Here is the first installment of The Ouija Sessions, a new miniseries by Bizzarro Bazar.
In this episode my ouija board suggested me to tell you the incredible story of Mattio Lovat, who was found crucified outside a balcony in Venice.
Remember to subscribe to my channel, if you haven’t already; turn on the English subtitles & enjoy!
Let’s go back to a topic we discussed several times on these pages: the relationship of the Western world with “primitive” tribes.
This will be a double post. In this first part we shall examine a 19th-century tale, and in the second an exotic journey that took place this very year.
Two perspectives very much apart in time and nonetheless marked by an element of continuity: Western obsession for the “savages” and for cannibalism.
I must start by saying that both articles owe a great deal to two followers and friends of Bizzarro Bazar: in the first case I have to thank Giulio, of Mala Tempora Studio, who passed on to me the story we will examine in this post; in the second case, my thanks go to Marco, the crazy guy who made that exotic journey.
So let’s begin with the extraordinary gem discovered by Giulio.
The #28 issue of Giornale Illustrato dei Viaggi (1923, published by Sonzogno) boasts one of the most incredible covers ever. It’s got it all: shipwrecks, cannibals, fetuses in formaldehyde and anatomical preparations.
The gruesome episode is described in detail in the magazine. This is the ending of the short story:
What is left for me to add, gentlemen — continued Dr. Stephenson — goes beyond the limits of the unlikely. The three huge chests, containing the anatomical pieces, were opened in the blink of an eye, and the contents appeared in the eyes of the marauders, who certainly did not expect such a spectacle. They believed it to be our own food supply, and that we, sharing their taste for human flesh, had jealously hidden this treasure. You know that anatomical pieces are prepared to produce a complete illusion. What followed was more than a plunder, it was a true cannibalistic orgy. They furiously tore apart those pieces, which were dry like papier-mâché and no longer having the appearance of flesh. Eager to satisfy their monstrous tastes as soon as possible, they lit half a dozen braziers, on which they soon placed the whole pieces, staring at them with a mix of jealousy and admiration for the skillful butcher who had prepared them. Under the influence of heat, this unusual roast softened somehow, but the injected fluids melted down and dripped into some large mother-of-pearl shells that those skilled and far-sighted cooks had placed underneath. I shall leave it to your imagination, to think what that sauce could taste like! To top it all off, Ben’s corpse, which we had buried at the foot of a myrtle shrub, was brutally exhumed, and cut into pieces in a few minutes with stone knives and with rare skill. We also owned half a dozen brains, and a complete set of fetuses, stored in 75° alcohol. A new discovery, which was accompanied by gorilla-like contortions. With great caution, almost religiously, they opened the enormous jars that contained them, and they drank the conservative liqueur with an incomparable gluttony. That infernal liquid, which must have burned their stomachs, brought their drunkenness to the highest level, and they swallowed like brandied oranges those unfortunate leftovers, which science alone has the right to study and mutilate without commiting profanation. Happy and drunk, those abominable savages staggered, shouted loudly and beat their bellies in a deep state of bliss. Finally they fell asleep like seals. The next day, in the perfumed hour, when the morning sun rises from the greenery shaking his golden hair above the giant forest, the chirping of parrots woke those brutes. They stretched their limbs like satisfied dinner guests awaking from a peaceful sleep, and rose fresh and happy, scampering around like young kangaroos. If not for the presence of some macabre bones scattered across the place, no one would have suspected such a horrible feast had happened the previous day. What a wonderful organ the Australian stomach must be! … Faithful to their commitment, despite our fault, they led us to Ballaratre, where we arrived completely empty-handed. The last words we heard from those unworthy children of nature were to warmly solicit a new shipment of “small whites in firewater”. We did not deemed it appropriate to respond. Three days later we were in Melbourne!
Like its French counterpart, the Giornale Illustrato featured tales of geographic exploration and adventure fiction, and in its last years of publication it even presented sci-fi and horror short stories.
In 1931 the magazine was discontinued, and it merged with Il Mondo.
This inventive little episode, as we have seen, is centered on the expedient (which is not devoid of genius) of combining two classic 19th-century fixations: anatomy and cannibalism.
The anatomist was indeed a recurrent character in romantic literature (from the works of Scapigliati to naturalists), at a time when authors looked at the new positivist science, and anatomy in particular, with a mixture of exaltation and morbid interest. In this case the narrator is indeed a scientist, even if the “aseptic” patina of his academic report is soon forgotten to leave room for the more macabre and sensationalist tones.
The other obsession emerging here is the endless fascination for cannibalism and the myth of the “savage”. It is an obsession with a dual nature: first, it serves to highlight the superiority of Westerners, who have freed themselves from the “bestial” state.
The 19th-century explorer’s colonial arrogance is reflected in the contemptuous tone reserved for the indigenous people (‘abominable savages‘, ‘monstrous tastes‘, ‘brutes‘), often seasoned with animal comparisons (‘like seals‘, ‘gorilla-like‘, ‘like young kangaroos‘) and references to a pre-cultural state (‘those unworthy children of nature‘).
At the same time, however, this fixation is tinged with an ill-concealed envy for the freedom of customs shown by these “primitive” people. It’s no coincidence that these narratives insist so much on morbid tones, and that the portrayed “savages” are often nothing more than function characters, inserted in stereotyped situations — the perfect excuse for the writer (his hand trembling, of course, as he barely dares to proceed to the next horrible scene) to describe orgies, assorted violence and nudity.
Upon reading these fantastic reports, one gets the impression of being confronted not so much with anthropophagy (which, far from being orgiastic, actually followed rigorous rituals, was often carried out within the tribe itself and was limited to the assumption of small parts of the body of a deceased relative as a sign of respect) but rather with a repressed impulse of breaking free from social norms.
As I argued when talking about severed heads — those macabre souvenirs that Westerners brought home from their explorations — the Savage is a screen on which we project the distorted image of what we want him to be.
But we must keep in mind that behind these tales of cannibalism there was also a strictly political motivation: they were meant to provide an ethical excuse for colonial expansionism.
Such stories were not just intended to thrill people back home; they also provided moral underpinning for the domination of the locals by western settlers. Cannibalism was an unnatural act, seemingly as far as possible from acceptable European behaviour. Tales of man-eating could therefore justify the annexing of foreign lands as well as the introduction of Christian morality into a country. […] The labelling of the rebels as hungry cannibals reduced their uprisings to a battle between civilisation and savagery […]. It made violent repression the authorities’ most likely response and necessitated a continuing colonial presence to ensure further outbreaks of man-eating were prevented.
We might think that the Western obsession for cannibalism and for uncontacted, “uncontaminated” tribes is a thing of the past, like the old topos of the explorer boiled alive in a pot, but that’s not really the case (see this other article).
Cannibals still thrive in comic books, horror films and more generally the collective imagination.
So much so, that some people are willing to spend considerable amounts of money and face a journey that’s all but safe and comfortable, just for the thrill of coming face to face with “real cannibals”.
But we will talk about this in detail in the second part of this post.
Andreas Vesalius (of whom I have already written several times), was among the principal initiators of the anatomical discipline.
An aspect that is not often considered is the influence that the frontispiece of his seminal De Humani Corporis Fabrica has had on the history of art.
Vesalius was probably the first and certainly the most famous among medical scholars to be portrayed in the act of dissecting a corpse: on his part, this was obviously a calculated affront to the university practice of the time, in which anatomy was learned exclusively from books. Any lecture was just a lectio, in that it consisted in the slavish reading of the ancient Galenic texts, reputed to be infallible. With that title page, a true hymn to empirical reconnaissance, Vesalius was instead affirming his revolutionary stance: he was saying that in order to understand how they worked, bodies had to be opened, and one had to look inside them.
Johannes Vesling, Syntagma Anatomicum (1647).
Giulio Cesare Casseri, Tabulae Anatomicae (1627, here from the Frankfurt edition, 1656)
Thus, after the initial resistance and controversy, the medical community embraced dissection as its main educational tool. And if until that moment Galen had been idolized, it didn’t take long for Vesalius to take his place, and it soon became a must for anatomists to have themselves portrayed on the title pages of their treatises, in the act of emulating their new master’s autopsies.
Anatomy lecture, School of Bartolomeo Passarotti (1529-1592)
Frontispiece commissioned by John Banister (ca. 1580)
Apart from some rare predecessors, such as the two sixteenth-century examples above, the theme of the “anatomy lesson” truly became a recurring artistic motif in the 17th century, particularly in the Dutch university context.
In group portraits, whose function was to immortalize the major anatomists of the time, it became fashionable to depict these luminaries in the act of dissecting a corpse.
Michiel Jansz van Miereveld, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Willem van der Meer (1617)
However, the reference to the dissecting practice was not just realistic. It was above all a way to emphasize the authority and social status of the painted subjects: what is still evident in these pictures is the satisfaction of the anatomists in being portrayed in the middle of an act that impressed and fascinated ordinary people.
Nicolaes Eliaszoon Pickenoy, The Osteology Lesson of Dr. Sebastiaes Egbertsz (1619)
The dissections carried out in anatomical theaters were often real public shows (sometimes accompanied with a small chamber orchestra) in which the Doctor was the absolute protagonist.
It should also be remembered that the figure of the anatomist remained cloaked in an aura of mystery, more like a philosopher who owned some kind of esoteric knowledge rather than a simple physician. In fact an anatomist would not even perform surgical operations himself – that was a job for surgeons, or barbers; his role was to map the inside of the body, like a true explorer, and reveal its most hidden and inaccessible secrets.
Christiaen Coevershof, The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Zacheus de Jager (1640)
Among all the anatomy lessons that punctuate the history of art, the most famous remain undoubtedly those painted by Rembrandt, which also constituted his first major engagement at the beginning of his career in Amsterdam. The Guild of Surgeons at the time used to commission this type of paintings to be displayed in the common room. Rembrandt painted one in 1632 and a second in 1656 (partially destroyed, only its central portion remains).
Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632)
Countless pages have been written about The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, as the painting is full of half-hidden details. The scene depicted here becomes theatrical, a space of dramatic action in which the group portrait is no longer static: each character is shown in a specific pose, turning his gaze in a precise direction. Thanks to an already wise use of light, Rembrandt exploits the corpse as a repoussoir, an element of attraction that suddenly pulls the viewer “inside” the painting. And the lifeless body seems to counterbalance the absolute protagonist of the picture, Dr. Tulp: slightly off-centered, he is so important that he deserves to have a light source of his own.
Perhaps the most ironic detail to us is that open book, on the right: it is easy to guess which text is consulted during the lectio. Now it is no longer Galen, but Vesalius who stands on the lectern.
Detail of the illuminated face of Dr. Tulp.
The umbra mortis, a shadow that falls on the eyes of the dead.
The navel of the corpse forms the “R” for Rembrandt.
Detail of the book.
Detail of tendons.
The way the dissection itself is portrayed in the picture has been discussed at length, as it seems implausible that an anatomical lesson could begin by exposing the arm tendons instead of performing the classic opening of the chest wall and evisceration. On the other hand, a renowned anatomist like Tulp would never have lowered himself to perform the dissection himself, but would have delegated an assistant; Rembrandt’s intent of staging the picture is evident. The same doubts of anatomical / historical unreliability have been advanced for the following anatomical lesson by Rembrandt, that of Dr. Deyman, in which the membranes of the brain may be incorrectly represented.
Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Deyman (1656)
But, apart from the artistic licenses he may have taken, Rembrandt’s own (pictorial) “lesson” made quite a lot of proselytes.
Cornelis De Man, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Cornelis Isaacz.’s Gravenzande (1681)
Jan van Neck, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Frederik Ruysch (1683)
Another curiosity is hidden in The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Frederck Ruysch by Jan van Neck. I have already written about Ruysch and his extraordinary preparations elsewhere: here I only remember that the figure that looks like a pageboy and exhibits a fetal skeleton, on the right of the picture, is none other than the daughter of the anatomist, Rachel Ruysch. She helped her father with dissections and anatomical preservations, also sewing lace and laces for his famous preparations. Upon reaching adulthood, Rachel set aside cadavers to become a popular floral painter.
Detail of Rachel Ruysch.
A century after the famous Tulp portrait, Cornelis Troost shows a completely different attitude to the subject.
Cornelis Troost, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Willem Roëll (1728)
This art work belongs to the transition period that takes us from humanism to modernism […]. Judging by the lack of interest in the students, the enlightened anatomy does not generate wonder in its students. A measure of disdain. The characters are dressed like French aristocrats with their powdered wig affecting wealth and power.
Anon., William Cheselden gives an anatomical demonstration to six spectators (ca. 1730/1740)
In Tibout Regters‘ version of the theme (below), the corpse has even almost completely disappeared: only a dissected head is shown, on the right, and it seems nothing more than an accessory to carelessly show off; the professors’ cumbersome pomposity now dominates the scene.
Tibout Regters, Lezione di anatomia del Dottor Petrus Camper (1758)
The rationalism and materialism of the Enlightenment era gave way, in the 19th century, to an approach largely influenced by romantic literature, as proof that science is inevitably connected with the imagination of its time.
Of all disciplines, anatomy was most affected by this literary fascination, which was actually bi-directional. On one hand, gothic and romantic writers (the Scapigliati more than anybody) looked at anatomy as the perfect combination of morbid charm and icy science, a new style of “macabre positivism”; and for their part the anatomists became increasingly conscious of being considered decadent “heroes”, and medical texts of the time are often filled with poetic flourishes and obvious artistic ambitions.
Thomas Eakins, The Gross Clinic (1875)
Thomas Eakins, The Agnew Clinic (1889)
This tendency also affected the representation of anatomical lessons. The two paintings above, by the American artist Thomas Eakins, painted respectively in 1875 and 1889, are not strictly dissections because they actually show surgical operations. Yet the concept is the same: we see a luminary impressing with his surgical prowess the audience, crowded in the shadows. The use of light underlines the grandiose severity of these heroic figures, yet the intent is also to highlight the innovations they supported. Dr. Gross is shown in the act of treating an osteomyelitis of the femur with a conservative procedure – when an amputation would have been inevitable until a few years earlier; in the second picture, painted fourteen years after the first, we can recognize how the importance of infection prevention was beginning to be understood (the surgical theater is bright, clean, and the surgeons all wear a white coat).
Georges Chicotot, Professor Poirier verifying a dissection (1886)
A painting from 1886 by physician and artist Georges Chicotot is a mixture of raw realism and accents of “involuntary fantasy”. Here, there’s no public at all, and the anatomist is shown alone in his study; a corpse is hanging from the neck like a piece of meat, bones lie on the shelves and purple patches of blood smear the tablecloth and apron. It’s hard not to think of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Enrique Simonet Lombardo, Anatomy of the heart (1890)
But the 19th century, with its tension between romanticism and rationality, is all ideally enclosed in the Anatomy of the heart by the Spanish artist Enrique Simonet. Painted in 1890, it is the perfect summary of the dual soul of its century, since it is entirely played on opposites. Masculine and feminine, objectivity and subjectivity, life and death, youth and old age, but also the white complexion of the corpse in contrast with the black figure of the anatomist. Once again there is no audience here, this is a very intimate dimension. The professor, alone in an anonymous autopsy room, observes the heart he has just taken from the chest of the beautiful girl, as if he were contemplating a mystery. The heart, a favorite organ for the Romantics, is represented here completely out of metaphor, a concrete and bloody organ; yet it still seems to holds the secret of everything.
J. H. Lobley, Anatomy Lessons at St Dunstan’s (1919)
With the coming of the 20th century the topos of the anatomy lesson gradually faded away, and the “serious” depictions became increasingly scarce. Yet the trend did not disappear: it ended up contaminated by postmodern quotationism, when not turned into explicit parody. In particular it was Dr. Tulp who rose to the role of a true icon, becoming the protagonist – and sometimes the victim – of fanciful reinventions.
Édouard Manet, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, copy from Rembrandt (1856)
Gaston La Touche, Anatomy of love (19 ??)
Georges Léonnec, The Anatomy Lesson of Professor Cupid (1918)
Although Manet had revisited the famous painting in the Impressionist manner in 1856, La Touche had imagined an ironic Anatomy of love, and Léonnec parroted Rembrandt with his cupids, it’s actually in the last quarter of the 20th century that Tulp began to pop up almost everywhere, in comics, films and television.
One of the most interesting variations was realized by Scottish photographer Laurence Winram: commissioned by the Edinburgh Medical School and featuring contemporary women medical students, it was designed to celebrate the “Edinburgh Seven“, the first group of female students enrolled in a British university in 1869, who were allowed to study medicine but not to graduate.
Laurence Winram (2020)
With the advent of the internet the success of the famous Doctor spread more and more, as his figure began to be photoshopped and replicated to infinity.
A bit like what happened to Mona Lisa, disfigured by Duchamp’s mustache, Tulp has now become the reference point for anyone who’s into black, un-pc humor.
Contemporary art increasingly uses the inside of the body as a subversive and ironic element. The fact that Tulp is still a “pop icon” on a global scale proves the enormous influence of Rembrandt’s painting; and of Vesalius who, with his frontispiece, started the motif of the anatomical lesson, thus leaving a deep mark in the history of visual arts.
7 centimeters-long, carved from the bone of an unidentified bird, this perfect needle (complete with an eye to insert a thread) was produced more than 50.000 years ago – not by proper Homo sapiens, but by the mysterious Denisova hominin: settled on mount Altaj in Siberia, these human predecessors are partly still an enigma for paleontologists. But this needle, found in 2016 from their cave, is a proof of their technological advancement.
Needles Under The Skin The inexplicable delay of Western medicine
The effects of the bites of venomous snakes and insects pointed clearly to the possibility of the introduction of drugs through punctures in the skin. In primitive societies, the application for therapeutic purposes of plant and animal products through cutaneous incisions is practiced […], and the use of poisoned arrows may be regarded as a crude precursor of hypodermic and intramuscular medication.
We could trace another “crude precursor” of intramuscular injections back to Sir Robert Christison‘s 1831 proposal, suggesting that whalers fix a vial of prussic acid to their harpoons in order to kill whales more quickly.
And yet, despite of all these clues, the first proper hypodermic injection for strict medical purposes did not take place before mid-Nineteenth Century. Until then, syringes (which had been around for centuries) were mainly used for suction, for instance to draw the fluids which accumulated in abscesses. Enemas and nasal irrigation were used since Roman times, but nobody had thought to inject medications under the skin.
Physicians had tried, with varying results, to scar the epydermis with irritants and to deposit the drug directly on the resultin ulcer, or they sliced the skin with a lancet, as in bloodletting, and inserted salts (for example morphine) through the cut. In 1847, G. V. Lafargue was the first to have the intuition of combining inoculation with acupuncture, and to build a long and thick hollow needle filled with morphine paste. But other methods were being tested, such as sawing a silk thread, imbued in drugs, directly into the patient’s skin.
The first true hypodermic syringe was invented in 1853 by Scottish doctor Alexander Wood, as reported in his New Method of Treating Neuralgia by Subcutaneous Injection (1855). Almost at the same time, the French physician Charles Pravaz had devised his own version. By the end of the Nineteenth Century, hypodermic injections had become a widespread procedure in the medical field.
Needles In The Flesh The bizarre clinical case of the “needle woman”
Published in 1829 by Giuseppe Ferrario, Chief Surgeon at the Ospedale Maggiore in Milan, La donna dagli aghi reports a strange case that began in June 1828.
A young 19-year-old woman, Maria Magni, “peasant, of scrofulous appearance, but with a passionate temper” was admitted to the hospital because of severe pain.
One April morning, the year before, she had found a light blue piece of paper on the ground which contained 70/80 steel sewing needles. In order not to lose them, she had pinned them on her blouse cuff. But Maria suffered from epileptic fits, and a few hours later, as she was working in the vineyard, “she fell victim of the usual spasms, and convulsive bouts. Under these abnormal and violent muscular movements […] she believes that she unwillingly pushed the needles she had pinned to her shirt through her right arm – which was naked, as is the case among our peasants – as well as through her breast”. The needles didn’t cause her any trouble until three months later, when the pain had become unbearable; she then decided to go to the hospital.
The doctor on duty hesitated to admit her, for fear she had syphilis: Magni had tried alternative treatments, and had applied “many varied remedies, catplasms, ointments, blistering drugs and other ulcerating substances, etc, with the intention of exciting the needles out of her skin”, but this only resulted in her body being covered by sores.
Enter Doctor Ferrario, who during the first 35 days of treatment submitted her to bloodletting for 16 times, applied more than 160 leeches to her temples, administered vesicants, frictions, decoctions, salts and various tinctures. But the daily epileptic fits were terrible, and nothing seemed to work: “all the physicians, stunned by the woman’s horrible condition, predicted an approaching and inevitable death”.
Upon hearing the story of the needles, though, Ferrario began to wonder if some of them were still sticking inside the young woman’s body. He examined her wounds and actually started feeling something thin and hard within the flesh; but touching those spots triggered some epileptic fits of unheard violence. Ferrario described these bouts with typical 19th-Century literary flourishes, in the manner of Gothic novels, a language which today sounds oddly inappropriate in a medical context:
the poor wretched girl, pointing her nape and feet, pushed her head between her shoulders while jumping high above the bed, and arched her bust and arms on the account of the spasmodic contraction of dorsal muscles […] she was shaking and screaming, and angrily wrapped her body in her arms at the risk of suffocating […]. There was involuntary loss of urine and feces […]. Her gasping, suffocated breath, her flaccid and wrinkled breast which appeared beneath her hirst, torn to pieces; the violence with which she turned her head on her neck, and with which she banged it against the walls and threw it back, hanging from the side of the bed; her red and bulging eyes, sometimes dazed, sometimes wide open, almost coming out of their socket, glassy and restless; the obscene clenching of her teeth, the foamy, bloody matter that she squirted and vomited from her dirty mouth, her swollen and horribly distorted face, her black hair, soaked in drool, which she flapped around her cranium […] all this inspired the utmost disgust and terror, as it was the sorrowful image of an infernal fury.
Ferrario then began extracting the needles out of the woman’s body, performing small incisions, and his record went on and on much in the same way: “this morning I discovered a needle in the internal superior region of the right breast […] After lunch, having cut the upper part of the arm as usual, I extracted the needle n. 14, very rusty, with its point still intact but missing the eye […] from the top of the mons pubis I extracted the needle n. 24, rusty, without point nor eye, of the length of eight lines.”
The pins were hard to track down, they moved across the muscles from one day to the other, so much so that the physician even tried using big horseshoe magnets to locate the needles.
The days went by, and as the number of extracted needles grew, so did the suspect that the woman might be cheating on the doctors; Maria Magni just kept expelling needles over and over again. Ferrario began to wonder whether the woman was secretly inserting the needles in her own body.
But before accusing her, he needed proof. He had them searched, kept under strict surveillance, and he even tried to leave some “bait” needles lying around the patient’s bed, to see if they disappear. Nothing.
In the meantime, starting from extraction number 124, Miss Magni began throwing up needles.
The physician had to ask himself: did these needles arrive into the digestive tract through the diaphragm? Or did Magni swallow them on purpose? One thing is sure: vomiting needles caused the woman such distress that “having being so unwell, I doubt she ever swallowed any more after that, but she might have resorted to another less uncomfortable and less dangerous opening, to continue her malicious introduction of needles in the body”.
The “less uncomfortable opening” was her vagina, from which many a new needle was removed.
As if all this was not enough, rumors had spread that the “needle woman” was actually a witch, and hospital patients began to panic.
An old countrywoman, recovering in the bed next to Magni’s, became convinced that the woman had been victim of a spell, and then turned into a witch on the account of the magic needles. Being on the bed next to her, the old lady believed that she herself might fall under the spell. She didn’t want to be touched by the young woman, nor by me, for she believed I could be a sorcerer too, because I was able to extract the needles so easily. This old lady fell for this nonsense so that she started screaming all day long like a lunatic, and really became frenzied and delirious, and many leeches had to be applied to her head to calm her down.
Eventually one day it was discovered where Magni had been hiding the needles that she stuck in her body:
Two whole needles inside a ball of yarn; four whole needles wrapped in paper between the mattress and the straw, all very shiny; a seventh needle, partly rusted, pinned under a bed plank. Several inmates declared that Maria Magni had borrowed four needles from them, not returning them with the excuse that they had broken. The ill-advised young woman, seeing she was surrounded and exposed […] faked violent convulsions and started acting like a demon, trashing the bed and hurting the assistants. She ended by simulating furious ecstasy, during which she talked about purely fictional beings, called upon the saints and the devils, then began swearing, then horribly blasphemed angels, saints, demons, physicians, surgeons and nurses alike.
After a couple of days of these performance, Magni confessed. She had implanted the needles herself under her skin, placed them inside her vagina and swallowed them, taking care of hiding the pierced areas until the “tiny red hole” had cicatrized and disappeared.
In total, 315 needles were retrieved from Maria Magni’s body.
In the epilogue of his essay, Ferrario points out that this was not even the first recorded case: in 1821, 363 needles were extracted from the body of young Rachel Hertz; another account is about a girl who survived for more than 24 years to the ingestion of 1.500 needles. Another woman, Genueffa Pule, was born in 1763 and died at the age of 37, and an autopsy was carried out on her body: “upon dissecting the cadaver, in the upper, inner part of each thigh, precisely inside the triceps, masses of pins and needles were found under the teguments, and all the muscles teemed with pins and needles”.
Ferrario ascribes the motivations of these actions to pica, or superstition. Maria claimed that she had been encouraged by other women of the village to swallow the needles in order to emulate the martyr saints, as a sort of apotropaic ritual. More plausibly, this was just a lie the woman told when she saw herself being cornered.
In the end, the physician admits his inability to understand:
It is undoubtedly a strange thing for a sane person to imagine how pain – a sensation shunned even by the most ignorant people, and abhorred by human nature – could be sometimes sought out and self-inflicted by a reasonable individual.
As I was going through pathology archives, in search of studies that could have some similarities with the Magni story, I came upon one, then two, then several other reports regarding an even more unbelievable occurrence: sewing needles found in the encephalon of adult patients, often during routine X-rays.
The answer is quite awful. These are all cases of failed infanticide.
The possibility of infanticide by inserting pins through the fontanelle is mentioned in the Enciclopedia legale ovvero Lessico ragionato by F. Foramiti (1839), where the author includes a (chilling) list of all the methods with which a mother can kill her own child, among which appears the “puncturing the fontanelle and the brain with a thin sharp dagger or a long and strong needle”.
But the practice, properly documented in medical literature only by 1914, already appeared in Persian novels and texts: perhaps the fact that the method was well-known in the ancient Middle East, is the reason why most of the forty recorded cases were documented in Turkey and Iran, with a minority coming from Southeast Asia, Europe and the United States. In Italy there were two known cases, one in 1987 and the 2010 case mentioned above.
Most of these patients didn’t show any particular neurological symptom: the sewing needles, having been embedded in the brain for so many years, are not even removed; a surgical procedure, at this point, would be more dangerous than leaving them in situ.
This was the case for the only known occurrence reported in Africa, a 4-year-old child carrying a 4,5 cm needle through his brain. At the time the report was filed, in 2014, the needle was still there: “no complications were noted, the child had normal physical and mental development with excellent performance at school”.
Of course, discovering at the age of forty that someone – your parents, or maybe your grandparents – tried to kill you when you were just months old must be a shock.
It happened to Luo Cuifen, a chinese lady who was born in 1976, and who showed up at the hospital because of blood in her urine in 2007, and who discovered she had 26 sewing needles in her body, piercing vital organs such as lungs, liver, kidneys and brain. Her story is related to the discriminations towards female newborn children in rural China, where a son is more welcome than a daughter because he can carry on the family name, perform funeral rituals for ancestors, and so on. In Luo’s case, it was most likely her grandparents who attempted the infanticide when she was but months old (even if this theory cannot be proven, as her grandparents already passed away).
In more recent cases, recorded in Tunisia, China and Brazil, it was discovered that the children had respectively three, twelve and even fifty needles stuck in their bodies.
The cases of people surviving for decades with a needle in their brain are obviously an exception – as one of the studies put it, this is the “tip of the iceberg”.
A needle wound can be almost invisible. What is really disquieting is the thought of all those infanticides who are carried out “successfully”, without being discovered.
Sometimes the smallest objects can turn out to be the most useful. And the most lethal.
My gratitude goes to Mariano Tomatis, who recommended La donna dagli aghi, which he discovered during his studies on 19th-century magnetism, and which started this research.
Part of the pleasure of collecting curiosities lies in discovering the reactions they cause in various people: seeing the wonder arise on the face of onlookers always moves me, and gives meaning to the collection itself. Among the objects that, at least in my experience, evoke the strongest emotional response there are without doubt mourning-related accessories, and in particular those extraordinary XIX Century decorative works made by braiding a deceased person’s hair.
Be it a small brooch containing a simple lock of hair, a framed picture or a larger wreath, there is something powerful and touching in these hairworks, and the feeling they convey is surprisingly universal. You could say that anyone, regardless of their culture, experience or provenance, is “equipped” to recognize the archetypical value of hair: to use them in embroidery, jewelry and decoration is therefore an eminently magical act.
I decided to discuss this peculiar tradition with an expert, who was so kind as to answer my questions.
Courtney Lane is a real authority on the subject, not just its history but also its practical side: she studied the original techniques with the intent of bringing them back to life, as she is convinced that this ancient craft could accomplish its function of preserving memory still today.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I am a Victorian hair artist, historian, and self-proclaimed professional weirdo based in Kansas City. My business is called Never Forgotten where, as an artist, I create modern works of Victorian style sentimental hairwork for clients on a custom basis as well as making my own pieces using braids and locks of antique human hair that I find in places such as estate sales at old homes. As an academic, I study the history of hairwork and educate others through lectures as well as online video, and I also travel to teach workshops on how to do hairwork techniques.
Hairwork by Courtney Lane.
Where does your interest for Victorian hairwork come from?
I’ve always had a deep love for history and finding beauty in places that many consider to be dark or macabre. At the young age of 5, I fell in love with the beauty of 18th and 19th century mausoleums in the cemeteries near the French Quarter of New Orleans. Even as a child, I adored the grand gesture of these elaborate tombs for memorializing the dead. This lead me to developing a particular fondness for the Victorian era and the funerary customs of the time.
Somewhere along the line in studying Victorian mourning, I encountered the idea of hairwork. A romantic at heart, I’d already known of the romantic value a lock of hair from your loved one could hold, so I very naturally accepted that it would also be a perfect relic to keep of a deceased loved one. I found the artwork to be stunning and the sentiment to be of even greater beauty. I wondered why it was that we no longer practiced hairwork widely, and I needed to know why.
I studied for years trying to find the answers and eventually I learned how to do the artwork myself. I thoroughly believed that the power of sentimental hairwork could help society reclaim a healthier relationship with death and mourning, and so I decided to begin my business to create modern works, educate the public on the often misunderstood history of the artform, and ensure that this sentimental tradition is “Never Forgotten”.
How did hairwork become a popular mourning practice historically? Was the hair collected before or post mortem? Was it always related to grieving?
Hairwork has taken on a variety of purposes, most of which have been inherently sentimental, but it has not always been related to grieving. With the death of her husband, Queen Victoria fell into a deep mourning which lasted the remaining 40 years of her life. This, in turn, created a certain fashionability, and almost a fetishism, of mourning in the Victorian era. Most people today believe all hairwork had the purpose of elaborating a loss, but between the 1500s and early 1900s, hairwork included romantic keepsakes from a loved one or family mementos, and sometimes served as memorabilia from an important time in one’s life. As an example, many of the large three-dimensional wreaths you can still see actually served as a form of family history. Hair was often collected from several (often living) members of the family and woven together to create a genealogy. I’ve seen other examples of hairwork simply commemorating a major life event such as a first communion or a wedding. Long before hairwork became an art form, humans had already been exchanging locks of hair; so it’s only natural that there were instances of couples wearing jewelry that contained the hair of their living lovers.
As far as mourning hairwork is concerned, the hair was sometimes collected post mortem, and sometimes the hair was saved from an earlier time in their life. As hair was such an important part of culture, it was often saved when it was cut whether or not there was an immediate plan for making art or jewelry with it.
The idea of using hair as a mourning practice largely stems from Catholicism in the Middle Ages and the power of saintly relics in the church. The relic of a saint is more than just the physical remains of their body, rather it provides a spiritual connection to the holy person, creating a link between life and death. This belief that a relic can be a substitute for the person easily transitioned from public, religious mourning to private, personal mourning.
Of the types of relics (bone, flesh, etc), hair is by far the most accessible to the average person, as it does not need any sort of preservation to avoid decomposition, much as the rest of the body does; collecting from the body is as simple as using a pair of scissors. Hair is also one of the most identifiable parts of person, so even though pieces of bone might just be as much of a relic, hair is part of your loved one that you see everyday in life, and can continue to recognize after death.
Was hairwork strictly a high-class practice?
Hairwork was not strictly high-class. Although hairwork was kept by some members of upper class, it was predominantly a middle-class practice. Some hairwork was done by professional hairworkers, and of course, anyone commissioning them would need the means to do so; but a lot of hairwork was done in the home usually by the women of the family. With this being the case, the only expenses would be the crafting tools (which many middle-class women would already likely have around the home), and the jewelry findings, frames, or domes to place the finished hairwork in.
How many people worked at a single wreath, and for how long? Was it a feminine occupation, like embroidery?
Hairwork was usually, but not exclusively done by women and was even considered a subgenre of ladies’ fancy work. Fancy work consisted of embroidery, beadwork, featherwork, and more. There are even instances of women using hair to embroider and sew. It was thought to be a very feminine trait to be able to patiently and meticulously craft something beautiful.
As far as wreaths are concerned, it varied in the number of people who would work together to create one. Only a few are well documented enough to know for sure.
I’ve also observed dozens of different techniques used to craft flowers in wreaths and some techniques are more time consuming than others. One of the best examples I’ve seen is an incredibly well documented piece that indicates that the whole wreath consists of 1000 flowers (larger than the average wreath) and was constructed entirely by one woman over the span of a year. The documentation also specifies that the 1000 flowers were made with the hair of 264 people.
Why did it fall out of fashion during the XX Century?
Hairwork started to decline in popularity in the early 1900’s. There were several reasons.
The first reason was the growth of hairwork as an industry. Several large companies and catalogues started advertising custom hairwork, and many people feared that sending out for the hairwork rather than making it in the home would take away from the sentiment. Among these companies was Sears, Roebuck and Company, and in one of their catalogues in 1908, they even warned, “We do not do this braiding ourselves. We send it out; therefore we cannot guarantee same hair being used that is sent to us; you must assume all risk.” This, of course, deterred people from using professional hairworkers.
Another reason lies with the development and acceptance of germ theory in the Victorian era. The more people learned about germs and the more sanitary products were being sold, the more people began to view the human body and all its parts as a filthy thing. Along with this came the thought that hair, too, was unclean and people began to second guess using it as a medium for art and jewelry.
World War I also had a lot to do with the decline of hairwork. Not only was there a general depletion in resources for involved countries, but more and more women began to work outside of the home and no longer had the time to create fancy work daily. During war time when everybody was coming together to help the war effort, citizens began to turn away from frivolous expenses and focus only on necessities. Hair at this time was seen for the practical purposes it could serve. For example, in Germany there were propaganda posters encouraging women to cut their long hair and donate it to the war effort when other fibrous materials became scarce. The hair that women donated was used to make practical items such as transmission belts.
With all of these reasons working together, sentimental hairwork was almost completely out of practice by the year 1925; no major companies continued to create or repair hairwork, and making hairwork at home was no longer a regular part of daily life for women.
19th century hairworks have become trendy collectors items; this is due in part to a fascination with Victorian mourning practices, but it also seems to me that these pieces hold a special value, as opposed to other items like regular brooches or jewelry, because of – well, the presence of human hair. Do you think we might still be attaching some kind of “magical”, symbolic power to hair? Or is it just an expression of morbid curiosity for human remains, albeit in a mild and not-so-shocking form?
I absolutely believe that all of these are true. Especially amongst people less familiar with these practices, there is a real shock value to seeing something made out of hair. When I first introduce the concept of hairwork to people, some find the idea to be disgusting, but most are just fascinated that the hair does not decompose. People today are so out of touch with death, that they immediately equate hair as a part of the body and don’t understand how it can still be perfectly pristine over a hundred years later. For those who don’t often ponder their own mortality, thinking about the fact that hair can physically live on long after they’ve died can be a completely staggering realization.
Once the initial surprise and morbid curiosity have faded, many people recognize a special value in the hair itself. Amongst serious collectors of hair, there seems to be a touching sense of fulfillment in the opportunity to preserve the memory of somebody who once was loved enough to be memorialized this way – even if they remain nameless today. Some may say it is a spiritual calling, but I would say at the very least it is a shared sense of mortal empathy.
What kind of research did you have to do in order to learn the basics of Victorian hairworks? After all, this could be described as a kind of “folk art”, which was meant for a specific, often personal purpose; so were there any books at the time holding detailed instructions on how to do it? Or did you have to study original hairworks to understand how it was done?
Learning hairwork was a journey for me. First, I should say that there are several different types of hairwork and some techniques are better documented than others. Wire work is the type of hairwork you see in wreaths and other three-dimensional flowers. I was not able to find any good resources on how to do these techniques, so in order to learn, I began by studying countless wreaths. I took every opportunity I could to study wreaths that were out of their frame or damaged so I could try to put them back together and see how everything connected. I spent hours staring at old pieces and playing with practice hair through trial and error.
Other techniques are palette work and table work. Palette work includes flat pictures of hair which you may see in a frame or under glass in jewelry, and table work includes the elaborate braids that make up a jewelry chain such as a necklace or a watch fob.
The Lock of Hair by Alexanna Speight and Art of Hair Work: Hair Braiding and Jewelry of Sentiment by Mark Campbell teach palette work and table work, respectively. Unfortunately, being so old, these books use archaic English and also reference tools and materials that are no longer made or not as easy to come by. Even after reading these books, it takes quite a bit of time to find modern equivalents and practice with a few substitutions to find the best alternative. For these reasons, I would love to write an instructional book explaining all three of these core techniques in an easy to understand way using modern materials, so hairwork as a craft can be more accessible to a wider audience.
Why do you think this technique could be still relevant today?
The act and tradition of saving hair is still present in our society. Parents often save a lock of their child’s first haircut, but unfortunately that lock of hair will stay hidden away in an envelope or a book and rarely seen again. I’ve also gained several clients just from meeting someone who has never heard of hairwork, but they still felt compelled cut a lock of hair from their deceased loved one to keep. Their eyes consistently light up when they learn that they can wear it in jewelry or display it in artwork. Time and again, these people ask me if it’s weird that they saved this hair. Often, they don’t even know why they did. It’s a compulsion that many of us feel, but we don’t talk about it or celebrate it in our modern culture, so they think they’re strange or morbid even though it’s an incredibly natural thing to do.
Another example is saving your own hair when it’s cut. Especially in instances of cutting hair that’s been grown very long or hair that has been locked, I very often encounter people who have felt so much of a personal investment in their own hair that they don’t feel right throwing it out. These individuals may keep their hair in a bag for years, not knowing what to do with it, only knowing that it felt right to keep. This makes perfect sense to me, because hair throughout history has always been a very personal thing. Even today, people identify each other by hair whether it be length, texture, color, or style. Different cultures may wear their hair in a certain way to convey something about their heritage, or individuals will use their own creativity or sense of self to decide how to wear their hair. Whether it be for religion, culture, romance, or mourning, the desire to attach sentimental value to hair and the impulse to keep the hair of your loved one are inherently human.
I truly believe that being able to proudly display our hair relics can help us process some of our most intimate emotions and live our best lives.
On November 6, 1802, John Cole Steele, owner of a lavander water deposit, was travelling from Bedfont, on the outskirts of London, to his home on Strand. It was deep in the night, and the merchant was walking alone, as he couldn’t find a coach.
The moon had just come up when Steele was surrounded by three men who were hiding in the bushes. They were John Holloway and Owen Haggerty — two small-time crooks always in trouble with the law; with them was their accomplice Benjamin Hanfield, whom they had recruited some hours earlier at an inn.
Hanfield himself would prove to be the weak link. Four years later, under the promise of a full pardon for unrelated offences, he would vividly recount in court the scene he had witnessed that night:
We presently saw a man coming towards us, and, on approaching him, we ordered him to stop, which he immediately did. Holloway went round him, and told him to deliver. He said we should have his money, and hoped we would not ill-use him. [Steele] put his hand in his pocket, and gave Haggerty his money. I demanded his pocket-book. He replied that he had none. Holloway insisted that he had a book, and if he did not deliver it, he would knock him down. I then laid hold of his legs. Holloway stood at his head, and swore if he cried out he would knock out his brains. [Steele] again said, he hoped we would not ill-use him. Haggerty proceeded to search him, when [Steele] made some resistance, and struggled so much that we got across the road. He cried out severely, and as a carriage was coming up, Holloway said, “Take care, I’ll silence the b—–r,” and immediately struck him several violent blows on the head and body. [Steele] heaved a heavy groan, and stretched himself out lifeless. I felt alarmed, and said, “John, you have killed the man”. Holloway replied, that it was a lie, for he was only stunned. I said I would stay no longer, and immediately set off towards London, leaving Holloway and Haggerty with the body. I came to Hounslow, and stopped at the end of the town nearly an hour. Holloway and Haggerty then came up, and said they had done the trick, and, as a token, put the deceased’s hat into my hand. […] I told Holloway it was a cruel piece of business, and that I was sorry I had any hand in it. We all turned down a lane, and returned to London. As we came along, I asked Holloway if he had got the pocketbook. He replied it was no matter, for as I had refused to share the danger, I should not share the booty. We came to the Black Horse in Dyot-street, had half a pint of gin, and parted.
A robbery gone wrong, like many others. Holloway and Haggerty would have gotten away with it: investigations did not lead to anything for four years, until Hanfield revealed what he knew.
The two were arrested on the account of Hanfield’s testimony, and although they claimed to be innocent they were both sentenced to death: Holloway and Haggerty would hang on a Monday, February 22, 1807.
During all Sunday night, the convicts kept on shouting out they had nothing to do with the murder, their cries tearing the “awful stillness of midnight“.
On the fatal morning, the two were brought at the Newgate gallows. Another person was to be hanged with them, Elizabeth Godfrey, guilty of stabbing her neighbor Richard Prince.
Three simultaneous executions: that was a rare spectacle, not to be missed. For this reason around 40.000 perople gathered to witness the event, covering every inch of space outside Newgate and before the Old Bailey.
Haggertywas the first to walk up, silent and resigned. The hangman, William Brunskill, covered his head with a white hood. Then came Holloway’s turn, but the man lost his cold blood, and started yelling “I am innocent, innocent, by God!“, as his face was covered with a similar cloth. Lastly a shaking Elizabeth Godfrey was brought beside the other two.
When he finished with his prayers, the priest gestured for the executioner to carry on.
Around 8.15 the trapdoors opened under the convicts’ feet. Haggerty and Holloway died on the instant, while the woman convulsively wrestled for some time before expiring. “Dying hard“, it was called at the time.
But the three hanged persons were not the only victims on that cold, deadly morning: suddenly the crowd started to move out of control like an immense tide.
The pressure of the crowd was such, that before the malefactors appeared, numbers of persons were crying out in vain to escape from it: the attempt only tended to increase the confusion. Several females of low stature, who had been so imprudent as to venture amongst the mob, were in a dismal situation: their cries were dreadful. Some who could be no longer supported by the men were suffered to fall, and were trampled to death. This was also the case with several men and boys. In all parts there were continued cries “Murder! Murder!” particularly from the female part of the spectators and children, some of whom were seen expiring without the possibility of obtaining the least assistance, every one being employed in endeavouring to preserve his own life. The most affecting scene was witnessed at Green-Arbour Lane, nearly opposite the debtors’ door. The lamentable catastrophe which took place near this spot, was attributed to the circumstance of two pie-men attending there to dispose of their pies, and one of them having his basket overthrown, some of the mob not being aware of what had happened, and at the same time severely pressed, fell over the basket and the man at the moment he was picking it up, together with its contents. Those who once fell were never more enabled to rise, such was the pressure of the crowd. At this fatal place, a man of the name of Herrington was thrown down, who had in his hand his younger son, a fine boy about twelve years of age. The youth was soon trampled to death; the father recovered, though much bruised, and was amongst the wounded in St. Bartholomew’s Hospital.
The following passage is especially dreadful:
A woman, who was so imprudent as to bring with her a child at the breast, was one of the number killed: whilst in the act of falling, she forced the child into the arms of the man nearest to her, requesting him, for God’s sake, to save its life; the man, finding it required all his exertion to preserve himself, threw the infant from him, but it was fortunately caught at a distance by anotner man, who finding it difficult to ensure its safety or his own, disposed of it in a similar way. The child was again caught by a person, who contrived to struggle with it to a cart, under which he deposited it until the danger was over, and the mob had dispersed.
Others managed to have a narrow escape, as reported by the 1807 Annual Register:
A young man […] fell down […], but kept his head uncovered, and forced his way over the dead bodies, which lay in a pile as high as the people, until he was enabled to creep over the heads of the crowd to a lamp-iron, from whence he got into the first floor window of Mr. Hazel, tallow-chandler, in the Old Bailey; he was much bruised, and must have suffered the fate of his companion, if he had not been possessed of great strength.
The maddened crowd left a scene of apocalyptic devastation.
After the bodies were cut down, and the gallows was removed to the Old Bailey yard, the marshals and constables cleared the streets where the catastrophe had occurred, when nearly one hundred persons, dead or in a state of insensibility, were found in the street. […] A mother was seen to carry away the body of her dead son; […] a sailor boy was killed opposite Newgate, by suffocation; in a small bag which he carried was a quantity of bread and cheese, and it is supposed he came some distance to witness the execution. […] Until four o’clock in the afternoon, most of the surrounding houses contained some person in a wounded state, who were afterwards taken away by their friends on shutters or in hackney coaches. At Bartholomew’s Hospital, after the bodies of the dead were stripped and washed, they were ranged round a ward, with sheets over them, and their clothes put as pillows under their heads; their faces were uncovered, and there was a rail along the centre of the room; the persons who were admitted to see the shocking spectacle, and identified many, went up on one side and returned on the other. Until two o’clock, the entrances to the hospital were beset with mothers weeping for their sons! wives for their husbands! and sisters for their brothers! and various individuals for their relatives and friends!
There is however one last dramatic twist in this story: in all probability, Hollow and Haggerty were really innocent after all.
Hanfield, the key witness, might have lied to have his charges condoned.
Solicitor James Harmer (the same Harmer who incidentally inspired Charles Dickens for Great Expectations), even though convinced of their culpability in the beginning, kept on investigating after the convicts death and eventually changed his mind; he even published a pamphlet on his own expenses to denounce the mistake made by the Jury. Among other things, he discovered that Hanfield had tried the same trick before, when charged with desertion in 1805: he had attempted to confess to a robbery in order to avoid military punishment.
The Court itself was aware that the real criminals had not been punished, for in 1820, 13 years after the disastrous hanging, a John Ward was accused of the murder of Steele, then acquitted for lack of evidence (see Linda Stratmann in Middlesex Murders).
In one single day, Justice had caused the death of dozens of innocent people — including the convicts.
Really one of the most unfortunate executions London had ever seen.
I wrote about capital punsihment gone wrong in the past, in this article about Jack Ketch; on the same topic you can also find this post on ‘Bloody Murders’ pamphlets from Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (both articles in Italian only, sorry!).
Article by Laura Tradii University of Oxford,
MSc History of Science, Medicine and Technology
In a rather unknown operetta morale, the great Leopardi imagines an award competition organised by the fictitious Academy of Syllographers. Being the 19th Century the “Age of Machines”, and despairing of the possibility of improving mankind, the Academy will reward the inventors of three automata, described in a paroxysm of bitter irony: the first will have to be a machine able to act like a trusted friend, ready to assist his acquaintances in the moment of need, and refraining from speaking behind their back; the second machine will be a “steam-powered artificial man” programmed to accomplish virtuous deeds, while the third will be a faithful woman. Considering the great variety of automata built in his century, Leopardi points out, such achievements should not be considered impossible.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, automata (from the Greek, “self moving” or “acting of itself”) had become a real craze in Europe, above all in aristocratic circles. Already a few centuries earlier, hydraulic automata had often been installed in the gardens of palaces to amuse the visitors. Jessica Riskin, author of several works on automata and their history, describes thus the machines which could be found, in the fourteenth and fifteenth century, in the French castle of Hesdin:
“3 personnages that spout water and wet people at will”; a “machine for wetting ladies when they step on it”; an “engien [sic] which, when its knobs are touched, strikes in the face those who are underneath and covers them with black or white [flour or coal dust]”.1
In the fifteenth century, always according to Riskin, Boxley Abbey in Kent displayed a mechanical Jesus which could be moved by pulling some strings. The Jesus muttered, blinked, moved his hands and feet, nodded, and he could smile and frown. In this period, the fact that automata required a human to operate them, instead of moving of their own accord as suggested by the etymology, was not seen as cheating, but rather as a necessity.2
In the eighteenth century, instead, mechanics and engineers attempted to create automata which could move of their own accord once loaded, and this change could be contextualised in a time in which mechanistic theories of nature had been put forward. According to such theories, nature could be understood in fundamentally mechanical terms, like a great clockwork whose dynamics and processes were not much different from the ones of a machine. According to Descartes, for example, a single mechanical philosophy could explain the actions of both living beings and natural phenomena.3
Inventors attempted therefore to understand and artificially recreate the movements of animals and human beings, and the mechanical duck built by Vaucanson is a perfect example of such attempts.
With this automaton, Vaucanson purposed to replicate the physical process of digestion: the duck would eat seeds, digest them, and defecate. In truth, the automaton simply simulated these processes, and the faeces were prepared in advance. The silver swan built by John Joseph Merlin (1735-1803), instead, imitated with an astonishing realism the movements of the animal, which moved (and still moves) his neck with surprising flexibility. Through thin glass tubes, Merlin even managed to recreate the reflection of the water on which the swan seemed to float.
Vaucanson’s Flute Player, instead, played a real flute, blowing air into the instruments thanks to mechanical lungs, and moving his fingers. On a similar vein, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, a little model of Napoleon was displayed in the United Kingdom: the puppet breathed, and it was covered in a material which imitated the texture of skin. The advertisement for its exhibition at the Dublin’s Royal Arcade described it as a ‘splendid Work of Art’, ‘produc[ing] a striking imitation of human nature, in its Form, Color, and Texture, animated with the act of Respiration, Flexibility of the Limbs, and Elasticity of Flesh, as to induce a belief that this pleasing and really wonderful Figure is a living subject, ready to get up and speak’.4
The attempt to artificially recreate natural processes included other functions beyond movement. In 1779, the Academy of Sciences of Saint Petersburg opened a competition to mechanise the most human of all faculties, language, rewarding who would have succeeded in building a machine capable of pronouncing vowels. A decade later, Kempelen, the inventor of the famous Chess-Playing Turk, built a machine which could pronounce 19 consonants (at least according to Kempelen himself).5
In virtue of their uncanny nature, automata embody the tension between artifice and nature which for centuries has animated Western thought. The quest not only for the manipulation, but for the perfecting of the natural order, typical of the Wunderkammer or the alchemical laboratory, finds expression in the automaton, and it is this presumption that Leopardi comments with sarcasm. For Leopardi, like for some of his contemporaries, the idea that human beings could enhance what Nature already created perfect is a pernicious misconception. The traditional narrative of progress, according to which the lives of humans can be improved through technology, which separates mankind from the cruel state of nature, is challenged by Leopardi through his satire of automata. With his proverbial optimism, the author believes that all that distances humans from Nature can only be the cause of suffering, and that no improvement in the human condition shall be achieved through mechanisation and modernisation.
This criticism is substantiated by the fear that humans may become victims of their own creation, a discourse which was widespread during the Industrial Revolution. Romantic writer Jean Paul (1763-1825), for example, uses automata to satirise the society of the late eighteenth century, imagining a dystopic world in which machines are used to control the citizens and to carry out even the most trivial tasks: to chew food, to play music, and even to pray.6
The mechanical metaphors which were often used in the seventeenth century to describe the functioning of the State, conceptualised as a machine formed of different cogs or institutions, acquire here a dystopic connotation, becoming the manifestation of a bureaucratic, mechanical, and therefore dehumanising order. It is interesting to see how observations of this kind recur today in debates over Artificial Intelligence, and how, quoting Leopardi, a future is envisioned in which “the uses of machines [will come to] include not only material things, but also spiritual ones”.
A closer future than we may think, since technology modifies in entirely new directions our way of life, our understanding of ourselves, and our position in the natural order.
Esiste un certo tipo di fotografie ottocentesche, particolarmente ricercate dai collezionisti, che sono chiamate fotografie della “madre nascosta”. Si tratta di scatti realizzati negli studi di posa dei fotografi, e il loro scopo era quello di immortalare i bambini. Per tenerli buoni (gli scatti richiedevano un tempo di esposizione maggiore di quello odierno), venivano posti in braccio alla madre.
Ma poiché le fotografie sarebbero state in un secondo momento ricoperte da un cartoncino sagomato che lasciava in vista esclusivamente il bambino, spesso le madri venivano coperte con scialli, panni, coperte e altri tessuti, in modo da rendere il trucco meno evidente.
Così, in molte foto d’epoca, se si rimuove il cartoncino sagomato ci si trova di fronte a un’immagine bizzarra e decisamente inquietante.