Bonehouse and Birdhouse: Birds That Nest in Human Skulls

Guest post by Thomas J. Farrow

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).

Though the Wereham gibbet is no longer extant, the surviving Rye gibbet shows how a skull would be retained. (Postcard. Author’s collection.)

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).

FIG 2: Illustration of a bird’s nest in a human skull, c.1906.

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).

FIG 3: The bird’s nest skull in St. Leonard’s, Hythe.

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.

FIG 4: Nest skull at the Filialkirche St. Michael in der Wachau.

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.

FIG 5: Nest skull in Lanrivain Ossuary, Brittany.

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.

Ossuary in Saint-Fiacre. Source: Photos 2 Brehiz.

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).

Fig 7: Medical moss on a human skull in the late 17th century.

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.

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Thomas J. Farrow (mailTwitter) holds an MA in the Archaeology of Death and Memory from the University of Chester, UK. A previous article on the history of charnelling in England may be found here (Farrow 2020), while a paper addressing folk medical and magical uses of skull moss and ossuary remains is forthcoming in the Spring 2021 issue of The Enquiring Eye

Totentanz

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.

Among these, I too tried my hand at a poem to accompany the illustration entitled “The Hanged Man”. It is my small tribute to François Villon and his Ballade des pendus.

Clicca per ingrandire

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:

Totentanz – Paramusica del Chiarivari: official website, Facebook page.

Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 23

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.

  • Let’s start with a great list of videogames about death.
  • Here’s my idea for a post-apocalyptic TV series with a Ballardian flavor.
    On Earth, after the ecological catastrophe, only a few hundred inhabitants remain. The survivors are divided into two warring factions: on the one hand the descendants of rich capitalists, called “The Travises”, on the other the last representatives of what was once the middle class, who call themselves “The Talbots”. (The poorest, with no means to protect themselves, were the first to become extinct.) Natural resources are limited, so the two tribes have built two neighboring cities, in constant war tension.
    The cold war between the Travises and the Talbots, which has lasted for decades, is about to reach breaking point with the arrival of one hallucinated stranger, a sandstorm survivor, who claims to have seen an immense oasis across the desert where men have mutated into cold-blooded hybrids…
    Ok, I only got this far with the story. But the great thing is that you don’t even have to build the sets, because the whole thing can be shot on location.
    Here is the Talbots citadel:

And this instead is the city of the Travises, composed solely of small castles meant to underline their ancient economic superiority:

These two alienating places are Pardis, near Tehran, and the ghost village of Burji Al Babas in Turkey.

  • But wait, I’ve got another fabulous concept for a series ready here! An exorcist priest, who is an occultist and paranormal investigator in the 1940s, builds a wunderkammer in a small town in the Sienese Chianti (article in Italian only). Netflix should definitely hire me on the spot. (Thanks, Paolo!)
  • Since we talked about doomsday scenarios, which animal has the best chance of surviving a nuclear holocaust? Probably a cockroach. Why? Well, for starters, that little rascal can go on quietly for weeks after being beheaded.
  • Ok, we have arrived at our philosophy moment.
    Our brain, trapped in the skull, creates a representation of things based on perception, and we all live in that “map” derived from mere stimuli.
    There’s no sound out there. If a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one around to hear it, it creates changes in air pressure and vibrations in the ground. The crash is an effect that happens in the brain. When you stub your toe and feel pain throbbing out of it, that, too, is an illusion. That pain is not in your toe, but in your brain. There’s no color out there either. Atoms are colorless.
    The quote comes from this article which is a short but clear introduction to the hallucinatory nature of reality.
    The problem has long been discussed by the best thinkers, but in the end one might ask: does it matter whether the pain is in my finger, in my brain, or in a hypothetical alien software simulating the universe? Bumping your foot hurts as hell anyway.
    At least this is my interpretation of the famous anecdote starring Samuel Johnson: “After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley‘s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, ‘I refute it thus.’
    (This is to say that as a young man I was intrigued by what reality really was, “out there”, but now I think more and more often about Samuel Johnson’s aching little finger.)

  • The image above hides a sad and macabre story now forgotten. Alessandro Calzolaro has investigated the “prisoner of Mondovi” in this article, in Italian only. (Thanks, Storvandre!)
  • The photo below, on the other hand, was taken in 1941, when a well-known occultist and a group of “young idealists” tried to kill Hitler… by throwing a voodoo curse upon him.

  • One hell of a headline.
  • In Indonesia, there is a community of riders crazy dudes who have redefined the concept of “tricked out Vespa”.  (Thanks, Cri!)

  • Old but gold:Vice interviews a menstruation fetishist.
  • The medieval village of Fabbriche di Careggine in Italy has been lying on the bottom of an artificial lake since the 1950s. The basin was emptied only 4 times for maintenance, the last one in 1994. But in 2021 the submerged village could finally resurface for good, to become a tourist attraction and a museum site dedicated to “raising awareness and cultural growth on the subject of clean and renewable energy“.

  • Finally a sly, tongue-in-cheek video essay on the spiritual value of exploding heads in the movies.
  • And here is an interesting esoteric, alchemical and intiatic reading of David Lynch’s cinema (Italian only).
  • London, 1876. A carpenter with money problems rents an apartment, then one evening he is seen returning home with two large wooden planks and a double blade similar to those used to tan leather. But the neighbors, as per tradition, don’t pay attention to it. The Police Illustrated News  tells the epilogue as follows:
    On Monday his suicide was discovered his head having been cut off by a guillotine. The two planks had been used as uprights at the top of which the knife had been placed. Grooves had been cut in the inner side of the planks for the knife to run easily and two heavy stones were bound to the upper side of the knife to give it weight. By means of the pulley he had drawn up the knife and let it fall on his throat, the head being cut clean off.

  • And we close with one of the most incredible psychiatric reports ever: the case, documented in 2005, of a man who suffered simultaneously from Cotard syndrome (the delusion of being dead) and clinical lycanthropy.
    Although the condition of this unfortunate individual is anything but comical, the results of the report stand out as an unsurpassed masterpiece of medical surrealism:
    A patient meeting DSM-IV criteria for bipolar mood disorder, mixed type with psychotic feature had the delusion of being transformed into a dog. He also deluded that he was dead. He was restless and had a serious sense of guilt about his previous sexual contact with a sheep.

That’s all folks, see you next time!

Dancing With Death

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

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

Death As A Friend

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hypnotism At The Morgue

Part I: Deadly trance

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.

Part II: Lazarus, Come Forth

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…”
“Enough.”

Part III: Death Is Not The End

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.

Mors in fabula

Sorry, this entry is only available in Italian.

The funeral portraits of Filippo Severati

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.)

 

Note

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.

The Mummies of Palermo: A Silent Dialogue

This article originally appeared on the first number (entitled “Apocrifo Siciliano”) of the book/magazine Cariddi – Rivista Vorace, published by Rossomalpelo Edizioni. The magazine explores the forgotten, occult, magical and fantastical side of Sicily, in a collective effort which saw the participation of journalists, writers, illustratoris, literature scholars and photographers confronting Sicily’s countless faces.
Cariddi is in Italian only, but you can order it on Amazon and other online stores, or you can order a copy by writing an email to the publishing house.

You never forget your first.
As soon as I entered the Capuchin Catacombs, I had the impression of finding myself in front of a gigantic exercitus mortuorum, a frightening army of revenants. Dead bodies all around, their skin parched and withered, hundreds of gaping mouths, jaws lowered by centuries of gravity, empty yet terribly expressive eye sockets. The feeling lasted a few seconds, because in reality down in the hypogeum so perfect a peace reigned that the initial bewilderment gave way to a different feeling: I felt I was an intruder.

A stranger, a living man in a sacred space inhabited by the dead; all those who come down here suddenly fall silent. The visitor is under scrutiny.
I was also alien to a culture, the Sicilian culture, showing such an inconceivable familiarity with the dead for someone born and raised in Northern Italy. Here death, I thought, was not hidden behind slabs of marble, on the contrary: it was turned into a spectacle. Presented theatrically, exhibited as mirabilis – worthy of admiration – here was on display the true repressed unconscious of our time: the Corpse.

The Corpse had been carefully worked by the friars, following a process refined over time. One of the technical terms anthropologists use to indicate the process of draining and mummifying bodies is “thanato-metamorphosis”, which gives a good idea of the actual, structural transformation to which the body is subjected.
Moreover, such conservation was considerably expensive, and only the wealthiest could afford it (even in death, there are first and second class citizens). But this is not surprising if we think of the countless monumental citadels of the dead, which the living are willing to raise at the cost of enormous efforts and fortunes. What struck me, as I strolled by the mummies, was that in this case the investment didn’t have the purpose of building a grand, sumptuous mausoleum, but rather of freezing, as much as possible, the features of these dead people over time.

Ah yes, time. Down there time flowed differently than on the city surface, or perhaps it didn’t flow at all. As if suspended by miracle, time had stopped devouring and transfiguring all matter.
As I dwelled on ancient faces, worn out clothes, and withered hands, the purpose of this practice became clear: it was meant to preserve not just the memory of the deceased, but their very identity.
Unlike the basic concept behind ossuaries, where the dead are all the same, the mummification process has the virtue of making each body different from the other, thus giving the remains a distinct personality – an effect further amplified if a mummy is dressed in the clothes he or she wore when alive.
Among all the barriers men have raised in the quixotic attempt to deny impermanence, this is perhaps the one that comes closest to success; it is a strange strategy, because instead of warding off death, it seems to embrace it until it becomes part of everyday life. So these individuals never really died: family members could come back and visit them, talk to them, take care of them. They were ancestors who had never quite crossed the threshold.

Little by little, I began sensing the benign and sympathetic nature of the mummies’ gaze – the kindness that shines through anyone who’s really aware of mortality. Their skeletal faces, which could be frightening at first, actually appeared serene if observed long enough; so much so that I was no longer sure I should pity their condition. Within me I began a sort of conversation with this silent crowd, the guardians of an inviolable secret. Perhaps, as their whispers reached out for me from the other side, all they were trying to do was reassure me; maybe they were talking the end of all trouble.

That unspoken, mysterious dialogue between us never stopped since that day.
A few years later I returned to the Catacombs together with photographer Carlo Vannini. We stayed about a week in the company of mummies, day and night. Who knows if they recognized me? For my part I learned to tell them apart, one by one, and to discern each of their voices – for they still called me without words.

My first book, published for Logos Edizioni, was The Eternal Vigil.
In 2017 the book was reissued with a preface by the scientific conservator of the catacombs, paleopathologist Dario Piombino-Mascali – who in turn, as I’m writing this, has just published what promises to be the definitive historical-scientific guide on the Catacombs, for Kalòs Edizioni.
From the analysis of mummies a paleopathologist is able to get clues about their life habits, and unravel their personal history: to an expert like him, these bodies really do speak. But I am sure that in this very moment they’re also whispering to the visitors who just descended the staircase and stepped into the underground corridors, enchanted by the extraordinary vision.
These mummies, to which I am bound by ties inscrutable and deep, murmur to anyone who really knows how to listen.

Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: Episode 9

In the 9th episode of Bizzarro Bazar: the incredible history of tonic water; a touching funerary artifact; the mysterious “singing sand” of the desert. [Be sure to turn on English captions.]

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

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