Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 23

Welcome to the collection of online resources designed to provide you with lots of nice conversation starters. We will talk about people who died badly, about menstruation, voodoo rites, sexually arousing vegetables and the fact that reality does not exist.

  • Let’s start with a great list of videogames about death.
  • Here’s my idea for a post-apocalyptic TV series with a Ballardian flavor.
    On Earth, after the ecological catastrophe, only a few hundred inhabitants remain. The survivors are divided into two warring factions: on the one hand the descendants of rich capitalists, called “The Travises”, on the other the last representatives of what was once the middle class, who call themselves “The Talbots”. (The poorest, with no means to protect themselves, were the first to become extinct.) Natural resources are limited, so the two tribes have built two neighboring cities, in constant war tension.
    The cold war between the Travises and the Talbots, which has lasted for decades, is about to reach breaking point with the arrival of one hallucinated stranger, a sandstorm survivor, who claims to have seen an immense oasis across the desert where men have mutated into cold-blooded hybrids…
    Ok, I only got this far with the story. But the great thing is that you don’t even have to build the sets, because the whole thing can be shot on location.
    Here is the Talbots citadel:

And this instead is the city of the Travises, composed solely of small castles meant to underline their ancient economic superiority:

These two alienating places are Pardis, near Tehran, and the ghost village of Burji Al Babas in Turkey.

  • But wait, I’ve got another fabulous concept for a series ready here! An exorcist priest, who is an occultist and paranormal investigator in the 1940s, builds a wunderkammer in a small town in the Sienese Chianti (article in Italian only). Netflix should definitely hire me on the spot. (Thanks, Paolo!)
  • Since we talked about doomsday scenarios, which animal has the best chance of surviving a nuclear holocaust? Probably a cockroach. Why? Well, for starters, that little rascal can go on quietly for weeks after being beheaded.
  • Ok, we have arrived at our philosophy moment.
    Our brain, trapped in the skull, creates a representation of things based on perception, and we all live in that “map” derived from mere stimuli.
    There’s no sound out there. If a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one around to hear it, it creates changes in air pressure and vibrations in the ground. The crash is an effect that happens in the brain. When you stub your toe and feel pain throbbing out of it, that, too, is an illusion. That pain is not in your toe, but in your brain. There’s no color out there either. Atoms are colorless.
    The quote comes from this article which is a short but clear introduction to the hallucinatory nature of reality.
    The problem has long been discussed by the best thinkers, but in the end one might ask: does it matter whether the pain is in my finger, in my brain, or in a hypothetical alien software simulating the universe? Bumping your foot hurts as hell anyway.
    At least this is my interpretation of the famous anecdote starring Samuel Johnson: “After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley‘s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, ‘I refute it thus.’
    (This is to say that as a young man I was intrigued by what reality really was, “out there”, but now I think more and more often about Samuel Johnson’s aching little finger.)

  • The image above hides a sad and macabre story now forgotten. Alessandro Calzolaro has investigated the “prisoner of Mondovi” in this article, in Italian only. (Thanks, Storvandre!)
  • The photo below, on the other hand, was taken in 1941, when a well-known occultist and a group of “young idealists” tried to kill Hitler… by throwing a voodoo curse upon him.

  • One hell of a headline.
  • In Indonesia, there is a community of riders crazy dudes who have redefined the concept of “tricked out Vespa”.  (Thanks, Cri!)

  • Old but gold:Vice interviews a menstruation fetishist.
  • The medieval village of Fabbriche di Careggine in Italy has been lying on the bottom of an artificial lake since the 1950s. The basin was emptied only 4 times for maintenance, the last one in 1994. But in 2021 the submerged village could finally resurface for good, to become a tourist attraction and a museum site dedicated to “raising awareness and cultural growth on the subject of clean and renewable energy“.

  • Finally a sly, tongue-in-cheek video essay on the spiritual value of exploding heads in the movies.
  • And here is an interesting esoteric, alchemical and intiatic reading of David Lynch’s cinema (Italian only).
  • London, 1876. A carpenter with money problems rents an apartment, then one evening he is seen returning home with two large wooden planks and a double blade similar to those used to tan leather. But the neighbors, as per tradition, don’t pay attention to it. The Police Illustrated News  tells the epilogue as follows:
    On Monday his suicide was discovered his head having been cut off by a guillotine. The two planks had been used as uprights at the top of which the knife had been placed. Grooves had been cut in the inner side of the planks for the knife to run easily and two heavy stones were bound to the upper side of the knife to give it weight. By means of the pulley he had drawn up the knife and let it fall on his throat, the head being cut clean off.

  • And we close with one of the most incredible psychiatric reports ever: the case, documented in 2005, of a man who suffered simultaneously from Cotard syndrome (the delusion of being dead) and clinical lycanthropy.
    Although the condition of this unfortunate individual is anything but comical, the results of the report stand out as an unsurpassed masterpiece of medical surrealism:
    A patient meeting DSM-IV criteria for bipolar mood disorder, mixed type with psychotic feature had the delusion of being transformed into a dog. He also deluded that he was dead. He was restless and had a serious sense of guilt about his previous sexual contact with a sheep.

That’s all folks, see you next time!

Criminal Heads

Two dissected heads. Color plate by Gautier D’Agoty (1746).

Starting from the end of the Middle Ages, the bodies of those condemned to death were commonly used for anatomical dissections. It was a sort of additional penalty, because autopsy was still perceived as a sort of desecration; perhaps because this “cruelty” aroused a certain sense of guilt, it was common for the dissected bodies to be granted a burial in consecrated ground, something that would normally have been precluded to criminals.

But during the nineteenth century dissecting the bodies of criminals began to have a more specific reason, namely to understand how the anatomy of a criminal differed from the norm. A practice that continued until almost mid-twentieth century.
The following picture shows the head of Peter Kürten (1883-1931), the infamous Vampire of Düsseldorf whose deeds inspired Fritz Lang’s masterpiece M (1931). Today it is exhibited at Ripley’s Believe It Or Not by Winsconsin Dells.

Cesare Lombroso, who in spite of his controversial theories was one of the pioneers and founders of modern criminology, was convinced that the criminal carried in his anatomy the anomalous signs of a genetic atavism.

The Museum dedicated to him, in Turin, retraces his reasoning, his convictions influenced by theories in vogue at the time, and gives an account of the impressive collection of heads he studied and preserved. Lombroso himself wanted to become part of his museum, where today the criminologist’s entire skeleton is on display; his preserved, boneless head is not visible to the public.

Head of Cesare Lombroso.

Similar autopsies on the skull and brain of the murderers almost invariably led to the same conclusion: no appreciable anatomical difference compared to the common man.

A deterministic criminology — the idea, that is, that criminal behavior derives from some anatomical, biological, genetic anomaly — has a comforting appeal for those who believe they are normal.
This is the classic process of creation/labeling of the different, what Foucault called “the machinery that makes qualifications and disqualifications“: if the criminal is different, if his nature is deviant (etymologically, he strays from the right path on which we place ourselves), then we will sleep soundly.

Numerous research suggests that in reality anyone is susceptible to adopt socially deplorable behavior, given certain premises, and even betray their ethical principles as soon as some specific psychological mechanisms are activated (see P. Bocchiaro, Psicologia del male, 2009). Yet the idea that the “abnormal” individual contains in himself some kind of predestination to deviance continues to be popular even today: in the best case this is a cognitive bias, in the worst case it’s plain deceit. A striking example of mala fides is provided by those scientific studies financed by tobacco or gambling multinationals, aimed at showing that addiction is the product of biological predisposition in some individuals (thus relieving the funders of such reasearch from all responsibility).

But let’s go back to the obsession of nineteenth-century scientists for the heads of criminals.
What is interesting in our eyes is that often, in these anatomical specimens, what was preserved was not even the internal structure, but rather the criminal’s features.

In the picture below you can see the skin of the face of Martin Dumollard (1810-1862), who killed more than 6 women. Today it is kept at the Musée Testut-Latarjet in Lyon.
It was tanned while his skull was being studied in search of anomalies. It was the skull, not the skin, the focus of the research. Why then take the trouble to prepare also his face, detached from the skull?

Dumollard is certainly not the only example. Also at the Testut-Latarjet lies the facial skin of Jules-Joseph Seringer, guilty of killing his mother, stepfather and step-sister. The museum also exhibits a plaster cast of the murderer, which offers a more realistic account of the killer’s features, compared to this hideous mask.

For the purposes of physiognomic and phrenological studies of the time, this plaster bust would have been a much better support than a skinned face. Why not then stick to the cast?

The impression is that preserving the face or the head of a criminal was, beyond any scientific interest, a way to ensure that the memory of guilt could never vanish. A condemnation to perpetual memory, the symbolic equivalent of those good old heads on spikes, placed at the gates of the city — as a deterrent, certainly, but also and above all as a spectacle of the pervasiveness of order, a proof of the inevitability of punishment.

Head of Diogo Alves, beheaded in 1841.

Head of Narcisse Porthault, guillotined in 1846. Ph. Jack Burman.

 

Head of Henri Landru, guillotined in 1922.

 

Head of Fritz Haarmann, beheaded in 1925.

This sort of upside-down damnatio memoriæ, meant to immortalize the offending individual instead of erasing him from collective memory, can be found in etchings, in the practice of the death masks and, in more recent times, in the photographs of guillotined criminals.

Death masks of hanged Victorian criminals (source).

Guillotined: Juan Vidal (1910), Auguste DeGroote (1893), Joseph Vacher (1898), Canute Vromant (1909), Lénard, Oillic, Thépaut and Carbucci (1866), Jean-Baptiste Picard (1862), Abel Pollet (1909), Charles Swartewagher (1905), Louis Lefevre (1915), Edmond Claeys (1893), Albert Fournier (1920), Théophile Deroo (1909), Jean Van de Bogaert (1905), Auguste Pollet (1909).

All these heads chopped off by the executioner, whilst referring to an ideal of justice, actually celebrate the triumph of power.

But there are four peculiar heads, which impose themselves as a subversive and ironic contrappasso. Four more heads of criminals, which were used to mock the prison regime.


These are the effigies that, placed on the cushions to deceive the guards, allowed Frank Morris, together with John and Clarence Anglin, to famously escape from Alcatraz (the fourth accomplice, Allen West, remained behind). Sculpted with soap, toothpaste, toilet paper and cement powder, and decorated with hair collected at the prison’s barbershop, these fake heads are the only remaining memory of the three inmates who managed to escape from the maximum security prison — along with their mug shots.

Although unwittingly, Morris and his associates had made a real détournement of a narrative which had been established for thousands of years: an iconography that aimed to turn the head and face of the condemned man into a mere simulacrum, in order to dehumanize him.

Il Museo Criminologico di Roma

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Nella seconda metà dell’800, in Europa e in Italia, divenne sempre più evidente la necessità di una riforma carceraria; allo stesso tempo, e grazie agli intensi dibattiti sulla questione, crebbe l’interesse per lo studi delle cause della delinquenza, e dei possibili metodi per curarla. Mentre quindi la Polizia Scientifica muoveva i primi passi, il grande criminologo Cesare Lombroso studiava le possibili correlazioni fra la morfologia fisica e l’attitudine al delitto, e grazie a lui prendeva vita il primo, grande museo di antropologia criminale a Torino.

A Roma, invece, si dovette aspettare fino al 1931 perché potesse aprire al pubblico il “Museo Criminale”, che ospitava la collezione di reperti utilizzati precedentemente per gli studi della scuola di Polizia scientifica. Il Museo ebbe poi fasi e fortune alterne, tanto da venire chiuso nel 1968, e riaperto solo nel 1975 con la nuova denominazione “MUCRI – Museo criminologico”. La nuova sede, all’interno delle carceri del palazzo del Gonfalone, è quella in cui il Museo si trova ancora oggi. Dalla fine degli anni ’70 il museo è stato nuovamente chiuso per quasi vent’anni, per riaprire al pubblico nel 1994.

Il Museo oggi conta centinaia di reperti, divisi in tre grandi sezioni: la Giustizia dal Medioevo al XIX secolo, l’Ottocento e l’evoluzione del sistema penitenziario, il Novecento e i protagonisti del crimine.

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La prima sezione, che ripercorre i metodi di punizione e di tortura in uso dal Medioevo fino al XIX secolo, è ovviamente la più impressionante. Dalle asce per decapitazione cinquecentesche, alle gogne, ai banchi di fustigazione, alle mordacchie, agli strumenti di tortura dell’Inquisizione, tutto ci parla di un’epoca in cui la crudeltà delle pene eguagliava, se non addirittura superava, quella del crimine stesso. Fra gli oggetti esposti segnaliamo la tonaca del celebre boia pontificio Mastro Titta, la spada che decapitò Beatrice Cenci, una forca e tre ghigliottine (fra cui quella in uso a Piazza del Popolo fino al 1869).

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Nella seconda sezione, dedicata all’Ottocento, troviamo traccia della nascita dell’antropologia criminale, e dell’evoluzione del sistema carcerario. Possiamo vedere il calco del cranio del brigante Giuseppe Villella (su cui Lombroso scoprì nel 1872 la “prova” della delinquenza atavica: la “fossetta occipitale mediana”); lo spazio dedicato agli attentati politici espone, tra l’altro, il cranio, il cervello e gli scritti dell’anarchico lucano Giovanni Passannante, che attentò alla vita del re Umberto I a Napoli, nel 1878. Ugualmente impressionanti il letto di contenzione e le camicie di forza che testimoniano la nascita dei manicomi criminali.

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Ma forse la parte più sorprendente è quella delle cosiddette “malizie carcerarie”, ovvero i sotterfugi con cui i detenuti comunicavano tra di loro, occultavano armi o inventavano sistemi per evadere o compiere atti di autolesionismo. Un’estrema inventiva che si tinge di toni tristi e spesso macabri.

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L’ultima sezione, quella dedicata ai grandi episodi di cronaca nera del Novecento, è una vera e propria wunderkammer del crimine, dove decine e decine di oggetti e reperti sono esposti in un percorso eterogeneo che spazia dagli anni ’30 agli anni ’90. Una stanza ospita armi e indizi trovati sulla scena dei delitti italiani fra i più celebri, come ad esempio quelli perpetrati da Leonarda Cianciulli, la “saponificatrice di Correggio”; tra gli altri, sono esibiti gli oggetti personali di Antonietta Longo, la “decapitata di Castelgandolfo”, le armi della banda Casaroli, la pistola con cui la contessa Bellentani uccise il suo amante durante una sfarzosa serata di gala. Vi si trovano anche materiali pornografici sequestrati (quando erano ancora illegali), ed esempi di merce di contrabbando, inclusi numerosi quadri ed opere d’arte.

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Altre vetrine interessanti ripercorrono le testimonianze relative alla criminalità organizzata, al banditismo (con oggetti appartenuti a Salvatore Giuliano), al terrorismo, e a tutte le declinazioni possibili del crimine (furti, falsi, giochi d’azzardo, ecc.). Nella sezione dedicata allo spionaggio si può ammirare uno splendido e curioso baule dentro il quale fu rinvenuto, dopo un rocambolesco inseguimento, un piccolo ometto seduto su un seggiolino, legato con le cinghie e avvolto da coperte e cuscini. Si trattava di una spia che cercava di imbarcarsi clandestinamente all’aeroporto di Fiumicino.

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Il Museo Criminologico si trova in Via del Gonfalone 29 (una laterale di Via Giulia), ed è aperto dal martedì al sabato dalle ore 9 alle 13; martedì e giovedì dalle 14.30 alle 18.30. Ecco il sito ufficiale del MUCRI.

AGGIORNAMENTO: dal 01 giugno 2016 il MUCRI è chiuso, e non è stata comunicata una data di riapertura.