This week you can come and meet me in two particular events.
On November 9th at 6 pm I will be in Bologna, at the extraordinary wunderkammer/library Mirabilia in via de ‘Carbonesi, to talk about my two guide books on Paris and London. The library is called Mirabilia, my book series is called Mirabilia — you can’t go wrong.
The next day (10 November) I will move to Pescara where I have been invited for the annual edition of the book festival FLA. At 22.30 at the aptly named Bizarre Club I will hold a talk entitled Un terribile incanto: il Macabro e il Meraviglioso tra arte, scienza e sacro (“A Terrible Enchantment: The Macabre and the Wonderful between Art, Science and the Sacred”). I will be honest: talking about Thanatos in a night club dedicated to alternative sexuality and to the cultural implications of Eros, I think it’s an appropriate and remarkable goal for my career as a specialist of the bizarre!
My new book is coming out on October 10th. It’s called London Mirabilia: Journey Through A Rare Enchantment.
Published by Logos Edizioni, and graced once again by Carlo Vannini‘s wonderful photographs, the book is the second entry in the Mirabilia Collection, a series of alternative guides to the most famous tourist destinations, especially designed for the explorers of the unusual.
This time Carlo and I ventured into the very heart of London, in search for the weirdest and most amazing locations to share with our readers.
From the press kit:
We must not be deceived by the cliché of a perpetually gloomy sky, or by the threat of Victorian prudery, nor restrict ourselves to seeing the plain and classical architecture of London as an expression of Anglo-Saxon severity. Much more than other large cities, London is a boundless multitude living on contrasts.
It is only here – maybe as a reaction to the innate, restrained behaviour of Londoners – that the non-conformism of dandies, the incorrectness without taboos of British humour, Blake’s ecstatic explosions and punk nihilism could bloom. It is only here that the most futuristic buildings shamelessly rise up alongside row houses or ancient churches. And it is only here that you can gaze at a sunset over a chaotic railway station, and feel you are “in paradise”, as the Kinks sing in Waterloo Sunset, perhaps the most beautiful song ever dedicated to the city.
LONDON MIRABILIA is an invitation to dive into the unexpected colours, the contradictions and the less known splendours of the city.
17 eccentric and refined locations await the reader who – accompanied by the texts of Ivan Cenzi, the explorer of the bizarre, and the evocative pictures by Carlo Vannini – is given the opportunity to visit the most hidden museums of London, admiring in turn the refinement of ancient historiated fans or the terrible grandeur of the war machines which conquered the sky and the sea.
We will sip the inevitable pint of real ale in a traditional London pub where the macabre remains of an extraordinary story are preserved; we will discover sumptuous houses decorated with arabesques hiding behind ordinary façades, and fluorescent collections of neon signs; we will wander among the gravestones swallowed by greenery through romantic English graveyards; we will walk through the door of fairy-tale interiors and of real modern wunderkammers.
I am thrilled to announce my latest effort will come out in October: Paris Mirabilia – Journey Through A Rare Enchantment. It is a guide to the bizarre and lesser-known Paris, among strange boutiques, obscure museums and eccentric collections.
The book is not part of the Bizzarro Bazar Collection, but launches a brand new series: the Mirabilia Collection.
Each volume, dedicated to a different city, is intended not just as a handbook for the curious mind, but also as a little gem that will, I hope, appeal to the bibliophile. In fact, as you never change a winning team, the photographs are once again by the great Carlo Vannini.
(Second and last part – you can find the first one here.)
In the Nineteenth Century, wunderkammern disappeared.
The collections ended up disassembled, sold to private citizens or integrated in the newly born modern museums. Scientists, whose discipline was already defined, lost interest for the ancient kind of baroque wonder, perhaps deemed child-like in respect to the more serious postitivism.
This type of collecting continued in sporadic and marginal ways during the first decades of the Twetieth Century. Some rare antique dealer, especially in Belgium, the Netherlands or Paris, still sold some occasional mirabilia, but the golden age of the trade was long gone.
Of the few collectors of this first half of the century the most famous is André Breton, whose cabinet of curiosities is now on permanent exhibit at the Centre Pompidou.
The interest of wunderkammern began to reawaken during the Eighties from two distinct fronts: academics and artists.
On one hand, museology scholars began to recognize the role of wunderkammern as precursors of today’s museal collections; on the other, some artists fell in love with the concept of the chamber of wonders and started using it in their work as a metaphor of Man’s relationship with objects.
But the real upswing came with the internet. The neo-wunderkammer “movement” developed via the web, which opened new possibilities not only for sharing the knowledge but also to revitalize the commerce of curiosities.
Let’s take a look, as we did for the classical collections, to some conceptual elements of neo-wunderkammern.
A Democratic Wunderkammer
The first macroscopic difference with the past is that collecting curiosities is no more an exclusive of wealthy billionaires. Sure, a very-high-profile market exists, one that the majority of enthusiasts will never access; but the good news is that today, anybody who can afford an internet conection already has the means to begin a little collection. Thanks to the web, even a teenager can create his/her own shelf of wonders. All that’s needed is good will and a little patience to comb through the many natural history collectibles websites or online auctions for some real bargain.
There are now children’s books, school activities and specific courses encouraging kids to start this form of exploration of natural wonders.
The result of all this is a more democratic wunderkammer, within the reach of almost any wallet.
We talked about the classic category of exotica, those objects that arrived from distant colonies and from mysterious cultures.
But today, what is really exotic – etymologically, “coming from the outside, from far away”? After all we live in a world where distances don’t matter any more, and we can travel without even moving: in a bunch of seconds and a few clicks, we can virtually explore any place, from a mule track on the Andes to the jungles of Borneo.
This is a fundamental issue for the collectors, because globalization runs the risk of annihilating an important part of the very concept of wonder. Their strategies, conscious or not, are numerous.
Some collectors have turned their eyes towards the only real “external space” that is left — the cosmos; they started looking for memorabilia from the heroic times of the Space Race. Spacesuits, gear and instruments from various space missions, and even fragments of the Moon.
Others push in the opposite direction, towards the most distant past; consequently the demand for dinosaur fossils is in constant growth.
But there are other kinds of new exotica that are closer to us – indeed, they pertain directly to our own society.
Internal exoticism: not really an oxymoron, if we consider that anthropologists have long turned the instruments of ethnology towards the modern Western worold (take for instance Marc Augé). To seek what is exotic within our own cultre is to investigate liminal zones, fringe realities of our time or of the recent past.
Thus we find a recent fascination for some “taboo” areas, related for example to crime (murder weapons, investigative items, serial killer memorabilia) or death (funerary objecs and Victorian mourning apparel); the medicalia sub-category of quack remedies, as for example electric shock terapies or radioactive pharamecutical products.
Building a wunderkammer today is an eminently artistic endeavour. The scientific or anthropological interest, no matter how relevant, cannot help but be strictly connected to aesthetics.
There is a greater general attention to the interplay between the objects than in the past. A painting can interact with an object placed in front of it; a tribal mask can be made to “dialogue” with an other similar item from a completely different tradition. There is undoubtedly a certain dose of postmodern irreverence in this approach; for when pop culture collectibles are allowed entrance to the wunderkammer, ending up exhibited along with precious and refined antiques, the self-righteous art critic is bound to shudder (see for instance Victor Wynd‘s peculiar iconoclasm).
An example I find paradigmatic of this search for a deeper interaction are the “adventurous” juxtapositions experimented by friend Luca Cableri (the man who brought to Moon to Italy); you can read the interview he gave me if you wish to know more about him.
Wearing A Wunderkammer
Fashion is always aware of new trends, and it intercepted some aspects of the world of wunerkammern. Thanks mainly to the goth and dark subcultures, one can find jewelry and necklaces made from naturalistic specimens: on Etsy, eBay or Craigslist, countless shops specialize in hand-crafted brooches, hair clips or other fashion accessories sporting skulls, small wearable taxidermies and so on.
Conceptual Art and Rogue Taxidermists
As we said, the renewed interest also came from the art world, which found in wunderkammern an effective theoretical frame to reflect about modernity.
The first name that comes to mind is of course Damien Hirst, who took advantage of the concept both in his iconic fluid-preserved animals and in his kaleidoscopic compositions of lepidoptera and butterflies; but even his For The Love of God, the well-known skull covered in diamonds, is an excessively precious curiosity that would not have been out of place in a Sixteenth Century treasure chamber.
Hirst is not the only artist taking inspiration from the wunderkammer aesthetics. Mark Dion, for instance, creates proper cabinets of wonders for the modern era: in his work, it’s not natural specimens that are put under formaldeyde, but rather their plastic replicas or even everyday objects, from push brooms to rubber dildos. Dion builds a sort of museum of consumerism in which – yet again – Nature and Culture collide and even at times fuse together, giving us no hope of telling them apart.
In 2013 Rosamund Purcell’s installation recreated a 3D version of the Seventeenth Century Ole Worm Museum: reinvention/replica, postmodern doppelgänger and hyperreal simulachrum which allows the public to step into one of the most famous etchings in the history of wunderkammern.
Besides the “high” art world – auction houses and prestigious galleries – we are also witnessing a rejuvenation of more artisanal sectors.
This is the case with the art of taxidermy, which is enjoying a new youth: today taxidermy courses and workshops are multiplying.
Remember that in the first post I talked about taxidermy as a domestication of the scariest aspects of Nature? Well, according to the participants, these workshops offer a way to exorcise their fear of death on a comfortably small scale, through direct contact and a creative activity. (We shall return on this tactile element.)
A further push towards innovation has come from yet another digital movement, called Rogue Taxidermy.
Initially born as a consortium of three artists – Sarina Brewer, Scott Bibus e Robert Marbury – who were interested in taxidermy in the broadest sense (Marbury does not even use real animals for his creations, but plush toys), rogue taxidermy quickly became an international movement thanks to the web.
The fantastic chimeras produced by these artists are actually meta-taxidermies: by exhibiting their medium in such a manifest way, they seem to question our own relationship with animals. A relationship that has undergone profound changes and is now moving towards a greater respect and care for the environment. One of the tenets of rogue taxidermy is in fact the use of ethically sourced materials, and the animals used in preparations all died of natural causes. (Here’s a great book tracing the evolution and work of major rogue taxidermy artists.)
So we are left with the fundamental question: why are wunderkammern enjoying such a huge success right now, after five centuries? Is it just a retro, nostalgic trend, a vintage frivolous fashion like we find in many subcultures (yes I’m looking at you, my dear hipster friends) or does its attractiveness lie in deeper urgencies?
It is perhaps too soon to put forward a hypothesis, but I shall go out on a limb anyway: it is my belief that the rebirth of wunderkammern is to be sought in a dual necessity. On one hand the need to rethink death, and on the other the need to rethink art and narratives.
(And While We’re At It, Why Not Domesticate It)
Swiss anthropologist Bernard Crettaz was among the first to voice the ever more widespread need to break the “tyrannical secrecy” regarding death, typical of the Twentieth Century: in 2004 he organized in Neuchâtel the first Café mortel, a free event in which participants could talk about grief, and discuss their fears but also their curiosities on the subject. Inspired by Crettaz’s works and ideas, Jon Underwood launched the first British Death Café in 2011. His model received an enthusiastic response, and today almost 5000 events have been held in 50 countries across the world.
Meanwhile, in the US, a real Death-Positive Movement was born.
Originated from the will to drastically change the American funeral industry, criticized by founder Caitlin Doughty, the movement aims at lifting the taboo regarding the subject of death, and promotes an open reflection on related topics and end-of-life issues. (You probably know my personal engagement in the project, to which I contributed now and then: you can read my interview to Caitlin and my report from the Death Salon in Philadelphia).
What has the taboo of death got to do with collecting wonders?
Over the years, I have had the opportunity of talking to many a collector. Almost all of them recall, “as if it were yesterday“, the emotion they felt while holding in their hands the first piece of their collection, that one piece that gave way to their obsession. And for the large majority of them it was a naturalistic specimen – an animal skeleton, a taxidermy, etc.: as a friend collector says, “you never forget your first skull“.
The tactile element is as essential today as it was in classical wunderkammern, where the public was invited to study, examine, touch the specimens firsthand.
Owning an animal skull (or even a human one) is a safe and harmless way to become familiar with the concreteness of death. This might be the reason why the macabre element of wunderkammern, which was marginal centuries ago, often becomes a prevalent aspect today.
Ryan Matthew Cohn collection – photo Dan Howell & Steve Prue, from Morbid Curiosities (courtesy P. Gambino)
Rethinking Art: The Aesthetics Of Wonder
After the decline of figurative arts, after the industrial reproducibility of pop art, after the advent of ready-made art, conceptual art reached its outer limit, giving a coup the grace to meaning. Many contemporary artists have de facto released art not just from manual skill, from artistry, but also from the old-fashioned idea that art should always deliver a message.
Pure form, pure signifier, the new conceptual artworks are problematic because they aspire to put a full stop to art history as we know it. They look impossible to understand, precisely because they are designed to escape any discourse.
It is therefore hard to imagine in what way artistic research will overcome this emptiness made of cold appearance, polished brilliance but mere surface nonetheless; hard to tell what new horizon might open up, beyond multi-million auctions, artistars and financial hikes planned beforehand by mega-dealers and mega-collectors.
To me, it seems that the passion for wunderkammern might be a way to go back to narratives, to meaning. An antidote to the overwhelming surface. Because an object is worth its place inside a chamber of marvels only by virtue of the story it tells, the awe it arises, the vertigo it entails.
I believe I recognize in this genre of collecting a profound desire to give back reality to its lost enchantment.
Lost? No, reality never ceased to be wonderous, it is our gaze that needs to be reeducated.
Eventually, a wunderkammer is just a collection of objects, and we already live submerged in an ocean of objects.
But it is also an instrument (as it once was, as it has always been) – a magnifying glass to inspect the world and ourselves. In these bizarre and strange items, the collector seeks a magical-narrative dimension against the homologation and seriality of mass production. Whether he knows it or not, by being sensitive to the stories concealed within the objects, the emotions they convey, their unicity, the wunderkammer collector is carrying out an act of resistence: because placing value in the exception, in the exotic, is a way to seek new perspectives in spite of the Unanimous Vision.
Why has the new millennium seen the awakening of a huge interest in “cabinets of wonder”? Why does such an ancient kind of collecting, typical of the period between the 1500s and the 1700s, still fascinate us in the internet era? And what are the differences between the classical wunderkammern and the contemporary neo-wunderkammern?
I have recently found myself tackling these subjects in two diametrically opposed contexts.
The first was dead serious conference on disciplines of knowledge in the Early Modern Period, at the University of PAdua; the second, a festival of magic and wonder created by a mentalist and a wonder injector. In this last occasion I prepared a small table with a micro-wunderkammer (really minimal, but that’s what I could fit into my suitcase!) so that after the talk the public could touch and see some curiosities first-hand.
Two traditionally quite separate scenarios – the academic milieu and the world of entertainment – both decided to dedicate some space to the discussion of this phenomenon, which strikes me as indicative of its relevance.
So I thought it might be interesting to resume, in very broad terms, my speech on the subject for the benefit of those who could not attend those meetings.
For practical purposes, I will divide the whole thing into two posts.
In this first one, I will trace what I believe are the key characteristics of historical wunderkammern – or, more precisely, the key concepts worth reflecting upon.
In the next post I will address XXI Century neo-wunderkammern, to try and pinpoint what might be the reasons of this peculiar “rebirth”.
Evidently, the fundamental concept for a wunderkammer, beginning from the name itself, was the idea of wonder; from the aristocratic cabinets of Ferdinand II of Austria or Rudolf II to the more science-oriented ones like Aldrovandi‘s, Cospi‘s, or Kircher‘s, the purpose of all ancient collections was first and foremost to amaze the visitor.
It was a way for the rich person who assembled the wunderkammer to impress his court guests, showing off his opulence and lavish wealth: cabinets of curiosities were actually an evolution of treasure chambers (schatzkammern) and of the great collections of artworks of the 1400s (kunstkammer).
This predilection of rare and expensive objects generated a thriving international commerce of naturalistic and ethnological items cominc from the Colonies.
The Theatre of the World
But wunderkammern were also meant as a sort of microcosm: they were supposed to represent the entirety of the known universe, or at least to hint at the incredibly vast number of creatures and natural shapes that are present in the world. Samuel Quiccheberg, in his treatise on the arrangement of a utopian museum, was the first to use the word “theatre”, but in reality – as we shall see later on – the idea of theatrical representation is one of the cardinal concepts in classical collections.
Because of its ability to represent the world, the wunderkammer was also understood as a true instrument of research, an investigation tool for natural philosophers.
The System of Knowledge
The organization of a huge array of materials did not initially follow any specific order, but rather proceeded from the collector’s own whims and taste. Little by little, though, the idea of cataloguing began to emerge, which at first entailed the distinction between three macro-categories known as naturalia, artificialia and mirabilia, later to be refined and expanded in different other classes (medicalia, exotica, scientifica, etc.).
Medicalia, exotica, scientifica
This ever growing need to distinguish, label and catalogue eventually led to Linnaeus’ taxonomy, to his dispute with Buffon, all the way to Lamarck, Cuvier and the foundation of the Louvre, which marks the birth of the modern museum as we know it.
The Aesthetics of Accumulation
Perhaps the most iconic and well-known aspect of wunderkammern is the cramming of objects, the horror vacui that prevented even the tiniest space from being left empty in the exposition of curiosities and bizarre artifacts gathered around the world.
This excessive aesthetic was not just, as we said in the beginning, a display of wealth, but aimed at astounding and baffling the visitor. And this stunned condition was an essential moment: the wonder at the Universe, that feeling called thauma, proceeds certainly from awe but it is inseparable from a sense of unease. To access this state of consciousness, from which philosophy is born, we need to step outof our comfort zone.
To be suddenly confronted with the incredible imagination of natural shapes, visually “assaulted” by the unthinkable moltitude of objects, was a disturbing experience. Aesthetics of the Sublime, rather than Beauty; this encyclopedic vertigo is the reason why Umberto Eco places wunderkammern among his examples of “visual lists”.
Conservation and Representation
One of the basic goals of collecting was (and still is) the preservation of specimens and objects for study purposes or for posterity. Yet any preservation is already a representation.
When we enter a museum, we cannot be fully aware of the upstream choices that have been made in regard to the exhibit; but these choices are what creates the narrative of the museum itself, the very “tale” we are told room after room.
Multiple options are involved: what specimens are to be preserved, which technique is to be used to preserve them (the result will vary if a biological specimen is dried, texidermied, or put in a preserving fluid), how to group them, how to arrange their exhibit?
It is just like casting the best actors, choosing the stage costumes, a particular set design, and the internal script of the museum.
The most illuminating example is without doubt taxidermy, the ultimate simulacrum: of the original animal nothing is left but the skin, stretched on a dummy which mimics the features and posture of the beast. Glass eyes are applied to make it more convincing. That is to say, stuffed animals are meant to play the part of living animals. And when you think about it, there is no more “reality” in them than in one of those modern animatronic props we see in Natural History Museums.
But why do we need all this theatre? The answer lies in the concept of domestication.
Domestication: Nature vs. Culture
Nature is opposed to Culture since the time of ancient Greeks. Western Man has always felt the urge to keep his distance from the part of himself he perceived as primordial, chaotic, uncontrollable, bestial. The walls of the polis locked Nature outside, keeping Culture inside; and it’s not by chance that barbarians – seen as half-men half-beasts – were etymologically “those who stutter”, who remained outside of the logos.
The theatre, an advanced form of representation, was born in Athens likely as a substitute for previous ancient human sacrifices (cf. Réné Girard), and it served the same sacred purposes: to sublimate the animal desire of cruelty and violence. The tragic hero takes on the role of the sacrificial victim, and in fact the evidence of the sacred value of tragedies is in the fact that originally attending the theatrical plays was mandatory by law for all citizens.
Theatre is therefore the first attempt to domesticate natural instincts, to bring them literally “inside one’s home” (domus), to comprehend them within the logos in order to defuse their antisocial power. Nature only becomes pleasant and harmless once we narrate it, when we turn it into a scenic design.
And here’s why a stuffed lion (which is a narrated lion, the “image” of a lion as told through the fiction of taxidermy) is something we can comfortably place in our living room without any worry. All study of Nature, as it was conceived in the wunderkammern, was essentially the study of its representation.
By staging it, it was possible to exert a kind of control over Nature that would have been impossible otherwise. Accordingly, the symbol of the wunderkammern, that piece that no collection could do without, was the chained crocodile — bound and incapable of causing harm thanks to the ties of Reason, of logos, of knowledge.
It is worth noting, in closing this first part, that the symbology of the crocodile was also borrowed from the world of the sacred. These reptiles in chains first made their apparition in churches, and several examples can still be seen in Europe: in that instance, of course, they were meant as a reminder of the power and glory of Christ defeating Satan (and at the same time they impressed the believers, who in all probability had never seen such a beast).
A perfect example of sacred taxidermy; domestication as a bulwark against the wild, sinful unconscious; barrier bewteen natural and social instincts.
There will be plenty of opportunities to meet before the year is over.
His Anatomical Majesty will be presented at the University of Padova on November 22. Here are the event details:
But that’s not all. Besides the usual appointment at Lucca Comics & Games (tomorrow you will find me there, at the stand Logos, E137 Napoleone), I will also be in Florence on November 3 to converse with Claudio Romo, author of Nueva Carne — not to mention all the events of the Academy of Enchantment, taking place every Sunday in Rome.
If you want your book copy signed, if you would love to chat a bit about those topics you never get to discuss with anybody (because how-can-you-like-things-like-that) or even just to drop by and say hello, here is my schedule.
See you soon!
At a first glance it looks like a family in a room, having breakfast.
Yet when the picture is shown to the people living in some rural parts of Africa, they see something different: a family having breakfast in the open, under a tree, while the mother balances a box on her head, maybe to amuse her children. This is not an optical illusion, it’s a cultural one.
The origins of this picture are not certain, but it is not relevant here whether it has actually been used in a psychological study, nor if it shows a prejudice on life in the Third World. The force of this illustration is to underline how culture is an inevitable filter of reality.
It reminds of a scene in Werner Herzog’s documentary film The Flying Doctors of East Africa (1969), in which the doctors find it hard to explain to the population that flies carry infections; showing big pictures of the insects and the descriptions of its dangers does not have much effect because people, who are not used to the conventions of our graphic representations, do not understand they are in scale, and think: “Sure, we will watch out, but around here flies are never THAT big“.
Even if we would not admit it, our vision is socially conditioned. Culture is like a pair of glasses with colored lenses, quite useful in many occasions to decipher the world but deleterious in many others, and it’s hard to get rid of these glasses by mere willpower.
‘Freak pride’ and disability
Let’s address the issue of “freaks”: originally a derogatory term, the word has now gained a peculiar cultural charm and ,as such, I always used it with the purpose of fighting pietism and giving diversity it its just value.
Any time I set out to talk about human marvels, I experienced first-hand how difficult it is to write about these people.
Reflecting on the most correct angle to address the topic means to try and take off culture’s colored glasses, an almost impossible task. I often wondered if I myself have sometimes succumbed to unintended generalizations, if I unwillingly fell into a self-righteous approach.
Sure enough, I have tried to tell these amazing characters’ stories through the filter of wonder: I believed that – equality being a given – the separation between the ordinary and the extra-ordinary could be turned in favor of disability.
I have always liked those “deviants” who decided to take back their exotic bodies, their distance from the Norm, in some sort of freak pride that would turn the concept of handicap inside out.
But is it really the most correct approach to diversity and, in some cases, disability? To what extent is this vision original, or is it just derivative from a long cultural tradition? What if the freak, despite all pride, actually just wanted an ordinary dimension, what if what he was looking for was the comfort of an average life? What is the most ethical narrative?
This doubt, I think, arose from a paragraph by Fredi Saal, born in 1935, a German author who spent the first part of his existence between hospitals and care homes because he was deemed “uneducable”:
No, it is not the disabled person who experiences him- or herself as abnormal — she or he is experienced as abnormal by others, because a whole section of human life is cut off. Thus this very existence acquires a threatening quality. One doesn’t start from the disabled persons themselves, but from one’s own experience. One asks oneself, how would I react, should a disability suddenly strike, and the answer is projected onto the disabled person. Thus one receives a completely distorted image. Because it is not the other fellow that one sees, but oneself.
(F. Saal, Behinderung = Selbstgelebte Normalität, 1992)
As much as the idea of a freak pride is dear to me, it may well be another subconscious projection: I may just like to think that I would react to disability that way… and yet one more time I am not addressing the different person, but rather my own romantic and unrealistic idea of diversity.
We cannot obviously look through the eyes of a disabled person, there is an insuperable barrier, but it is the same that ultimately separates all human beings. The “what would I do in that situation?” Saal talks about, the act of projecting ourselves onto others, that is something we endlessly do and not just with the disabled.
The figure of the freak has always been ambiguous – or, better, what is hard to understand is our own gaze on the freak.
I think it is therefore important to trace the origins of this gaze, to understand how it evolved: we could even discover that this thing we call disability is actually nothing more than another cultural product, an illusion we are “trained” to recognize in much the same way we see the family having breakfast inside a living room rather than out in the open.
In my defense, I will say this: if it is possible for me to imagine a freak pride, it is because the very concept of freak does not come out of the blue, and does not even entail disability. Many people working in freakshows were also disabled, others were not. That was not the point. The real characteristics that brought those people on stage was the sense of wonder they could evoke: some bodies were admired, others caused scandal (as they were seen as unbearably obscene), but the public bought the ticket to be shocked, amazed and shaken in their own certainties.
In ancient times, the monstrum was a divine sign (it shares its etymological root with the Italian verb mostrare, “to show”), which had to be interpreted – and very often feared, as a warning of doom. If the monstruous sign was usually seen as bearer of misfortune, some disabilities were not (for instance blindness and lunacy, which were considered forms of clairvoyance, see V. Amendolagine, Da castigo degli dei a diversamente abili: l’identità sociale del disabile nel corso del tempo, 2014).
During the Middle Ages the problem of deformity becomes much more complex: on one hand physiognomy suggested a correlation between ugliness and a corrupted soul, and literature shows many examples of enemies being libeled through the description of their physical defects; on the other, theologians and philosophers (Saint Augustine above all) considered deformity as just another example of Man’s penal condition on this earth, so much so that in the Resurrection all signs of it would be erased (J.Ziegler in Deformità fisica e identità della persona tra medioevo ed età moderna, 2015); some Christian female saints even went to the extreme of invoking deformity as a penance (see my Ecstatic Bodies: Hagiography and Eroticism).
Being deformed also precluded the access to priesthood (ordo clericalis) on the basis of a famous passage from the Leviticus, in which offering sacrifice on the altar is forbidden to those who have imperfect bodies (P. Ostinelli, Deformità fisica…, 2015).
The monstrum becoming mirabile, worthy of admiration, is a more modern idea, but that was around well before traveling circuses, before Tod Browning’s “One of us!“, and before hippie counterculture seized it: this concept is opposed to the other great modern invention in regard to disability, which is commiseration.
The whole history of our relationship with disability fluctuates between these two poles: admiration and pity.
The right kind of eyes
In the German exhibition Der (im)perfekte Mensch (“The (im)perfect Human Being”), held in 2001 in the Deutsches Hygiene Museum in Dresden, the social gaze at people with disabilities was divided into six main categories:
– The astonished and medical gaze
– The annihilating gaze
– The pitying gaze
– The admiring gaze
– The instrumentalizing gaze
– The excluding gaze
While this list can certainly be discussed, it has the merit of tracing some possible distinctions.
Among all the kinds of gaze listed here, the most bothering might be the pitying gaze. Because it implies the observer’s superiority, and a definitive judgment on a condition which, to the eyes of the “normal” person, cannot seem but tragic: it expresses a self-righteous, intimate certainty that the other is a poor cripple who is to be pitied. The underlying thought is that there can be no luck, no happiness in being different.
The concept of poor cripple, which (although hidden behind more politically correct words) is at the core of all fund-raising marathons, is still deeply rooted in our culture, and conveys a distorted vision of charity – often more focused on our own “pious deed” than on people with disabilities.
As for the pitying gaze, the most ancient historical example we know of is this 1620 print, kept at the Tiroler Landesmuseum Ferdinandeum in Innsbruck, which shows a disabled carpenter called Wolffgang Gschaiter lying in his bed. The text explains how this man, after suffering unbearable pain to his left arm and back for three days, found himself completely paralyzed. For fifteen years, the print tells us, he was only able to move his eyes and tongue. The purpose of this paper is to collect donations and charity money, and the readers are invited to pray for him in the nearby church of the Three Saints in Dreiheiligen.
This pamphlet is interesting for several reasons: in the text, disability is explicitly described as a “mirror” of the observer’s own misery, therefore establishing the idea that one must think of himself as he is watching it; a distinction is made between body and soul to reinforce drama (the carpenter’s soul can be saved, his body cannot); the expression “poor cripple” is recorded for the first time.
But most of all this little piece of paper is one of the very first examples of mass communication in which disability is associated with the idea of donations, of fund raising. Basically what we see here is a proto-telethon, focusing on charity and church prayers to cleanse public conscience, and at the same time an instrument in line with the Counter-Reformation ideological propaganda (see V. Schönwiese, The Social Gaze at People with Disabilities, 2007).
During the previous century, another kind of gaze already developed: the clinical-anatomical gaze. This 1538 engraving by Albrecht Dürer shows a woman lying on a table, while an artist meticulously draws the contour of her body. Between the two figures stands a framework, on which some stretched-out strings divide the painter’s vision in small squares so that he can accurately transpose it on a piece of paper equipped with the same grid. Each curve, each detail is broke down and replicated thanks to this device: vision becomes the leading sense, and is organized in an aseptic, geometric, purely formal frame. This was the phase in which a real cartography of the human body was developed, and in this context deformity was studied in much the same manner. This is the “astonished and medical gaze“, which shows no sign of ethical or pitying judgment, but whose ideology is actually one of mapping, dividing, categorizing and ultimately dominating every possible variable of the cosmos.
In the wunderkammer of Ferdinand II, Archduke of Austria (1529-1595), inside Ambras Castle near Innsbruck, there is a truly exceptional portrait. A portion of the painting was originally covered by a red paper curtain: those visiting the collection in the Sixteenth Century might have seen something close to this reconstruction.
Those willing and brave enough could pull the paper aside to admire the whole picture: thus the subject’s limp and deformed body appeared, portrayed in raw detail and with coarse realism.
What Fifteen-Century observers saw in this painting, we cannot know for sure. To understand how views are relative, it suffices to remind that at the time “human marvels” included for instance foreigners from exotic countries, and a sub-category of foreigners were cretins who were said to inhabit certain geographic regions.
In books like Giovan Battista de’ Cavalieri’s Opera ne la quale vi è molti Mostri de tute le parti del mondo antichi et moderni (1585), people with disabilities can be found alongside monstruous apparitions, legless persons are depicted next to mythological Chimeras, etc.
But the red paper curtain in the Ambras portrait is an important signal, because it means that such a body was on one hand considered obscene, capable of upsetting the spectator’s senibility. On the other hand, the bravest or most curious onlookers could face the whole image. This leads us to believe that monstrosity in the Sixteenth Century had at least partially been released from the idea of prodigy, and freed from the previous centuries superstitions.
This painting is therefore a perfect example of “astonished and medical” gaze; from deformity as mirabilia to proper admiration, it’s a short step.
The Middle Path?
The admiring gaze is the one I have often opted for in my articles. My writing and thinking practice coincides with John Waters’ approach, when he claims he feels some kind of admiration for the weird characters in his movies: “All the characters in my movies, I look up to them. I don’t think about them the way people think about reality TV – that we are better and you should laugh at them.“
And yet, here we run the risk of falling into the opposite trap, an excessive idealization. It may well be because of my peculiar allergy to the concept of “heroes”, but I am not interested in giving hagiographic versions of the life of human marvels.
All these thoughts which I have shared with you, lead me to believe there is no easy balance. One cannot talk about freaks without running into some kind of mistake, some generalization, without falling victim to the deception of colored glasses.
Every communication between us and those with different/disabled bodies happens in a sort of limbo, where our gaze meets theirs. And in this space, there cannot ever be a really authentic confrontation, because from a physical perspective we are separated by experiences too far apart.
I will never be able to understand other people’s body, and neither will they.
But maybe this distance is exactly what draws us together.
“Everyone stands alone at the heart of the world…”
Let’s consider the only reference we have – our own body – and try to break the habit.
I will borrow the opening words from the introduction I wrote for Nueva Carne by Claudio Romo:
Our bodies are unknowable territories.
We can dismantle them, cut them up into ever smaller parts, study their obsessive geometries, meticulously map every anatomical detail, rummage in their entrails… and their secret will continue to escape us.
We stare at our hands. We explore our teeth with our tongues. We touch our hair.
Is this what we are?
Here is the ultimate mind exercise, my personal solution to the freaks’ riddle: the only sincere and honest way I can find to relate diversity is to make it universal.
Johnny Eck woke up in this world without the lower limbs; his brother, on the contrary, emerged from the confusion of shapes with two legs.
I too am equipped with feet, including toes I can observe, down there, as they move whenever I want them to. Are those toes still me? I ignore the reach of my own identity, and if there is an exact point where its extension begins.
On closer view, my experience and Johnny’s are different yet equally mysterious.
We are all brothers in the enigma of the flesh.
I would like to ideally sit with him — with the freak, with the “monster” — out on the porch of memories, before the sunset of our lives.
‘So, what did you think of this strange trip? Of this strange place we wound up in?’, I would ask him.
And I am sure that his smile would be like mine.
The time has finally come to unveil the project I have been spending a good part of this year on.
Everything started with a place, a curious secret nestled in the heart of Rome, a stone’s throw away from the Circo Massimo. Very likely, my favorite haven in the whole city: the wunderkammer Mirabilia, a cabinet of wonders recreating the philosophy and taste of sixteenth-century collections, from which modern museums evolved.
Taxidermied giraffes and lions, high-profile artworks and rarities from all over the world were gathered here after many years of research and adventures by the gallery owner, Giano Del Bufalo, a young collector I previously wrote about.
This baroque studio, where beauty marries the macabre and the wonderful, has become for me a special spot in which to withdraw and to dream, especially after a hard day.
Given these premises, it was just a matter of time before the idea of a collaboration between Bizzarro Bazar and Mirabilia was born.
And now we’re getting there.
On October 9, within this gallery’s perfect setting, the Academy of Enchantment will open its doors.
What Giano and I have designed is an alternative cultural center, unprecedented in the Italian scenario and tailor-made for the lovers of the unusual.
The Academy will host a series of meetings with scientists, writers, artists and scholars who devoted their lives to the exploration of reality’s strangest facets: they range from mummification specialists to magic books researchers, from pathologists to gothic literature experts, from sex historians to some of the most original contemporary artists.
You can easily guess how much this project is close to my heart, as it represents a physical transposition of many years of work on this blog. But the privilege of planning its ‘bursting into’ the real world has been accorded only by the friendly willingness of a whole number of kindred spirits I have met over the years thanks to Bizzarro Bazar.
I was surprised and actually a bit intimidated by the enthusiasm shown by these extraordinary people, whom I hold in the highest regard: University professors, filmmakers, illusionists and collectors of oddities all warmly responded to my call for action, which can be summarized by the ambitious objective of “cultivating the vertigo of amazement”.
I address a similar appeal to this blog’s followers: spread the word, share the news and participate to the events if you can. It will be a unique occasion to listen and discuss, to meet these exceptional lecturers in person, to train your dream muscles… but above all it will be an opportunity to find each other.
This is indeed how we like to think of the Academy of Enchantment: as a frontier outpost, where the large family of wonder pioneers and enthusiasts can finally meet; where itineraries and discoveries can intersect; and from which, eventually, everyone will be able to head off towards new explorations.
In order to attain the meetings you will be requested to join the Mirabilia cultural association; on the Accademia dell’Incanto website you will soon find all about the next events and application methods. The Accademia dell’Incanto is also on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
“Keep the World Weird!”