Napoleon’s Penis

The surgical tool kit that was used to perform the autopsy on Napoleon’s body at Saint Helena is on display at the Museum of History of Medicine in Paris.
But few people know that those scalpels probably also emasculated the Emperor.

In his last few months on Saint Helena, Napoleon suffered from excruciating stomach pains. Sir Hudson Lowe, the governor of the island under whose control Bonaparte had been confined, dismissed the whole thing as a slight anemia. Yet on May 5, 1821 Bonaparte died.
The autopsy conducted the following day by Napoleon’s personal physician, Francesco Carlo Antommarchi, revealed that he had been killed by a stomach tumor, aggravated by large ulcers (although the actual causes of death have been debated).
But during the autoptic examination Antommarchi apparently took some liberties.

Francesco Carlo Antommarchi

The heart was extracted and put in in a vase filled with spirit; it was meant to be delivered to the Emperor’s second wife, Maria Luisa, in Parma. In reality, she must have been hardly impressed by such a token of love, since a few months after Napoleon’s death she already married her lover. The stomach, that cancerous organ responsible for Napoleon’s death, was also removed and preserved in liquid. Antommarchi then made a cast of Bonaparte’s face, from which he later produced the famous death mask displayed at the Musée de l’Armée.

But at this point the doctor from Marseilles decided he’d grab a further, macabre trophy: he severed Napoleon’s penis. Antommarchi’s motives for this extra cut are unclear. Some speculate it might have been some sort of revenge for the way the irascible Napoleon mistreated him in the last few months; according to other sources, the doctor (sometimes described as an ignorant and disrespectful man) simply thought he could make a profit out of it.

But perhaps it was not even Antommarchi who took the controversial specimen. Thirty years later, in 1852, Mamluk Ali (Louis-Etienne Saint-Denis, Napoleon’s most faithful valet) published a memorial in the Revue des Mondes. In the article, Ali attributed the responsibility of this mutilation to himself and to Abbot Angelo Paolo Vignali, the chaplain who administered extreme unction to Bonaparte. He stated that he and Vignali had removed some unspecified “portions” of Napoleon’s corpse during the autopsy.

All these stories are quite dubious; it seems unlikely that such a disfigurement could go unnoticed. Five English doctors, plus three English and three French officers, were present at Napoleon’s autopsy. After the embalming, his faithful waiter Marchand dressed his body in uniform. How come no one noticed the absence of manhood on the body of the “little corporal”?

In any case,  what may or may not have been Napoleon’s true penis, but a penis nonetheless, began to circulate in Europe.
And even if it’s unclear who was responsible for severing it, in the end it was chaplain Vignali who smuggled it back to Corsica, along with more conventional mementos (documents and letters, a few pieces of silverware, a lock of hair, a pair of breeches, etc.), and the organ passed to his heirs upon Vignali’s death in a bloody vendetta in 1828. It remained in the family for almost a century, and was finally purchased by an anonymous buyer at an auction in 1916, together with the entire collection. In the auction catalog, the penis was described with a euphemism: “mummified tendon“.

After being bought by the famous antiquarian bookstore Maggs of London, the lot was resold in 1924 to Philadelphia collector Abraham Simon Wolf Rosenbach, who exhibited it three years later at the Museum of French Art in New York. Here the penis of Napoleon was on public display for the first and only time, and a jouranlist described it as a “maltreated strip of buck-skin shoelace or a shriveled eel“.

In 1944 Rosenbach sold the collection once again, and it continued to be passed from hand to hand. But despite the historical value of these memorabilia the market proved to be less and less interested, and the Vignali collection remained unsold at various auctions. In 1977 a major part of the collection was acquired by the French government, and destined to join the remains of Napoleon at Les Invalides. Not the penis, however, which the French refused to even acknowledge. It was John K. Lattimer, an American urologist, who bought it for $ 4,000. His intention, it seems, was to permanently remove it from circulation so that it would not be ridiculed.

The urologist had amassed an impressive collection of macabre historical curiosities – from the blood-stained collar that President Lincoln wore on the night of his murder at Ford’s theater, to one of the poison capsules Göring used to commit suicide. Lattimer kept the infamous “mummified tendon” locked away in a suitcase under his bed for years, protecting it from the public’s morbid curiosity, and he always refused any purchase proposal. He X-rayed the specimen, and it turned out to actually be a human penis.

After Lattimer’s death in 2007, his daughter took on the laborious task of archiving this incredible collection.
The penis is still part of the collection: Tony Perrottet, author of the book Napoleon’s Privates, is among the very few who have had the opportunity to see it in person. “It was kind of an amazing thing to behold. There it was: Napoleon’s penis sitting on cotton wool, very beautifully laid out, and it was very small, very shriveled, about an inch and a half long. It was like a little baby’s finger.
Here is the video showing the moment when the writer finally found himself face to face with the illustrious genitals:

Perrottet was not given permission to film the actual penis at the time, but in a 2015 reading he exhibited an alleged replica, which you can see below.

One can understand Perrottet’s obvious excitation in the video: the author declared that, to him, Napoleon’s penis is the symbol “of everything that’s interesting about history. It sort of combines love and death and sex and tragedy and farce all in this one story“. And certainly all these elements do contribute to the fascination we feel for such a relic, which is at once comic, macabre, obscene and titillating. But there’s more.

The body of a man who – for better or for worse – so profoundly changed the history of the world, possesses an almost magical aura. Why then does the thought of it being disrespected and desecrated provoke an unmentionable, subtle satisfaction? Why did Lattimer fear that showing that small, withered and mummified penis would result in public derision?

Perhaps it’s because that little piece of meat looks like a masterpiece of irony, a perfect retaliation.
As comedian George Carlin put it,

men are terrified that their pricks are inadequate and so they have to compete with one another to feel better about themselves and since war is the ultimate competition, basically, men are killing each other in order to improve their self-esteem. You don’t have to be a historian or a political scientist to see the Bigger Dick foreign policy theory at work.

George Carlin, Jammin’ In New York (1992)

The controversial POTUS tweet (01/03/2018) on who might have the “bigger button”.

On the other hand, this relic also reminds us that Napoleon was mortal, after all, and brings his figure back to the concreteness of a corpse on the autopsy table. The mummified penis takes the place of that hominem te memento (“Remember that you are only a man”) that was repeated in the ear of Roman generals returning from a victory so they wouldn’t get a big head, or the sic transit that the protodeacon pronounced at the passage in San Pietro of the newly elected Pope (“thus passes the glory of the world”).

That flap of shrunken and withered skin is at once a symbol of vanitas, and a mockery of the typical machismo so often exhibited by leaders and rulers. It reminds us that “the Emperor has no clothes”.
Worse: he has no clothes, no life, and no manhood.

Part of the informations in this article come from Bess Lovejoy’s wonderful book Rest In Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses (2014).
One chapter of my book
Paris Mirabilia is devoted to the Museum of History of Medicine.
Tony Perrottet’s Napoleon’s Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped is essentially a collection of spicy anecdotes about famous historical figures. Among these, one in particular is relevant. During the WWII, Stalin asked Winston Churchill to help out with the Russian army’s “serious condom shortage”. The British Prime Minister had a special batch of extra-large condoms prepared, then sent them to Russia with the label “Made in Britain – Medium“. This glaring example of foreign policy would have delighted George Carlin.

Unearthing Gorini, The Petrifier

This post originally appeared on The Order of the Good Death

Many years ago, as I had just begun to explore the history of medicine and anatomical preparations, I became utterly fascinated with the so-called “petrifiers”: 19th and early 20th century anatomists who carried out obscure chemical procedures in order to give their specimens an almost stone-like, everlasting solidity.
Their purpose was to solve two problems at once: the constant shortage of corpses to dissect, and the issue of hygiene problems (yes, back in the time dissection was a messy deal).
Each petrifier perfected his own secret formula to achieve virtually incorruptible anatomical preparations: the art of petrifaction became an exquisitely Italian specialty, a branch of anatomy that flourished due to a series of cultural, scientific and political factors.

When I first encountered the figure of Paolo Gorini (1813-1881), I made the mistake of assuming his work was very similar to that of his fellow petrifiers.
But as soon as I stepped foot inside the wonderful Gorini Collection in Lodi, near Milan, I was surprised at how few scientifically-oriented preparations it contained: most specimens were actually whole, undissected human heads, feet, hands, infants, etc. It struck me that these were not meant as medical studies: they were attempts at preserving the body forever. Was Gorini looking for a way to have the deceased transformed into a genuine statue? Why?
I needed to know more.

A biographical research is a mighty strange experience: digging into the past in search of someone’s secret is always an enterprise doomed to failure. No matter how much you read about a person’s life, their deepest desires and dreams remain forever inaccessible.
And yet, the more I examined books, papers, documents about Paolo Gorini, the more I felt I could somehow relate to this man’s quest.
Yes, he was an eccentric genius. Yes, he lived alone in his ghoulish laboratory, surrounded by “the bodies of men and beasts, human limbs and organs, heads with their hair preserved […], items made from animal substances for use as chess or draughts pieces; petrified livers and brain tissue, hardened skin and hides, nerve tissue from oxen, etc.”. And yes, he somehow enjoyed incarnating the mad scientist character, especially among his bohemian friends – writers and intellectuals who venerated him. But there was more.

It was necessary to strip away the legend from the man. So, as one of Gorini’s greatest passions was geology, I approached him as if he was a planet: progressing deeper and deeper, through the different layers of crust that make up his stratified enigma.
The outer layer was the one produced by mythmaking folklore, nourished by whispered tales, by fleeting glimpses of horrific visions and by popular rumors. “The Magician”, they called him. The man who could turn bodies into stone, who could create mountains from molten lava (as he actually did in his “experimental geology” public demonstrations).
The layer immediately beneath that unveiled the image of an “anomalous” scientist who was, however, well rooted in the Zeitgeist of his times, its spirit and its disputes, with all the vices and virtues derived therefrom.
The most intimate layer – the man himself – will perhaps always be a matter of speculation. And yet certain anecdotes are so colorful that they allowed me to get a glimpse of his fears and hopes.

Still, I didn’t know why I felt so strangely close to Gorini.

His preparations sure look grotesque and macabre from our point of view. He had access to unclaimed bodies at the morgue, and could experiment on an inconceivable number of corpses (“For most of my life I have substituted – without much discomfort – the company of the dead for the company of the living…”), and many of the faces that we can see in the Museum are those of peasants and poor people. This is the reason why so many visitors might find the Collection in Lodi quite unsettling, as opposed to a more “classic” anatomical display.
And yet, here is what looks like a macroscopic incongruity: near the end of his life, Gorini patented the first really efficient crematory. His model was so good it was implemented all over the world, from London to India. One could wonder why this man, who had devoted his entire life to making corpses eternal, suddenly sought to destroy them through fire.
Evidently, Gorini wasn’t fighting death; his crusade was against putrefaction.

When Paolo was only 12 years old, he saw his own father die in a horrific carriage accident. He later wrote: “That day was the black point of my life that marked the separation between light and darkness, the end of all joy, the beginning of an unending procession of disasters. From that day onwards I felt myself to be a stranger in this world…
The thought of his beloved father’s body, rotting inside the grave, probably haunted him ever since. “To realize what happens to the corpse once it has been closed inside its underground prison is a truly horrific thing. If we were somehow able to look down and see inside it, any other way of treating the dead would be judged as less cruel, and the practice of burial would be irreversibly condemned”.

That’s when it hit me.


This was exactly what made his work so relevant: all Gorini was really trying to do was elaborate a new way of dealing with the “scandal” of dead bodies.
He was tirelessly seeking a more suitable relationship with the remains of missing loved ones. For a time, he truly believed petrifaction could be the answer. Who would ever resort to a portrait – he thought – when a loved one could be directly immortalized for all eternity?
Gorini even suggested that his petrified heads be used to adorn the gravestones of Lodi’s cemetery – an unfortunate but candid proposal, made with the most genuine conviction and a personal sense of pietas. (Needless to say this idea was not received with much enthusiasm).

Gorini was surely eccentric and weird but, far from being a madman, he was also cherished by his fellow citizens in Lodi, on the account of his incredible kindness and generosity. He was a well-loved teacher and a passionate patriot, always worried that his inventions might be useful to the community.
Therefore, as soon as he realized that petrifaction might well have its advantages in the scientific field, but it was neither a practical nor a welcome way of dealing with the deceased, he turned to cremation.

Redefining the way we as a society interact with the departed, bringing attention to the way we treat bodies, focusing on new technologies in the death field – all these modern concerns were already at the core of his research.
He was a man of his time, but also far ahead of it. Gorini the scientist and engineer, devoted to the destiny of the dead, would paradoxically encounter more fertile conditions today than in the 20th century. It’s not hard to imagine him enthusiastically experimenting with alkaline hydrolysis or other futuristic techniques of treating human remains. And even if some of his solutions, such as his petrifaction procedures, are now inevitably dated and detached from contemporary attitudes, they do seem to have been the beginning of a still pertinent urge and of a research that continues today.

The Petrifier is the fifth volume of the Bizzarro Bazar Collection. Text (both in Italian and English) by Ivan Cenzi, photographs by Carlo Vannini.

 

The Petrifier: The Paolo Gorini Anatomical Collection

 

The fifth volume in the Bizzarro Bazar Collection will come out on February 16th: The Petrifier is dedicated to the Paolo Gorini Anatomical Collection in Lodi.

Published by Logos and featuring Carlo Vannini‘s wonderful photographs, the book explores the life and work of Paolo Gorini, one of the most famous “petrifiers” of human remains, and places this astounding collection in its cultural, social and political context.

I will soon write something more exhaustive on the reason why I believe Gorini is still so relevant today, and so peculiar when compared to his fellow petrifiers. For now, here’s the description from the book sheet:

Whole bodies, heads, babies, young ladies, peasants, their skin turned into stone, immune to putrescence: they are the “Gorini’s dead”, locked in a lapidary eternity that saves them from the ravenous destruction of the Conquering Worm.
They can be admired in a small museum in Lodi, where, under the XVI century vault with grotesque frescoes, a unique collection is preserved: the marvellous legacy of Paolo Gorini (1813-1881). Eccentric figure, characterised by a clashing duality, Gorini devoted himself to mathematics, volcanology, experimental geology, corpse preservation (he embalmed the prestigious bodies of Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Rovani); however, he was also involved in the design of one of the first Italian crematory ovens.
Introverted recluse in his laboratory obtained from an old deconsecrated church, but at the same time women’s lover and man of science able to establish close relationships with the literary men of his era, Gorini is depicted in the collective imagination as a figure poised between the necromant and the romantic cliché of the “crazy scientist”, both loved and feared. Because of his mysterious procedures and top-secret formulas that could “petrify” the corpses, Paolo Gorini’s life has been surrounded by an air of legend.
Thanks to the contributions of the museum curator Alberto Carli and the anthropologist Dario Piombino-Mascali, this book retraces the curious historic period during which the petrifaction process obtained a certain success, as well as the value and interest conferred to the collection in Lodi nowadays.
These preparations, in fact, are not silent witnesses: they speak about the history of the long-dated human obsession for the preserving of dead bodies, documenting a moment in which the Westerners relationship with death was beginning to change. And, ultimately, they solve Paolo Gorini’s enigma: a “wizard”, man and scientist, who, traumatised at a young age by his father’s death, spent his whole life probing the secrets of Nature and attempting to defeat the decay.

The Petrifier is available for pre-order at this link.

Bizzarro Bazar Contest!

Today is Bizzarro Bazar’s birthday, the blog is 8 years old!
(My cats’ health book informs me that 8 feline years roughly correspond to 48 human years; I wonder if there’s a similar calculation for blogs, whose life expectancy is far less than a cat’s.)

To celebrate together, I thought I’d involve you all in a little game: let’s launch our first Bizzarro Bazar Contest!

Free your most “strange, macabre & wonderful” fantasies, and create something that has to do with Bizzarro Bazar.
I am not going to tell you what that something should be: drawings, comics, paintings, fanart, caricatures, photographs, selfies, but also videos, poems, songs… well, any odd stuff your creativity might suggest.

To enter the contest you must:

  1. Create an original work explicitly referring to Bizzarro Bazar: what I mean is that Bizzarro Bazar (the website, the logo, a publication, even my own beard if nothing else!) should be pictured/mentioned within the work;
  2. Post your work on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter using the hashtag #bizzarrobazarcontest — alternatively, you can submit it by email;
  3. Be confident and wait until September 10;
  4. Remember that I’m calling it contest, but it’s not about competition — the idea is to allow free rein to your morbid creativity, celebrate these first 8 years of weirdness, and have fun among friends.

3 prizes will be awarded:

1st prize: Signed book from Bizzarro Bazar Collection (of your choice) + BB shopping bag + surprise gift pack
2nd prize: Signed book from Bizzarro Bazar Collection (of your choice) + BB shopping bag
3rd prize: Signed book from Bizzarro Bazar Collection (of your choice)

Best unclassified entries will be published on Bizzarro Bazar with links to the authors websites/profiles.

Alright, let your imagination run wild and remember the deadline is September 10.
Keep The World Weird!

Wunderkammer Reborn – Part II

(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.

Reinventing Exotica

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.

Jessika M. collection – photo Brian Powell, from Morbid Curiosities (courtesy P. Gambino)

Funerary collectibles.

Violet wand kit; its low-voltage electric shock was marketed as the cure for everything.

Even curiosa, vintage or ancient erotic objects, are an example of exotica coming from a recent past which is now transfigured.

A Dialogue Between The Objects

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.

Artistic, non-traditional taxidermy has always existed, from fake mirabilia and gaffs such as mummified sirens and Jenny Hanivers to Walter Potter‘s antropomorphic dioramas. But rogue taxidermists bring all this to a whole new level.

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.)

Wunderkammer Reborn

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.

Rethinking Death
(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.

From Cabinets de Curiosités (2011) – photo C. Fleurant

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.

Da Cabinets de Curiosités (2011) – foto C. Fleurant

Wunderkammer Reborn – Part I

Why has the new millennium seen the awakening of a huge interest in “cabinets of wonder”? Why does such an ancient kind of collecting, typical of the period between the 1500s and the 1700s, still fascinate us in the internet era? And what are the differences between the classical wunderkammern and the contemporary neo-wunderkammern?

I have recently found myself tackling these subjects in two diametrically opposed contexts.
The first was dead serious conference on disciplines of knowledge in the Early Modern Period, at the University of PAdua; the second, a festival of magic and wonder created by a mentalist and a wonder injector. In this last occasion I prepared a small table with a micro-wunderkammer (really minimal, but that’s what I could fit into my suitcase!) so that after the talk the public could touch and see some curiosities first-hand.

Two traditionally quite separate scenarios – the academic milieu and the world of entertainment – both decided to dedicate some space to the discussion of this phenomenon, which strikes me as indicative of its relevance.
So I thought it might be interesting to resume, in very broad terms, my speech on the subject for the benefit of those who could not attend those meetings.

For practical purposes, I will divide the whole thing into two posts.
In this first one, I will trace what I believe are the key characteristics of historical wunderkammern – or, more precisely, the key concepts worth reflecting upon.
In the next post I will address XXI Century neo-wunderkammern, to try and pinpoint what might be the reasons of this peculiar “rebirth”.

Mirabilia

Evidently, the fundamental concept for a wunderkammer, beginning from the name itself, was the idea of wonder; from the aristocratic cabinets of Ferdinand II of Austria or Rudolf II to the more science-oriented ones like Aldrovandi‘s, Cospi‘s, or Kircher‘s, the purpose of all ancient collections was first and foremost to amaze the visitor.

It was a way for the rich person who assembled the wunderkammer to impress his court guests, showing off his opulence and lavish wealth: cabinets of curiosities were actually an evolution of treasure chambers (schatzkammern) and of the great collections of artworks of the 1400s (kunstkammer).

This predilection of rare and expensive objects generated a thriving international commerce of naturalistic and ethnological items cominc from the Colonies.

The Theatre of the World

But wunderkammern were also meant as a sort of microcosm: they were supposed to represent the entirety of the known universe, or at least to hint at the incredibly vast number of creatures and natural shapes that are present in the world. Samuel Quiccheberg, in his treatise on the arrangement of a utopian museum, was the first to use the word “theatre”, but in reality – as we shall see later on – the idea of theatrical representation is one of the cardinal concepts in classical collections.

Because of its ability to represent the world, the wunderkammer was also understood as a true instrument of research, an investigation tool for natural philosophers.

The System of Knowledge

The organization of a huge array of materials did not initially follow any specific order, but rather proceeded from the collector’s own whims and taste. Little by little, though, the idea of cataloguing began to emerge, which at first entailed the distinction between three macro-categories known as naturalia, artificialia and mirabilia, later to be refined and expanded in different other classes (medicalia, exotica, scientifica, etc.).

Naturalia

Artificialia

Artificialia

Mirabilia

Mirabilia

Medicalia, exotica, scientifica

This ever growing need to distinguish, label and catalogue eventually led to Linnaeus’ taxonomy, to his dispute with Buffon, all the way to Lamarck, Cuvier and the foundation of the Louvre, which marks the birth of the modern museum as we know it.

The Aesthetics of Accumulation

Perhaps the most iconic and well-known aspect of wunderkammern is the cramming of objects, the horror vacui that prevented even the tiniest space from being left empty in the exposition of curiosities and bizarre artifacts gathered around the world.
This excessive aesthetic was not just, as we said in the beginning, a display of wealth, but aimed at astounding and baffling the visitor. And this stunned condition was an essential moment: the wonder at the Universe, that feeling called thauma, proceeds certainly from awe but it is inseparable from a sense of unease. To access this state of consciousness, from which philosophy is born, we need to step outof our comfort zone.

To be suddenly confronted with the incredible imagination of natural shapes, visually “assaulted” by the unthinkable moltitude of objects, was a disturbing experience. Aesthetics of the Sublime, rather than Beauty; this encyclopedic vertigo is the reason why Umberto Eco places wunderkammern among his examples of  “visual lists”.

Conservation and Representation

One of the basic goals of collecting was (and still is) the preservation of specimens and objects for study purposes or for posterity. Yet any preservation is already a representation.

When we enter a museum, we cannot be fully aware of the upstream choices that have been made in regard to the exhibit; but these choices are what creates the narrative of the museum itself, the very “tale” we are told room after room.

Multiple options are involved: what specimens are to be preserved, which technique is to be used to preserve them (the result will vary if a biological specimen is dried, texidermied, or put in a preserving fluid), how to group them, how to arrange their exhibit?
It is just like casting the best actors, choosing the stage costumes, a particular set design, and the internal script of the museum.

The most illuminating example is without doubt taxidermy, the ultimate simulacrum: of the original animal nothing is left but the skin, stretched on a dummy which mimics the features and posture of the beast. Glass eyes are applied to make it more convincing. That is to say, stuffed animals are meant to play the part of living animals. And when you think about it, there is no more “reality” in them than in one of those modern animatronic props we see in Natural History Museums.

But why do we need all this theatre? The answer lies in the concept of domestication.

Domestication: Nature vs. Culture

Nature is opposed to Culture since the time of ancient Greeks. Western Man has always felt the urge to keep his distance from the part of himself he perceived as primordial, chaotic, uncontrollable, bestial. The walls of the polis locked Nature outside, keeping Culture inside; and it’s not by chance that barbarians – seen as half-men half-beasts – were etymologically “those who stutter”, who remained outside of the logos.

The theatre, an advanced form of representation, was born in Athens likely as a substitute for previous ancient human sacrifices (cf. Réné Girard), and it served the same sacred purposes: to sublimate the animal desire of cruelty and violence. The tragic hero takes on the role of the sacrificial victim, and in fact the evidence of the sacred value of tragedies is in the fact that originally attending the theatrical plays was mandatory by law for all citizens.

Theatre is therefore the first attempt to domesticate natural instincts, to bring them literally “inside one’s home” (domus), to comprehend them within the logos in order to defuse their antisocial power. Nature only becomes pleasant and harmless once we narrate it, when we turn it into a scenic design.

And here’s why a stuffed lion (which is a narrated lion, the “image” of a lion as told through the fiction of taxidermy) is something we can comfortably place in our living room without any worry. All study of Nature, as it was conceived in the wunderkammern, was essentially the study of its representation.

By staging it, it was possible to exert a kind of control over Nature that would have been impossible otherwise. Accordingly, the symbol of the wunderkammern, that piece that no collection could do without, was the chained crocodile — bound and incapable of causing harm thanks to the ties of Reason, of logos, of knowledge.

It is worth noting, in closing this first part, that the symbology of the crocodile was also borrowed from the world of the sacred. These reptiles in chains first made their apparition in churches, and several examples can still be seen in Europe: in that instance, of course, they were meant as a reminder of the power and glory of Christ defeating Satan (and at the same time they impressed the believers, who in all probability had never seen such a beast).
A perfect example of sacred taxidermy; domestication as a bulwark against the wild, sinful unconscious; barrier bewteen natural and social instincts.

(Continues in Part Two)

Visitors From The Future

This article was originally published on #ILLUSTRATI n. 42, Visitors.

If we had the opportunity to communicate through time with humans of year 8113, would we be able to understand each other?
Supposing that every trace of our current civilisation had been erased, how could we explain our present to these remote descendants, these true aliens?

In 1936 this question arose in the mind of Dr. Thornwell Jacobs, the then director of the Oglethorpe University in Georgia, and lead to his decision to create a compendium of the human knowledge acquired by that time. What’s more, he thought it would have been better to show to the future men and women a wide range of significant objects that could convey a clear idea of the customs and traditions of the XX century.
It wasn’t an easy matter. Let’s think about it: what object would you include in your virtual museum if you had to summarise the entire history of the human race?

With the help of Thomas K. Peters, photographer, film producer and inventor, Dr Jacobs spent three years building his collection. As time passed by, the list of objects got more and more impressive and it included some unexpected items, which clearly the two curators reckoned that the humans of the Ninth millennium needed to see.

Among others, the collection contained 600.000 pages of text on microfilm, 200 narrative books, drawings of the greatest human inventions, a list of sports and hobbies which were fashionable during the past century, film showing historical events and audio recordings of the speeches of Hitler, Mussolini, Roosevelt and Stalin. And again: air shots of the main cities of the world, eyeglasses, dental plates, artificial limbs, navigation instruments, flower and plant seeds, clothes, typewriters… up to Budweiser beers, aluminium foil, Vaseline, nylons and plastic toys.

The two men then patiently sealed that huge pile of objects in hermetic recipients made of steel and glass, filling some capsules with nitrogen, in order to prevent the material oxidation. At last, they collocated the “museum”, exhibiting six millenniums of human knowledge, in a crypt under the Phoebe Hearst Memorial Hall. They did not forget to place a machinery called Language Integrator in front of the entrance: a tool that can teach how to speak English to the future historians, in case the Shakespeare language would not be at its bests any more.

The chamber was officially sealed on the 25th of May 1940. The plate affixed to the enormous stainless door specified that its insides did not contain any gold or jewelleries. Better safe than sorry.

This strange and restricted museum is still present and, if everything goes as planned, will remain untouched until year 8113, as indicated on the inscription. Yes, but why this specific year?
Dr. Jacobs considered the year 1936 as the bookmark on a hypothetical timeline, then added 6.177 years, corresponding to the amount of time passed from the establishment of the Egyptian Calendar (4241 B.C.).

The Oglethorpe University experience was regarded as the first “time capsule” of human history. The idea obtained a huge resonance and was followed by many other attempts of preserving the human knowledge and identity for future generations, by burying similar collections of memories and information.

Will the homo sapiens be still around in 8113? What will he look like? Would he be interested in discovering how we lived during the 40s of the XX century?
Beside the sci-fi (utopic or dystopic) visions of the future evoked by the time capsules, their charm resides in what they can tell about the past. An optimistic time, permeated by a blind trust in the human progress and still unscratched by the Second world war disaster, the holocausts and the nuclear horrors, an era unaware of the countless tragedies to come. A time when it was still possible to fiercely believe that future generations would have looked up to us with respect and curiosity.

Nowadays it is impossible to conceive in human terms such a distant future. The technology in our hands is already transforming us, our species, in ways that were unthinkable just a few decades ago. Our impact on the ecological and social system has already reached unprecedented levels.
Therefore, should we picture a “visitor” from year 8113 anyway… it is reasonable to presume that looking at us, his long-lost ancestors, he would shiver in disgust.

(Thanks, Masdeca!)

Luca Cableri, Seeker of Wonders

Luca Cableri is a man devoured by an endless passion.
An art dealer and a collectionist, he has been studying the history of wunderkammern for decades; yet when he talks about it, his eyes still light up. Anyone who insists in searching for wonder, does so because he refuses to forget the gaze of the child — the child he was, the child we all once were.

Luca’s spectacular creation is Theatrum Mundi, a most original and atypical wunderkammer right in the middle of Arezzo’s historical city centre.
Upon crossing the gallery’s threshold, the visitor enters a puzzling space: under the beautiful frescoed vaults of the nobile palace hosting this collection, ancient and modern wonders can be admired — dinosaur skeletons and space suits, original editions of Aldrovandi’s Monstrorum historia and ritual cannibal forks, exotic taxidermies and contemporary design installations.

These “heretical” juxtapositions of objects of classic museology and references to pop culture are not in the least arbitrary, but they follow a philology that aims at showing the evolution of the concept of wonder through the centuries. If the stuffed crocodile hanging from the ceiling was once a true icon of astonishment (no wunderkammer was complete without a crocodile or a narwhal tusk!), a modern collector cannot ignore contemporary conjugations of wonder: that’s why on exhibit at Theatrum Mundi you can also find specimens of the Space Age or relics coming from younger arts, such as cinema.