian mummies (M. Gleeson), the correct way of “exploding” skulls to prepare them in the tradition of French anatomist Edmé François Chauvot de Beauchêne (R. M. Cohn), and the peptide mass fingerprinting method to assess whether a book is really bound in human skin (A. Dhody, D. Kirby, R. Hark, M. Rosenbloom). There were talks on illustrious dead and their ghosts (C. Dickey) and on Hart Island, a huge, tax-payed mass grave in the heart of New York City (B. Lovejoy).
Death can be fun
A hilarious talk by Elizabeth Harper, author of the delightful blog All The Saints You Should Know, focused on those Saints whose bodies miraculously escaped decomposition, and on the intricate (and far from intuitive) beaurocratic procedures the Roman Catholic Church has established to recognize an “incorrupt” relic from a slightly less prodigious one. It is interesting how certain things we Italians take for granted, as we’ve seen them in every church since we were children, come out as pretty crazy in the eyes of many Americans…
Can we turn a cemetery into a place for the living? At Laurel Hill cemetery, in Philadelphia, recreational activities, film screenings, charity marathons and night shows take place, as reported by Alexis Jeffcoat and Emma Stern.
If all this wasn’t enough to understand that death and entertainment are not enemies, on the last evening the Death Salon organized at the bar National Mechanics, in a jovial pub atmosphere, a Death Quizzo – namely a game show where teams battled over their knowledge of the most curious details regarding death and corpses.
Death is a painful poem
Sarah Troop, executive director of The Order of The Good Death and museum curator, bravely shared with the public what is probably the most traumatic experience of all: the loss of a young child. The difficulty Sarah experienced in elaborating her grief pushed her to seek a more adequate mindset in her Mexican roots. Here, small dead children become angelitos, little angels which the relatives dress up in embroidered clothes and who, being pure souls, can act as a medium between Earth and Heaven. The consolation for a mother who lost her child is in finding, inside a tradition, a specific role, wich modern secularized society fails to supply. And if pain can never go away, it is somehow shared across a culture which admits its existence, and instills it with a deeper meaning.
Death tells us some incredible stories Evi Numen illustrated the post-mortem scandal of John Frankford, who was victim of one of many truculent incidents that were still happening some thirty years after the Pennsylvania Anatomy Act (1867), due to the chronical lack of cadavers to dissect in medical schools.
And, speaking of gruesome stories, no tradition beats murder ballads, imported from Europe as a sort of chanted crime news. At the Death Salon, after a historical introduction by Lavinia Jones Wright, a trio of great musicians went on to interpret some of the most relevant murder ballads.
Death is a dialogue Dr. Paul Koudounaris, Death Salon’s real rockstar, explained the difference between cultures who set up a soft border in relation to their dead, as opposed to other cultures which build a hard boundary: in the majority of cultures, including our own until recent times, taking care of the corpses, even years after their death, is a way to maintain ancestors active within the social tissue. What Norman Bates did to his mother in Psycho, in Tana Toraja would be regarded as an example of filial devotion (I talked about it in this article).
Robert Hicks, director of Mütter Museum, explored the implications of displaying human remains in museums today, wondering about the evolution of post mortem imagery and about the politics and ownership of the dead. David Orr, artist and photographer, offered a review of symmetry in the arts, particularly in regard to the skull, a symbol that refers to our own identity.
Death must be faced and domesticated
Finally, various facets of dying were exposed, often complex and contradictory.
Death defines who we are, affirmed Christine Colby as she told the story of Jennifer Gable, a transgender who during her whole life fought to assert her identity, only to be buried by her family as a man. Death changes along with society, unveiling new layers of complexity.
Dr. Erin Lockard, despite being a doctor herself, while assisting her dying mother had to face other doctors who, maybe as a defense strategy, denied the obvious, delaying the old woman’s agony with endless new therapies.
In closing, here is someone who decided to teach death at the university. Norma Bowe‘s “Death in perspective” class has a three-years waiting list, and offers a series of practical activities: the students take field trips to hospices, hospitals and funeral homes, attend an autopsy, create spaces for meditation and build their own approach to death without philosophical or religious filters, through first-hand experience.
My opinion on Death Salon? Two intense and fruitful days, gone in a flash. Openly talking about death is essential, now more than ever, but – and I think this is the point of the whole Salon – it is also unbelievable, mind-bending fun: all that has been said, both by panelists and the audience, all these unexpected viewpoints, clearly prove that death is, even now, a territory dominated by wonder.
Still overloaded with stimuli, I pondered my unresolved question during the night flight back home. Why am I so fascinated with death?
Looking out the window towards the approaching coast of old Europe, with its little flickering lights, it became clear that the only possible answer, as I suspected from the beginning, was the most elementary one.
“Because being interested in death means to be interested in life“.
Meanwhile, a third volume of the Bizzarro Bazar Collection is in development, and will be available soon: after The Eternal Vigil and De Profundis, our next book will close this “trilogy” about Italian sacred places where a direct contact with death and human remains is still possible.
I would like to take the opportuinity to thank readers, who through comments and submissions contribute to keep this space alive. And I especially thank those who decided to donate through PayPal: they prove that, in Italy, we too can change the way of thinking, by actively supporting the work we love.
So we’re not celebrating ourselves: we are wishing “happy birthday” to the small independent community that in time has gathered around Bizzarro Bazar, a multitude of oddities enthusiasts, researchers of wonders, dream collectors and explorers of awe.