It is said that there is nothing more flattering for artists than to see their works stolen from the museum in which they are exhibited. If someone is willing to risk jail for a painting, it is ultimately a tribute — however questionable — to the painter’s skills, and an index of high market value.
Yet there is an artist who, if he were alive today, would certainly not appreciate the fact that thieves have stolen almost a hundred his portraits. Because in his case the works in question weren’t displayed in the halls of a museum, but among the rows of gravestones of a cemetery, and there they should have remained so that everyone could see them.
The monumental cemetery of Campo Verano in Rome, with its 83 hectares of surface, strikes the viewer for the sumptuousness of some chapels, and appears as a rather surreal place. Pharaonic mausoleums, exquisitely crafted statues, buildings as big as houses. This is not a simple cemetery, it resembles a metaphysical city; it just shows to what extent men are willing to go in order to keep the memory of their loved ones alive (as well as the hope, or illusion, that death might not be definitive).
Scrolling through the gravestones, along with some weather-worn photos, some particularly refined portraits catch the eye.
These are the peculiar lava paintings by Filippo Severati.
Born in Rome on April 4, 1819, Filippo followed in the footsteps of his father who was a painter, and from the early age of 6 he began to dedicate himself to miniatures, making it his actual job from 11 years onwards. Meanwhile, having enrolled at the Accademia di S. Luca, he won numerous awards and earned several merit mentions; under the aegis of Tommaso Minardi he produced engravings and drawings, and over the years he specialized in portraiture.
It was around 1850 that Severati began using enamel on a lava or porcelain base. This technique was already known for its property of making the colors almost completely unalterable and for the durability of completed works, due to the numerous cooking phases.
In 1859 he patented his fire painting on enamelled lava procedure, which was renewed and improved over previous techniques (you can find a detailed description of the process in this article in Italian); in 1873 he won the medal of progress at the Vienna Exhibition.
1863 was the the turning point, as Severati painted a self-portrait for his own family tomb: he can still be admired posing, palette in hand, while next to him stands a portrait of his parents placed on an easel — a true picture inside the picture.
After that first tomb painting, funeral portraits soon became his only occupation. Thanks to the refinement of his technique, the clipei (effigies of the deceased) made by Severati were able to last a long time keeping intact the brilliance and liveliness of the backgrounds.
This was the real novelty introduced by Severati: he was able to “reproduce in the open air the typology and formal characteristics of the nineteenth-century portrait intended for the interiors of bourgeois houses” (1) M. Cardinals – M.B. De Ruggieri – C. Falcucci, “Among the most useful and wonderful discoveries of this century…”. The paintings of F. S. al Verano, in Percorsi della memoria. Il Quadriportico del Verano, a cura di L. Cardilli – N. Cardano, Roma 1998, pp. 165-170. Quoted in Treccani. . Instead of hanging it at home, the family could place a portrait of the deceased directly on the tombstone, even if in small format. And some of these clipei are still striking for their vitality and the touching rendering of the features of the deceased, immortalized by the lava painting process.
Severati died in 1892. Forgotten for almost a century, it was rediscovered by photographer Claudio Pisani, who in 1983 published in the Italian magazine Frigidaire an article of praise accompanied by several photos he had taken at Campo Verano.
Today Filippo Severati remains a relatively obscure figure, but among the experts his talent as a painter is well recognized; so much so that the thieves mentioned at the beginning vandalized many graves by removing about ninety of his portraits from the tombstones of the Roman cemetery.
(I would like to thank Nicola for scanning the magazine. Some photos in the article are mine, others were found online.)
M. Cardinals – M.B. De Ruggieri – C. Falcucci, “Among the most useful and wonderful discoveries of this century…”. The paintings of F. S. al Verano, in Percorsi della memoria. Il Quadriportico del Verano, a cura di L. Cardilli – N. Cardano, Roma 1998, pp. 165-170. Quoted in Treccani.
On the Western coast of Madagascar live the Sakalava people, a rather diverse ethnic group; their population is in fact composed of the descendants of numerous peoples that formed the Menabe Kingdom. This empire reached its peak in the Eighteenth Century, thanks to an intense slave trade with the Arabs and European colonists.
One of the most peculiar aspects of Sakalava culture is undoubtedly represented by the funerary sculptures which adorn burial sites. Placed at the four corners of a grave, these carved wooden posts are often composed by a male and a female figure.
But these effigies have fascinated the Westerners since the 1800s, and for a very specific reason: their uninhibited eroticism.
In the eyes of European colonists, the openly exhibited penises, and the female genitalia which are in some cases stretched open by the woman’s hands, must have already been an obscene sight; but the funerary statues of the Sakalava even graphically represent sexual intercourse.
These sculptures are quite unique even within the context of the notoriously heterogeneous funerary art of Madagascar. What was their meaning?
We could instinctively interpret them in the light of the promiscuity between Eros and Thanatos, thus falling into the trap of a wrongful cultural projection: as Giuseppe Ferrauto cautioned, the meaning of these works “rather than being a message of sinful «lust», is nothing more than a message of fertility” (in Arcana, vol. II, 1970).
A similar opinion is expressed by Jacques Lombard, who extensively ecplained the symbolic value of the Sakalava funerary eroticism:
We could say that two apparently opposite things are given a huge value, in much the same manner, among the Sakalava as well as among all Madagascar ethnic groups. The dead, the ancestors, on one side, and the offspring, the lineage on the other. […] A fully erect – or «open» – sexual organ, far from being vulgar, is on the contrary a form of prayer, the most evident display of religious fervor. In the same way the funerals, which once could go on for days and days, are the occasion for particularly explicit chants where once again love, birth and life are celebrated in the most graphic terms, through the most risqué expressions. In this occasion, women notably engage in verbal manifestations, but also gestural acts, evoking and mimicking sex right beside the grave.
[…] The extended family, the lineage, is the point of contact between the living and the dead but also with all those who will come, and the circle is closed thanks to the meeting with all the ancestors, up to the highest one, and therefore with God and all his children up to the farthest in time, at the heart of the distant future. To honor one’s ancestors, and to generate an offspring, is to claim one’s place in the eternity of the world.
Jacques Lombard, L’art et les ancêtres:
le dialogue avec les morts: l’art sakalava,
in Madagascar:Arts De La Vie Et De La Survie (Cahiers de l’ADEIAO n.8, 1989)
One last thing worth noting is the fact that the Sakalava exponentially increased the production of this kind of funerary artifacts at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.
For a simple reason: in order to satisfy the naughty curiosity of Western tourists.
You can find a comprehensive account of the Sakalava culture on this page.
They give birth astride of a grave,
the light gleams an instant,
then it’s night once more.
(S. Beckett, Aspettando Godot)
An Italian Horror Story
Castel del Giudice, Italy. On the 5th of August 1875, a pregnant woman, indicated in the documents with the initials F. D’A., died during labor, before being able to give birth to her child. On the following day, without respecting the required minimum waiting time before interment, her body was lowered into the cemetery’s fossa carnaria. This was a kind of collective burial for the poorest classes, still common at the time in hundreds of Italian communes: it consisted in a sealed underground space, a room or a pit, where the corpses were stacked and left to rot (some inside coffins, others wrapped in simple shrouds).
For the body of F. D’A., things began to get ugly right from the start:
She had to be lowered in the pit, so the corpse was secured with a rope, but the rope broke and D’A.’s poor body fell from a certain height, her head bumping into a casket. Some people climbed down, they took D’A. and arranged her on her back upon a nearby coffin, where she laid down with a deathly pale face, her hands tied together and resting on her abdomen, her legs joined by stitched stockings. Thus, and not otherwise, D’A. was left by the participants who buried her.
But when, a couple of days later, the pit was opened again in order to bury another deceased girl, a terrible vision awaited the bystanders:
F. D’A.’s sister hurried to give a last goodbye to her dead relative, but as soon as she looked down to the place where her sister was laid to rest, she had to observe the miserable spectacle of her sister placed in a very different position from the one she had been left in; between her legs was the fetus she had given birth to, inside the grave, and together with whom she had miserably died. […] Officers immediately arrived, and found D’A.’s body lying on her left side, her face intensely strained; her hands, still tied by a white cotton ribbon, formed an arch with her arms and rested on her forehead, while pieces of white ribbon were found between her teeth […]. At the mother’s feet stood a male newborn child with his umbilical cord, showing well-proportioned and developed limbs.
Imagine the horror of the poor woman, waking up in the dark in the grip of labor pains; with her last remaining energy she had succeeded in giving birth to her child, only to die shortly after, “besieged by corpses, lacking air, assistance or food, and exhausted by the blood loss suffered during delivery“. One could hardly picture a more dreadful fate.
The case had ahuge resonance all across Italy; a trial took place at the Court of Isernia, and the town physician, the mayor and the undertaker were found guilty of two involuntary murders “aggravated by gross negligence“, sentenced to six months in jail and fined (51 liras) – but the punishment was later cut by half by the Court of Appeal of Naples in November 1877. This unprecedented reduction of penalty was harshly criticized by the Times correspondant in Italy, who observed that “the circumstances of the case, if well analyzed, show the slight value which is attached to human life in this country“; the news also appeared in the New York Times as well as in other British and American newspapers.
This story, however scary – because it is so scary – should be taken with a pinch of salt. There’s more than one reason to be careful.
First of all, the theme of a pregnant woman believed dead and giving birth in a grave was already a recurring motif in the Nineteeth Century, as taphophobia (the fear of being buried alive) reached its peak.
Folklorist Paul Barber in his Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality (1988) argues that the number of people actually buried alive was highly exaggerated in the chronicles; a stance also shared by Jan Bondeson, who in one of the most complete books on the subject, Buried Alive, shows how the large majority of nineteenth-century premature burial accounts are not reliable.
For the most part it would seem to be a romantic, decadent literary topos, albeit inspired by a danger that was certainly real in the past centuries: interpreting the signs of death was a complex and often approximate procedure, so much so that by the 1700s some treatises (the most famous one being Winslow‘s) introduced a series of measures to verify with greater accuracy the passing of a patient.
A superficial knowledge of decomposition processes could also lead to misunderstandings. When bodies were exhumed, it was not uncommon to find their position had changed; this was due to the cadaver’s natural tendency to move during decomposition, and to be sometimes subjected to small “explosions” caused by putrefaction gasses – explosions that are powerful enough to rotate the body’s upper limbs. Likewise, the marks left by rodents or other scavengers (loose dirt, scratches, bite marks, torn clothes, fallen hair) could be mistaken for the deceased person’s desperate attempts at getting out.
Yet, as we’ve said, there was a part of truth, and some unfortunate people surely ended up alive inside a coffin. Even with all our modern diagnostic tools, every now and then someone wakes up in a morgue. But these events are, today like yesterday, extremely rare, and these stories speak more about a cultural fear rather than a concrete risk.
If being buried alive was already an exceptional fact, then the chances of a pregnant woman actually giving birth inside a grave look even slimmer. But this idea – so charged with pathos it could only fascinate the Victorian sensibility – might as well have come from real observations. Opening a woman’s grave and finding a stillborn child must have looked like a definitive proof of her premature burial. What wasn’t known at the time is that the fetus can, in rare circumstances, be expelled postmortem.
Anaerobic microorganisms, which start the cadaver’s putrefactive phase, release several gasses during their metabolic activity. During this emphysematous stage, internal tissues stretch and tighten; the torso, abdomen and legs swell; the internal pressure caused by the accumulation of gas can lead, within the body of a woman in the late stages of pregnancy, to a separation of amniotic membranes, a prolapse of the uterus and a subsequent total or partial extrusion of the fetus. This event appears to be more likely if the dead woman has been pregnant before, on the account of a more elastic cervix. This strange phenomenon is called Sarggeburt (coffin birth) in early German forensic literature.
The first case of postmortem delivery dates back to 1551, when a woman hanged on the gallows released, four hours after her execution, the bodies of two twins, both dead. (A very similar episode happened in 2007 in India, when a woman killed herself during labor; in that instance, the baby was found alive and healthy.) In Brussels, in 1633, a woman died of convulsions and three days later a fetus was spontaneously expelled. The same thing happened in Weißenfels, Saxony, in 1861. Other cases are mentioned in the first medical book to address this strange event,Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine, published in 1896, but for the most part these accidents occurred when the body of the mother had yet to be buried. It was John Whitridge Williams who, in his fortunate Obstetrics: a text-book for the use of students and practitioners (1904), pointed to the possibility of postmortem delivery taking place after burial.
Fetal extrusion after the mother’s death has also been observed in recent times.
A 2005 case involved a woman who died in her apartment from acute heroine intoxication: upon finding her body, it was noted that the fetus head was protruding from the mother’s underwear; but later on, during the autopsy, the upper part of the baby’s torso was also visible – a sign that gasses had continued to build in the abdominal region, increasing interior pressure. In 2008 a 38 year-old, 7 months pregnant woman was found murdered in a field in advanced state of decomposition, accelerated by tropical climate. During the autopsy a fetus was found inside the woman’s slips, the umbilical cord still attached to the placenta (here is the forensic case study – WARNING: graphic).
Life In Death
So, going back to that unfortunate lady from Castel del Giudice, what really happened to her? Sure, the autopsy report filed at the time and quoted in the trial papers mentioned the presence of air in the baby’s lungs, a proof that the child was born alive. And it’s possible that this was the case.
But on one hand this story fits all too perfectly within a specific popular narrative of its time, whose actual statistical incidence has been doubted by scholars; on the other, the possibility of postmortem fetal extrusion is well-documented, so much so thateven archeologists sometimes struggle to interpret ancient skeletal findings showing fetuses still partially enclosed within the pelvic bone.
The only certain thing is that these stories – whether they’re authentic or made up – have an almost archetypal quality; birth and death entwined in a single place and time.
Maybe they’re so enthralling because, on a symbolic level, they remind us of a peculiar truth, one expressed in a famous verse from Manilius‘ Astronomica:
Nascentes morimur, finisque ab origine pendet.
“As we are born we die, our end commences with our beginning.”
Anatoly Moskvin, a linguist and philologist born in 1966 in Nizhny Novgorod, had earned the unquestioning respect of his fellow academics.
He fluently spoke thirteen languages, and was the author of important studies and academic papers. Great expert of Celtic folklore and of Russian funerary customs, at the age of 45 he was still living with his parents; he refrained from drinking or smoking, collected dolls and it was murmured that he was a virgin. But everybody knows that geniuses are always a little eccentric.
Yet Anatoly Moskvin was hiding a secret. A personal mission he felt he had to accomplish, driven by compassion and love, but one he knew his fellow citizens, not to mention the law, would have deemed crazy.
That very secret was to seal his fate, behind the walls of the mental institute where Anatoly Moskvin now spends his days.
Nizhny Novgorod, capital of the Volga District and the fifth Russian city, is an important cultural centre. In the surroundin areas several hundred graveyards cand be found, and in 2005 Moskvin was assigned the task of recording all the headstones: in two years he visited more than 750 cemeteries.
It was a tough job. Anatoly was forced to walk alone, sometimes for 30 km a day, facing harsh condistions. He had to spend many nights outdoors, drinking from puddles and taking shelter in the abandoned barns of the inhospitable region. One night, caught in the dark, to avoid freezing to death he found no better option than to break in the cemetery burial chamber and sleep in a coffin which was already prepared for next morning’s funeral. When at dawn the gravediggers arrived, they found him sleeping: Anatoly dashed off shouting his excuses – among the general laughter of undertakers who luckily did not chase after him.
The amount of data Mskvin gathered during this endeavour was unprecedented, and the study promised to be “unique” and “priceless”, in the words of those who followed its development. It was never published, but it served as the basis for a long series of articles on the history of Nizhny Novgorod’s cemeteries, published by Moskvin between 2006 and 2010.
But in 2011 the expert’s career ended forever, the day the police showed up to search his home.
Among the 60.000 books in is private library, stacked along the walls and on the floor, between piles of scattered paper and amidst a confusion of objects and documents, the agents found 26 strange, big dolls that gave off an unmistakable foul odor.
These were actually the mummified corpses of 26 little girls, three to 12-year-olds.
Anatoly Moskvin’s secret mission, which lasted for twenty years, had finally been discovered.
Celt druids – as well as Siberian shamans – slept on graves to communicate with the spirits of the deceased. For many years Anatoly did the same. He would lay down on the grave of a recently buried little girl, and speak with her. How are you in that tomb, little angel? Are you cold? Would you like to take a walk?
Some girls answered that they felt alright, and in that case Anatoly shared their happiness.
Other times, the child wept, and expressed the desire to come back to life.
Who would have got the heart to leave them down there, alone and frightened in the darkness of a coffin?
Anatoly studied mummification methods in his books. After exhuming the bodies, he dried them with a mixture of salt and baking soda, hiding them around the cemetery. When they dried out completely, he brought them home and dressed them, providing a bit of thickness to the shrunken limbs with layers of fabric. In some cases he built wax masks, painted with nail polish, to cover their decomposed faces; he bought wigs, bright-colored clothes in the attempt of giving back to those girls their lost beauty.
His elderly parents, who were mostly away from home, did not realize what he was doing. If their son had the hobby of building big puppets, what was wrong with that? Anatoly even disguised one of the bodies as a plush bear.
Moskvin talked to these little bodies he had turned into dolls, he bought them presents. They watched cartoons together, sang songs, held birthday parties.
But he knew this was only a temporary solution. His hope was that science would someday find a way to bring “his” girls back to life – or maybe he himself, during his academic research, could find some ancient black magic spell that would achieve the same effect. Either way, in the meantime, those little girls needed to be comforted and cuddled.
“You can’t imagine it”, said during the trial the mother of one of the girls Moskvin stole from the cemetery and mummified. ”You can’t imagine that somebody would touch the grave of your child, the most holy place in this world for you. We had been visiting the grave of our child for nine years and we had no idea it was empty. Instead, she was in this beast’s apartment. […] For nine years he was living with my mummified daughter in his bedroom. I had her for ten years, he had her for nine.”.
Anatoly replied: “You abandoned your girls in the cold – and I brought them home and warmed them up”.
Charged with desecration of graves and dead bodies, Moskvin faced up to five years in prison; but in 2012 he was declared suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, unfit to stand trial, and thus sentenced for coercitive sanitary treatment. In all probability, he will never get out of the psychiatric institute he’s held in.
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.
The island of Ischia, pearl of the Neapolitan Gulf, holds a secret.
It’s a sort of exaltation, a deviant behavior caused by the very limited living space or maybe by an instinctive desire of marking the territory: it’s the plague of frauca — the unauthorized construction, in infringement of all local building regulations.
The Ischian resident, in order to be (or to think of himself as) respected, has to build, construct, erect.
It might be just a screed, a dry stone wall, a second floor or a small living quarter for his son who’s about to get married. All rigorously unauthorized, these supplements to the house are built in disregard of those strict and suffocating rules he feels are killing his creativity; and which often force him to demolish what he so patiently constructed.
No family is without an expert in this field, and often more than one member is mastro fraucatore or mezza cucchiara (nicknames for a master builder).
But the free zone, the real no man’s land where all the islanders’ construction dreams come true is the graveyard.
To walk through the avenues of the Ischia Municipal Cemetery means to discover surprising tombs the relatives of the deceased decorated with materials found around the island: lava stones from the volcanic Mount Epomeo, polished rocks from the many beaches, sea shells and scallops; stones from the Olmitello creek or pizzi bianchi of carsic origin.
Other tombs incorporate remainings and leftovers from unauthorized constructions, such as unused bricks or decorated floor tiles.
No grave is similar to another, in this array of different materials and colors. But there is a specific niche of funeral art, reserved to those who worked as fishermen.
To honor the deceased who, during their lifetime, bravely defied the sea for the catch of the day, granting the survival and well-being of their family, a peculiar grave is built in the shape of a gozzo, the typical Ischian fishing boat.
This is a touching way of saying a last goodbye, and looking at these hand-crafted graves one cannot help but appreciate the genuine creativity of these artisans. But the tombs seem to be the ultimate, ironic redemption of the heirs of Typhon: a payback for that building urge, that longing for cement and concrete which was constantly repressed during their lifetime.