Strange primordial figures, half human and half vegetal, emerge from the mud of the swamp… They may appear disturbing at first, but in truth they do nothing but observe us, half hidden among the vegetation. Their motionless faces, tinged with sadness, seem to spy on our movements: we are the intruders, the real danger, the offspring who have disowned their origins, we are those who have violated, spoiled and worn out nature.
These hieratic creatures, on the other hand, live with the rhythm of the tides; the wind dries and cracks their muddy skin, but does not affect their calm balance — that serenity which only belongs to those who have accepted the fluid pulsations of time.
They are the work of the French sculptor and artist Sophie Prestigiacomo.
Living near the brackish marshes that make up the Réserve Naturelle des Marais de Séné, in Brittany, one of her passions has always been to go into the swamp, walking along creaking wooden bridges, watching the landscape change with the ebb and flow of the tides that cyclically submerge part of the land.
During one of these excursions, as Sophie recounts, a fateful encounter took place: her encounter with an alga.
Having noticed that the texture of this seaweed resembled that of human skin, and that if left to dry it assumed the consistency of fabric, Sophie realized the ductility that this material could have in the artistic field.
Apart from the metal armor that keeps the desired position, Sophie Prestigiacomo’s Homo algus are sculpted solely with mud and algae. A type of ephemeral art, which natural elements continuously affect and modify. The artist occasionally does some restoration work, when the sculptures are falling apart; but their ultimate fate is to wear out completely, sooner or later.
Initially there were only two Homo algus. Intrigued and reassured by the welcome given to these first two ambassadors, other beings of algae and mud have begun to emerge from the stagnant waters, perhaps convinced that there may still be a relationship tie with this awkward primate called Man.
Thanks to the interest of the curator of the Nature Reserve, and to a crowdfunding campaign, today the swamp feature about ten sculptures.
Sophie Prestigiacomo is still in love with the marsh, and the way it transforms. She often returns to visit her creatures, which change from morning to evening, depending on the rains, winds, humidity: as vulnerable and sensitive as the ecosystem they are part of.
They just wait for someone to walk along the path, between the tidal flats and the marshes, to whisper in tune with the breeze that comes from the immense ocean: remember, human, that this landscape is yours, as you belong to it.
Some time ago I wrote a piece about those peculiar epiphanies linking different points on our mental map, which we thought were distant from each other, those unexpected convergences between stories and characters which at first glance appear to be unrelated.
Here’s another one: what do the preserved corpse of Jeremy Bentham (1), the famous Duchenne study on facial expressions (2), the amusement park museum in Paris (3) and anatomical waxes (4) have in common?
The link between all those things is one man: Jules Talrich, born in Paris in 1826.
The Talrich family came from Perpignan, in the Pyrenees. There Jules’s grandfather, Thadée, had been chief surgeon at the local hospital; there his father, Jacques, had worked as a military surgeon before moving to Paris, two years prior to Jules’ birth.
As a child, therefore, Jules grew up in contact with medicine and the anatomical practice. In fact, his father had become famous for his wax models; this renown earned him a post as official ceroplast at the Faculty of Medicine in Paris in 1824. We can imagine little Jules running around in his father’s workshop, looking at his dad with admiration as he worked on his écorchés (flayed) models.
When he was only 6 years old, in 1832, Jules probably saw his father modeling the head of Jeremy Bentham.
The famous utilitarian philosopher had decided, a couple of years before he died, that his body should have been publicly dissected, embalmed and exposed in a case. But the process of mummification on his head, carried out by an anatomist friend of Bentham, Southwood Smith, had not given the expected results: the skin on his face had become dark and shriveled, and was judged excessively macabre. So Jacques Talrich – whose reputation as a ceroplast extended across the Channel – had been commissioned a wax reproduction of Bentham’s head. The so-called “auto icon” is still exhibited today in a hallway at the University College of London.
So it was that the young Jules grew up surrounded by wax models, and taking part in his father’s dissections of corpses in the Faculty of Medicine. When he was little more than a boy, he began working as a “prosector”, i.e. dissecting and preparing anatomical pieces to be used during class at the University; in his dad’s laboratory, he soon learned the art of replicating with molten wax the most intricate muscular and vascular structures of the human body.
When Jacques died in 1851, Jules Talrich inherited the family business. In 1862 he was appointed ceroplast at the University, the same place that his father had occupied for so many years; and just like his father, Jules also became renowned for his wax and plaster anatomical models, both normal and pathological, which on the account of their exquisite workmanship were commissioned and exhibited in several museums, and turned out a huge success in several Universal Expositions.
Besides a vast scientific production, the Maison Talrich provided services in the funeral business, modeling funeral masks or reconstructing illustrious faces such as that of Cardinal Richelieu, realized from his embalmed head. The ability of the French ceroplast also turned out to be useful in some criminal cases, for example to identify the corpse of a woman cut in half which was found in the Seine in 1876. Talrich’s waxes were also highly requested in the religious field, and the company made several important wax effigies of saints and martyrs.
However, Talrich also influenced the world of entertainment and traveling fairs, at least to some extent. At the beginning of 1866 on the Grands Boulevards he opened his “Musée Français”, a wax museum in the spirit of the famous Madame Tussauds in London.
Talrich’s exhibition had a markedly mainstream appeal: upstairs, the public could see aome literary, historical and mythological characters (from Adam and Eve to Don Quixote, from Hercules to Vesalius), while for a surcharge of 5 francs one could access the underground floor, by descending a narrow spiral staircase. Here, in a calculated “chamber of horrors” atmosphere, were collected the most morbid attractions — torture scenes, pathological waxes, and so on. The visit ended with the illusion of the “Talking Head” illusion, patented by Professor Pepper (also inventor of the Pepper’s ghost); unfortunately the public soon realized that the effect was achieved by hiding an actor’s body behind two mirrors, and in a short time the real entertainment for the crowd became throwing paper balls on the poor man’s head.
The fact that a renowned and serious ceroplast, with a permanent job at the University, devoted himself to this kind of popular entertainment should not be astonishing. His museum, in fact, was part of a larger movement that in the second half of the 19th century brought anatomy into circuses and traveling fairs, a kind of attraction balancing between science, education and sensationalism.
In those years nearly every sideshow had a wax museum. And in it,
pedagogical figures had to provide information on distant populations and on the mysteries of procreation, they had to explain why one needed to wash and abstain from drinking too much, to show the perils of venereal diseases and the ambiguities of consanguinity. It was an illustrated morality, but also an opportunity to gaze at the forbidden in good conscience, to become a voyeur by virtue. A summary of the perversities of bourgeois civilization.
A strange and ambiguous mixture of science and entertainment:
Traveling anatomical museums found their place at the fair, alongside the pavilions of scientific popularization, historical wax museums and other dioramas, all manifestations of the transition from high culture to popular culture. These new types of museums differed from the pedagogical university museums on the account of their purpose and the type of public they were intended for: contrary to academical institutions, they had to touch the general public of traveling fairs as lucrative attractions, which explains the spectacular nature of some pieces. And yet, they never completely lost their pedagogical vocation, although retranslated in a moralizing sense, as testified by the common collections about “social hygiene”.
The Musée Français was short-lived, and Talrich was forced to close after less than two years of activity; in 1876, he opened a second museum near Montmartre, this time a more scientific (albeit still voyeuristic) installation. Almost 300 pathological models were exposed here, as well as some ethnological waxes.
But besides his own museums, Jules Talrich supplied waxworks and plaster models for a whole range of other collections — both stable and itinerant — such as the Musée Grevin, the Grand Panopticum de l’Univers or the very famous Spitzner Museum.
In fact, many of the pieces circulating in amusement parks were made by Talrich; and some of these anatomical waxes, together with real pathological and teratological preparations, are now kept in a “secret cabinet” inside the Musée des Arts Forains at the Pavillons de Bercy in Paris. (This museum, entirely dedicated to traveling carnivals, is in my opinion one of the most marvelous places in the world and, ça va sans dire, I have included it in my book Paris Mirabilia).
Jules Talrich retired in 1903, but his grandchildren continued the business for some time. Jules and his father Jacques are remembered as the greatest French ceroplasts, together with Jean-Baptiste Laumonier (1749-1818), Jules Baretta (1834-1923) and Charles Jumelin (1848-1924).
In closing, here’s one last curiosity — as well as the last “convergence”, of the four I mentioned at the beginning.
Several photographs of Jules Talrich exist, and for a peculilar reason. A lover of physiognomy and phrenology himself, Jules agreed in 1861 to take part in Guillaume Duchenne‘s experiments on how facial expressions are connected to emotions. The shots depicting Talrich were included by Duchenne in his Mécanisme de la physionomie humaine, published the following year.
But Jules’ beautiful face, with his iconic mustache, is also visible in some plasterwork, which Talrich provided with his own features: whether this was simply an artist’s whim, or a symbolic meditation on his own mortality, we will never know.
Here is one of his poems, Premier jour.
It is truly amazing to see how he manages, with minimalist touches and a masterful use of color, to plunge us into the tragedy of a death during childbirth.
And then there is that word, dans (“inside”), recurring in each verse and suggesting a strange telescope effect. One thing is always inside another, everything is connected; the event is inscribed in a wider perspective – the house, the town, the night.
This is why one should not be deceived by the poem’s apparent formal simplicity. In reality, it encompasses both joy and drama, the mystery of life and death; and a dark cosmos (the night), of which we will never know whether it is compassionate or indifferent.
China, Shanxi province, on the nothern part of the Republic.
At the beginningof 2016, the Hongtong County police chief gave the warning: during the three previous years, at least a dozen thefts of corpses were recorded each year. All the exhumed and smuggled bodies were of young women, and the trend is incresing so fast that many families now prefer to bury their female relatives near their homes, rather than in secluded areas. Others resort to concrete graves, install surveillance cameras, hire security guards or plant gratings around the burial site, just like in body snatchers England. It looks like in some parts of the province, the body of a young dead girl is never safe enough.
What’s behind this unsettling trend?
These episodes of body theft are connected to a very ancient tradition which was thought to be long abandoned: the custom of “netherworld marriages”.
The death of a young unmarried male is considered bad lack for the entire family: the boy’s soul cannot find rest, without a mate.
For this reasons his relatives, in the effort of finding a spouse for the deceased man, turn to matchmakers who can put them in contact with other families having recently suffered the lost of a daughter. A marriage is therefore arranged for the two dead young persons, following a specific ritual, until they are finally buried together, much to the relief of both families.
This kind of marriages seem to date back to the Qin dinasty (221-206 a.C.) even if the main sources attest a more widespread existence of the practice starting from the Han dinasty (206 a.C.-220 d.C.).
The problem is that as the traffic becomes more and more profitable, some of these matchmakers have no qualms about exhuming the precious corpses in secret: to sell the bodies, they sometimes pretend to be relatives of the dead girl, but in other cases they simply find grieving families who are ready to pay in order to find a bride for their departed loved one, and willing to turn a blind eye on the cadaver’s provenance.
Until some years ago, “ghost marriages” were performed by using symbolic bamboo figurines, dressed in traditional clothes; today weath is increasing, and as much as 100,000 yan (around $15,000) can be spent on the fresh body of a young girl. Even older human remains, put back together with wire, can be worth up to $800. The village elders, after all, are the ones who warn new generations: to cast away bad luck nothing beats an authentic corpse.
Although the practice has been outlawed in 2006, the business is so lucrative that the number of arrests keep increasing, and at least two cases of murder have been reported in the news where the victim was killed in order to sell her body.
If at first glance this tradition may seem macabre or senseless, let us consider its possible motivations.
In the province where these episodes are more frequent, a large number of young men work in coal mines, where fatal accidents are sadly common. The majority of these boys are the sole children of their parents, because of the Chinese one-child policy, effective until 2013.
So, apart from reasons dictated by superstition, there is also an important psychological element: imagine the relief if, in the process of elaborating grief, you could still do something to make your dearly departed happy. Here’s how a “ghost wedding” acts as a compensation for the loss of a loved boy, who maybe died while working to support his family.
Marriages between two deceased persons, or between a living person and a dead one, are not even unique to China, for that matter. In France posthumous marriages (which usually take place when a woman prematurely loses her fiancé) are regularly requested to the President of the Republic, who has the power of issuing the authorization. The purpose is to acknowledge children who were conceived before the premature death, but there may also been purely emotional motivations. In fact there’s a relatively long list of countries that allowed for marriages in which one or both the newlywed were no longer alive.
In closing, here is a little curiosity.
In the well-known Tim Burton film Corpse Bride (2005), inspired by a centuries-old folk tale (the short story Die Todtenbraut by F. A. Schulze, found within the Fantasmagoriana anthology, is a Romantic take on that tale), the main character puts a ring on a small branch, unaware that this light-hearted move is actually sanctioning his netherworld engagement.
Quite similar to that harmless-looking twig is a “trick” used in Taiwan when a young girl dies unmarried: her relatives leave out on the streets a small red package containing Hell money, a lock of hair or some nails from the dead woman. The first man to pick up the package has to marry the deceased girl, if he wants to avoid misfortune. He will be allowed to marry again, but he shall forever revere the “ghost” bride as his first, real spouse.
These rituals become necessary when an individual enters the afterlife prematurely, without undergoing a fundamental rite of passage like marriage (therefore without completing the “correct” course of his life). As is often the case with funeral customs, the practice has a beneficial and apotropaic function both for the social group of the living and for the deceased himself.
On one hand all the bad luck that could harm the relatives of the dead is turned away; a bond is formed between two different families, which could not have existed without a proper marriage; and, at the same time, everybody can rest assured that the soul will leave this world at peace, and will not depart for the last voyage bearing the mark of an unfortunate loneliness.
We advocate freedom, against any kind of censorship.
And yet today, sex being everywhere, legitimized, we feel we are missing something. There is in fact a strange paradox about eroticism: the need to have a prohibition, in order to transgress it.
“Is sex dirty? Only when it’s being done right“, Woody Allen joked, summarizing how much the orthodox or religious restrictions have actually fostered and given a richer flavor to sexual congresses.
An enlightening example might come from the terrible best-selling books of the past few years: we might wonder why nowadays erotic literature seems to be produced by people who can’t write, for people who can’t read.
The great masterpieces of erotica appeared when it was forbidden to write about sex. Both the author (often a well-known and otherwise respectable writer) and the editor were forced to act in anonimity and, if exposed, could be subjected to a harsh sentence. Dangerous, outlaw literature: it wasn’t written with the purpose of seeling hundreds of thousands of copies, but rather to be sold under the counter to the few who could understand it.
Thus, paradoxically, such a strict censorship granted that the publishing of an erotic work corresponded to a poetic, authorial urgency. Risqué literature, in many cases, represented a necessary and unsuppressible artistic expression. The crossing of a boundary, of a barrier.
Given the current flat landscape, we inevitably look with curiosity (if not a bit of nostalgia) at those times when eroticism had to be carefully concealed from prying eyes.
An original variation of this “sunken” collective imagination are those erotic objects which in France (where they were paricularly popular) are called à système, “with a device”.
They consisted in obscene representations hidden behind a harmless appearance, and could only be seen by those who knew the mechanism, the secret move, the trick to uncover them.
Some twenty years ago in Chinese restaurants in Italy, liquor at the end of the meal was served in peculiar little cups that had a convex glass base: when the cup was full, the optic distorsion was corrected by the liquid and it was possible to admire, on the bottom, the picture of a half-undressed lady, who became invisible once again as the cup was emptied.
The concept behind the ancient objets à système was the same: simple objects, sometimes common home furnishings, disguising the owners’ unmentionable fantasies from potential guests coming to the house.
The most basic kind of objects à système had false bottoms and secret compartments. Indecent images could be hidden in all sorts of accessories, from snuffboxes to walking canes, from fake cheese cartons to double paintings.
Ivory box, the lid shows a double scene. XIX Century.
Inlaid domino game, in the manner of sailors decorations, with erotic plates.
Walking stick knob handle.
Paintings with hidden pictures.
A young woman reads a book: if the painting is opened, her improper fantasies are visualized.
Other, slightly more elaborate objects presented a double face: a change of perspective was needed in order to discover their indecent side. A classic example from the beginning of the XX Century are ceramic sculptures or ashtrays which, when turned upside down, held some surprises.
The monk, a classic erotic figure, is hiding a secret inside the wicker basket on his shoulders.
Double-faced pendant: the woman’s legs can be closed, and on the back a romantic flowered heart takes shape.
Then there were objects featuring a hinge, a device that had to be activated, or removable parts. Some statuettes, such as the beautiful bronzes created by Bergman‘s famous Austrian forgery, were perfect art nouveau decorations, but still concealed a spicy little secret.
The top half of this polichrome ceramic figurine is actually a lid which, once removed, shows the Marquise crouching in the position called de la pisseuse, popularized by an infamous Rembrandt etching.
Snuffbox, sailor’s sculpture. Here the mechanism causes the soldier’s hat to “fall down”, revealing the true nature of the gallant scene.
Meerschaum pipe. Upon inserting a pipe cleaner into the chamber, a small lever is activated.
In time, the artisans came up with ever more creative ideas.
For instance there were decorations composed of two separate figurines, showing a beautiful and chaste young girl in the company of a gallant faun. But it was enough to alter the charachters’ position in order to see the continuation of their affair, and to verify how successful the satyr’s seduction had been.
Even more elaborate ruses were devised to disguise these images. The following picture shows a fake book (end of XVIII Century) hiding a secret chest. The spring keys on the bottom allow for the unrolling of a strip which contained seven small risqué scenes, appearing through the oval frame.
The following figures were a real classic, and with many variations ended up printed on pillboxes, dishes, matchstick boxes, and several other utensiles. At first glance, they don’t look obscene at all; their secret becomes only clear when they are turned uspide down, and the bottom part of the drawing is covered with one hand (you can try it yourself below).
The medals in the picture below were particularly ingenious. Once again, the images on both sides showed nothing suspicious if examied by the non-initiated. But flipping the medal on its axis caused them to “combine” like the frames of a movie, and to appear together. The results can be easily imagined.
In closing, here are some surprising Chinese fans.
In his book La magia dei libri (presented in NYC in 2015), Mariano Tomatis reports several historical examples of “hacked books”, which were specifically modified to achieve a conjuring effect. These magic fans work in similar fashion: they sport innocent pictures on both sides, provided that the fan is opened as usual from left to right. But if the fan is opened from right to left, the show gets kinky.
A feature of these artisan creations, as opposed to classic erotic art, was a constant element of irony. The very concept of these objects appears to be mocking and sardonic.
Think about it: anyone could keep some pornographic works locked up in a safe. But to exhibit them in the living room, before unsuspecting relatives and acquaintances? To put them in plain view, under the nose of your mother-in-law or the visiting reverend?
That was evidently the ultimate pleasure, a real triumph of dissimulation.
Playing card with nude watermark, made visible by placing it in front of a candle.
Such objects have suffered the same loss of meaning afflicting libertine literature; as there is no real reason to produce them anymore, they have become little more than a collector’s curiosity.
And nonetheless they can still help us to better understand the paradox we talked about in the beginning: the objets à système manage to give us a thrill only in the presence of a taboo, only as long as they are supposed to remain under cover, just like the sexual ghosts which according to Freud lie behind the innocuous images we see in our dreams.
Should we interpret these objects as symbols of bourgeois duplicity, of the urge to maintain at all cost an honorable facade? Were they instead an attempt to rebel against the established rules?
And furthermore, are we sure that sexual transgression is so revolutionary as it appears, or does it actually play a conservative social role in regard to the Norm?
Eventually, making sex acceptable and bringing it to light – depriving it of its part of darkness – will not cause our desire to vanish, as desire can always find its way. It probably won’t even impoverish art or literature, which will (hopefully) build new symbolic imagery suitable for a “public domain” eroticism.
The only aspect which is on the brink of extinction is precisely that good old idea of transgression, which also animated these naughty knick-knacks. Taking a look at contemporary conventions on alternative sexuality, it would seem that the fall of taboos has already occurred. In the absence of prohibitions, with no more rules to break, sex is losing its venomous and dangerous character; and yet it is conquering unprecedented serenity and new possibilities of exploration.
So what about us?
We would like to have our cake and eat it too: we advocate freedom, against any kind of censorship, but secretely keep longing for that exquisite frisson of danger and sin.
In several medieval cemeteries of west-central France stand some strange masonry buildings, of varying height, resembling small towers. The inside, bare and hollow, was sufficiently large for a man to climb to the top of the structure and light a lantern there, at sundawn.
But what purpose did these bizarre lighthouses serve? Why signal the presence of a graveyard to wayfarers in the middle of the night?
The “lanterns of the dead”, built between the XII and XIII Century, represent a still not fully explained historical enigma.
Part of the problem comes from the fact that in medieval literature there seems to be no allusion to these lamps: the only coeval source is a passage in the De miraculis by Peter the Venerable (1092-1156). In one of his accounts of miraculous events, the famous abbot of Cluny mentions the Charlieu lantern, which he had certainly seen during his voyages in Aquitaine:
There is, at the center of the cemetery, a stone structure, on top of which is a place that can house a lamp, its light brightening this sacred place every night as a sign of respect for the the faithful who are resting here. There also are some small steps leading to a platform which can be sufficient for two or three men, standing or seated.
This bare description is the only one dating back to the XII Century, the exact period when most of these lanterns are supposed to have been built. This passage doesn’t seem to say much in itself, at least at first sight; but we will return to it, and to the surprises it hides.
As one might expect, given the literary silence surrounding these buildings, a whole array of implausible conjectures have been proposed, multiplying the alleged “mysteries” rather than explaining them — everything from studies of the towers’ geographical disposition, supposed to reveal hidden, exoteric geometries, to the decyphering of numerological correlations, for instance between the 11 pillars on Fenioux lantern’s shaft and the 13 small columns on its pinnacle… and so on. (Incidentally, these full gallop speculations call to mind the classic escalation brilliantly exemplified by Mariano Tomatis in his short documentary A neglected shadow).
A more serious debate among historians, beginning in the second half of XIX Century, was intially dominated by two theories, both of which appear fragile to a more modern analysis: on one hand the idea that these towers had a celtic origin (proposed by Viollet-Le-Duc who tried to link them back to menhirs) and, on the other, the hypothesis of an oriental influence on the buildings. But historians have already discarded the thesis that a memory of the minarets or of the torch allegedly burning on Saladin‘s grave, seen during the Crusades, might have anything to do with the lanterns of the dead.
Without resorting to exotic or esoteric readings, is it then possible to interpret the lanterns’ meaning and purpose by placing them in the medieval culture of which they are an expression?
To this end, historian Cécile Treffort has analysed the polysemy of the light in the Christian tradition, and its correlations with Candlemas — or Easter — candles, and with the lantern (Les lanternes des morts: une lumière protectrice?, Cahiers de recherches médiévales, n.8, 2001).
Since the very first verses of Genesis, the divine light (lux divina) counterposes darkness, and it is presented as a symbol of wisdom leading to God: believers must shun obscurity and follow the light of the Lord which, not by chance, is awaiting them even beyond death, in a bright afterworld permeated by lux perpetua, a heavenly kingdom where prophecies claim the sun will never set. Even Christ, furthermore, affirms “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn 8:12).
The absence of light, on the contrary, ratifies the dominion of demons, temptations, evil spirits — it is the kingdom of the one who once carried the flame, but was discharged (Lucifer).
In the Middle Ages, tales of demonic apparitions and dangerous revenants taking place inside cemeteries were quite widespread, and probably the act of lighting a lantern had first and foremost the function of protecting the place from the clutches of infernal beings.
But the lantern symbology is not limited to its apotropaic function, because it also refers to the Parable of the Ten Virgins found in Matthew’s gospel: here, to keep the flame burning while waiting for the bridegroom is a metaphor for being vigilant and ready for the Redeemer’s arrival. At the time of his coming, we shall see who maintained their lamps lit — and their souls pure — and who foolishly let them go out.
The Benedictine rule prescribed that a candle had to be kept always lit in the convent’s dorms, because the “sons of light” needed to stay clear of darkness even on a bodily level.
If we keep in mind that the word cemetery etymologically means “dormitory”, lighting up a lantern inside a graveyard might have fulfilled several purposes. It was meant to bring light in the intermediary place par excellence, situated between the church and the secular land, between liturgy and temptation, between life and death, a permeable boundary through which souls could still come back or be lost to demons; it was believed to protect the dead, both physically and spiritually; and, furthermore, to symbolically depict the escatological expectation, the constant watch for the Redeemer.
One last question is left, to which the answer can be quite surprising.
The theological meaning of the lanterns of the dead, as we have seen, is rich and multi-faceted. Why then did Peter the Venerable only mention them so briefly and in an almost disinterested way?
This problem opens a window on a little known aspect of ecclesiastical history: the graveyard as a political battleground.
Starting from the X Century, the Church began to “appropriate” burial grounds ever more jealously, laying claim to their management. This movement (anticipating and preparing for the introduction of Purgatory, of which I have written in my De Profundis) had the effect of making the ecclesiastical authority an undisputed judge of memory — deciding who had, or had not, the right to be buried under the aegis of the Holy Church. Excommunication, which already was a terrible weapon against heretics who were still alive, gained the power of cursing them even after their death. And we should not forget that the cemetery, besides this political control, also offered a juridical refuge as a place of inviolable asylum.
Peter the Venerable found himself in the middle of a schism, initiated by Antipope Anacletus, and his voyages in Aquitaine had the purpose of trying to solve the difficult relationship with insurgent Benedictine monasteries. The lanterns of the dead were used in this very region of France, and upon seeing them Peter must have been fascinated by their symbolic depth. But they posed a problem: they could be seen as an alternative to the cemetery consecration, a practice the Cluny Abbey was promoting in those years to create an inviolable space under the exclusive administration of the Church.
Therefore, in his tale, he decided to place the lantern tower in Charlieu — a priorate loyal to his Abbey — without even remotely suggesting that the authorship of the building’s concept actually came from the rival Aquitaine.
This copyright war, long before the term was invented, reminds us that the cemetery, far from being a simple burial ground, was indeed a politically strategic liminal territory. Because holding the symbolic dominion over death and the afterworld historically proved to be often more relevant than any temporal power.
Although these quarrels have long been returned to dust, many towers still exist in French cemeteries. Upright against the tombs and the horizontal remains waiting to be roused from sleep, devoid of their lanterns for centuries now, they stand as silent witnesses of a time when the flame from a lamp could offer protection and hope both to the dead and the living.
Sometimes the most unbelievable stories remain forever buried between the creases of history. But they may happen to leave a trail behind them, although very small; a little clue that, with a good deal of fortune and in the right hands, finally brings them to light. As archaeologists dig up treasures, historians unearth life’s peculiarities.
If Paul Grappe hadn’t been murdered by his wife on the 28th of July 1928, not a single hint to his peculiar story would have been found in the Archive of the Paris Police Prefecture. And if Fabrice Virgili, research manager at the CNRS, scrutinizing the abovementioned archives almost one hundred years later to write an article about conjugal violence at the beginning of the century, hadn’t given a look at that dossier…
The victim: Grappe Paul Joseph, born on the 30th of August 1891 in Haute Marne, resident 34 Rue de Bagnolet, shot dead on the 28th of July 1928.
The culprit: Landy Louise Gabrielle, born on the 10th of March 1892 in Paris, Grappe’s spouse.
This is how the life of Paul Grappe ended. But, as we go back through the years starting from the trial papers, we discover something really astonishing.
In the 1910s Paris sounds like a promise to a young man coming from Haute-Marne. It was mainly a working-class context and like everybody else the twenty-year-old Paul Grappe worked hard to make ends meet. He hadn’t received a proper education but the uncontrollable vitality that would mark out his entire existence encouraged him to work hard: with stubborn determination he obliged himself to study, and became an optician. He also attended some mandolin’s courses, where he met Louise Landy.
Their modest financial means didn’t interfere with their feelings: they fell in love and in 1911 they tied the knot. Shortly afterwards, Paul had to leave for military service, but managed to be appointed to stand guard over the bastions of Paris, in order to be close to his own Louise. Our soldier was a skilled runner, he could ride, swim (which was quite uncommon at the time) and he quickly distinguished himself until he was appointed corporal. Having spent the required two years on active service, Paul thought he was finally done with the army. But the War clouds were gathering, and everything quickly deteriorated. In August 1914 Paul Grappe was sent to the front to fight against Germany.
The 102nd Infantry division constantly moved, day after day, because the front was not well defined yet. Then gradually came the time to confront the enemy: at the beginning there were only small skirmishes, then came the first wounded, the first dead. And, finally, the real battle began. For the French, the most bloody stage of the entire world war was exactly this first battle, called Battle of the Frontiers, that claimed thousands of victims – more than 25,000 in one day, the 22nd of August 1914.
Paul Grappe was at the forefront. When Hell arrived, he had to confront its devastating brutality.
He was wounded in the leg at the end of August, he was treated and sent back to the trenches in October. The situation had changed, the front was stabilized, but the battles were not less dangerous. During a bloody gunfight Paul was wounded again, in the right index finger. A finger hit by a bullet? He was strongly suspected of having practiced self-mutilation, and in such situations people were not particularly kind to those who did something like that: Paul risked death penalty and summary execution. But some brothers in arms gave evidence for him, and Paul escaped the war court. Convalescent, he was moved to Chartres. December, January, February and March went by. Four months seemed to be too much time to recover from the loss of one single finger, and his superiors suspected that Paul was willingly reopening his wounds (like many other soldiers used to do); in April 1915 he was ordered to go back to the front. And it was here that, confronted with the perspective of going back to that horrible limbo made of barbed wire, mud, whistling bullets and cannon shots, Paul decided that he would change his life forever: he chose to desert.
He left the military hospital and, instead of going to the barracks, he caught the first train to Paris.
We can only imagine how Louise felt: she was happy to learn that her husband was safe and sound, far from the war, and afraid that everything could end at any moment, if he was discovered. During the spring of 1915 the army was desperately in need of men, even people declared unfit for military service were sent to the front, and consequently the efforts to find the missing deserters were redoubled. For three times the guards burst into the home of his mother-in-law, where Paul was hidden, but couldn’t find him.
As for Paul – that had always had a wild and untamed temper – he couldn’t stand the pressure of secrecy. He was obliged to live as a real prisoner, he didn’t dare stick his nose out of the door: simply walking down the streets of Paris, a young man in his twenties would have aroused suspicion at that time because all the young men – maybe with the exception of some ministry’s employees – were at the front.
One day, overcome by boredom, joking with Louise he chose one of her dresses and wore it. Why not dress up as a woman?
Louise and Paul took a turn. He had a careful shave; his wife put a delicate make-up on him, adjusted the female clothes, put his head into a lady’s little hat. It wasn’t a perfect disguise, but it might work.
Holding their breath, they went out in the streets. They walked down the road for a little while, pretending to be at ease. They sat down in a café, and realized that people apparently didn’t notice anything strange about those two friends that were enjoying their drinks. Coming back home, they shivered as they noticed a man that was intensely gazing at them, fixing them… the man finally whistled in admiration. It was the ultimate evidence: disguised as a woman, Paul was so convincing that he deceived even the attentive eye of a tombeur de femmes.
From that moment on, to the outside world, the two of them formed a couple of women who used to live together. Paul bought some clothes, adopted a more feminine hairstyle, learnt to change his voice. He chose the name of Suzanne Landgard. For those who take on a new identity, it is very important to choose a proper name, and Landgard could be interpreted as “he who protects (garde) Landy?”.
Now Paul/Suzanne could go out barefaced, he could also contribute to the family economy: while Louise worked in a company that produced educational materials, Suzanne started working in a tailor’s shop. But maybe she struggled to stay in her role, because, as far as we know, she frequently changed job because of problems concerning her relationship with her colleagues.
War was over, at last. Paul wanted to stop living undercover, but he was still in danger. Like many other deserters used to do at the time, also our couple left for Spain (a neutral country) and for a short time took shelter in the Basque Country. They returned to Paris in 1922.
But the atmosphere of the capital had changed: the so-called “crazy years” had just begun and Paris was a town that wanted to forget the war at any cost. It was therefore rich in novelties, artistic avant-gardes and unrestrained pleasures. Louise and Suzanne realized that after all they may look like two garçonnes, fashionable women flaunting a masculine hairdo and wearing trousers, shocking conservative people. Louise used to paint lead toy soldiers during the evening, after work, to make some extra money.
Paul couldn’t find a job instead, and his insatiable lust for life led him to spend some time at the Bois de Boulogne, a public park that during those years was a well known meeting point for free love: there gathered libertines, partner-swappers, prostitutes and pimps.
Did Paul, dressed as Suzanne, whore to bring some money home? Maybe he didn’t. Anyhow, he became one of the “queen” of the Bois.
From then on, his days became crowded with casual intercourses, orgies, female and male lovers, and even encoded newspaper ads. Paul/Suzanne even tried to convince Louise to participate in these erotic meetings, but this only fuelled the first conflicts within the couple, that was very close until then.
His thirst for experience was not yet satiated: in 1923 Suzanne Landgard was one of the first “women” that jumped with a parachute.
“You are not tall enough, my dear, I am a refined person, I want to get out of this mass, this brute mass that goes to work in the morning, like slaves do, and goes back home at evening”, he repeated to Louise.
In January 1924 the long awaited amnesty arrived at last.
The same morning in which the news was spread, Paul went down the stairs dressed as a man, without make-up. The porter of the apartment building was shocked as she saw him go out: “Madame Suzanne, have you gone crazy?” “I am not Suzanne, I am Paul Grappe and I am going to declare myself a deserter to apply for the amnesty.” As soon as the authorities learnt about his case, even the press discovered it. Some newspaper headlines read: “The transvestite deserter”. Prejudices started to circulate: paradoxically, now that he was discovered to be a man (so the two supposed lesbians were a married couple) Paul and Louise were evicted. The Communist Party mobilized to defend the two proletarians that were victims of prejudices, and in a short time Paul found himself at the core of an improvised social debate. The little popularity he gained maybe went to his head: believing that he may become a celebrity, or have some chance as an actor, he started to distribute autographed pictures of him both as a male and as a female and went as far as to hire a book agent.
But the more prosaic reality was that Paul told the fantastic story of his endeavours mostly in the cafés, to be offered some drinks. He showed the picture album of him as Suzanne, and also kept a dossier of obscene photographs, that are lost today. Little by little he started to drink at least five litres of wine per day. He lost one job after another, and turned aggressive even at home.
As he recovered his manhood – that same virility that condemned him to the horror of the trenches – he became violent. Before the Great War he had shown no signs of bisexuality nor violence, and most probably the traumas he suffered on the battlefield had a share in the quick descent of Paul Grappe into alcoholism, brutality and chaos.
He used to spend all the salary of his wife to get drunk. The episodes of domestic violence multiplied.
In a desperate attempt of reconciliation, Louise accepted to participate in her husband’s sexual games, and in order to please him (this is what she declared later in her deposition) took an attractive Spanish boy named Paco as her lover. But the unstable Paul didn’t appreciate her efforts, and started to feel annoyed by this third party. When he ordered his wife to leave Paul, Louise left him instead.
From that moment on, their story looks like the sad and well-known stories of many drifting couples: he found her at her mother’s home, he threatened her with a gun, and begged her to go back home with him. She surrendered, but she quickly discovered she was pregnant. Who was the father? Paul, or her lover Paco? In December 1925 the child was born, and Louise decided to call him Paul – obviously to reassure her husband about his fatherhood. The three of them lived a serene life for some months, like a real family. Paul started again to look for a job and tried to drink less. But it didn’t last. Crises and violence started again, until the night of the murder the man apparently went as far as to threaten to hurt his child. Louise killed Paul shooting twice at his head, then ran to the police headquarters to give herself up.
The trial had a certain media echo, because of the sensationalist hues of the story: the accused, the wife that shot dead the “transvestite deserter”, was represented by the famous lawyer Maurice Garçon. While Louise was in prison, her child died of meningitis. Therefore the lawyer insisted on the fact that the widow was also a mourning mother, a victim of conjugal violence that had to kill her husband to protect their infirm child – on the other hand he tried to play down the woman’s complicity in her husband’s desertion, transvestism, and shocking behaviours. In 1929, Louise Landy was declared innocent, which rarely happened in the case of trials for murder of the spouse. From that moment on Louise disappeared from any news section, and there was no more news about her except that she got married again, and then died in 1981.
Ferdinand Cheval was born in 1836 in Charmes, a small village in the commune of Hauterives, a little less than one hundred kilometres from Lyon. Ferdinand’s mother, Rose, died when he was only eleven; as his family was very poor, a year later the little boy left school and started working with his father. The latter died a few years later, in 1854. Therefore Ferdinand Cheval, at the age of twenty, became assistant baker. After marrying the young Rosalie Revol, who was just 17, for a few years he went far from the country in search for a job, and accepted various occasional employment offers; he rejoined his wife in 1863 and their first child was born in 1864. One year later, the boy died.
Two years went by and their second child was born. In 1867, at the age of thirty-one, Ferdinand Cheval pledged to become a postman.
In 1873, his wife Rosalie died.
An ordinary life, afflicted by pain and job insecurity. Those were times of extreme poverty, in which hunger and diseases never ceased to claim victims. And yet the nineteenth century was also marked by the modernist turn – monarchy gave way to republic, sciences and medicine made progress in leaps and bounds, industry was just born, and so on. And the echo of these revolutions reached the French countryside. Ferdinand used to handle the first illustrated gazettes, namely the Magasin Pittoresque or La revue illustrée, but also the first postcards coming from all over the world; under the eyes of a poor delivery man from the countryside an exotic world opened up, made of super-fast railways, heroic colonization in Africa and Asia, spectacular and unbelievable discoveries presented at the first International Exhibitions… in other words, daily life was hard as usual but there was still plenty of fuel for dreams.
Ferdinand Cheval used to stack up thirty kilometres a day, always the same way. At that time a postman’s pace was very different from the current “motorized” one. In his journal he wrote:
What shall I do, perpetually walking through the same landscape, but dream? To take my mind off, I used to dream of building a fantastic palace…
But the eccentric daydreaming of this humble postman from the countryside would have stayed as such, if Nature hadn’t sent him a sign.
On the 19th April 1879 Ferdinand Cheval was 43 years old, and his life was about to change forever.
One day of April in 1879, while I was carrying out my usual tour as a countryside postman, a quarter-league before arriving at Tersanne, I was hastily walking when my foot stumbled on something that made me slide a few metres further, and wanted to know the cause. In a dream, I had built a palace, a castle or some caves, I cannot express it properly… I never told it to anyone for fear to seem ridiculous, and felt ridiculous myself. After fifteen years, when I had almost forgotten my dream, and didn’t think about it at all, my foot made me remember it. My foot had bumped into a stone that almost made me fall. I wanted to know what it was… The shape of the stone was so bizarre that I put it in my pocket in order to admire it whenever I liked. The day after, I went through the same place. I found more of them, even more beautiful, I picked up them all on the spot, was enchanted by them… It is a molasse worked by waters and hardened by the force of time. It becomes hard like rocks. It represents such a bizarre sculpture that it can’t be reproduced by any human being, you can read all kinds of animals, all kinds of parodies in it. I told myself: if nature wants to be a sculptress, I will deal with masonry and architecture.
The stone which awoke the sleeping dream.
That stone, discovered by chance, was something like a conversion on the road to Damascus for the postman. And Cheval didn’t draw back, in front of this obvious call to action: little by little, he started to set up his building site – although he had no education, nor the least idea about how a house should be built, let alone a fairy castle.
The country people started to take him for a fool. But all of a sudden life had presented him with a grandiose purpose and, although everyday he made his usual thirty kilometres on foot, there was a new sparkle in his eyes. The weight of the mail to be delivered was increased by that of stones: during the outward journey he selected and positioned them along the road and, on his return, he picked them up with his loyal barrow. Postman Cheval and his barrow became a true icon for the inhabitants of Hauterives.
During his time off, every evening and every morning, Cheval continued to build the structure; he went ahead off the cuff, as a perfect autodidact, adding decoration after decoration without a real planning. Tireless, feverish, possessed by the grandeur of the task he was accomplishing.
Postman Cheval started his work with a fountain, the “Source of Life”, then added the so-called “Cave of Saint Amadeus”, the Egyptian Tomb, and a series of pagodas, oriental temples, mosques, and other representations of sacred places, on show one besides the other; the Three Giants (Caesar, Vercingetorix, Archimedes) were in charge of mounting guard over the sculptural complex.
The postman never had a rest. In 1894 Cheval saw another of his children die, the fifteen-year-old daughter he had by his second wife. Overwhelmed by this new loss, he retired after two years but continued to devote himself to his Palace. He was half the battle, he couldn’t stop.
The Ideal Palace was not conceived as a real building, inhabitable, but as a monument dedicated to the brotherhood that unites people, regardless of their creed or origin: a mix of western and eastern forms and styles, an elaborate syncretism inspired by nature, postcards and the magazines that Cheval used to deliver. Sculpted figures, concrete palms, beasts, intertwined branches and columns decorated in arabesque surrounded the sacred representations or buildings; messages and poems by the builder should be reproduced on inscriptions and signs; finally, in the crypt, a small altar was dedicated to his inseparable barrow, that made all this possible and that Cheval used to call “my faithful mate of misery”…
Postman Cheval achieved his Ideal Palace in 1912, after having devoted thirty-three years of his life to it. He commemorated it with a writing, visible under a stairway that runs along the Temple of Nature towards the Northern Façade:
1879-1912: 10,000 days, 93,000 hours, 33 years of obstacles and trials. The work of one single man.
Satisfied, Cheval announced that the monument would also be his tomb; but, surprisingly, authorities denied him the permission to be buried there. What should he do? Cheval didn’t lose heart.
After having achieved my dream Palace at the age of seventy-seven and after thirty-three years of hard work, I discovered I was still brave enough to build my tomb by myself at the Parish cemetery. There I worked hard for eight more years. I was lucky enough to complete this tomb called “The Tomb of Silence and endless rest” – at the age of 86.This tomb is about one kilometre from the village of Hauterives. Its manufacturing makes it very original, almost unique in the world, but its beauty comes from originality. After having seen my dream Palace, a high number of visitors go and see it, then they go back to their country in amazement, telling their friends that it is not a fairy-tale, it’s reality. See it and believe it.
In that same mausoleum Ferdinand Cheval obtained his well-deserved rest in 1924.
“Le Tombeau du silence et du repos sans fin”.
Shortly before his death, facteur Cheval had the satisfaction of seeing his Palace acknowledged by some artists and intellectuals as an extraordinary example of architecture, without rules or structures, a spontaneous and unclassifiable artwork. In 1920André Bretonbrought him to attention as the pioneer of surrealism in architecture; then, as the concept of art brut emerged, Cheval was even more admired for his work; nowadays people prefer to use the term outsider art, or Naïve art, but the concept stays the same: as he didn’t have an artistic culture, Cheval took the liberty of making impulsive and non-academic choices that made the Palace a unique work in its own way.Picasso, Ernst, Tinguely, Niki de Saint Phalleall loved this crazy and incredible place, that – more or less explicitly – inspired several other fictitious “citadels”.
In 1969 André Malrauxdecided to protect the Palace as a historic monument, against the opinion of many other officials of the Ministry of Culture, with these motivations:
In a time when Naïve Art has become a remarkable reality, it would be childish not to protect – when we French are as lucky as to possess it – the only naïve architecture in the world, and wait for it to be destroyed.
The small town of Hauterives is still there, between the hills and the fields, at the foot of the French Alps. And yet only in 2013 almost 160,000 visitors went on a pilgrimage to the Ideal Palace, today completely restored and in whose frame art exhibitions, concerts and events are organized.
And, as our gaze is lost for the umpteenth time in the tangled stone doodles, we are astonished by the idea that they have really been created by a simple postman who, with his barrow, scoured the countryside in search for bizarre stones; you can’t help thinking about the sardonic provocation that Cheval himself wrote on the front of his Palace:
If some of you is more stubborn than me, then set to work.
But this ironic remark, we like to read it also as an invitation and a challenge; an exhortation to cultivate stubbornness, madness and temerity – necessary for all those who really want to try and build their own “Ideal Palace”.
Qualche anno fa avevamo pubblicato due articoli-reportage su New York (li trovate qui e qui), dedicati a musei, negozi e luoghi insoliti della Grande Mela. Quest’anno, invece, il vostro fedele esploratore del perturbante si è diretto a Parigi, dove ha scovato per voi alcuni fra gli angoli meno battuti della capitale francese.
Già nel XVIII secolo Francesco Algarotti sentenziava “molti vanno a Parigi, ma pochi ci sono stati“, e forse questo è ancora più vero oggi che il turismo di massa detta le regole per visitare qualsiasi città, imponendo al viaggiatore tutta una serie di tappe obbligate da spuntare come caselline della tombola. Questa esperienza di superficie certamente rassicura il pellegrino di aver visto “tutte le cose più importanti”, ma rischia di farlo tornare a casa con l’immagine della città che già aveva prima di partire. E invece anche Parigi, come tutti i luoghi ricchi d’una storia antica e travagliata, nasconde un volto sconosciuto ai più.
Dimenticatevi quindi – o, meglio, date pure per assodati – i fasti di Versailles, le folle che risalgono la Torre Eiffel, gli assiepati scalini di Montmartre, il sorriso beffardo della Gioconda o lo shopping di lusso sui Champs-Elisées; e preparatevi per un viaggio alla scoperta dei meravigliosi gioielli che le luci della Ville Lumière hanno lasciato nella penombra.
Come prima tappa partiamo dalla banlieue a sud-est di Parigi, a soli tre chilometri dalla capitale, visitando a Maisons-Alfort il Musée Fragonard, che si trova ospitato all’interno della Scuola Veterinaria. Qui un’immensa collezione di ossa e di scheletri animali si contende la scena con dei modelli in gesso degli organi interni, a grandezza naturale oppure in scala notevolmente maggiore, a fini di studio.
Le cose cominciano a farsi più impressionanti quando si raggiunge la sezione teratologica del museo, che espone le diverse malformazioni, mutazioni genetiche e mostruosità. Preparati a secco, mummificati, oppure in soluzione ci presentano la versione animale dei “gemelli siamesi”: agnelli craniopaghi e toracopaghi, maiali con sviluppi fetali parassitari e galline con arti in sovrannumero si alternano a feti ciclopi, vitelli idrocefali e capre nate senza testa (anencefalia).