A five-week course on the representation of death through the ages, a meeting at a curious film festival, a conference about a major archaeological find… here are September’s events!
Starting September 3, and continuing with a date every Saturday, I will teach a 5-week online course for Morbid Anatomy on the iconology of death from antiquity to social networks. It will be a richly illustrated journey spanning three thousand years, tracing the historical variations and semantic richness of allegories of death: from the depictions of the ancient world (Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Etruscans) to the medieval danse macabre, from the “Triumphs of Death” to Flemish vanitas, from dissected corpses in early modern anatomical illustrations to the morbid infatuations of nineteenth-century Romanticism, from surrealist experiments to contemporary artists who include authentic corpses in their works. Find more information and the opportunity to register on the Morbid Anatomy page; the course will be held via Zoom in English.
On Sept. 6, I will be a guest at Garofano Rosso, Italy’s “smallest and coldest” film festival to be held in Forme di Massa d’Albe (AQ). It’s been many years since this tiny hamlet in the heart of the Abruzzo Apennines served as the location for John Houston’s The Bible (1966) and Valerio Zurlini’s The Desert of the Tartars (1976); but, thanks to the good spirits of a group of passionate young folks, once a year Forme gets to “breathe cinema” again, with a surprisingly rich program of free screenings and events. When they invited me, I accepted enthusiastically, because on the one hand such an initiative cannot leave my cinephile soul cold (cinema has been my first love, and was my main job for almost twenty years), and on the other hand this is a moving example of cultural commitment and resistance.
Finally, on September 9, I will take part in a major conference, where the details of an exceptional historical find will be released. Nothing was known about the whereabouts of the remains of the Marquises Pallavicino, one of Italy’s most important feudal families, until a wooden box containing human bones and bearing the names of Gian Lodovico I, Anastasia Torelli, Rolando II and Laura Caterina Landi was discovered in 2020, walled inside the Basilica of Cortemaggiore (PC).
During the meeting (to be held at 9 p.m. at the Eleonora Duse Theater in Cortemaggiore) the results of the archaeological investigations carried out on the remains will be announced, and I will be in prestigious company: speakers include paleopathologist Dario Piombino-Mascali, bioarchaeologist Alessandra Morrone and historian Marco Pellegrini.
The short film The Death of David Cronenberg, published on September 19, 2021, is only 56 seconds long.
But these 56 seconds are disturbing, touching and unforgettable.
Signed by Cronenberg himself together with his daughter, the photographer Caitlin Cronenberg, it is a stripped-down scene focused on confronting one’s own mortality.
The Death of David Cronenberg is, according to the director himself, “a little metaphorical piece about a person embracing his own death. I embrace it, partially, because I have no choice: this is man’s fate.”
A brief and essential vision that is also intimately personal.
The director’s last years, in fact, were marked by two difficult griefs: in 2020 he lost Denise Cronenberg, his beloved sister and costume designer in most of his films, and three years earlier his wife Carolyn Zeifman had also passed away.
“[She] died in that house, in a bed, and it felt when she died, partly, like I died, and I still feel that. That corpse is my wife to me. […] It is a film about love and the transient aspect of being human.”
This dimension of personal confrontation also emerges from the peculiar genesis of this short film.
It all started with when his daughter Caitlin Cronenberg proposed him to make a short film to be tokenized as NFT.
Thinking of a possible project, the director was reminded of an episode that happened to him on the set of the SLASHER series, produced by Shudder.
As Cronenberg himself recounted, when he was working on the fourth season of the series “there was a moment, when the special effects people said, we’ve got a surprise for you,” Cronenberg said. “I was introduced to my corpse, and it was terrific.”
So, thinking back to that silicone prosthetic body, Cronenberg contacted Toronto’s Black Spot FX in order to borrow it, because “I have unfinished business with this dead version of me.”
Once the body was brought home (well hidden, so as not to alert the neighbors!), it was placed in Caitlin’s childhood bed. Cronenberg wasn’t immediately sure what to do with it: “I left it up there for a couple days and I’d occasionally just go and check it out. It had an emotional resonance for me.”
Therefore, in a sense, the short film accurately reflects the actual situation of the author, who in those days was locked in the house with the simulacrum of a corpse with his own features. A kind of bizarre shock therapy, as Cronenberg jokingly confirms: “To be able to actually kiss your [dead self], there’s no question it’s fantastic. I think everyone should do this. Everyone should have a corpse made by Black Spot FX.”
David Cronenberg’s cinema, in its entirety, proposes a complex artistic-philosophical reflection that is both surreal and materialistic: for the Canadian director, the exploration of the human psyche necessarily passes through the body, whose incessant and unpredictable mutations are the expression of the quivers of identity.
It is therefore not surprising that even his meditation on death and impermanence is rendered, in this very brief but incisive vision, in dramatically concrete, physical terms.
And at the same time the film is about the paradox of not being able to imagine one’s own death: even if I try to imagine what my funeral will be like, I need a hypothetical observer, because no image can exist without a point of view.
Even the death of others is no less elusive, because it is not empirical but on the contrary translates into a failure of the senses. I can depict in my mind the presence of a person but not their disappearance, which is expressed only “by proxy”, that is, in a sensory absence (all those moments in which the presence of the deceased was normal).
Figurative art — pictorial, plastic, photographic — has always been a way to overcome this impasse. As Mirko Orlando writes,
Death can only exist within the open circuit of life […] because its experience does not concern the deceased (those who die) but the community of survivors who mourn (those who survive). Death is an image because it is first of all imagined, because it can only be encountered on the horizon of its reflection; on the threshold of the corpse, of the photochemical or pictorial traces, of the imprecise boundaries of memories or in the labyrinths of the oneiric dimension. Only there can I meet the dead, only in their double, because it is clear that nothing else is allowed to me as long as I am alive.
(M. Orlando, Ripartire dagli addii, 2010)
That is why Cronenberg’s operation is also a hymn to the power of cinema: every artistic work is a representation, and this mise-en-scène makes it possible to manifest the impossible. Thanks to cinema, Cronenberg even allows himself to visualize the most elusive and inconceivable double: his own corpse, his own future “not being there”.
Finally, and it’s an even more subversive idea, he accepts that corpse, kisses it, cuddles it.
In an era in which at the center of every concern is the healthy body, whose failures (old age, illness, death) are not admitted or tolerated, this image is particularly unsettling and — a rare thing in his filmography — truly sweet.
First of all, above you can see one of the photos of LIVE animals in anthropomorphic poses made by Harry Whittier Frees.
Man of a thousand identities and unsurpassed cheater with cards; capable of deceiving bankers as well as the most hardened criminals (but isn’t that a bit the same thing?), and even capable of defrauding scammers; and, above all, the man who managed to sell the Eiffel Tower. All this was Victor Lustig, one of the greatest deceit artists ever.
At the end of the nineteenth century, a Russian doctor proposed a cutting-edge treatment to counter the damage caused by syphilis: being hung by the head. Suspension soon became a medical trend, spreading almost everywhere in Europe and even reaching the United States. But did it really work? Sofia Lincos and Giuseppe Stilo retrace the history of the bizarre treatment in this beautiful article (in Italian only).
The skeleton above belongs to a girl who died 300 years ago, and is perplexing archaeologists for two reasons: 1) her body was found in a cave in Poland, which in itself is already strange because in the area the latest cave burials date back to the Middle Ages; but if that wasn’t enough 2) she was buried with a finch’s head in her mouth. Maybe even two.
If you think geology is boring, the Spooky Geology website could make you change your mind, as it tackles underground mysteries, alternative theories, strange buried objects, anomalous phenomena, bottomless pits, extreme and dangerous places.
This gentleman wearing a mask and a wig might look creepy if you don’t know the context of the image: this is Dr. Anonymous, who delivered a historic and, in many ways, heroic speech at the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting in 1972.
Why this camouflage? The answer is contained in the first words of his speech: “I am a homosexual. I am a psychiatrist.”
At that time, coming out — besides causing discrimination, dismissals and evictions — was still reason enough to be interned in a psychiatric institution, subjected to brutal treatments such as electroshock, lobotomy, chemical castration. The fact that a psychiatrist came forward, albeit hiding his identity, to admit he was gay and protest the classification of homosexuality as a mental pathology, was a shock to the world of psychiatry. The name of the doctor who hid under the mask was John E. Fryer, and his speech was essential for homosexuality to be de-listed from the official list of mental disorders the following year.
One of the very first uses of the microwave oven was not at all to reheat the leftover pizza from the day before, but to revive frozen rats and hamsters in the laboratory. In this wonderful video Tom Scott not only tells the reasons and the challenges that were at the basis of this scientific research, but even interviews the inventor and scientist James Lovelock (102 years in July!): at the time he was the one who had the idea of using microwaves because, well, he felt sorry for the little frozen rodents.
17-year-old Bianca Passarge of Hamburg dances on wine bottles, June 1958.
A couple of urban explorers entered a recently abandoned house, and found something macabre and unexpected: on the corridor floor the body stain left by the corpse of the elderly owner was still visible.
The two decided to share all the photographic material taken inside the house on their blog, because the story reminds us “how elderly & alone people can often be forgotten & that we, us, everyone needs to do their part & check in on them.”
The most important question raised by this “reportage” might not be, in my opinion, the one heralded by the authors, but it concerns the ethical issues of entering a home, photographing every detail of the life of a recently deceased person, including the ghastly proof of her lonely death, and put it all online.
Let’s keep on talking about decomposition, but this time in a positive sense: here is a nice article that summarizes the fundamental ecological function of a carcass.
I took the photo above a few years ago, when I made a pilgrimage to the Castle of Valsinni, where the poet Isabella Morra spent her short and tragic life — first a recluse, and then murdered by her brothers who suspected her of an extramarital affair. Despite the very limited literary production (ten sonnets and three songs in all, here’s the only English edition I’ve found), the figure of Isabella Morra assumed importance thanks to the studies of Benedetto Croce and, in France, by Mandiargues who reinterpreted her life in a surrealist key in one of his plays.
Here is a passage from one of her most beautiful songs (‘Poscia che al bel desir…’); these verses demonstrate how Isabella’s work is inseparable from her condition of a young woman who, segregated in dramatic isolation, only found a glimmer of beauty in poetry, and in verses veiled in infinite melancholy.
Among the harsh customs
of irrational, unintelligent people,
where without support
I am forced to lead my life,
here left by everyone in blind oblivion. […]
I have passed what is called the flowery age,
all dry and dark, lonely and herm
here blind and infirm,
without ever knowing the value of beauty.
Riddle: The maternity / paternity test proves that your child is not yours. Exchanges of babies in cribs or extramarital affairs are to be excluded. So how is this possible?
Solution: He is the son of your unborn brother, who you absorbed into your body when you were still in the womb… since then you’ve been carrying two different DNAs.
A case of male and female chimerism.
The animal pictured above is neither a tick nor a spider, but an adorable wingless, eyeless fly of the Nycteribiidae family; a highly specialized parasite, it can be only found on the body of certain bats.
Andreas Vesalius (of whom I have already written several times), was among the principal initiators of the anatomical discipline.
An aspect that is not often considered is the influence that the frontispiece of his seminal De Humani Corporis Fabrica has had on the history of art.
Vesalius was probably the first and certainly the most famous among medical scholars to be portrayed in the act of dissecting a corpse: on his part, this was obviously a calculated affront to the university practice of the time, in which anatomy was learned exclusively from books. Any lecture was just a lectio, in that it consisted in the slavish reading of the ancient Galenic texts, reputed to be infallible. With that title page, a true hymn to empirical reconnaissance, Vesalius was instead affirming his revolutionary stance: he was saying that in order to understand how they worked, bodies had to be opened, and one had to look inside them.
Johannes Vesling, Syntagma Anatomicum (1647).
Giulio Cesare Casseri, Tabulae Anatomicae (1627, here from the Frankfurt edition, 1656)
Thus, after the initial resistance and controversy, the medical community embraced dissection as its main educational tool. And if until that moment Galen had been idolized, it didn’t take long for Vesalius to take his place, and it soon became a must for anatomists to have themselves portrayed on the title pages of their treatises, in the act of emulating their new master’s autopsies.
Anatomy lecture, School of Bartolomeo Passarotti (1529-1592)
Frontispiece commissioned by John Banister (ca. 1580)
Apart from some rare predecessors, such as the two sixteenth-century examples above, the theme of the “anatomy lesson” truly became a recurring artistic motif in the 17th century, particularly in the Dutch university context.
In group portraits, whose function was to immortalize the major anatomists of the time, it became fashionable to depict these luminaries in the act of dissecting a corpse.
Michiel Jansz van Miereveld, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Willem van der Meer (1617)
However, the reference to the dissecting practice was not just realistic. It was above all a way to emphasize the authority and social status of the painted subjects: what is still evident in these pictures is the satisfaction of the anatomists in being portrayed in the middle of an act that impressed and fascinated ordinary people.
Nicolaes Eliaszoon Pickenoy, The Osteology Lesson of Dr. Sebastiaes Egbertsz (1619)
The dissections carried out in anatomical theaters were often real public shows (sometimes accompanied with a small chamber orchestra) in which the Doctor was the absolute protagonist.
It should also be remembered that the figure of the anatomist remained cloaked in an aura of mystery, more like a philosopher who owned some kind of esoteric knowledge rather than a simple physician. In fact an anatomist would not even perform surgical operations himself – that was a job for surgeons, or barbers; his role was to map the inside of the body, like a true explorer, and reveal its most hidden and inaccessible secrets.
Christiaen Coevershof, The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Zacheus de Jager (1640)
Among all the anatomy lessons that punctuate the history of art, the most famous remain undoubtedly those painted by Rembrandt, which also constituted his first major engagement at the beginning of his career in Amsterdam. The Guild of Surgeons at the time used to commission this type of paintings to be displayed in the common room. Rembrandt painted one in 1632 and a second in 1656 (partially destroyed, only its central portion remains).
Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632)
Countless pages have been written about The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, as the painting is full of half-hidden details. The scene depicted here becomes theatrical, a space of dramatic action in which the group portrait is no longer static: each character is shown in a specific pose, turning his gaze in a precise direction. Thanks to an already wise use of light, Rembrandt exploits the corpse as a repoussoir, an element of attraction that suddenly pulls the viewer “inside” the painting. And the lifeless body seems to counterbalance the absolute protagonist of the picture, Dr. Tulp: slightly off-centered, he is so important that he deserves to have a light source of his own.
Perhaps the most ironic detail to us is that open book, on the right: it is easy to guess which text is consulted during the lectio. Now it is no longer Galen, but Vesalius who stands on the lectern.
Detail of the illuminated face of Dr. Tulp.
The umbra mortis, a shadow that falls on the eyes of the dead.
The navel of the corpse forms the “R” for Rembrandt.
Detail of the book.
Detail of tendons.
The way the dissection itself is portrayed in the picture has been discussed at length, as it seems implausible that an anatomical lesson could begin by exposing the arm tendons instead of performing the classic opening of the chest wall and evisceration. On the other hand, a renowned anatomist like Tulp would never have lowered himself to perform the dissection himself, but would have delegated an assistant; Rembrandt’s intent of staging the picture is evident. The same doubts of anatomical / historical unreliability have been advanced for the following anatomical lesson by Rembrandt, that of Dr. Deyman, in which the membranes of the brain may be incorrectly represented.
Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Deyman (1656)
But, apart from the artistic licenses he may have taken, Rembrandt’s own (pictorial) “lesson” made quite a lot of proselytes.
Cornelis De Man, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Cornelis Isaacz.’s Gravenzande (1681)
Jan van Neck, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Frederik Ruysch (1683)
Another curiosity is hidden in The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Frederck Ruysch by Jan van Neck. I have already written about Ruysch and his extraordinary preparations elsewhere: here I only remember that the figure that looks like a pageboy and exhibits a fetal skeleton, on the right of the picture, is none other than the daughter of the anatomist, Rachel Ruysch. She helped her father with dissections and anatomical preservations, also sewing lace and laces for his famous preparations. Upon reaching adulthood, Rachel set aside cadavers to become a popular floral painter.
Detail of Rachel Ruysch.
A century after the famous Tulp portrait, Cornelis Troost shows a completely different attitude to the subject.
Cornelis Troost, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Willem Roëll (1728)
This art work belongs to the transition period that takes us from humanism to modernism […]. Judging by the lack of interest in the students, the enlightened anatomy does not generate wonder in its students. A measure of disdain. The characters are dressed like French aristocrats with their powdered wig affecting wealth and power.
Anon., William Cheselden gives an anatomical demonstration to six spectators (ca. 1730/1740)
In Tibout Regters‘ version of the theme (below), the corpse has even almost completely disappeared: only a dissected head is shown, on the right, and it seems nothing more than an accessory to carelessly show off; the professors’ cumbersome pomposity now dominates the scene.
Tibout Regters, Lezione di anatomia del Dottor Petrus Camper (1758)
The rationalism and materialism of the Enlightenment era gave way, in the 19th century, to an approach largely influenced by romantic literature, as proof that science is inevitably connected with the imagination of its time.
Of all disciplines, anatomy was most affected by this literary fascination, which was actually bi-directional. On one hand, gothic and romantic writers (the Scapigliati more than anybody) looked at anatomy as the perfect combination of morbid charm and icy science, a new style of “macabre positivism”; and for their part the anatomists became increasingly conscious of being considered decadent “heroes”, and medical texts of the time are often filled with poetic flourishes and obvious artistic ambitions.
Thomas Eakins, The Gross Clinic (1875)
Thomas Eakins, The Agnew Clinic (1889)
This tendency also affected the representation of anatomical lessons. The two paintings above, by the American artist Thomas Eakins, painted respectively in 1875 and 1889, are not strictly dissections because they actually show surgical operations. Yet the concept is the same: we see a luminary impressing with his surgical prowess the audience, crowded in the shadows. The use of light underlines the grandiose severity of these heroic figures, yet the intent is also to highlight the innovations they supported. Dr. Gross is shown in the act of treating an osteomyelitis of the femur with a conservative procedure – when an amputation would have been inevitable until a few years earlier; in the second picture, painted fourteen years after the first, we can recognize how the importance of infection prevention was beginning to be understood (the surgical theater is bright, clean, and the surgeons all wear a white coat).
Georges Chicotot, Professor Poirier verifying a dissection (1886)
A painting from 1886 by physician and artist Georges Chicotot is a mixture of raw realism and accents of “involuntary fantasy”. Here, there’s no public at all, and the anatomist is shown alone in his study; a corpse is hanging from the neck like a piece of meat, bones lie on the shelves and purple patches of blood smear the tablecloth and apron. It’s hard not to think of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Enrique Simonet Lombardo, Anatomy of the heart (1890)
But the 19th century, with its tension between romanticism and rationality, is all ideally enclosed in the Anatomy of the heart by the Spanish artist Enrique Simonet. Painted in 1890, it is the perfect summary of the dual soul of its century, since it is entirely played on opposites. Masculine and feminine, objectivity and subjectivity, life and death, youth and old age, but also the white complexion of the corpse in contrast with the black figure of the anatomist. Once again there is no audience here, this is a very intimate dimension. The professor, alone in an anonymous autopsy room, observes the heart he has just taken from the chest of the beautiful girl, as if he were contemplating a mystery. The heart, a favorite organ for the Romantics, is represented here completely out of metaphor, a concrete and bloody organ; yet it still seems to holds the secret of everything.
J. H. Lobley, Anatomy Lessons at St Dunstan’s (1919)
With the coming of the 20th century the topos of the anatomy lesson gradually faded away, and the “serious” depictions became increasingly scarce. Yet the trend did not disappear: it ended up contaminated by postmodern quotationism, when not turned into explicit parody. In particular it was Dr. Tulp who rose to the role of a true icon, becoming the protagonist – and sometimes the victim – of fanciful reinventions.
Édouard Manet, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, copy from Rembrandt (1856)
Gaston La Touche, Anatomy of love (19 ??)
Georges Léonnec, The Anatomy Lesson of Professor Cupid (1918)
Although Manet had revisited the famous painting in the Impressionist manner in 1856, La Touche had imagined an ironic Anatomy of love, and Léonnec parroted Rembrandt with his cupids, it’s actually in the last quarter of the 20th century that Tulp began to pop up almost everywhere, in comics, films and television.
One of the most interesting variations was realized by Scottish photographer Laurence Winram: commissioned by the Edinburgh Medical School and featuring contemporary women medical students, it was designed to celebrate the “Edinburgh Seven“, the first group of female students enrolled in a British university in 1869, who were allowed to study medicine but not to graduate.
Laurence Winram (2020)
With the advent of the internet the success of the famous Doctor spread more and more, as his figure began to be photoshopped and replicated to infinity.
A bit like what happened to Mona Lisa, disfigured by Duchamp’s mustache, Tulp has now become the reference point for anyone who’s into black, un-pc humor.
Contemporary art increasingly uses the inside of the body as a subversive and ironic element. The fact that Tulp is still a “pop icon” on a global scale proves the enormous influence of Rembrandt’s painting; and of Vesalius who, with his frontispiece, started the motif of the anatomical lesson, thus leaving a deep mark in the history of visual arts.
This article originally appeared on the first number (entitled “Apocrifo Siciliano”) of the book/magazine Cariddi – Rivista Vorace, published by Rossomalpelo Edizioni. The magazine explores the forgotten, occult, magical and fantastical side of Sicily, in a collective effort which saw the participation of journalists, writers, illustratoris, literature scholars and photographers confronting Sicily’s countless faces.
Cariddi is in Italian only, but you can order it on Amazon and other online stores, or you can order a copy by writing an email to the publishing house.
You never forget your first. As soon as I entered the Capuchin Catacombs, I had the impression of finding myself in front of a gigantic exercitus mortuorum, a frightening army of revenants. Dead bodies all around, their skin parched and withered, hundreds of gaping mouths, jaws lowered by centuries of gravity, empty yet terribly expressive eye sockets. The feeling lasted a few seconds, because in reality down in the hypogeum so perfect a peace reigned that the initial bewilderment gave way to a different feeling: I felt I was an intruder.
A stranger, a living man in a sacred space inhabited by the dead; all those who come down here suddenly fall silent. The visitor is under scrutiny.
I was also alien to a culture, the Sicilian culture, showing such an inconceivable familiarity with the dead for someone born and raised in Northern Italy. Here death, I thought, was not hidden behind slabs of marble, on the contrary: it was turned into a spectacle. Presented theatrically, exhibited as mirabilis – worthy of admiration – here was on display the true repressed unconscious of our time: the Corpse.
The Corpse had been carefully worked by the friars, following a process refined over time. One of the technical terms anthropologists use to indicate the process of draining and mummifying bodies is “thanato-metamorphosis”, which gives a good idea of the actual, structural transformation to which the body is subjected.
Moreover, such conservation was considerably expensive, and only the wealthiest could afford it (even in death, there are first and second class citizens). But this is not surprising if we think of the countless monumental citadels of the dead, which the living are willing to raise at the cost of enormous efforts and fortunes. What struck me, as I strolled by the mummies, was that in this case the investment didn’t have the purpose of building a grand, sumptuous mausoleum, but rather of freezing, as much as possible, the features of these dead people over time.
Ah yes, time. Down there time flowed differently than on the city surface, or perhaps it didn’t flow at all. As if suspended by miracle, time had stopped devouring and transfiguring all matter.
As I dwelled on ancient faces, worn out clothes, and withered hands, the purpose of this practice became clear: it was meant to preserve not just the memory of the deceased, but their very identity.
Unlike the basic concept behind ossuaries, where the dead are all the same, the mummification process has the virtue of making each body different from the other, thus giving the remains a distinct personality – an effect further amplified if a mummy is dressed in the clothes he or she wore when alive.
Among all the barriers men have raised in the quixotic attempt to deny impermanence, this is perhaps the one that comes closest to success; it is a strange strategy, because instead of warding off death, it seems to embrace it until it becomes part of everyday life. So these individuals never really died: family members could come back and visit them, talk to them, take care of them. They were ancestors who had never quite crossed the threshold.
Little by little, I began sensing the benign and sympathetic nature of the mummies’ gaze – the kindness that shines through anyone who’s really aware of mortality. Their skeletal faces, which could be frightening at first, actually appeared serene if observed long enough; so much so that I was no longer sure I should pity their condition. Within me I began a sort of conversation with this silent crowd, the guardians of an inviolable secret. Perhaps, as their whispers reached out for me from the other side, all they were trying to do was reassure me; maybe they were talking the end of all trouble.
That unspoken, mysterious dialogue between us never stopped since that day.
A few years later I returned to the Catacombs together with photographer Carlo Vannini. We stayed about a week in the company of mummies, day and night. Who knows if they recognized me? For my part I learned to tell them apart, one by one, and to discern each of their voices – for they still called me without words.
My first book, published for Logos Edizioni, was The Eternal Vigil.
In 2017 the book was reissued with a preface by the scientific conservator of the catacombs, paleopathologist Dario Piombino-Mascali – who in turn, as I’m writing this, has just published what promises to be the definitive historical-scientific guide on the Catacombs, for Kalòs Edizioni.
From the analysis of mummies a paleopathologist is able to get clues about their life habits, and unravel their personal history: to an expert like him, these bodies really do speak. But I am sure that in this very moment they’re also whispering to the visitors who just descended the staircase and stepped into the underground corridors, enchanted by the extraordinary vision.
These mummies, to which I am bound by ties inscrutable and deep, murmur to anyone who really knows how to listen.
William Lanne, considered Tasmania’s last “full-blood” Aboriginal, was born in Coal River around 1835. At the age of seven, he and his family were transferred to Flinders Island‘s Aboriginal settlement; when he was twelve, the surviving Aboriginal people (a group of about 40) were moved to Oyster Cove, 56 kilometers south of Hobart. Here, in 1847, William entered Queen’s Orphan Asylum. It is precisely at Oyster Cove that, apart from his journeys at sea, Lanne spent all of her life.
William Lanne with his wife Truganini (left).
The Aboriginals were often employed aboard whaling boats, assigned to the mast because of their excellent sight. William Lanne, on the account of a cheerful spirit, became popular among fellow sailors as “King Billy” and despite this royal nickname, he led an anonymous existence, divided between the hard days at sea and drinking at the pub with his friends.
In February 1869, after a long trip aboard the Runnymede, William returned unhealthy. He spent his last wages in beer and rum at the local tavern, a hangout for prostitutes and whalers, and after a week he fell ill with choleric diarrhea. On March 3rd he died while getting dressed for the hospital.
His body was brought to the General Hospital by order of Dr. Crowther. And here the trouble began, because to many people William Lanne’s body looked incredibly tempting.
∼The Object of Desire ∼
In the 19th century, comparative anatomy was among the hottest themes within the scientific community. The study of the shape of the skull, in particular, was of paramount importance not so much on a medical level as in the broader context of the theory of races.
Through craniometric and phrenological measurements, and by comparing various physical characteristics, racial classifications were compiled: for example, it was claimed that one race was equipped with a heavier brain than the other, an irrefutable proof of greater intelligence; the physiognomic peculiarities of a race proved its proximity to monkeys, thus ranking it further down the racial scale; a robust constitution was deemed to increase the chances of survival, and so on. No need to wonder who occupied the peak of evolution, in these charts created by white men.
If the Europeans were the most suitable for survival, then it was all too clear that the Aboriginal Tasmanians (who were often confined to the bottom ranks of these charts) would soon be extinct just like dodos and dinosaurs. Any violence or abuse was therefore justified by the inevitable, “natural” white supremacy.
To prove these theories, ethnologists, anatomists and archaeologists were constantly looking for prime examples of skulls. Aboriginal human remains, however, were very scarce and therefore among the most requested.
This was the reason why, as soon as the last “full-blood” Tasmanian was dead, a war broke out to decide who would win his skeleton: William Lanne received more attention after his death than he ever had while he was alive.
William Crowther (1817-1885)
Right from the start two opposing factions formed around the issue of his remains.
On one side was Dr. William Crowther, the doctor who had pronounced him dead. For a long time he had been desperately searching for an Aboriginal skeleton to send to the curator of London’s Hunterian Museum. He claimed that this gift would benefit relationships betweeen Tasmania and the British Empire, but in all evidence his true intent was to curry favour with the prestigious Royal College of Surgeons.
On the opposite front, the most powerful scientific society of Tasmania, the Royal Society, claimed that the precious remains were a national heritage and should remain in the Society’s own museum.
Disguised under an alleged scientific relevance, this was actually a political struggle.
The premier Richard Dry immediately realized this, being called to decide on the delicate matter: his move was initially favorable to the Royal Society, perhaps because it had strict ties to his government, or perhaps because Dry had had some pretty rough political divergences with Crowther in the past.
Anyways, it was established that the body would remain in Tasmania; but Dry, being a fervent Christian, decided that the last Aboriginal would need, first of all, to be granted a proper funeral. Well aware of Crowther’s impatience to get his hands on the skeleton, he ordered the new head of the hospital, Dr. George Stockell, to prevent anything happening to the body.
∼The Desecration, Act One: Crowther ∼
The following day Stockell and Crowther met on the street and they immediately went into a dispute; Crowther claimed to have a right on the body, and Stockell replied he had received clear orders to protect Lanne’s corpse.
When surprisingly Crowther invited him to dinner at 8pm, Stockell must have naively thought it was an attempt to reconcile. Upon showing up at Crowther’s at the agreed time, however, he discovered that the doctor was absent: he found his wife instead, who welcomed him into their home and who seemed particularly loquacious, and “kept him talking“…
Meanwhile Crowther had to act quickly with the favor of twilight.
Assisted by his son, he entered the hospital and headed for the morgue. There he focused on the body of an elderly white gentleman: he beheaded the old man, and swiftly peeled his head to get hold of his skull. He then moved to the adjoining room, where William Lanne’s body was laying.
Crowther made an incision down the side of Lanne’s face, behind his right ear; removing the skin off the face and forcing his hands underneath, he extracted the Aboriginal’s skull and replaced it with the one he had just taken from the other corpse.
He then stitched up Lanne’s face, hoping no one would notice the difference, and disappeared into the night with his precious loot.
Stockell remained with Crowther’s wife until 9pm, when he eventually sensed something was wrong and returned to the hospital. Despite Crowther’s precautions, it did not take Stockell very long before he figured out what had just happened.
∼The Desecration, Act Two: Stockell and the Royal Society ∼
Instead of alerting the authorities, Stockell immediately notified the secretary of the Royal Society regarding the mutilations carried out on the corpse. After a brief consultation with other society members, it was deemed imperative to secure the most important parts of the body before Crowther attempted to return for more.
Therefore Lanne’s feet and hands were cut off and hidden in the Royal Society museum.
The funeral took place on the scheduled day, Saturday 6 March. An unexpectedly large crowd gathered to salute King Billy, the last true Aboriginal: there were mainly sailors, including the Captain of the Runnymede who had payed for the funeral, and several Tasmanian natives.
However, rumors began to spread of a horrific mutilation suffered by Lanne’s corpse, and Dry was asked to exhume the body for verification. The premier, waiting to open the official investigation, ordered the grave be guarded by two police agents until Monday.
But early on Sunday it was discovered that the burial place had been devastated: the coffin lay exposed on loose earth. There was blood all around, and Lanne’s body was gone. The skull of the old man, the one that had been substituted inside the corpse, had been discarded by the graverobbers and thrown next to the grave.
Meanwhile, an increasingly furious Crowther was far from giving up, especially now that he’d seen the missing parts of “his” Aboriginal stolen that way.
On Monday afternoon he broke into the hospital with a group of supporters. When Stockell commanded him to leave, Crowther responded by hammering in a panel of one of the wards and forcing the morgue door.
Inside the scene was gruesome: on the dissecting table there were pieces of meat and bloody fat masses. Lanne had been deboned.
Not finding the coveted skeleton, Crowther and his mob left the hospital.
∼When All Are Guilty, No One Is ∼
The investigation led to an unfavorable result especially for Crowther, who was suspended from the medical profession, while his son saw his permission to study at the hospital revoked. As for the Royal Society, although Stockell admitted he had cut the hands and feet off the corpse, it was felt that there was not sufficient evidence for a conviction.
Even if nothing came out of the investigation, this terrible episode shook the public opinion for more than one reason.
On the one hand, events had uncovered the rotten reality of scientific and state institutions.
William Lanne’s body had been profaned – likewise, that of a white man had been desecrated.
The doctors had been proven to be abject and unscrupulous – and so had the cops, who were evidently bribed into leaving their post guarding the grave.
Hospital security measures had proved to be laughable – the same was true of St. David’s, the largest urban cemetery in the city.
The government’s actions had been far from impartial or decisive – but the behavior of the Royal Society had been equally obscure and reprehensible.
As a newspaper summed it up, the incident had shown that “the common people have a better appreciation of decency and propriety than such of the so-called upper classes and men of education“.
John Glover, Mount Wellington and Hobart Town from Kangaroo Point (1834)
But the second reason for indignation was that the last Aboriginal had been treated as meat in a slaughterhouse.
A horrendous act, but sadly in line with the decimation of Tasmanian natives in what has been called a full-on genocide: in little more than seventy years since the first settlers arrived, virtually the entire population of the island had been wiped out. Just like his land and his people before him, William Lanne had been avidly divided among whites – who were seeking to demonstrate his racial inferiority.
Even with all the racist rhetoric of the time, it was hard not to feel guilty. When someone proposed to erect a memorial for Lanne, shame prevailed and no memorial was built.
∼Epilogue: Much Horror About Nothing ∼
The one who eventually earned himself an impressive statue, however, was William Crowther.
The doctor entered politics shortly after the bloody events, and a successful career led him to be elected prime minister of Tasmania in 1878.
No wonder he had so many supporters, because nothing is ever just black or white: despite the murky episode, Crowther was well-liked because as a doctor he had always provided medical care for the poor and the natives. He remained in politics until his death in 1885; he declared he never lost a night’s sleep over “King Billy’s head”, as he always claimed the whole affair had been a set-up to discredit him.
Statue of William Crowther, Franklin Square, Hobart.
Stockell, for his part, was not reappointed house surgeon at the hospital at the end of his probationary period, and moved to Campbell Town where he died in 1878.
The Lanne scandal had at least one positive consequence: in the wake of the controversy, Tasmania promulgated its first Anatomy Bill in August 1869, regulating the practice of dissections.
What about the bones of William Lanne?
His skeleton was almost certainly hidden among the properties of the Royal Society museum. We ignore what happened to it.
The same goes for his skull, as no one ever heard of it anymore. Yet strangely, Crowther was appointed a gold medal from the Royal College of Surgeons in 1874 for his “valuable and numerous contributions” to the Hunterian museum. What exactly these contributions were, we do not know exactly; but it is natural to suspect that the honorary fellowship had something to do with the infamous Lanne skull, maybe shipped to London in secret.
However, there is not enough evidence to prove beyond doubt that the skull ever got to England, and the Royal College of Surgeons’ collection of human crania was destroyed during the Nazi bombings.
Royal College of Surgeons, early 20th century.
What is certain is that Crowther risked everything he had, his reputation and his profession, for that one skull. And here is the bitter irony: in 1881, the Hunterian curator himself publicly questioned the validity of craniology in determining the alleged races.
Today it is clear that this axious cataloguing and classifying was “a futile effort“, since “the concept of race in the human species has not obtained any consensus from the scientific point of view, and it is probably destined not to find it” (from The History and Geography of Human Genes, 2000).
Regardless of where they were kept hidden, neither the skull nor the skeleton of William Lanne were ever scientifically studied, and they did not appear in any research.
After all that was done to expropriate them, conquer them and annex them to one collection or another, and despite their supposedly fundamental relevance to the understanding of evolution, those human remains were forgotten in some crate or closet.
The important thing was to have them colonized.
The main source for this article is Stefan Petrow, The Last Man: The Mutilation of William Lanne in 1869 and Its Aftermath (1997), PDF available online.
Also interesting is the story of Truganini, William Lanne’s wife and the last “full-blood” Aboriginal woman, who suffered a less dramatic but somewhat similar post-mortem calvary.
The procedure used by Crowther to replace a skull without disfiguring the corpse has its own fascinating story, as told by Frances Larson in Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found (2014) – a book I can never praise enough.
Italian conductor Guido Rimonda, a violin virtuoso, owns an exceptional instrument: the Leclair Stradivarius, built in 1721.
Just like every Stradivarius violin, this too inherited its name from its most famous owner: Jean-Marie Leclair, considered the father of the French violin school, “the most Italian among French composers”.
But the instrument also bears the unsettling nickname of “black violin” (violon noir): the reason lies in a dark legend concerning Jean-Marie Leclair himself, who died in dramatic and mysterious circumstances.
Born in Lyon on May 10, 1697, Leclair enjoyed an extraordinary career: he started out as first dancer at the Opera Theatre in Turin – back in the day, violinists also had to be dance teachers – and, after settling in Paris in 1728, he gained huge success among the critics and the public thanks to his elegant and innovative compositions. Applauded at the Concerts Spirituels, author of many sonatas for violin and continuous bass as well as for flute, he performed in France, Italy, England, Germany and the Netherlands. Appointed conductor of the King’s orchestra by Louis XV in 1733 (a position he held for four years, in rotation with his rival Pierre Guignon, before resigning), he was employed at the court of Orange under Princess Anne. His decline began in 1746 with his first and only opera work, Schylla and Glaucus, which did not find the expected success, despite the fact that it’s now regarded as a little masterpiece blending Italian and French suggestions, ancient and modern styles. Leclair’s following employment at the Puteaux Theatre, run by his former student Antoine-Antonin Duke of Gramont, ended in 1751 because of the Duke’s financial problems.
In 1758 Leclair left his second wife, Louise Roussel, after twenty-eight years of marriage and collaboration (Louise, a musician herself, had copper-etched all of his works). Sentimentally as well as professionally embittered, he retired to live alone in a small house in the Quartier du Temple, a rough and infamous Paris district. Rumors began to circulate, often diametrically opposite to one another: some said that he had become a misanthropist who hated all humanity, leading a reclusive life holed up in his apartments, refusing to see anyone and getting his food delivered through a pulley; others claimed that, on the contrary, he was living a libertine life of debauchery.
Not even the musician’s death could put an end to these rumors – quite the opposite: because on the 23rd of October 1764, Jean-Marie Leclair was found murdered inside his home. He had been stabbed three times. The killer was never caught.
In the following years and centuries, the mystery surrounding his death never ceased to intrigue music lovers and, as one would expect, it also gave rise to a “black” legend.
The most popular version, often told by Guido Rimonda himself, holds that Leclair, right after being stabbed, crawled over to his Stradivarius with his last breath, to hold it against his chest.
That violin was the only thing in the world he still truly loved.
His corpse was found two months later, still clutching his musical instrument; while the body was rotting away, his hand had left on the wood a black indelible stain, which is still visible today.
The fact that this is indeed a legend might be proved by police reports that, besides never mentioning the famous violin, describe the discovery of the victim the morning after the murder (and not months later):
On the 23rd of October 1764, by early morning, a gardener named Bourgeois […] upon passing before Leclair’s home, noticed that the door was open. Just about that time Jacques Paysan, the musician’s gardener, arrived at the same place. The violinist’s quite miserable abode included a closed garden.Both men, having noticed Leclair’s hat and wig lying in the garden, looked for witnesses before entering the house. Together with some neighbors, they went inside and found the musician lying on the floor in his vestibule. […] Jean-Marie Leclair was lying on his back, his shirt and undershirt were stained with blood. He had been stabbed three times with a sharp object: one wound was above the left nipple, one under his belly on the right side, and the third one in the middle of his chest. Around the body several objects were found, which seemed to have been put there deliberately. A hat, a book entitled L’élite des bons mots, some music paper, and a hunting knife with no blood on it. Leclair was wearing this knife’s holster, and it was clear that the killer had staged all of this. Examination of the body, carried out by Mister Pierre Charles, surgeon, found some bruises on the lumbar region, on the upper and lower lips and on the jaw, which proved that after a fight with his assassin, Leclair had been knocked down on his back.
The police immediately suspected gardener Jascques Paysan, whose testimony was shaky and imprecise, but above all Leclair’s nephew, François-Guillaume Vial.
Vial, a forty-year-old man, was the son of Leclair’s sister; a musician himself, who arrived in Paris around 1750, he had been stalking his uncle, demanding to be introduced at the service of the Duke of Gramont.
According to police report, Vial “complained about the injustice his uncle had put him through, declared that the old man had got what he deserved, as he had always lived like a wolf, that he was a damned cheapskate, that he begged for this, and that he had left his wife and children to live alone like a tramp, refusing to see anyone from the family”. Vial provided a contradictory testimony to the investigators, as well as giving a blatantly false alibi.
And yet, probably discouraged by the double lead, investigators decided to close the case. Back in those days, investigations were all but scientific, and in cases like this all the police did was questioning neighbors and relatives of the victim; Leclair’s murder was left unsolved.
But let’s get back to the black stain that embellishes Rimonda’s violin. Despite the fact that the sources seem to contradict its “haunted” origin, in this case historical truth is much less relevant than the legend’s narrative breadth and impact.
The violon noir is a uniquely fascinating symbol: it belonged to an artist who was perfectly inscribed within the age of Enlightenment, yet it speaks of the Shadows.
Bearing in its wood the imprint of death (the spirit of the deceased through its physical trace), it becomes the emblem of the violence and cruelty human beings inflict on each other, in the face of Reason. But that black mark – which reminds us of Leclair’s last, affectionate and desperate embrace – is also a sign of the love of which men are capable: love for music, for the impalpable, for beauty, for all that is transcendent.
If every Stradivarius is priceless, Rimonda’s violin is even more invaluable, as it represents all that is terrible and wonderful in human nature. And when you listen to it, the instrument seems to give off several voices at the same time: Rimonda’s personality, as he sublimely plays the actual notes, blends with the personality of Stradivari, which can be perceived in the amazingly clear timber. But a third presence seems to linger: it’s the memory of Leclair, his payback. Forgotten during his lifetime, he still echoes today through his beloved violin.
You can listen to Rimonda’s violin in his album Le violon noir, available in CD and digital format.