Dr. Incubator (S02E05)

In this episode of season 2 of Bizzarro Bazar, produced in collaboration with the Civic Museums of Reggio Emilia: how the Luna Park in Coney Island saved thousands of lives; two strange objects from the cabinets of Lazzaro Spallanzani; the Doctor who shrunk corpses.

Make sure you tun on English subtitles, and enjoy!

Directed & animated by Francesco Erba.

Rita Fanari: The Last of the Dwarfs

ROLL UP! ROLL UP! The great phenomenon of nature, the smallest woman in the world, 70 cm tall, 57 years old, weighing 5 Kg. RITA FANARI, from UXELLUS. She has been blind since the age of 14 and yet she threads yarn throug a needle, she sews, and all this in the presence of the public. She responds to any query. Every day at all hours you can see this great phenomenon.

So read the 1907 billboard announcing the debut on the scene of Rita Fanari. Unfortunately it was not a prestigious stage, but a sideshow at the Santa Reparata fair in the small town of Usellus (Oristano), at the time a very remote town in Sardinia, a community of just over a thousand souls. Rita shared her billboard – and perhaps even the stage – with a taxidermy of a two-headed lamb: we can suppose that whoever made that poster added it because he doubted that the tiny woman, alone, would be able to fascinate the gaze of passers-by… So right from the start, little Rita’s career was certainly not stellar.

Rita Fanari was born on 26 January 1850, daughter of Appolonia Pilloni and Placito Fanari. She suffered from pituitary dwarfism, and her sight abandoned her during adolescence; she lived with her parents until in 1900, when they probably died and she was adopted, at the age of fifty, by the family of Raimondo Orrù. This educated and wealthy man exhibited her in various fairs and village festivals including that of Santa Croce in Oristano. Since she had never found a husband, Rita used to appear on stage wearing the traditional dress for bagadia manna (elderly unmarried woman), and over time she gained enough notoriety to even enter vernacular expressions: when someone sang with a high-pitched  voice, people used to mock them by saying “mi paris Arrita Fanài cantendi!” (“You sound like Rita Fanari singing!”).

Rita died in 1913. Her life might seem humble, as negligible as her own stature. A blind little woman, who managed to survive thanks to the interest of a landowner who forced her to perform at village fairs: a person not worthy of note, mildly interesting only to those researching local folklore. One of the “last”, those people whose memory is fogotten by history.

Yet, on closer inspection, her story is significant for more than one reason. Not only she was the only documented case of a Sardinian woman suffering from dwarfism who performed at a sideshow; Rita Fanari was also a rather unusual case for Italy in those years. Let’s try to understand why.

Among all congenital malformations, dwarfism has always attracted particular attention over the centuries. People suffering from this growth deficiency, often considered a sign of good luck and fortune (or even divine incarnations, as apparently was the case among the Egyptians), sometimes enjoyed high favors and were in great demand in all European courts. Owning and even “collecting” dwarfs became an obsession for many rulers, from Sigismund II Augustus to Catherine de’ Medici to the Tsar Peter the Great — who in 1710 organized the scandalous “wedding of dwarfs” I mentioned in this article (Italian only).

The public exhibition of Rita Fanari should therefore not surprise us that much, especially if we think of the success that human wonders were having in traveling circuses and amusement parks around the world. A typical American freak show consisted exactly in what Fanari did: the deformed person would sit on the stage, ready to satisfy the curiosity and answer questions from the spectators (“she responds to any query“, emphasized Rita’s poster).

Yet in the early 1900s the situation in Italy was different compared to the rest of the world. Only in Italian circuses, in fact, the figure of the dwarf clown had evolved into that of the “bagonghi”.

The origin of this term is uncertain, and according to some sources it comes from the surname of a Bolognese chestnut street seller who was 70 centimeters high and who in 1890 was hired by the Circus Guillaume. However, this nickname soon became a generic name identifying a unique act in the circus world. The bagonghi was not a simple “midget clown”, but a complete artist:

The bagonghi does not merely display his deformity, he performs – leaping, juggling, jesting; and he needs, therefore, like any other actor or clown, talent, devotion and long practice of his art. But he also must be from the beginning monstrous and afflicted, which is to say, pathetic. Indeed, there is a pop mythology dear to Italian journalists which insists on seeing all bagonghi as victims of their roles.

(L. Fiedler, Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self, 1978)

A few examples: the bagonghi Giuseppe Rambelli, known as Goliath, was an acrobat as well as an equestrian vaulter; Andrea Bernabè, born in Faenza in 1850, performed as an acrobat on the carpet, a magician, a juggler; Giuseppe Bignoli, born in 1892 – certainly the most famous bagonghi in history – was considered one of the best acrobatic riders tout court, so much so that many circuses were fighting for the chance to book him.

Giuseppe Bignoli (1893-1939)

After the war Francesco Medori and Mario Bolzanella, both employed in the Circo Togni, became famous; the first, a skillful stunter, died trying to tame a terrible fire in 1951; the second hit the headlines when he married Lina Traverso, who was also a little person, and above all when the news brok that a jealous circus chimpazee had scratched the bride in the face. A comic and grotesque scene, perfectly fitting with the classical imagery of the bagonghi, who

can be considered as a sort of Harlequin born between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, and that quickly became a typical character, like those of the commedia dell’arte. The bagonghi is therefore a sort of modern masked “type” that first appeared and was developed within the Italian circus world, and then spread worldwide.

(M. Fini, Fenomeni da baraccone. Miti e avventure dei grandi circensi italiani, Italica Edizioni, 2013)

Going back to our Rita Fanari, we can understand why her career as a “great phenomenon of nature” was decidedly unusual and way too old for a time when the audience had already started to favor the show of diversity (a theatrical, choreographic performance) over its simple exhibition.

The fact that her act was more rudimentary than those performed in the rest of Italy can be undoubtedly explained with the rural context she lived in, and with her visual impairment. A handicap that, despite being advertised as a doubtful added value, actually did not allow her to show off any other skill other than to put the thread through the needle’s eye and start sewing. Not exactly a dazzling sight.
Rita was inevitably the last among the many successful dwarfs, little people like her who in those years were having a huge success under the Big Top, and who sometimes got very rich ( “I spent my whole life amassing a fortune”, Bignoli wrote in his last letter). As she was cut off from actual show business, and incapacitated by her disability, her luck was much more modest; so much so that her very existence would certainly have been forgotten, if a few years ago Dr. Raimondo Orru, the descendant and namesake of her benefactor, had not found some details of her life in the family archives.

But those very circumstances that prevented her from keeping up with the times, also made her “the last one” in a more meaningful sense. Perhaps because of the rustic agro-pastoral context, her act was very old-fashioned. In fact, hers may have been the last historical case in Italy of a person with dwarfism exhibited as a pure lusus naturae, an exotic “freak of nature”, a prodigy to parade and display.
In mainland Italy, as we said, things were already changing. Midgets and dwarfs, well before any other “different” or disabled person, had to prove their desire to overcome their condition, making a show of their skills and courage, performing exceptional stunts.
Along with this idea, and with the definitive pathologization of physical anomalies during the twentieth century, the mythological aura surrounding exceptional, uneven bodies will be lost; and a gaze of pity/admiration will become established. Today, the spectacle of disability is only accepted in these two modes — it’s either tragedy, the true motor of charity events and telethons, or the exemplum, the heroic overcoming of the disabled person’s own “limits”, with all the plethora of inspirational, motivational, life-affirming anecdotes that come with it.

It is impossible to know precisely how the villagers considered Rita at the time. Was she the object of ridicule, or wonder?
The only element available to us, that billboard from 1907, definitely shows her as an admirable creature in herself. In this sense Rita was really someone out of the past, because she presented herself in the public eye just for what she was. The last of the dwarfs of times past, who had the capacity to fascinate without having to do acrobatics: she needed nothing more than herself and her extraordinary figure, half old half child, to be at least considered worthy the price of admission.

On the ethics of our approach to disability, check out my article Freaks: Gaze and Disability.
I would like to thank Stefano Pisu, beacuse all the info on Rita Fanari in this article come from a Facebook post he wrote on the page of the Associazione culturale Julia Augusta di Usellus.
Pictures of the original billboard are shown here courtesy of Raimondo Orru; his findings on Rita’s life are included in the book Usellus. Costume popolare e matrimonio (Edizioni Grafica del Parteolla, 2000).

Jules Talrich, Between Anatomy and the Fairground

Some time ago I wrote a piece about those peculiar epiphanies linking different points on our mental map, which we thought were distant from each other, those unexpected convergences between stories and characters which at first glance appear to be unrelated.

Here’s another one: what do the preserved corpse of Jeremy Bentham (1), the famous Duchenne study on facial expressions (2), the amusement park museum in Paris (3) and anatomical waxes (4) have in common?

The link between all those things is one man: Jules Talrich, born in Paris in 1826.

The Talrich family came from Perpignan, in the Pyrenees. There Jules’s grandfather, Thadée, had been chief surgeon at the local hospital; there his father, Jacques, had worked as a military surgeon before moving to Paris, two years prior to Jules’ birth.
As a child, therefore, Jules grew up in contact with medicine and the anatomical practice. In fact, his father had become famous for his wax models; this renown earned him a post as official ceroplast at the Faculty of Medicine in Paris in 1824. We can imagine little Jules running around in his father’s workshop, looking at his dad with admiration as he worked on his écorchés (flayed) models.

When he was only 6 years old, in 1832, Jules probably saw his father modeling the head of Jeremy Bentham.
The famous utilitarian philosopher had decided, a couple of years before he died, that his body should have been publicly dissected, embalmed and exposed in a case. But the process of mummification on his head, carried out by an anatomist friend of Bentham, Southwood Smith, had not given the expected results: the skin on his face had become dark and shriveled, and was judged excessively macabre. So Jacques Talrich – whose reputation as a ceroplast extended across the Channel – had been commissioned a wax reproduction of Bentham’s head. The so-called “auto icon” is still exhibited today in a hallway at the University College of London.

So it was that the young Jules grew up surrounded by wax models, and taking part in his father’s dissections of corpses in the Faculty of Medicine. When he was little more than a boy, he began working as a “prosector”, i.e. dissecting and preparing anatomical pieces to be used during class at the University; in his dad’s laboratory, he soon learned the art of replicating with molten wax the most intricate muscular and vascular structures of the human body.

When Jacques died in 1851, Jules Talrich inherited the family business. In 1862 he was appointed ceroplast at the University, the same place that his father had occupied for so many years; and just like his father, Jules also became renowned for his wax and plaster anatomical models, both normal and pathological, which on the account of their exquisite workmanship were commissioned and exhibited in several museums, and turned out a huge success in several Universal Expositions.

Besides a vast scientific production, the Maison Talrich provided services in the funeral business, modeling funeral masks or reconstructing illustrious faces such as that of Cardinal Richelieu, realized from his embalmed head. The ability of the French ceroplast also turned out to be useful in some criminal cases, for example to identify the corpse of a woman cut in half which was found in the Seine in 1876. Talrich’s waxes were also highly requested in the religious field, and the company made several important wax effigies of saints and martyrs.

However, Talrich also influenced the world of entertainment and traveling fairs, at least to some extent. At the beginning of 1866 on the Grands Boulevards he opened his “Musée Français”, a wax museum in the spirit of the famous Madame Tussauds in London.

Talrich’s exhibition had a markedly mainstream appeal: upstairs, the public could see aome literary, historical and mythological characters (from Adam and Eve to Don Quixote, from Hercules to Vesalius), while for a surcharge of 5 francs one could access the underground floor, by descending a narrow spiral staircase. Here, in a calculated “chamber of horrors” atmosphere, were collected the most morbid attractions — torture scenes, pathological waxes, and so on. The visit ended with the illusion of the “Talking Head” illusion, patented by Professor Pepper (also inventor of the Pepper’s ghost); unfortunately the public soon realized that the effect was achieved by hiding an actor’s body behind two mirrors, and in a short time the real entertainment for the crowd became throwing paper balls on the poor man’s head.

The fact that a renowned and serious ceroplast, with a permanent job at the University, devoted himself to this kind of popular entertainment should not be astonishing. His museum, in fact, was part of a larger movement that in the second half of the 19th century brought anatomy into circuses and traveling fairs, a kind of attraction balancing between science, education and sensationalism.

In those years nearly every sideshow had a wax museum. And in it,

pedagogical figures had to provide information on distant populations and on the mysteries of procreation, they had to explain why one needed to wash and abstain from drinking too much, to show the perils of venereal diseases and the ambiguities of consanguinity. It was an illustrated morality, but also an opportunity to gaze at the forbidden in good conscience, to become a voyeur by virtue. A summary of the perversities of bourgeois civilization.

(A. de Baecque, “Tristes cires”, Libération, 13 luglio 2001)

A strange and ambiguous mixture of science and entertainment:

Traveling anatomical museums found their place at the fair, alongside the pavilions of scientific popularization, historical wax museums and other dioramas, all manifestations of the transition from high culture to popular culture. These new types of museums differed from the pedagogical university museums on the account of their purpose and the type of public they were intended for: contrary to academical institutions, they had to touch the general public of traveling fairs as lucrative attractions, which explains the spectacular nature of some pieces. And yet, they never completely lost their pedagogical vocation, although retranslated in a moralizing sense, as testified by the common collections about “social hygiene”.

(H. Palouzié, C. Ducourau, “De la collection Fontana à la collection Spitzner,
l’aventure des cires anatomiques de Paris à Montpellier
”, in In Situ n. 31, 2017)

The Musée Français was short-lived, and Talrich was forced to close after less than two years of activity; in 1876, he opened a second museum near Montmartre, this time a more scientific (albeit still voyeuristic) installation. Almost 300 pathological models were exposed here, as well as some ethnological waxes.


But besides his own museums, Jules Talrich supplied waxworks and plaster models for a whole range of other collections — both stable and itinerant — such as the Musée Grevin, the Grand Panopticum de l’Univers or the very famous Spitzner Museum.
In fact, many of the pieces circulating in amusement parks were made by Talrich; and some of these anatomical waxes, together with real pathological and teratological preparations, are now kept in a “secret cabinet” inside the Musée des Arts Forains at the Pavillons de Bercy in Paris. (This museum, entirely dedicated to traveling carnivals, is in my opinion one of the most marvelous places in the world and, ça va sans dire, I have included it in my book Paris Mirabilia).

Jules Talrich retired in 1903, but his grandchildren continued the business for some time. Jules and his father Jacques are remembered as the greatest French ceroplasts, together with Jean-Baptiste Laumonier (1749-1818), Jules Baretta (1834-1923) and Charles Jumelin (1848-1924).

In closing, here’s one last curiosity — as well as the last “convergence”, of the four I mentioned at the beginning.

Several photographs of Jules Talrich exist, and for a peculilar reason. A lover of physiognomy and phrenology himself, Jules agreed in 1861 to take part in Guillaume Duchenne‘s experiments on how facial expressions are connected to emotions. The shots depicting Talrich were included by Duchenne in his Mécanisme de la physionomie humaine, published the following year.

But Jules’ beautiful face, with his iconic mustache, is also visible in some plasterwork, which Talrich provided with his own features: whether this was simply an artist’s whim, or a symbolic meditation on his own mortality, we will never know.

(Thanks, calliroe!)

The premature babies of Coney Island

Once upon a time on the circus or carnival midway, among the smell of hot dogs and the barkers’ cries, spectators could witness some amazing side attractions, from fire-eaters to bearded ladies, from electric dancers to the most exotic monstrosities (see f.i. some previous posts here and here).
Beyond our fascination for a time of naive wonder, there is another less-known reason for which we should be grateful to old traveling fairs: among the readers who are looking at this page right now, almost one out of ten is alive thanks to the sideshows.

This is the strange story of how amusement parks, and a visionary doctor’s stubbornness, contributed to save millions of human lives.

Until the end of XIX Century, premature babies had little or no chance of survival. Hospitals did not have neonatal units to provide efficient solutions to the problem, so the preemies were given back to their parents to be taken home — practically, to die. In all evidence, God had decided that those babies were not destined to survive.
In 1878 a famous Parisian obstetrician, Dr. Étienne Stéphane Tarnier, visited an exhibition called Jardin d’Acclimatation which featured, among other displays, a new method for hatching poultry in a controlled, hydraulic heated environment, invented by a Paris Zoo keeper; immediately the doctor thought he could test that same system on premature babies and commissioned a similar box, which allowed control of the temperature of the newborn’s environment.
After the first positive experimentations at the Maternity Hospital in Paris, the incubator was soon equipped with a bell that rang whenever the temperature went too high.
The doctor’s assistant, Pierre Budin, further developed the Tarnier incubator, on one hand studying how to isolate and protect the frail newborn babies from infectious disease, and on the other the correct quantities and methods of alimentation.

Despite the encouraging results, the medical community still failed to recognize the usefulness of incubators. This skepticism mainly stemmed from a widespread mentality: as mentioned before, the common attitude towards premature babies was quite fatalist, and the death of weaker infants was considered inevitable since the most ancient times.

Thus Budin decided to send his collaborator, Dr. Martin Couney, to the 1896 World Exhibition in Berlin. Couney, our story’s true hero, was an uncommon character: besides his knowledge as an obstetrician, he had a strong charisma and true showmanship; these virtues would prove fundamental for the success of his mission, as we shall see.
Couney, with the intent of creating a bit of a fuss in order to better spread the news, had the idea of exhibiting live premature babies inside his incubators. He had the nerve to ask Empress Augusta Victoria herself for permission to use some infants from the Charity Hospital in Berlin. He was granted the favor, as the newborn babies were destined to a certain death anyway.
But none of the infants lodged inside the incubators died, and Couney’s exhibition, called Kinderbrutanstalt (“child hatchery”) immediately became the talk of the town.

This success was repeated the following year in London, at Earl’s Court Exhibition (scoring 3600 visitors each day), and in 1898 at the Trans-Mississippi Exhibition in Omaha, Nebraska. In 1900 he came back to Paris for the World Exhibition, and in 1901 he attended the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, NY.

L'edificio costruito per gli incubatori a Buffalo.

The incubators building in Buffalo.

The incubators at the Buffalo Exhibition.

But in the States Couney met an even stronger resistence to accept this innovation, let alone implementing it in hospitals.
It must be stressed that although he was exhibiting a medical device, inside the various fairs his incubator stand was invariably (and much to his disappointment) confined to the entertainment section rather than the scientific section.
Maybe this was the reason why in 1903 Couney took a courageous decision.

If Americans thought incubators were just some sort of sideshow stunt, well then, he would give them the entertainment they wanted. But they would have to pay for it.

Infant-Incubators-building-at-1901-Pan-American-Exposition

Baby_incubator_exhibit,_A-Y-P,_1909

Couney definitively moved to New York, and opened a new attraction at Coney Island amusement park. For the next 40 years, every summer, the doctor exhibited premature babies in his incubators, for a quarter dollar. Spectators flowed in to contemplate those extremely underweight babies, looking so vulnerable and delicate as they slept in their temperate glass boxes. “Oh my, look how tiny!“, you could hear the crowd uttering, as people rolled along the railing separating them from the aisle where the incubators were lined up.

 

In order to accentuate the minuscule size of his preemies, Couney began resorting to some tricks: if the baby wasn’t small enough, he would add more blankets around his little body, to make him look tinier. Madame Louise Recht, a nurse who had been by Couney’s side since the very first exhibitions in Paris, from time to time would slip her ring over the babies’ hands, to demonstrate how thin their wrists were: but in reality the ring was oversized even for the nurse’s fingers.

Madame Louise Recht con uno dei neonati.

Madame Louise Recht with a newborn baby.

Preemie wearing on his wrist the nurse’s sparkler.

Couney’s enterprise, which soon grew into two separate incubation centers (one in Luna Park and the other in Dreamland), could seem quite cynical today. But it actually was not.
All the babies hosted in his attractions had been turned down by city hospitals, and given back to the parents who had no hope of saving them; the “Doctor Incubator” promised families that he would treat the babies without any expense on their part, as long as he could exhibit the preemies in public. The 25 cents people paid to see the newborn babies completely covered the high incubation and feeding expenses, even granting a modest profit to Couney and his collaborators. This way, parents had a chance to see their baby survive without paying a cent, and Couney could keep on raising awareness about the importance and effectiveness of his method.
Couney did not make any race distinction either, exhibiting colored babies along with white babies — an attitude that was quite rare at the beginning of the century in America. Among the “guests” displayed in his incubators, was at one point Couney’s own premature daughter, Hildegarde, who later became a nurse and worked with her father on the attraction.

Nurses with babies at Flushing World Fair, NY. At the center is Couney’s daughter, Hildegarde.

Besides his two establishments in Coney Island (one of which was destroyed during the 1911 terrible Dreamland fire), Couney continued touring the US with his incubators, from Chicago to St. Louis, to San Francisco.
In forty years, he treated around 8000 babies, and saved at least 6500; but his endless persistence in popularizing the incubator had much lager effects. His efforts, on the long run, contributed to the opening of the first neonatal intensive care units, which are now common in hospitals all around the world.

After a peak in popularity during the first decades of the XX Century, at the end of the 30s the success of Couney’s incubators began to decrease. It had become an old and trite attraction.
When the first premature infant station opened at Cornell’s New York Hospital in 1943, Couney told his nephew: “my work is done“. After 40 years of what he had always considered propaganda for a good cause, he definitively shut down his Coney Island enterprise.

Martin Arthur Couney (1870–1950).

The majority of information in this post comes from the most accurate study on the subject, by Dr. William A. Silverman (Incubator-Baby Side Shows, Pediatrics, 1979).

(Thanks, Claudia!)

Bizzarro Bazar a Parigi – III

Eccoci al nostro terzo ed ultimo appuntamento con la Parigi più insolita e curiosa.

Quando ci troviamo nel cuore di una metropoli, tutto ci aspetteremmo tranne che poter osservare… gli animali selvaggi nel proprio habitat. Eppure, nel centralissimo quartiere di Les Halles a pochi passi del Centre Pompidou, esiste un luogo davvero unico: il Museo della Caccia e della Natura.

Prima di approfondire le implicazioni filosofiche ed artistiche di questa stupefacente istituzione, lasciatevi raccontare quello che attende il visitatore che decida di varcare la soglia del Museo.
Mentre ci si avventura nella luce soffusa della prima stanza, gli arazzi alle pareti, le ricercate poltrone antiche e i raffinati mobili d’ebano intarsiati di splendide fantasie in avorio danno l’impressione di essere appena entrati in un’abitazione privata di un ricco collezionista dell’800. Eppure, a sorpresa, ecco un cinghiale proprio nel bel mezzo di questo nobile salotto – l’animale ci fissa, la sua enorme massa scura è minacciosa ed imponente. Chiaramente si tratta di un esemplare tassidermico, ma il contrasto con l’ambiente circostante è spiazzante.
Lì vicino si può notare un armadio diverso dagli altri: è il pannello dedicato proprio al cinghiale. I cassetti e le ante di questo particolare mobiletto si possono aprire liberamente: facendo scivolare un largo e basso cassetto, ecco una ricostruzione del terreno del sottobosco – in cui all’inizio si stenta a scorgere alcunché se non del fango e delle foglie secche, ma ecco, guardando meglio si possono distinguere le impronte lasciate dal passaggio degli zoccoli del cinghiale. E’ la pista che dovremmo saper riconoscere e seguire se volessimo dare la caccia a questa difficile preda. In un altro cassettino, ecco una riproduzione degli escrementi della bestia.

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Vi è anche una specie di binocolo integrato all’interno del legno dell’armadio. Accostando gli occhi, vediamo un paesaggio naturale in tre dimensioni. Sembra tutto piuttosto statico, i rami ondeggiano un poco e le acque di un lago si increspano, finché, con un po’ di pazienza, scorgiamo qualcosa che si muove in lontananza, fra le foglie… che sia proprio un cinghiale?

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Lasciata la stanza del cinghiale, si entra in quella del cervo, e lo strano senso di spaesamento si rinnova.
A parte le due bellissime plancie esplicative ai lati del mobile, marchiate a fuoco nel legno, che raccontano le abitudini e le caratteristiche dell’animale, non vi è traccia delle classiche e pedisseque targhette da museo. Alcune sottili associazioni sono liberamente lasciate alla sensibilità del visitatore, come ad esempio quando a due passi dal teschio del cervo s’incontra una statua che rappresenta un satiro: molti passeranno oltre, senza accorgersi che le corna della statua antica sono perfettamente somiglianti a quelle del cervo… ma quando nella mente dell’osservatore prende forma questa analogia, ecco che senza bisogno di tante parole quella stanza svela l’importanza fondamentale dell’animale (il cervo, in questo caso) nell’immaginario umano. E mano a mano che ci si aggira per le sale, risulta sempre più evidente che, più che un Museo della Caccia, questo luogo è un tributo al complesso e stratificato rapporto fra esseri umani ed animali, e a come esso sia mutato nel corso dei millenni.

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Nelle altre stanze si possono trovare opere d’arte e installazioni moderne proposte di fianco a carabine d’epoca, saloni che esplorano la tradizione venatoria del trofeo (rappresentazione ed esposizione della gloria del massacro, inquietante ed infantile al tempo stesso), teche piene di maschere di carnevale dalle fattezze animalesche che dimostrano come, a livello simbolico, la bestia sia radicata nel nostro inconscio – tanto da spingerci a dare vita anche ad animali e chimere di fantasia, di cui facciamo la conoscenza nello splendido gabinetto dell’unicorno.

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Ma qual è la storia dietro a questo eccentrico museo? La fondazione si deve a François Sommer e a sua moglie Jacqueline: ricco collezionista e appassionato cacciatore, Sommer fu tra i primi a sostenere attivamente la necessità di una caccia etica, rispettosa dell’equilibrio naturale. Il cinghiale e il cervo, in via di estinzione, ritornarono a popolare le foreste francesi proprio grazie a Sommer e alle sue tenute, in cui voleva che gli animali selvaggi potessero moltiplicarsi al riparo dalla venagione indiscriminata.

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Eppure, per quanto rispettoso e appassionato naturalista, egli era pur sempre un amante della caccia: da qui l’idea di un museo che mostrasse quanto questa attività avesse contribuito alla civilizzazione, e che allo stesso tempo esplorasse la nostra percezione degli animali e come si è radicalmente evoluta dalla preistoria ai giorni nostri.

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Oggi che è venuto a mancare il suo fine sostentativo, rifiutiamo la caccia come superflua e crudele (affidandoci per l’approvvigionamento di carne ad altri metodi, bisogna vedere se meno crudeli), e consideriamo gli animali come vittime: ma un tempo il cinghiale, ad esempio, era un fiero e pericolosissimo avversario, capace di sbudellare il cacciatore con le sue zanne in pochi minuti. Esisteva dunque un naturale rispetto per l’animale che si è venuto a modificare.
Nel nostro Occidente ipertecnologico ed industrializzato, la caccia sta progressivamente perdendo ogni motivo di esistere; questo non cancella però il peso fondamentale che questa attività ha rivestito nei secoli. La storia della caccia, in fondo, è la storia del faticoso tentativo dell’uomo di prevalere nella gerarchia naturale, ma anche la storia delle nostre paure più ancestrali, dei nostri sogni, dei nostri miti.

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Per approfondire e completare questa riflessione sui rapporti fra esseri umani e animali, ci rechiamo nuovamente nella banlieue, questa volta a nord-ovest di Parigi sulla rive gauche, ad Asnières-sur-Seine. Qui si trova il Cimitero dei Cani che, nonostante il nome, ospita anche molte altre specie di animali da compagnia.

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Ufficialmente aperto alla fine dell’estate del 1899, il cimitero rispecchia il trasformarsi della funzione dell’animale (da utilitario ad animale di compagnia) avvenuta nel corso del XIX° Secolo. Se in quegli ultimi decenni le condizioni di vita degli “amici a quattro zampe” erano infatti migliorate, si avvertiva l’esigenza di una sistemazione più consona anche per le spoglie degli animali deceduti, e che fino a quel momento venivano squartati, o abbandonati nell’immondizia, o gettati nella Senna.

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Nonostante alcune croniche difficoltà che continueranno, nel corso del secolo successivo, ad affliggerlo, il Cimitero dei Cani conoscerà un successo crescente, popolandosi di monumenti e sepolture sempre più prestigiose. Nel 1900 ad esempio viene eretto all’entrata del cimitero un monumento alla memoria di Barry, un San Bernardo che all’inizio del secolo precedente aveva “salvato la vita a 40 persone, restando ucciso dalla 41ma!”; a quanto pare, cioè, il coraggioso cane morì stremato da quest’ultimo sforzo. Alla sua morte, il suo corpo venne imbalsamato e conservato presso il Museo di storia naturale di Berna.
Un’altra tomba commemora un cane randagio che il 15 maggio del 1958 venne a morire proprio alle porte del cimitero: casualità straordinaria, si trattava del quarantamillesimo animale ad essere seppellito lì.

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Ma qui, tutte le tombe raccontano delle storie di affetto e di amore fra persone ed animali, legami forti che apparentemente nulla hanno da invidiare a quelli fra esseri umani. Alcune iscrizioni sono davvero toccanti: “Figlia mia / Amore della mia vita / Ti amo / Tua mamma“, recita la tomba di Caramel. Sulla lapide della scimmietta Kiki è iscritto il verso “Dormi mia cara / fosti la gioia della mia vita“. Il proprietario del barboncino Youpi, morto nel 2001, scrive: “Il tuo immenso affetto ha illuminato la mia vita, sono talmente triste senza di te e il tuo meraviglioso sguardo“. E ancora: “In memoria della mia cara Emma, dal 12 Aprile 1889 al 2 Agosto 1900 fedele compagna e sola amica della mia vita errante e desolata“.

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Iscrizioni commoventi, dicevamo: in certi casi l’incontro fra uomo e animale può rivelarsi una bellissima amicizia, tanto che ogni barriera specifica viene a cadere di fronte all’affetto creatosi fra due esseri viventi.
Eppure, bisogna ammetterlo, il Cimitero dei Cani fa anche un po’ sorridere. I mausolei sfarzosi e riccamente ornati, le grosse lapidi erette per un pesciolino rosso o per un criceto, i monumenti fatti scolpire appositamente per tartarughe, cavalli, topolini, uccelli, conigli e perfino gazzelle, fennec e lemuri ci possono sembrare in alcuni casi francamente esagerati.

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Ma si tratta sempre, a ben vedere, dello stesso antico bisogno (forse, sì, patetico, ma incrollabile e a suo modo eroico) che sta alla base di qualsiasi necropoli: la necessità, tutta umana, di dare valore alle cose e alla vita, cercando di impedire che il passaggio sulla terra di coloro che amiamo termini senza lasciare traccia alcuna. Una battaglia destinata a fallire, in ultima istanza, ma che offre conforto a chi si trova ad elaborare un lutto.

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Abbandoniamo il Cimitero dei Cani, non prima di aver visitato un’ultima, umile tomba: quella di una celebre star del cinema…

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Terminiamo quindi il nostro viaggio con una visita a quello che è probabilmente il luogo più magico dell’intera capitale: il Musée des Arts Forains.
Si tratta di un’enorme collezione/installazione dedicata alle  fêtes foraines, cioè quelle giostre itineranti che da noi presero il nome di luna park (dal primo parco di attrazioni della storia, a Coney Island). Un tempo le giostre non erano nemmeno itineranti, ma trovavano posto all’interno delle città; poi, in seguito alle lamentele per il rumore, vennero spostate lontano dai centri abitati, e con il nomadismo iniziò anche il loro declino.

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Il Museo è collocato all’interno dei pittoreschi Pavillons Bercy, antichi depositi di vino, e magazzini di scalo per le merci in attesa d’essere caricate sui battelli fluviali. La visita guidata (che va prenotata in anticipo, visto che i gruppi hanno un numero limitato di partecipanti) si articola in tre diversi spazi: il Teatro del Meraviglioso, il Musée des Art Forains vero e proprio, e il Salone Veneziano.

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Il Teatro del Meraviglioso accoglie il visitatore con un’esplosione di luci colorate e di strane scenografie, in una sorta di ritorno all’atmosfera delle esposizioni universali di inizio secolo. C’è da restare a bocca aperta. Un elefante, appeso ad una mongolfiera, porta sulla schiena un incredibile e fragilissimo diorama creato interamente in mollica di pane; fra le foglie e gli intricati tronchi naturali, appositamente selezionati per la loro forma curiosa e artistica, fanno la ruota i pavoni meccanici; statue di sirene montano la guardia agli antenati dei flipper; tutto intorno, macchinari e giocattoli fantastici mentre, in fondo al salone, una corsa di cavalli con le biglie impegna i visitatori in una gara all’ultimo lancio. Sì, perché tutte le giostre che si trovano nel museo, originali di fine ‘800 e inizio ‘900, sono ancora funionanti e il tour include l’esperienza di provarne alcune in prima persona.

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Nel salone a fianco, è la musica a farla da padrone. Un unicorno se ne sta ritto vicino ad un pianoforte i cui tasti si muovono da soli, mentre la guida turistica (per metà Virgilio, per metà imbonitore) dà inizio alle danze, facendo vibrare le pareti al suono di un antico organo e un carillon di tubi che si diramano lungo su tutte le pareti. Assieme ai visitatori che si cimentano in un valzer improvvisato, si muovono a tempo di musica sui loro baldacchini e parapetti anche gli automi con le fattezze di alcuni personaggi famosi degli anni d’oro di Parigi.

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Questo spazio, evocativo e misterioso, viene utilizzato per serate ed eventi ed è anche dotato, per queste occasioni speciali, di 12 video proiettori che sono in grado di trasformare i muri nelle pareti interne del Nautilus, il celebre sottomarino del Capitano Nemo.

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Ci si sposta poi in un diverso padiglione, dove è ospitato il Musée des Arts Forains, dedicato al luna park vero e proprio. Come prima cosa, si prova sui propri timpani la potenza sonora dell’Organetto di Barberia: quando il mantice soffiava nelle canne, questo strumento a rullo spandeva l’allegra musica per chilometri sottovento, annunciando con le sue note l’arrivo delle giostre in città.

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Poi, ecco comparire l’emblema e il simbolo di qualsiasi luna park: la giostra con i cavalli. Ad una popolaione divenuta urbana a seguito della rivoluzione industriale, questa attrazione ricordava le proprie origini rurali; e, al tempo stesso, prometteva alla gente comune il sogno di sentirsi nobili cavalieri per lo spazio di qualche giro di giostra.
Uno dei dettagli interessanti è il fatto che solitamente i cavalli hanno un solo lato perfettamente decorato e dipinto, quello che dà verso l’esterno. Il loro fianco interno, invece, è pitturato molto più grossolanamente – con il tipico cinismo dei circensi, i costruttori sapevano che l’importante era attirare chi sulla giostra non era ancora salito!

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I visitatori montano sulle loro selle, chiudono gli occhi, e sulle note di Mon manège à moi di Édith Piaf i cavalli di legno si mettono in moto… da quando fu creata, nel 1890, più di due milioni di persone hanno riscoperto la loro anima di bambini su questa giostra di origine tedesca.

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Dopo aver passato in rassegna innumerevoli altri tipi di attrazioni, si sale sulla giostra probabilmente più bizzarra dell’intera collezione: un manège vélocipédique del 1897. Qui sono i visitatori stessi che con le loro pedalate mettono in moto la giostra, raggiungendo velocità da capogiro.

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Infine, ecco che ci si sposta nel terzo padiglione, dedicato a Venezia, per una “corsa” molto più rilassante e serena su una giostra di gondole, mentre si ammira l’insolita ricostruzione dei canali e dei palazzi che adorna le pareti.

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La visita termina con uno spettacolo di musica lirica interpretata dagli automi di Casanova, del Doge, di Arlecchino, Pantalone, eccetera.