Stupire! – The Festival of Wonders

There are places where the sediments of Time deposited, through the centuries, making the atmosphere thick and stratified like the different, subsequent architectural elements one can detect within a single building: in these places, the past never seems to have disappeared, it seems to survive — or at least we believe we can feel its vestigial traces.

Rocca Sanvitale in Fontanellato (Parma) is one of such majestic places of wonder: it has been the scene of conspiracies, battles, sieges, as well as — certainly — of laughters, romance, banquets and joy; a place full of art (Parmigianino was summoned to paint the fresco in the Room of Diane and Actaeon in 1523) and science (at the end of XIX Century the count Giovanni Sanvitale installed an incredible optical chamber inside the South tower, a device still functioning today).
Here, History is something you breathe. Walking through the rooms of the castle, you wouldn’t be surprised to encounter one of those faded ghosts who incessantly repeat the same gesture, trapped in a sadness deeper than death itself.

And it’s right inside these walls and towers that the first edition of Stupire!, the Festival of Wonders, will be held: three days of surprising shows, workshops, experiments, meetings with mentalists and mad scientists. The purpose of the event is to spread culture in entertaining and unexpected ways, using the tools of illusionism.

Behind this initiative, supported by the municipality of Fontanellato and organized in collaboration with the  Circolo Amici della Magia di Torino, are two absolutely extraordinary minds: Mariano Tomatis and Francesco Busani.

If you follow my blog, you may already know them: they appeared on these pages more than once, and they both performed at my Academy of Enchantment.
Mariano Tomatis (one of my personal heroes) is the fertile wonder injector who is revolutionizing the world of magic from the outside, so to speak. Half historian of illusionism, half philosopher of wonder, and for another additional half activist of enchantment, Mariano fathoms the psychological, sociological and political implications of the art of magic, succeeding in shifting its focal point towards a new balance. Starting from this year, his Blog of Wonders is twinned to Bizzarro Bazar.
If Mariano is the “theorist” of the duo, Francesco Busani is the true mentalist, experienced in bizarre magick, investigator of the occult and unrivaled raconteur. As he explained when I interviewed him months ago, he was among the first magicians to perform one-to-one mentalism in Italy.
This partnership has already given birth to Project Mesmer, a hugely successful mentalism workshop. The Stupire! festival is the crowning result of this collaboration, perhaps their most visionary endeavour.

I will have the honor of opening the Festival, together with Mariano, on May 19.
During our public meeting I will talk about collecting curiosities, macabre objects, ancient cabinets of wonder and neo-wunderkammern. I will also bring some interesting pieces, directly from my own collection.

In the following days, besides Busani’s and Tomatis’ amazing talks performances (you really need to see them to understand how deep they can reach through their magic), the agenda features: Diego Allegri‘s trickeries and shadow puppets, street magic by Hyde, Professor Alchemist and his crazy experiments; Gianfranco Preverino, among the greatest experts in gambling and cheating, will close the festival.
But the event will not be limited to the inside of the castle. On Saturday and Sunday, the streets of Fontanellato will become the scene for the unpredictable guerrilla magic of the group Double Joker Face: surprise exhibitions in public spaces, baffling bystanders.
If that wasn’t enough, all day long on Saturday and Sunday, just outside the Rocca, those who seek forgotten oddities will have a chance to sift through a magic and antique market.

Lastly, Mariano Tomatis’ motto “Magic to the People!” will result in a final, very welcome abracadabra: all the events you just read about will be absolutely free of charge (until seats are available).
Three days of culture, illusionism and wonder in a place where, as we said in the beginning, History is all around. A week-end that will undoubtedly leave the participants with more enchanted eyes.
Because the world does not need more magic, but our own gaze does.

Here you can find the detailed schedule, complete with links to reserve seats for free.

Fumone, the invisible castle

If by “mystery”, even in its etymological root, we mean anything closed, incomprehensible and hidden, then the castrum (castle), being a locked and fortified place, has always played the role of its perfect frame; it is the ideal setting for supernatural stories, a treasure chest of unspeakable and terrible deeds, a wonderful screen onto which our fears and desires can be projected.

This is certainly the case with the castle of Fumone, which appears to be inseparable from myth, from the enigmatic aura surrounding it, mostly on the account of its particularly dramatic history.

Right from its very name, this village shows a dark and most ominous legacy: Fumone, which means “great smoke”, refers to the advance of invaders.
Since it was annexed to the Papal States in XI Century, Fumone had a strategic outpost function, as it was designated to warn nearby villages of the presence of enemy armies; when they were spotted, a big fire was lit in the highest tower, called Arx Fumonis. This signal was then repeated by other cities, where similar pillars of thick smoke rose in the sky, until the alert came to Rome. “Cum Fumo fumat, tota campania tremat”: when Fumone is smoking, all the countryside trembles.
The castle, with its 14 towers, proved to be an impregnable military fortress, overruling the armies of Frederick Barbarossa and Henry VI, but the bloodiest part of its history has to do with its use as a prison by the State of the Church.
Fumone became sadly well-known both for its brutal detention conditions and for the illustrous guests who unwillingly entered its walls. Among others, notable prisoners were the antipope Gregory VIII in 1124 and, more than a century later, Pope Celestine V, guilty of the “big refusal”, that is abdicating the Papal throne.

These two characters are already shrouded in legend.
Gregory VIII died incarcerated in Fumone, after he opposed the Popes Paschal II, Gelasius II and Callixtus II and was defeated by the last one. In a corridor inside the castle, a plaque commemorates the antipope, and the guides (as well as the official website) never forget to suggest that Gregory’s corpse could be walled-up behind the plaque, as his body was never found. Just the first of many thrills offered by the tour.
As for the gentle but inconvenient Celestine V, he probably died of an infected abscess, weakened by the hardship of detention, and the legend has it that a flaming cross appeared floating over his cell door the day before his death. On several websites it is reported that a recent study of Celestine’s skull showed a hole caused by a 4-inch nail, the unmistakable sign of a cruel execution ordered by his successor Boniface VIII; but when researching more carefully, it turns out this “recent” survey in fact refers to two different and not-so-modern investigations, conducted in 1313 and 1888, while a 2013 analysis proved that the hole was inflicted many years after the Saint’s death.
But, as I’ve said, when it comes to Fumone, myth permeates every inch of the castle, overriding reality.

Another example is the infamous “Well of the Virgin”, located on the edge of a staircase.
From the castle website:

Upon arriving at the main floor, you will be directly in front of the “Well of the Virgin”.  This cruel and medieval method of punishment was used by the Vassals of Fumone when exercising the “Right of the Lord” an assumed legal right allowing the lord of a medieval estate to be the first to take the virginity of his serfs’ maiden daughters. If the girl was found not to be a virgin, she was thrown into the well.

Several portals, otherwise trustworthy, add that the Well “was allegedly equipped with sharp blades“; and all seem to agree that the “Right of the Lord” (ius primae noctis) was a real and actual practice. Yet it should be clear, after decades of research, that this is just another legend, born during the passage from the Middle Ages to the modern era. Scholars have examined the legislations of Germanic monarchies, Longobards, Carolingians, Communes, Holy Roman Empire and later kingdoms, and found no trace of the elusive right. If something similar existed, as a maritagium, it was very likely a right over assets and not persons: the father of the bride had to pay a compensation to grant his daughter a dowry — basically, possessions and lands passed from father-in-law to son-in-law at the cost of a fee to the local landlord.
But again, why asking what’s real, when the idea of a well where young victims were thrown is so morbidly alluring?

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I would rather specify at this point that I have no interest in debunking the information reported on the castle’s website, nor on other sites. Legends exist since time immemorial, and if they survive it means they are effective, important, even necessary narratives. I am willing to maintain both a disenchanted and amazed look, as I’m constantly fascinated by the power of stories, and this analysis only helps clarifying that we are dealing, indeed, with legends.
But let’s go back to visiting the castle.

Perhaps the most bizarre curiosity in the whole manor house is a small piece of wooden furniture in the archive room.
In this room ancient books and documents are kept, and nothing can prepare the visitor for the surprise when the unremarkable cabinet is opened: inside, in a crystal display case, lies the embalmed body of a child, surrounded by his favorite toys. The lower door shows the dead boy’s wardrobe.

The somber story is that of “Little Marquis” Francesco Longhi, the eight and last child of Marchioness Emilia Caetani Longhi, and brother of seven sisters. According to the legend, his sisters did not look kindly upon this untimely heir, and proceded to poison him or bring him to a slow demise by secretly putting glass shreds in his food. The kid started feeling excruciating pains in the stomach and died shortly after, leaving his mother in the utmost desperation. Blinded by the suffering, the Marchioness called a painter to remove any sign of happiness from the family portraits, had the little boy embalmed and went on dressing him, undressing him, speaking to him and crying on his deathbed until her own death.

This tragic tale could not go without some supernatural twist. So here comes the Marchioness’ ghost, now and then seen crying inside the castle, and even the child’s ghost, who apparently enjoys playing around and moving objects in the fortress’ large rooms.

A place like Fumone seems to function as a catalyst for funereal mysteries, and represents the quintessence of our craving for the paranormal. It is no cause for indignation if this has become part of the castle’s marketing and communication strategies, as it is ever more difficult in Italy to promote the incredible richness of our own heritage. And in the end people come for the ghosts, and leave having learned a bit of history.
We would rather ask: why do we so viscerally love ghost stories, tales of concealed bodies and secret atrocities?

Fabio Camilletti, in his brilliant introduction to the anthology Fantasmagoriana, writes about Étienne-Gaspard Robert, known by the stage name of Robertson, one of the first impresarios to use a magic lantern in an astounding sound & light show. At the end of his performance he used to remind the audience of their final destiny, as a skeleton suddenly appeared out of nowhere.

Camilletti compares this gimmick to the idea that, ultimately, we ourselves are ghosts:

Robertson said something similar, before turning the projector back on and showing a skeleton standing on a pedestal: this is you, this is the fate that awaits you. Thus telling ghost stories, as paradoxical as it may seem, is also a way to come to terms with the fear of death, forgetting — in the enchanted space created by the narration, or by the magic lantern — our ephemeral and fleeting nature.

Whether this is the real motivation behind the success of  spook stories, or it’s maybe the opposite — a more mundane denial of impermanence which finds relief in the idea of leaving a trace after death (better to come back as a ghost than not coming back at all) — it is unquestionably an extremely powerful symbolic projection. So much so that in time it becomes stratified and lingers over certain places like a shadow, making them elusive and almost imaginary. The same goes for macabre tales of torture and murder, which by turning the ultimate terror into a narrative may help metabolyzing it.

The Longhi-De Paolis castle is still shrouded in a thick smoke: no longer coming from the highest tower, it is now the smoke of myth, the multitude of legends woven over history’s ancient skin. It would be hard, perhaps even fruitless in a place like this, to persist in discerning truth from symbolic construction, facts fom interpretations, reality from fantasy.
Fumone remains an “invisible” castle that Calvino would have certainly liked, a fortification which is more a mental representation than a tangible location, the haven of the dreamer seeking comfort (because yes, they do offer comfort) in cruel fables.

Here is Castle of Fumone‘s official site.

La wunderkammer della Cecchignola

Sorry, this entry is only available in Italiano.

The Postman’s Palace

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Ferdinand Cheval was born in 1836 in Charmes, a small village in the commune of Hauterives, a little less than one hundred kilometres from Lyon. Ferdinand’s mother, Rose, died when he was only eleven; as his family was very poor, a year later the little boy left school and started working with his father. The latter died a few years later, in 1854. Therefore Ferdinand Cheval, at the age of twenty, became assistant baker. After marrying the young Rosalie Revol, who was just 17, for a few years he went far from the country in search for a job, and accepted various occasional employment offers; he rejoined his wife in 1863 and their first child was born in 1864. One year later, the boy died.
Two years went by and their second child was born. In 1867, at the age of thirty-one, Ferdinand Cheval pledged to become a postman.
In 1873, his wife Rosalie died.

An ordinary life, afflicted by pain and job insecurity. Those were times of extreme poverty, in which hunger and diseases never ceased to claim victims. And yet the nineteenth century was also marked by the modernist turn – monarchy gave way to republic, sciences and medicine made progress in leaps and bounds, industry was just born, and so on. And the echo of these revolutions reached the French countryside. Ferdinand used to handle the first illustrated gazettes, namely the Magasin Pittoresque or La revue illustrée, but also the first postcards coming from all over the world; under the eyes of a poor delivery man from the countryside an exotic world opened up, made of super-fast railways, heroic colonization in Africa and Asia, spectacular and unbelievable discoveries presented at the first International Exhibitions… in other words, daily life was hard as usual but there was still plenty of fuel for dreams.

Ferdinand Cheval used to stack up thirty kilometres a day, always the same way. At that time a postman’s pace was very different from the current “motorized” one. In his journal he wrote:

What shall I do, perpetually walking through the same landscape, but dream? To take my mind off, I used to dream of building a fantastic palace…

But the eccentric daydreaming of this humble postman from the countryside would have stayed as such, if Nature hadn’t sent him a sign.
On the 19th April 1879 Ferdinand Cheval was 43 years old, and his life was about to change forever.

One day of April in 1879, while I was carrying out my usual tour as a countryside postman, a quarter-league before arriving at Tersanne, I was hastily walking when my foot stumbled on something that made me slide a few metres further, and wanted to know the cause. In a dream, I had built a palace, a castle or some caves, I cannot express it properly… I never told it to anyone for fear to seem ridiculous, and felt ridiculous myself. After fifteen years, when I had almost forgotten my dream, and didn’t think about it at all, my foot made me remember it. My foot had bumped into a stone that almost made me fall. I wanted to know what it was… The shape of the stone was so bizarre that I put it in my pocket in order to admire it whenever I liked. The day after, I went through the same place. I found more of them, even more beautiful, I picked up them all on the spot, was enchanted by them… It is a molasse worked by waters and hardened by the force of time. It becomes hard like rocks. It represents such a bizarre sculpture that it can’t be reproduced by any human being, you can read all kinds of animals, all kinds of parodies in it. I told myself: if nature wants to be a sculptress, I will deal with masonry and architecture.

The stone which awoke the sleeping dream.

That stone, discovered by chance, was something like a conversion on the road to Damascus for the postman. And Cheval didn’t draw back, in front of this obvious call to action: little by little, he started to set up his building site – although he had no education, nor the least idea about how a house should be built, let alone a fairy castle.
The country people started to take him for a fool. But all of a sudden life had presented him with a grandiose purpose and, although everyday he made his usual thirty kilometres on foot, there was a new sparkle in his eyes. The weight of the mail to be delivered was increased by that of stones: during the outward journey he selected and positioned them along the road and, on his return, he picked them up with his loyal barrow. Postman Cheval and his barrow became a true icon for the inhabitants of Hauterives.

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During his time off, every evening and every morning, Cheval continued to build the structure; he went ahead off the cuff, as a perfect autodidact, adding decoration after decoration without a real planning. Tireless, feverish, possessed by the grandeur of the task he was accomplishing.

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Postman Cheval started his work with a fountain, the “Source of Life”, then added the so-called “Cave of Saint Amadeus”, the Egyptian Tomb, and a series of pagodas, oriental temples, mosques, and other representations of sacred places, on show one besides the other; the Three Giants (Caesar, Vercingetorix, Archimedes) were in charge of mounting guard over the sculptural complex.

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The postman never had a rest. In 1894 Cheval saw another of his children die, the fifteen-year-old daughter he had by his second wife. Overwhelmed by this new loss, he retired after two years but continued to devote himself to his Palace. He was half the battle, he couldn’t stop.

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The Ideal Palace was not conceived as a real building, inhabitable, but as a monument dedicated to the brotherhood that unites people, regardless of their creed or origin: a mix of western and eastern forms and styles, an elaborate syncretism inspired by nature, postcards and the magazines that Cheval used to deliver. Sculpted figures, concrete palms, beasts, intertwined branches and columns decorated in arabesque surrounded the sacred representations or buildings; messages and poems by the builder should be reproduced on inscriptions and signs; finally, in the crypt, a small altar was dedicated to his inseparable barrow, that made all this possible and that Cheval used to call “my faithful mate of misery”…

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Postman Cheval achieved his Ideal Palace in 1912, after having devoted thirty-three years of his life to it. He commemorated it with a writing, visible under a stairway that runs along the Temple of Nature towards the Northern Façade:

1879-1912: 10,000 days, 93,000 hours, 33 years of obstacles and trials. The work of one single man.

Satisfied, Cheval announced that the monument would also be his tomb; but, surprisingly, authorities denied him the permission to be buried there. What should he do? Cheval didn’t lose heart.

After having achieved my dream Palace at the age of seventy-seven and after thirty-three years of hard work, I discovered I was still brave enough to build my tomb by myself at the Parish cemetery. There I worked hard for eight more years. I was lucky enough to complete this tomb called “The Tomb of Silence and endless rest” – at the age of 86. This tomb is about one kilometre from the village of Hauterives. Its manufacturing makes it very original, almost unique in the world, but its beauty comes from originality. After having seen my dream Palace, a high number of visitors go and see it, then they go back to their country in amazement, telling their friends that it is not a fairy-tale, it’s reality. See it and believe it.

In that same mausoleum Ferdinand Cheval obtained his well-deserved rest in 1924.

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“Le Tombeau du silence et du repos sans fin”.

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Shortly before his death, facteur Cheval had the satisfaction of seeing his Palace acknowledged by some artists and intellectuals as an extraordinary example of architecture, without rules or structures, a spontaneous and unclassifiable artwork. In 1920 André Breton brought him to attention as the pioneer of surrealism in architecture; then, as the concept of art brut emerged, Cheval was even more admired for his work; nowadays people prefer to use the term outsider art, or Naïve art, but the concept stays the same: as he didn’t have an artistic culture, Cheval took the liberty of making impulsive and non-academic choices that made the Palace a unique work in its own way. Picasso, Ernst, Tinguely, Niki de Saint Phalle all loved this crazy and incredible place, that – more or less explicitly – inspired several other fictitious “citadels”.
In 1969
André Malraux decided to protect the Palace as a historic monument, against the opinion of many other officials of the Ministry of Culture, with these motivations:

In a time when Naïve Art has become a remarkable reality, it would be childish not to protect – when we French are as lucky as to possess it – the only naïve architecture in the world, and wait for it to be destroyed.

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The small town of Hauterives is still there, between the hills and the fields, at the foot of the French Alps. And yet only in 2013 almost 160,000 visitors went on a pilgrimage to the Ideal Palace, today completely restored and in whose frame art exhibitions, concerts and events are organized.
And, as our gaze is lost for the umpteenth time in the tangled stone doodles, we are astonished by the idea that they have really been created by a simple postman who, with his barrow, scoured the countryside in search for bizarre stones; you can’t help thinking about the sardonic provocation that Cheval himself wrote on the front of his Palace:

If some of you is more stubborn than me, then set to work.

But this ironic remark, we like to read it also as an invitation and a challenge; an exhortation to cultivate stubbornness, madness and temerity – necessary for all those who really want to try and build their own “Ideal Palace”.

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Here is the official site of the Ideal Palace.

La biblioteca delle meraviglie – X

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Evertrip
TEGUMENTA
(2013, Edizioni Esperidi – www.tegumenta.it)

Oggi tutti leggono libri. Si legge tantissimo, spesso tomi di centinaia e centinaia di pagine, basta guardarsi in giro in spiaggia. Non è della quantità che dovremmo preoccuparci, ma della qualità. E se il panorama editoriale mainstream, in Italia, è avvilente, spesso anche quello underground non è migliore: i piccoli editori, che non se la passano benissimo, sono disposti a pubblicare qualsiasi cosa a pagamento. Quindi, oggi tutti scrivono libri.

Il problema di chi si immagina di saper scrivere, come risulta spesso evidente fin dalle righe iniziali, è che l’autore non è mai stato innanzitutto un vero lettore – dettaglio che l’avrebbe forse portato a cimentarsi con timore ed umiltà maggiori nell’arte letteraria, per amore e rispetto dei maestri che venera. Il difetto che maggiormente opprime questi “nuovi autori” è l’assoluta mancanza di una forma: talvolta un embrione di idea può anche far capolino fra le pagine, ma l’amore per la ricerca espressiva è un sentimento che davvero pochi sembrano conoscere o coltivare.

Per questo motivo salutiamo come un’insperata sorpresa il libriccino di Evertrip, al secolo Paolo Ferrante, classe 1984. Un libro che ricorda i surrealisti, a tratti le poesie di Arrabal, le sperimentazioni di Burroughs o del Ballard degli anni ’70. Il suo “dizionario emozionale” è un brillante tentativo di far respirare assieme parole e immagini (illustrazioni di cui l’autore stesso è responsabile), cercando costantemente la forma più inaspettata per setacciare le dialettiche interne di un rapporto sentimentale.

Ed è proprio la forma a farsi contenuto, perché Tegumenta si presenta a una prima occhiata come un dizionario minimo, in cui ogni lettera contiene soltanto uno o due vocaboli o locuzioni; all’asetticità del glossario si somma la propensione scientifico-clinica del linguaggio, che si propone di descrivere con piglio analitico le correlazioni fra sentimenti e anatomia.

Ma, ed è questo lo scarto poetico più interessante, ecco che di colpo l’oggettività delle “definizioni” subisce una deviazione improvvisa: passa, imprevedibile, dalla terza alla seconda persona singolare, rivolgendosi direttamente all’oggetto/soggetto del desiderio; fino a che, tra etimi implausibili (intriganti per lo sfaglio di senso che operano), distorsioni della realtà e sottili invenzioni iconografiche, tra involuzioni e rivoluzioni, è il linguaggio stesso ad implodere.

Ad esempio ecco che la definizione di bezoario diviene d’un tratto il simbolo per esprimere la vertigine sentimentale:

BEZOAR: 1. s.n. agglomerato di fibre vegetali (fibrobezoari) o di peli animali (tricobezoari) che si forma nello stomaco dell’uomo a seguito dell’ingestione abnorme di tali componenti. Nello stomaco genera uno stato di infiammazione cronico, seguito da lesioni sanguinanti della mucosa.
2. ti sento vera come il panico, infatti scivolo, scivolo nello stagno, ho le stoppie in gola, scivolo e non sono ancora pazzo, l’acqua è fredda e sembra un suicidio […]

Alla voce “epidermide” leggiamo:

EPIDERMIDE: s.f. lo strato morbido che ti separa dalle mie mani, situato fra la mia lingua e il tuo sangue.

In Tegumenta si percepisce la presenza di una “voce narrante”: è quella di un personaggio (mai esplicitato, visto che forse si confonde in parte con l’Autore) che potremmo definire il Catalogatore Psichico, ossessionato da un’impresa impossibile: quella di costruire un manuale per orientarsi fra gli strazi fisici, i dolori dell’anima e le convulsioni emotive che accompagnano ogni passione erotica. E se qua e là, in virtù degli slanci poetici e dei non detti, si riesce ad intravvedere il bagliore di un’illuminazione, ciò che rimane di tutto questo tortuoso classificare ogni piccolo moto dello spirito è il sentimento di impotenza al cospetto di misteri più grandi dell’umana comprensione: il corpo, la carne e le sue inconcepibili escrescenze, e l’amore che ne emerge come il più inspiegabile e irrazionale dei fenomeni.

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D. von Schaewen, J. Maizels, A. Taschen
FANTASY WORLDS
(1999, Taschen)

Fra gli splendidi volumi illustrati della Taschen, questo è uno fra i più preziosi. Un viaggio attraverso i cinque continenti, alla scoperta dei luoghi più affascinanti  e “incantati”: opere d’arte multiformi, barocche, oppure infantili, ma sempre sorprendenti. Il libro ci guida fra palazzi di conchiglie, bestiari fantastici scolpiti nelle falesie, parchi delle meraviglie, strane abitazioni dall’aspetto alieno, e si sofferma sui più interessanti esempi di outsider art. Molto spesso, infatti, dietro queste bizzarrie architettoniche si cela la mente di una sola persona, assillata dal “progetto di una vita”, e che partendo da materiali riciclati e umili ha saputo costruire qualcosa di unico. Sia che cerchiate qualche meta turistica fuori dalle classiche mappe, o che preferiate starvene sprofondati nel divano a fantasticare, questo libro è un compagno perfetto.

Le doppie esequie

Facendo riferimento al nostro articolo sulla meditazione orientale asubha, un lettore di Bizzarro Bazar ci ha segnalato un luogo particolarmente interessante: il cosiddetto cimitero delle Monache a Napoli, nella cripta del Castello Aragonese ad Ischia. In questo ipogeo fin dal 1575 le suore dell’ordine delle Clarisse deponevano le consorelle defunte su alcuni appositi sedili ricavati nella pietra, e dotati di un vaso. I cadaveri venivano quindi fatti “scolare” su questi seggioloni, e gli umori della decomposizione raccolti nel vaso sottostante. Lo scopo di questi sedili-scolatoi (chiamati anche cantarelle in area campana) era proprio quello di liberare ed essiccare le ossa tramite il deflusso dei liquidi cadaverici e talvolta raggiungere una parziale mummificazione, prima che i resti venissero effettivamente sepolti o conservati in un ossario; ma durante il disgustoso e macabro processo le monache spesso si recavano in meditazione e in preghiera proprio in quella cripta, per esperire da vicino in modo inequivocabile la caducità della carne e la vanità dell’esistenza terrena. Nonostante si trattasse comunque di un’epoca in cui il contatto con la morte era molto più quotidiano ed ordinario di quanto non lo sia oggi, ciò non toglie che essere rinchiuse in un sotterraneo ad “ammirare” la decadenza e i liquami mefitici della putrefazione per ore non dev’essere stato facile per le coraggiose monache.

Questa pratica della scolatura, per quanto possa sembrare strana, era diffusa un tempo in tutto il Mezzogiorno, e si ricollega alla peculiare tradizione della doppia sepoltura.
L’elaborazione del lutto, si sa, è uno dei momenti più codificati e importanti del vivere sociale. Noi tutti sappiamo cosa significhi perdere una persona cara, a livello personale, ma spesso dimentichiamo che le esequie sono un fatto eminentemente sociale, prima che individuale: si tratta di quello che in antropologia viene definito “rito di passaggio”, così come le nascite, le iniziazioni (che fanno uscire il ragazzo dall’infanzia per essere accettato nella comunità degli adulti) e i matrimoni. La morte è intesa come una rottura nello status sociale – un passaggio da una categoria ad un’altra. È l’assegnazione dell’ultima denominazione, il nostro cartellino identificativo finale, il “fu”.

Tra il momento della morte e quello della sepoltura c’è un periodo in cui il defunto è ancora in uno stato di passaggio; il funerale deve sancire la sua uscita dal mondo dei vivi e la sua nuova appartenenza a quello dei morti, nel quale potrà essere ricordato, pregato, e così via. Ma finché il morto resta in bilico fra i due mondi, è visto come pericoloso.

Così, per tracciare in maniera definitiva questo limite, nel Sud Italia e più specificamente a Napoli era in uso fino a pochi decenni fa la cosiddetta doppia sepoltura: il cadavere veniva seppellito per un periodo di tempo (da sei mesi a ben più di un anno) e in seguito riesumato.
“Dopo la riesumazione, la bara viene aperta dagli addetti e si controlla che le ossa siano completamente disseccate. In questo caso lo scheletro viene deposto su un tavolo apposito e i parenti, se vogliono, danno una mano a liberarlo dai brandelli di abiti e da eventuali residui della putrefazione; viene lavato prima con acqua e sapone e poi “disinfettato” con stracci imbevuti di alcool che i parenti, “per essere sicuri che la pulizia venga fatta accuratamente”, hanno pensato a procurare assieme alla naftalina con cui si cosparge il cadavere e al lenzuolo che verrà periodicamente cambiato e che fa da involucro al corpo del morto nella sua nuova condizione. Quando lo scheletro è pulito lo si può più facilmente trattare come un oggetto sacro e può quindi essere avviato alla sua nuova casa – che in genere si trova in un luogo lontano da quello della prima sepoltura – con un rito di passaggio che in scala ridotta […] riproduce quello del corteo funebre che accompagnò il morto alla tomba” (Robert Hertz, Contributo alla rappresentazione collettiva della morte, 1907).

Le doppie esequie servivano a sancire definitivamente il passaggio all’aldilà, e a porre fine al periodo di lutto. Con la seconda sepoltura il morto smetteva di restare in una pericolosa posizione liminale, era morto veramente, il suo passaggio era completo.

Scrive Francesco Pezzini: “la riesumazione dei resti e la loro definitiva collocazione sono in stretta relazione metaforica con il cammino dell’anima: la realtà fisica del cadavere è specchio significante della natura immateriale dell’anima; per questo motivo la salma deve presentarsi completamente scheletrizzata, asciutta, ripulita dalle parte molli. Quando la metamorfosi cadaverica, con il potere contaminante della morte significato dalle carni in disfacimento, si sarà risolta nella completa liberazione delle ossa, simbolo di purezza e durata, allora l’anima potrà dirsi definitivamente approdata nell’aldilà: solo allora l’impurità del cadavere prenderà la forma del ‹‹caro estinto›› e un morto pericoloso e contaminante i vivi si sarà trasformato in un’anima pacificata da pregare in altarini domestici . Viceversa, di defunti che riesumati presentassero ancora ampie porzioni di tessuti molli o ossa giudicate non sufficientemente nette, di questi si dovrà rimandare il rito di aggregazione al regno dei morti e presumere che si tratti di ‹‹male morti››, anime che ancora vagano inquiete su questo mondo e per la cui liberazione si può sperare reiterando il lavoro rituale che ne accompagni il transito. La riesumazione-ricognizione delle ossa è la fase conclusiva del lungo periodo di transizione del defunto: i suoi esiti non sono scontati e l’atmosfera è carica di ‹‹significati angoscianti››; ora si decide – in relazione allo stato in cui si presentano i suoi resti – se il morto è divenuto un’anima vicina a Dio, nella cui intercessione sarà possibile sperare e che accanto ai santi troverà spazio nell’universo sacro popolare”.

Gli scolatoi (non soltanto in forma di sedili, ma anche orizzontali o molto spesso verticali) sono inoltre collegati ad un’altra antica tradizione del meridione, ossia quella delle terresante. Situate comunemente sotto alcune chiese e talvolta negli stessi ipogei dove si trovavano gli scolatoi, erano delle vasche o delle stanze senza pavimentazione in cui venivano seppelliti i cadaveri, ricoperti di pochi centimetri di terra lasciata smossa. Era d’uso, fino al ‘700, officiare anche particolari messe nei luoghi che ospitavano le terresante, e non di rado i fedeli passavano le mani sulla terra in segno di contatto con il defunto.
Anche in questo caso le ossa venivano recuperate dopo un certo periodo di tempo: se una qualche mummificazione aveva avuto luogo, e le parti molli erano tutte o in parte incorrotte, le spoglie erano ritenute in un certo senso sacre o miracolose. Le terresante, nonostante si trovassero nei sotterranei all’interno delle chiese, erano comunemente gestite dalle confraternite laiche.

La cosa curiosa è che la doppia sepoltura non è appannaggio esclusivo del Sud Italia, ma si ritrova diffusa (con qualche ovvia variazione) ai quattro angoli del pianeta: in gran parte del Sud Est asiatico, nell’antico Messico (come dimostrano recenti ritrovamenti) e soprattutto in Oceania, dove è praticata tutt’oggi. Le modalità sono pressoché le medesime delle doppie esequie campane – sono i parenti stretti che hanno il compito di ripulire le ossa del caro estinto, e la seconda sepoltura avviene in luogo differente da quello della prima, proprio per marcare il carattere definitivo di questa inumazione.

Se volete approfondire ecco un eccellente studio di Francesco Pezzini sulle doppie esequie e la scolatura nell’Italia meridionale; un altro studio di A. Fornaciari, V. Giuffra e F. Pezzini si concentra più in particolare sui processi di tanametamorfosi e mummificazione in Sicilia. Buona parte delle fotografie contenute in questo articolo provengono da quest’ultima pubblicazione.

(Grazie, Massimiliano!)