Does the Neapolitan nativity scene hide a dark and mysterious side?
Here is a small video where I talk about it (as usual, you can turn on the English subtitles).
Does the Neapolitan nativity scene hide a dark and mysterious side?
Here is a small video where I talk about it (as usual, you can turn on the English subtitles).
In this episode of season 2 of Bizzarro Bazar: the scientist who drugged spiders; a Ticuna ritual mask; the secret hidden in a bishop’s coffin.
Produced in collaboration with the Musei Civici di Reggio Emilia.
Directed & animated by Francesco Erba.
The English term ‘bonehouse’, referring to an ossuary or charnel where large quantities of exhumed skeletal remains are stacked and displayed, derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘beinhaus’. In its original use, this word referred to the human body rather than any structure as the house of bones. With the bones of the living inhabiting bodies and the bones of the dead inhabiting charnel houses, distinctions between life and death remain clear and accommodated. However, the emergence of animal life within the bones of the dead offers one further twist, repurposing bones as houses in and of themselves.
Reports of birds nesting in human skulls were surprisingly common in the 19th and early 20th centuries, attracting the attention of Victorian ornithologists and curiosity-seekers alike. Numerous reports survive through popular books and magazines of the period, including wrens nesting in a skull left outside to whiten by an anatomy student (Blanchan 1907), as well as one uncovered during building works at Hockwold Hall, Norfolk, during the 1870s (Chilvers 1877). Following its discovery, the Hockwold skull was hung from a nail on a potting shed wall by a local man, who was later surprised to find that a wren seen flying in and out of it had laid four or five eggs within.
Also in Norfolk, earlier in the century, birds were found nesting in the exposed skeletal remains of a local murderer. Following execution, the body was left to rot in a gibbet suspended outside the village of Wereham, serving as a grizzly warning to others who might threaten local lives. Around five years later, in 1810 or thereabouts, a child climbed the scaffold and discovered several blue-tits living within the skull (Stevenson 1876).
Further accounts pepper books both historic and recent. When a Saxon cemetery was excavated at Saffron Walden during the 1870s, a Redstart raised four children in the skull of an exposed skeleton (Travis 1876). More recently, in an expedition to Cape Clear Island, Ireland, the ornithologist Ronald M. Lockley discovered a robin’s nest inside a skull within a ruined chapel, which had presumably tumbled from an old stone grave within the walls (Lockley 1983).
Skulls do not form the only morbid homes of nesting birds, with the Chinese Hoopoe, or coffin-bird, so named on account of its habit of nesting in caskets which were frequently left above-ground in 19th century China. Furthermore, the Arctic-dwelling Snow Bunting has been rumoured to seek shelter in the chest cavities of those unfortunate enough to die on the tundra (Dixon 1902). While nooks and crannies in modern cemeteries also provide helpful shelter in mortuary environments (Smith/Minor 2019), these nesting sites are not driven by any macabre mechanism. Rather, they express the versatile ability of birds to seek shelter wherever it might be conveniently found.
Birds nesting in locations as mundane as flowerpots and old boots (Kearton 1895), through to desiccated animal carcasses, including those of other birds (Armstrong 1955), demonstrate the indifferent resourcefulness of our feathered friends. It is therefore unsurprising that when skulls of the dead have been left exposed to the elements, they have occasionally provided shelter in much the same way as any other convenient object might. As charnels and ossuaries have historically accommodated large quantities of such remains, from time to time they have offered several such convenient homes for nesting birds.
Within England, two charnel collections remain extant. The first of these, at St. Leonard’s Church in Hythe, Kent, houses hundreds of skulls including one which contains a bird’s nest. The nest is rumoured to have been built in the mid-20th century after the church’s windows were shattered by a bomb which fell nearby in the Second World War, allowing birds to enter the structure (Caroline 2015).
England’s second accessible charnel collection is located in the crypt of Holy Trinity Church in Rothwell, Northamptonshire. Newspapers in 1912 reported the discovery a nest in a skull there, which was believed to have been made by a bird who snuck into the crypt through a hole in a ventilator (Northampton Mercury 12.7.12). However, a lack of references in more recent sources suggest that the nest has not survived to the present day.
In Austria, the ossuary of Filialkirche St. Michael in der Wachau contains the remains of local people as well as soldiers who died during the 1805 Battle of Dürenstein (Engelbrecht). Several skulls bear bullet holes attesting death by conflict, while one with a large portion missing from its vault is displayed side-on to reveal the bird’s nest that it contains.
Further examples exist in the Breton region of North-Western France, where ossuaries were common until hygienic and cultural changes in the 19th and 20th centuries led to most of them being emptied. The ossuary of l’Église Saint-Grégoire in Lanrivain is one where bones still remain, with one skull there accommodating a nest.
A further example with a difference can be found in the ossuary of l’Église Saint-Fiacre. Within Breton ossuary practices, skulls were frequently retained separately from other remains in biographically inscribed boxes which recorded details of the deceased such as names and dates alongside invocations of prayer (Coughlin 2016). Boxes possessed viewing apertures which exposed the remains, as well as pitched roofs which led to 19th century travellers describing them as resembling dog kennels. However, one at Saint-Fiacre is decidedly distant from these canine comparisons, having been adopted and transformed into the uncanniest of birdhouses.
Birds are not the only animals to have found happy homes among charnel remains. In her book ‘A Tour of the Bones’, Denise Inge noted a mouse living in the ossuary of Hallstatt, Austria. More recently, rat bones in the ossuary of Gdańsk, Poland, have been used to shed new light on the dispersal of plague in medieval Europe (Morozova et al 2020). Plants as well as animals have their own established charnel histories too, with moss removed from human skulls finding historic employment within folk medicine as a cure for conditions of the head such as seizures and nosebleeds (Gerard 1636).
While cemeteries have attracted increased attention in recent times as urban green spaces which accommodate and facilitate nature within settlements (Quinton/Duinker 2018), the study of charnel houses as ecosystems remains a further promising project which is yet to be conducted.
As most instances of birds nesting in ossuary skulls which have been described here were discovered accidentally during the course of broader research, it is inevitable that the present list remains incomplete. It is hoped that by bringing such examples together in one place, this strange phenomenon might receive recognition for the curiosity that it is, and that more instances might be noticed and added to the list. While it is widely seen that life often finds compelling ways to perpetuate among environments of the dead, nesting birds in ossuary skulls provide a particularly uncanny example – from bodies as the houses of bones, to bones as the houses of bodies.
Today I’d like to introduce you to one truly extraordinary project, in which I am honored to have participated. This is Totentanz, created by engraver and paper maker Andrea De Simeis.
One of the depictions of death that, from the Middle Ages to the seventeenth century, enjoyed greater fortune is the so-called Triumph of Death.
I talked about it on YouTube in my video Dancing with death: the Black Queen who, armed with a scythe, crushes everyone under the wheels of her chariot – peasants, popes, rulers – was not just a pictorial representation, but a concrete part of the festivities of Carnival. In fact, the Triumph also paraded among the carnival floats, surrounded by people masked as skeletons who mocked the spectators by dancing and singing poems centered on memento mori.
This is the tradition that Andrea De Simeis drew on to invent his modern Triumph of Death, an actual musical chariot that will parade across Italy and, virus permitting, across Europe, bringing joy and poetry but at the same time reminding us of our finiteness.
Totentanz (German for “danse macabre”) is a large wooden music box on wheels; at the turn of the crank, the machine plays a dies irae and three cylinders start turning, thus rotating eighteen original illustrations.
The images in this carousel are inspired by the most famous European macabre dances: from the Holy Innocents’ Cemetery in Paris to Guy Marchant‘s woodcuts; from Holbein’s superb engravings to the magnificent silhouettes by Melchior Grossek; up to the ironic Mexican skeletons by José Guadalupe Posada, the inventor of the iconic Calavera Catrina.
The music box, at the end of its delicate motif, draws a booklet for its operator: an illustrated plaquette with a short dialogue, a maxim, an aphorism, a poem.
Each precious booklet is produced in only eleven copies; the illustrations and texts are printed on hand-laid paper in pure cotton cellulose, hemp and spontaneous fig from the Mediterranean vegetation.
The Italian authors who accepted the invitation to write these short texts are many and prestigious; you can discover some of them on the Facebook page of the project.
The proceeds from these publications will fund the Totentanz music box’s trip from city to city, accompanied at each stage by performances by a musician or actor who will interpret the theme of the memento mori. Totentanz‘s initiatives are not for profit, but only serve to finance this tour.
If the initiative fascinates you, you can support it in many ways.
In the promotional video below you can see the fantastic machine in action; below is a 3D rendering by visual artist Giacomo Merchich.
Welcome to the collection of online resources designed to provide you with lots of nice conversation starters. We will talk about people who died badly, about menstruation, voodoo rites, sexually arousing vegetables and the fact that reality does not exist.
And this instead is the city of the Travises, composed solely of small castles meant to underline their ancient economic superiority:
These are the “ghosts” of Castello di Vezio, Lake Como, Italy. They renew these statues every year: you can volunteer to model and be “encased” in chak. You’ll eventually be let out ?, but the hollow statue stays there for the following year. pic.twitter.com/MdfA2zqW1K
— Bizzarro Bazar (@BizzarroBazar) August 11, 2020
That’s all folks, see you next time!
During the great waves of plague in the Middle Ages, two allegorical motifs arose: the Triumph of Death and the Danse Macabre. What can they teach us today?
Here’s a video I made for the University of Padua, for the project Covid Catalog of Losses and Findings.[Remember to turn on English Subtitles.]
In 1851 the German artist Alfred Rethel (who three years before had already signed an overtly political Danse Macabre) produced the sketches for two twin engravings: Death as an Enemy and Death as a Friend.
If his Death as an Enemy (above), although elegant and refined, is not so original as it is inspired by a long tradition of “Triumphs of Death” and skeletal figures towering over piles of dead bodies, it is instead the specular Death as a Friend which always fascinated me.
I recently managed to get a reproduction of this etching, taken from a late 19th-century book, and I was finally able to scan it properly. Much of the charm of this lithograph, in fact, derives from the attention given to the smallest details, which need to be carefully examined and interpreted; for this reason, admiring it in high quality is fundamental. At the end of this article you will find the link to download it; but I’d like to show you first why I love this image so much.
The scene takes us to the topmost room inside the bell tower of a medieval cathedral.
The environment is modest, the only discreet frieze present above the window arch is certainly nothing compared to how the church should look from the outside: we can guess it from a glimpse at the gargoyle in the upper left corner, and from the carved finials of the spire we see from the window.
Between these four walls the old sexton and bell ringer spent his whole life; we can imagine the cold of harsh winters, when the wind whistled entering from the large window, causing the snow to swirl in the room. We can feel the fatigue of those wooden stairs that the man must have climbed up and down Lord knows how many times, in order to reach the top of the tower.
Now the guardian has come to the end of his days: his horn remains silent, hanging on the handrail.
The frail limbs of the old man (his right foot turned to the side, under the leg’s weight), his sunken figure in the armchair, his hands abandoned in his lap and weakly united in one last prayer — everything tells us that his life is coming to an end.
His was a humble but pious life. We can guess it from the remains of his last poor meal, a simple piece of bread and a glass that allude to the Eucharist. We also understand it from the crucifix, the only furnishing in addition to the table and chair, and from the open book of scriptures.
The bunch of keys hanging from his belt are another element bearing a double meaning: they identify his role as a sacristan, but also reference the other bunch of keys that await him, the ones Saint Peter will use to unlock the gates of Paradise.
The real vanishing point is the sun setting behind the horizon of a country landscape. It is the evening of the day, the evening of a life that has run its course just like the river we see in the distance, the emblem of panta rei. Yet on its banks we see well-cultivated and regular fields, a sign that the flowing of that water has borne fruit.
A little bird lands on the windowsill of the large window; is she a friend of the old man, with whom he shared a few crumbs of bread? Did the bird worry when she didn’t hear the bells ringing as usual? In any case, it is a moving detail, and an indication of life carrying on.
And finally let’s take a look at Death.
This is not the Black Lady (or the Grim Reaper) we find in most classic depictions, her figure could not be further from the one that brought scourge and devastation in the medieval Triumphs of Death. Of course she is a skeleton and can inspire fear, but the hood and saddlebag are those of a traveler. Death came a long way to visit the old man, so much so that she carries a scallop on his chest, the sea shell associated with Saint James, symbol of the Pilgrim; her bony feet have trampled the Earth far and wide, since time immemorial. And this constant wandering unites her, in spirit, with the old man — not surprisingly, the same shell is also pinned on the sexton’s hat, next to his staff and a bundle of herbs that he has collected.
This Death however, as indicated by the title, is “a friend”. When facing such a virtuous man, that same Death who knows how to be a ruthless and ferocious tyrant becomes a “sister” in the Franciscan sense. Her head lowered, her empty orbits turned to the ground, she seems almost intent on a secret meditation: from the beginning of time she has carried out her task with diligence, but here we see she is not evil.
And in fact, she makes a gesture of disarming gentleness: she rings the bells one last time, to announce vespers in the place of the dying man who is no longer able to do it.
It is time for the changing of the guard, the elderly man can now leave the post he has occupied for so long. With the quiet arrival of the evening, with the last tolling of those bells he has attended to throughout his life, a simple and devoted existence ends. Everything is peaceful, everything is done.
Few other images, I believe, are able to render so elegantly the Christian ideal (but, in general, the human ideal) of the “Good Death”.
Unfortunately, not everyone will be able to afford such an idyllic end; but if Death were really so kind, caring and compassionate, who wouldn’t want to have her as a friend?
To download my high-quality scan (60Mb) of Death as Friend, click here.
November 8, 1909, Somerville Opera House, New Jersey.
Professor Arthur Everton was a man of gentle manners, with a suave voice and a nice pair of black mustaches. Hypnotism was his early passion, and after a period spent moving pianos he had recently returned to the limelight. But he hadn’t lost his shine: he was dominating the scene with grace and security.
His evening show was coming to an end; until that moment the hypnotist had amused the audience by forcing his subjects to fish onstage with an invisible fishing line, and other such amenities. But now he announced the grand finale.
There was electricity in the room as his magnetic eyes scrutinized the audience intensely, one row at a time, searching for the subject of his next experiment. And the public, as always in these cases, was torn.
There were some, among the spectators and the spectators, who timidly lowered their eyes for fear of being called on stage, having no intention of becoming the laughing stock. Others, on the other hand, secretly hoped to be chosen: either they thought they were lucid enough to challenge the Professor, to resist the hypnotist’s intense willpower… or they were unconsciously enticed by the idea of losing control for a few minutes, just for fun, with no major consequences.
Finally, a man raised his hand.
“Ah, we have a volunteer!”, shouted Everton.
35-year-old Robert Simpson, a tall, bulky man, climbed on stage. Professor Everton let the audience give a round of applause to this brave stranger, and then proceeded to induce a cataleptic state. According to the New York Times
he made a few passes, told Simpson to be rigid, and he was. Everton then had attendants lay the body on two chairs, the head resting on one and the feet on the other, and stepped up on the subject’s stomach and then down again. Two attendants, acting under his orders, lifted Simpson to a standing posture, and Everton, clapping his hands, cried out ‘Relax!’
Simpson’s body softened so suddenly that it slipped out of the hands of the attendants to the floor, his head striking one of the chairs as he slid down.
Everyone immediately understood, just by looking at the assistants’ astonished faces, that this was no set-up. Professor Everton — who was actually not a real professor — began panicking at this point. He and his collaborators tried to awaken the unfortunate man from the trance, shaking him in every way, but the man did not respond to any stimulus.
Everton, ever more hysterical, managed to squeak out a cry for help asking if there were any doctors in the room. Three physicians, who had been invited to the show by the theater manager, came to the rescue; but even their attempts to revive Simpson were unsuccessful. Dr. W. H. Long, county physician, looked up from the body and stared seriously at the hypnotist.
“This one’s gone,” he hissed.
“No, he’s still in a trance,” Everton replied, and began clapping his hands near Simpson’s ears, and shaking the man’s corpse.
When the police showed up, Professor Everton was still intent on trying to awaken his volunteer. The cops arrested him immediately on charges of manslaughter.
As they carried him out of the Opera House, handcuffed, his eyes no longer seemed so magnetic, but only terrified.
The next day, Robert Simpson’s lifeless body lay under a black shroud in Somerville’s hospital morgue, awaiting the autopsy.
Suddenly the door opened and four men entered the mortuary. Three of them were doctors.
The fourth approached the corpse and uncoverd it. Breathing deeply, he first touched the dead man’s cheeks; then he brought his head close to Simpson’s chest as if to auscultate him. No heartbeat. Finally he gently placed three fingers on the cold skin over the breastbone, put his lips to the dead man’s ear and began to speak.
“Listen, Bob, your heart action is strong, Bob, your heart begins to beat.”
Then he suddenly started screaming, “BOB, DO YOU HEAR ME?”
The three doctors exchanged a puzzled look.
The man’s voice resumed whispering: “Bob, your heart is starting …”
Simpson, lying on the table, did not move.
This strange scene continued for quite a while, until the impatient doctors decided the farce had lasted too long.
“Mr. Davenport, I’d say that’s enough.”
“But we’re almost there…”
The man trying to resurrect the dead was named William E. Davenport, and was a friend of Professor Everton (they were both from Newark). Davenport officially held the office of secretary for the mayor, but also dabbled in hypnotism and mesmerism.
The self-proclaimed ‘Professor’, “unnerved and shaken“, remained in prison awaiting the decision of the grand jury. Everton claimed — and perhaps he desperately wanted to convince himself — that he had thrown his subject into a trance so deep as to resemble a state of apparent death. He was so sure Simpson was still in catalepsy, that he had managed to convince authorities to grant him that bizarre attempt at hypnotic resuscitation. Being confined to his cell, he had sent his friend Davenport to the morgue instead.
Unfortunately the latter (maybe because he was just an amateur?) had failed to awaken the dead. For a brief moment there was talk of summoning a third hypnotist from New York to try and bring the victim back to life, but nothing was done.
Thus it remained unclear whether Simpson had died from the weight he suffered while in a cataleptic state, as the hypnotist was climbing on his stomach, or if the whole incident was just a tragic coincidence.
The autopsy put an end to the suspense: Simpson had died of an aortic rupture, and according to the doctors he had likely been suffering from that silent aneurysm for a long time. There was no conclusive evidence that the stress endured during the hypnotism was the actual cause of death, which was eventually ruled out as natural.
Everton, now in full nervous breakdown in his cell, even after the autopsy kept claiming that Simpson was still alive. He was released on bail, and three weeks later the grand jury decided not to indict him.
It was the end of a nightmare for Professor Everton, who retired from the scenes, and the closure of a case that had kept newspaper readers with bated breath — and especially other hypnotists. After all, this could have happened to any of them.
But hypnotists were not damaged by this clamor, on the contrary; they acquired an even more sinister and provocative charm. And they continued, as they did before, to challenge each other with increasingly spectacular performances.
As early as November 11, just three days after Everton’s unfortunate act, a New York Times headline reported:
EVERTON’S RIVAL TRIUMPHS: Somerville’s Other Hypnotist Puts THREE Men on His Subject’s Chest.
The show, as they say, must go on.
It is said that there is nothing more flattering for artists than to see their works stolen from the museum in which they are exhibited. If someone is willing to risk jail for a painting, it is ultimately a tribute — however questionable — to the painter’s skills, and an index of high market value.
Yet there is an artist who, if he were alive today, would certainly not appreciate the fact that thieves have stolen almost a hundred his portraits. Because in his case the works in question weren’t displayed in the halls of a museum, but among the rows of gravestones of a cemetery, and there they should have remained so that everyone could see them.
The monumental cemetery of Campo Verano in Rome, with its 83 hectares of surface, strikes the viewer for the sumptuousness of some chapels, and appears as a rather surreal place. Pharaonic mausoleums, exquisitely crafted statues, buildings as big as houses. This is not a simple cemetery, it resembles a metaphysical city; it just shows to what extent men are willing to go in order to keep the memory of their loved ones alive (as well as the hope, or illusion, that death might not be definitive).
Scrolling through the gravestones, along with some weather-worn photos, some particularly refined portraits catch the eye.
These are the peculiar lava paintings by Filippo Severati.
Born in Rome on April 4, 1819, Filippo followed in the footsteps of his father who was a painter, and from the early age of 6 he began to dedicate himself to miniatures, making it his actual job from 11 years onwards. Meanwhile, having enrolled at the Accademia di S. Luca, he won numerous awards and earned several merit mentions; under the aegis of Tommaso Minardi he produced engravings and drawings, and over the years he specialized in portraiture.
It was around 1850 that Severati began using enamel on a lava or porcelain base. This technique was already known for its property of making the colors almost completely unalterable and for the durability of completed works, due to the numerous cooking phases.
In 1859 he patented his fire painting on enamelled lava procedure, which was renewed and improved over previous techniques (you can find a detailed description of the process in this article in Italian); in 1873 he won the medal of progress at the Vienna Exhibition.
1863 was the the turning point, as Severati painted a self-portrait for his own family tomb: he can still be admired posing, palette in hand, while next to him stands a portrait of his parents placed on an easel — a true picture inside the picture.
After that first tomb painting, funeral portraits soon became his only occupation. Thanks to the refinement of his technique, the clipei (effigies of the deceased) made by Severati were able to last a long time keeping intact the brilliance and liveliness of the backgrounds.
This was the real novelty introduced by Severati: he was able to “reproduce in the open air the typology and formal characteristics of the nineteenth-century portrait intended for the interiors of bourgeois houses” (1) M. Cardinals – M.B. De Ruggieri – C. Falcucci, “Among the most useful and wonderful discoveries of this century…”. The paintings of F. S. al Verano, in Percorsi della memoria. Il Quadriportico del Verano, a cura di L. Cardilli – N. Cardano, Roma 1998, pp. 165-170. Quoted in Treccani. . Instead of hanging it at home, the family could place a portrait of the deceased directly on the tombstone, even if in small format. And some of these clipei are still striking for their vitality and the touching rendering of the features of the deceased, immortalized by the lava painting process.
Severati died in 1892. Forgotten for almost a century, it was rediscovered by photographer Claudio Pisani, who in 1983 published in the Italian magazine Frigidaire an article of praise accompanied by several photos he had taken at Campo Verano.
Today Filippo Severati remains a relatively obscure figure, but among the experts his talent as a painter is well recognized; so much so that the thieves mentioned at the beginning vandalized many graves by removing about ninety of his portraits from the tombstones of the Roman cemetery.
(I would like to thank Nicola for scanning the magazine. Some photos in the article are mine, others were found online.)