Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 26

Welcome to this Easter edition of the column that collects various treats and bizarre delicacies from the internet. Depicted above is a party I’d really feel comfortable, painted by an anonymous seventeenth-century Tuscan artist.
And we’re off and running!

  • Let us begin with a short collection of last words spoken on the guillotine stage.
  • And here is a bridge of ants.
  • During the work to rebuild the Notre-Dame Cathedral, after a fire devastated it three years ago, a mysterious leaden sarcophagus was unearthed. The casket in all probability dates back to the 14th century, and it will be opened shortly: who knows if it contains a hunchbacked skeleton.
  • How would you react if, searching for your home on Google Street View, you saw mom and dad sitting on the porch… who have been dead for years? Would that image distress you, make you suffer? Or, on the contrary, would you look at it with emotion and affection, because that picture still makes you feel close to them? Would you ask Google to remove the image, or keep it forever in memory? With the growth of Street View, this sort of thing is happening more and more often, and it’s just one of the many ways the internet is changing grief processing.

  • The gentleman above is one of the founding fathers of the United States, Gouverneur Morris, who had a particularly odd and eventful life: at the age of 28 he was run over by a carriage and lost a leg; he later helped write the Constitution, then was sent to France where he had a string of lovers and managed to escape the Revolution unscathed. Back in the US, he finally decided to put his head straight and marry Ann Cary Randolph, his housekeeper, who incidentally some years before had been accused of infanticide. In short, how could such a man close his existence with a flourish? In 1816 Gouverneur Morris, who suffered from prostate, died as a result of internal injuries caused by self-surgery: in an attempt to unblock the urinary tract, he had used a whale bone as an improvised catheter. (Thanks, Bruno!)
  • Ten years ago I posted an article (Italian only)  about the Dylatov Pass incident, one of the longest-running historical mysteries. In 2021, two Swiss researchers published on Nature a study that would seem to be, so far, the most scientifically plausible explanation for the 1959 tragedy: the climbers could have been killed by a violent and anomalous avalanche. Due possibly to the boredom of last year’s lockdown, this theory did once again trigger the press, social media, conspiracy theorists, romantic fans of the abominable snowmen, and so on. Before long, the two researchers found themselves inundated with interview requests. They therefore performed three new expeditions to Dylatov Pass and published a second study in which, in addition to confirming their previous findings, they also report in an amused tone about the media attention they received and the social impact of their publication.
  • An autopsy was held last October in Portland in front of a paying audience. The great Cat Irvin, who is curator of anatomical collections at the Surgeons’ Hall in Edinburgh, was interviewed on the ethical implications of pay-per-view autopsies. (Cat also runs a beautiful blog called Wandering Bones, and you can find her on Instagram and Twitter)
  • Below, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria dressed as a mummy for a souvenir photo, (circa 1895). Via Thanatos Archive.

  • If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? What if a bear plays the piano in an empty house?
  • A tweet that offers a novel (and, frankly, kind of gross) perspective on our skeleton.
  • On April 22, 1969, the most hallucinatory and shocking opera of all time was staged at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall: Eight Songs for a Mad King, by Peter Maxwell Davies. The protagonist of the drama is King George III, who suffered from an acute mental illness: consequently, the entire composition is intended to be a depiction of the schizophrenic cacophony inside his head. The six musicians (flute, clarinet, percussion, piano/harpsichord, violin and cello) played inside gigantic birdcages; interpreting the verses, the cries and the sudden changes of mood of the mad King, was a baritone with 5 octaves of extension (!) dressed in a straitjacket. The opera, lasting half an hour, was a completely unprecedented assault on conventional rules, as well as on the ears of the spectators who had certainly never heard anything like it: the one-act play culminated in the moment when the king stole the violin from the player and tore it to pieces. If you have 28 minutes and want to try your hand at this disturbing representation of madness — a unique example of classical punk music, at least for its attitude — here is a 2012 video in which the solo part is played by Kelvin Thomas who, at the time of filming, was 92 years old.

Now, two pieces of slightly more personal news.
The first is that my upcoming online lecture (in English) for Morbid Anatomy will take place on May 14, and will focus on the cult of the dead in Naples.
Info and tickets here.

Secondly, if you can read Italian, I would like to remind you that the Almanacco dell’Italia occulta, edited by Fabrizio Foni and Fabio Camilletti, has been published by Odoya: following the line of the previous Almanacco dell’orrore popolare, this volume collects several contributions by different authors. If the first book, however, focused on the rural dimension of our country, this new anthology examines the urban context, exploring its hidden, fantastic and “lunar” face. Among the essays by more than 20 authors included in the Almanacco there is also my study of the weirdest, most picturesque and unexpectedly complex newspaper in the history of the Italian press: Cronaca Vera, which with its pulp and fanciful titles has left an indelible mark on our imagination.

In conclusion, I wish you all the best and I take my leave with an Easter meme.
Until next time!

Eventi di dicembre

Sorry, this entry is only available in Italiano.

Fumone, the invisible castle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is Castle of Fumone‘s official site.