On March 21, 2021, the Bizzarro Bazar web series will be back on my YouTube channel with 10 new episodes produced in collaboration with the prestigious Civic Museums of Reggio Emilia.
The episodes, as for the first season, will be published every other week.
By now you know what to expect: strange scientific experiments, quirky characters, human wonders, stories bordering on the impossible — in short, all the classic Bizzarro Bazar repertoire.
As usual, the direction and fantastic animations have been curated by Francesco Erba, but this time we shot the live parts in the exceptional historical collections of the Palazzo dei Musei: in each episode, in the Show & Tell section, one of the museum curators will open a display case just for us, and allow us to discover the most emblematic and curious objects and pieces.
Here is a little trailer to lighten the wait, and see you soon!
One, two, three! Watch the elephants standing All the fleas jump Watch out, here comes the trainer!
Vinicio Capossela, I pagliacci (2000)
Fleas that pull carriages and horses, fleas diving into a glass of water from the top of a trampoline, duelling with tiny swords, even shooting themselves from a miniature cannon just like the most famous human cannonballs.
The circus has always thrived on the most extreme, impossible challenges, as only the ordinary is left out of the Big Top. It is therefore only natural that classical animal trainers – who made dangerous and enormous beasts bend the knee – would be featured alongside the opposite end of the spectrum, those tamers who managed to make microscopic creatures perform exceptional stunts.
This is why the Flea Circus is one of the most enduring (albeit misunderstood) sideshow acts.
First of all, let’s address the question that might already cross your mind: are there any fleas in these shows at all, or is it just an optical illusion?
The short answer is that yes, in the beginning real fleas would be used; then gradually the number slipped into the field of illusionism.
It is worthwhile, however, to enjoy the longer answer, retracing the fascinating story of this strange entomological circus – which was invented by an Italian.
A Brief History of the Microscopic Circus
It all started when, in 1578, a London blacksmith named Mark Scalliot, in order to show off his skill, built a tiny lock complete with a key made of iron, steel and brass, for the total weight of “a grain of gold”. He then forged a golden chain composed of 43 rings, so thin that it could be tied around the neck of a flea. The insect pulled the padlock and the key with it.
Almost two centuries later, in the attempt to replicate Scalliot’s publicity stunt, a watchmaker named Sobieski Boverick built an ivory mini-carriage “with figures of six horses attached to it—a coachman on the box, a dog between his legs, four persons inside, two footmen behind, and a postillion on the fore horse, all of which were drawn by a single flea”.
In the 1830s, inspired by these two predecessors, the Genoese emigrant Luigi Bertolotto employed the little pests for the first time in a circus context, exhibiting his trained fleas in Regent Street.
Following in Boverick’s steps, he too proposed the number of the flea pulling a carriage with horses – an element that would later become a mainstay of the genre – but his show went far beyond that: with the typical Italian taste for theatricality, Bertolotto turned his fleas into proper actors.
He made tiny custom-made suits, and delighted his audience with several tableaux vivants featuring several fleas at a time. First of all there was the Arab scene which saw the Sultan as protagonist, with his harem and the odalisques; then came the hematophagous version of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
One of the highlights was when the insects did a pocket-size reenactment of the Battle of Waterloo, in which the amused spectators could recognize Napoleon, the Duke of Wellington and Prussian field marshal Blücher, all dressed in uniform. Another part of the show was the fancy ball, in which a pair of insects dressed in gorgeous clothes danced accompanied by an orchestra of 12 elements.
The public was astonished and laughed at the evident satire: here is the lavish world of high society, miniaturized and ridiculed; here are some great war heroes, personified by the lowest animals in all creation. You could have crushed with one finger even the Emperor himself.
Bertolotto became the first (and last) true flea superstar; his fortune was such that he left for an international tour, finally settling in Canada. Imitators soon began to appear, and although they never topped his fame they spread the flea taming act throughout the world.
There were many incarnations of the Flea Circus, ranging from the most basic street performance, often employing a simple suitcase as a stage where fleas made elementary stunts, to more elaborate versions.
The last great flea manager was in all probability William Heckler, a circus performer who at the beginning of the 20th century left his career as a strongman to devote himself full-time to fleas. After touring the United States far and wide, in 1925 his circus became part of the Hubert’s Museum in Times Square.
Here for a few dollars you could see Prince Randian the Human Caterpillar (who would later appear in Tod Browning’s Freaks), Olga the Bearded Woman, Suzie the Elephant-Skinned Girl, and snake charmer Princess Sahloo. Another, smaller princess performed in the museum’s cellar: Princess Rajah, the flea who played the role of the oriental dancer in Professor Heckler’s circus.
In addition to performing traditional athletic feats, such as jumping into a hoop or kicking a ball, Heckler’s fleas played a xylophone (allegedly made of nail clippings), juggled small balls, and staged boxing matches on a miniature ring. Heckler continued to work with his mini-cast until the 1950s: at the height of his success, his show could yield more than $250 a day, the current equivalent of $3,000.
The Infernal Discipline, or How To Tame A Flea
Human fleas, in spite of their annoying bites and the fact that they can be carriers of plague and other dangerous diseases, are actually really extraordinary insects.
Imagine you could jump more than 90 meters vertically, leaping over the Statue of Liberty, and 230 meters horizontally. This, in proportion, is the ability of the pulex irritans.
The muscles of its hind legs are not the only ones responsible for this incredible propulsive force: in fact they prepare the jump by compressing and slowly distorting an elastic pad composed of resilin, which during this “charging” phase is kept locked by a tendon, and can thus store muscle energy. When it comes to jumping, the tendon snaps back into position therefore releasing the pad. The flea takes off with a dizzying acceleration of 100 times the force of gravity. To put things in perspective, a person can only withstand a vertical acceleration of 5g before passing out.
You might then understand how the first and biggest problem a trainer had to solve was how to convince his fleas not to jump off the scene.
For this purpose the insects were kept for a long time in a test tube: they would hit their heads on the glass until they learned that jumping was not an appropriate behavior. A more drastic remedy consisted in gluing them onto the stage or tying them to some object, but this could only work for those elements of the “cast” that were supposed to remain still (for instnace the orchestra players).
As for all the other fleas, which had to perform more complex actions, it was necessary to select those that showed a more docile character (usually females); the bridle was assigned only to the slower ones, which were destined to pull carriages and carts, while the more lively ones became soccer players or divers. All this, of course, if we are to trust the literature of the time on the subject.
In order to force these little daredevils to perform their stunts, various techniques were used – although, to be honest, it’s a bit difficult to view these tricks as a proper “training”.
In fact, if you look at it from a flea’s point of view, the circus appears to be a place of cruelty and terror, in which a sadistic and gigantic jailer is subjecting his prisoners to an endless series of tortures.
Towing fleas were harnessed with a very thin thread of cloth or metal passed around their head; once positioned, this leash would remain there for the insect’s entire life. The difficult part was to exert the right binding pressure, because if the thread was fastened too tight then the flea could no longer swallow, and died.
As for saber-fencing fleas, two small pieces of metal were glued to their frontal limbs; naturally the insects tried to get rid of them, shaking their paws in vain, thus giving the impression of dueling each other.
Soccer players were selected among the fleas that jumped higher: a ball was soaked in insect repellent (often citronella oil, or a disinfectant like Listerine), then pushed towards them as they were kept in a vertical position, and they kicked it away with their hind legs.
Similar trick was used for juggling fleas which were fixed or glued on their back, with their paws up in the air; as they tried to get rid of the toxic ball that was placed over them, they made it roll and spin.
As for the musicians and dancers, an article from 1891 describes the show in detail. Two “dancers” are glued each to one end of a piece of golden paper:
They are placed in a reversed position to each other – one looking one way, the other another way. Thus tied, they are placed in a sort of arena on the top of the musical box; at one end of the box sits an orchestra composed of fleas, each tied to its seat, and having the resemblance of some musical instrument tied on the foremost of their legs.The box is made to play, the exhibitor touches each of the musicians with a bit of stick, and they all begin waving their hands about, as performing an elaborate piece of music. The fleas tied to the gold paper feel the jarring of the box below them, and begin to run round and round as fast as their little legs will carry them. This is called the Flea’s Waltz.
To balance all this horror, let us point out that the flea trainer personally nourished all his precious professionals with his own blood. For the parasites it was certainly a rough and hectic life, but at least they never skipped a meal.
Now you see me, now you don’t:
Illusory Fleas & The Zeitgeist
There does not seem to be a vast literature on fake fleas.
What is certain is that “flea-circuses-without-fleas” began to exist alongside the authentic ones as early as the 1930s. The circus act continued shifting towards the sphere of illusionism and magic until the 1950s, when particularly elaborate versions of the trick began to appear and trainers stopped using real fleas.
Michael Bentine, one of the members of the Goons, had his own circus in which non-existent fleas pushed balls along inclined planes, jumped on a table covered with sand (each jump was “visualized” via a puff of sand), climbed a ladder by “pressing” one step at a time, and splashed into a glass of water. Other fake trainers used magnets and wires to drop the obstacles allegedly knocked off by running fleas, while electric or mechanical gimmicks operated the trapeze and moved the fake fleas balancing on a wire; some mentalists even exploited invisible “telepathic fleas” to read in the minds of the spectators.
Today only one well-known circus still uses real fleas: it is the Floh Circus, which makes its appearance every year at Oktoberfest.
The rest of the few circuses in circulation are all based on illusion: one of the most famous is the Acme Miniature Flea Circus, run by Adam Gertsacov. According to him, this type of show is the purest and most suitable for our times, precisely because it is based on uncertainty:
People watching say, ‘What am I really seeing?’ I like that. You haven’t really been to a flea circus unless you’ve been bamboozled by the flea-circus guy. It would be interesting to watch real trained fleas, but only for three or four minutes. That’s not enough these days when you can Google insects and see them mating, up close and personal. My show is about showmanship.
Perhaps these fake flea circuses imprudently rely on a kind of naivety which no longer exists.
Yet it is true that, in a time when our perception is constantly challenged, these deceptive gadgets take on an unexpected symbolic meaning. Although designed to be harmless and amusing, they are based on the same principles as the far more menacing deep fakes and all those hate and fear narratives we are daily subjected to: every illusion really only works if we want to believe it.
And while Gertsacov and his colleagues continue to claim the superiority of the art of story-telling over mere reality, the fleas – the real ones – are thankful it’s all over.
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.
At a first glance it looks like a family in a room, having breakfast.
Yet when the picture is shown to the people living in some rural parts of Africa, they see something different: a family having breakfast in the open, under a tree, while the mother balances a box on her head, maybe to amuse her children. This is not an optical illusion, it’s a cultural one.
The origins of this picture are not certain, but it is not relevant here whether it has actually been used in a psychological study, nor if it shows a prejudice on life in the Third World. The force of this illustration is to underline how culture is an inevitable filter of reality.
It reminds of a scene in Werner Herzog’s documentary film The Flying Doctors of East Africa (1969), in which the doctors find it hard to explain to the population that flies carry infections; showing big pictures of the insects and the descriptions of its dangers does not have much effect because people, who are not used to the conventions of our graphic representations, do not understand they are in scale, and think: “Sure, we will watch out, but around here flies are never THAT big“.
Even if we would not admit it, our vision is socially conditioned. Culture is like a pair of glasses with colored lenses, quite useful in many occasions to decipher the world but deleterious in many others, and it’s hard to get rid of these glasses by mere willpower.
‘Freak pride’ and disability
Let’s address the issue of “freaks”: originally a derogatory term, the word has now gained a peculiar cultural charm and ,as such, I always used it with the purpose of fighting pietism and giving diversity it its just value.
Any time I set out to talk about human marvels, I experienced first-hand how difficult it is to write about these people.
Reflecting on the most correct angle to address the topic means to try and take off culture’s colored glasses, an almost impossible task. I often wondered if I myself have sometimes succumbed to unintended generalizations, if I unwillingly fell into a self-righteous approach.
Sure enough, I have tried to tell these amazing characters’ stories through the filter of wonder: I believed that – equality being a given – the separation between the ordinary and the extra-ordinary could be turned in favor of disability.
I have always liked those “deviants” who decided to take back their exotic bodies, their distance from the Norm, in some sort of freak pride that would turn the concept of handicap inside out.
But is it really the most correct approach to diversity and, in some cases, disability? To what extent is this vision original, or is it just derivative from a long cultural tradition? What if the freak, despite all pride, actually just wanted an ordinary dimension, what if what he was looking for was the comfort of an average life? What is the most ethical narrative?
This doubt, I think, arose from a paragraph by Fredi Saal, born in 1935, a German author who spent the first part of his existence between hospitals and care homes because he was deemed “uneducable”:
No, it is not the disabled person who experiences him- or herself as abnormal — she or he is experienced as abnormal by others, because a whole section of human life is cut off. Thus this very existence acquires a threatening quality. One doesn’t start from the disabled persons themselves, but from one’s own experience. One asks oneself, how would I react, should a disability suddenly strike, and the answer is projected onto the disabled person. Thus one receives a completely distorted image. Because it is not the other fellow that one sees, but oneself.
(F. Saal, Behinderung = Selbstgelebte Normalität, 1992)
As much as the idea of a freak pride is dear to me, it may well be another subconscious projection: I may just like to think that I would react to disability that way… and yet one more time I am not addressing the different person, but rather my own romantic and unrealistic idea of diversity.
We cannot obviously look through the eyes of a disabled person, there is an insuperable barrier, but it is the same that ultimately separates all human beings. The “what would I do in that situation?” Saal talks about, the act of projecting ourselves onto others, that is something we endlessly do and not just with the disabled.
The figure of the freak has always been ambiguous – or, better, what is hard to understand is our own gaze on the freak.
I think it is therefore important to trace the origins of this gaze, to understand how it evolved: we could even discover that this thing we call disability is actually nothing more than another cultural product, an illusion we are “trained” to recognize in much the same way we see the family having breakfast inside a living room rather than out in the open.
In my defense, I will say this: if it is possible for me to imagine a freak pride, it is because the very concept of freak does not come out of the blue, and does not even entail disability. Many people working in freakshows were also disabled, others were not. That was not the point. The real characteristics that brought those people on stage was the sense of wonder they could evoke: some bodies were admired, others caused scandal (as they were seen as unbearably obscene), but the public bought the ticket to be shocked, amazed and shaken in their own certainties.
In ancient times, the monstrum was a divine sign (it shares its etymological root with the Italian verb mostrare, “to show”), which had to be interpreted – and very often feared, as a warning of doom. If the monstruous sign was usually seen as bearer of misfortune, some disabilities were not (for instance blindness and lunacy, which were considered forms of clairvoyance, see V. Amendolagine, Da castigo degli dei a diversamente abili: l’identità sociale del disabile nel corso del tempo, 2014).
During the Middle Ages the problem of deformity becomes much more complex: on one hand physiognomy suggested a correlation between ugliness and a corrupted soul, and literature shows many examples of enemies being libeled through the description of their physical defects; on the other, theologians and philosophers (Saint Augustine above all) considered deformity as just another example of Man’s penal condition on this earth, so much so that in the Resurrection all signs of it would be erased (J.Ziegler in Deformità fisica e identità della persona tra medioevo ed età moderna, 2015); some Christian female saints even went to the extreme of invoking deformity as a penance (see my Ecstatic Bodies: Hagiography and Eroticism).
Being deformed also precluded the access to priesthood (ordo clericalis) on the basis of a famous passage from the Leviticus, in which offering sacrifice on the altar is forbidden to those who have imperfect bodies (P. Ostinelli, Deformità fisica…, 2015).
The monstrum becoming mirabile, worthy of admiration, is a more modern idea, but that was around well before traveling circuses, before Tod Browning’s “One of us!“, and before hippie counterculture seized it: this concept is opposed to the other great modern invention in regard to disability, which is commiseration.
The whole history of our relationship with disability fluctuates between these two poles: admiration and pity.
The right kind of eyes
In the German exhibition Der (im)perfekte Mensch (“The (im)perfect Human Being”), held in 2001 in the Deutsches Hygiene Museum in Dresden, the social gaze at people with disabilities was divided into six main categories:
– The astonished and medical gaze
– The annihilating gaze
– The pitying gaze
– The admiring gaze
– The instrumentalizing gaze
– The excluding gaze
While this list can certainly be discussed, it has the merit of tracing some possible distinctions.
Among all the kinds of gaze listed here, the most bothering might be the pitying gaze. Because it implies the observer’s superiority, and a definitive judgment on a condition which, to the eyes of the “normal” person, cannot seem but tragic: it expresses a self-righteous, intimate certainty that the other is a poor cripple who is to be pitied. The underlying thought is that there can be no luck, no happiness in being different.
The concept of poor cripple, which (although hidden behind more politically correct words) is at the core of all fund-raising marathons, is still deeply rooted in our culture, and conveys a distorted vision of charity – often more focused on our own “pious deed” than on people with disabilities.
As for the pitying gaze, the most ancient historical example we know of is this 1620 print, kept at the Tiroler Landesmuseum Ferdinandeum in Innsbruck, which shows a disabled carpenter called Wolffgang Gschaiter lying in his bed. The text explains how this man, after suffering unbearable pain to his left arm and back for three days, found himself completely paralyzed. For fifteen years, the print tells us, he was only able to move his eyes and tongue. The purpose of this paper is to collect donations and charity money, and the readers are invited to pray for him in the nearby church of the Three Saints in Dreiheiligen.
This pamphlet is interesting for several reasons: in the text, disability is explicitly described as a “mirror” of the observer’s own misery, therefore establishing the idea that one must think of himself as he is watching it; a distinction is made between body and soul to reinforce drama (the carpenter’s soul can be saved, his body cannot); the expression “poor cripple” is recorded for the first time.
But most of all this little piece of paper is one of the very first examples of mass communication in which disability is associated with the idea of donations, of fund raising. Basically what we see here is a proto-telethon, focusing on charity and church prayers to cleanse public conscience, and at the same time an instrument in line with the Counter-Reformation ideological propaganda (see V. Schönwiese, The Social Gaze at People with Disabilities, 2007).
During the previous century, another kind of gaze already developed: the clinical-anatomical gaze. This 1538 engraving by Albrecht Dürer shows a woman lying on a table, while an artist meticulously draws the contour of her body. Between the two figures stands a framework, on which some stretched-out strings divide the painter’s vision in small squares so that he can accurately transpose it on a piece of paper equipped with the same grid. Each curve, each detail is broke down and replicated thanks to this device: vision becomes the leading sense, and is organized in an aseptic, geometric, purely formal frame. This was the phase in which a real cartography of the human body was developed, and in this context deformity was studied in much the same manner. This is the “astonished and medical gaze“, which shows no sign of ethical or pitying judgment, but whose ideology is actually one of mapping, dividing, categorizing and ultimately dominating every possible variable of the cosmos.
In the wunderkammer of Ferdinand II, Archduke of Austria (1529-1595), inside Ambras Castle near Innsbruck, there is a truly exceptional portrait. A portion of the painting was originally covered by a red paper curtain: those visiting the collection in the Sixteenth Century might have seen something close to this reconstruction.
Those willing and brave enough could pull the paper aside to admire the whole picture: thus the subject’s limp and deformed body appeared, portrayed in raw detail and with coarse realism.
What Fifteen-Century observers saw in this painting, we cannot know for sure. To understand how views are relative, it suffices to remind that at the time “human marvels” included for instance foreigners from exotic countries, and a sub-category of foreigners were cretins who were said to inhabit certain geographic regions.
In books like Giovan Battista de’ Cavalieri’s Opera ne la quale vi è molti Mostri de tute le parti del mondo antichi et moderni (1585), people with disabilities can be found alongside monstruous apparitions, legless persons are depicted next to mythological Chimeras, etc.
But the red paper curtain in the Ambras portrait is an important signal, because it means that such a body was on one hand considered obscene, capable of upsetting the spectator’s senibility. On the other hand, the bravest or most curious onlookers could face the whole image. This leads us to believe that monstrosity in the Sixteenth Century had at least partially been released from the idea of prodigy, and freed from the previous centuries superstitions.
This painting is therefore a perfect example of “astonished and medical” gaze; from deformity as mirabilia to proper admiration, it’s a short step.
The Middle Path?
The admiring gaze is the one I have often opted for in my articles. My writing and thinking practice coincides with John Waters’ approach, when he claims he feels some kind of admiration for the weird characters in his movies: “All the characters in my movies, I look up to them. I don’t think about them the way people think about reality TV – that we are better and you should laugh at them.“
And yet, here we run the risk of falling into the opposite trap, an excessive idealization. It may well be because of my peculiar allergy to the concept of “heroes”, but I am not interested in giving hagiographic versions of the life of human marvels.
All these thoughts which I have shared with you, lead me to believe there is no easy balance. One cannot talk about freaks without running into some kind of mistake, some generalization, without falling victim to the deception of colored glasses.
Every communication between us and those with different/disabled bodies happens in a sort of limbo, where our gaze meets theirs. And in this space, there cannot ever be a really authentic confrontation, because from a physical perspective we are separated by experiences too far apart.
I will never be able to understand other people’s body, and neither will they.
But maybe this distance is exactly what draws us together.
“Everyone stands alone at the heart of the world…”
Let’s consider the only reference we have – our own body – and try to break the habit.
I will borrow the opening words from the introduction I wrote for Nueva Carne by Claudio Romo:
Our bodies are unknowable territories.
We can dismantle them, cut them up into ever smaller parts, study their obsessive geometries, meticulously map every anatomical detail, rummage in their entrails… and their secret will continue to escape us.
We stare at our hands. We explore our teeth with our tongues. We touch our hair.
Is this what we are?
Here is the ultimate mind exercise, my personal solution to the freaks’ riddle: the only sincere and honest way I can find to relate diversity is to make it universal.
Johnny Eck woke up in this world without the lower limbs; his brother, on the contrary, emerged from the confusion of shapes with two legs.
I too am equipped with feet, including toes I can observe, down there, as they move whenever I want them to. Are those toes still me? I ignore the reach of my own identity, and if there is an exact point where its extension begins.
On closer view, my experience and Johnny’s are different yet equally mysterious.
We are all brothers in the enigma of the flesh.
I would like to ideally sit with him — with the freak, with the “monster” — out on the porch of memories, before the sunset of our lives.
‘So, what did you think of this strange trip? Of this strange place we wound up in?’, I would ask him.
And I am sure that his smile would be like mine.
Tomorrow I will be at Winchester University to take part in a three-day interdisciplinary conference focusing on Death, art and anatomy. My talk will focus on memento mori in relation to the Capuchin Crypt in Rome — which, together with other Italian religious ossuaries, I explored in my Mors Pretiosa.
Waiting to tell you more about the event, and about the following days I will spend in London, I leave you with some curiosities to savour.
SynDaver Labs, which already created a synthetic cadaver for autopsies (I wrote about it in this post), is developing a canine version for veterinary surgery training. This puppy, like his human analogue, can breathe, bleed and even die.
Even if it turned out to be fake, this would still be one of the tastiest news in recent times: in Sculcoates, East Yorks, some ghost hunters were visiting a Nineteenth century cemetery when they suddenly heard some strange, eerie moanings. Ghost monks roaming through the graves? A demonic presence haunting this sacred place? None of the above. In the graveyard someone was secretely shooting a porno.
Speaking of unusual places to make love, why not inside a whale? It happened in the 1930s at Gotheburg Museum of Natural History, hosting the only completely taxidermied blue whale inside of which a lounge was built, equipped with benches and carpets. After a couple was caught having sex in there, the cetacean was unfortunately closed to the public.
In case you’ve missed it, there was also a man who turned a whale’s carcass into a theatre.
The borders of medieval manuscripts sometimes feature rabbits engaged in unlikely battles and different cruelties. Why? According to this article, it was basically a satire.
If you think warmongering rabbits are bizarre, wait until you see cats with jetpacks on their backs, depicted in some Sixteenth century miniatures. Here is a National Geographic article about them.
One last iconographic enigma. What was the meaning of the strange Sixteenth century engravings showing a satyr fathoming a woman’s private parts with a plumb line? An in-depth and quite beautiful study (sorry, Italian only) unveils the mystery.
Adventurous lives: Violet Constance Jessop was an ocean liner stewardess who in 1911 survived the Olympia ship incident. Then in 1912 she survived the sinking of the Titanic. And in 1916 the sinking of the Britannic.
In esclusiva per Bizzarro Bazar vi proponiamo l’intervista da noi realizzata all’artista James G. Mundie, disegnatore, fotografo e incisore. I suoi lavori più noti sono due serie di opere: la prima, intitolata Prodigies, è un’iconoclasta rivisitazione di alcuni classici della pittura di ogni epoca, all’interno dei quali i soggetti originali sono stati rimpiazzati dai freaks più famosi. Quello che ne risulta è una sorta di ironica storia dell’arte “parallela” o “possibile”, in cui la deformità prende il posto del bello, e in cui per una volta gli emarginati divengono protagonisti.
Il suo altro lavoro molto noto è Cabinet of curiosities, una serie di fotografie, schizzi e incisioni riguardanti le maggiori collezioni anatomiche e teratologiche conservate nei musei di tutto il mondo.
Le fotografie fanno parte dei tuoi progetti tanto quanto i disegni. Ti ritieni più un fotografo o un illustratore?
Mi piace pensarmi come un creatore di immagini che utilizza qualsiasi strumento o mezzo sia appropriato. Questo significa talvolta disegnare, altre volte incidere su legno o fotografare. Comunque, ho cominciato ad considerare la fotografia come mezzo a sé solo da poco tempo. Ho sempre usato le fotografie come riferimenti, o come fossero dei bozzetti per altri progetti. Con il tempo, invece, ho cominciato ad apprezzare le foto che facevo nei loro propri termini estetici. Specialmente da quando sono diventato padre, la relativa immediatezza dell fotografia è stata un cambiamento benvenuto rispetto ai metodi più laboriosi che uso nei disegni e nelle incisioni, che possono prendere settimane o mesi (addirittura anni!) per emergere.
Riguardo alla serie Prodigies, come è nata l’idea di unire il mondo dei freakshow con quello dell’arte classica, e perché?
Ho sempre disegnato ritratti, e intorno al 1996-97 stavo cercando nuove ispirazioni. Ho cominciato a pensare alle fotografie di strane persone, come Jojo il Ragazzo dalla Faccia di Cane, che avevo visto decadi prima, e pensai che sarebbe stato divertente lavorarci. Cominciai a fare ricerche sui sideshow, e presto scoprii qualcosa di molto più bizzarro di quello che ricordavo dalla mia infanzia. Iniziai a trovare anche dettagli sulle vite di questi performer che li fecero risultare molto più veri ai miei occhi – cioè, più di qualcosa di semplicemente anomalo e strampalato. Prodigies è cominciato come una sfida, per vedere se sarei riuscito a mescolare questi inquietanti e affascinanti performer di sideshow ai miei quadri preferiti.
Mi resi conto che la presentazione circense dei freaks era spesso basata sull’esagerazione – ai nani venivano assegnati titoli militari come Generale o Ammiraglio, le persone molto alte venivano reinventate come giganti, ecc.; e nella storia dell’arte succedeva lo stesso, quello che vediamo nei quadri era, all’epoca, una commissione commerciale all’artista da parte di una persona benestante che voleva lasciare un ricordo di sé e del suo successo. In questo senso, un ritratto di Raffaello di un qualsiasi cardinale o poeta non è molto differente dalle cartoline di presentazione dei freaks vendute dal palcoscenico. Entrambe le cose cercano di proiettare e/o vendere un’identità. “Perché non portare il tutto a uno stadio successivo, e permettere ai freaks di abitare o rimodellare le storie raccontate nei dipinti classici?”, pensai. Ovviamente non volevo procedere a casaccio. Dovevo avere un buon motivo per collegare un performer con un certo quadro, che fosse una storia in comune, o un atteggiamento, o un elemento compositivo che mi ricordava la figura di un freak. Questo significa che sto ancora cercando l’accoppiata ideale per alcuni fra i miei performer preferiti, come ad esempio Grady Stiles l’Uomo Aragosta. Dall’altra parte, ci sono dipinti così iconici che risulta difficile utilizzarli senza apparire risaputi o pigri.
La serie Prodigies è percorsa da una vena di humor iconoclasta. Potrebbe essere letta come una “legittimazione” dei diversi, a cui viene data la possibilità di essere protagonisti della storia dell’arte; ma anche come una specie di sberleffo nei confronti del concetto storico e assodato di “bellezza”. Quale interpretazione ti sembra più corretta?
Sono entrambe corrette. Anche se è di moda oggi denigrare i freakshow come una reliquia culturale barbarica da dimenticare, credo che servissero una funzione necessaria nella società – e che non è ancora sparita. E vedo queste persone che lavoravano nei freakshow – anche se spesso sfruttate – come degli eroi, per aver affrontato le circostanze peggiori e averne tratto il maggiore successo possibile. Queste erano persone che non sarebbero mai state accettate nella società beneducata, eppure trovarono una comunità che si strinse attorno a loro e li celebrò. Invece di essere chiusi negli istituti, vissero bene la loro vita con la loro famiglia, recitando sul palcoscenico un ruolo creato ad arte. C’è un certo carattere di nobiltà, in questo. Sì, la gente guardava e di tanto in tanto li scherniva, ma almeno ora pagavano per il privilegio. Quindi, chi è che era veramente sfruttato? Anche ora vogliamo guardare, ma la maggior parte di noi non è abbastanza sincero da ammetterlo.
Molte delle presentazioni utilizzate nei freakshow erano intenzionalmente umoristiche, quasi ridicole. Credo che quello humor servisse perché il pubblico si sentisse meno a disagio, e anche per dare al performer una protezione emotiva. Una parte del fascino dei freakshow è di confrontarsi con le proprie paure. Vedi qualcuno sul palco a cui mancano degli arti oppure deforme, e naturalmente pensi “E se quello fossi io?”. Quindi ho spesso inserito dei piccoli tocchi scherzosi, per aiutarmi a metabolizzare queste domande, e per tirare un salvagente allo spettatore. Allo stesso tempo sto prendendo in giro alcuni dei pilastri della storia dell’arte. C’è un sacco di materiale esilarante con cui lavorare, se lo guardi con mente aperta. Per esempio alcune convenzioni formali che troviamo in antiche istoriazioni sugli altari: è piuttosto divertente, oggi, vedere come i santi sono raffigurati cinque volte più grandi dei meri mortali. È liberatorio camminare in un museo e permetterti di ridere, anche se per molte persone è puro sacrilegio.
Gran parte di ciò che oggi reputiamo “bello” è semplicemente regolare, uniforme. Le nostre idee moderne di bellezza ci vengono propinate dai giornali di moda, televisione e affini. Eppure, in queste strane persone che io disegno – con le loro proporzioni imperfette – andiamo oltre il bello per avvicinarci al sublime. Uno dei principi guida per me in questo progetto è quello che Sir Francis Bacon scrisse nel 1597: “non c’è beltà eccellente che non abbia in sé una qualche misura di stranezza”.
In uno dei tuoi disegni, ti autoritrai nei panni di un anatomista dilettante, e molti dei tuoi lavori raffigurano anomalie patologiche. Qual è il tuo rapporto con i tuoi soggetti? Ritieni di avere un occhio freddo e clinico oppure c’è un’empatia con la sofferenza che spesso implica l’anatomia patologica? E, ancora, cosa vorresti che provasse chi guarda i tuoi disegni?
Anche se un certo distacco è necessario per rimanere oggettivi, non posso impedirmi di immedesimarmi nei miei soggetti. Queste erano persone reali che affrontavano circostanze che non posso nemmeno immaginare. Quando attraverso una collezione anatomica, mi ritrovo a chiedermi chi fosse la persona da cui questa o quella parte è stata tolta e preservata. Oggi, i casi sono presentati in maniera anonima, ma negli scorsi secoli era comune accludere informazioni biografiche sul paziente. Credo che in questa fissazione di proteggere la privacy degli individui stiamo inavvertitamente negando la loro umanità, perché ora ciò che vediamo è una malattia invece che una persona. Anche se non è mia intenzione forzare nello spettatore alcuna emozione o idea (e spesso la gente trova nei miei lavori dei significati che non ho mai inteso esprimere), spero che almeno porti con sé il senso che i miei soggetti sono o erano persone vere, degne di considerazione.
Il tuo nuovo progetto, Cabinet of curiosities, è basato sulle tue visite ai musei anatomici americani ed europei. Cosa ti attrae nei reperti anatomici e teratologici?
Sono sempre stato interessato a come le cose funzionano, in particolare all’anatomia. Quello che mi interessa delle collezioni patologiche o teratologiche è che questi strani esemplari ci mostrano cosa sta succedendo a livello cellulare, genetico. Esaminando il sistema danneggiato, impariamo come funziona quello in salute. Sono anche affascinato dagli antichi sistemi usati per catalogare e organizzare il mondo naturale, e la teratologia – lo studio dei mostri – è un esempio particolarmente interessante. Anche l’idea del museo, nato come collezione personale per diventare istituzione pubblica è affascinante, e condivide molti aspetti con i freakshow. Alcuni di questi preparati sono strani e bellissimi, e presentati in maniera molto elaborata. Quindi Cabinet of Curiosities è un tentativo di documentare il punto in cui questi due mondi si intersecano.
Quale pensi sia il rapporto fra medicina ed arte, e più in generale fra scienza ed arte?
La medicina è stata considerata un’arte per molto più tempo di quanto non sia stata vista come scienza. La società non si libera da una simile associazione da un giorno all’altro, così ancora oggi continuiamo a parlare dell’abilità di un chirurgo come fosse quella di uno scultore. Ma anche da un punto di vista strettamente pratico, i dottori hanno bisogno degli artisti perché le rappresentazioni artistiche sono da sempre una componente essenziale nell’educazione medica e nella sua comunicazione. Sin dal Rinascimento gli illustratori hanno insegnato l’anatomia a generazioni di medici, e in quel modo la pratica artistica dell’osservazione ha aiutato la medicina ad uscire dalla via puramente teorica. Penso che possiamo affermare che questo ruolo comunicativo valga anche per le scienze in generale, perché l’arte può aiutare a spiegare complesse teorie anche a persone che non masticano la materia. Un artista può fungere da legame tra lo scienziato e il pubblico, rendendo comprensibili le scoperte scientifiche – ma può anche servire come critico. In questo modo, l’arte può divenire una sorta di specchio morale per la scienza.
Nelle tue parole, “questi preparati anatomici rappresentano il punto di intersezione fra scienza, cultura, emozione e mito”. Credi che ci sia bisogno di miti moderni? Pensi che questi nuovi miti possano provenire dal mondo della scienza, invece che da quello magico-religioso come nel passato? Il tuo lavoro fotografico e di illustrazione può essere letto come un tentativo di dare una dimensione mitica ai tuoi soggetti? Sei religioso?
Penso che noi creiamo in continuazione nuovi miti, o che ne risvegliamo e reinventiamo di vecchi. Fa parte della natura umana.
La scienza per molte persone ha sostituito la religione come fondamentale via d’ispirazione, ma in realtà sappiamo ancora così poco dell’universo, che c’è ancora molto terreno fertile per la fantascienza. Con la nascita di Scientology abbiamo visto addirittura la fantascienza trasformarsi in religione! Io non sono assolutamente una persona religiosa, ma penso che spesso cerchiamo di riporre le nostre speranze in un potere che sta al di fuori di noi. Per alcuni, questo significa una divinità che è personalmente interessata a come ci vestiamo, o a cosa mangiamo il venerdì; per altri vuol dire l’idea che il genere umano troverà finalmente la cura per il cancro e imparerà i segreti per viaggiare nel tempo. Così nel mio lavoro mi ritrovo a raccontare storie, o quantomeno a predisporre il seme di una storia che ognuno può trasformare nel racconto che desidera.
Anche tua moglie Kate è un’artista, ma i suoi quadri sembrano essere completamente distanti dal tuo mondo – solari, impressionisti, colorati. Se non sono indiscreto, come vi rapportate l’uno con l’arte dell’altra?
Siamo i migliori critici l’uno dell’altra. Siccome i nostri lavori sono così differenti, non c’è competizione fra noi, e ci diamo costantemente dei pareri e delle idee.
Chi è appassionato di stranezze, corre il rischio di essere reputato egli stesso strano. Cosa pensano delle tue passioni gli amici e i parenti?
Alcune persone amano stare a guardare i treni, o ascoltare gli Abba. Io amo i freaks. Tutte le persone più interessanti sono strambe.
Of all the freakshow performers, few were as beloved as Schlitzie. Those who knew him describe him as a ray of sunshine, a sprite of good cheer, a wonderful individual capable of softening even the most granite heart, and one who was impossible not to become attached to.
His origins are still cloaked in mystery today. Some say his real name was Simon Metz, but it is not known exactly when he was born (the most likely date is September 10, 1901), nor who his parents were; most likely they sold him to some sideshow at an early age. Schlitzie-that is his stage name-was suffering from microcephaly, a genetic alteration that results in a head circumference much smaller than normal. The brain, thus constricted, cannot fully develop and various cognitive and psychomotor impediments can arise, depending on the severity. In the circus show business, where they had been performed since the nineteenth century, microcephalic individuals were usually called pinheads (“pinheads”). In sideshows, pinheads were presented as “missing evolutionary links” (between ape and man), “Aztec wonders,” “beings from another planet,” or even in shows called more simply “What is it?”
All of these fanciful appellations were used for Schlitzie during his blazing career with the world’s greatest circuses. Often presented as a woman by virtue of the ample robes they made him wear (actually to mask his incontinence), when the curtain opened he left everyone speechless at his appearance; yet it only took a few minutes for the audience to put aside all fear and melt into thunderous applause.
The crowds adored him, but never as much as his colleagues. Schlitzie had, they said, the brain of a three- or four-year-old child: he spoke in monosyllables, could not take care of himself, and yet he was perhaps smarter than people thought, given his ability to imitate people and his incredible speed of reaction. As he wandered among the carriages and circus tents, he looked like an always cheerful, joyful little spirit who couldn’t wait to dance in front of someone just to draw attention to himself.
In the 1930s the major circuses vied for him: Schlitzie performed for the famous Ringling Bros. as well as the Barnum & Bailey Circus, then came the Clyde Beatty Circus, the Tom Mix Circus, the West Coast Shows… and the list would still be very long. The movies also courted him: he appeared in Tod Browning’s classic Freaks (1932), and in E.C. Kenton’s Island Of Lost Souls (1933) with Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi.
From 1936 Schlitzie was legally placed in the care of George Surtees, a chimpanzee breeder for the Tom Mix Circus; Surtees became the loving and caring father Schlitzie never had, caring for him until his death. And it was with the departure of this “guardian angel” in the 1960s that the real problems began for Schlitzie: Surtees’ daughter, in fact, did not feel up to keeping him at home and decided to place him in a clinic.
Thus Schlitzie disappeared.
For a long time nothing more was heard of the world’s most famous pinhead, until one day the sword-swallower Bill Unks, who was working as a nurse at the end of the theater season, recognized him in a ward of the clinic where he was serving. Schlitzie was miserable, depressed, and most of all sick with loneliness. He missed his friends, he missed the shows, he missed the applause, he missed the sideshow.
Bill Unks managed to convince the authorities that getting him back to performing would be essential to his health.
Schlitzie returned to the sideshow with great enthusiasm, and practically stayed there for the rest of his life.
The large family of carnies showered him with attention and affection and eventually bought an apartment for him in Los Angeles where he lived out his last years: many remember him feeding pigeons, marveling at any small aspect of life, from a flower to a tiny insect, or dancing for anyone who stopped to talk to him.
He died in 1971 at the age of 71, but still an eternal child; today his figure, among the most recognizable icons in circus history, continues to inspire artists around the world.
Ovvero “Lo Sfruttamento Delle Anomalie Fisiche Nei Circhi E Negli Spettacoli Itineranti”.
L’impressionante collezione fotografica di meraviglie umane di Naruyama è un vero tesoro. Immagini storiche, di un’importanza eccezionale, raccolte in un libricino che, pur non offrendo un approfondito background storico, ha il potere di stregare il lettore grazie alla bellezza delle illustrazioni. Dai Lillipuziani alla Meraviglia Senza Braccia, dai Bambini Aztechi ai ragazzi-leone, tutti i più famosi freaks vissuti a cavallo fra diciannovesimo e ventesimo secolo sono presenti nella raccolta; molte delle fotografie sono infatti relative agli spettacoli circensi e alle fiere itineranti americane in cui questi artisti si esibivano. Dopo lo show, un’ulteriore fonte di profitto erano proprio le fotografie che venivano vendute al pubblico, autografate. Per quanto l’esibizione della deformità all’interno dei carnivals americani sia un capitolo affascinante della storia dello spettacolo moderno, questo prezioso libro però, così focalizzato com’è sui ritratti, offre qualcosa di diverso.
La raccolta documenta un’epoca e una società attraverso i suoi corpi meno fortunati, e allo stesso tempo nello scorrere le pagine avvertiamo l’atemporalità di queste anomalie: nell’antichità come nell’epoca moderna, certi uomini hanno dovuto sopportare il fardello di fattezze eccezionali, spesso temuti ed emarginati. Eppure, se è vero che ogni uomo è specchio per il suo prossimo, fissando gli occhi di questi nostri fratelli dai corpi stupefacenti ci accorgiamo che il loro sguardo rimanda il riflesso più puro e vero.
ELEFANTI IN ACIDO E ALTRI BIZZARRI ESPERIMENTI
(2009, Baldini Castoldi Dalai)
Una buona parte degli articoli di Bizzarro Bazar contenuti nella sezione “Scienza anomala” nasconde un debito verso questo splendido libro. Boese raccoglie, in forma divulgativa e spesso scanzonata, gli esperimenti scientifici più improbabili, sconcertanti, risibili – e, talvolta, illuminanti. Chi pensa che gli scienziati siano persone serie e compite, sempre nascosti dietro provette o lavagne piene di equazioni impossibili, farebbe meglio a ricredersi: l’immagine della scienza che esce dalle pagine di Elefanti in acido è quella di una disciplina viva, fantasiosa, sempre pronta a prendere le strade meno battute, anche a costo di errori madornali e vergognosi fallimenti. In definitiva, una disciplina molto più umana (nel bene o nel male) di come viene normalmente rappresentata.
Molti di questi esperimenti sono spassosi in quanto, a una prima occhiata, totalmente inconcludenti. Dai ricercatori del titolo, che somministrano a un elefante una potentissima dose di LSD, fino allo psicologo che in automobile resta fermo quando scatta il semaforo verde soltanto per cronometrare quanto ci mette l’autista dietro di lui a suonare il clacson, per finire con gli scienziati che costruiscono uno stadio per le corse degli scarafaggi, il tempo perso dagli studiosi in progetti dagli esiti comici può sconcertare. Eppure, come ricorda l’autore, non sempre la scienza ricerca soltanto le risposte alle nobili e grandi domande. Ogni tassello, per quanto insignificante possa sembrare, contribuisce a comprendere qualcosa di più del mondo in cui viviamo. È vero che gli uomini preferiscono le donne difficili da conquistare? Se cadessimo in un pozzo, il nostro cane verrebbe a salvarci? Perché non riusciamo a farci il solletico da soli?
I ricercatori le cui vicende sono narrate in Elefanti in acido hanno una fiducia smisurata nel metodo scientifico, e non esitano ad applicarlo a quesiti di questo tenore. Anche se, come nel caso dello scienziato che si incaponisce a contare tutti i peli pubici dei suoi colleghi, questa fiducia sembra talvolta divenire talmente cieca da non accorgersi dell’assurdità della ricerca stessa. E anche questo è molto umano.
Pittrice, animatrice, stilista, punk rocker e scultrice: Liz McGrath è la bad girl della nuova scena artistica pop-surrealista californiana.
Essendo precocemente ribelle, i suoi genitori ultra-cattolici decisero di usare il pugno di ferro con la piccola Elizabeth; è proprio a quegli anni, fatti di imposizioni, minacce di inferno e altri terrori, che la McGrath attribuisce la sua fascinazione con il lato oscuro della propria fantasia. Eppure c’è sempre una delicatezza, un’eleganza rétro nelle sue creazioni. Liz McGrath non è mai cresciuta, e ci invita a conoscere i suoi amici immaginari.
Si tratta di sculture anomale, piccoli personaggi di un mondo infantile distorto. Animali freak antropomorfizzati, spesso inseriti in bacheche che ricordano le insegne dei sideshow degli anni ’40. Un bestiario contemporaneamente macabro e raffinato, che unisce bellezza e malattia, ironia ed elementi gotici.
Certo, c’è sempre quella ingenua e forse “facile” estetica un po’ dark che contraddistingue molti surrealisti pop, quello stile vagamente alla Tim Burton, per intenderci; eppure le sculture di Liz ci sembrano più gioiose, più scanzonate e irriverenti. Forse, come la loro autrice, sotto la patina leziosa e ricercata sono davvero delle sculture punk.
E poi ammettiamolo: quanti di noi, da bambini, non sarebbero impazziti per dei pupazzetti simili?