This article originally appeared on the first number (entitled “Apocrifo Siciliano”) of the book/magazine Cariddi – Rivista Vorace, published by Rossomalpelo Edizioni. The magazine explores the forgotten, occult, magical and fantastical side of Sicily, in a collective effort which saw the participation of journalists, writers, illustratoris, literature scholars and photographers confronting Sicily’s countless faces.
Cariddi is in Italian only, but you can order it on Amazon and other online stores, or you can order a copy by writing an email to the publishing house.
You never forget your first. As soon as I entered the Capuchin Catacombs, I had the impression of finding myself in front of a gigantic exercitus mortuorum, a frightening army of revenants. Dead bodies all around, their skin parched and withered, hundreds of gaping mouths, jaws lowered by centuries of gravity, empty yet terribly expressive eye sockets. The feeling lasted a few seconds, because in reality down in the hypogeum so perfect a peace reigned that the initial bewilderment gave way to a different feeling: I felt I was an intruder.
A stranger, a living man in a sacred space inhabited by the dead; all those who come down here suddenly fall silent. The visitor is under scrutiny.
I was also alien to a culture, the Sicilian culture, showing such an inconceivable familiarity with the dead for someone born and raised in Northern Italy. Here death, I thought, was not hidden behind slabs of marble, on the contrary: it was turned into a spectacle. Presented theatrically, exhibited as mirabilis – worthy of admiration – here was on display the true repressed unconscious of our time: the Corpse.
The Corpse had been carefully worked by the friars, following a process refined over time. One of the technical terms anthropologists use to indicate the process of draining and mummifying bodies is “thanato-metamorphosis”, which gives a good idea of the actual, structural transformation to which the body is subjected.
Moreover, such conservation was considerably expensive, and only the wealthiest could afford it (even in death, there are first and second class citizens). But this is not surprising if we think of the countless monumental citadels of the dead, which the living are willing to raise at the cost of enormous efforts and fortunes. What struck me, as I strolled by the mummies, was that in this case the investment didn’t have the purpose of building a grand, sumptuous mausoleum, but rather of freezing, as much as possible, the features of these dead people over time.
Ah yes, time. Down there time flowed differently than on the city surface, or perhaps it didn’t flow at all. As if suspended by miracle, time had stopped devouring and transfiguring all matter.
As I dwelled on ancient faces, worn out clothes, and withered hands, the purpose of this practice became clear: it was meant to preserve not just the memory of the deceased, but their very identity.
Unlike the basic concept behind ossuaries, where the dead are all the same, the mummification process has the virtue of making each body different from the other, thus giving the remains a distinct personality – an effect further amplified if a mummy is dressed in the clothes he or she wore when alive.
Among all the barriers men have raised in the quixotic attempt to deny impermanence, this is perhaps the one that comes closest to success; it is a strange strategy, because instead of warding off death, it seems to embrace it until it becomes part of everyday life. So these individuals never really died: family members could come back and visit them, talk to them, take care of them. They were ancestors who had never quite crossed the threshold.
Little by little, I began sensing the benign and sympathetic nature of the mummies’ gaze – the kindness that shines through anyone who’s really aware of mortality. Their skeletal faces, which could be frightening at first, actually appeared serene if observed long enough; so much so that I was no longer sure I should pity their condition. Within me I began a sort of conversation with this silent crowd, the guardians of an inviolable secret. Perhaps, as their whispers reached out for me from the other side, all they were trying to do was reassure me; maybe they were talking the end of all trouble.
That unspoken, mysterious dialogue between us never stopped since that day.
A few years later I returned to the Catacombs together with photographer Carlo Vannini. We stayed about a week in the company of mummies, day and night. Who knows if they recognized me? For my part I learned to tell them apart, one by one, and to discern each of their voices – for they still called me without words.
My first book, published for Logos Edizioni, was The Eternal Vigil.
In 2017 the book was reissued with a preface by the scientific conservator of the catacombs, paleopathologist Dario Piombino-Mascali – who in turn, as I’m writing this, has just published what promises to be the definitive historical-scientific guide on the Catacombs, for Kalòs Edizioni.
From the analysis of mummies a paleopathologist is able to get clues about their life habits, and unravel their personal history: to an expert like him, these bodies really do speak. But I am sure that in this very moment they’re also whispering to the visitors who just descended the staircase and stepped into the underground corridors, enchanted by the extraordinary vision.
These mummies, to which I am bound by ties inscrutable and deep, murmur to anyone who really knows how to listen.
These photos date back to 2016; they were taken in the temple of Chongfu, located on a hill in the city of Quanzhou in China, during the opening of the vase containing the mummified remains of Fu Hou, a Buddhist monk who had died in 2012 at the age of 94.
The body still sat in the lotus position and looked well-preserved; so it was washed and disinfected, wrapped in gauze, sealed in red lacquer and finally covered with gold leaves. He was dressed and placed inside a glass case, so that he could be revered by worshippers.
Mummification of those monks who are believed to have achieved a higher spiritual perfection is not unheard of: at one time a sort of “self-mummification” was even practised (I wrote about it in this old post, Italian only). And in 2015, some Dutch scholars made a CT scan of a statue belonging to the Drents Museum collection and discovered that it contained the remains of master Liquan, who died around 1100 AD.
It might seem a paradox that in the Buddhist tradition, which has made accepting impermanence (anitya) one of the cornerstones of ritual and contemplative practice, so much attention is placed on the bodies of these “holy” monks, to the extent of turning them into relics.
But veneration for such characters is probably an effect of the syncretism, which took place in China, between Buddhism and Taoism; the Buddhist concept of arhat, which indicates the person who has experienced nirvana (even without reaching the higher status of bodhisattva or true “buddhahood“), has blended with the Taoist figure of zhenren, the “True Man”, able to spontaneously conform his actions to the Tao.
In the excellent preservation of the mummies, many Buddhists see a proof that these great spiritual masters are not really dead, but simply suspended in an advanced, perfect state of meditation.
Could there be a solution to appeal vegans, vegeterians and meat lovers? It’s called post-animal bio-economy, and among other things it involves growing laboratory meat from stem cells.
A totally painless method for animals, who could at last lead their happy lives without us giving up a steak, a glass of milk or a poached egg. These would note be alternative products, but the same products, developed in a much more sustainable way in respect to linear agriculture (which has proven problematic for the quantity of land, chemicals, pesticides, energy resources, needed water and work, and emissions of greenhouse gases).
Take the highly controversial foie gras: in the near future it could be produced from the stem cells gathered from the tip of a duck’s feather. It might seem a bit sci-fi, but the first lab foie gras is already here, and this journalist tasted it.
There are just two obstacles: on one hand, the costs of lab meat are still too high for large-scale production (but this shouldn’t take too long to fix); on the other, there’s the small detail that this is a cultural, and not just agricultural, revolution. We will find out how traditional farmers will react, and above all if consumers are rady to try these new cruelty-free products.
The city of Branau am Inn, in Austria, is sadly known as the birthplace of a certain dictator called Adolf. But it should be remembered for another reason: the story of Hans Steininger, a burgomaster who on September 28, 1567, was killed by his own beard. A thick and prodigiously long set of hair, which turned out to be fatal during a great fire: while escaping the flames, mayor Hans forgot to roll his 2-meters-long beard and put it in his pocket, as he usually did, tripped on it and fell down the stairs breaking his neck.
As in the 1500s there was no such thing as the Darwin Awards, his fellow citizens placed a nice plaque on the side of the church and preserved the killer beard, still visible today at Branau’s Civic Museum.
But if you think silly deaths are an exclusively human achievement, hear this: “due to the humidity in its environment and how slowly a sloth moves, plant life will grow in its fur. This, combined with poor eyesight, leads to some sloths grabbing their own arms, thinking it’s a tree branch, and falling to their deaths.” (via Seriously Strange)
Furthermore, there’s the genius rodent who slipped into a 155-years-old mousetrap on exhibit in a museum. Slow clap.
You’re always so nervous and depressed, they said.
Why don’t you learn a musical instrument, just to chill out and amuse yourself?, they said.
It served them well.
The Flying Dutch of the 20th Century was called SS Baychimo, a cargo ship that got stuck in the Alaskan ice in 1931 and was abandoned there. For the next 38 years the ghost ship kept turning up and was spotted on several occasions; somebody even managed to board it, but each time the Baychimo successfully escaped without being recovered. (Thanks, Stefano!)
The terrible story of “El Negro”: when collectors of natural curiosities didn’t just ship animal skins back to Europe from the Colonies, but also the skin of human beings they dug out of their graves during the night.
Since we’re talking about human remains, the biggest traveling mummy exhibit was launched eight years ago (featuring a total of 45 mummies). You never got to see it? Neither did I. Here are some nice pictures.
Japanese aesthetics permeates even the smallest details: take a look at these two pages from a late-XVII C. manuscript showing the different kinds of design for wagashi (tipical pastries served during the tea ceremony. Ante litteram food porn.
Some researchers form the University of Wisconsin and the University of Maryland created music specifically studied to be appealing to cats, with frequences and sounds that should be, at least in theory, “feline-centric“. The tracks can be bought here even if, to be honest, my cats didn’t seem to be particularly impressed by the music samples. But then again, those two are fastidious and spoiled rotten.
Among the most bizarre museums, there is the wonderful Museum of Broken Relationships. It consists of objects, donated by the public, that symbolize a terminated relationship: the pearl necklace given as a gift by a violent fiancé to his girlfriend, in the attempt to be forgiven for his last abuses; an axe used by a woman to chop all of her ex-grilfriend’s furniture into pieces; the Proust volumes that a husband read out loud to his wife — the last 200 hundred pages still untouched, as their relationship ended before they’d finished reading the book. Well, can a love story ever last longer than the Recherche? (via Futility Closet)
Published by Logos and featuring Carlo Vannini‘s wonderful photographs, the book explores the life and work of Paolo Gorini, one of the most famous “petrifiers” of human remains, and places this astounding collection in its cultural, social and political context.
I will soon write something more exhaustive on the reason why I believe Gorini is still so relevant today, and so peculiar when compared to his fellow petrifiers. For now, here’s the description from the book sheet:
Whole bodies, heads, babies, young ladies, peasants, their skin turned into stone, immune to putrescence: they are the “Gorini’s dead”, locked in a lapidary eternity that saves them from the ravenous destruction of the Conquering Worm.
They can be admired in a small museum in Lodi, where, under the XVI century vault with grotesque frescoes, a unique collection is preserved: the marvellous legacy of Paolo Gorini (1813-1881). Eccentric figure, characterised by a clashing duality, Gorini devoted himself to mathematics, volcanology, experimental geology, corpse preservation (he embalmed the prestigious bodies of Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Rovani); however, he was also involved in the design of one of the first Italian crematory ovens.
Introverted recluse in his laboratory obtained from an old deconsecrated church, but at the same time women’s lover and man of science able to establish close relationships with the literary men of his era, Gorini is depicted in the collective imagination as a figure poised between the necromant and the romantic cliché of the “crazy scientist”, both loved and feared. Because of his mysterious procedures and top-secret formulas that could “petrify” the corpses, Paolo Gorini’s life has been surrounded by an air of legend.
Thanks to the contributions of the museum curator Alberto Carli and the anthropologist Dario Piombino-Mascali, this book retraces the curious historic period during which the petrifaction process obtained a certain success, as well as the value and interest conferred to the collection in Lodi nowadays.
These preparations, in fact, are not silent witnesses: they speak about the history of the long-dated human obsession for the preserving of dead bodies, documenting a moment in which the Westerners relationship with death was beginning to change. And, ultimately, they solve Paolo Gorini’s enigma: a “wizard”, man and scientist, who, traumatised at a young age by his father’s death, spent his whole life probing the secrets of Nature and attempting to defeat the decay.
This is the account of a peculiar exploration, different from any other abandonded places I had the chance to visit: this place, besides being fascinating, also had a macabre and mysterious twist.
It was November, 2016. We were venturing — my father, my sister, two friends and I — towards an ex convent, which had been abandoned many years before.
The air was icy-cold. Our objective stood next to a public, still operational structure: the cemetery.
The thorny briers were dead and not very high, so it was simple for us to cut through the vegetation towards the side of the convent that had the only access route to the building, a window.
With a certain difficulty, one by one we all managed to enter the structure thanks to a crooked tree, which stood right next to the small window and which we used as ladder.
Once we caught our breath, and shook the dust off our coats, we realized we just got lost in time. That place seemed to have frozen right in the middle of its vital cycle.
The courtyard was almost entirely engulfed in vines and vegetation, and we had to be very careful around the porch, with its tired, unstable pillars.
Two 19th-Century hearses dominated one side of the courtyard, worn out but still keeping all their magnificence: the wood was dusty and rotten, but we could still see the cloth ornaments dangling from the corners of the carriage; once purple, or dark green, they now had an indefinable color, one that perhaps dosen’t even exist.
We went up a flight of stairs and headed towards a series of empty chambers, the cells where the Friars once lived; some still have their number carved in marble beside the door.
Climbing down again, we stumbled upon a sort of “office” where we were greeted by the real masters of the house – two statues of saints who seemed to welcome and admonish us at the same time.
As we were taking some pictures, we peeked inside the drawers filled with documents and papers going back to the last years of the 18th Century, so old that we were afraid of spoiling them just by looking.
We got back out in the courtyard to enjoy a thin November sun. We were still near the cemetery, which was open to the public, so we had to move carefully and most silently, when all of a sudden we came upon a macabre find: several coffins were lying on the wet grass, some partly open and others with their lid completely off. Just one of them was still sealed.
My friends prefer to step back, but me and my sister could not resist our curiosity and started snooping around. We noted some bags next to the coffins, on which a printed warning read: ‘exhumation organic material‘.
A vague stench lingered in the air, but not too annoying: from this, and from the coffins’ antiquated style, we speculated these exhumations could not be very recent. Those caskets looked like they had been lying there for quite a long time.
And today, a year later, I wonder if they’re still abandoned in the grass, next to that magical ghost convent…
Imagine you live in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.
The “City of Evil”, one of the most violent places on the entire planet. Here, in the past few years, murders have reached inconceivable numbers. More than 3000 victims only in 2010 – an average of eight to nine people killed every day.
So every day, you leave your home praying you won’t be caught in some score-settling fight between the over 900 pandillas (armed gangs) tied to the drug cartels. Every day, like it or not, you are a witness to the neverending slaughter that goes on in your town. It’s not a metaphor. It is a real, daily, dreadful massacre.
Now imagine you live in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and you’re a woman aged between 15 and 25.
Your chances of not being subjected to violence, and of staying alive, drastically drop. In Juárez women like you are oppressed, battered, raped; they often disappear, and their bodies – if they’re ever found – show signs of torture and mutilations.
If you were to be kidnapped, you already know that in all probability your disappearance wouldn’t even be reported. No one would look for you anyway: the police seem to be doing anything but investigating. “She must have had something to do with the cartel – people would say – or else she somehow asked for it“.
Finally, imagine you live in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, you’re a woman and you’re an artist.
How would you explain this hell to those who live outside Juárez? How can you address the burden of desperation and suffering this carnage places upon the hearts of the relatives? How will you be heard, in a world which is already saturated with images of violence? How are you going to convey in a palpable way all this anguish, the sense of constant loss, the waste of human life?
Teresa Margolles, born in 1963 in Culiacán, Sinaloa, was a trained pathologist before she became an artist. She now lives in Mexico City, but in the past she worked in several morgues across South America, including the one in Ciudad Juárez, that terrible mortuary where an endless river of bodies keeps flowing through four huge refrigerators (each containing up to 120 corpses).
“A morgue for me is a thermometer of a society. What happens inside a morgue is what happens outside. The way people die show me what is happening in the city.“
Starting from this direct experience, Margolles oriented her whole research towards two difficult objectives: one one hand she aims at sabotaging the narrative, ubiquitous in Mexican media and society, which blames the victims (the afore-mentioned “they were asking for it“); on the other, she wants to make the consequences of violence concrete and tangible to her audience, translating the horror into a physical, universal language.
But a peculiar lucidity is needed to avoid certain traps. The easiest way would be to rely on a raw kind of shock art: subjecting the public to scenes of massacre, mutilated bodies, mangled flesh. But the effect would be counter-productive, as our society is already bombarded with such representations, and we are so used to hyperreal images that we can hardly tell them apart from fiction.
It is then necessary to bring the public in touch with death and pain, but through some kind of transfer, or translation, so that the observer is brought on the edge of the abyss by his own sensitivity.
This is the complex path Teresa Margolles chose to take. The following is a small personal selection of her works displayed around the world, in major museums and art galleries, and in several Biennials.
En el aire (2003). The public enters a room, and is immediately seized by a slight euforia upon seeing dozens of soap bubbles joyfully floating in the air: the first childish reaction is to reach out and make them burst. The bubble pops, and some drops of water fall on the skin.
What the audience soon discovers, though, is those bubbles are created with the water and soap that have been used to wash the bodies of homicide victims in the morgue. And suddenly everything changes: the water which fell on our skin created an invisible, magical connection between us and these anonymous cadavers; and each bubble becomes the symbol of a life, a fragile soul that got lost in the void.
Vaporización (2001). Here the water from the mortuary, once again collected and disinfected, is vaporized in the room by some humidifiers. Death saturates the atmosphere, and we cannot help but breathe this thick mist, where every particle bears the memory of brutally killed human beings.
Tarjetas para picar cocaina (1997-99). Margolles collected some pictures of homicide victims connected with drug wars. She then gave them to drug addicts so they could use them to cut their dose of cocaine. The nonjudgemental metaphor is clear – the dead fuel narco-trafficking, every sniff implies the violence – but at the same time these photographs become spiritual objects, invested as they are with a symbolic/magic meaning directly connected to a specific dead person.
Lote Bravo (2005). Layed out on the floor are what look like simple bricks. In fact, they have been created using the sand collected in five different spots in Juárez, where the bodies of raped and murdered women were found. Each handmade brick is the symbol of a woman who was killed in the “city of dead girls”.
Trepanaciones (Sonidos de la morgue) (2003). Just some headphones, hanging from the ceiling. The visitor who decides to wear one, will hear the worldess sounds of the autopsies carried out by Margolles herself. Sounds of open bodies, bones being cut – but without any images that might give some context to these obscene noises, without the possibility of knowing exactly what they refer to. Or to whom they correspond: to what name, broken life, interrupted hopes.
Linea fronteriza (2005). The photograph of a suture, a body sewed up after the autopsy: but the detail that makes this image really powerful is the tattoo of the Virgin of Guadalupe, with its two halves that do not match anymore. Tattoos are a way to express one’s own individuality: a senseless death is the border line that disrupts and shatters it.
Frontera (2011). Margolles removed two walls from Juárez and Culiacán, and exhibited them inside the gallery. Some bullet holes are clearly visible on these walls, the remnants of the execution of two policemen and four young men at the hands of the drug cartel. Facing these walls, one is left to wonder. What does it feel like to stand before a firing squad?
Furthermore, by “saving” these walls (which were quickly replaced by new ones, in the original locations) Margolles is also preserving the visual trace of an act of violence that society is eager to remove from collective memory.
Frazada/La Sombra (2016). A simple structure, installed outdoors, supports a blanket, like the tent of a peddler stand. You can sit in the shade to cool off from the sun. And yet this blanket comes from the morgue in La Paz, where it was used to wrap up the corpse of a femicide victim. The shadow stands for the code of silence surrounding these crimes – it is, once again, a conceptual stratagem to bring us closer to the woman’s death. This shroud, this murder is casting its shadow on us too.
Pajharu/Sobre la sangre (2017). Ten murdered women, ten blood-stained pieces of cloth that held their corpses. Margolles enrolled seven Aymara weavers to embroider this canvas with traditional motifs. The clotted blood stains intertwine with the floreal decorations, and end up being absorbed and disguised within the patterns. This extraordinary work denounces, on one hand, how violence has become an essential part of a culture: when we think of Mexico, we often think of its most colorful traditions, without taking notice of the blood that soaks them, without realizing the painful truth hidden behind those stereotypes we tourists love so much. On the other hand, though, Sobre la sangre is an act of love and respect for those murdered women. Far from being mere ghosts, they are an actual presence; by preserving and embellishing these blood traces, Margolles is trying to subtract them from oblivion, and give them back their lost beauty.
Lengua (2000). Margolles arranged funeral services for this boy, who was killed in a drug-related feud, and in return asked his family permission to preserve and use his tonge for this installation. So that it could speak on. Like the tattoo in Linea frontizera, here the piercing is the sign of a truncated singularity.
The theoretical shift here is worthy of note: a human organ, deprived of the body that contained it and decontextualized, becomes an object in its own right, a rebel tongue, a “full” body in itself — carrying a whole new meaning. Scholar Bethany Tabor interpreted this work as mirroring the Deleuzian concept of body without organs, a body which de-organizes itself, revolting against those functions that are imparted upon it by society, by capitalism, by the established powers (all that Artaud referred to by using the term “God”, and from which he whished “to have done with“).
37 cuerpos (2007). The remnants of the thread used to sew up the corpses of 37 victims are tied together to form a rope which stretches across the space and divides it like a border.
¿De qué otra cosa podríamos hablar? (2009). This work, awarded at the 53rd Venice Biennial, is the one that brought Margolles in the spotlight. The floor of the room is wet with the water used to wash bodies at the Juárez morgue. On the walls, huge canvases look like abstract paintings but in reality these are sheets soaked in the victims blood.
Outside the Mexican Pavillion, on a balcony overlooking the calle, an equally blood-stained Mexico flag is hoisted. Necropolitics takes over the art spaces.
It is not easy to live in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to be a woman, and to be an artist who directly tackles the endless, often voiceless violence. It is even more difficult to try and find that miraculous balance between rawness and sensitivity, minimalism and incisivity, while maintaining a radical and poetic approach that can upset the public but also touch their heart.
Regarding the Western taboo about death, much has been written on how its “social removal” happened approximately in conjunction with WWI and the institution of great modern hospitals; still it would be more correct to talk about a removal and medicalization of the corpse. The subject of death, in fact, has been widely addressed throughout the Twentieth Century: a century which was heavily imbued with funereal meditations, on the account of its history of unprecedented violence. What has vanished from our daily lives is rather the presence of the dead bodies and, most of all, putrefaction.
Up until the end of Nineteenth Century, the relationship with human remains was inevitable and accepted as a natural part of existence, not just in respect to the preparation of a body at home, but also in the actual experience of so-called unnatural deaths.
One of the most striking examples of this familiarity with decomposition is the infamous Morgue in Paris.
Established in 1804, to replace the depository for dead bodies which during the previous centuries was found in the prison of Grand Châtelet, the Morgue stood in the heart of the capital, on the île de la Cité. In 1864 it was moved to a larger building on the point of the island, right behind Notre Dame. The word had been used since the Fifteenth Century to designate the cell where criminals were identified; in jails, prisoners were put “at the morgue” to be recognized. Since the Sixteenth Century, the word began to refer exclusively to the place where identification of corpses was carried out.
Due to the vast number of violent deaths and of bodies pulled out of the Seine, this mortuary was constantly filled with new “guests”, and soon transcended its original function. The majority of visitors, in fact, had no missing relatives to recognize.
The first ones to have different reasons to come and observe the bodies, which were laid out on a dozen black marble tables behind a glass window, were of course medical students and anatomists.
This receptacle for the unknown dead found in Paris and the faubourgs of the city, contributes not a little to the forwarding of the medical sciences, by the vast number of bodies it furnishes, which, on an average, amount to about two hundred annually. The process of decomposition in the human body may be seen at La Morgue, throughout every stage to solution, by those whose taste, or pursuit of science, leads them to that melancholy exhibition. Medical men frequently visit the place, not out of mere curiosity, but for the purpose of medical observation, for wounds, fracturs, and injuries of every description occasionally present themselves, as the effect of accident or murder. Scarcely a day passes without the arrival of fresh bodies, chiefly found in the Seine, and very probably murdered, by being flung either out of the windows which overhang the Seine river, or off the bridges, or out of the wine and wood-barges, by which the men who sell the cargoes generally return with money in their pockets […]. The clothes of the dead bodies brought into this establishment are hung up, and the corpse is exposed in a public room for inspection of those who visit the place for the purpose of searching for a lost friend or relative. Should it not be recognised in four days, it is publicly dissected, and then buried.
For most of the XIX Century, and even from an earlier time, the smell of cadavers was part of the routine in the Morgue. Because of its purpose and mode of operation, the Morgue was the privileged place for cadaveric stench in Paris […]. In fact, the bodies that had stayed in the water constituted the ordinary reality at the Morgue. Their putrefaction was especially spectacular.
(B. Bertherat, Le miasme sans la jonquille, l’odeur du cadavre à la Morgue de Paris au XIXe siècle,
in Imaginaire et sensibilités au XIXe siècle, Créaphis, 2005)
What is curious (and quite incomprehensible) for us today is how the Morgue could soon become one of the trendiest Parisian attractions.
A true theatre of death, a public exhibition of horror, each day it was visited by dozens of people of all backgrounds, as it certainly offered the thrill of a unique sight. It was a must for tourists visiting the capital, as proven by the diaries of the time:
We left the Louvre and went to the Morgue where three dead bodies lay waiting identification. They were a horrible sight. In a glass case one child that had been murdered, its face pounded fearfully.
The most enlightening description comes from the wonderful and terrible pages devoted to the mortuary by Émile Zola. His words evoke a perfect image of the Morgue experience in XIX Century:
In the meantime Laurent imposed on himself the task of passing each morning by the Morgue, on the way to his office. […]When he entered the place an unsavoury odour, an odour of freshly washed flesh, disgusted him and a chill ran over his skin: the dampness of thewalls seemed to add weight to his clothing, which hung more heavily on his shoulders. He went straight to the glass separating the spectators from the corpses, and with his pale face against it, looked. Facing himappeared rows of grey slabs, and upon them, here and there, the naked bodies formed green and yellow, white and red patches. While someretained their natural condition in the rigidity of death, others seemedlike lumps of bleeding and decaying meat. At the back, against the wall, hung some lamentable rags, petticoats and trousers, puckered against thebare plaster. […] Frequently, the flesh on the faces had gone away by strips, the bones had burst through the mellowskins, the visages were like lumps of boned, boiled beef. […] One morning, he was seized with real terror. For some moments, he had been looking at a corpse, taken from the water, that was small in build and atrociously disfigured. The flesh of this drowned person was so soft and broken-up that the running water washing it, carried it away bit by bit. The jet falling on the face, bored a hole to the left of the nose. And, abruptly, the nose became flat, the lips were detached, showing the white teeth. The head of the drowned man burst out laughing.
Zola further explores the ill-conealed erotic tension such a show could provoke in visitors, both men and women. A liminal zone — the boundaries between Eros and Thanatos — which for our modern sensibility is even more “dangerous”.
This sight amused him, particularly when there were women there displaying their bare bosoms. These nudities, brutally exposed, bloodstained, and inplaces bored with holes, attracted and detained him. Once he saw a young woman of twenty there, a child of the people, broadand strong, who seemed asleep on the stone. Her fresh, plump, white formdisplayed the most delicate softness of tint. She was half smiling, with her head slightly inclined on one side. Around her neck she had a blackband, which gave her a sort of necklet of shadow. She was a girl who had hanged herself in a fit of love madness. […] On a certain occasion Laurent noticed one of the [well-dressed ladies] standing at afew paces from the glass, and pressing her cambric handkerchief to her nostrils. She wore a delicious grey silk skirt with a large black lacemantle; her face was covered by a veil, and her gloved hands seemed quite small and delicate. Around her hung a gentle perfume of violet. She stood scrutinising a corpse. On a slab a few paces away, was stretched the body of a great, big fellow, a mason who had recently killed himself on the spot by falling from a scaffolding. He had a broadchest, large short muscles, and a white, well-nourished body; death had made a marble statue of him. The lady examined him, turned him round and weighed him, so to say, with her eyes. For a time, she seemed quite absorbed in the contemplation of this man. She raised a corner of her veil for one last look. Then she withdrew.
Finally, the Morgue was also an ironically democratic attraction, just like death itself:
The morgue is a sight within reach of everybody, and one to which passers-by, rich and poor alike, treat themselves. The door stands open,and all are free to enter. There are admirers of the scene who go out of their way so as not to miss one of these performances of death. If the slabs have nothing on them, visitors leave the building disappointed, feeling as if they had been cheated, and murmuring between their teeth; but when they are fairly well occupied, people crowd in front of themand treat themselves to cheap emotions; they express horror, they joke, they applaud or whistle, as at the theatre, and withdraw satisfied,declaring the Morgue a success on that particular day. Laurent soon got to know the public frequenting the place, that mixedand dissimilar public who pity and sneer in common. Workmen looked inon their way to their work, with a loaf of bread and tools under their arms. They considered death droll. Among them were comical companionsof the workshops who elicited a smile from the onlookers by making wittyremarks about the faces of each corpse. They styled those who had beenburnt to death, coalmen; the hanged, the murdered, the drowned, thebodies that had been stabbed or crushed, excited their jeering vivacity,and their voices, which slightly trembled, stammered out comical sentences amid the shuddering silence of the hall.
In the course of its activity, the Morgue was only sporadically criticized, and only for its position, deemed too central. The curiosity in seeing the bodies was evidently not perceived as morbid, or at least it was not considered particularly improper: articles on the famous mortuary and its dead residents made regular appearance on newspapers, which gladly devoted some space to the most mysterious cases.
On March 15, 1907 the Morgue was definitively closed to the public, for reasons of “moral hygiene”. Times were already changing: in just a few years Europe was bound to know such a saturation of dead bodies that they could no longer be seen as an entertainment.
And yet, the desire and impulse to observe the signs of death on the human body never really disappeared. Today they survive in the virtual morgues of internet websites offering pictures and videos of accidents and violence. Distanced by a computer screen, rather than the ancient glass wall, contemporary visitors wander through these hyperrealistic mortuaries where bodily frailness is articulated in all its possible variations, witnesses to death’s boundless imagination.
The most striking thing, when surfing these bulletin boards where the obscene is displayed as in a shop window, is seeing how users react. In this extreme underground scene (which would make an interesting object for a study in social psychology) a wide array of people can be found, from the more or less casual visitor in search of a thrill, up to the expert “gorehounds”, who seem to collect these images like trading cards and who, with every new posted video, act smart and discuss its technical and aesthetic quality.
Perhaps in an attempt to exorcise the disgust, another constant is the recourse to an unpleasant and out-of-place humor; and it is impossible to read these jokes, which might appear indecent and disrespectful, without thinking of those “comical companions” described by Zola, who jested before the horror.
Aggregators of brutal images might entail a discussion on freedom of information, on the ethics and licitness of exhibiting human remains, and we could ask ourselves if they really serve an “educational” purpose or should be rather viewed as morbid, abnormal, pathological deviations.
Yet such fascinations are all but unheard of: it seems to me that this kind of curiosity is, in a way, intrinsic to the human species, as I have argued in the past.
On closer inspection, this is the same autoptic instinct, the same will to “see with one’s own eyes” that not so long ago (in our great-great-grandfathers’ time) turned the Paris Morgue into a sortie en vogue, a popular and trendy excursion.
The new virtual morgues constitute a niche and, when compared to the crowds lining up to see the swollen bodies of drowning victims, our attitude is certainly more complex. As we’ve said in the beginning, there is an element of taboo which was much less present at the time.
To our eyes the corpse still remains an uneasy, scandalous reality, sometimes even too painful to acknowledge. And yet, consciously or not, we keep going back to fixing our eyes on it, as if it held a mysterious secret.
The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art & Natural History still resides in its original location, in Mare Street, Hackney, East London (some years ago I sent over a trusted correspondant and published his ironic reportage).
Many things have changed since then: in 2014, the owner launched a 1-month Kickstarter campaign which earned him £ 16,000, allowing him to turn his eclectic collection into a proper museum, complete with a small cocktail bar, an art gallery and an underground dinining room. Just a couple of tables, to be precise; but it’s hard to think of another place where guests can dine around an authentic 19th century skeleton.
The outrageous bad taste of placing human remains inside a dinner table is a good example of the sacrilegious vein that runs through the whole disposition of objects collected by Viktor: here the very idea of the museum as a high-culture institution is deconstructed and openly mocked. Refined works of art lay beside pornographic paperbacks, rare and precious ancient artifacts are on display next to McDonald’s Happy Meal toy surprises.
But this is not a meaningless jumble — it goes back to the original idea of a Museum being the domain of the Muses, a place of inspiration, of mysterious and unexpected connections, of a real attack to the senses. And this wunderkammer could infuriate wunderkammern purists.
When I met up with him, Viktor Wynd didn’t even need to talk about himself. Among dodo bones, giant crabs, anatomical models, skulls and unique books, unmatched from their very titles — for instance Group Sex: A How-To Guide, or If You Want Closure in Your Relationship, Start with Your Legs — the museum owner was immersed in the objectification of his boundless imagination. As he moved along the display cases in his immense collection (insured for 1 million pounds), he looked like he was wandering through the rooms of his own mind. Artist, surrealist and intellectual dandy, his life story as fascinating as his projects, Viktor always talks about the Museum as an inevitable necessity: “I need beauty and the uncanny, the funny and the silly, the odd and the rare. Rare and beautiful things are the barrier between me and a bottomless pit of misery and despair“.
And this strange bistro of wonders, where he holds conferences, cocktail parties, masqued balls, exhibitions, dinners, is certainly a rare and beautiful thing.
I then moved to the London Bridge area. In front of Borough Market is St. Thomas Street, where old St. Thomas church stands embedded between modern buildings. It was not the church itself I was interested in, but rather its garret.
The attic under the church’s roof hosts a little known museum with a peculiar history.
The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret is located in the space where all pharmaceuticals were prepared and stored, to be used in the annexed St. Thomas Hospital. A first section of the museum is dedicated to medicinal plants and antique therapeutic instruments. On display are several devices no longer in use, such as tools for cupping, bleeding and trepanation, and other quite menacing contraptions. But, together with its unique location, what gives this part of the museum its almost fantastic dimension is the sharp fragrance of dried flowers, herbs and spices (typical of other ancient pharmacies).
If the pharmacy is thought to have been active since the 18th Century, only in 1822 a part of the garret was transformed into operating theatre — one of the oldest in Europe.
Here the patients from the female ward were operated. They were mostly poor women, who agreed to go under the knife before a crowd of medicine students, but in return were treated by the best surgeons available at the time, a privilege they could not have afforded otherwise.
Operations were usually the last resort, when all other remedies had failed. Without anestetics, unaware of the importance of hygiene measures, surgeons had to rely solely on their own swiftness and precision (see for instance my post about Robert Liston). The results were predictable: despite all efforts, given the often already critical conditions of the patients, intraoperative and postoperative mortality was very high.
The last two places awaiting me in London turned out to be the only ones where photographs were not allowed. And this is a particularly interesting detail.
The first was of course the Hunterian Museum.
Over two floors are displayed thousands of veterinary and human anatomical specimens collected by famed Scottish surgeon John Hunter (in Leicester Square you can see his sculpted bust).
Among them, the preparations acquired by John Evelyn in Padua stand out as the oldest in Europe, and illustrate the vascular and nervous systems. The other “star” of the Museum is the skeleton of Charles Byrne, the “Irish giant” who died in 1783. Byrne was so terrified of ending up in an anatomical museum that he hired some fishermen to throw his corpse offshore. This unfortunately didn’t stop John Hunter who, determined to take possession of that extraordinary body, bribed the fishermen and paid a huge amount of money to get hold of his trophy.
The specimens, some of which pathological, are extremely interesting and yet everything seemed a bit cold if compared to the charm of old Italian anatomy museums, or even to the garret I had just visited in St. Thomas Church. What I felt was missing was the atmosphere, the narrative: the human body, especially the pathological body, in my view is a true theatrical play, a tragic spectacle, but here the dramatic dimension was carefully avoided. Upon reading the museum labels, I could actually perceive a certain urgency to stress the value and expressly scientific purpose of the collection. This is probably a response to the debate on ethical implications of displaying human remains in museums, a topic which gained much attention in the past few years. The Hunterian Museum is, after all, the place where the bones of the Irish giant, unscrupulously stolen to the ocean waves, are still displayed in a big glass case and might seem “helpless” under the visitors’ gaze.
My last place of wonder, and one of London’s best-kept secrets, is the Wildgoose Memorial Library.
The work of one single person, artist Jane Wildgoose, this library is part of her private home, can be visited by appointment and reached through a series of directions which make the trip look like a tresure hunt.
And a tresure it is indeed.
Jane is a kind and gentle spirit, the incarnation of serene hospitality.
Before disappearing to make some coffee, she whispered: “take your time to skim the titles, or to leaf through a couple of pages… and to read the objects“.
The objects she was referring to are really the heart of her library, which besides the books also houses plaster casts, sculptures, Victorian mourning hair wreaths, old fans and fashion items, daguerrotypes, engravings, seashells, urns, death masks, animal skulls. Yet, compared to so many other collections of wonders I have seen over the years, this one struck me for its compositional grace, for the evident, painstaking attention accorded to the objects’ disposition. But there was something else, which eluded me at that moment.
As Jane came back into the room holding the coffee tray, I noticed her smile looked slightly tense. In her eyes I could guess a mixture of expectation and faint embarassement. I was, after all, an outsider she had intentionally let into the cosiness of her home. If the miracle of a mutual harmony was to happen, this could turn out to be one of those rare moments of actual contact between strangers; but the stakes were high. This woman was presenting me with everything she held most sacred — “a poet is a naked person“, Bob Dylan once wrote — and now it all came down to my sensibility.
We began to talk, and she told me of her life spent safeguarding objects, trying to understand them, to recognize their hidden relationships: from the time when, as a child, she collected seashells on the southern shores of England, up to her latest art installations. Little by little, I started to realize what was that specific trait in her collection which at first I could not clearly pinpoint: the empathy, the humanity.
The Wildgoose Memorial Library is not meant to explore the concept of death, but rather the concept of grief. Jane is interested in the traces of our passage, in the signs that sorrow inevitably leaves behind, in the absence, in the longing and loss. This is what lies at the core of her works, commissioned by the most prestigious institutions, in which I feel she is attempting to process unresolved, unknown bereavements. That’s why she patiently fathoms the archives searching for traces of life and sorrow; that’s why her attention for the soul of things enabled her to see, for instance, how a cold catalogue accompanying the 1786 sale of Margaret Cavendish’s goods after her death could actually be the Duchess’s most intimate portrait, a key to unearthing her passions and her friendships.
This living room, I realized, is where Jane tries to mend heartaches — not just her own, but also those of her fellow human beings, and even those of the deceased.
And suddenly the Hunterian Museum came to my mind.
There, as in this living room, human remains were present.
There, as in this living room, the objects on display spoke about suffering and death.
There, as in this living room, pictures were not allowed, for the sake of respect and discretion.
Yet the two collections could not be more distant from each other, placed at opposite extremes of the spectrum.
On one hand, the aseptic showcases, the modern setting from which all emotion is removed, where the Obscene Body (in order to be explained, and accepted by the public) must be filtered through a detached, scientific gaze. The same Museum which, ironically, has to deal with the lack of ethics of its founders, who lived in a time when collecting anatomical specimens posed very little moral dilemmas.
On the other, this oasis of meditation, a personal vision of human beings and their impermanence enclosed in the warm, dark wood of Jane Wildgoose’s old library; a place where compassion is not only tangible, it gets under your skin; a place which can only exist because of its creator’s ethical concerns. And, ultimately, a research facility addressing death as an essential experience we should not be afraid of: it’s no accident the library is dedicated to Persephone because, as Jane pointed out, there’s “no winter without summer“.
Perhaps we need both opposites, as we would with two different medicines. To study the body without forgetting about the soul, and viceversa.
On the express train back to the airport, I stared at a clear sky between the passing trees. Not a single cloud in sight. No rain without sun, I told myself. And so much for the preconceptions I held at the beginning of my journey.