In this period of self-reclusion, I am sure that you will have no problem exploiting your forced retreat in an inspired or culturally relevant way. Because on the internet everyone — EVERYONE — is recommending endless lists of books and films and TV series and myriads of other ways of employing the empty hours.
Personally, compared to other “content creators” (awful definition), I have been a little hesitant these days in proposing reading/viewing/listening suggestions. I keep posting some curious finds on social networks, as I always do, but no lists or tips to get distracted.
Maybe it’s because I would not feel comfortable riding the wave of such a dramatic event (even make-up tutorials now contain the coronavirus hashtag), perhaps lowering myself to the point of advertising my books once again; or maybe it’s because I have the feeling that we are destroying the possibility of enjoying a bit of boredom and existential ennui, as incapable as we are of detoxifying ourselves from constant hyperstimulation. Ours might end up being a frantic isolation, more dense and crowded with things to do than usual.
But the real reason is that we live in unusual times.
Times traversed by widespread and meandering anxieties, by the sensation an imminent redefinition, as if we were all — I would say: as a living species — on the brink of an uncertain future, very different from the reassuring and predictable one that awaited our grandparents or great grandparents when they were young.
Sometimes we feel that the tip of our feet has reached this invisible border, this limen beyond which we cannot foresee what lies ahead. However, a step forward must be taken. And it becomes increasingly evident that we must all take that step together. That’s the “solidarity” we so often confuse with charity, but which etymologically means to be “solid”, compact — I would say: as a living species.
What awaits us is unknown, and the unknown is fearful, exciting, unsettling. This is the dimension that for many years I have tried to indicate as the true meaning of wonder, the original thauma which is a mixture of amazement, enchantment and terror.
Such a feeling is not easy, nor comforting. But it is fertile: new thoughts arise, new perspectives, even new philosophies. It is an opportunity to improve.
We live in an unusual time.
That’s why I do not intend to propose anything to “kill” it: because, if you are reading these lines, there is a good chance that you are yourself unusual individuals. People who seek wonder, who better than others know how to balance the attractions and deceptions of Awe.
So this is your time, your moment. Tune in, enjoy it, make it count.
As good old Hunter S. Thompson said:
Welcome to the column which — according to readers — is responsible for many wasted worktime hours, but also provides some fresh conversation starters.
Allow me the usual quick summary of what happened to me over the last few weeks: in addition to being on the radio, first as a guest at Miracolo Italiano on RaiRadio2, and then interviewed on Radio Cusano Campus, a couple of days ago I was invited to take part in a broadcast I love very much, Terza Pagina, hosted by astrophysicist and fantasy author Licia Troisi. We talked about the dark meaning of the carnival, the upcoming TV series adapted from Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a rather weird scientific research, and one book that is particularly close to my heart. The episode is available for streaming on RaiPlay (but of course it’s in Italian only).
Let’s start with some wonderful links that, despite these pleasant distractions, I have collected for you.
Every week for forty years a letter written by a Japanese gentleman, Mr. Kaor, was delivered to Hotel Spaander in Holland. The handwritten message was always the same: “Dear Sirs, how are you and how is the weather this week?”. Finally in 2018 some journalists tracked down the mysterious sender, discovering that 1) he had never set foot in that Dutch hotel in his entire life, and 2) some rather eccentric motivations were behind those 40 years of missives. Today Mr. Kaor even has his own portrait inside the hotel. Here is the full story. (Thanks, Matthew!)
Ever heard of the Holocene Extinction, the sixth mass extinction ever occurred on our planet?
You should, because it’s happening now, and we’ve caused it.
As for me, perhaps because of all the semiotics I studied at the university, I am intrigued by its linguistic implications: the current situation is so alarming that scientists, in their papers, are no longer using that classic, cold, distant vocabulary. Formal language does not apply to the Apocalypse.
For example, a new research on the rapid decline in the population of insects on a global scale uses surprisingly strong tones, which the authors motivate as follows: “We wanted to really wake people up. When you consider 80% of biomass of insects has disappeared in 25-30 years, it is a big concern. […] It is very rapid. In 10 years you will have a quarter less, in 50 years only half left and in 100 years you will have none.“
On a more optimistic note, starting from the second half of this year new emojis will arrive on our smartphones, specifically dedicated to disability and diversity. And yes, they will also include that long-awaited emoticon for menstruation.
Thomas Morris’ blog is always one of my favorite readings. This gentleman tirelessly combs through 19th-century medical publications in search of funny, uplifting little stories — like this one about a man crushed by a cartwheel which pushed his penis inside his abdomen, leaving its full skin dangling out like an empty glove.
There is one dramatic and excruciating picture I can not watch without being moved. It was taken by freelance photographer Taslima Akhter during the rescue of victims of the terrible 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh (which took the life of 1129 people, and wounded more than 2500). The photo, entitled Final Embrace, has won numerous awards and you can see it by clicking here.
Jack Stauber is a brilliant madman: he produces nonsense music videos that seem salvaged from some 1980s VHS, and are among the most genuinely creepy and hilarious things you’ll see on YouTube. Below I prresent you with the wonderful Cooking with Abigail, but there’s plenty more on his channel.
A new book on Jack The Ripper has been released in the UK.
“Another one?”, I hear you say.
Yes, but this is the first one that’s all about the victims. Women whose lives no scholar has ever really been interested in because, you know, after all they were just hookers.
Let’s say you’re merrily jumping around, chasing butterflies with your little hand net, and you stumble upon a body. What can you do?
Here’s a useful infographic:
Above are some works by Lidia Kostanek, a Polish artist who lives in Nantes, whose ceramic sculptures investigate the body and the female condition. (via La Lune Mauve)
On this blog I have addressed the topic of head transplants several times. Still I did not know that these transplants have been successfully performed for 90 years, keeping both the donor and the recipient alive. Welcome to the magical world of insect head transplants. (Thanks, Simone!)
Last but not least, a documentary film I personally have been waiting for a while is finally opening in Italian cinemas: it’s called Wunderkammer – Le Stanze della Meraviglia, and it will disclose the doors of some of the most exclusive and sumptuous wunderkammern in the world. Among the collectors interviewed in the film there’s also a couple of friends, including the one and only Luca Cableri whom you may have seen in the Bizzarro Bazar Web Series. Here’s the movie trailer, and if you happen to be in Italy on March 4th, 5th and 6th, here’s a list of theatres that screen the film.
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.
There are places where the sediments of Time deposited, through the centuries, making the atmosphere thick and stratified like the different, subsequent architectural elements one can detect within a single building: in these places, the past never seems to have disappeared, it seems to survive — or at least we believe we can feel its vestigial traces.
Rocca Sanvitale in Fontanellato (Parma) is one of such majestic places of wonder: it has been the scene of conspiracies, battles, sieges, as well as — certainly — of laughters, romance, banquets and joy; a place full of art (Parmigianino was summoned to paint the fresco in the Room of Diane and Actaeon in 1523) and science (at the end of XIX Century the count Giovanni Sanvitale installed an incredible optical chamber inside the South tower, a device still functioning today).
Here, History is something you breathe. Walking through the rooms of the castle, you wouldn’t be surprised to encounter one of those faded ghosts who incessantly repeat the same gesture, trapped in a sadness deeper than death itself.
And it’s right inside these walls and towers that the first edition of Stupire!, the Festival of Wonders, will be held: three days of surprising shows, workshops, experiments, meetings with mentalists and mad scientists. The purpose of the event is to spread culture in entertaining and unexpected ways, using the tools of illusionism.
Behind this initiative, supported by the municipality of Fontanellato and organized in collaboration with the Circolo Amici della Magia di Torino, are two absolutely extraordinary minds: Mariano Tomatis and Francesco Busani.
If you follow my blog, you may already know them: they appeared on these pages more than once, and they both performed at my Academy of Enchantment. Mariano Tomatis (one of my personal heroes) is the fertile wonder injector who is revolutionizing the world of magic from the outside, so to speak. Half historian of illusionism, half philosopher of wonder, and for another additional half activist of enchantment, Mariano fathoms the psychological, sociological and political implications of the art of magic, succeeding in shifting its focal point towards a new balance. Starting from this year, his Blog of Wonders is twinned to Bizzarro Bazar.
If Mariano is the “theorist” of the duo, Francesco Busani is the true mentalist, experienced in bizarre magick, investigator of the occult and unrivaled raconteur. As he explained when I interviewed him months ago, he was among the first magicians to perform one-to-one mentalism in Italy.
This partnership has already given birth to Project Mesmer, a hugely successful mentalism workshop. The Stupire! festival is the crowning result of this collaboration, perhaps their most visionary endeavour.
I will have the honor of opening the Festival, together with Mariano, on May 19.
During our public meeting I will talk about collecting curiosities, macabre objects, ancient cabinets of wonder and neo-wunderkammern. I will also bring some interesting pieces, directly from my own collection.
In the following days, besides Busani’s and Tomatis’ amazing talks performances (you really need to see them to understand how deep they can reach through their magic), the agenda features: Diego Allegri‘s trickeries and shadow puppets, street magic by Hyde, Professor Alchemist and his crazy experiments; Gianfranco Preverino, among the greatest experts in gambling and cheating, will close the festival.
But the event will not be limited to the inside of the castle. On Saturday and Sunday, the streets of Fontanellato will become the scene for the unpredictable guerrilla magic of the group Double Joker Face: surprise exhibitions in public spaces, baffling bystanders.
If that wasn’t enough, all day long on Saturday and Sunday, just outside the Rocca, those who seek forgotten oddities will have a chance to sift through a magic and antique market.
Lastly, Mariano Tomatis’ motto “Magic to the People!” will result in a final, very welcome abracadabra: all the events you just read about will be absolutely free of charge (until seats are available).
Three days of culture, illusionism and wonder in a place where, as we said in the beginning, History is all around. A week-end that will undoubtedly leave the participants with more enchanted eyes.
Because the world does not need more magic, but our own gaze does.
Luca Cableri is a man devoured by an endless passion.
An art dealer and a collectionist, he has been studying the history of wunderkammern for decades; yet when he talks about it, his eyes still light up. Anyone who insists in searching for wonder, does so because he refuses to forget the gaze of the child — the child he was, the child we all once were.
Luca’s spectacular creation is Theatrum Mundi, a most original and atypical wunderkammer right in the middle of Arezzo’s historical city centre.
Upon crossing the gallery’s threshold, the visitor enters a puzzling space: under the beautiful frescoed vaults of the nobile palace hosting this collection, ancient and modern wonders can be admired — dinosaur skeletons and space suits, original editions of Aldrovandi’s Monstrorum historia and ritual cannibal forks, exotic taxidermies and contemporary design installations.
These “heretical” juxtapositions of objects of classic museology and references to pop culture are not in the least arbitrary, but they follow a philology that aims at showing the evolution of the concept of wonder through the centuries. If the stuffed crocodile hanging from the ceiling was once a true icon of astonishment (no wunderkammer was complete without a crocodile or a narwhal tusk!), a modern collector cannot ignore contemporary conjugations of wonder: that’s why on exhibit at Theatrum Mundi you can also find specimens of the Space Age or relics coming from younger arts, such as cinema.
Luca follows this aesthetics with a surrealist and somehow snarky attitude, exhibiting for instance a shamanic mask next to the one used in Jim Carrey’s The Mask.
The project Theatrum Mundi testifies that the concept of wunderkammer can be still relevant today, and it has the merit of proposing a way to update it. With his personal method of giving new life to the art of collecting and displaying curiosities, Luca is also inviting us to come up with our own.
In October I invited Luca for a talk for the Academy of Enchantment, at Giano Del Bufalo’s Mirabilia Art Gallery in Rome; and though all our evenings received a wonderful feedback, his talk was sold out in just a few hours.
Considering the interest, I thought I would ask him some questions for Bizzarro Bazar, for the benefit of those who could not attend his lecture on how to “reinvent” a wunderkammer.
Do you remember how your love for cabines of wonders started?
It all began when I was very little, my father used to take me down to the river where I would collect rocks and sticks that had unusual and almost alien shapes; then came the passion for seashells and after that, when I was in my teens, I dabbled in patchworks, cutting magazines in search for all the most bizarre images that stroke my imagination.
At the University I discovered the concept of wunderkammer and I was immediately fascinated. I studied a lot, started visiting exhibitions and museums… and so now, my job is to collect wonders.
I believe your work at Theatrum Mundi has the great merit of denying an axiom that many take for granted: the idea that wunderkammer collecting is only a subgenre of antique collecting. Do your combinations of ancient and modern pieces often upset the purists?
The gallery Theatrum Mundi in Arezzo, which I opened together with my partner Iacopo Briano, was a big “calculated gamble” in a period of economic crisis and of hardship for classic antique dealers. It was really innovative on our part to try and propose meteorites, space suits, dinosaurs, pre-Columbian masks, Egyptian sarcophagi or original movie props, and when you’re trying something new you will always be met with a bit of suspicion and criticism. Everything unknown or undermining normality looks a tad scary in the beginning. But many classic antique dealers, after turning up their noses at first, began appreciating our approach to wunderkammern. There is also an undisputed advantage in exhibiting in the same room, with all ease, a Roman bust and Batman’s original suit, a ritual New Guinea mask and a contemporary painting. The important thing is giving the objects a chance to “converse” between themselves.
Is there really an idea — a unique, precise concept — of wunderkammer? What is the element that defines e a collection as belonging to this “genre” of collecting?
The fundamental element characterizing a wunderkammer is of course wonder: the objects have to be surprising, either for their aspect, their history or their function.
Princes and high aristocracy were the first to collect all their time’s curiosities inside one room, to surprise their astonished and amazed guests.
Therefore if we consider the classic concept of wunderkammer (which evolved from XV Century kunstkammer, and went on to have its biggest fortune during the XVI Century, across all Europe), the essential charateristics was the presence of four categories. Objects of nature coming from the Indies, the Americas or from Africa were called naturalia. Imagine how astonished Europeans must have been upon seeing the first rhino or giraffe. Mirabilia, instead, were objects created by Man — think of the great jewellery artworks, in which goldsmiths created fantastic and precious figures. Exotica meant everything that came from very far away, from beyond the Pillars of Hercules: natives costumes, their artistic production. And finally there were scientifica, objects of the new science, astrolabes, globes, telescopes, automata.
In the XXI Century, these categories are still valid in order to properly define a cabinet of wonder, but I felt the need to update them. Therefore I include in my naturalia section fossils and dinosaurs, in mirabilia original movie props like Darth Vader’s mask or Russel Crowe’s gladiator armour; within the exotica, which in a globalized world like ours have lost their original connotation, find their place the meteorites; and in the scientifica I place everything related to the conquest of space, like a piece of a shuttle, or a space suit that actually travelled in the cosmos.
These are just examples, of course, everyone is free to create his personal wunderkammer following his own taste, culture and collecting disposition. The important thing, I think, is keeping in mind these four main categories, unless the whole collection ends up being just a miscellaneous set of objects.
In my experience, the more you look for wonder, the more wonder comes to you: the circumstances in which you find yourself are often bizarre and surreal. What is the latest strange thing that’s happened to you?
Years ago in Paris I bought a relic-mannequin, the Niombo of the Bwendè statuary art, a big human-like doll made of straw and tissue. I liked its bizarre shape and the tattos painted on his chest. There was a fantastic story attached to it, because it is said that these objects contain the remains of a dead shaman who, through the puppet’s arms, acts as a medium between the Gods and the people.
I placed the object in my catalogue, and some time ago a collector called me from Southern France. He said he was interested in the Niombo, on one condition: it had to have bones inside, otherwise it meant it was only a decorative gaff, created to fool gullible tourists in the Fifties.
So I took the doll to the Arezzo Hospital, in the radiology department. Among the general curiosity and hilarity we X-rayed the doll, scanning from its feet up to the head without any result… then all of a sudden, with great surprise, there was our much sought-after bone. Hooray!
Venturing into this kind of research also has, in my opinion, one further appeal, and it’s the human factor. The people you meet while chasing a particular piece. Some collectors are as eccentric as their collections! Who is the most extravagant person you have ever met?
That must surely be one American collector with a passion for minerals and fossils. One evening, at a trade fair, he invited me to his immense ranch near Tucson, Arizona, and showed me his huge collection. I was left speachless because of the vast number and the quality of the objects, this guy had virtually everything!
After dinner we sat on the porch to admire a wonderful starry sky, sipping beer. In those latitudes, out in the desert and without light pollution, the night sky seems closer and much more beautiful.
At one point he confided his forbidden dream to me: he said there was one mineral he still did not possess. So I asked him which one, and he pointed at the moon. He wanted a real piece of the moon. I therefore started a frantic research and I found out that in Eastern Europe there was a small fragment donated by an American President to an ambassador… but sadly I also discovered it was illegal to trade in lunar specimens. So I fell back on an extraordinary fragment of lunar meteor to comply with my interlocutor’s request.
He was not discouraged, on the contrary; he told me that in the following years he woud contact some retired NASA engineers to have a private rocket built that could land on the moon, collect a sample, and come back to Earth!
Regardless of the different economic resources, all collectors that we meet are just like that: eternal dreamers.
This is why I often think of my father, who used to say to me, when I was a kid: “I’m curious to find out what you’re going do when you grow up”… Well, today I can honestly say that I am proud to be a “wunderkammer man”, a seeker of the impossible and the wonderous!
The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art & Natural History still resides in its original location, in Mare Street, Hackney, East London (some years ago I sent over a trusted correspondant and published his ironic reportage).
Many things have changed since then: in 2014, the owner launched a 1-month Kickstarter campaign which earned him £ 16,000, allowing him to turn his eclectic collection into a proper museum, complete with a small cocktail bar, an art gallery and an underground dinining room. Just a couple of tables, to be precise; but it’s hard to think of another place where guests can dine around an authentic 19th century skeleton.
The outrageous bad taste of placing human remains inside a dinner table is a good example of the sacrilegious vein that runs through the whole disposition of objects collected by Viktor: here the very idea of the museum as a high-culture institution is deconstructed and openly mocked. Refined works of art lay beside pornographic paperbacks, rare and precious ancient artifacts are on display next to McDonald’s Happy Meal toy surprises.
But this is not a meaningless jumble — it goes back to the original idea of a Museum being the domain of the Muses, a place of inspiration, of mysterious and unexpected connections, of a real attack to the senses. And this wunderkammer could infuriate wunderkammern purists.
When I met up with him, Viktor Wynd didn’t even need to talk about himself. Among dodo bones, giant crabs, anatomical models, skulls and unique books, unmatched from their very titles — for instance Group Sex: A How-To Guide, or If You Want Closure in Your Relationship, Start with Your Legs — the museum owner was immersed in the objectification of his boundless imagination. As he moved along the display cases in his immense collection (insured for 1 million pounds), he looked like he was wandering through the rooms of his own mind. Artist, surrealist and intellectual dandy, his life story as fascinating as his projects, Viktor always talks about the Museum as an inevitable necessity: “I need beauty and the uncanny, the funny and the silly, the odd and the rare. Rare and beautiful things are the barrier between me and a bottomless pit of misery and despair“.
And this strange bistro of wonders, where he holds conferences, cocktail parties, masqued balls, exhibitions, dinners, is certainly a rare and beautiful thing.
I then moved to the London Bridge area. In front of Borough Market is St. Thomas Street, where old St. Thomas church stands embedded between modern buildings. It was not the church itself I was interested in, but rather its garret.
The attic under the church’s roof hosts a little known museum with a peculiar history.
The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret is located in the space where all pharmaceuticals were prepared and stored, to be used in the annexed St. Thomas Hospital. A first section of the museum is dedicated to medicinal plants and antique therapeutic instruments. On display are several devices no longer in use, such as tools for cupping, bleeding and trepanation, and other quite menacing contraptions. But, together with its unique location, what gives this part of the museum its almost fantastic dimension is the sharp fragrance of dried flowers, herbs and spices (typical of other ancient pharmacies).
If the pharmacy is thought to have been active since the 18th Century, only in 1822 a part of the garret was transformed into operating theatre — one of the oldest in Europe.
Here the patients from the female ward were operated. They were mostly poor women, who agreed to go under the knife before a crowd of medicine students, but in return were treated by the best surgeons available at the time, a privilege they could not have afforded otherwise.
Operations were usually the last resort, when all other remedies had failed. Without anestetics, unaware of the importance of hygiene measures, surgeons had to rely solely on their own swiftness and precision (see for instance my post about Robert Liston). The results were predictable: despite all efforts, given the often already critical conditions of the patients, intraoperative and postoperative mortality was very high.
The last two places awaiting me in London turned out to be the only ones where photographs were not allowed. And this is a particularly interesting detail.
The first was of course the Hunterian Museum.
Over two floors are displayed thousands of veterinary and human anatomical specimens collected by famed Scottish surgeon John Hunter (in Leicester Square you can see his sculpted bust).
Among them, the preparations acquired by John Evelyn in Padua stand out as the oldest in Europe, and illustrate the vascular and nervous systems. The other “star” of the Museum is the skeleton of Charles Byrne, the “Irish giant” who died in 1783. Byrne was so terrified of ending up in an anatomical museum that he hired some fishermen to throw his corpse offshore. This unfortunately didn’t stop John Hunter who, determined to take possession of that extraordinary body, bribed the fishermen and paid a huge amount of money to get hold of his trophy.
The specimens, some of which pathological, are extremely interesting and yet everything seemed a bit cold if compared to the charm of old Italian anatomy museums, or even to the garret I had just visited in St. Thomas Church. What I felt was missing was the atmosphere, the narrative: the human body, especially the pathological body, in my view is a true theatrical play, a tragic spectacle, but here the dramatic dimension was carefully avoided. Upon reading the museum labels, I could actually perceive a certain urgency to stress the value and expressly scientific purpose of the collection. This is probably a response to the debate on ethical implications of displaying human remains in museums, a topic which gained much attention in the past few years. The Hunterian Museum is, after all, the place where the bones of the Irish giant, unscrupulously stolen to the ocean waves, are still displayed in a big glass case and might seem “helpless” under the visitors’ gaze.
My last place of wonder, and one of London’s best-kept secrets, is the Wildgoose Memorial Library.
The work of one single person, artist Jane Wildgoose, this library is part of her private home, can be visited by appointment and reached through a series of directions which make the trip look like a tresure hunt.
And a tresure it is indeed.
Jane is a kind and gentle spirit, the incarnation of serene hospitality.
Before disappearing to make some coffee, she whispered: “take your time to skim the titles, or to leaf through a couple of pages… and to read the objects“.
The objects she was referring to are really the heart of her library, which besides the books also houses plaster casts, sculptures, Victorian mourning hair wreaths, old fans and fashion items, daguerrotypes, engravings, seashells, urns, death masks, animal skulls. Yet, compared to so many other collections of wonders I have seen over the years, this one struck me for its compositional grace, for the evident, painstaking attention accorded to the objects’ disposition. But there was something else, which eluded me at that moment.
As Jane came back into the room holding the coffee tray, I noticed her smile looked slightly tense. In her eyes I could guess a mixture of expectation and faint embarassement. I was, after all, an outsider she had intentionally let into the cosiness of her home. If the miracle of a mutual harmony was to happen, this could turn out to be one of those rare moments of actual contact between strangers; but the stakes were high. This woman was presenting me with everything she held most sacred — “a poet is a naked person“, Bob Dylan once wrote — and now it all came down to my sensibility.
We began to talk, and she told me of her life spent safeguarding objects, trying to understand them, to recognize their hidden relationships: from the time when, as a child, she collected seashells on the southern shores of England, up to her latest art installations. Little by little, I started to realize what was that specific trait in her collection which at first I could not clearly pinpoint: the empathy, the humanity.
The Wildgoose Memorial Library is not meant to explore the concept of death, but rather the concept of grief. Jane is interested in the traces of our passage, in the signs that sorrow inevitably leaves behind, in the absence, in the longing and loss. This is what lies at the core of her works, commissioned by the most prestigious institutions, in which I feel she is attempting to process unresolved, unknown bereavements. That’s why she patiently fathoms the archives searching for traces of life and sorrow; that’s why her attention for the soul of things enabled her to see, for instance, how a cold catalogue accompanying the 1786 sale of Margaret Cavendish’s goods after her death could actually be the Duchess’s most intimate portrait, a key to unearthing her passions and her friendships.
This living room, I realized, is where Jane tries to mend heartaches — not just her own, but also those of her fellow human beings, and even those of the deceased.
And suddenly the Hunterian Museum came to my mind.
There, as in this living room, human remains were present.
There, as in this living room, the objects on display spoke about suffering and death.
There, as in this living room, pictures were not allowed, for the sake of respect and discretion.
Yet the two collections could not be more distant from each other, placed at opposite extremes of the spectrum.
On one hand, the aseptic showcases, the modern setting from which all emotion is removed, where the Obscene Body (in order to be explained, and accepted by the public) must be filtered through a detached, scientific gaze. The same Museum which, ironically, has to deal with the lack of ethics of its founders, who lived in a time when collecting anatomical specimens posed very little moral dilemmas.
On the other, this oasis of meditation, a personal vision of human beings and their impermanence enclosed in the warm, dark wood of Jane Wildgoose’s old library; a place where compassion is not only tangible, it gets under your skin; a place which can only exist because of its creator’s ethical concerns. And, ultimately, a research facility addressing death as an essential experience we should not be afraid of: it’s no accident the library is dedicated to Persephone because, as Jane pointed out, there’s “no winter without summer“.
Perhaps we need both opposites, as we would with two different medicines. To study the body without forgetting about the soul, and viceversa.
On the express train back to the airport, I stared at a clear sky between the passing trees. Not a single cloud in sight. No rain without sun, I told myself. And so much for the preconceptions I held at the beginning of my journey.
I love to stay awake: the big city finally surrenders to exhaustion, and I can almost perceive the dreams of my neighbours coming out of the houses until they form a huge blanket, in iridescent colours and patterns, unfolding over the silent roofs.
When the night is about to turn into morning, I happen to pause in front of my cabinets of wonders.
There are human and animal skulls, red Gorgons and starfishes, taxidermic specimens preserved in liquids, ancient texts of pathological anatomy, prints and engravings representing human cruelty over the centuries (the big repressed impulse that we wish was only the remnant of our beastly past, and which has never left us instead). And then pornographic photographs of the 1920s, old medical tools, and a whole series of objects concerning the intersection between the sacred and the macabre (historiated skullcaps, shinbones turned into musical instruments, death masks, funerary art, mourning portraits, and so on).
My collection talks to me, with its peculiar voice which is in fact a multitude of voices. And it is a phase, a tool for the research that has always absorbed me.
Although I own this collection, I don’t think of myself as a collector. I am not compulsive.
What I love in the objects I collect is the fact that they are packed with history, with life. I happened to know collectors of corkscrews, irons, majolicas, coffee cans; those who do not share their passion are overwhelmed by boredom within five minutes.
On the other hand, I have learnt that nobody is indifferent to a cabinet of wonders. Reactions can range from disgust (much more rarely than it is commonly believed) to childlike amazement, from scientific interest to moral outrage in front of some habits that today we find questionable: consider the cilice of the beginning of the Twentieth century, the tiny Chinese shoes for bandaged feet, the souvenir postcard, hand-coloured and dated 1907, which shows a proud English colonialist holding the head of an executed pirate. Children, for their part, go crazy for stuffed animals and bones.
Every collection is a sort of map that reflects and describes the collector’s personality, his taste, his small obsessions. Stefano Bessoni is most probably the one who taught me – without words, of course – that we shouldn’t be ashamed of our own obsessions, but we should instead cultivate them with enthusiasm. And his incredible wunderkammer is a clear objectification of his imagination, a physical offshoot of his inner world: it possesses a wonderful and strict disorder that makes it similar to the dusty booty of a Victorian explorer, a mix of Livingstone and Darwin, where one’s gaze gets lost among a thousand confused details.
My collection is of course different, because it is mine. One of my obsessions is people’s relationship with death, with the barriers and the symbols we have invented – every time and in every place – to put up with the anguish it causes. What are stuffed or mummified animals but an attempt to stop time and defeat decay? In these objects, the wonder for the world and natural shapes is mixed with a secret fear of panta rei.
And this dread of eternal decay, which would deprive our existence of meaning, is visible behind the impulse to analyse, classify, make maps and, in the end, control the whole cosmos; to investigate our body in order to defeat disease and old age; to invent any kind of deity in order to be assured that the abovementioned decay is not really definitive. And eroticism, hosted by a section of my cabinets, is maybe the most intense symbolic representation of the instincts related to death.
Sometimes, when all is quiet, my wunderkammer looks like a psychic spacecraft. Enigmatic conglomerate of temporary forms, clots of pains and lives returned to dust, amazed gaze, mystery of things.
We spend our whole life practicing impermanence. Let’s assume tomorrow I lose my entire collection in a fire: I would shed a few tears, of course, but I wouldn’t scream or damn my fate. If I did, I would prove I have not understood the lesson that the wunderkammer softly whispers to me every night.
Los Angeles, California. I turisti, come sempre, cercano le star su Sunset Boulevard, ridiventano bambini nei parchi di attrazioni degli studios, oppure sognano di essere soccorsi da Pamela Anderson sulle immense spiagge di Santa Monica.
Ma nel cuore dell’assolata metropoli, fra le boutique e i locali notturni della celeberrima Melrose Avenue (e a un paio di isolati dalla Melrose Place della soap opera), sorge una piccola bottega che offre un tipo di shopping un po’ più particolare.
Si tratta di Necromance, negozio aperto nel 1991, specializzato in esemplari naturalistici e in un vasto assortimento di stranezze. Certo non si tratta di un paradiso come possono essere Obscura di New York o il nostro ex-Nautilus (ora reincarnatosi nell’Obsoleto Store di Modena), e i più snob storceranno il naso vedendo che le giovani proprietarie non fanno segreto della loro inclinazione goth. Ma il mondo è bello perché è vario, e quando si incontrano esercizi simili andrebbero sempre salutati con entusiasmo.
Necromance è composto di due stanze a tema distinto, tanto che per un periodo il negozio è stato fisicamente diviso in due; la prima sala è quella dedicata alle collezioni naturalistiche. Vi potete trovare conchiglie, teschi e ossa di ogni tipo di animale, scheletri posati, innumerevoli insetti, stampe e illustrazioni, esemplari imbalsamati e preparazioni in liquido.
Gli esemplari conservati sotto glicerina e preparati con il metodo clearing and staining sono ottenuti grazie a bagni enzimatici che rendono la carne traslucida; la struttura ossea è quindi colorata in rosso e le cartilagini in blu, in modo da consentirne uno studio approfondito (Nota: se volete divertirvi a giocare al piccolo chimico, qui trovate le istruzioni per rendere un pesce trasparente).
In questa sezione trovano posto anche molti materiali “a consumo”: cassette piene di ossicini più o meno grandi, piume e penne, zampe di alligatore o di pollo, code e teste di serpenti a sonagli, e via dicendo. Più che servire per qualche rito voodoo, è chiaro che si tratta di rifornimenti per artisti, stilisti fai-da-te e altri clienti interessati a decorare i propri abiti o la propria casa con fantasie macabre.
La seconda stanza del negozio, invece, è dedicata ad altri tipi di collezionismo e di esigenze di mercato. Qui troverete anticaglie di ogni tipo, strumenti medici, fotografie di epoca vittoriana, addobbi funerari, cartoline originali dei freakshow, vecchie macchine fotografiche. Uno scuro armadio svetta in un angolo, colmo di repliche in resina di teschi umani. È anche la stanza dedicata alla gioielleria, tutta ovviamente a tema gotico; alcuni degli ornamenti in esposizione contengono autentiche parti di animali, come i pendagli con testa di pipistrello, gli orecchini con osso di pene di visone, o le spille con feto di topo. È fin troppo facile il sospetto che Necromance sopravviva proprio grazie al commercio di questo tipo di bigiotteria, piuttosto che con i pezzi più “seri” come ad esempio i calchi anatomici in gesso di fine ‘800.
Nonostante un negozio simile non possa certo vantare la popolarità dei suoi concorrenti su Melrose Avenue che vendono scintillanti abiti alla moda, riesce comunque a mantenere i prezzi notevolmente bassi per il genere di oggetti da collezione che propone, e senza dubbio questo è il suo maggiore punto di forza.
C’è tempo ancora fino al 29 settembre per visitare l’esposizione Wunderkammer, allestita nella prestigiosa cornice secentesca di Palazzo Widmann a Venezia.
La mostra è arrivata in Italia dopo il successo dell’edizione belga, e propone una selezione di opere di più di 20 artisti che danno vita ad una “Camera delle meraviglie” in chiave contemporanea, ispirandosi a quei collezionisti che tra il XVI ed il XVIII secolo erano soliti raccogliere e conservare oggetti stravaganti ed eccezionali realizzati dall’Uomo o dalla Natura.
Grazie alle luci soffuse ed ad un ipnotizzante sottofondo musicale, si ritrova la stessa atmosfera delle antiche wunderkammer rinascimentali: ma la raccolta di oggetti d’arte, sculture, installazioni, fotografie, pitture, non vuole essere semplicemente un’ideale continuazione, quanto piuttosto una rilettura di quello che significava nei secoli scorsi entrare in uno di questi antesignani dei musei, nella confusione di Naturalia e Artificialia. Se, allora, il senso di meraviglia era dato dalle mille forme inaspettate ed ignote che poteva assumere il mondo attorno a noi, oggi un sentimento simile viene invece veicolato dalla riflessione sull’ibridazione, sulla mutazione, l’androginia, e sui rapporti uomo-ambiente. Qui non è unicamente la Natura ad essere messa al centro della produzione artistica, ma soprattutto l’uomo nei suoi rapporti con essa, e nella sua identità ormai proteiforme.
Spiega il curatore Antonio Nardone: “Siamo abituati a vedere le opere contemporanee da sole, sulle pareti bianche dei musei e delle gallerie. Qui, le presento riunite in maniera variegata e, soprattutto, accompagnate da testi completamente immaginari, come Il corno di Unicorno o Il sangue di drago, che si trovavano nelle camere delle meraviglie. Il visitatore, al di là della lettura proposta, diventa “protagonista” sviluppando la propria interpretazione dell’opera.”
Ecco la lista degli artisti (alcuni dei quali particolarmente controversi) che partecipano con le loro opere all’esposizione: Pascal Bernier, Isobel Blank, Stefano Bombardieri, Ulrike Bolenz, Charley Case, Marcello Carrà, Eric Croes, Dany Danino, Wim Delvoye, Laurence Dervaux, Yves Dethier & Olivia Droeshaut, Jacques Dujardin, Jan Fabre, Alessandro Filippini, Manuel Geerinck, Roberto Kusterle, Jean-Luc Moerman, Michel Mouffe, Ivan Piano, Vincent Solheid, Bénédicte van Caloen, Patrick van Roy, Sofi van Saltbommel.
La mostra è aperta tutti i giorni dalle 11 alle 19, presso il Palazzo Widmann, Calle Larga Widmann (Rialto-Ospedale), Venezia. Ecco il sito ufficiale dell’esposizione. L’intervista integrale al curatore è su Espoarte.
Pietro il Grande, Zar e Imperatore di Russia, era un personaggio enigmatico e anticonvenzionale, ed aveva una passione per tutto ciò che era deforme. Fin da quando aveva ammirato, nel 1697, le famose collezioni anatomiche di Frederik Ruysch (su questo anatomista c’è un nostro articolo qui) aveva deciso di costruire una propria camera delle meraviglie che avrebbe ospitato le forme più curiose e impensabili partorite dalla Natura: una sorta di grandioso museo sulla conoscenza del mondo.
La sua Kunstkamera, enorme wunderkammer che conteneva collezioni acquistate da Ruysch stesso, da Albertus Seba e da numerosi altri naturalisti e anatomisti, fu completata nel 1727. Vi trovavano posto innumerevoli esemplari di feti deformi, umani e animali, e tutto un campionario variegato di preparazioni anatomiche, minerali, e dei più disparati e rari reperti naturali. Ad un certo punto Pietro il Grande promulgò addirittura un editto, richiedendo alla popolazione di spedire al museo ogni feto malformato, da qualsiasi parte della Russia, affinché entrasse a far parte della sua collezione.
Ma la sua passione per le curiosità umane era particolarmente accesa nei confronti delle persone affette da nanismo. All’epoca i nani erano presenti in tutte le corti europee, e venivano impiegati come giullari o come semplici oggetti di dileggio e divertimento vario. Dovevano stupire gli ospiti saltando fuori dalle torte appena portate in tavola, spesso nudi, o danzare sui deschi, cavalcare minuscoli pony, e via dicendo. Ai nostri occhi moderni tutto questo appare senza dubbio crudele, ma come al solito dovremmo cercare di calarci nel contesto dell’epoca: forse una vita simile, per quanto avvilente, era preferibile a quella, infinitamente più impietosa e feroce, che avrebbe atteso un nano al di fuori delle mura di corte.
C’è da dire poi che alcuni dei “padroni” dei nani divenivano, com’è naturale, i più sinceri amici dei loro piccoli protetti: sembra per esempio che il famoso astronomo Tycho Brahe non si separasse mai dal suo nano di fiducia, divenuto una sorta di consigliere. Anche Pietro il Grande (che, detto per inciso, misurava più o meno due metri d’altezza) aveva il suo nano favorito e servitore fedele, Iakim Volkov, e per celebrare le sue nozze decise di mettere in scena uno dei matrimoni più indimenticabili della storia.
Lo Zar diede istruzioni al suo assistente Fyodor Romodanovsky di raccogliere tutti i nani residenti a Mosca e mandarli a San Pietroburgo. I “possessori” dei nani avrebbero dovuto vestirli a festa, con capi pregiati alla moda occidentale, riempiendoli di ninnoli e gioielli d’oro e parrucche da gran signori. Molte di queste piccole persone erano in realtà contadini e semplici paesani, dalle maniere tutt’altro che signorili.
Il giorno del sontuoso matrimonio, il corteo nuziale era formato da una settantina di nani in abiti e paramenti nobiliari, arrivati a San Pietroburgo su una carovana di pony: la cerimonia fu seguita da tutte le persone di normale statura fra risatine strozzate, colpi di gomito e sguardi increduli. Ma un serissimo Zar in persona celebrò le nozze, e pose delicatamente sul capo della piccola sposa la corona di fiori. Una volta giunti al banchetto, nel palazzo Menshikov, i nani vennero fatti accomodare ad alcuni tavoli in miniatura al centro della stanza, mentre tutte le altre tavolate erano disposte a cerchio intorno ad essi. Secondo i resoconti dell’epoca, le risate accompagnarono l’intera cena, mentre i nani si ubriacavano, cominciavano delle piccole risse, e i più vecchi e brutti ballavano sgraziatamente a causa delle gambe corte e storte.
C’è qualcosa, però, di un po’ sospetto. Ricordiamo che Pietro il Grande aveva viaggiato nelle più raffinate corti d’Europa, e aveva cercato di modernizzare il suo Impero per renderlo più vicino e più conforme (almeno nelle sue intenzioni) alla progredita civilizzazione occidentale. E personalmente, attraverso il suo museo delle meraviglie, si era sempre adoperato per combattere l’idea antiquata che le anomalie fisiche fossero mostruose e spaventose: si trattava ai suoi occhi di sfortunati accidenti della natura, che uno spirito illuminato doveva riconoscere in quanto tali, senza per forza riderne o esserne terrorizzato. Allora, perché organizzare un matrimonio simile?
Al di là del puro intrattenimento che certamente avrà avuto la sua parte, secondo alcuni storici questa cerimonia, come tutti gli altri spettacoli farseschi che Pietro amava organizzare, mostrava un sostrato simbolico che forse non tutti erano in grado di cogliere. Era uno sberleffo in piena regola, ma non tanto rivolto contro i nani – quanto piuttosto contro la sua stessa corte di nobili. Pietro voleva mettere in scena una specie di specchio deformante, una caricatura vivente dei suoi ospiti di statura “normale”. Guardatevi!, sembrava dire quel grottesco matrimonio, siete dei lord e delle dame in miniatura, imbellettati e avvolti in raffinati abiti che però vi sono poco familiari. Siete ancora dei piccoli zotici che giocano a fare i “grandi”, gli “adulti”, e non vi accorgete che l’Europa ride di voi.
Che questa lettura dell’evento sia plausibile oppure no, il matrimonio suscitò comunque un certo scalpore, anche in tempi in cui di “politicamente scorretto” non si era ancora sentito parlare.