Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 19

Boy, am I bored. Luckily, there’s a new collection of links on Bizzarro Bazar.” (Photo: Tim Walker)

Forget icecream: to fight the heat, nothing better than some icy and chilling reads, directly from my (mortuary) freezer!

  • James Hirst (1738-1829) used to ride on a bull he had trained; he kept foxes and bears as pets; he built a wicker carriage so large that it contained a double bed and an entire wine cellar; he installed a sail on his cart, so as to navigate on land, but at the first road bend he ended up flying through a tailor’s window; he saved himself from a duel to the death by placing a dummy in his place; he received dozens of garters from English noblewomen in exchange for the privilege of standing inside his self-constructed eccentric coffin; he refused an invitation from the King because he was “too busy” teaching an otter the art of fishing. (I, on the other hand, have vacuumed the house today.)
  • Jason Shulman uses very long exposures to photograph entire films. The result is spectacular: a one-image “summary” of the movie, 130,000 frames compressed in a single shot. “Each of these photographs — says Shulman — is the genetic code of a film, its visual DNA“. And it is fascinating to recognize the contours of some recurring shots (whose imprint is therefore less blurry): the windows of the van in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the static scenic desing in Méliès movies, the bokeh street lights of Taxi Driver. And I personally never thought about it, but there must be so many close-ups of Linda Lovelace in Deep Throat, in order to make that ghostly face appear… (Thanks, Eliana!)

  • Since we’re talking about photography, take a look at Giovanni Bortolani’s manipulations. In his Fake Too Fake series he has some fun slicing up and reassembling the body of beautiful male and female models, as in the example above. The aesthetics of fashion photography meets the butcher counter, with surreal and disturbing results.
  • It’s still taboo to talk about female masturbation: so let’s talk about it.
    A nice article on L’Indiscreto [sorry, Italian only] recounts the history of female auto-eroticism, a practice once considered pathological, and today hailed as a therapy. But, still, you can’t talk about it.
  • While we’re at it, why not re-watch that nice Disney cartoon about menstruation?
  • I thought I’d found the perfect summer gadget, but it turns out it’s out of stock everywhere. So no beach for me this year. (Thanks, Marileda!)

 

  • You return to your native village, but discover that everyone has left or died. So what do you do to make this ghost town less creepy? Easy: you start making life-size rag dolls, and place them standing motionless like scarecrows in the fields, you place them on benches, fill the empty classrooms, you position them as if they were waiting for a bus that’ll never come. Oh, and you give these puppets the faces of all the dead people from the village. Um. Ms. Ayano Tsukimi is so lovely, mind you, and her loneliness is very touching, but I haven’t decided yet whether her work is really “cheerful” and poetic, as some say, or rather grotesque and disturbing. You decide.
  • If you can readItalian well, there is a beautiful and fascinating study by Giuditta Failli on the irruption of the Marvelous in medieval culture starting from the 12th century: lots of monsters, skeleton armies, apparitions of demons and ghosts. Here is the first part and the second part. (Thanks, Pasifae!)

  • What is this strange pattern above? It is the demonstration that you can always think outside the box.
    Welcome to the world of heterodox musical notations.
  • But then again music is supposed to be playful, experimental, some kind of alchemy in the true sense of the term — it’s all about using the elements of the world in order to transcend them, through the manipulation and fusion of their sounds. Here’s another great nonconformist, Hermeto Pascoal, who in this video is intent on playing a freaking lagoon.
  • I am going to seek a great perhaps“, said François Rabelais as he laid dying.
    Now I am about to take my last voyage, a great leap in the dark“, Thomas Hobbes whispered.
    Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough!” Karl Marx muttered in his last breath.
    Have you prepared your grand, romantic, memorable last words? Well, too bad that you probably won’t get to say them. Here is an interesting article on what people really say while they’re dying, and why it might be important to study how we communicate during our last moments.
  • Speaking of last words, my favorite ones must be those pronounced by John Sedgwick on May 9, 1864 during the Battle of Spotsylvania. The heroic general urged his soldiers not to retreat: “Why are you dodging like this? They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” Soon after he had said this, a bullet reached him under his left eye, killing him on the spot.

Sedgwick: 0 – Karma: 1.

  • Let’s get this party started!” These cheerful and jovial gentlemen who, with admirable enthusiasm, pop their eyes out of their sockets with knives, are celebrating the Urs festival, an event held every year at Ajmer in Rajasthan to commemorate the death of Sufi master Moʿinoddin Cishti. You can find more photos of this merry custom in this article.
  • And finally here is a really wonderful short film, recommended by my friend Ferdinando Buscema. Enjoy it, because it is the summary of all that is beautiful in mankind: our ability to search for meaning in little things, through work and creation, and the will to recognize the universal even in the humblest, most ordinary objects.

 

“London Mirabilia” Out Soon!

My new book is coming out on October 10th. It’s called London Mirabilia: Journey Through A Rare Enchantment.

Published by Logos Edizioni, and graced once again by Carlo Vannini‘s wonderful photographs, the book is the second entry in the Mirabilia Collection, a series of alternative guides to the most famous tourist destinations,  especially designed for the explorers of the unusual.

This time Carlo and I ventured into the very heart of London, in search for the weirdest and most amazing locations to share with our readers.
From the press kit:

We must not be deceived by the cliché of a perpetually gloomy sky, or by the threat of Victorian prudery, nor restrict ourselves to seeing the plain and classical architecture of London as an expression of Anglo-Saxon severity. Much more than other large cities, London is a boundless multitude living on contrasts.
It is only here – maybe as a reaction to the innate, restrained behaviour of Londoners – that the non-conformism of dandies, the incorrectness without taboos of British humour, Blake’s ecstatic explosions and punk nihilism could bloom. It is only here that the most futuristic buildings shamelessly rise up alongside row houses or ancient churches. And it is only here that you can gaze at a sunset over a chaotic railway station, and feel you are “in paradise”, as the Kinks sing in
Waterloo Sunset, perhaps the most beautiful song ever dedicated to the city.

LONDON MIRABILIA is an invitation to dive into the unexpected colours, the contradictions and the less known splendours of the city.
17 eccentric and refined locations await the reader who – accompanied by the texts of Ivan Cenzi, the explorer of the bizarre, and the evocative pictures by Carlo Vannini – is given the opportunity to visit the most hidden museums of London, admiring in turn the refinement of ancient historiated fans or the terrible grandeur of the war machines which conquered the sky and the sea.
We will sip the inevitable pint of real ale in a traditional London pub where the macabre remains of an extraordinary story are preserved; we will discover sumptuous houses decorated with arabesques hiding behind ordinary façades, and fluorescent collections of neon signs; we will wander among the gravestones swallowed by greenery through romantic English graveyards; we will walk through the door of fairy-tale interiors and of real modern wunderkammers.

You can pre-order your copy at this link; discounted if purchased in bundle with Paris Mirabilia. Also available in Italian.

While waiting for London Mirabilia to hit the bookstores, I leave you with a little foretaste of what you’ll find inside.

Dirty Dick, The Man Who Stopped Washing

This article originally appeared on The LondoNerD, an Italian blog on the secrets of London.

I have about an hour to complete my mission.
Just out of Liverpool Street Station, I look around waiting for my eyes to adapt to the glaring street. The light is harsh, quite oddly indeed as those London clouds rest on the Victorian buildings like oilcloth. Or like a shroud, I find myself thinking — a natural free association, since I stand a few steps away from those areas (the 19th-Century slums of Whitchapel and Spitafield) where the Ripper was active.
But my mission has nothing to do with old Jack.
The job was assigned to me by The LondoNerD himself: knowing I would have a little spare time before my connection, he wrote me a laconic note:

You should head straight for Dirty Dicks. And go down in the toilets.

Now: having The LondoNerD as a friend is always a sure bet, when you’re in the City. He knows more about London than most of actual Londoners, and his advice is always valuable.
And yet I have to admit that visiting a loo, especially in a place called Dirty Dicks, is not a prospect which makes me sparkle with enthusiasm.

But then again, this proposal must conceal something that has to do with my interests. Likely, some macabre secret.
For those who don’t know me, that’s what I do for a living: I deal with bizarre and macabre stuff. My (very unserious) business card reads: Explorer of the Uncanny, Collector of Wonders.

The collection the card refers to is of course made of physical obejects, coming from ancient times and esotic latitudes, which I cram inside my cabinets; but it’s also a metaphore for the strange forgotten stories I have been collecting and retelling for many years — historical adecdotes proving how the world never really ceased to be an enchanted place, overflowing with wonders.

But enough, time is running out.

Taking long strides I move towards Dirty Dicks, at 202 Bishopsgate. And it’s not much of a surprise to find that, given the name on the signs, the pub’s facade is one of the most photographed by tourists, amidst chuckles and faux-Puritan winks.

The blackboard by the door remarks upon a too often ignored truth:

I am not at all paranoid (I couldn’t be, since I spend my time dealing with mummies, crypts and anatomical museums), but I reckon the advice is worth following.

Dirty Dicks’ interiors combine the classic English pub atmosphere with a singular, vintage and vaguely hipster design. Old prints hanging from the walls, hot-air-balloon wallpaper, a beautiful chandelier dangling through the bar’s two storeys.

I quickly order my food, and head towards the famous restrooms.

The toilets’ waiting room is glowing with a dim yellow light, but finally, there in the corner, I recognize the objective of my mission. The reason I was sent here.

A two-door cabinet, plunged in semi-obscurity, is decorated with a sign: “Nathaniel Bentley’s Artefacts”.

It is so dark in here that I can barely identify what’s inside the cabinet. (I try and take some pictures, but the sensor, pushed to the limit of its capabilities, only gives back blurred images — for which I apologize with the reader.)

Yes, I can make out a mummified cat. And there’s another one. They remind me of the dead cat and mouse found behind Christ Church‘s organ in Dublin, and displayed in that very church.

No mice here, as far as I can tell, but there’s a spooky withered squirrel watching me with its bulging little eyes.

There are several taxidermied animals, little birds, mammal skulls, old naturalistic prints, gaffs and chimeras built with different animal parts, bottles and vials with unspecified specimens floating in alcohol that’s been clouded for a very long time now.

What is this dusty and moldy cabinet of curiosities doing inside a pub? Who is Nathaniel Bentley, whom the sign indicates as the creator of the “artefacts”?

The story of this bizarre collection is strictly tied to the bar’s origins, and its infamous name.
Dirty Dicks has in fact lost (in a humorous yet excellent marketing choice) its ancient genitive apostrophe, referring to a real-life character.
Dirty Dick was the nickname of our mysterious Nathaniel Bentley.

Bentley, who lived in the 18th Century, was the original owner of the pub and also ran a hardware store and a warehouse adjacent to the inn. After a carefree dandy youth, he decided to marry. But, in the most dramatic twist of fate, his bride died on their wedding day.

From that moment on Nathaniel, plunged into the abyss of a desperate grief, gave up washing himself or cleaning his tavern. He became so famous for his grubbiness that he was nicknamed Dirty Dick — and knowing the degree of hygiene in London at the time, the filth on his person and in his pub must have been really unimaginable.
Letters sent to his store were simply addressed to “The Dirty Warehouse”. It seems that even Charles Dickens, in his Great Expectations, might have taken inspiration from Dirty Dick for the character of Miss Havisham, the bride left at the altar who refuses to take off her wedding dress for the rest of her life.

In 1804 Nathaniel closed all of his commercial activities, and left London. After his death in 1809 in Haddington, Lincolnshire, other owners took over the pub, and decided to capitalize on the famous urban legend. They recreated the look of the old squallid warehouse, keeping their bottles of liquor constantly covered in dust and cobwebs, and leaving around the bar (as a nice decor) those worn-out stuffed and mummified animals Dirty Dick never cared to throw in the trash.

Today that Dirty Dicks is all clean and tidy, and the only smell is of good cuisine, the relics have been moved to this cabinet near the toilets. As a reminder of one of the countless, eccentric and often tragic stories that punctuate the history of London.

Funny how times change. Once the specialty of the house was filth, now it’s the inviting and delicious pork T-bone that awaits me when I get back to my table.

And that I willingly tackle, just to ward off potential kidnappers.

The LondoNerD is an Italian blog, young but already full of wonderful insights: weird, curious and little-knowns stories about London. You can follow on Facebook and Twitter

A Most Unfortunate Execution

The volume Celebrated trials of all countries, and remarkable cases of criminal jurisprudence (1835) is a collection of 88 accounts of murders and curious proceedings.
Several of these anecdotes are quite interesting, but a double hanging which took place in 1807 is particularly astonishing for the collateral effects it entailed.

On November 6, 1802, John Cole Steele, owner of a lavander water deposit, was travelling from Bedfont, on the outskirts of London, to his home on Strand. It was deep in the night, and the merchant was walking alone, as he couldn’t find a coach.
The moon had just come up when Steele was surrounded by three men who were hiding in the bushes. They were John Holloway and Owen Haggerty — two small-time crooks always in trouble with the law; with them was their accomplice Benjamin Hanfield, whom they had recruited some hours earlier at an inn.
Hanfield himself would prove to be the weak link. Four years later, under the promise of a full pardon for unrelated offences, he would vividly recount in court the scene he had witnessed that night:

We presently saw a man coming towards us, and, on approaching him, we ordered him to stop, which he immediately did. Holloway went round him, and told him to deliver. He said we should have his money,
and hoped we would not ill-use him. [Steele] put his hand in his pocket, and gave Haggerty his money. I demanded his pocket-book. He replied that he had none. Holloway insisted that he had a book, and if he
did not deliver it, he would knock him down. I then laid hold of his legs. Holloway stood at his head, and swore if he cried out he would knock out his brains. [Steele] again said, he hoped we would not ill-use him. Haggerty proceeded to search him, when [Steele] made some resistance, and struggled so much that we got across the road. He cried out severely, and as a carriage was coming up, Holloway said, “Take care, I’ll silence the b—–r,” and immediately struck him several violent blows on the head and body. [Steele] heaved a heavy groan, and stretched himself out lifeless. I felt alarmed, and said, “John, you have killed the man”. Holloway replied, that it was a lie, for he was only stunned. I said I would stay no longer, and immediately set off towards London, leaving Holloway and Haggerty with the body. I came to Hounslow, and stopped at the end of the town nearly an hour. Holloway and Haggerty then came up, and said they had done the trick, and, as a token, put the deceased’s hat into my hand. […] I told Holloway it was a cruel piece of business, and that I was sorry I had any hand in it. We all turned down a lane, and returned to London. As we came along, I asked Holloway if he had got the pocketbook. He replied it was no matter, for as I had refused to share the danger, I should not share the booty. We came to the Black Horse in Dyot-street, had half a pint of gin, and parted.

A robbery gone wrong, like many others. Holloway and Haggerty would have gotten away with it: investigations did not lead to anything for four years, until Hanfield revealed what he knew.
The two were arrested on the account of Hanfield’s testimony, and although they claimed to be innocent they were both sentenced to death: Holloway and Haggerty would hang on a Monday, February 22, 1807.
During all Sunday night, the convicts kept on shouting out they had nothing to do with the murder, their cries tearing the “awful stillness of midnight“.

On the fatal morning, the two were brought at the Newgate gallows. Another person was to be hanged with them,  Elizabeth Godfrey, guilty of stabbing her neighbor Richard Prince.
Three simultaneous executions: that was a rare spectacle, not to be missed. For this reason around 40.000 perople gathered to witness the event, covering every inch of space outside Newgate and before the Old Bailey.

Haggertywas the first to walk up, silent and resigned. The hangman, William Brunskill, covered his head with a white hood. Then came Holloway’s turn, but the man lost his cold blood, and started yelling “I am innocent, innocent, by God!“, as his face was covered with a similar cloth. Lastly a shaking Elizabeth Godfrey was brought beside the other two.
When he finished with his prayers, the priest gestured for the executioner to carry on.
Around 8.15 the trapdoors opened under the convicts’ feet. Haggerty and Holloway died on the instant, while the woman convulsively wrestled for some time before expiring. “Dying hard“, it was called at the time.

But the three hanged persons were not the only victims on that cold, deadly morning: suddenly the crowd started to move out of control like an immense tide.

The pressure of the crowd was such, that before the malefactors appeared, numbers of persons were crying out in vain to escape from it: the attempt only tended to increase the confusion. Several females of low stature, who had been so imprudent as to venture amongst the mob, were in a dismal situation: their cries were dreadful. Some who could be no longer supported by the men were suffered to fall, and were trampled to death. This was also the case with several men and boys. In all parts there were continued cries “Murder! Murder!” particularly from the female part of the spectators and children, some of whom were seen expiring without the possibility of obtaining the least assistance, every one being employed in endeavouring to preserve his own life. The most affecting scene was witnessed at Green-Arbour Lane,
nearly opposite the debtors’ door. The lamentable catastrophe which took place near this spot, was attributed to the circumstance of two pie-men attending there to dispose of their pies, and one of them having his basket overthrown, some of the mob not being aware of what had happened, and at the
same time severely pressed, fell over the basket and the man at the moment he was picking it up, together with its contents. Those who once fell were never more enabled to rise, such was the pressure of the crowd. At this fatal place, a man of the name of Herrington was thrown down, who had in his hand his younger son, a fine boy about twelve years of age. The youth was soon trampled to death; the father recovered, though much bruised, and was amongst the wounded in St. Bartholomew’s Hospital.

The following passage is especially dreadful:

A woman, who was so imprudent as to bring with her a child at the breast, was one of the number killed: whilst in the act of falling, she forced the child into the arms of the man nearest to her, requesting him, for God’s sake, to save its life; the man, finding it required all his exertion to preserve himself, threw the infant from him, but it was fortunately caught at a distance by anotner man, who finding it difficult to ensure its safety or his own, disposed of it in a similar way. The child was again caught by a person, who contrived to struggle with it to a cart, under which he deposited it until the danger was over, and the mob had dispersed.

Others managed to have a narrow escape, as reported by the 1807 Annual Register:

A young man […] fell down […], but kept his head uncovered, and forced his way over the dead bodies, which lay in a pile as high as the people, until he was enabled to creep over the heads of the crowd to a lamp-iron, from whence he got into the first floor window of Mr. Hazel, tallow-chandler, in the Old Bailey; he was much bruised, and must have suffered the fate of his companion, if he had not been possessed of great strength.

The maddened crowd left a scene of apocalyptic devastation.

After the bodies were cut down, and the gallows was removed to the Old Bailey yard, the marshals and constables cleared the streets where the catastrophe had occurred, when nearly one hundred persons, dead or in a state of insensibility, were found in the street. […] A mother was seen to carry away the body of her dead son; […] a sailor boy was killed opposite Newgate, by suffocation; in a small bag which he carried was a quantity of bread and cheese, and it is supposed he came some distance to witness the execution. […] Until four o’clock in the afternoon, most of the surrounding houses contained some person in a wounded state, who were afterwards taken away by their friends on shutters or in hackney coaches. At Bartholomew’s Hospital, after the bodies of the dead were stripped and washed, they were ranged round a ward, with sheets over them, and their clothes put as pillows under their heads; their faces were uncovered, and there was a rail along the centre of the room; the persons who were admitted to see the shocking spectacle, and identified many, went up on one side and returned on the other. Until two o’clock, the entrances to the hospital were beset with mothers weeping for their sons! wives for their husbands! and sisters for their brothers! and various individuals for their relatives and friends!

There is however one last dramatic twist in this story: in all probability, Hollow and Haggerty were really innocent after all.
Hanfield, the key witness, might have lied to have his charges condoned.

Solicitor James Harmer (the same Harmer who incidentally inspired Charles Dickens for Great Expectations), even though convinced of their culpability in the beginning, kept on investigating after the convicts death and eventually changed his mind; he even published a pamphlet on his own expenses to denounce the mistake made by the Jury. Among other things, he discovered that Hanfield had tried the same trick before, when charged with desertion in 1805: he had attempted to confess to a robbery in order to avoid military punishment.
The Court itself was aware that the real criminals had not been punished, for in 1820, 13 years after the disastrous hanging, a John Ward was accused of the murder of Steele, then acquitted for lack of evidence (see Linda Stratmann in Middlesex Murders).

In one single day, Justice had caused the death of dozens of innocent people — including the convicts.
Really one of the most unfortunate executions London had ever seen.

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I wrote about capital punsihment gone wrong in the past, in this article about Jack Ketch; on the same topic you can also find this post on ‘Bloody Murders’ pamphlets from Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (both articles in Italian only, sorry!).

My week of English wonders – II

(Continued from the previous post)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

My week of English wonders – I

England, despite the sweetness of its mild hills standing out, or its pleasantly green countryside, always had a funereal quality to my eye.

I am well aware that such an impression, indistinct and irrational as it is, is but an indefensible generalization; yet I cannot help this feeling deep inside of me every time I go back across the Channel.
It may be because of the many convent ruins characterizing the landscape since Reformation, or because of the infamously leaden sky, or the lingering memory of Victorian mournings; but I suspect the idea that this whole country could have an affinity with death was actually suggested to me by the British I happened to know throughout the years, who seemed to be fighting against a sort of innate, philosophical resignation with the weapons of irony.
In his sketches, John Cleese often made fun of the deferential British austerity, that fear of hurting or being hurt if feelings are given free rein — the same bottled up behaviour which finds its counterpart in the cruelty of British humour, in Blake’s dazzling ecstatic explosions, in the dandies’ iconoclasm or in punk nihilism. Thus, as hard as I have tried, I cannot get rid of the sensation that the English people think more than others, or maybe with less distractions, about vanitas, and are able to transform this awareness of futility (even in respect to social conventions) into a subversive undercurrent.

This is why heading to England to talk about memento mori felt somehow natural right from the start.
At the University of Winchester was gathered a heterogeneous crowd of academics (medievalists, medical historians, anatomists, paleopathologists, experts in literature and painting) and artists, all interested in the relationship between death, art and anatomy.

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These three days of memorable intellectual stimulation really fueled my mind, by nature already overexcited.
Therefore I arrived in London in a state of augmented perception, as the town greeted me with a bright sun and crystal blue skies over its buildings, as if eager to deny all the aforementioned stereotypes. And yet, in retrospect, the days I spent in the capital proved to be a protraction and a follow-up to the meditations initiated in Winchester.

My first, inevitable visit was obviously paid to the Wellcome Collection. This Museum, founded in 2007, is particularly dear to me because it addresses, like I often do on these pages, the intersections between science, art and the sacred. Its permanent collections feature anatomical dolls, memento mori, human remains (for instance a Peruvian 5 to 7 centuries-old mummy); but also fakirs sandals, shrunken heads, chastity belts and religious objects.

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A fascinating temporary exhibition entitled States of mind: Tracing the edges of consciousness introduces the visitor to the mysteries of the Self, of what we call “consciousness”, through the liminal territories of nightmare, somnambulism and its opposite — hypnagogic paralysis —, all the way to the uncharted realms of vegetative state. In the last room I learned with a shiver how recent studies suggest that patients suspended between life and death might be much more aware than we thought.


The Grant Museum of Zoology, just a five-minute walk from the Wellcome Collection, is the only remaining University zoological museum in the capital. The space open to the public is not very big, but it is packed to the ceiling with thousands of specimens covering the entire spectrum of animal kingdom. Skeletons, wet and taxidermied specimens are a silent — yet meaningful — reminder of the vortex of biodiversity.

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Another ten-minute walk, and I reached 1 Scala Street, the location for what is probably one of the most peculiar and evocative museums in London: Pollock’s Toy Museum.

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The visitor must proceed by climbing steep narrow stairs, passing through corridors and small rooms, in a sort of maze unfolding on multiple levels across two different houses, one built in the 1880s and the other dating back to the previous century. Ancient toys are stacked everywhere: dolls, tin soldiers, train models, stuffed animals, rocking horses, puppets, kaleidoscopes.
Coming from the Zoology Museum, I can’t help but think of how play is a fundamental activity for the human mammal. But what could appear just as a curious excursus in the history and diverse typologies of toys soon turns into something different.

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Standing before the display cases crowded with hundreds of time-worn puppets, overwhelmed by the incredible quantity of details, one could easily fall prey to a vague malaise. But this is not that sort of phobia some people have for old dolls and their vitreous gaze; it is a subtle, ancient melancholia.

What happened to the children who held those teddy bears, who played out fantastic stories on tiny cardboard theaters, who opened their eyes wide in front of a magic lantern?

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It might have been just another suggestion caused by previous days spent in heartfelt discussions on the symbols and simulacra of death; or, once more, my preconceptions were to blame.
But to me, even a museum dedicated to child entertainment somehow looked like a triumph of impermanence.

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(This article continues here)

Little Lost People

What was the last time you actually paid attention to the sidewalk?
Can the microcosm around our feet still hold some unexpected visions?
Does it still mean something to focus on small things and details, and to look down – beside avoiding stepping on something unpleasant?

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In a world where we are taught that everything, from skyscrapers to our own ambitions, should aim high, artists Slinkachu and Cordal – each their own way, each of them with a different and personal approach – seem to want to value all that is small, forgotten, invisible.
The works of these two street artists, who are both active, independently from one another, on the London scene, could be confused at a first glance: they both utilize tiny figurines, and install their provocative miniature sculptures inside the urban context, leaving them to their fate. But the similarities really stop there.

Slinkachu has an unmistakable satirical and sardonic vein, so much so that his installations are presented as snarky micro-stories; Slinkachu mini-men are mirrors, spoofs debunking our miseries, excesses and vanities. How intelligent, how civilized they must think they are – yet dimensions contradict their actions. Whether they believe they are criminals or superheroes, these microscopic little primates aren’t going anywhere.

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Their misadventures are evidently similar to ours, and the figurines sometimes even represent a pop and bizarre version of some of the most debated themes in the news.

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Cordal’s little men, on the other hand, are the nightmare of removal coming back to the surface.
The atmosphere here is apocalyptic, melancholic, surreal, and in his works the miniature cannot be separated from the (often hopeless) landscape in which it has been positioned.
There is something touching and strangely eerie in this anonymous people emerging from the puddles in our cities, or sinking back into them “following the leaders”; there is a Beckett quality to these sad ghosts haunting our drainpipes, to these lost tourists, to these victims of the cruelty of a much too large and heavy world, and to their tiny bodies disappearing in the surrounding filth.

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What haunts us, in these figurines, is the fact we recognize them all too well. We can identify, and yet we cannot shake the embarassement of a vague guilt. The world is, after all, custom-made to be our size, not theirs.
The poor, the troubled, the outsiders inhabit realities that are too small, they live on a scale which is too distant for us to realize that we are stepping on them. Still, it would suffice to watch.

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Here are the official sites for Slinkachu, and for Isaac Cordal.

Il boia maldestro

Londra, durante i circa trent’anni della Restaurazione (1660-1688), era una città in preda alla violenza, immersa in un clima di paranoia e terrore. Oltre ai “classici” crimini come furti, rapine, omicidi e via dicendo, si rischiava anche di venire denunciati come cattolici, o peggio ancora nemici della corona: i processi, religiosi e politici, colpivano chi non era devotamente aderente all’ortodossia anglicana, così come chi aveva avversato il ritorno di Re Carlo II. E la pena capitale era inflitta con inquietante leggerezza, soprattutto durante le famigerate “assise sanguinose” nel 1685, presiedute dal temibile giudice Jeffreys che mandò al patibolo quasi 300 uomini senza battere ciglio.

Dal 1666 al 1678, il più celebre fra i boia era certamente Jack Ketch. Forse di origini irlandesi, la sua data di nascita non si conosce, né si sa quale mestiere svolgesse prima di diventare carnefice della corona. Molto spesso gli aguzzini avevano una carriera di macellaio alle spalle, e in effetti Ketch mostrava una certa dimestichezza nello squartare i cadaveri dei condannati.


All’epoca, infatti, la pena più severa fra tutte era riservata agli accusati di alto tradimento, e veniva denominata hanged, drawn and quartered: il condannato veniva legato a un’asse e trascinato da un cavallo fino alla pubblica piazza; qui, veniva completamente denudato e legato ad una scala in legno. (Per legge, le donne accusate del medesimo crimine andavano a questo punto arse vive – perché denudarle pubblicamente avrebbe offeso il comune pudore…).
Il collo veniva assicurato ad uno dei pioli della scala con una corda stretta a nodo corto, in modo da soffocare il suppliziato ma senza ucciderlo. Gli venivano tagliati pene e testicoli, e gettati in un braciere; ancora vivo, il condannato veniva poi sbudellato, e le sue viscere erano estratte dal boia che le bruciava di fronte ai suoi occhi. Infine si procedeva a decapitare il condannato, e a squartarne il corpo in quattro parti.


Ma non era finita qui: i resti del giustiziato dovevano essere esposti in vari punti strategici di Londra, come ad esempio lungo il London Bridge o a Temple Bar, affinché servissero da monito. Ecco che Ketch procedeva quindi, nelle segrete della prigione di Newgate, chiamate appropriatamente Jack Ketch’s Kitchen, a bollire i “quarti” dei condannati. Nel 1661 un visitatore di nome Ellwood descrisse quanto vide, come in una scena di un moderno film horror: “teste venivano portate per essere bollite, dentro a sporchi cesti di vimini, e i boia compiaciuti e beffardi le canzonavano”. Le teste venivano gettate nelle pentole e bollite nella canfora per prevenire la putrefazione, prima di essere esposte nei luoghi di maggior passaggio.


Ketch dovette occuparsi di diversi condannati a questo tipo di supplizio, perché quando Carlo II cominciò la restaurazione vennero mandati a morte tutti i regicidi (responsabili di aver firmato la condanna di Carlo I) che erano ancora in vita. Ma la maggior parte dei suoi servigi riguardavano le “semplici” impiccagioni, nelle quali eccelleva.

Purtroppo per lui, un punto debole Ketch ce l’aveva. Per quanto fosse a suo agio con cappi e coltelli, non sapeva proprio maneggiare l’ascia. A sua discolpa, c’è da dire che le decapitazioni erano relativamente rare e riservate ai nobili; fino a pochi anni prima, si faceva addirittura arrivare un boia dal Continente, esperto nell’utilizzo dell’ascia. Fatto sta che Ketch (a causa di tagli nel budget giudiziario?) si prese carico anche di quest’arte in cui non aveva alcuna esperienza, e che avrebbe macchiato per sempre il suo buon nome.

Il primo grosso scandalo che riguardò il boia fu l’esecuzione di Lord Russell nel 1683. Secondo la legge, il nobiluomo andava decapitato con un solo fendente, e una volta sul patibolo Lord Russell pagò, com’era d’uso a quel tempo, una bella somma a Ketch affinché svolgesse il suo lavoro in maniera decisa e pulita.
Mai soldi furono spesi peggio.

Secondo alcuni, il boia esagerava spesso con l’alcol – abitudine che, come si sa, non aiuta la mira. Fatto sta che Ketch sollevò la mannaia, ma il colpo che si abbattè sul condannato ferì il collo senza staccare la testa; la seconda stoccata ancora una volta non bastò. Lord Russell era ancora vivo, fra spruzzi di sangue e urla disumane. Un altro paio di colpi, e finalmente la lama fece rotolare via la testa di Lord Russell. Quell’infinita agonia fu talmente straziante da impressionare perfino le folle abituate al sangue, che seguivano avidamente e con regolarità le esecuzioni. Ketch fu costretto a pubblicare un opuscolo intitolato Apologie, in cui si scusava per la barbarie dello spettacolo, adducendo come attenuante il fatto che Lord Russell aveva sbagliato a “posizionarsi nel modo corretto” sui ceppi.

Due anni dopo, venne il turno di James Scott, primo Duca di Monmouth, anch’egli condannato alla decapitazione. Il Duca rifiutò il cappuccio o qualsiasi altro trattamento di favore, e una volta sul patibolo allungò la solita, profumata mancia a Ketch. Le sue ultime parole furono: “Non servitemi come avete fatto con Lord Russell. Ho sentito che l’avete colpito tre o quattro volte…”


Questa volta, se possibile, andò ancora peggio. Il primo fendente colpì addirittura la spalla del povero Duca; il secondo e il terzo non fecero che aprire nuove ferite non fatali. Fra i fischi della folla, Ketch depose l’ascia, deciso a lasciar perdere: lo fecero risalire sul patibolo a completare il lavoro. Ci vollero dai cinque agli otto colpi prima che il condannato finisse di soffrire. La gente era talmente inferocita che, se non ci fossero state le guardie a proteggerlo mentre si allontanava, Ketch sarebbe stato linciato sul posto.


Un anno dopo, nel 1686, Ketch fu incarcerato per resistenza ad un ufficiale; il suo assistente, Paskah Rose, prese il suo posto ma venne arrestato dopo appena quattro mesi, per rapina. Una volta uscito di prigione, Ketch riprese la sua carica, e ricominciò proprio dall’impiccagione del suo assistente a Tyburn. Verso la fine dello stesso anno, Jack Ketch morì.


A quanto si dice, Ketch fu un personaggio davvero spiacevole, costantemente ubriaco, ossessivamente avido di denaro, sempre pronto a lamentarsi del proprio compenso e a rivendere i vestiti dei condannati più nobili. Eppure, a causa delle sue ultime, maldestre performance, la figura di Ketch si guadagnò inaspettatamente un posto di rilievo nell’immaginario popolare: protagonista di ballate, poemi, pamphlet, citato da scrittori del calibro di Dickens, divenne il classico spauracchio per minacciare i bambini indisciplinati. E, grazie al tipico black humor inglese, entrò a far parte dei teatri di burattini della tradizione di Punch & Judy: in questi spettacoli, spesso il “boia pasticcione” viene ingannato e finisce immancabilmente per impiccarsi da solo.