Dancing With Death

During the great waves of plague in the Middle Ages, two allegorical motifs arose: the Triumph of Death and the Danse Macabre. What can they teach us today?

Here’s a video I made for the University of Padua, for the project Covid Catalog of Losses and Findings.[Remember to turn on English Subtitles.]

Death As A Friend

In 1851 the German artist Alfred Rethel (who three years before had already signed an overtly political Danse Macabre) produced the sketches for two twin engravings: Death as an Enemy and Death as a Friend.

If his Death as an Enemy (above), although elegant and refined, is not so original as it is inspired by a long tradition of “Triumphs of Death” and skeletal figures towering over piles of dead bodies, it is instead the specular Death as a Friend which always fascinated me.
I recently managed to get a reproduction of this etching, taken from a late 19th-century book, and I was finally able to scan it properly. Much of the charm of this lithograph, in fact, derives from the attention given to the smallest details, which need to be carefully examined and interpreted; for this reason, admiring it in high quality is fundamental. At the end of this article you will find the link to download it; but I’d like to show you first why I love this image so much.

The scene takes us to the topmost room inside the bell tower of a medieval cathedral.
The environment is modest, the only discreet frieze present above the window arch is certainly nothing compared to how the church should look from the outside: we can guess it from a glimpse at the gargoyle in the upper left corner, and from the carved finials of the spire we see from the window.


Between these four walls the old sexton and bell ringer spent his whole life; we can imagine the cold of harsh winters, when the wind whistled entering from the large window, causing the snow to swirl in the room. We can feel the fatigue of those wooden stairs that the man must have climbed up and down Lord knows how many times, in order to reach the top of the tower.
Now the guardian has come to the end of his days: his horn remains silent, hanging on the handrail.


The frail limbs of the old man (his right foot turned to the side, under the leg’s weight), his sunken figure in the armchair, his hands abandoned in his lap and weakly united in one last prayer — everything tells us that his life is coming to an end.

His was a humble but pious life. We can guess it from the remains of his last poor meal, a simple piece of bread and a glass that allude to the Eucharist. We also understand it from the crucifix, the only furnishing in addition to the table and chair, and from the open book of scriptures.
The bunch of keys hanging from his belt are another element bearing a double meaning: they identify his role as a sacristan, but also reference the other bunch of keys that await him, the ones Saint Peter will use to unlock the gates of Paradise.

The real vanishing point is the sun setting behind the horizon of a country landscape. It is the evening of the day, the evening of a life that has run its course just like the river we see in the distance, the emblem of panta rei. Yet on its banks we see well-cultivated and regular fields, a sign that the flowing of that water has borne fruit.
A little bird lands on the windowsill of the large window; is she a friend of the old man, with whom he shared a few crumbs of bread? Did the bird worry when she didn’t hear the bells ringing as usual? In any case, it is a moving detail, and an indication of life carrying on.

And finally let’s take a look at Death.
This is not the Black Lady (or the Grim Reaper) we find in most classic depictions, her figure could not be further from the one that brought scourge and devastation in the medieval Triumphs of Death. Of course she is a skeleton and can inspire fear, but the hood and saddlebag are those of a traveler. Death came a long way to visit the old man, so much so that she carries a scallop on his chest, the sea shell associated with Saint James, symbol of the Pilgrim; her bony feet have trampled the Earth far and wide, since time immemorial. And this constant wandering unites her, in spirit, with the old man — not surprisingly, the same shell is also pinned on the sexton’s hat, next to his staff and a bundle of herbs that he has collected.

This Death however, as indicated by the title, is “a friend”. When facing such a virtuous man, that same Death who knows how to be a ruthless and ferocious tyrant becomes a “sister” in the Franciscan sense. Her head lowered, her empty orbits turned to the ground, she seems almost intent on a secret meditation: from the beginning of time she has carried out her task with diligence, but here we see she is not evil.
And in fact, she makes a gesture of disarming gentleness: she rings the bells one last time, to announce vespers in the place of the dying man who is no longer able to do it.

It is time for the changing of the guard, the elderly man can now leave the post he has occupied for so long. With the quiet arrival of the evening, with the last tolling of those bells he has attended to throughout his life, a simple and devoted existence ends. Everything is peaceful, everything is done.

Few other images, I believe, are able to render so elegantly the Christian ideal (but, in general, the human ideal) of the “Good Death”.
Unfortunately, not everyone will be able to afford such an idyllic end; but if Death were really so kind, caring and compassionate, who wouldn’t want to have her as a friend?

To download my high-quality scan (60Mb) of Death as Friend, click here.

Cannibals at the Pantheon

Among the seven deadly sins, there is one for which the inhabitants of Rome — both ancient and modern — have always been (in)famous: the sin of gluttony.

One of the Roman squares which for centuries was associated with food, groceries and the most varied delicacies was the “Piazza della Ritonna”, that is the square in front of the Pantheon.
Here in the past there were numerous delicatessens called “spizzicherie”, shops in which food was sold “in spizzico”, in small quantities. Eggs, anchovies, salt, but above all cheese and cured meats, for which the piazza was renowned. The pizzicagnoli didn’t sell their merchandise only in authorized delicatessens, but the whole square was regularly invaded and occupied by stalls, sheds, movable booths — in short, it was a sort of chaotic outdoor market.

During Easter, the delicatessens would also set up baroque exhibitions, with spectacular lanscapes created with food in the attempt to impress the crowd with their opulence. In the square began a competition to build the most elaborate sculpture of cold cuts, sausages and cheeses.

Belli gave an account of these scenes in a 1833 poem (the translation for this and the following extracts in Roman dialect are in the notes):

De le pizzicarie che ttutte fanno
la su’ gran mostra pe ppascua dell’ova,
cuella de Bbiascio a la Ritonna è st’anno
la ppiú mmejjo de Roma che sse trova.
Colonne de casciotte, che ssaranno
scento a ddí ppoco, arreggeno un’arcova
ricamata a ssarcicce, e llí cce stanno
tanti animali d’una forma nova.
Fra ll’antri, in arto, sc’è un Mosè de strutto,
cor bastone per aria com’un sbirro,
in cima a una Montaggna de presciutto;
e ssott’a llui, pe stuzzicà la fame,
sc’è un Cristo e una Madonna de bbutirro
drent’a una bbella grotta de salame.
(1)”Among the delicatessens that make a great exhibition for Easter, the best one this year is Biagio’s, in Piazza della Rotonda. Columns of caciottas, a hundred of them to say the least, hold an arc decorated with sausages, and one can see a host of little animals coming in many shapes. Among others, above stands a Moses made of lard, holding his stick in the air like a policeman, on top of a mountain of ham; and below him, to whet your appetite, there are a Christ and a Madonna made of butter, inside a beautiful grotto of salami.”

Another more recent account comes from Giggi Zanazzo in 1908:

Ne le du’ sere der gioveddì e vennardi ssanto, li pizzicaroli romani aùseno a ffa’ in de le bbotteghe la mostra de li caci, de li preciutti, dell’òva e dde li salami. Certi ce metteno lo specchio pe’ ffa’ li sfonni, e ccert’antri cce fanno le grotte d’òva o dde salami, co’ ddrento er sepporcro co’ li pupazzi fatti de bbutiro, che sso’ ‘na bbellezza a vvedesse. E la ggente, in quela sera, uscenno da la visita de li sepporcri, va in giro a rimirà’ le mostre de li pizzicaroli de pòrso, che ffanno a ggara a cchi le pò ffa’ mmejo. (2)”On the two evenings of Thursday and Good Friday, in their shops the Roman pizzicagnoli make an exhibition of cheese, hams, eggs and sausages. Some place a mirror as a background, while others create huge caves of eggs or salami, with the Holy Sepulchre inside, and puppets made of butter which are a beauty to be seen. And on those evenings, the people coming from the visit to the cemetery go around gazing at the shows put up by the most prominent butchers, competing against each other to see who makes the best one.”

The tradition of food cornucopias continued until recent times. But not everyone loved those stalls and shops; in fact the authorities tried many times, starting from the 1400s and then cyclically over the centuries, to clear the square with various decrees and injunctions.

One of these episodes of restoration of the decorum is remembered on a commemorative plaque dating back to 1823 and displayed on the wall of the the building just opposite the Pantheon, at number 14 in Piazza della Rotonda:

POPE PIO VII IN THE XXIII YEAR OF HIS KINGDOM
BY MEANS OF AN OPPORTUNE DEMOLITION
CLAIMED FROM HIDEOUS UGLINESS
THE AREA IN FRONT OF THE PANTHEON OF M. AGRIPPA
OCCUPIED BY IGNOBLE TAVERNS AND
ORDERED THE VIEW BE LEFT FREE AND THE SPACE CLEAR

Of all the butchers working in this area, those coming from the city of Norcia had the reputation of being the most skilled, so much so that it was a common insult to wish the opponent would end up “castrated by a norcino [butcher from Norcia] at the Rotonda”.

And in Piazza della Rotonda, in 1638, there were two butchers from Norcia, husband and wife, whose sausages were the best of all.
From all quarters of the city, people flocked to buy them: these sausages were even too sublime and delicious.

Thus the word began to spread that the butchers were hiding a secret. What did they put in their sausages to make them so tasty? And didn’t someone swear they saw some chubby, round-bodied customers enter the shop and never come out?

The rumor finally reached the ears of the Captain of Justice, who started an investigation; while searching the premises, the police actually found human bones in the basement of the butcher’s shop.
Pope Urban VIII, born Maffeo Vincenzo Barberini, sentenced the two butchers to be executed right in front of the Pantheon: they both were killed, slaughtered and quartered with an ax by another exquisite master in the art of butchery, the Pope’s official executioner.

This story remained alive in the memory of the Romans. The population was so impressed by the crime, that it reappeared from time to time in vernacular poems until as late as 1905, for example in this poem entitled About the skeletons found at the Rotonna (M. D’Antoni, in Marforio, IV, 308 – 1 Luglio 1905):

Ammappeli e che straccio de corata
che ciaveveno que’ li du’ norcini:
attaccaveno l’ommeni a l’ancini
come se fa a ’na bestia macellata.

La carne umana doppo stritolata
l’insaccaveno, e li, que’ l’assassini
faceveno sarcicce, codichini,
vennennola pe’ carne prelibbata.

Saranno stati boja anticamente
a mettese a insaccà la carne umana:
però so’ più bojaccia ’nder presente.

Perchè mò ce sò certi amico caro,
che ar posto de’ la carne un po’ cristiana,
Ce schiaffeno er cavallo cor somaro!! (3)”Wow those two butchers certainly had a lot of gall: they attacked men on hooks like a slaughtered beast. They ground and stuffed the human flesh, and those killers made sausages and cotechino, selling it as delicious meat. In ancient times, those who made sausages from human flesh were surely criminals: but they are even more so in the present. Because nowadays there are some, dear friend, that instead of using meat from a Christian, they mix horse meat with donkey meat!”

We should note at this point that the whole story may well be an urban legend.

The trope of the butcher who sells human flesh for pork is in fact a very ancient and rather widespread type of urban legend: the talented Sofia Lincos analyzed it with Giuseppe Stilo in an in-depth research divided into three parts (one, two and three, Italian only).

As I searched for clues in the judicial chronicles of the time, I managed to find a single reference to the story of the Pantehon’s cannibal butchers. It can be found in a 1883 book by David Silvagni, who quotes a manuscript dossier compiled by Abbot Benedetti:

These dossiers bear the title (given by the Abbott himself) of Ancient Facts Occurred in Rome, and they trace the history of the most famous misdeeds and the most famous executions, starting with the Cenci trial, of which there is another older but identical copy. And it is important to read these faithful accounts of atrocious deeds and even more atrocious executions, which the author narrates with the same calm and simplicity with which today a newspaper chronicler would announce a theater play. […] And so great is the restraint that the diarist shows, that there is not one word of indignation even for the bloodiest of all stories found in the manuscript. In fact, in a very calm and aunassuming style he recounts the “execution of justice commanded by Pope Urban VIII in the year 1638 and performed in the Piazza della Rotonda, in which two impious, wicked butchers who mixed pig meat with human flesh were killed, slaughtered and quartered”.

D. Silvagni, La corte e la società romana
nei secoli XVIII e XIX
(Vol II p. 96-98, 1883)

The abbot Benedetti lived at the end of the eighteenth century, more than a hundred years after the alleged incident. But as his prose is described to be austere and impartial, I am inclined to think that he was transcribing some sort of register, rather than reporting a simple rumor.

So did this story actually happen, is it a legend, or perhaps an exaggeration of real events?

We don’t have a definitive answer. In any case, the history of the two butchers of the Pantheon represents an ironic warning not to indulge in gluttony, the capital sin of the Capital. A warning which, alas, was not given much attention: the people of Rome, known for being gourmands, would gladly turn down all enticements of Paradise for a good plate of carbonara.

[Note: This is the iconic Roman actress & cook Sora Lella. “Who gives a damn, let me eat!”]

Note   [ + ]

1. ”Among the delicatessens that make a great exhibition for Easter, the best one this year is Biagio’s, in Piazza della Rotonda. Columns of caciottas, a hundred of them to say the least, hold an arc decorated with sausages, and one can see a host of little animals coming in many shapes. Among others, above stands a Moses made of lard, holding his stick in the air like a policeman, on top of a mountain of ham; and below him, to whet your appetite, there are a Christ and a Madonna made of butter, inside a beautiful grotto of salami.”
2. ”On the two evenings of Thursday and Good Friday, in their shops the Roman pizzicagnoli make an exhibition of cheese, hams, eggs and sausages. Some place a mirror as a background, while others create huge caves of eggs or salami, with the Holy Sepulchre inside, and puppets made of butter which are a beauty to be seen. And on those evenings, the people coming from the visit to the cemetery go around gazing at the shows put up by the most prominent butchers, competing against each other to see who makes the best one.”
3. ”Wow those two butchers certainly had a lot of gall: they attacked men on hooks like a slaughtered beast. They ground and stuffed the human flesh, and those killers made sausages and cotechino, selling it as delicious meat. In ancient times, those who made sausages from human flesh were surely criminals: but they are even more so in the present. Because nowadays there are some, dear friend, that instead of using meat from a Christian, they mix horse meat with donkey meat!”

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[Be sure to turn on English captions]

And so we came to the conclusion … at least for this first season.
Will there be another one? Who knows?

For the moment, enjoy this last episode and consider subscribing to the channel if you haven’t yet. Cheers!

Written & Hosted by Ivan Cenzi
Directed by Francesco Erba
Produced by Ivan Cenzi, Francesco Erba, Theatrum Mundi & Onda Videoproduzioni

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If you like this episode please consider subscribing to the channel, and most of all spread the word. Enjoy!

Written & Hosted by Ivan Cenzi
Directed by Francesco Erba
Produced by Ivan Cenzi, Francesco Erba, Theatrum Mundi & Onda Videoproduzioni

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If you like this episode please consider subscribing to the channel, and most of all spread the word. Enjoy!

Written & Hosted by Ivan Cenzi
Directed by Francesco Erba
Produced by Ivan Cenzi, Francesco Erba, Theatrum Mundi & Onda Videoproduzioni

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If you like this episode please consider subscribing to the channel, and most of all spread the word. Enjoy!

Written & Hosted by Ivan Cenzi
Directed by Francesco Erba
Produced by Ivan Cenzi, Francesco Erba, Theatrum Mundi & Onda Videoproduzioni

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If you like this episode please consider subscribing to the channel, and most of all spread the word. Enjoy!

Written & Hosted by Ivan Cenzi
Directed by Francesco Erba
Produced by Ivan Cenzi, Francesco Erba, Theatrum Mundi & Onda Videoproduzioni

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If you like this episode please consider subscribing to the channel, and most of all spread the word. Enjoy!

Written & Hosted by Ivan Cenzi
Directed by Francesco Erba
Produced by Ivan Cenzi, Francesco Erba, Theatrum Mundi & Onda Videoproduzioni

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If you like this episode please consider subscribing to the channel, and most of all spread the word. Enjoy!

Written & Hosted by Ivan Cenzi
Directed by Francesco Erba
Produced by Ivan Cenzi, Francesco Erba, Theatrum Mundi & Onda Videoproduzioni