Just three days left till the end of the Bizzarro Bazar Contest. I received so many fantastic entries, which you will discover next week when the winners are announced. So if you’re among the procrastinators, hurry up and don’t forget to review the guidelines: this blog has to be explicitly mentioned/portrayed within your work.
On October 1st I will be at Teatro Bonci in Cesena for the CICAP Fest 2017 [CICAP is a skeptical educational organization.]
As this year’s edition will focus on fake news, hoaxes and post-truth, I was asked to bring along some wonders from my wunderkammer — particularly a bunch of objects that lie between truth and lies, between reality and imagination. And, just to be a bit of a rebel, I will talk about creative hoaxes and fruitful conspiracies.
As we are mentioning my collection, I wanted to share my enthusiasm for one of the last arrivals: this extraordinary work of art.
I hear you say “Well, what’s so special about it?“. Oh, you really don’t understand modern art, do you?
This picture, dated 2008, was painted by the famous artist Jomo.
Here’s Jomo as a bronze statuette, acquired along with the painting.
Exactly, you guessed it: from now on I will be able to pull the good old Pierre Brassau prank on my house guests.
I was also glad the auction proceeds for the gorilla painting went to the Toronto Zoo personnel, who daily look after these wonderful primates. By the way, the Toronto Zoo is an active member of the North American Gorilla Species Survival Plan and also works in Africa to save endangered gorillas (who I was surprised to find are facing extinction because of our cellphones).
And now let’s start with our usual selection of goodies:
She’d given me rendez-vous in a graveyard / At midnight – and I went: / Wind was howling, dark was the sky / The crosses stood white before the churchyard; / And to this pale young girl I asked: / – Why did you give me rendez-vous in a graveyard? / – I am dead, she answered, and you do not know: / Would you lay down beside me in this grave? / Many years ago I loved you, alive, / For many a year the merciless tomb sealed me off… / Cold is the ground, my beloved youth! / I am dead, she answered, and you do not know.
This is a poem by Igino Ugo Tarchetti, one of the leading figures in the Scapigliatura, the most bizarre, gothic and “maudit” of all Italian literary movements. (My new upcoming book for the Bizzarro Bazar Collection will also deal, although marginally, with the Scapigliati.)
And let’s move onto shrikes, these adorable little birds of the order of the Passeriformes.
Adorable, yet carnivore: their family name, Laniidae, comes from the Latin word for “butcher” and as a matter of fact, being so small, they need to resort to a rather cruel ploy. After attacking a prey (insects but also small vertebrates), a shrike proceeds to impale it on thorns, small branches, brambles or barbed wire, in order to immobilize it and then comfortably tear it to pieces, little by little, while often still alive — making Vlad Tepes look like a newbie.
Let’s change the subject and talk a bit about sex toys. Sexpert Ayzad compiled the definitive list of erotic novelties you should definitely NOT buy: these ultra-kitsch, completely demented and even disturbing accessories are so many that he had to break them into three articles, one, two and three. Buckle up for a descent into the most schizoid and abnormal part of sexual consumerism (obviously some pics are NSFW).
Up next, culture fetishists: people who describe themselves as “sapiosexuals”, sexually attracted by intelligence and erudition, are every nerd’s dream, every introverted bookworm’s mirage.
But, as this article suggests, choosing an intelligent partner is not really such a new idea: it has been a part of evolution strategies for millions of years. Therefore those who label themselves as sapiosexual on social networks just seem pretentious and eventually end up looking stupid. Thus chasing away anyone with even a modicum of intelligence. Ah, the irony.
Meanwhile The LondoNerD, the Italian blog on London’s secrets, has discovered a small, eccentric museum dedicated to Sir Richard Francis Burton, the adventurer whose life would be enough to fill a dozen Indiana Jones movies. [Sorry, the post is in Italian only]
Back with Bizzarro Bazar’s mix of exotic and quirky trouvailles, quite handy when it comes to entertaining your friends and acting like the one who’s always telling funny stories. Please grin knowingly when they ask you where in the world you find all this stuff.
We already talked about killer rabbits in the margins of medieval books. Now a funny video unveils the mystery of another great classic of illustrated manuscripts: snail-fighting knights. SPOILER: it’s those vicious Lumbards again.
As an expert on alternative sexualities, Ayzad has developed a certain aplomb when discussing the most extreme and absurd erotic practices — in Hunter Thompson’s words, “when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro“. Yet even a shrewd guy like him was baffled by the most deranged story in recent times: the Nazi furry scandal.
In 1973, Playboy asked Salvador Dali to collaborate with photographer Pompeo Posar for an exclusive nude photoshoot. The painter was given complete freedom and control over the project, so much so that he was on set directing the shooting. Dali then manipulated the shots produced during that session through collage. The result is a strange and highly enjoyable example of surrealism, eggs, masks, snakes and nude bunnies. The Master, in a letter to the magazine, calimed to be satisfied with the experience: “The meaning of my work is the motivation that is of the purest – money. What I did for Playboy is very good, and your payment is equal to the task.” (Grazie, Silvia!)
Speaking of photography, Robert Shults dedicated his series The Washing Away of Wrongs to the biggest center for the study of decomposition in the world, the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University. Shot in stark, high-contrast black and white as they were shot in the near-infrared spectrum, these pictures are really powerful and exhibit an almost dream-like quality. They document the hard but necessary work of students and researchers, who set out to understand the modifications in human remains under the most disparate conditions: the ever more precise data they gather will become invaluable in the forensic field. You can find some more photos in this article, and here’s Robert Shults website.
One last photographic entry. Swedish photographer Erik Simander produced a series of portraits of his grandfather, after he just became a widower. The loneliness of a man who just found himself without his life’s companion is described through little details (the empty sink, with a single toothbrush) that suddenly become definitive, devastating symbols of loss; small, poetic and lacerating touches, delicate and painful at the same time. After all, grief is a different feeling for evry person, and Simander shows a commendable discretion in observing the limit, the threshold beyond which emotions become too personal to be shared. A sublime piece of work, heart-breaking and humane, and which has the merit of tackling an issue (the loss of a partner among the elderly) still pretty much taboo. This theme had already been brought to the big screen in 2012 by the ruthless and emotionally demanding Amour, directed by Michael Haneke.
The inimitable Lindsey Fitzharris published on her Chirurgeon’s Apprenticea cute little post about surgical removal of bladder stones before the invention of anesthesia. Perfect read to squirm deliciously in your seat.
I ignore how or why things re-surface at a certain time on the Net. And yet, for the last few days (at least in my whacky internet bubble) the story of Portuguese serial killer Diogo Alves has been popping out again and again. Not all of Diogo Alves, actually — just his head, which is kept in a jar at the Faculty of Medicine in Lisbon. But what really made me chuckle was discovering one of the “related images” suggested by Google algorythms:
Remember the Tsavo Man-Eaters? There’s a very good Italian article on the whole story — or you can read the English Wiki entry. (Thanks, Bruno!)
And finally we get to the most succulent news: my old native town, Vicenza, proved to still have some surprises in store for me.
On the hills near the city, in the Arcugnano district, a pre-Roman amphitheatre has just been discovered. It layed buried for thousands of years… it could accomodate up to 4300 spectators and 300 actors, musicians, dancers… and the original stage is still there, underwater beneath the small lake… and there’s even a cave which acted as a megaphone for the actors’ voices, amplifying sounds from 8 Hz to 432 Hz… and there’s even a nearby temple devoted to Janus… and that temple was the real birthplace of Juliet, of Shakespearean fame… and there are even traces of ancient canine Gods… and of the passage of Julius Cesar and Cleopatra…. and… and…
And, pardon my rudeness, wouldn’t all this happen to be a hoax?
No, it’s not a mere hoax, it is an extraordinary hoax. A stunt that would deserve a slow, admired clap, if it wasn’t a plain fraud.
The creative spirit behind the amphitheatre is the property owner, Franco Malosso von Rosenfranz (the name says it all). Instead of settling for the traditional Italian-style unauthorized development — the classic two or three small houses secretely and illegally built — he had the idea of faking an archeological find just to scam tourists. Taking advantage of a license to build a passageway between two parts of his property, so that the constant flow of trucks and bulldozers wouldn’t raise suspicions, Malosso von Rosenfranz allegedly excavated his “ancient” theatre, with the intention of opening it to the public at the price of 40 € per visitor, and to put it up for hire for big events.
Together with the initial enthusiasm and popularity on social networks, unfortunately came legal trouble. The evidence against Malosso was so blatant from the start, that he immediately ended up on trial without any preliminary hearing. He is charged with unauthorized building, unauthorized manufacturing and forgery.
Therefore, this wonderful example of Italian ingenuity will be dismanteled and torn down; but the amphitheatre website is fortunately still online, a funny fanta-history jumble devised to back up the real site. A messy mixtre of references to local figures, famous characters from the Roman Era, supermarket mythology and (needless to say) the omnipresent Templars.
The ultimate irony is that there are people in Arcugnano still supporting him because, well, “at least now we have a theatre“. After all, as the Wiki page on unauthorized building explains, “the perception of this phenomenon as illegal […] is so thin that such a crime does not entail social reprimand for a large percentage of the population. In Italy, this malpractice has damaged and keeps damaging the economy, the landscape and the culture of law and respect for regulations“.
And here resides the brilliance of old fox Malosso von Rosenfranz’s plan: to cash in on these times of post-truth, creating an unauthorized building which does not really degrade the territory, but rather increase — albeit falsely — its heritage.
Well, you might have got it by now. I am amused, in a sense. My secret chimeric desire is that it all turns out to be an incredible, unprecedented art installations. Andthat Malosso one day might confess that yes, it was all a huge experiment to show how little we care abot our environment and landscape, how we leave our authenticarcheological wonders fall apart, and yet we are ready to stand up for the fake ones. (Thanks, Silvietta!)
In 1929, New York’s Knopf publishing house issued the book Lobagola: An Africa Savage’s Own Story. This remarkable autobiography, written by Bata Kindai Amgoza ibn LoBagola, told the adventurous and bizarre life of a “stranger in the XX Century“.
Bata LoBagola was born in West Africa, in a region of Dahomey (now Benin) so remote that it had not been yet reached by white men. Bata had his first encounter with Europeans in the last years of XIX Century when, together with some other members of his tribe, he ventured to the coast and saw a ship getting ready to set sail. When they got to the ship in a canoe, the “savages” were welcomed aboard by merchants, who for an hour or so toured them across the boat; but when the ship left the bank without warning, Bata’s friends, scared, jumped in the water and were devoured by sharks. Bata, who had been delayed under the deck, escaped that fate but had to leave for a different continent’s unknown lands. He was only seven years old.
He landed in Scotland, where he spent his adolescence under the protection of a generous benefactor, and was educated in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Almost by chance, he found out he could earn a little money in the entertainment world, simply telling about his country of origin and his people. So he started to perform in vaudevilles and small traveling shows, answering the audience’s questions and performing traditional dances. Being well-learned, intelligent and an excellent speaker, he soon became more than a simple sideshow attraction, and began being invited to speak before ethnologists and anthropologists. Traveling back and forth between Europe and the United States, LoBagola lectured at the University of Pennsylvania and at Oxford, becoming some kind of “cultural ambassador” for West Africa and of his people’s uses and customs.
To understand why audiences were so fascinated with this “savage”, we have to think about the mentality of that time. In the second half of XIX Century, intensifying colonialism had brought to the discovery of several primitive people, and simultaneously the new modern anthropology was born. On a popular level, adventure novels focusing on the exploration of virgin lands were among the most successful publications. And the insatiable desire for exotism mixed with a widespread and open racism, with the curiosity of seeing the backward primitive man with one’s own eyes; so much so that when he was invited to Philadelphia in 1911, LoBagola earned the definition of “best exhibit in the entire Museum“. As his promotional pamphlet put it, he really seemed “too refined for the primitive crudities of his tribe and too wild for sophisticated society“.
Bata Lobagola was by now a sort of celebrity, constantly touring as a cultural informant in schools and universities, but unfortunately his life took a turn for the worse. Bata had problems with alcohol and a tendency to be involved in small brawls, but the actual sword of Damocles hanging over his head was his homosexuality. Arrested several times for sodomy and minor misdemeanor, he ended up in prison for good in 1931 for petty theft and sexual crimes. The following year the Bureau of Naturalization, whose officials evidently thought something was wrong, began pressing LoBagola, eventually forcing him to confess a truth no one suspected until then.
Bata Kindai Amgoza ibn LoBagola’s real name was Joseph Howard Lee, and he was born in Baltimore, Maryland.
Not everything, in his book, was made up: Joseph Lee had probably been in Glasgow in his youth, as his pages show a certain knowledge of the town, and according to several accounts he had a slight scottish accent. But for sure his childhood had not been spent among lions and elephants — much as it was certain that lions and elephants did not “team up”, as he had written in a creative page of his book, to hunt down humans.
If some readers, who were familiar with West Africa, had realized by the time his false autobiography appeared that his descriptions were pure fantasy, University professors never started to doubt his version. All the most curious if we consider that in the same book the idea is candidly suggested that one could tell anything about Africa to white men, and they would believe it.
Racial discrimination can be considered one of the factors behind LoBagola’s false identity: since 1907, pretending to be a savage ensured him certain privileges that paradoxically he wouldn’t had been able to attain as an afroamerican. He died in 1947 in Attica maximum security prison, where the most dangerous criminals of the time were detained.
But his strange fraud had an excellent predecessor.
George Psalmanazar appeared in London in 1703, declaring to be native of Formosa (Taiwan), at the time a faraway island of which very little was known. Psalmanazar had astonishing habits: he only ate raw, cardamom-spiced meat, he slept sitting upright in a chair, performed complex every-day rituals to honor the Sun and Moon, and followed an unknown calendar. And his tales of his native land were fabulous and cruel — particularly his descriptions of the annual ritual sacrifices of 18.000 young boys, culminating in cannibalism.
George Psalmanazar was invited to talk about Formosan culture in the most important intellectual clubs, and even lectured before the Royal Society.
In 1704 he published An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, an Island subject to the Emperor of Japan, a book which immediately had enormous success and several reprints. Everywhere Formosa was the talk of the day: readers and intellectuals were fascinated by the accounts of these savages who only wore a golden plate to cover their genitals, who dwelled in underground homes feeding on snakes, and occasionally eating human flesh. Besides reporting on Formosa’s customs and traditions, Psalmanazar also detailed language and alphabet, so convincingly that many german grammars went on including this information even decades after the hoax had been confessed.
In 1706, facing growing skepticism and the accounts of those travelers who had actually been to Formosa, Psalmanazar had to drop the mask: he actually was born in France, was educated by Jesuits, and his only talents were a huge knowledge and an uncommon attitude for languages. So much so that he succeded in constructing one from scratch, to support his lies and reach fame.
Before dying in 1763, he wrote a second book of memoirs, published posthumously, where he uncovered some details about the creation of his hoax. But not even in this last autobiography did he reveal his true name, which today still remains a mystery.
In spite of his last years’ religious convertion and his remorse for the scam, Psalmanazar’s work is now regarded as a small masterpiece of ingenuity. Besides a functioning language, the author gave his fantastic island a history, cults and traditions, even several different coins and over precise ceremonial outfits, and today his fresco seems to anticipate, on the account of its obsessive care for detail, some modern literary constructions (think of Tolkien’s appendices about his imaginary Middle Earth’s genealogy, linguistics, botany, etc.).
But there’s more, as historian Benjamin Breen writes:
As I devoured the immense creativity on display in Description of Formosa, it occurred to me that Psalmanazar was also telling us something fundamental about the origins of modernity. The world of seafarers, merchants, slaves, and transported criminals that created Europe’s overseas empires was built upon elaborate fictions, from Prester John to Jonathan Swift. Although the scale and singularity of his deception made him unique, Psalmanazar was also representative: while he was inventing tales of Formosan cannibalism, his peers were writing falsified histories of pirate utopias, parodic accounts of islands populated by super-intelligent horses, and sincere descriptions of demonic sacrifices.
These works raised profound questions about the nature of truth and fiction. Is the act of travel also an act of authorship, of inventing a reality that we each filter through our individual preconceptions? How do we understand worlds that differ so fundamentally from our own that they almost seem to be other planets?
In 1964 the Gallerie Christinae in Göteborg, Sweden, held an exhibition of young avantgarde painters.
Among the works of these promising artists from Italy, Austria, Denmark, England and Sweden, were also four abstract paintings by the french Pierre Brassau. His name was completely unknown to the art scene, but his talents looked undisputable: this young man, although still a beginner, really seemed qualified to become the next Jackson Pollock — so much so that since the opening, his paintings stole the attention from all other featured works.
Journalists and art critics were almost unanimous in considering Pierre Brassau the true revelation of Gallerie Christinae’s exhibit. Rolf Anderberg, a critic for the Posten, was particularly impressed and penned an article, published the next day, in which he affirmed: “Brassau paints with powerful strokes, but also with clear determination. His brush strokes twist with furious fastidiousness. Pierre is an artist who performs with the delicacy of a ballet dancer“.
As should be expected, in spite of the general enthusiasm, there was also the usual skeptic. One critic, making a stand, defiantly declared: “only an ape could have done this“.
There will always be somebody who must go against the mainstream. And, even if it’s hard to admit, in doing so he sometimes can be right.
Pierre Brassau, in reality, was actually a monkey. More precisely a four-year-old African chimpanzee living in the Borås Zoo.
Showing primate’s works in a modern art exhibition was Åke “Dacke” Axelsso’s idea, as he was at the time a journalist for the daily paper Göteborgs-Tidningen. The concept was not actually new: some years before, Congo the chimp had become a celebrity because of his paintings, which fascinated Picasso, Miro and Dali (in 2005 Congo’s works were auctioned for 14.400 punds, while in the same sale a Warhol painting and a Renoir sculpture were withdrawn).
Thus Åke decided to challenge critics in this provocative way: behind the humor of the prank was not (just) the will to ridicule the art establishment, but rather the intention of raising a question that would become more and more urgent in the following years: how can we judge an abstract art piece, if it does not contain any figurative element — or if it even denies that any specific competence is needed to produce art?
Åke had convinced the zoo keeper, who was then 17 years old, to provide a chimp named Peter with brushes and canvas. In the beginning Peter had smeared the paint everywhere, except on the canvas, and even ate it: he had a particularly sweet tooth, it is said, for cobalt blue — a color which will indeed be prominently featured in his later work. Encouraged by the journalist, the primate started to really paint, and to enjoy this creative activity. Åke then selected his four best paintings to be shown at the exhibit.
Even when the true identity of mysterious Pierre Brassau was revealed, many critics stuck by their assessment, claiming the monkey’s paintings were better than all the others at the gallery. What else could they say?
The happiest person, in this little scandal, was probably Bertil Eklöt, a private collector who had bought a painting by the chimpanzee for $90 (about $7-800 today). Perhaps he just wanted to own a curious piece: but now that painting could be worth a fortune, as Pierre Brassau’s story has become a classic anecdote in art history. And one that still raises the question on whether works of art are, as Rilke put it, “of an infinite solitude, and no means of approach is so useless as criticism“.
The first international press article on Brassau appeared on Time magazine. Other info taken from this post by Museum of Hoaxes.
But Nino don’t be afraid of missing a penalty kick
One does not become a good player
On the account of these details
You can tell a good player from his courage,
His selflessness, his creativity.
(F. De Gregori, La leva calcistica della classe ’68, 1982)
Carlos Henrique Raposo, a.k.a. “Kaiser”, active in the Eighties and Nineties, played in eleven soccer teams, such as Vasco da Gama, Flamengo, Fluminense and Botafogo in Brazil, Ajaccio in Corsica and Puebla in Messico.
Eleven professional clubs, and zero goals scored in his whole career.
Yes, because Carlos Henrique Raposo, a.k.a. “Kaiser”, pretended to be a player. And in reality he was an illusionist.
Born in 1963 in a poor family, as many other Brazilian kids Carlos dreamed of a redemption made of luxury and success. He had tried to become a soccer player, without any major result: yet he had the right muscular and powerful build, so much so that he was often mistaken for a professional soccer player. Around his twenties, Carlos clearly understood his mission: “I wanted to be a player, without having to play“.
Therefore, he decided to trust his courage, selflessness and creativity.
Carlos “Kaiser” certainly had the nerve. As a nightlife aficionado and regular clubber in Rio, he managed to bond with a series of famous soccer players (Romário, Edmundo, Bebeto, Renato Gaúcho and Ricardo Rocha who later called him “the greatest conman in Brazilian football“); he offered his favors and used his connections to organize parties and meetings. In return, he began asking to be included as a makeweight in his friends’ transfer deals.
It’s importanto to keep in mind that in the mid-Eighties the internet did not exist, and it was quite difficult to find information on a new player: Carlos was enthusiastically presented by great players vouching for him, who granted him with his first professional contract (for a three-month trial) in the Botafogo club. And thus began his career, always behind the front line but nonetheless enjoying relatively high wages, and an incredible fiction which lasted more than twenty years.
First of all, it was essential for Carlos to earn his teammates’ unconditional trust, their cover and benevolence.
“As soon as I knew which hotel we would be staying in, I went there two or three days beforehand. I rented rooms for ten ladies in that hotel, so that instead of sneaking away at night, my teammates and I could simply walk down the stairs to have some fun“.
Another important step was ensuring to have some newspaper article backing up his non-existing talents. Again, that was not a problem for the “Kaiser”, thanks to his socialite connections: “I have an incredible aptitude for making friends with people. I knew several journalists very well at the time, and treated them all kindly. A little gift, some insider information could come in handy, and in return they wrote about the ‘great soccer player’ “.
Once he obtained a contract, leaning on other players’ transfer negotiations, the second part of Carlos’ plan kicked off: how could he manage to remain in the team without the coach realizing that he wasn’t even able to kick a ball? The solution Carlos came up with was simple yet brilliant – he had to gain as much time as possible.
He started by saying he was out of shape, and that he needed to follow a special workout program with a mysterious personal trainer. He then spent the first two or three weeks running along the sidelines, without participating in the team’s exercises. After that, when he could no longer postpone his presence in the field, he asked a teammate to make an irregular entrance on him during a training game and to inflict him a (not too serious) injury. Sometimes he didn’t even need outside help, he just pretended to sprain his muscle, an injury which was difficult to verify in those years: “I preformed some strange moves during the training, I touched my muscle and then stayed in the infirmary for 20 days or so. There was no MRI at the time. Days went by, but I had a dentist friend who certified I had physical health problems. And so, months went by…”
In this way, scoring zero minutes of playing time during each season, he jumped from team to team. “I always signed the Risk Contract, the shortest one, normally for a six-month period. I received the bonus, and went straight to infirmary“. To enhance his great player image, he often showed up talking in English through a huge cellular phone (a true status symbol, back then), presumably to some foreign manager offering him some outstanding deal. Unfortunately his broken English conversations made no sense whatsoever, and his cellphone was in fact a toy phone.
When he went back to Brazil, in the Bangu team, Carlos’ hoax almost collapsed. The coach, taking him by surprise, decided to summon him for the sunday match and around the half of the second time he told him to warm up. Given the dangerous situation, and the forthcoming disaster a debut would entail, Carlos reacted with an exceptional stunt: all of a sudden, he started a fight with an opposing team’s supporter. He got immediately expelled from the game. When in the locker room the coach furiously approached him, he pretended like he acted on behalf of the coach himself: “God gave me a father and then took him away from me. Now that God has given me a second father, I can’t allow anyone to insult him“. The incident ended with the coach kissing him on his forehead, and renewing his contract.
He had another stroke of genius at the time of his debut in the Ajaccio club, in Corsica, France. The new Brazilian soccer player was greeted by the supporters with unexpected enthusiasm: “the stadium was small, but crowded with people, everywhere I looked. I thought I just had to show up and cheer, but then I saw many balls on the field and I understood we would be training. I was nervous, they would realize I was not able to play on my first day”. So Carlos decided to play the last trump, trying yet another one of his tricks. He entered the playing field, and began kicking each and every ball, sending them over to the gallery, waving his hand and kissing his shirt. The supporters went into raptures, and of course never threw back the precious balls, which had been touched by the publicised champion’s foot. Once out of balls, the team had to engage in a strictly physical training, which Carlos could manage to do without problem.
Reality and lies
After leaving Guarany, aged 39, Carlos Henrique Raposo retired having played approximately 20 games – all of which ended with an injury – in approximately 20 years of professional career (the numbers are a little hazy). But he came away with a wonderful story to tell.
And here’s the only problem: practically every major anecdote about this intentionally misleading stunt comes from no other than Kaiser himself. Sure enough, his colleagues confirm the image of a young man who made up for his lack of ability with immense self-assurance and cockiness: “he is a great friend, an exquisite person. Too bad that he doesn’t even know how to play cards. He had a problem with the ball, I did not see him play in any team, ever. He told you stories about games and matches, but he never played even on Sunday afternoon in Maracanà, I can tell you that! In a lying contest against Pinocchio, Kaiser would win“, Richardo Rocha declared.
So, why should we believe this Pinocchio when he comes out of nowhere and tell us his “truth”?
Maybe because it feels good to do so. Maybe because the story of a “man without qualities”, a Mr. Nobody who pretends to be a champion, cheating big soccer corporations (which are frequently nowadays amid market scandals) is some kind of a revenge by proxy, that has many soccer aficionados grinning. Maybe because his incredible story, on a human level, could come straight out of a movie.
In the meantime, Carlos shows absolutely no regrets: “if I had been more dedicated, I could have gone further in the game“.
Not in the soccer game, of course, but in his game of illusion.
The Prince, just like a sorcerer, is stirring the preparation in a big cauldron. Eventually, the long-awaited reaction takes place: a mysterious liquid is ready. On the other side of the room, the two bound and gagged servants can’t even scream anymore. The man is sobbing, while the woman, even immobilized, stays vigilant and alert — perhaps the new life she carries in her womb prevents her from giving in to fear, commanding an already impossible defense. The Prince hasn’t got much time, he has to act quickly. He pours the liquid down a strange pump, then he gets close to his victims: in their eyes he sees an unnameable terror. He starts with the man, puncturing the jugular vein and injecting the liquid right into his bloodstream with a syringe. The heart will pump the preparation throughout the body, and the Prince watches the agonizing man’s face as the dense poison begins to circulate. There, it’s all done: the servant is dead. It will take two to three hours for the mixture to solidify, and surely more than a month for the putrified flesh to fall off the skeleton and the network of veins, arteries and capillaries the process turned into marble.
Now it’s the woman’s turn.
What you just read is the legend surrounding the two “anatomical machines” still visible in the Underground Chamber of the Sansevero Chapel. According to this story, Prince Raimondo di Sangro created them by sacrifying the life of his servants in order to obtain an exact representation of the vascular system. to an otherwise impossible to achieve level of accuracy. Even Benedetto Croce mentioned the legend in his Storie e leggende napoletane (1919): “with the pretext of a minor fault, he had two of his servants killed, a man and a woman, and their bodies weirdly embalmed so that they showed all their internal viscera, the arteries and veins, and kept them locked in a closet…“. The two “machines” are in fact a man and a woman (pregnant, even if the fetus was stolen in the Sixties), their skeletons still wrapped in the thick net of circulatory apparatus.
How were the “machines” really built?
The answer is maybe less exciting but also less cruel than legend has it: they were created through great expertise and great patience. And not by Raimondo di Sangro himself: in fact, the Prince commissioned this work in 1763-64 to Giuseppe Salerno, a physician from Palermo, providing for the iron wire and wax necessary to the construction, and gratifying the Sicilian artist with a nice pension for the rest of his life. If the skeletons are undoubtedly authentic, the whole vascular system was recreated using wire, which was then wrapped up in silk and later imbued in a peculiar mix of pigmented beewax and varnish, allowing the wire to be manipulated, bent in every direction and acting as a shock-absorbant material during transportation.
Giuseppe Salerno was not the only person to build such “machines”, for as early as 1753 and 1758 in Palermo a doctor called Paolo Graffeo had already presented a similar couple of anatomical models, complete with a 4-month-old fetus.
The “black” legend about servants mercilessly killed stems from the figure of Raimondo di Sangro, whose life and work — just like the Sammartino’s Christ we talked about in our previous article — seem to be covered by a veil, albeit a symbolic one.
An extraordinary intellectual and inventor, chemistry, physics and technology enthusiast, Raimondo di Sangro was always regarded as suspisious because of his Freemasonry and alchemic interests, so much so that he became some sort of devil in popular fantasy.
At the dawn of science, in the middle of XVIII Century, rationalism had yet to abandon alchemic symbology: alchemists obviously worked on concrete matter (chemistry will later grow from these very researches), but every procedure or preparation was also interpreted according to different metaphysical readings. Raimondo di Sangro claimed he invented tens of contraptions, such as a folding stage, a color typography, a sea chariot, hydraulic machines and alchemic marbles, fireproof paper and waterproof tissues, and even a much-celebrated “eternal candle”; but all the information about these creations come from his own Lettera apologetica, published in 1750, and some scholars maintain that these very inventions, whether they really existed or not, should be interpreted as symbols of the Prince’s alchemic research. Accordingly, the originary placement of the “anatomical machines”, inside the Phoenix Apartment on a revolving platform, looks like a symbolic choice: maybe Raimondo di Sangro thought of them as a depiction of the rubedo, a stage in the search for the philosopher’s stone in which matter recomposes itself, granting immortality.
Today, the two “machines” still amaze scholars for their realism and accuracy, and they prove that in the XVIII Century an almost perfect knowledge of the circulatory system had already been reached. Modern versions of these models, created through injection of sylicon polymers (this time on real cadavers), can be seen throughout the well-known Body Worlds exhibitions coordinated by Gunther Von Hagens, the inventor of plastination.
Here is some more info (in Italian): an article on the Prince buying the machines; an in-depth analysis of his inventions’ esoteric symbolism; an essay on Raimondo di Sangro in reference to his relationship with Free Masonry. And, of course, the Sansevero Chapel Museum website.
If you have never fallen victim to the Stendhal syndrome, then you probably have yet to visit the Cappella Sansevero in Naples.
The experience is hard to describe. Entering this space, full to the brim with works of art, you might almost feel assaulted by beauty, a beauty you cannot escape, filling every detail of your field of vision. The crucial difference here, in respect to any other baroque art collection, is that some of the works exposed inside the chapel do not offer just an aesthetic pleasure, but hinge on a second, deeper level of emotion: wonder.
Some of these are seemingly “impossible” sculptures, much too elaborate and realistic to be the result of a simple chisel, and the gracefulness of shapes is rendered with a technical dexterity that is hard to conceive.
The Release from Deception (Il Disinganno), is, for example, an astounding sculpted group: one could spend hours admiring the intricate net, held by the male figure, and wonder how Queirolo was able to extract it from a single marble block.
The Chastity (La Pudicizia) by Corradini, with its drapery veiling the female character as if it was transparent, is another “mystery” of sculpting technique, where the stone seems to have lost its weight, becoming ethereal and almost floating. Imagine how the artist started his work from a squared block of marble, how his mind’s eye “saw” this figure inside of it, how he patiently removed all which didn’t belong, freeing the figure from the stone little by little, smoothing the surface, refining, chiselling every wrinkle of her veil.
But the attention is mostly drawn by the most famous art piece displayed in the chapel, the Veiled Christ.
This sculpture has fascinated visitors for two and a half centuries, astounding artists and writers (from the Marquis de Sade to Canova), and is considered one of the world’s best sculpted masterpieces.
Completed in 1753 by Giuseppe Sanmartino and commissioned by Raimondo di Sangro, it portrays Christ deposed after crucifixion, covered by a transparent veil. This veil is rendered with such subtlety as to be almost deceiving to the eye, and the effect seen in person is really striking: one gets the impression that the “real” sculpture is lying underneath, and that the shroud could be easily grabbed and lifted.
It’s precisely because of Sanmartino’s extraordinary virtuosity in sculpting the veil that a legend surrounding this Christ dies hard – fooling from time to time even specialized magazines and otherwise irreproachable art websites.
Legend has it that prince Raimondo di Sangro, who commissioned the work, actually fabricated the veil himself, laying it down over Sanmartino’s sculpture and petrifying it with an alchemic method of his own invention; hence the phenomenal liquidness of the drapery, and the “transparence” of the tissue.
This legend keeps coming back, in the internet era, thanks to articles such as this:
The news is the recent discovery that the veil is not made of marble, as was believed until now, but of fine cloth, marbled through an alchemic procedure by the Prince himself, so that it became a whole with the underlying sculpture. In the Notarial Archives, the contract between Raimondo di Sangro and Sanmartino regarding the statue has been found. In it, the sculptor commits himself to deliver “a good and perfect statue depicting Our Lord dead in a natural pose, to be shown inside the Prince’s gentilitial church”. Raimondo di Sangro binds himself, in addition to supplying the marble, “to make a Shroud of weaved fabric, which will be placed over the sculpture; after this, the Prince will manipulate it through his own inventions; that is, coating the veil with a subtle layer of pulverized marble… until it looks like it’s sculpted with the statue”. Sammartino also commits to “never reveal, after completing the statue, the Prince’s method for making the shroud that covers the statue”. With this amazing contract, comes another document describing the recipe for powdered marble. If the two documents unequivocally prove the limits of Sammartino’s skills, they also show the alchemic genius of Sansevero, who put his expertise at the service of the hermetic doctrine, realizing one of the most important mysteric images of christian symbolism, that Holy Shroud Jesus was wrapped in, after he died on the cross.
Digging a bit deeper, it looks like this “sensational” discovery is not even recent, but goes back to the Eighties. It was made by neapolitan researcher Clara Miccinelli, who became interested in Raimondo di Sangro after being contacted by his spirit during a seance. Miccinelli published a couple of books, in 1982 and 1984, centered on the enigmatic figure of the Prince, freemason and alchemist, a character depicted in folklore as both a mad scientist and a genius.
The document Miccinelli found in the Archives is actually a fake. Here is what the Sansevero Chapel Museum has to say about it:
The document […], transcribed and published by Clara Miccinelli, is unanimously considered nonauthentic by scholars. In particular, a very accurate analysis of the document was conducted by Prof. Rosanna Cioffi, who in note 107, page 147 of her book “La Cappella Sansevero. Arte barocca e ideologia massonica” (sec. ed., Salerno 1994) lists and discusses as much as nine reasons – frankly inconfutable – for which the document cannot be held to be authentic (from the absence of watermark on the paper, to the handwriting being different from every other deed compiled by notary Liborio Scala, to the fact that the sheet of paper is loose and not included in the volume collecting all the deeds for the year 1752, to the notary’s “signum” which just in this document is different from all the other deeds, etc.). […] There are on the other hand certainly authentic documents, that can be consulted freely and publicly, in the Historic Archive of the Banco di Napoli, unearthed by Eduardo Nappi and published on different occasions: from a negotiable instrument dated December 16 1752, in which Raimondo di Sangro describes the statue in the making as “a statue of Our Lord being dead, and covered with a veil from the same marble”, to the payment of 30 ducats (as a settlment of 500 ducats) on February 13 1754, in which the Prince of Sansevero unequivocally describes the Christ as being “covered with a transparent shroud of the same marble”. All this without taking into account one of the Prince’s famous letters to Giraldi on the “eternal light”, published for the first time in May 1753 in “Novelle Letterarie” in Florence, in which he thus talks about the Christ: “the marble statue of Our Lord Jesus Christ being dead, wrapped in a transparent veil of the same marble, but executed with such expertise as to fool the most accurate observers”. […]
All the documentary evidence, therefore, points to one conclusion: the Veiled Christ is a work entirely made of marble. To settle things once and for all, there was eventually a scientific non-invasive analysis conducted by the company “Ars Mensurae”, which concluded that the only material present in this work is marble. The analysis report was published in 2008 in: S. Ridolfi, “Analisi di materiale lapideo tramite sistema portatile di Fluorescenza X: il caso del ‘Cristo Velato’ nella Cappella Sansevero di Napoli”. […]
We believe that the fact that Sanmartino’s Christ is entirely made from marble only adds charm […] to the work.
Miccinelli has subsequently found in her home a chest containing an incredible series of Jesuit manuscripts which completely overturn the whole precolonial history of Andean civilizations as we know it. The “case” has divided the ethnological community, even jeopardizing accademic relationships with Peru (see this English article), as many italian specialists believe the documents to be authentic, whereas by the majority of Anglosaxon and South American scholars they are considered artfully constructed fakes. The harsh debate did not discourage Miccinelli, who just can’t seem to be able to open a drawer without discovering some rare unpublished work: in 1991 it was the turn of an original writing by Dumas, which enabled her to decrypt the alchemical symbologies of the Count of Monte Cristo.
The second part of this article is dedicated to another legend surrounding the Sansevero Chapel, namely the one regarding the two “anatomical machines” preserved in the Underground Chamber. You can read it here.
Una sera imprecisata del 1907, nel lussuoso centro sportivo londinese di King Street, Covent Garden. Due fra gli uomini più ricchi del mondo – fra una sbuffata di sigaro, e una puntata sull’incontro di boxe a cui stavano assistendo – discutevano di una questione piuttosto singolare. L’argomento di discussione era se fosse possibile per un uomo attraversare il mondo intero senza mai essere identificato.
Hugh Cecil Lowther, quinto conte di Lonsdale, era convinto che l’impresa fosse attuabile; il suo interlocutore, il finanziere americano John Pierpont Morgan, sosteneva il contrario. Quest’ultimo, nella foga, si disse disposto a scommettere ben 100.000 dollari, equivalenti a diversi milioni di euro in valuta odierna: era forse la più grande somma mai scommessa nella storia. Lì vicino, ad ascoltarli, stava un gentleman inglese di nome Harry Bensley, celebre donnaiolo e viveur, mantenuto da una costante rendita di circa 5.000 sterline l’anno grazie ai suoi investimenti in Russia. A lui, quei soldi fecero subito gola, ma soprattutto lo attirò la bizzarra avventura che la sfida sembrava promettere. Così, interrompendo l’accalorata discussione, annunciò che accettava la scommessa del magnate americano.
Harry Bensley, sulla sinistra.
I termini della prova furono messi nero su bianco. Bensley avrebbe dovuto soddisfare ben 15 condizioni, che lo costringevano a viaggiare mascherato, spingendo una carrozzella per bambini, attraversando 169 città inglesi, e 125 città in 18 nazioni differenti in giro per il mondo – tra cui Irlanda, Canada, Stati Uniti, Sud America, Nuova Zelanda, Australia, Sud Africa, Giappone, Cina, India, Egitto, Italia, Francia, Spagna, Portogallo, Belgio, Germania e Olanda. Doveva cominciare il suo viaggio investendo esclusivamente una sterlina in materiale “pubblicitario”, cioè fotografie, dépliant e pamphlet, da vendere durante il suo girovagare: non avrebbe potuto avere altra fonte di reddito oltre al ricavato di quelle foto per tutta la durata della sfida. Anche i vestiti erano limitati ad un unico cambio e, per rendere le cose ancora più complicate, durante il viaggio avrebbe dovuto perfino ammogliarsi – trovare, cioè, una donna disposta a sposarlo senza conoscere la sua vera identità.
Così, il primo gennaio del 1908, all’età di 31 anni, Harry Bensley si presentò sul luogo indicato dal contratto, a Trafalgar Square, indossando un elmo di ferro da armatura e spingendo un passeggino che conteneva i suoi vestiti e il materiale pubblicitario: al suo fianco, il “garante” (chiamato The Minder) che l’avrebbe accompagnato durante l’intera epopea, per assicurarsi che le condizioni della scommessa venissero rispettate. La folla esultante lo acclamò, visto che la notizia della incredibile impresa si era già sparsa ovunque; e così accadde anche nelle tappe successive del viaggio – tutti acquistavano le fotografie, c’era chi lasciava delle offerte, praticamente i soldi gli piovevano addosso.
Talmente tanti soldi, in realtà, che ad un certo punto Bensley venne arrestato per vendita di cartoline senza permesso a Bexley Heath, Kent; arrivato in tribunale con il suo elmo, Harry spiegò al giudice i termini della scommessa e, grazie alla benevolenza di costui, per la prima volta nella storia si svolse un processo in totale anonimità dell’imputato. Giudicato colpevole, sotto il nome di “Uomo nella Maschera di Ferro”, venne condannato a una multa di una dozzina di sterline, e gli venne permesso di continuare il suo viaggio.
Altri gustosi aneddoti raccontano di come una cameriera si nascose sotto il letto della camera di Bensley nel tentativo di svelare la sua identità e guadagnarsi le 1.000 sterline messe in palio da un giornale, ma venne scoperta in tempo; e di come lo stesso Re Edoardo VII, divertito, chiese perfino un autografo al misterioso “cavaliere”, che rifiutò per ovvie ragioni di privacy…
Anche le offerte di matrimonio non mancavano: Harry disse di averne ricevute più di 200, da nobildonne provenienti dall’Europa, dall’Australia e dall’America. Le rifiutò tutte.
Dopo sei anni, l’impresa procedeva con immenso successo: Bensley aveva già visitato 12 paesi, e avrebbe molto probabilmente vinto la scommessa, se non fosse incappato in un tragico imprevisto: la Prima Guerra Mondiale. Arrivato a Genova, infatti, ricevette un infausto telegramma in cui il finanziere americano Morgan gli comunicava che la sfida era da considerarsi conclusa. Egli temeva che la Guerra avrebbe messo a repentaglio il suo impero economico e, non avendo certo voglia di perdere soldi in maniera frivola, si ritirò dalla scommessa. Nonostante gli fossero state riconosciute 4.000 sterline di ricompensa, Bensley fu devastato dalla notizia. Rabbioso e deluso, donò tutto il ricavato in beneficenza; tornò in patria, si arruolò nel 1915, combattè per un anno al fronte prima di rimanere ferito ed essere rispedito a casa.
I suoi investimenti finanziari in Russia crollarono in seguito alla Rivoluzione, ed egli tirò a campare facendo la maschera nei cinema, il guardiano d’hotel, e più tardi lavorando in una fabbrica di armamenti fino alla sua morte, avvenuta il 21 maggio 1956 all’età di 79 anni. L’elmo e la carrozzina, conservati in soffitta, non furono mai più ritrovati.
Questa è la storia ufficiale del viaggiatore mascherato, così come è raccontata sul sito del pronipote (illegittimo) di Bensley, che però avanza qualche dubbio. Secondo quanto si racconta nella sua famiglia, le cose sarebbero andate molto diversamente: dopo una notte di gioco d’azzardo in continua perdita, Bensley avrebbe puntato l’intera sua fortuna (investimenti in Russia compresi) su una sola carta… e avrebbe perso.
Gli altri giocatori, cioè proprio il Conte di Lonsdale e J. P. Morgan, impietositi, avrebbero “commutato” questo debito in una sorta di farsesco contrappasso dantesco. Il dongiovanni avrebbe dovuto imparare a fare a meno del suo fascino, coprendosi il volto; il damerino abituato alla bella vita avrebbe dovuto campare con una sterlina sola, spingendo una carrozzina a elemosinare in giro per il mondo, con un unico cambio di vestiti. Gli fu consentito, per salvaguardare quel briciolo di onore che gli rimaneva, di far passare questa punizione per una impresa eroica – ma si trattava in realtà di una vera e propria beffa, un dileggio conosciuto a pochi insider, che sanciva di fatto la sua uscita dal circolo del bel mondo londinese.
Ma attenzione, perché ora viene il bello. Tutto quello che avete appena letto, sia la versione “ufficiale” che quella “segreta”, potrebbe non essere mai accaduto.
Negli scorsi anni, infatti, sono emersi nuovi dettagli che delineano una storia dai risvolti molto più ambigui: pare che del fantomatico uomo mascherato si fossero perse le tracce già dall’autunno del 1908, poco dopo l’inizio della sfida. I discendenti di Bensley, che hanno dato vita al sito internet proprio per racimolare informazioni sul loro antenato, ammettono che non vi sia alcuna prova che egli abbia mai lasciato l’Inghilterra.
La sfida, quindi, non sarebbe stata completata? E allora, le 4.000 sterline vinte da Bensley e da lui donate in beneficenza?
Davvero difficile che il magnate J. P. Morgan abbia potuto decidere di versare quella somma nell’agosto del 1914, come racconta la storia ufficiale, visto che era morto l’anno prima.
Nel dicembre del 1908, su un giornale chiamato Answers to Correspondents on Every Subject under the sun, veniva posta la fatidica domanda: ma dove diavolo è finito l’uomo con la maschera di ferro? Poco dopo alla testata arrivò una lettera, pubblicata il 19 dicembre, da parte di un uomo che sosteneva di essere, per l’appunto, l’uomo mascherato.
Nella lunga lettera, l’anonimo confessava che la scommessa, la sfida e il viaggio intorno al mondo non erano altro che un’elaborata bufala, studiata meticolosamente mentre egli stava scontando una condanna in prigione. L’ispirazione, raccontava, gli era arrivata da un libro sulla celeberrima e misteriosa figura della Maschera di Ferro incarcerata alla Bastiglia: aveva così preso forma l’idea di spostarsi di città in città indossando l’elmo per attirare l’attenzione delle folle, dando risonanza alle sue apparizioni mediante la finta storia della scommessa fra i due milionari (ignari di tutto). Una volta uscito di galera, l’uomo era però senza il becco d’un quattrino: con la complicità di un tedesco conosciuto in cella, che si sarebbe finto “garante” della scommessa, aveva quindi raggirato i primi ignari finanziatori con la promessa di futuri dividendi, riuscendo ad acquistare l’elmo, il passeggino e il lotto iniziale di fotografie da vendere. Quanto al matrimonio, che secondo le “condizioni” egli avrebbe dovuto contrarre durante il viaggio, non c’era problema: egli era già sposato, e pronto a far spuntare sua moglie al momento opportuno come parte della messinscena.
La truffa aveva funzionato: fin dal primo giorno la risposta della gente era stata sensazionale. Anche la parte relativa al giudice che gli permetteva di tenere l’elmo in un’aula di tribunale era veritiera: egli era stato davvero processato anonimamente, grazie alla fama della sua “sfida”.
Ma l’arzigogolato inganno gli si era presto ritorto contro: dopo dieci mesi in cammino, senza mai lasciare la Gran Bretagna, indossando continuamente l’elmo e spingendo una carrozzina di 50 chili per quasi 4.000 chilometri, la sua salute era peggiorata. “Gli occhi mi bruciavano, e soffrivo di tremende emicranee. In diverse occasioni svenni sul bordo della strada, e in alcuni casi fui confinato a letto per due o tre giorni di fila.” Ad un certo punto, sfinito, il truffatore aveva gettato la spugna, e si era dileguato. La lettera ad Answers era, in un certo senso, l’ultimo atto della recita, in cui l’attore calava (figuratamente, e concretamente) la maschera divenuta troppo pesante. Non rinunciando però ad un ultimo moto d’orgoglio: “posso affermare, senza tema d’esser contraddetto, che mi sono guadagnato il viaggio, e ho mantenuto me stesso, mia moglie, e il mio assistente, i cavalli e gli inservienti che ho impiegato, interamente con la vendita delle mie cartoline e pamphlet, e che non ho ricevuto nulla sotto forma di carità sin dal primo giorno del mio itinerario“.
Questa confessione è quasi certamente opera di Bensley, visto che i fatti citati dall’anonimo autore coincidono con un elemento chiave scoperto di recente (e passato sotto silenzio sul poco aggiornato sito dei discendenti, forse più interessati alla leggenda): nel 1904, egli era stato effettivamente processato per truffa e condannato a quattro anni di carcere.
L’allora ventinovenne Bensley era descritto dai giornali come un semplice manovale, figlio di un operaio di una segheria: un imbroglione qualunque, che si era fatto prestare dei soldi con la promessa di una favolosa eredità pronta per essere riscattata.
E, nella storia delle truffe, Bensley sarebbe rimasto del tutto anonimo, se la sua fantasia non si fosse scatenata proprio con l’idea dell’Uomo nella Maschera di Ferro. Il progetto di fingersi un gentleman facoltoso impegnato in una pittoresca ed eccentrica scommessa mostrava senza dubbio un guizzo di straordinaria inventiva. Si trattava di una truffa giocata sul meccanismo dell’esagerazione: “se è così assurdo – era indotta a pensare la gente – deve per forza essere vero”.
Peccato che quegli stessi dettagli strampalati (l’elmo, la carrozzina, gli spostamenti a piedi) si fossero presto rivelati il punto debole del piano, facendo finire il gioco prima del previsto.
Il 19 novembre 1726 un breve ma insolito articolo apparve sul Weekly Journal, giornale inglese:
“Da Guildford ci arriva una strana ma ben testimoniata notizia. Che una povera donna che vive a Godalmin, vicino alla città, è stata il mese scorso aiutata da Mr. John Howard, Eminente Chirurgo e Ostetrico, a partorire una creatura che assomigliava ad un coniglio, ma con cuore e polmoni cresciuti fuori dal torace, 14 giorni dopo che lo stesso medico le aveva fatto partorire un coniglio perfettamente formato; e pochi giorni dopo, altri 4; e venerdì, sabato e domenica, un altro coniglio al giorno; e tutti e nove morti vedendo la luce. La donna ha giurato che due mesi fa, lavorando in un campo con altre donne, incontrarono un coniglio e lo rincorsero senza un motivo: questo creò in lei un desiderio così forte che (essendo incinta) abortì il suo bambino, e da quel momento non è capace di evitare di pensare ai conigli”.
Letta così sembra una di quelle leggende scaturite dall’idea, diffusa all’epoca, che qualsiasi cosa impressionasse la mente di una donna incinta (un sogno, o un animale veduto durante la gravidanza) poteva marchiare in qualche modo anche il feto, dando origine a difetti di nascita. Eppure questa storia si sarebbe presto tramutata in uno dei più grossi scandali medici degli albori.
La donna dell’articolo era Mary Toft, contadina di 24 o 25 anni, sposata e con tre figli. Come tutte le compaesane, Mary non aveva smesso il lavoro nei campi con la gravidanza; e quando, nell’agosto precedente, aveva avvertito dei dolori al ventre, si era accorta con orrore di aver espulso dei pezzi di carne. Poteva forse essere un aborto, ma stranamente la gravidanza continuò e quando il 27 settembre Mary partorì, uscirono soltanto delle parti che sembravano animali. Questi resti vennero inviati a John Howard, il medico citato nell’articolo, che inizialmente si dimostrò scettico. Si recò ciononostante a visitare Mary Toft ed esaminandola non trovò nulla di strano; eppure nei giorni successivi le doglie ricominciarono, e nuove parti di animali continuarono a essere espulse dall’utero della donna: gambe di gatto, gambe di coniglio, budella e altri pezzi di animali irriconoscibili.
A quel punto la storia stava cominciando a fare scalpore, anche perché la stampa esisteva da poco, ed era la prima volta che un caso simile veniva seguito contemporaneamente, “in diretta”, in tutta l’Inghilterra. Un altro chirurgo, Nathaniel St. André, si interessò al caso, e su ordine della Famiglia Reale si recò a Guildford, dove Howard aveva condotto Mary Toft offrendo a chiunque dubitasse della storia di assistere a uno degli straordinari parti. Nel frattempo la donna aveva infatti dato alla luce altri tre conigli, non completamente formati, che apparentemente scalciavano nell’utero prima di morire e venire espulsi.
St. André, arrivato a Guildford, potè quindi investigare il caso direttamente e restò impressionato: il 15 novembre, nel giro di poche ore, Mary Toft partorì il torso di un coniglio. St. André esaminò il torso, immerse i polmoni in acqua per vedere se l’animale avesse respirato aria (e infatti i polmoni galleggiavano) ed esaminò accuratamente la donna. La sua diagnosi fu che i conigli si sviluppavano sicuramente all’interno delle tube di Falloppio. Nei giorni seguenti dall’utero della donna uscirono un altro torso, la pelle di un coniglio e, pochi minuti dopo, la testa.
Il re Giorgio I, affascinato dalla storia, decise di inviare un altro medico a Guildford: si trattava di Cyriacus Ahlers – e questa fu la svolta. Ahlers, infatti, era segretamente scettico sull’intera vicenda, e tenne gli occhi ben aperti. Non trovò segni di effettiva gravidanza sulla donna, ma anzi notò una cosa piuttosto sospetta: prima dei famosi parti, la donna sembrava stringere le ginocchia come per impedire che qualcosa cadesse. Ahlers cominciò a dubitare anche di Howard, l’ostetrico, che si rifiutava di lasciare che fosse Ahlers ad assistere la donna durante le contrazioni. Non lasciò trapelare i suoi dubbi, ma disse a tutti i presenti di credere alla storia, e con una scusa lasciò Guildford, portando con sé alcuni pezzi di coniglio. Esaminandoli con più cura, scoprì che sembravano essere stati macellati con uno strumento da taglio, e notò tracce di grano e paglia nei loro intestini, come se provenissero da un allevamento. Riportò tutto questo al Re e in poco tempo lo scandalo esplose.
Mary fu portata a Londra e alloggiata in carcere, per ulteriori esami, e nella comunità scientifica si formarono immediatamente due fazioni: da una parte gli scettici, Ahlers in prima linea; dall’altra Howard e St. André, che erano convinti sostenitori della genuinità dei prodigiosi eventi. La stampa diede eccezionale risonanza al dibattito e le cose precipitarono quando un inserviente della prigione ammise di essere stato corrotto dalla cognata di Mary Toft affinché introducesse un coniglio nella cella della donna.
Il 7 dicembre, dopo essere stata esaminata da decine di medici e sottoposta ad estenuanti interrogatori e alle minacce di una dolorosa operazione chirurgica, Mary Toft cedette e confessò: era stata tutta una truffa. Dopo il suo aborto spontaneo, quando la cervice era ancora dilatata, aveva con l’aiuto di un complice inserito nell’utero le zampe e il corpo di un gatto, e la testa di un coniglio. In seguito, le parti di animali erano state posizionate più esternamente, nella vagina. Mary Toft venne immediatamente incarcerata con l’accusa di “vile truffa e impostura”. Anche i diversi medici implicati, Howard e St. André su tutti, vennero citati in tribunale e a loro discolpa si dichiararono all’oscuro della frode.
Ma lo smascheramento dell’inganno fu una bomba soprattutto per l’immagine della medicina nell’opinione pubblica: articoli satirici apparvero in ogni giornale, prendendosi beffa della credulità dei chirurghi implicati nel caso, e dei medici tout court. Le ballate popolari si incentrarono immediatamente sui dettagli più volgari della vicenda e le barzellette si affollarono di conigli maliziosi e grandi luminari della scienza fatti fessi da una contadina. La risonanza fu internazionale e persino Voltaire, dalla Francia, indicò il caso di Mary Toft come un esempio di quanto gli Inglesi protestanti fossero influenzati da una Chiesa ignorante e da antiche superstizioni.
La professione sanitaria venne talmente danneggiata in poco tempo che decine e decine di medici cercarono disperatamente di dichiararsi estranei ai fatti o di provare che erano stati fin dall’inizio scettici sul caso. Molte carriere vennero stroncate dall’abbaglio preso, e altre ci misero lustri a riprendersi dal tonfo.
La folla stazionava davanti alla prigione in cui Mary Toft era rinchiusa, nella speranza di vederla anche solo di sfuggita. Nel 1727 Mary fu liberata e tornò a casa. Da allora di lei si seppe poco, se non che ebbe una figlia e qualche altro piccolo guaio con la legge, fino alla sua morte nel 1763. Ma nonostante questo suo forzato “ritiro” dalle scene, il suo nome visse ancora a lungo nelle canzoni, e venne immancabilmente rispolverato ogni volta che i grandi geni della scienza facevano un clamoroso, ridicolo passo falso.
In quel tempo c’erano sulla terra i giganti,e ci furono anche di poi,quando i figliuoli di Dio si accostaronoalle figliuole degli uomini,e queste fecero loro de’ figliuoli.
Era il 1868. Il tabaccaio George Hull era ateo, e non sopportava quei cristiani fondamentalisti che prendevano la Bibbia alla lettera. Così, dopo un’ennesima discussione esasperante con un suo concittadino convinto che nelle Sacre Scritture non vi potesse essere alcuna metafora, Hull decise che si sarebbe preso gioco di tutti i creduloni, e forse ci avrebbe anche fatto qualche soldo. Si preparò quindi a mettere in piedi quella che sarebbe stata ricordata in seguito come la “più grande burla della storia americana”.
George Hull acquistò un terreno ricco di gesso nello Iowa, e fece estrarre un grosso blocco di pietra squadrata. Con enormi difficoltà, riuscì a far spostare l’ingombrante fardello fino alla ferrovia, dichiarando che serviva per un monumento commissionatogli a Washington. Ma il blocco di gesso venne invece spedito a Chicago, a casa di Edwin Burkhardt, uno scultore di lapidi e busti funerari. Hull l’aveva infatti convinto a lavorare in segreto, con la promessa di un lauto pagamento, alla scultura che aveva in mente. Lo stesso George Hull fece da modello per quella strana statua di quattro metri e mezzo, e quando l’opera fu completa i due passarono sul gesso acidi, mordenti e agenti macchianti per “invecchiare” la scultura. Riuscirono addirittura a ricreare quelli che avrebbero dovuto essere scambiati per i pori della pelle.
Hull tornò quindi con il suo “gigante” a New York, dove lo seppellì dietro il fienile del suo amico e complice William “Stub” Newell. Lasciarono passare un anno e poi, con la scusa che serviva un nuovo pozzo, pagarono una ditta di scavi per cominciare i lavori. Gli operai, ovviamente ignari, scoprirono l’incredibile statua, e già il pomeriggio seguente Hull e Newell avevano eretto una tenda attorno alla “tomba del gigante pietrificato” e chiedevano ai visitatori 25 centesimi per poter ammirare quella meraviglia. Cominciò un immenso passaparola, e il prezzo di entrata raddoppiò in poco tempo a 50 centesimi – una cifra altissima per l’epoca.
Il gigante di Cardiff divenne l’argomento dell’anno: politici, accademici e religiosi ne discutevano con fervore, e le teorie più assurde vennero proposte per spiegare l’enigma. Secondo alcuni il gigante era un missionario gesuita del 1500, secondo altri un indiano irochese Onondaga, ma per la maggioranza, come aveva sperato Hull, il gigante era la dimostrazione inconfutabile che ciò che era scritto nella Bibbia non era soltanto una verità spirituale, ma anche storica. Nemmeno la lettera, proveniente da Chicago, di uno sconosciuto scultore tedesco che affermava di aver preso parte alla beffa, convinse nessuno: erano certamente i vaneggiamenti di un pazzo. Un geologo dichiarò: “il gigante ha il marchio del tempo stampato su ogni arto e fattezza, in un modo e con una precisione che nessun uomo può imitare”.
Il gigante di Cardiff, cominciato come un costoso ed elaborato scherzo, stava diventando un business enorme: venne spostato a Syracuse, dove il prezzo del biglietto salì fino a 1 dollaro – più o meno 60 euro di oggi.
E qui entra in scena il geniale P. T. Barnum. Come sempre, appena fiutava odore di affari, il più grande showman di tutta l’America non si faceva scrupoli. Barnum offrì a Hull 50.000$ per portare in tour il gigante per tre mesi, ma Hull rifiutò. Barnum però non era certo tipo da darsi per vinto: riuscì a corrompere una guardia, e di notte fece intrufolare nella tenda un suo artigiano, che eseguì un calco in cera del gigante. Tornato a New York, ricavò dal calco in cera una copia in gesso, del tutto identica alla statua di Hull, per esporla nel suo museo.
Adesso c’erano quindi in giro ben due giganti! Cominciò una battaglia tragicomica, senza esclusione di colpi. Barnum dichiarò che il suo gigante era l’originale, che aveva comprato da Hull, e che quello di Hull era un falso. Hull denunciò Barnum per diffamazione. In tribunale, Hull ammise che il gigante era una burla, e la corte decise che Barnum non poteva essere ritenuto colpevole di aver dichiarato che il gigante di Hull era un falso, dato che lo era. Durante la disputa, un collaboratore di Hull pronunciò la celebre frase There’s a sucker born every minute (“Ogni minuto nasce un nuovo babbeo”), che sarebbe poi stata erroneamente attribuita a Barnum, e che riassume perfettamente una certa filosofia dello show-business.
E infatti i “babbei” non si fecero attendere. Il processo, paradossalmente, riaccese la curiosità del pubblico per “la grande burla del gigante di Cardiff”, e la folla ricominciò a pagare per vedere non più uno, ma due giganti, che su strade separate continuarono la loro carriera per molti anni, fruttando una fortuna sia a Hull che a Barnum. Se vi interessa sono ancora visibili. L’originale è esposto al Farmer’s Museum a Cooperstown, New York, mentre è possibile ammirare la copia di Barnum al Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum di Detroit. Ed entrambi valgono il prezzo del biglietto… se siete dei babbei.