Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 27

The cure for boredom is curiosity.
There is no cure for curiosity.
(Dorothy Parker)

Welcome back! Before we dive into our new harvest of wonders, I begin by inviting you on Sunday, April 16 at Defrag in Rome: I will be giving a talk in the truly extraordinary context of Danza Macabra Expo, an event curated by CRUSH – Collective Visual Art. In addition to a collective art exhibition, over the course of this month the event will be enriched by a packed schedule of events including performances, live music, role-playing games, workshops and lectures. You can take a look at the program here.

And now, on with the weird stuff!

Musical Sadisms

  • In 2021 at the Nagasaki Zoo, the female gibbon Momo gave birth to a cub. In itself this would not be big news, except that Momo lives alone and has never had contact with other males. How could this virginal conception happen? After two years of research, and DNA tests, those in charge came to the conclusion that Momo became pregnant… through a glory hole.
  • In Shakespeare’s plays, monstrosity is made explicit in deformed bodies, nefarious instincts, and through language itself. Michela Compagnoni has explored all this in a new book reviewed in this insightful and fascinating article [in Italian]. (Thanks, Bruno!)
  • The first lab-grown meat burger was presented in London 10 years ago. Since then, technologies have evolved, costs are gradually coming down, and synthetic meat seems to be on its way to becoming a possible ethical and ecological alternative to traditional meat in the future. But at this point, why limit ourselves to producing beef slices when we can create recipes from extinct animals?
    The one below, produced by an Australian company, is a mega-meatball made from the DNA of a mammoth.
    Yet I would not recommend tasting it, because the scientists themselves have no idea of the allergic problems a 5,000-year-old protein could cause in humans. (And so goes my idea for a new fast food chain, “Jurassic Pork.”)

  • On L’indiscreto, a great piece by Alessio Montagner [in Italian] on Jesus’ penis, Mary’s vagina and more generally the symbolic density of genitalia in sacred art. (Thanks, Gaberricci!)
  • Feast your eyes on these tears.
  • Park Van Tassel (1853-1930) was an American aerial stunt pioneer. Originally a bartender in Albuquerque, he became interested in areostatic flying beginning in 1879 and decided to become a professional daredevil; his performances consisted of parachuting from his hot air balloon. But although today he is considered an important figure for some technical innovations and for introducing women (i.e., his wife and daughters) to the sport, at the time not everyone thought him particularly skilled. Many of his shenanigans did not end exactly as planned, and Van Tassel often ended up injuring himself or crashing-landing so much so that the crowd often booed him or even sabotaged the balloon. As Jan Bondeson reports in Strange Victoriana, in one case a spectator ended up lying unconscious because of a ballast carelessly thrown by Van Tassel; in another, the reckless aeronaut risked being killed when his legs got caught in the balloon’s support ropes while his parachute had already opened; in yet another, a wedding that was to take place in the air had to be cancelled because no priest or justice of the peace agreed (understandably) to ascend in a balloon along with Van Tassel.
    And they were right: flying with him was really not good business, as the 1889 incident in Honolulu tragically demonstrated. Van Tassel and his co-pilot Joe Lawrence had just taken flight in front of a cheering crowd when the hot air balloon was displaced by the wind toward the ocean; unable to control it, Van Tassel and his colleague jumped by parachute, but as they gently descended they realized that an even worse fate awaited them below… Van Tassel managed to reach the shore unharmed, but the poor assistant ended up mauled by sharks.

  • In the first of my Milan anatomy lectures, I mentioned a peculiar court proceeding that took place in France in 1659, in which on trial came the poor erectile capacities of a nobleman, accused by his wife of failing to fulfill his marital duties — impotence, at the time, was almost the only reason for a woman to file for divorce. This trial, in which the defendant had to prove his manhood by attempting copulation before an attentive jury of doctors and magistrates, was not an isolated case. Here is an article about the history of impotence trials.
  • There are those who look at a photo from when they were 16 years old, think back to that time and say, “I was a little immature, but I was still me after all.” And there are those who wonder, “but was that really me?” as if they no longer recognize themselves.
    Some of us, in short, naturally see a continuity (a “narrative arc,” as a screenwriter would put it) in our life experience, while others feel subject to metamorphoses so continuous and profound that the past is crowded with many outdated and now extraneous versions of themselves. I certainly belong to the second category.
    By now there is a good deal of psychological research showing precisely how perception about one’s own past identity varies greatly from person to person, so much so that scholars have even coined two terms to denote the two different types of approach. Are you continuers or dividers?
  • “It was about four bells in the middle watch, the “churchyard” watch, as the four hours after midnight is called, that it happened. We of the mate’s watch were on deck–the men for’ard, Burton and I under the break, and Mr. Thomas pacing the poop above our heads. Suddenly, apparently close aboard on the port hand, there came howling out of the darkness a most frightful, wailing cry, ghastly in its agony and intensity. Not of overpowering volume–a score of men shouting together could have raised as loud a hail-it was the indescribable calibre and agony of the shriek that almost froze the blood in our veins. […] Even the old man was awakened by it and came up on deck. Everyone was listening intensely, straining their eyes into the blackness that enveloped us. A moment or two passed and then as we listened, wondering, and silent, again that appalling scream rang out, rising to the point of almost unbearable torture and dying crazily away in broken whimperings. No one did anything, or even spoke. We stood like stones, simply staring into the mystery-laden gloom.”
    This sounds like a passage from a William Hope Hodgson short story, but instead it is a truthful account of a nighttime scream heard at sea by the crew of a sailing ship in the early twentieth century and still left unexplained.

  • How did the idea of the Martians come about? The one above is one of the maps of Mars made by Schiaparelli in the late 1800s. The astronomer christened those mysterious rectilinear formations “canals”-a term mistranslated into English as canals, which by definition implies the idea that they are artificial. Soon many other scholars became convinced that those strange structures were too regular to be mere rivers, and from there to the idea that intelligent beings might inhabit the planet’s surface was a short step. When the first probes photographed and mapped Mars more closely, it was realized that the channels were just optical illusions; but without this mistake who knows if we would ever have science fiction as we know it today.
  • At Waterloo, one of the bloodiest battles in history, 20,000 soldiers died, plus thousands of horses. But then where did all those bones end up? A recent historical study has provided a surprising answer: they were illegally unearthed between 1834 and 1860 to refine and bleach sugar.(Thanks Vito, RIP)
  • Let’s keep talking about bones. In just one year, in 1657, Genoa lost two-thirds of its population to the plague. There were so many dead that numerous mass graves had to be resorted to. One of these was found in 1835, during renovation work in the city park of Acquasola; it was then decided to move the remains to the tunnels that develop underground in the area. So even today, just a few meters below the feet of dog walkers and children playing, mountains of stacked bones hide.
    The tunnels cannot be visited, but here are some photos taken by speleologists.
  • Most minimalist deity.
  • Most ingenious funeral card.
  • Most AAARGH animal.
  • The Essentials of Smallpox is a manuscript compiled (probably in a single copy) in the late 17th or early 18th century by Japanese physician Kanda Gensen. The sheets have been worked in such a way as to illustrate the plagues of smallpox in relief.

That’s all, see you next time!

Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 20

Monday morning according to Gustave Doré.

First of all some quick updates on my upcoming activities.

  • On November 1st, together with my friend Luca Cableri, I will be a guest of the Trieste Science+Fiction Festival. We will talk about wunderkammer and space, in a conference entitled The Space Cabinet of Curiosities. — November 1st, 10 am, Teatro Miela in piazza L. Amedeo Duca degli Abruzzi 3, Trieste.
  • On November 3rd I will speak at Sadistique, the BDSM party organized every first Sunday of the month by Ayzad. The title of my speech: “Pains are my delight”: Erotics of martyrdom. Obviously, given the private context, access is forbidden to the curious and to those who have no intention of participating in the party. Consult prices, rules of conduct and dress code on the event’s official page. — November 3rd, 3-8 pm, Nautilus Club, via Mondovì 7, Milano.
    [BTW, Ayzad recently launched his own podcast Exploring Unusual Sex, you can listen to it on Spreaker and Spotify]
  • I remind you that on November 14 we will inaugurate the collective art exhib REQVIEM at Mirabilia Gallery in Rome. The exhibition, organized by l’Arca degli Esposti and curated by Eliana Urbano Raimondi and myself, will feature works by 10 international artists within the context of the only Roman wunderkammer. — November 14th, 7 pm, Galleria Mirabilia, via di San Teodoro 15, Roma.

Without further ado let’s start with our selection of links & weirdness!

  • In his encyclopedia of natural history L’univers. Les infiniment grands et les infiniments petits (1865) Felix A. Pouchet recounts this case which allegedly happened in 1838 in the French Alps: “A little girl, five years old, called Marie Delex, was playing with one of her companions on a mossy slope of the mountain, when all at once an eagle swooped down upon her and carried her away in spite of the cries and presence of her young friends. Some peasants, hearing her screams, hastened to the spot but sought in vain for the child, for they found nothing but one of her shoes on the edge of a precipice. The child was not carried to the eagle’s nest, where only the two eagles were seen surrounded by heaps of goat and sheep bones. It was not until two months later that a shepherd discovered the corpse of Marie Delec, frightfully mutilared, and lying upon a rock half a league from where she had been borne off.
  • The Halloween special which caused the death of a young boy, pushing the BBC to pretend it never even aired: a nice video tells its story. (Thanks Johnny!)
  • Fungi that turn insects into zombies: I’ve already written about them a few years ago in my little ebook (remember it?). But this video about the cute Entomophthora muscae has some truly spectacular images.

  • Italian creativity really tops itself when it’s time to put up a scam. A small business car ran over a wild boar in the Gallura countryside, forest rangers were alerted so that the accident damage could be reimbursed by the municipality. It turned out the boar had been just taken out of a freezer. (Article in Italian, via Batisfera)
  • In 1929, the Australian writer Arthur Upfield was planning a detective story and while chatting with a friend he came up with a method for the perfect murder. So perfect in fact, that his novel couldn’t even work, because the detective in the the story would never have solved the case. He needed to find a flaw, one small detail that could expose the culprit. To get out of the impasse the frustrated writer began to discuss the plot with various people. Little did he know that one of these listeners would soon decide to test the method himself, by killing three men.
  • I sometimes think back to a little book I had as a kid, Idées Noires by Franquin. Here is an example of the Belgian cartoonist‘s very dark humor.

“The law is clear: everyone who kills another person will have his head cut off.”

  • An since we’re talking about beheadings, I took the above photograph at Vienna’s Kriminalmuseum di Vienna. It is the head of criminal Frank Zahlheim, and on the cultural implications of this kind of specimens I wrote a post last year that you might want to re-read if you’ve got five minutes.
  • Greta Thunberg becomes a pretext to clarify what autism and Asperger’s syndrome really are (article in Italian).
  • In England, back in the days, whenever someone died in the family the first thing to do was tell the bees.
  • To conclude, I leave you with a picture of a beautiful Egyptian mummified phallus (circa 664-332 a.C.). See you next time!

Il sarto volante

Fra tutti i sogni umani, quello del volo è stato per millenni il più grandioso e irraggiungibile. E affinché riuscissimo a staccarci dal suolo, e librarci al di sopra della terra a cui sembravamo condannati, sono stati necessari incalcolabili sacrifici, innumerevoli vite perdute nel tentativo testardo di liberarsi dalla forza di gravità. Questi individui coraggiosi e spavaldi, entusiasticamente proiettati verso il futuro, sperimentarono per primi macchine volanti non perfezionate, spesso con risultati catastrofici: uomini pronti a rischiare la pelle perché la posta in gioco travalicava i confini della loro singola esistenza. L’attrattiva di “scrivere la storia”, di cambiare l’uomo e allargare l’orizzonte delle sue possibilità è il motore stesso dell’esistenza, per gli appartenenti alla stirpe di Icaro.

Allo stesso tempo, c’era chi si industriava per rendere questi tentativi di volo più sicuri, progettando i primi sistemi di salvataggio. Nel 1910, a sette anni dal primo volo dei fratelli Wright, i pionieri ai comandi dei velivoli a motore rischiavano ancora grosso. In caso di incidente, non esisteva nessun tipo di paracadute perfettamente funzionante: era morte pressoché sicura.

Certo, l’idea esisteva già dalla fine del XVIII secolo, da quando Louis-Sébastien Lenormand (fisico e inventore) si era gettato con successo dalla torre dell’osservatorio di Montpellier utilizzando una specie di ombrellone costituito da un telaio in legno su cui era tesa della stoffa. Nel 1907 Charles Broadwick, esperto pilota di mongolfiere, mise a punto un prototipo del paracadute come lo conosciamo oggi: ripiegato in uno zaino, con tanto di corda statica per la sua apertura. Il 18 febbraio 1911, dalla Torre Eiffel venne lanciato un manichino che, grazie al paracadute di Broadwick, atterrò senza problemi.

E qui entra in scena Franz Reichelt, il nostro eroe, viennese trapiantato in Francia. Reichelt non era né uno scienziato, né un provetto aviatore: era un semplice sarto. La sua boutique di abiti femminili al numero 8 di Rue Gaillon era piuttosto popolare fra le signore austriache che visitavano Parigi, ma a partire dal luglio del 1910 giacche e vestiti avevano lasciato il posto a un’altra, ben più nobile ossessione. Reichelt aveva deciso di iscrivere il suo nome negli annali del volo, sviluppando una tuta-paracadute, cioè un vestito che avrebbe contenuto già al suo interno il sistema di salvataggio.

I primi tentativi furono incoraggianti: Reichelt gettò ripetutamente dal suo balcone al quinto piano dei manichini che indossavano la sua tuta, ed ecco che, spiegando le ali, atterravano dolcemente al suolo. Ma quando fu il momento di convertire questo prototipo in una versione praticabile per l’uomo, il sarto incontrò diverse difficoltà. La tuta pesava ben 70 chili: forse proprio a causa di questo peso eccessivo, l’Aéro-Club di Francia giudicò la vela (cioè la calotta frenante) non abbastanza resistente, e si rifiutò di testare il suo progetto. I tecnici che lo valutarono provarono anche a dissuadere Reichelt dal proseguire le sue ricerche, ma il sarto non voleva sentire ragione.

Il 1911 fu un anno denso di frustrazioni: nonostante Reichelt continuasse a modificare il design della sua tuta, i manichini su cui conduceva i suoi lanci di prova finivano invariabilmente per fracassarsi al suolo. In un paio di occasioni il sarto provò in prima persona il suo paracadute, saltando da un’altezza di 8-10 metri: la prima volta lo salvò un covone di fieno, la seconda si ruppe una gamba.

La tuta, dopo costanti perfezionamenti, pesava ora 25 chili e la vela era stata ampliata da 6 m² a 12 m². Perché diamine, allora, continuava a non funzionare? Per Reichelt, le sue abilità di designer non erano in discussione: l’insuccesso doveva – per forza – essere imputabile alla scarsa altezza da cui erano stati eseguiti i test. A suo dire, cadendo da soli 10 metri, il vestito non aveva nemmeno il tempo di prendere contatto con l’aria; ci voleva un salto molto più vertiginoso.
A forza di solleciti e domande ufficiali, Reichelt riuscì infine ad ottenere l’autorizzazione di sperimentare il suo paracadute lanciando un manichino dalla prima piattaforma della Torre Eiffel. Ma il suo piano segreto era ben più spettacolare.

Nonostante l’esaltato e pomposo annuncio che Reichelt aveva fatto alla stampa qualche giorno prima, la mattina del 4 febbraio 1912 soltanto una trentina di persone si presentarono all’appuntamento. Di fronte a qualche personalità dell’aeronautica interessata alle questioni della sicurezza e agli scarsi giornalisti radunati sotto la Torre, Reichelt scese dalla macchina impettito, con addosso la sua tuta. La mostrò orgoglioso agli astanti: ormai era arrivato a diminuirne il peso fino a 9 chilogrammi, e l’apertura della vela era di ben 30 m². Tutti pensarono che l’inventore indossasse la sua creazione soltanto per illustrarne al meglio le caratteristiche; si accorsero però ben presto che Reichelt non aveva alcuna intenzione di utilizzare dei manichini, ma che voleva saltare lui stesso dalla piattaforma. Riporterà il quotidiano Le Gaulois: “Ci si stupì un po’ di non vedere il manichino annunciato […]. D’altronde, in materia di aviazione, non si è forse abituati a tutte le prodezze, a tutte le sorprese?”

Gli amici presenti cercarono di dissuaderlo, ma senza alcuna fortuna. “Voglio tentare io stesso l’esperimento, senza trucchi, per provare il valore della mia invenzione”, ripeteva. Di fronte alle pressanti obiezioni tecniche di un aeronauta esperto di sicurezza, Reichelt tagliò corto sorridendo: “Vedrete come i miei 62 chili e il mio paracadute daranno alle vostre critiche la più decisa delle smentite”. La fede dell’austriaco nella sua creazione era totale, incrollabile: con calma assoluta e buon umore, diede ordine affinché venisse delimitata e barricata, fra i quattro pilastri della torre, una zona sufficiente al suo atterraggio. Infine salì le scale fino alla piattaforma. Fotografi e operatori erano pronti a immortalare l’impresa eroica.

Alle 8:22 Reichelt montò su uno sgabello posto in cima ad un tavolo del ristorante; controllò l’equipaggiamento, lanciò in aria un pezzetto di carta per misurare la forza del vento. Fu preda allora di un inaspettato momento di esitazione. Rimase apparentemente indeciso per una quarantina di secondi: a cosa stava pensando?
Infine, con un ultimo sorriso, mise un piede sul parapetto e si gettò nel vuoto, a 57 metri dal suolo.

Il paracadute si attorcigliò immediatamente attorno al suo corpo, mentre precipitava, e la sua caduta libera durò una manciata di secondi. Reichelt si schiantò sul lastricato ghiacciato. Questa la descrizione del Figaro:

L’urto fu terribile; un colpo sordo, di una brutalità furiosa. All’impatto, il corpo rimbalzò e ricadde.
Ci si precipitò a soccorrerlo. La fronte insanguinata, gli occhi aperti, dilatati dal terrore, le membra spezzate. François Reichelt non dava più segni di vita.
Qualcuno si sporse, cercò di sentire il cuore. Era fermo.
Il temerario inventore era morto.
Allora la vittima, frantumata e disarticolata, venne sollevata; fu caricata su un autotaxi e il povero corpo fu trasportato a Laënnec.

La tragedia venne filmata da alcune cineprese. Ecco le immagini originali.

Oltre al danno, però, per Reichelt rimaneva ancora la beffa, ancorché postuma.
A sua insaputa, infatti, qualche mese prima era già andato a buon fine, oltreoceano, un salto da un aereo statunitense con paracadute senza telaio fisso; come non bastasse, in Russia Gleb Kotelnikov si era da poco assicurato il brevetto per il suo paracadute richiudibile, e il mese successivo l’avrebbe ottenuto anche per la Francia.

Mentre precipitava verso il selciato, il “sarto volante” non poteva sapere che la sua invenzione era già stata superata; dunque, se non altro, perì nella convinzione di aver tentato un’impresa inaudita.

E qui esce di scena Franz Reichelt, il nostro eroe, un po’ folle ma impavido e temerario – o almeno così sarebbe stato ricordato, se soltanto il suo congegno avesse funzionato. Il lancio di Reichelt produsse, all’impatto, un avvallamento di 15 centimetri d’altezza nell’asfalto; non lasciò purtroppo alcun segno nella storia dell’aviazione.