I am publishing here, as a free ebook, a research that has engaged me for several years: it’s an essay on the iconographic and conceptual motif of the “dissected woman” — a rhetorical device which, starting at least from the Middle Ages up to these days, was intended to sabotage the female seductive power by breaking down / opening up the woman’s body.
I made a short video presentation in which I talk about the project (please turn on English subtitles):
And here are the links to dowload the PDF file for free:
I am sure we all remember vividly the first sex scene we saw in a movie that really struck our imagination. In my case the film in question was Excalibur (1981) by John Boorman, and more precisely the carnal congress which happens about fifteen minutes into the film. A sequence that deeply troubled me, leaving me in a mixture of attraction and repulsion, without my being able to understand why.
Here Uther Pendragon, who thanks to Merlin’s spell has assumed the appearance of Duke Gorlois, violently possesses the duke’s wife, Igraine (from this fleeting relationship extorted with deception King Arthur will be born). The montage sequence shows this intercourse obtained by deception alernated with the simultaneous death of the true duke on the battlefield: Eros and Thanatos.
Excalibur (1981) by John Boorman
The element that struck me most was a detail with a very powerful visual impact: in the scene Uther, falling prey to erotic fury, does not bother to take off his armor and rushes on the woman who, believing him to be her husband, gives in to his impetus. Leaving aside the dubious realism of the scene (would it really be possible to do certain things while wearing an armor?), it was the contrast – the contact – between the shiny steel and the white female skin that was indelibly engraved in my imagination. I doubt it is a coincidence that, many years later, my graduation thesis ended up focusing on Crash by Cronenberg, another film in which flesh and metal clash and merge, thanks to the car accident, in a perverse erotic dimension.
When I saw Excalibur for the first time I could not know, but the iconography of a knight in armor facing a naked woman is a recurring theme in the history of art – “too frequent, too varied, too insistent to be judged random”, as noted by Roger Caillois in Au cœur du fantastique (1965).
The motif is connected to the broader topos of the clothed male figure vs. an undressed female figure: many nineteenth-century paintings are based on this one-sided nudity, in particular the representations of harems or slave markets which were very fashionable among Orientalist painters, but also famous paintings like Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe.
But, as we shall see, in the case of the fully-armored knight a much more interesting level of ambiguity can be identified.
Giuseppe Ferrauto states that there are “a whole kind of depictions of beautiful, naked and chained female prisoners, destined for the more or less openly morbid tastes of gentlemen of the past. […] Ariosto described Angelica chained to the rock of Ebuda, about to be the victim of a sea monster. Many took possession of this scene, from Ingres to Doré, who used it for his illustrations for Orlando furioso, up to Polish artist Chodowiecki, who also made a series of engravings, again for Orlando furioso , in 1772, to end up in the folklore scenes of Sicilian carts’ painted sides.” (Arcana, vol. II, Sugar 1969)
Painters looking for contexts that lend themselves to this type of representation obviously found a perfect anecdote in the episode of Angelica and Ruggero (or in the similar classic myth of Andromeda freed by Perseus). One of the most famous examples is the aforementioned Ruggero Freeing Angelica by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1819), an oil painting that at the time caused a scandal for its representation of female nudity.
Matthias Gerung, Allegory of Love (Amor omnia vincit), 1535
Pieter Paul Rubens, Perseus Freeing Andromeda, 1620
Pieter Paul Rubens, Perseus and Andromeda, 1640
But there were illustrious and varied precedents. In 1530 Lucas Cranach had chosen the Judgment of Paris in order to show the three naked goddesses in front of the Trojan prince, while Tintoretto associated the theme with the liberation of Arsinoe, where the rescue set at the Lighthouse of Alexandria becomes the occasion for showing the armor in contact with bare skin; also worth noting is the sensual detail of the chain which slides sinuously over the queen’s private parts. As Mario Praz summarized well, “the contact of naked limbs with the chains and the steel of the armor seems to have the precise purpose of exciting special senses” (Erotismo in arte e letteratura, in I problemi di Ulisse, 1970).
Lucas Cranach The Elder, The Judgement of Paris, ca. 1528
Jacopo Tintoretto, The Liberation of Arsinoe, ca. 1556
Francesco Montelatici a.k.a. Cecco Bravo, Ruggero and Angelica, 1660
Michaelis Majeri, Secretioris naturae secretorum scrutinium chymicum, 1687
“All this – wrote Caillois – undoubtedly gives rise to an emotion which is in a certain sense natural, inevitable, and does not owe its effectiveness to the illustrated anecdote. André Pieyre de Mandiargues, describing Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara […], reports that licentious tournaments were held in the hall on the first floor in which naked girls contended with knights in arms. If the rumor is true, the strange game convinces me only of the fact that the power of suggestion of that image is even greater than I imagined. If it is unfounded, the fact that it was taken up by Mandiargues convinces me almost as much of the secret and persistent virulence of that fantasy.”
William Etty, Britomart Redeems Faire Amoret, ca. 1833
Arthur Hughes, La Belle Dame sans Merci, 1863
Joseph Paul Blanc, The Liberation – Ruggero and Angelica, 1876
In time the motif no longer needed much historical anecdotes to lean on. Millais’s Knight Errant does not refer to any precise mythological or literary episode – if not, perhaps, to John Keats’ ballad La Belle Dame Sans Merci (1819) – as it will happen with other variations on the theme by the Pre-Raphaelites.
John Everett Millais, The Knight Errant, 1870
Edward Burne-Jones, The Doom Fulfulled, 1885
Charles Napier Kennedy, Perseus and Andromeda, 1890
Arthur Hacker, The Temptation of Sir Percival, ca. 1894
One of the most interesting declinations is undoubtedly the one chosen by Delacroix in 1852, in which the knight-errant is actually a woman: it is Marfisa, once again a character drawn from Ariosto.
It is worth summing up the background story of this scene: the warrior-woman on her steed is giving a passage across the river to the witch Gabrina, when they meet the knight Pinabello and her beautiful but insolent lover, who laughs at the old woman. Determined to avenge this offense, Marfisa defeats the knight in a duel and forces Pinabello’s mistress to strip off her rich garments and give them to her old woman.
In stripping the knight’s cheeky lover, Marfisa seems to parody the very artistic motif we are talking about. In fact unlike all the other armored knights we’ve seen so far, who fall at the feet of the girl in déshabillé, here the intrepid warrior, being a woman, does not let herself be duped: to the pretty girl (to paint which, according to Armando Sodano, Delacroix had rediscovered “the lyricism of odalisques of his youth”) Marfisa prefers the old hag she carries on her steed. Who certainly isn’t beautiful, but intelligent.
An ironic punishment for female vanity that comes from a female in armor, one that I find amusing to read in a metanarrative sense: “if you are a woman who cannot go beyond appearances”, Marfisa seems to warn, “then you deserve to be naked , as happens to all the other maidens in this very type of paintings!”
Eugène Delacroix, Marfisa, 1852
Finally, let me go back to Excalibur. Over the years I have often found myself wondering what was special about that scene, and why did it end up being engraved so strongly in my imagination.
Uther’s passion is cruel, compelling, violent. He encompasses all the arrogance of the well-known masculinity centered on possession: a vision made of fury, of rights arrogated and obtained even by deception, a vision in which the longed-for woman must be taken by force. It could be said that the character of Uther, who even recurs to a magic spell in order to satisfy his desires, is “blinded by passion”: a phrase that is sometimes used even today as an extenuating circumstance for rapes and femicides. This is why it is a dark, disturbing sex scene; it is no coincidence that it is interpolated by Boorman with the images of the massacre on the battlefield and with the shots of the innocent child (Morgana) who witnesses this furious embrace, while the soundtrack by Trevor Jones, through pulsating strings and choirs of wavering voices, creates a surreal and deadly atmosphere.
Excalibur (1981) by John Boorman
Yet Igraine does not shy away from aggression: perhaps because she truly believes that he is her husband – or perhaps because there is a subtle complacency in causing such a fury in any lover. Which of the two is dominant, the knight who attacks, or the female who has the power to make him fall prey to passion?
The scene is therefore suspended, as its power relationship is ambiguous. This ambiguity is also intrinsic to the artistic theme we have talked about. On the one hand, the artists tend to highlight the contrast between feminine weakness and fragility, as symbolized by the tempting softness of naked flesh, and strong masculinity as signified by the hard appearance of metal. On the other hand, however, the very armor that should be a symbol of might and virility almost seems like a shell that encloses and constrains all impulses.
John William Waterhouse, La Belle Dame sans Merci, 1893
John William Waterhouse, Lamia and the Soldier, ca. 1905
Such a representation inevitably raises questions: is the knight’s “macho” allure amplified by this encounter with a beautiful lady in Evitic costume, or does he on the contrary appear to be mocked? After being victorious in countless battles, isn’t the warrior conquered by the irresistible seduction of women? Is his armor a symbol of power or rather impotence (as it prevents intercourse)? Is the naked woman, in all her soft and helpless charm, really a compliant prey or is she the one who bewitches and leads the game?
Rose O’Neill, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, 1905
The opposition between these two extremes (manhood enclosed in war vestments, and naked seductive femininity) is the embodiment of a dialectic between the sexes that has been handed down for a very long time as if it were an immutable truth. Yet the dynamics of the relations of power, domination and submission, are never as univocal as they might seem; the mechanism is delicate, and the opposing components at its core are in constant tension towards overturning one another.
The strength of the image of the knight and the naked woman lies precisely in the fact that, at a deep level, its balance remains undecidable.
Vereker Monteith Hamilton (1856 – 1931), The Rescue
Mrs. Josephine M. Bicknell died only one week before her sixtieth birthday; she was buried in Cleburne, Texas, at the beginning of May, 1928.
Once the coffin was lowered into the ground,her husband James C. Bicknell stood watching as the grave was filled with a thick layer of cement; he waited for an hour, maybe two, until the cement dried completely. Eventually James and the other relatives could head back home, relieved: nobody would be able to steal Mrs. Bicknell’s body – not the doctors, nor the other collectors who had tried to obtain it.
It is strange to think that a lifeless body could be tempting for so many people.
But the lady who was resting under the cement had been famous across the United States, many years before, under her maiden name: Josephine Myrtle Corbin, the Four-Legged Girl from Texas.
Myrtle was born in 1868 in Lincoln County, Tennessee, with a rare fetal anomaly called dipygus: her body was perfectly formed from her head down to her navel, below which it divided into two pelvises, and four lower limbs.
Her two inner legs, although capable of movement, were rudimentary, and at birth they were found laying flat on the belly. They resembled those of a parasitic twin, but in reality there was no twin: during fetal development, her pervis had split along the median axis (in each pair of legs, one was atrophic).
between each pair of legs there is a complete, distinct set of genital organs, both external and internal, each supported by a pubic arch. Each set acts independently of the other, except at the menstrual period. There are apparently two sets of bowels, and two ani; both are perfectly independent,– diarrhoea may be present on one side, constipation on the other.
Myrtle joined Barnum Circus at the age of 13. When she appeared on stage, nothing gave away her unusual condition: apart from the particularly large hips and a clubbed right foot, Myrtle was an attractive girl and had an altogether normal figure. But when she lifted her gown, the public was left breathless.
She married James Clinton Bicknell when she was 19 years old, and the following year she went to Dr. Lewis Whaley on the account of a pain in her left side coupled with other worrying symptoms. When the doctor announced that she was pregnant in her left uterus, Myrtle reacted with surprise:
“I think you are mistaken; if it had been on my right side I would come nearer believing it”; and after further questioning he found, from the patient’s observation, that her right genitals were almost invariably used for coitus.
That first pregnancy sadly ended with an abortion, but later on Myrtle, who had retired from show business, gave birth to four children, all perfectly healthy.
Given the enormous success of her show, other circuses tried to replicate the lucky formula – but charming ladies with supernumerary legs were nowhere to be found.
With typical sideshow creativity, the problem was solved by resorting to some ruse.
The two following diagrams show the trick used to simulate a three-legged and a four-legged woman, as reported in the 1902 book The New Magic (source: Weird Historian).
If you search for Myrtle Corbin’s pictures on the net, you can stumble upon some photographs of Ashley Braistle, the most recent example of a woman with four legs.
The pictures below were taken at her wedding, in July 1994, when she married a plumber from Houston named Wayne: their love had begun after Ashley appeared in a newspaper interview, declaring that she was looking for a “easygoing and sensitive guy“.
Unfortunately on May 11, 1996, Ashley’s life ended in tragedy when she made an attempt at skiing and struck a tree.
Did you guess it?
Ashley’s touching story is actually a trick, just like the ones used by circus people at the turn of the century.
This photographic hoax comes from another bizarre “sideshow”, namely the Weekly World News, a supermarket tabloid known for publishing openly fake news with funny and inventive titles (“Mini-mermaid found in tuna sandwich!” “Hillary Clinton adopts a baby alien!”, “Abraham Lincoln was a woman!”, and so on).
The “news” of Ashley’s demise on the July 4, 1996 issue.
Another example of a Weekly World News cover story.
To end on a more serious note, here’s the good news: nowadays caudal duplications can, in some instances, be surgically corrected after birth (it happened for example in 1968, in 1973 and in 2014).
And luckily, pouring cement is no longer needed in order to prevent jackals from stealing an extraordinary body like the one of Josephine Myrtle Corbin Bicknell.
Here’s another plate of fresh links and random weirdness to swallow in one bite, like the above frog did with a little snake.
In Madagascar there is a kind of double burial called famadihana: somewhat similar to the more famous Sulawesi tradition, famadihana consists in exhuming the bodies of the departed, equipping them with a new and clean shroud, and then burying them again. But not before having enjoyed one last, happy dance with the dead relative.
Whining about your writer’s block? Francis van Helmont, alchemist and close friend of famed philosopher Leibniz, was imprisoned by the Inquisition and wrote a book in between torture sessions. Besides obviously being a tough guy, he also had quite original ideas: according to his theory, ancient Hebrew letters were actually diagrams showing how lips and mouth should be positioned in order to pronounce the same letters. God, in other words, might have “printed” the Hebrew alphabet inside our very anatomy.
Speaking of primates: in an Italian natural park a female macaque held her dead baby for 25 days, cradling and hugging it. When the little body was unrecognizable, she ate the remains (warning: heartbreaking photos).
Wood carver artist Caspicara, who lived in Ecuador in the 1700s, is believed to be the autghor of this spectacular work which represents Death, Paradise, Purgatory and Hell. I don’t know about you, but the one on the right looks like Keith Richards to me.
James Ballard was passionate for what he called “invisible literature”: sales recepits, grocery lists, autopsy reports, assembly instructions, and so on. I find a similar thrill in seeking 19th-century embalming handbooks: such technical, professional publications, if read today, always have a certain surreal je ne sais quoi. And sometimes they also come with exceptional photographs, like these taken from a 1897 book.
In closing, I would like to remind you of two forthcoming appointments: on October 29, at 7pm, I will be in Rome at Giufà Libreria Caffe’ to present Tabula Esmeraldina, the latest visionary work by my Chilean friend Claudio Romo.
On November 3-5, you will find me at Lucca Comics & Games, stand NAP201, signing copies of Paris Mirabilia and chatting with readers of Bizzarro Bazar. See you there!
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 ahuge 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.
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.
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 thateven 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 Manilius‘ Astronomica:
Nascentes morimur, finisque ab origine pendet.
“As we are born we die, our end commences with our beginning.”
I have been your doll-wife, just as at home
I was papa’s doll-child; and here the children have been my dolls.
I thought it great fun when you played with me,
just as they thought it great fun when I played with them.
That is what our marriage has been, Torvald.
(H. Ibsen, A Doll’s House, Act III)
When Frances Glessner Lee was born in Chicago in 1878, her life had already been planned.
Her parents, industrialists who became millionaires selling agricultural machinery, had very clear ideas about what they expected from her: she was going to grow up in the big family estate, which resembled a fortress, where private institutors would instruct her in the feminine arts of sewing, embroidery, painting. Once she had become a raised-right young lady, she would marry and continue her existence in her husband’s shadow, as it was suitable for a respectable woman. For a perfect doll.
And Frances followed these rules, at least apparently. After her parents refused to send her to Harvard to study medicine like her brother (because “a lady doesn’t go to school”), the young girl married a lawyer and gave him three children.
And yet Frances felt secretly repressed by the morals of her time and by not being allowed anything outside domestic tasks: she was eager to do something tangible for the community, but on the other hand could not openly dispute the social role that was assigned to her.
Thus many bitter years passed, until things slowly began to change.
In 1914 a first, small scandal: Frances divorced her husband, partly because (according to her son) he was not happy with her doing creative manual work, in which she excelled. In little more than ten years, in turn, her brother, her mother and her father died. Frances found herself with an immense fortune, free at last to pursue her true vocation – which actually was quite far from the dreams others had dreamt for her.
Because her passion, fueled by the stories of Sherlock Holmes, was the newly-born forensic science.
Frances had a close friendship with George Burgess Magrath, who was her late brother’s collegue and a famous medical examiner specializing in murder cases. Magrath often complained about investigators misinterpreting or even tramplimg with the evidence on a crime scene: there still was no education on this matter, police officers moved the bodies or walked on blood stains without giving it a thought, and as a consequence a high number of homicides went unsolved.
The now wealthy heiress decided, initially assisted by Magrath, that she would begin to do her part in renewing the system. In 1931 she endowed Harvard University with a generous donation in order to establish a Department of Legal Medicine; subsequently she founded the George Burgess Magrath Library, and created an organization for the progress of forensic science, the Harvard Associates in Police Science.
Magrath died shortly after, but Frances — even though she was not a trained doctor — had already acquired a stunning knowledge in criminology. In the pictures from the time, she is sitting beside the biggest experts in the field, like a respected godmother and patron.
But her most extraordinary contribution to the cause was yet to come.
In the 1940s, Frances Glessner Lee decided to hold biannual seminars for detectives and investigators. And here she presented for the first time the result of countless days of solitary work: her Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.
At a first glance they looked like elaborate and detailed dollhouses, but looking closely one could discover their macabre secret: the puppets inside those houses were all dead.
Each diorama was in fact inspired by an actual crime scene, which Frances had studied or seen in person during the investigations.
The quality of craftmanship was impressive. With painstaking care, every doll was dressed with tiny cross-stitched clothes; using jeweler’s precision tools Frances was able to equip her models with windows that could be opened, working keys and locks, pantries filled with food cans and countless other microscopic details.
Thanks to her familiarity with autopsies and crime scenes, the murdered dolls showed realistic signs of violence and death: wounds, bruises, decomposition symptoms, blood spatters on clothes and walls, everything was reproduced to the smallest detail.
The dioramas, each accompanied by a “witness statement”, were designed as crime mysteries to be solved.
The investigators attending the seminar were given 90 minutes to examine each single scene; they had to carefully study every clue.
What happened exactly to that family, all massacred by gunshot? Was it a murder-suicide, or were the father, mother and baby killed by a stranger?
And why did this housewife decided to commit suicide with gas, taking the precaution of carefully sealing the door — but leaving in the sink some half-peeled potatoes? Could the hour of death be determined by the state of food in the open freezer?
Did the man in the barn really hang himself?
If this other woman really died while drawing a bath, how come the stopper was not in the bathtub? And why her legs, in full rigor mortis, had stopped in that unnatural position?
When the allowed time ran out, the detectives had to draw their conclusions on what might have happened.
Thanks to her exceptional work, Frances was made honorary captain in the New Hampshire State Police in 1943, becoming the first woman to be chief of police.
Frances Glessner Lee died in 1962; but to think her incredible dioramas (18 in total) were some kind of eccentric and cheap game, would be way off mark. They are so complex and accurate that they are used still today in Harvard to train forensic specialists.
Beside their specific educational value, the story these works tell us is also interesting for another reason.
In a sense, Frances Glessner Lee never stopped playing with dolls, as she was taught to do when she was little.
And yet the bourgeois interiors, the cabins, the bathrooms or the alleys recreated in her models speak of a reality of abuse and violence, of victims and executioners. In a subtly subversive way, the Nutshell Studies use the “language” of toys and childplay to describe the most brutal and terrifying aspects of existence — hatred and blood creeping into the reassuring tableau of a marriage, of a family, splattering those clean and tidy walls. It’s real life, with all its cruelty, bursting into the idealistic world of childhood.
One could guess, in these dioramas, some sort of secret pleasure on the part of their creator in destroying the idyllic domestic space.
Maybe staging savage murders inside a dollhouse — thus turning the perfect decent lady pastime into something terrible and macabre — was to Frances a small, symbolic revenge.
The victims in the Nutshell Studies are mainly women.
And this last detail sounds a bit like a warning, a cautionary note addressed to young girls: do not believe too much in fairy tales, with all their princes charming; do not believe in the golden, coddled lives the adults are preparing for you.
Some of you probably know about sati (or suttee), the hindu self-immolation ritual according to which a widow was expected to climb on her husband’s funeral pire to be burned alive, along his body. Officially forbidden by the English in 1829, the practice declined over time – not without some opposition on behalf of traditionalists – until it almost entirely disappeared: if in the XIX Century around 600 sati took place every year, from 1943 to 1987 the registered cases were around 30, and only 4 in the new millennium.
The sacrifice of widows was not limited to India, in fact it appeared in several cultures. In his Histories, Herodotus wrote about a people living “above the Krestons”, in Thracia: within this community, the favorite among the widows of a great man was killed over his grave and buried with him, while the other wives considered it a disgrace to keep on living.
Among the Heruli in III Century a.D., it was common for widows to hang themselves over their husband’s burial ground; in the XVIII Century, on the other side of the ocean, when a Natchez chief died his wives (often accompanied by other volunteers) followed him by committing ritual suicide. At times, some mothers from the tribe would even sacrify their own newborn children, in an act of love so strong that women who performed it were treated with great honor and entered a higher social level. Similar funeral practices existed in other native peoples along the southern part of Mississippi River.
Also in the Pacific area, for instance in Fiji, there were traditions involving the strangling of the village chief’s widows. Usually the suffocation was carried out or supervised by the widow’s brother (see Fison’s Notes on Fijian Burial Customs, 1881).
The idea underlying these practices was that it was deemed unconcievable (or improper) for a woman to remain alive after her husband’s death. In more general terms, a leader’s death opened an unbridgeable void, so much so that the survivors’ social existence was erased.
If female self-immolation (and, less commonly, male self-immolation) can be found in various time periods and latitudes, the Dani tribe developed a one-of-a-kind funeral sacrifice.
The Dani people live mainly in Baliem Valley, the indonesian side of New Guinea‘s central highlands. They are now a well-known tribe, on the account of increased tourism in the area; the warriors dress with symbolic accessories – a feather headgear, fur bands, a sort of tie made of seashells specifying the rank of the man wearing it, a pig’s fangs fixed to the nostrils and the koteka, a penis sheath made from a dried-out gourd.
The women’s clothing is simpler, consisting in a skirt made from bark and grass, and a headgear made from multicolored bird feathers.
Among this people, according to tradition when a man died the women who were close or related to him (wife, mother, sister, etc.) used to amputate one or more parts of their fingers. Today this custom no longer exists, but the elder women in the tribe still carry the marks of the ritual.
Allow me now a brief digression.
In Dino Buzzati‘s wonderful tale The Humps in the Garden (published in 1968 in La boutique del mistero), the protagonist loves to take long, late-night walks in the park surrounding his home. One evening, while he’s promenading, he stumbles on a sort of hump in the ground, and the following day he asks his gardener about it:
«What did you do in the garden, on the lawn there is some kind of hump, yesterday evening I stumbled on it and this morning as soon as the sun came up I saw it. It is a narrow and oblong hump, it looks like a burial mound. Will you tell me what’s happening?». «It doesn’t look like it, sir» said Giacomo the gardener «it really is a burial mound. Because yesterday, sir, a friend of yours has died». It was true. My dearest friend Sandro Bartoli, who was twenty-one-years-old, had died in the mountains with his skull smashed. «Are you trying to tell me» I said to Giacomo «that my friend was buried here?» «No» he replied «your friend, Mr. Bartoli […] was buried at the foot of that mountain, as you know. But here in the garden the lawn bulged all by itself, because this is your garden, sir, and everything that happens in your life, sir, will have its consequences right here.»
Years go by, and the narrator’s park slowly fills with new humps, as his loved ones die one by one. Some bulges are small, other enormous; the garden, once flat and regular, at this point is completely packed with mounds appearing with every new loss.
Because this problem of humps in the garden happens to everybody, and every one of us […] owns a garden where these painful phenomenons take place. It is an ancient story repeating itself since the beginning of centuries, it will repeat for you too. And this isn’t a literary joke, this is how things really are.
In the tale’s final part, we discover that the protagonist is not a fictional character at all, and that the sorrowful metaphore refers to the author himself:
Naturally I also wonder if in someone else’s garden will one day appear a hump that has to do with me, maybe a second or third-rate little hump, just a slight pleating in the lawn, not even noticeable in broad daylight, when the sun shines from up high. However, one person in the world, at least one, will stumble on it. Perhaps, on the account of my bad temper, I will die alone like a dog at the end of an old and deserted hallway. And yet one person that evening will stub his toe on the little hump in the garden, and will stumble on it the following night too, and each time that person will think with a shred of regret, forgive my hopefulness, of a certain fellow whose name was Dino Buzzati.
Now, if I may risk the analogy, the humps in Buzzati’s garden seem to be poetically akin to the Dani women’s missing fingers. The latter represent a touching and powerful image: each time a loved one leaves us, “we lose a bit of ourselves”, as is often said – but here the loss is not just emotional, the absence becomes concrete. On the account of this physical expression of grief, fingerless women undoubtedly have a hard time carrying out daily tasks; and further bereavements lead to the impossibility of using their hands. The oldest women, who have seen many loved ones die, need help and assistance from the community. Death becomes a wound which makes them disabled for life.
Of course, at least from a contemporary perspective, there is still a huge stumbling block: the metaphore would be perfect if such a tradition concerned also men, who instead were never expected to carry out such extreme sacrifices. It’s the female body which, more or less voluntarily, bears this visible evidence of pain.
But from a more universal perspective, it seems to me that these symbols hold the certainty that we all will leave a mark, a hump in someone else’s garden. The pride with which Dani women show their mutilated hands suggests that one person’s passage inevitably changes the reality around him, conditioning the community, even “sculpting” the flesh of his kindreds. The creation of meaning in displays of grief also lies in reciprocity – the very tradition that makes me weep for the dead today, will ensure that tomorrow others will lament my own departure.
Regardless of the historical variety of ways in which this concept was put forth, in this awareness of reciprocity human beings seem to have always found some comfort, because it eventually means that we can never be alone.
In 2002 Lydia Fairchild, a 26-year-old woman living in Washington state, was already a mother of two kids, with a third one on her way, and without a steady job; she had decided to seek public assistance.
The procedure required her children to undergo DNA testing to confirm that their father was indeed Jamie Townsend, Fairchild’s former partner. It should have been a routine check, but some days later the woman received a strange call, asking her to come in the prosecutor’s office at Social Services.
And that is when her world almost fell apart.
Once she went in, the officers closed the door behind her and started drilling her: “Who are you?”, they kept asking her repeatedly, without her understanding what was going on.
The reason behind the relentless questioning was absolutely unpredictable: the DNA tests had proven that Jamie Townsend was actually the children’s father… but Lydia was not their mother.
Although the woman kept repeating that she had carried and delivered them, the results categorically excluded this possibility: the genetic profiles of her children were in fact made up for one half from their father’s chromosomes, and for the other half from the chromosomes of an unknown woman. Lydia Fairchild was facing the risk of having her kids taken away from her.
Before the woman’s despair, Social Services ordered a new test, which gave exactly the same results. Lydia showed no genetic link with her children.
During the following 16 months, things got worse. The officers launched court action to remove her custody rights, as this could turn out to be a case of abduction, and the state even had a court officer witness her third child’s delivery, so that DNA test could be run immediately after birth. Once again, the newborn baby showed no genes in common with Lydia, who then became a suspect of acting as a surrogate for payment (which in Washington state is considered gross misdemeanor).
Lydia Fairchild was living a true nightmare: “I’d sit and have dinner with my kids and just break out crying. They would just look at me like, ‘What’s wrong, Mum.’ They’d come get me a hug, and I couldn’t explain it to them, because I didn’t understand“.
Her lawyer Alan Tindell, though initially perplexed by the case, decided to investigate and one day stumbled upon a similar story that happened in Boston, as described in a paper on the New England Journal of Medicine: a 52-year-old woman, Karen Keegan, had undergone a hystological exam in view of a transplant, and the results had shown no link between her DNA and her children’s.
Quite often the solution for the most intricate mysteries turn out to be disappointing, but in this case the explanation was just as incredible.
The lawyer understood that, just like the mother the scientific paper was about, Lydia too was a chimera.
Tetragametic chimerism happens when two egg cells are fertilized by two different sperm cells and, instead of developing into two fraternal twins, they fuse together at a very early stage. The chimeric individual is equipped with two different genetic makeups, and can develop whole organs having different chromosomes from all the others. Most chimeras do not even know they are, because the existence of two cellular lines is not often noticeable; but they carry inside them for instance the liver, or some other gland, that should have been part of their unborn twin.
In Fairchild’s case, the “foreign” organs were her ovaries. Inside of them were hidden those unknown chromosomes that formed the genetic makeup of Lydias’s children, as was confirmed by the examination of the cells obtained via pap test.
Finally the court dismissed the case. In the court hearing, the judge openly wondered how reliable could DNA tests be, as they are even today held essential in forensic cases — but what if the criminal is a chimera?
Today Lydia Fairchild is back to her normal life, leaving this terrible adventure behind. And some years ago she gave birth to her fourth daughter; or, if you will, the fourth daughter of that sister she never had.
The New England Journal of Medicine paper mentioned in the post can be read here. To discover some less-known istances of chimerism, I suggest this articolo.
C’è un’ossessione profonda, che attraversa i secoli e non accenna a placarsi. L’ossessione maschile per il corpo della donna.
Un corpo magnetico che conduce a sé (seduce), tirando i fili del simbolo; carne duttile e plasmabile, che nell’atto sessuale ha funzione ricettiva, eppure voragine abissale nella quale ci si può perdere; corpo castrante, che eccita la violenza e l’idolatria, corpo di dea callipigia da deflorare; scrigno che racchiude il segreto della vita, sessualità ambigua il cui piacere è sconosciuto e terribile.
Così è capitato che nel corpo femminile si sia scavato, per cavarne fuori questo suo mistero, aprendolo, smembrandolo in pezzi da ricombinare, cercando le occulte e segrete analogie, le geometrie nascoste, l’algebra del desiderio, come ha fatto ad esempio Hans Bellmer in tutta la sua carriera. Nei suoi scritti e nelle sue opere pittoriche (oltre che nelle sue bambole, di cui avevo parlato qui) l’artista tedesco ha maniacalmente decostruito la figura femminile disegnando paralleli inaspettati e perturbanti fra le varie parti anatomiche, in una sorta di febbrile feticismo onnicomprensivo, in cui occhi, vulve, piedi, orecchie si fondono assieme fluidamente, fino a creare inedite configurazioni di carne e di sogno.
L’erotismo di Bellmer è uno sguardo psicopatologico e assieme lucidissimo, freddo e visionario al tempo stesso; ed è nella sua opera Rose ouverte la nuit (1934), e nelle successive declinazioni del tema, che l’artista dà la più esatta indicazione di quale sia la sua ricerca. Nel dipinto, una ragazza solleva la pelle del suo stesso ventre per esaminare le proprie viscere.
L’atto di alzare la pelle della donna, come si potrebbe sollevare una gonna, è una delle più potenti raffigurazioni dell’ossessione di cui parliamo. È lo strip-tease finale che lascia la femmina più nuda del nudo, che permette di scrutare all’interno della donna alla ricerca di un segreto che forse, beffardamente, non si troverà mai.
Ma l’immagine non è nuova, anzi vuole riecheggiare lo stesso turbamento che si può provare di fronte alle numerose e meravigliose veneri anatomiche a grandezza naturale scolpite in passato da abili artisti, una tradizione nata a Firenze alla fine del XVII secolo.
Queste bellissime fanciulle adagiate in pose languide aprono l’interno del loro corpo allo sguardo dello spettatore, senza pudore, senza mostrare dolore. Anzi, dalle espressioni dei loro volti si direbbe quasi che vi sia in loro un sottile compiacimento, un piacere estatico nell’offrirsi in questa nudità assoluta.
Perché questi corpi non sono rappresentati come cadaveri, ma essenzialmente vivi e coscienti?
L’esistenza stessa di simili sculture oggi può disorientare, ma è in realtà una naturale evoluzione delle preoccupazioni artistiche, scientifiche e religiose dei secoli precedenti. Prima di parlare di queste straordinarie opere ceroplastiche, facciamo dunque un rapido excursus che ci permetta di comprenderne appieno il contesto; sottolineo che non mi interesso qui alla storia delle veneri, né esclusivamente alla loro portata scientifica, quanto piuttosto al loro particolarissimo ruolo in riguardo al femmineo.
Il dominio dello sguardo Quando Vesalio, con incredibile coraggio (o spavalderia), si fece immortalare sul frontespizio della sua De humani corporis fabrica (1543) nell’atto di dissezionare personalmente un cadavere, stava lanciando un messaggio rivoluzionario: la medicina galenica, indiscussa fino ad allora, era colma di errori perché nessuno si era premurato di aprire un corpo umano e guardarci dentro con i propri occhi. Uomo del Rinascimento, Vesalio era strenuo sostenitore dell’esperienza diretta – in un’epoca, questo è ancora più notevole, in cui la “scienza” come la conosciamo non era ancora nata – e fu il primo a scindere il corpo da tutte le altre preoccupazioni metafisiche. Dopo di lui, il funzionamento del corpo umano non andrà più cercato nell’astrologia, nelle relazioni simbolico-alchemiche o negli elementi, ma in esso stesso.
Da questo momento, la dissezione occuperà per i secoli a venire il centro di ogni ricerca medica. Ed è lo sguardo di Vesalio, uno sguardo di sfida, altero e duro come la pietra, a imporsi come il paradigma dell’osservazione scientifica.
Il problema morale
Bisogna tenere a mente che nei secoli che stiamo prendendo in esame, l’anatomia non era affatto distaccata dalla visione religiosa, anzi si riteneva che studiare l’uomo – centro assoluto della Natura, immagine e somiglianza del Creatore e culmine della sua opera – significasse avvicinarsi un po’ di più anche a Dio.
Eppure, per quanto si riconoscesse come fondamentale l’esperienza diretta, era difficile liberarsi dall’idea che dissezionare una salma fosse in realtà una sorta di sacrilegio. Questa sensazione scomoda venne aggirata cercando soggetti di studio che avessero in qualche modo perso il loro statuto di “uomini”: criminali, suicidi o poveracci che il mondo non reclamava. Candidati ideali per il tavolo settorio. La violazione che si osava infliggere ai loro corpi era poi ulteriormente giustificata in quanto alle spoglie dissezionate venivano garantite, in cambio del sacrificio, una messa e una sepoltura cristiana che altrimenti non avrebbero avuto. Grazie al loro contributo alla ricerca, avendo scontato per così dire la loro pena, essi tornavano ad essere accettati dalla società.
Lo stesso senso di colpa per l’attività di dissezione spiega il successo delle tavole anatomiche che raffigurano i cosiddetti écorché, gli scorticati. Per raffigurare gli apparati interni, si decise di mostrare soggetti in pose plastiche, vivi e vegeti a dispetto delle apparenze, anzi spesso artefici o complici delle loro stesse dissezioni. Una simile visione era certamente meno fastidiosa e scioccante che vedere le parti anatomiche esposte su un tavolo come carne da macello (cfr. M. Vène, Ecorchés : L’exploration du corps, XVIème-XVIIIème siècle, 2001).
L’uomo, che si è scorticato da solo, osserva l’interno della sua stessa pelle come a carpirne i segreti. Da Valverde, Anatomia del corpo humano (1560).
Dal medesimo volume, dissezione del peritoneo in tre atti. Nella terza figura, il personaggio tiene fra i denti il proprio grembiule omentale per mostrarne il reticolo vascolare.
Spiegel e Casseri, De humani corporis fabrica libri decem (1627).
Spiegel e Casseri, Ibid.
Già nelle stampe degli écorché si nota una differenza fra figure maschili e femminili. Per illustrare il sistema muscolare venivano utilizzati soggetti maschili, mentre le donne esibivano spesso e volentieri gli organi interni, e fin dalle primissime rappresentazioni erano nella quasi totalità dei casi gravide. Il feto visibile all’interno del grembo femminile sottolineava la primaria funzione della donna come generatrice di vita, mentre dall’altro canto gli écorché maschi si presentavano in pose virili che ne esaltavano la prestanza fisica.
Spiegel e Casseri, Ibid.
Un muscoloso corpo maschile posa per una tavola che in realtà descrive una dissezione del cranio. Dal De dissectione partium corporis humani libri tres di C. Estienne (1545).
Dal medesimo volume, l’anatomia degli intestini è baroccamente inserita all’interno di una corazza da guerriero romano.
Lo svelamento dell’utero, messa in scena simbolica della denudazione. Dal Carpi commentaria cum amplissimis additionibus super Anatomia Mundini (1521).
La gravida di Pietro Berrettini (1618) si alza snella e graziosa per esibire il suo apparato riproduttivo.
Come si vede nelle stampe qui sotto, già dalla metà del ‘500 i soggetti femminili mostrano una certa sensualità, mentre si abbandonano a pose che in altri contesti risulterebbero indecenti e impudiche. L’artista qui si spinse addirittura a realizzare delle versioni anatomiche di celebri stampe erotiche clandestine, ricopiando le pose dei personaggi ma scorticandoli secondo la tradizione anatomica, “raffreddando” così ironicamente la scena.