Macabre Masks

The Templo Mayor, built between 1337 and 1487, was the political and religious heart of Tenochtitlán, the city-state in Valley of Mexico that became the capital of the Aztec empire starting from the 15th Century.
Since its remains were accidentally discovered in 1978, during the excavations for Mexico City’s subway, archeologists have unearthed close to 80 ceremonial buildings and an extraordinary number of manufacts from the Aztec (Mexica) civilization.

Among the most peculiar findings, there are some masks created from human skulls.
These masks are quite elaborate: the back of the skull was removed, probably in order to wear them or apply them to a headgear; the masks were colored with dye; flint blades and other decorations were inserted into the eye sockets and nostrils.

In 2016 a team of anthropologists from the University of Montana conducted an experimental research on eight of these masks, comparing them with twenty non-modified skulls found on the same site, in order to learn their sex, age at death, possible diseases and life styles. The results showed that the skull masks belonged to male individuals, 30 to 45-years old, with particularly good teeth, indicating above-average health. From the denture’s shape the anthropologists even inferred that these men came from faraway locations: Toluca Valley, Western Mexico, the Gulf coast and other Aztec towns in the Valley of Mexico. Therefore the skulls very likely belonged to prisoners of noble origins, excellently nourished and lacking any pathologies.

Human sacrifices at the Templo Mayor, for which the Aztecs are sadly known, were a spectacle that could entail different procedures: sometimes the victims were executed by beheading, sometimes through the extraction of the heart, or burned, or challenged to deathly combats.
The masks were produced from the bodies of sacrified warriors; wearing them must have had a highly symbolic value.

If these items survived the ravages of time, it’s because they’re made of bones. But there existed other, more unsettling disguises that have been inevitably lost: the masks made from the flayed skin of a sacrified enemy’s face.

The conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo described these skin masks as tanned to look “like glove leather” and said that they were worn during celebrations of military victories. Other masks, made of human skin, were displayed as offerings on temple altars, just as a number of the skull masks, reanimated by shell and stone eyeballs, noses, and tongues, were buried in offerings at the Templo Mayor. Because a defeated enemy’s former powers were believed to be embedded in his skin and bones, masks made of his relics not only transferred his powers to the new owner but could serve as worthy offerings to the god as well.

(Cecelia F. Klein, Aztec Masks, in Mexicolore, September 2012)

During a month-long ceremony called Tlacaxiphualiztli, “the Flaying of Men”, the skin of sacrified prisoners was peeled off and worn for twenty days to celebrate the war god Xipe Totec. The iconography portrays this god clothed in human skin.

Such masks, wether made of bone or of skin, have a much deeper meaning than the ritual itself. They play an important role in establishing identity:

In Aztec society a warrior who killed his first captive was said to ‘assume another face.’ Regardless of whether this expression referred literally to a trophy mask or was simply a figure of speech, it implies that the youth’s new “face” represented a new social identity or status. Aztec masks therefore must be understood as revelations, or signs, of a person’s special status rather than as disguises […]. In Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs, the word for face, xayacatl, is the same word used to refer to something that covers the face.

(Cecelia F. Klein, Ibid.)

Here is the interesting point: there’s not a single culture in the whole world which hasn’t elaborated its own masks, and they very rarely are simple disguises.
Their purpose is “the development of personality […], or more accurately, the development of the person [which] is a question of magical prestige“: the masks “are actually used among primitives in in totem ceremonies, for instance, as a means of enhancing or changing the personality” (Carl Gustav Jung, The Ego and the Uncoscious, 1928, p. 155).

Much in the same way, the decorated skulls of Templo Mayor are not so “exotic” as we might like to imagine. These manufacts are but a different declination of ideas we are quite familiar with — ideas that are at the very core of our own society.

The relationship between the face (our identity and individuality) and the mask we wear, is a very ancient paradox. Just like for the Aztecs the term xayacatl could indicate both the mask and the face, for us too they are often indistinguishable.

The very word person comes from the Latin “per-sonare”, “to resound through”: it’s the voice of the actor behind his mask.
Greek tragedy was born between the 7th and 5th century BCE, a representation that essentialy a substitute for human sacrifices, as Réné Girard affirmed. One of the most recognized etimologies tells us that tragedy is actually the song of the scapgoat: an imitation of the ritual killing of the “internal stranger” on the altar, of the bloody spectacle with which society cleansed itself, and washed away its most impure, primiteve urges. Tragedy plays – which Athenians were obligated to attend by law, during Dionysus celebrations – substituted the ancestral violence of the sacrifice with its representation, and the scapegoat with the tragic hero.

Thus the theater, in the beginning, was conflict and catharsis. A duel between the Barbarian, who knows no language and acts through natural instinct, and the Citizen, the son of order and logos.
Theater, just like human sacrifice, created cultural identity; the Mask creates the person needed for the mise-en-scene of this identity, forming and regulating social interactions.

The human sacrifices of the ancient Greeks and of the Aztec both met the same need: cultural identity is born (or at least reinforced) by contrast with the adversary, offered and killed on the altar.
Reducing the enemy to a skull — as the Aztecs did with the tzompantli, the terrible racks used to exhibit dozens, maybe hundreds of sacrifice victims skulls — is a way of depriving him of his mask/face, of annihilating his identity. Here are the enemies, all alike, just bleached bones under the sun, with no individual quality whatsoever.

But turning these skulls into masks, or wearing the enemy’s skin, implies a tough work, and therefore means performing an even more conscious magical act: it serves the purpose of acquiring his strength and power, but also of reasserting that the person (and, by extension, society) only exists because of the Stranger it was able to defeat.

Ship of Fools: The Deviant’s Exile and Other Wrecks

In 1494 in Basel, Sebastian Brant published Ship of Fools (Das Narrenschiff). It is a satirical poem divided into 112 chapters, containing some beautiful woodcuts attributed to Albrecht Dürer.

The image of a boat whose crew is composed entirely of insane men was already widespread in Europe at the time, from Holland to Austria, and it appeared in several poems starting from the XIII Century. Brant used it with humorous and moralistic purposes, devoting each chapter to one foolish passenger, and making a compilation of human sins, faults and vices.

Each character becomes the expression of a specific human “folly” – greed, gambling, gluttony, adultery, gossip, useless studies, usury, sensual pleasure, ingratitude, foul language, etc. There are chapters for those who disobey their physician’s orders, for the arrogants who constantly correct others, for those who willingly put themselves at risk, for those who feel superior, for those who cannot keep a secret, for men who marry old women for inheritance, for those who go out at night singing and playing instuments when it’s time to rest.

Brant’s vision is fierce, even if partly mitigated by a carnivalesque style; in fact the ship of fools is clearly related to the Carnival – which could take its name from the carrus navalis (“ship-like cart”), a festive processional wagon built in shape of a boat.
The Carnival was the time of year where the “sacred” reversal took place, when every excess was allowed, and high priests and powerful noblemen could be openly mocked through pantomimes and wild travesties: these “ships on wheels”, loaded with masks and grotesque characters, effectively brought some kind of madness into the streets. But these celebrations were accepted only because they were limited to a narrow timeframe, a permitted transgression which actually reinforced the overall equilibrium.

Foucault, who wrote about the ship of fools in his History of Madness, interprets it as the symbol of one of the two great non-programmatic strategies used throughout the centuries in order to fight the perils of epidemics (and, generically speaking, the danger of Evil lurking within society).

On one hand there is the concept of the Stultifera Navis, the ship of fools, consisting in the marginalization of anything that’s considered unhealable. The boats full of misfits, lunatics and ne’er-do-wells perhaps really existed: as P. Barbetta wrote, “crazy persons were expelled from the cities, boarded on ships to be abandoned elsewhere, but the captain often threw them in the water or left them on desolate islands, where they died. Many drowned.


The lunatic and the leper were exiled outside the city walls by the community, during a sort of grand purification ritual:

The violent act through which they are removed from the life of the polis retroactively defines the immunitary nature of the Community of normal people. The lunatic is in fact considered taboo, a foreign body that needs to be purged, rejected, excluded. Sailors then beome their keepers: to be stowed inside the Stultifera navis and abandoned in the water signifies the need for a symbolic purifying ritual but also an emprisonment with no hope of redention. The apparent freedom of sailing without a course is, in reality, a kind of slavery from which it is impossible to escape.

(M. Recalcati, Scacco alla ragione, Repubblica, 29-05-16)

On the other hand, Foucault pinpoints a second ancient model which resurfaced starting from the end of the XVII Century, in conjunction with the ravages of the plague: the model of the inclusion of plague victims.
Here society does not instinctively banish a part of the citizens, but instead plans a minute web of control, to establish who is sick and who is healthy.
Literature and theater have often described plague epidemics as a moment when all rules explode, and chaos reigns; on the contrary, Foucault sees in the plague the moment when a new kind of political power is established, a “thorough, obstacle-free power, a power entirely transparent to its object; a power that is fully exercised” (from Abnormal).
The instrument of quarantine is implemented; daily patrols are organized, citizens are controlled district after district, house after house, even window after window; the population is submitted to a census and divided to its minimum terms, and those who do not show up at the headcount are excluded from their social status in a “surgical” manner.

This is why this second model shows the sadeian traits of absolute control: a plagued society is the delight of those who dream of a military society.

A real integration of madness and deviance was never considered.

Still today, the truly scandalous figures (as Baudrillard pointed out in Simulachra and Simulation) are the mad, the child and the animal – scandalous, because they do not speak. And if they don’t talk, if they exist outside of the logos, they are dangerous: they need to be denied, or at least not considered, in order to avoid the risk of jeopardising the boundaries of culture.
Therefore children are not deemed capable of discernment, are not considered fully entitled individuals and obviously do not have a voice in important decisions; animals, with their mysterious eyes and their unforgivable mutism, need to be always subjugated; the mad, eventually, are relegated abord their ship bound to get lost among the waves.

We could perhaps add to Baudrillard’s triad of “scandals” one more problematic category, the Foreigner – who speaks a language but it’s not our language, and who since time immemorial was seen alternatively as a bringer of innovation or of danger, as a “freak of nature” (and thus included in bestiaries and accounts of exotic marvels) or as a monstrum which was incompatible with an advanced society.

The opposition between the city/terra firma, intended as the Norm, and the maritime exhile of the deviant never really disappeared.

But getting back to Brant’s satire, that Narrenschiff which established the ship allegory in the collective unconscious: we could try to interpret it in a less reactionary or conformist way.
In fact taking a better look at the crowd of misfits, madmen and fools, it is difficult not to identify at least partially with some of the ship’s passengers. It’s not by chance that in the penultimate chapter the author included himself within the senseless riffraff.

That’s why we could start to doubt: what if the intent of the book wasn’t to simply ridicule human vices, but rather to build a desperate metaphore of our existential condition? What if those grotesque, greedy and petulant faces were our own, and dry land didn’t really exist?
If that’s the case – if we are the mad ones –, what caused our madness?

There is a fifth, last kind of “scandalous-because-silent” interlocutors, with which we have much, too much in common: they are the corpses.

And within the memento mori narrative, laughing skeletons are functional characters as much as Brant’s floating lunatics. In the danse macabre, each of the skeletons represents his own specific vanity, each one exhibits his own pathetic mundane pride, his aristocratic origin, firmly convinced of being a prince or a beggar.

Despite all the ruses to turn it into a symbol, to give it some meaning, death still brings down the house of cards. The corpse is the real unhealable obscene, because it does not communicate, it does not work or produce, and it does not behave properly.
From this perspective the ship of fools, much larger than previously thought, doesn’t just carry vicious sinners but the whole humanity: it represents the absurdity of existence which is deprived of its meaning by death. When faced with this reality, there are no more strangers, no more deviants.

What made us lose our minds was a premonition: that of the inevitable shipwreck.
The loss of reason comes with realizing that our belief that we can separate ourselves from nature, was a sublime illusion. “Mankind – in Brecht’s words is kept alive by bestial acts“. And with a bestial act, we die.

The ancient mariner‘s glittering eye has had a glimpse of the truth: he discovered just how fragile the boundary is between our supposed rationality and all the monsters, ghosts, damnation, bestiality, and he is condemned to forever tell his tale.

The humanity, maddened by the vision of death, is the one we see in the wretches embarked on the raft of the Medusa; and Géricault‘s great intuition, in order to study the palette of dead flesh, was to obtain and bring to his workshop some real severed limbs and human heads – reduction of man to a cut of meat in a slaughterhouse.

Even if in the finished painting the horror is mitigated by hope (the redeeming vessel spotted on the horizon), hope certainly wasn’t what sparked the artist’s interest, or gave rise to the following controversies. The focus here is on the obscene flesh, the cannibalism, the bestial act, the Panic that besieges and conquers, the shipwreck as an orgy where all order collpases.

Water, water everywhere“: mad are those who believe they are sane and reasonable, but maddened are those who realize the lack of meaning, the world’s transience… In this unsolvable dilemma lies the tragedy of man since the Ecclesiastes, in the impossibility of making a rational choice

We cannot be cured from this madness, we cannot disembark from this ship.
All we can do is, perhaps, embrace the absurd, enjoy the adventurous journey, and marvel at those ancient stars in the sky.

Brant’s Das Narrenschiff di Brant si available online in its original German edition, or in a 1874 English translation in two volumes (1 & 2), or on Amazon.

Children of the Grave

They give birth astride of a grave,
the light gleams an instant,
then it’s night once more.

(S. Beckett, Aspettando Godot)

An Italian Horror Story

Castel del Giudice, Italy.
On the 5th of August 1875, a pregnant woman, indicated in the documents with the initials F. D’A., died during labor, before being able to give birth to her child.
On the following day, without respecting the required minimum waiting time before interment, her body was lowered into the cemetery’s fossa carnaria. This was a kind of collective burial for the poorest classes, still common at the time in hundreds of Italian communes: it consisted in a sealed underground space, a room or a pit, where the corpses were stacked and left to rot (some inside coffins, others wrapped in simple shrouds).

For the body of F. D’A., things began to get ugly right from the start:

She had to be lowered in the pit, so the corpse was secured with a rope, but the rope broke and D’A.’s poor body fell from a certain height, her head bumping into a casket. Some people climbed down, they took D’A. and arranged her on her back upon a nearby coffin, where she laid down with a deathly pale face, her hands tied together and resting on her abdomen, her legs joined by stitched stockings. Thus, and not otherwise, D’A. was left by the participants who buried her.

But when, a couple of days later, the pit was opened again in order to bury another deceased girl, a terrible vision awaited the bystanders:

F. D’A.’s sister hurried to give a last goodbye to her dead relative, but as soon as she looked down to the place where her sister was laid to rest, she had to observe the miserable spectacle of her sister placed in a very different position from the one she had been left in; between her legs was the fetus she had given birth to, inside the grave, and together with whom she had miserably died. […] Officers immediately arrived, and found D’A.’s body lying on her left side, her face intensely strained; her hands, still tied by a white cotton ribbon, formed an arch with her arms and rested on her forehead, while pieces of white ribbon were found between her teeth […]. At the mother’s feet stood a male newborn child with his umbilical cord, showing well-proportioned and developed limbs.

Imagine the horror of the poor woman, waking up in the dark in the grip of labor pains; with her last remaining energy she had succeeded in giving birth to her child, only to die shortly after, “besieged by corpses, lacking air, assistance or food, and exhausted by the blood loss suffered during delivery“.
One could hardly picture a more dreadful fate.

The case had a huge resonance all across Italy; a trial took place at the Court of Isernia, and the town physician, the mayor and the undertaker were found guilty of two involuntary murders “aggravated by gross negligence“, sentenced to six months in jail and fined (51 liras) – but the punishment was later cut by half by the Court of Appeal of Naples in November 1877.
This unprecedented reduction of penalty was harshly criticized by the Times correspondant in Italy, who observed that “the circumstances of the case, if well analyzed, show the slight value which is attached to human life in this country“; the news also appeared in the New York Times as well as in other British and American newspapers.

This story, however scary – because it is so scary – should be taken with a pinch of salt.
There’s more than one reason to be careful.

Buried Alive?

First of all, the theme of a pregnant woman believed dead and giving birth in a grave was already a recurring motif in the Nineteeth Century, as taphophobia (the fear of being buried alive) reached its peak.

Folklorist Paul Barber in his Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality (1988) argues that the number of people actually buried alive was highly exaggerated in the chronicles; a stance also shared by Jan Bondeson, who in one of the most complete books on the subject, Buried Alive, shows how the large majority of nineteenth-century premature burial accounts are not reliable.

For the most part it would seem to be a romantic, decadent literary topos, albeit inspired by a danger that was certainly real in the past centuries: interpreting the signs of death was a complex and often approximate procedure, so much so that by the 1700s some treatises (the most famous one being Winslow‘s) introduced a series of measures to verify with greater accuracy the passing of a patient.

A superficial knowledge of decomposition processes could also lead to misunderstandings.
When bodies were exhumed, it was not uncommon to find their position had changed; this was due to the cadaver’s natural tendency to move during decomposition, and to be sometimes subjected to small “explosions” caused by putrefaction gasses – explosions that are powerful enough to rotate the body’s upper limbs. Likewise, the marks left by rodents or other scavengers (loose dirt, scratches, bite marks, torn clothes, fallen hair) could be mistaken for the deceased person’s desperate attempts at getting out.

Yet, as we’ve said, there was a part of truth, and some unfortunate people surely ended up alive inside a coffin. Even with all our modern diagnostic tools, every now and then someone wakes up in a morgue. But these events are, today like yesterday, extremely rare, and these stories speak more about a cultural fear rather than a concrete risk.

Coffin Birth

If being buried alive was already an exceptional fact, then the chances of a pregnant woman actually giving birth inside a grave look even slimmer. But this idea – so charged with pathos it could only fascinate the Victorian sensibility – might as well have come from real observations. Opening a woman’s grave and finding a stillborn child must have looked like a definitive proof of her premature burial.
What wasn’t known at the time is that the fetus can, in rare circumstances, be expelled postmortem.

Anaerobic microorganisms, which start the cadaver’s putrefactive phase, release several gasses during their metabolic activity. During this emphysematous stage, internal tissues stretch and tighten; the torso, abdomen and legs swell; the internal pressure caused by the accumulation of gas can lead, within the body of a woman in the late stages of pregnancy, to a separation of amniotic membranes, a prolapse of the uterus and a subsequent total or partial extrusion of the fetus.
This event appears to be more likely if the dead woman has been pregnant before, on the account of a more elastic cervix.
This  strange phenomenon is called Sarggeburt (coffin birth) in early German forensic literature.

The first case of postmortem delivery dates back to 1551, when a woman hanged on the gallows released, four hours after her execution, the bodies of two twins, both dead. (A very similar episode happened in 2007 in India, when a woman killed herself during labor; in that instance, the baby was found alive and healthy.)
In Brussels, in 1633, a woman died of convulsions and three days later a fetus was spontaneously expelled. The same thing happened in Weißenfels, Saxony, in 1861. Other cases are mentioned in the first medical book to address this strange event, Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine, published in 1896, but for the most part these accidents occurred when the body of the mother had yet to be buried.
It was John Whitridge Williams who, in his fortunate Obstetrics: a text-book for the use of students and practitioners (1904), pointed to the possibility of postmortem delivery taking place after burial.

Fetal extrusion after the mother’s death has also been observed in recent times.

A 2005 case involved a woman who died in her apartment from acute heroine intoxication: upon finding her body, it was noted that the fetus head was protruding from the mother’s underwear; but later on, during the autopsy, the upper part of the baby’s torso was also visible – a sign that gasses had continued to build in the abdominal region, increasing interior pressure.
In 2008 a 38 year-old, 7 months pregnant woman was found murdered in a field in advanced state of decomposition, accelerated by tropical climate. During the autopsy a fetus was found inside the woman’s slips, the umbilical cord still attached to the placenta (here is the forensic case study – WARNING: graphic).

Life In Death

So, going back to that unfortunate lady from Castel del Giudice, what really happened to her?
Sure, the autopsy report filed at the time and quoted in the trial papers mentioned the presence of air in the baby’s lungs, a proof that the child was born alive. And it’s possible that this was the case.

But on one hand this story fits all too perfectly within a specific popular narrative of its time, whose actual statistical incidence has been doubted by scholars; on the other, the possibility of postmortem fetal extrusion is well-documented, so much so that even archeologists sometimes struggle to interpret ancient skeletal findings showing fetuses still partially enclosed within the pelvic bone.

The only certain thing is that these stories – whether they’re authentic or made up – have an almost archetypal quality; birth and death entwined in a single place and time.
Maybe they’re so enthralling because, on a symbolic level, they remind us of a peculiar truth, one expressed in a famous verse from
ManiliusAstronomica:

Nascentes morimur, finisque ab origine pendet.

As we are born we die, our end commences with our beginning.”

Links, curiosities & mixed wonders – 9

Let’s start with some quick updates.

Just three days left till the end of the Bizzarro Bazar Contest. I received so many fantastic entries, which you will discover next week when the winners are announced. So if you’re among the procrastinators, hurry up and don’t forget to review the guidelines: this blog has to be explicitly mentioned/portrayed within your work.

On October 1st I will be at Teatro Bonci in Cesena for the CICAP Fest 2017 [CICAP is a skeptical educational organization.]
As this year’s edition will focus on fake news, hoaxes and post-truth, I was asked to bring along some wonders from my wunderkammer — particularly a bunch of objects that lie between truth and lies, between reality and imagination. And, just to be a bit of a rebel, I will talk about creative hoaxes and fruitful conspiracies.

As we are mentioning my collection, I wanted to share my enthusiasm for one of the last arrivals: this extraordinary work of art.

I hear you say “Well, what’s so special about it?“. Oh, you really don’t understand modern art, do you?
This picture, dated 2008, was painted by the famous artist Jomo.

Here’s Jomo:

Here’s Jomo as a bronze statuette, acquired along with the painting.

Exactly, you guessed it: from now on I will be able to pull  the good old Pierre Brassau prank on my house guests.
I was also glad the auction proceeds for the gorilla painting went to the Toronto Zoo personnel, who daily look after these wonderful primates. By the way, the Toronto Zoo is an active member of the North American Gorilla Species Survival Plan and also works in Africa to save endangered gorillas (who I was surprised to find are facing extinction because of our cellphones).

And now let’s start with our usual selection of goodies:

She’d given me rendez-vous in a graveyard / At midnight – and I went: / Wind was howling, dark was the sky / The crosses stood white before the churchyard; / And to this pale young girl I asked: / – Why did you give me rendez-vous in a graveyard? / – I am dead, she answered, and you do not know: / Would you lay down beside me in this grave? / Many years ago I loved you, alive, / For many a year the merciless tomb sealed me off… / Cold is the ground, my beloved youth! / I am dead, she answered, and you do not know.

  • This is a poem by Igino Ugo Tarchetti, one of the leading figures in the Scapigliatura, the most bizarre, gothic and “maudit” of all Italian literary movements. (My new upcoming book for the Bizzarro Bazar Collection will also deal, although marginally, with the Scapigliati.)

  • And let’s move onto shrikes, these adorable little birds of the order of the Passeriformes.
    Adorable, yet carnivore: their family name, Laniidae, comes from the Latin word for “butcher” and as a matter of fact, being so small, they need to resort to a rather cruel ploy. After attacking a prey (insects but also small vertebrates), a shrike proceeds to impale it on thorns, small branches, brambles or barbed wire, in order to immobilize it and then comfortably tear it to pieces, little by little, while often still alive — making Vlad Tepes look like a newbie.

  • Talking about animals, whales (like many other mammals) mourn their dead. Here’s a National Geographic article on cetacean grief.
  • Let’s change the subject and talk a bit about sex toys. Sexpert Ayzad compiled the definitive list of erotic novelties you should definitely NOT buy: these ultra-kitsch, completely demented and even disturbing accessories are so many that he had to break them into three articles, one, two and three. Buckle up for a descent into the most schizoid and abnormal part of sexual consumerism (obviously some pics are NSFW).
  • Up next, culture fetishists: people who describe themselves as “sapiosexuals”, sexually attracted by intelligence and erudition, are every nerd’s dream, every introverted bookworm’s mirage.
    But, as this article suggests, choosing an intelligent partner is not really such a new idea: it has been a part of evolution strategies for millions of years. Therefore those who label themselves as sapiosexual on social networks just seem pretentious and eventually end up looking stupid. Thus chasing away anyone with even a modicum of intelligence. Ah, the irony.

  • Meanwhile The LondoNerD, the Italian blog on London’s secrets, has discovered a small, eccentric museum dedicated to Sir Richard Francis Burton, the adventurer whose life would be enough to fill a dozen Indiana Jones movies. [Sorry, the post is in Italian only]

Someone fixed giraffes, at last.

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.