I wrote about him five years ago, in this post: besides being the only taxidermist in Italy to offer “artistic” (i.e., non-naturalistic) taxidermy creations, Alberto also specializes in taxidermy of pets.
I have always found it very moving that different species manage to create a deep relationship with each other, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the coldness of the world; when the affection between a human being and another animal becomes so intense, it is clear that grieving can be difficult and painful. For this reason, on Friday we will also discuss taxidermy in relation to pet grief with various personalities from science and culture: in addition to the meeting with Alberto Michelon and director Rossella Laeng, the evening will therefore include talks by Anna Cordioli (psychoanalyst), Stefania Uccheddu (Head of the Service of Behavioral Medicine, Clinic S. Marco), Gianni Vitale (journalist, President Promovies), and myself. I will talk about the history of taxidermy and its relationship to other types of remains preservation, such as relics.
I haven’t been updating the blog lately, because it has been an intense period. Together with director Francesco Erba we completed the filming of the second season of the Bizzarro Bazar web series inside the spectacular Civic Museums of Reggio Emilia, and now post-production has begun.
However, I did not miss the opportunity to have a little chat with The Thinker’s Garden, one of the most stimulating spaces on the web: during the interview we talked about my relationship with Padua (and in particular about an autobiographical episode that ties me to the Morgagni Museum), about the Master in Death Studies organized by prof. Ines Testoni, and about the latest news regarding the series.
And with this little update, I wish you happy holidays!
I look above me, towards the movable hooks once used to hang the meat, and I visualize the blood and pain that these walls had to contain – sustain – for many long years. Death and pain are the instruments life has to proceed, I tell myself.
I’m standing inside Padua’s former slaughterhouse: a space specifically devised for massacre, where now animals are living a second, bizarre life thanks to Alberto Michelon’s artworks.
When I meet him, he immediately infects me with the feverish enthusiasm of someone who is lucky (and brave) enough to be following his own vocation. What comes out of his mouth must clearly be a fifth of what goes through his mind. As John Waters put it, “without obsession, life is nothing“.
Animals and taxidermy are Alberto’s obsession.
Taxidermy is traditionally employed in two main fields: hunting trophies, and didactical museum installations.
In both context, the demand for taxidermic preparations is declining. On one hand we are witnessing a drop in hunting activities, which find less and less space in European culture as opposed to ecological preoccupations and the evolution of the ethical sensitiviy towards animals. On the other hand, even great Natural History Museums already have their well-established collections and seldom acquire new specimens: often a taxidermist is only called when restoration is required on already prepared animals.
“This is why – Alberto explains – I mainly work for private customers who want to preserve their domestic pets. It is more difficult, because you have to faithfully recreate the cat or dog’s expressiveness based on their photographs; preparing a much-loved and familiar pet requires the greatest care. But I get a huge satisfaction when the job turns out well. Customers often burst into tears, they talk to the animal – when I present them with the finished work, I always step aside and leave them a bit of intimacy. It’s something that helps them coming to terms with their loss.”
What he says doesn’t surprise me: in a post on wunderkammern I associated taxidermy’s second youth (after a time in which it looked like this art had become obsolete) to the social need of reconfiguring our relationship with death.
But the reason I came here is Alberto is not just an ordinary taxidermist: he is Italy’s only real exponent of artistic taxiermy.
Until November 5, here at the ex-slaughterhouse, you can visit his exhibition Inanimus – A Contemporary Bestiary, a collection of his main works.
To a casual observer, artistic non-naturalist taxidermy could seem not fully respectful towards the animal. In realuty, most artists who use animal organic material as a medium do so just to reflect on our own relationship with other species, creating their works from ethical sources (animals who died of natural causes, collected in the wild, etc.).
Alberto too follows such professional ethics, as he began his experiment using leftovers from his workshop. “I was sorry to have to throw away pieces of skin, or specimens that wouldn’t find an arrangement“, he tells me. “It began almost like a diversion, in a very impulsive way, following a deep urge“.
He candidly confesses that he doesn’t know much about the American Rogue Taxidermy scene, nor about modern art galleries. And it’s clear that Alberto is somewhat alien to the contemporary art universe, so often haughty and pretentious: he keeps talking about instinct, about playing, but must of all – oh, the horror! – he takes the liberty of doing what no “serious” artist would ever dream of doing: he explains the message of his own works, one by one.
His installations really have much to say: rather than carrying messages, though, they are food for thought, a continuous and many-sided elaboration of the modernity, an attempt to use these animal remains as a mirror to investigate our own face.
Some of his works immediately strike me for the openness with which they take on current events: from the tragedy of migrants to GMOs, from euthanasia to the present-day fear of terrorist attacks.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen any other artist using taxidermy to confront the present in such a direct way.
A roe deer head covered in snake skin, wearing an orange uniform reminiscent of Islamic extremists’ prisoners, is chained to the wall. The reference is obvious: the heads of decapitated infidels are assimilated to hunting trophies.
To be honest, I find this explicit allusion to current events imagery (which, like it or not, has gained a “pop” quality) pretty unsettling, and I’m not even sure that I like it – but if something pulls the rug out from under my feet, I bless it anyways. This is what the best art is supposed to do.
Other installations are meant to illustrate Western contradictions, halfway through satire and open criticism to a capitalistic system ever harder to sustain.
A tortoise, represented as an old bejeweled lady with saggy breasts, is the emblem of a conservative society based on economic privilege: a “prehistoric” concept that, just like the reptile, has refused to evolve in any way.
A conqueror horse, fierce and rampant, exhibits a luxurious checked fur composed from several equines.
“A social climber horse: to be where he stands, he must have done away with many other horses“, Alberto tells me with a smile.
An installation shows the internal organs of a tiger, preserved in jars that are arranged following the animal’s anatomy: the eyes, tomgue and brain are placed at the extremity where the head should be, and so on. Some chimeras seem to be in the middle of a bondage session: an allusion to poaching for aphrodisiac elixirs such as the rhino horn, and to the fil rouge linking us to those massacres.
A boar, sitting on a toilet, is busy reading a magazine and searching for a pair of glass eyes to fill his empty eye sockets.
The importance of freedom of choice regarding the end of life is incarnated by two minks who hanged themselves – rather than ending up in a fur coat.
The skulls of three livestock animals are hanged like trophies, and plastic flowers come out of the hole bored by the slaughterhouse firearm (“I picked up the flowers from the graves at the cemetery, replacing them with new flowers“, Michelon tells me).
As you might have understood by now, the most interesting aspect of the Inanimus works is the neverending formal experimentation.
Every installation is extremely different from the other, and Alberto Michelon always finds new and surprising ways of using the animal matter: there are abstract paintings whose canvas is made of snake or fish skin; entomological compositions; anthropomorphic taxidermies; a crucifix entirely built by patiently gluing together bone fragments; tribal masks, phallic snakes mocking branded underwear, skeletal chandeliers, Braille texts etracted from lizard skin.
Ma gli altri tassidermisti, diciamo i “puristi”, non storcono il naso?
“Certamente alcuni non la ritengono vera tassidermia, forse pensano che io mi sia montato la testa. Non mi importa. Cosa vuoi farci? Questo progetto sta prendendo sempre più importanza, mi diverte e mi entusiasma.”
On closer inspection, there’s not a huge difference between classic and artistic taxidermy. The stuffed animals we find in natural science museums, as well as Alberto’s, are but representations, interpretations, simulachra.
Every taxidermist uses the skin, and shape, of the animal to convey a specific vision of the world; and the museum narrative (although so conventional as to be “invisible” to our eyes) is maybe no more legit than a personal perspective.
Although Alberto keeps repeating that he feels he’s a novice, still unripe artist, the Inanimus works show a very precise artistic direction. As I approach the exit, I feel I have witnessed something unique, at least in the Italian panorama. I cannot therefore back away from the ritual prosaic last question: future projects?
“I want to keep on getting better, learning, experimenting new things“, Alberto replies as his gaze wanders all around, lost in the crowd of his transfigured animals.
Inanimus – un bestiario contemporaneo Padova, Cattedrale Ex-macello, Via Cornaro 1
Until October 17, 2017 [Extended to November 5, 2017] Facebook – Instagram
There will be plenty of opportunities to meet before the year is over.
His Anatomical Majesty will be presented at the University of Padova on November 22. Here are the event details:
But that’s not all. Besides the usual appointment at Lucca Comics & Games (tomorrow you will find me there, at the stand Logos, E137 Napoleone), I will also be in Florence on November 3 to converse with Claudio Romo, author of Nueva Carne — not to mention all the events of the Academy of Enchantment, taking place every Sunday in Rome.
If you want your book copy signed, if you would love to chat a bit about those topics you never get to discuss with anybody (because how-can-you-like-things-like-that) or even just to drop by and say hello, here is my schedule.
See you soon!
This article originally appeared on Death & The Maiden, a website exploring the relationship between women and death.
Padova, Italy. 1863.
One ash-grey morning, a young girl jumped into the muddy waters of the river which ran just behind the city hospital. We do not know her name, only that she worked as a seamstress, that she was 18 years old, and that her act of suicide was in all probability provoked by “amorous delusion”.
A sad yet rather unremarkable event, one that history could have well forgotten – hadn’t it happened, so to speak, in the right place and time.
The city of Padova was home to one of the oldest Universities in history, and it was also recognized as the cradle of anatomy. Among others, the great Vesalius, Morgagni and Fallopius had taught medicine there; in 1595 Girolamo Fabrici d’Acquapendente had the first stable anatomical theater built inside the University’s main building, Palazzo del Bo.
In 1863, the chair of Anatomical Pathology at the University was occupied by Lodovico Brunetti (1813-1899) who, like many anatomists of his time, had come up with his own process for preserving anatomical specimens: tannization. His method consisted in drying the specimens and injecting them with tannic acid; it was a long and difficult procedure (and as such it would not go on to have much fortune) but nonetheless gave astounding results in terms of quality. I have had the opportunity of feeling the consistency of some of his preparations, and still today they maintain the natural dimensions, elasticity and softness of the original tissues.
But back to our story.
When Brunetti heard about the young girl’s suicide, he asked her body be brought to him, so he could carry out his experiments.
First he made a plaster cast of the her face and upper bust. Then he peeled away all of the skin from her head and neck, being especially careful as to preserve the girl’s beautiful golden hair. He then proceeded to treat the skin, scouring it with sulfuric ether and fixing it with his own tannic acid formula. Once the skin was saved from putrefaction, he laid it out over the plaster cast reproducing the girl’s features, then added glass eyes and plaster ears to his creation.
But something was wrong.
The anatomist noticed that in several places the skin was lacerated. Those were the gashes left by the hooks men had used to drag the body out of the water, unto the banks of the river.
Brunetti, who in all evidence must have been a perfectionist, came up with a clever idea to disguise those marks.
He placed some wooden branches beside her chest, then entwined them with tannised snakes, carefully mounting the reptiles as if they were devouring the girl’s face. He poured some red candle wax to serve as blood spurts, and there it was: a perfect allegory of the punishment reserved in Hell to those who committed the mortal sin of suicide.
He called his piece The Punished Suicide.
Now, if this was all, Brunetti would look like some kind of psychopath, and his work would just be unacceptable and horrifying, from any kind of ethical perspective.
But the story doesn’t end here.
After completing this masterpiece, the first thing Brunetti did was showing it to the girl’s parents.
And this is where things take a really weird turn.
Because the dead girl’s parents, instead of being dismayed and horrified, actually praised him for the precision shown in reproducing their daughter’s features.
“So perfectly did I preserve her physiognomy – Brunetti proudly noted, – that those who saw her did easily recognize her”.
But wait, there’s more.
Four years later, the Universal Exposition was opening in Paris, and Brunetti asked the University to grant him funds to take the Punished Suicide to France. You would expect some kind of embarrassment on the part of the university, instead they happily financed his trip to Paris.
At the Exposition, thousands of spectators swarmed in from all around the world to see the latest innovations in technology and science, and saw the Punished Suicide. What would you think happened to Brunetti then? Was he hit by scandal, was his work despised and criticized?
Not at all. He won the Grand Prix in the Arts and Professions.
If you feel kind of dizzy by now, well, you probably should.
Looking at this puzzling story, we are left with only two options: either everybody in the whole world, including Brunetti, was blatantly insane; or there must exist some kind of variance in perception between our views on mortality and those held by people at the time.
It always strikes me how one does not need to go very far back in time to feel this kind of vertigo: all this happened less than 150 years ago, yet we cannot even begin to understand what our great-great-grandfathers were thinking.
Of course, anthropologists tell us that the cultural removal of death and the medicalization of dead bodies are relatively recent processes, which started around the turn of the last century. But it’s not until we are faced with a difficult “object” like this, that we truly grasp the abysmal distance separating us from our ancestors, the intensity of this shift in sensibility.
The Punished Suicide is, in this regard, a complex and wonderful reminder of how society’s boundaries and taboos may vary over a short period of time.
A perfect example of intersection between art (whether or not it encounters our modern taste), anatomy (it was meant to illustrate a preserving method) and the sacred (as an allegory of the Afterlife), it is one of the most challenging displays still visible in the ‘Morgagni’ Museum of Anatomical Pathology in Padova.
This nameless young girl’s face, forever fixed in tormented agony inside her glass case, cannot help but elicit a strong emotional response. It presents us with many essential questions on our past, on our own relationship with death, on how we intend to treat our dead in the future, on the ethics of displaying human remains in Museums, and so on.
On the account of all these rich and fruitful dilemmas, I like to think her death was at least not entirely in vain.
The “Morgagni” Museum of Pathology in Padova is the focus of the latest entry in the Bizzarro Bazar Collection, His Anatomical Majesty. Photography by Carlo Vannini. The story of the ‘Punished Suicide’ was unearthed by F. Zampieri, A. Zanatta and M. Rippa Bonati on Physis, XLVIII(1-2):297-338, 2012.
The fourth book in the Bizzarro Bazar Collection, published by Logos, is finally here.
While the first three books deal with those sacred places in Italy where a physical contact with the dead is still possible, this new work focuses on another kind of “temple” for human remains: the anatomical museum. A temple meant to celebrate the progress of knowledge, the functioning and the fabrica, the structure of the body — the investigation of our own substance.
The Morgagni Museum in Padova, which you will be able to explore thanks to Carlo Vannini‘s stunning photography, is not devoted to anatomy itself, but rather to anatomical pathology.
Forget the usual internal architectures of organs, bones and tissues: here the flesh has gone insane. In these specimens, dried, wet or tannized following Lodovico Brunetti’s method, the unconceivable vitality of disease becomes the real protagonist.
A true biological archive of illness, the collection of the Morgagni Museum is really a time machine allowing us to observe deformities and pathologies which are now eradicated; before the display cases and cabinets we gaze upon the countless, excruciating ways our bodies can fail.
A place of inestimable value for the amount of history it contains, that is the history of the victims, of those who fell along the path of discovery, as much as of those men who took on fighting the disease, the pioneers of medical science, the tale of their committment and persistence. Among its treasures are many extraordinary intersections between anatomy and art.
The path I undertook for His Anatomical Majesty was particularly intense on an emotional level, also on the account of some personal reasons; when I began working on the book, more than two years ago, the disease — which up until then had remained an abstract concept — had just reached me in all its destabilizing force. This is why the Museum, and my writing, became for me an initiatory voyage into the mysteries of the flesh, through its astonishments and uncertainties.
The subtitle’s oxymoron, that obscure splendour, is the most concise expression I could find to sum up the dual state of mind I lived in during my study of the collection.
Those limbs marked by suffering, those still expressive faces through the amber formaldehyde, those impossible fantasies of enraged cells: all this led me to confront the idea of an ambivalent disease. On one hand we are used to demonize sickness; but, with much the same surprise that comes with learning that biblical Satan is really a dialectical “adversary”, we might be amazed to find that disease is never just an enemy. Its value resides in the necessary questions it adresses. I therefore gave myself in to the enchantment of its terrible beauty, to the dizziness of its open meaning. I am sure the same fruitful uneasiness I felt is the unavoidable reaction for anyone crossing the threshold of this museum.
The book, created in strict collaboration with the University of Padova, is enriched by museology and history notes by Alberto Zanatta (anthropologist and curator of the Museum), Fabio Zampieri (history of medicine researcher), Maurizio Rippa Bonati (history of medicine associated professor) and Gaetano Thiene (anatomical pathology professor).
Nel 1493, Alessandro Benedetti pubblica a Padova la sua Historia corporis humani, nella quale alla fine del capitolo primo è citato per la prima volta nella storia il concetto di teatro anatomico. Si trattava di un palco provvisorio in legno, montabile e smontabile all’occorrenza, a forma di anfiteatro, all’interno del quale questo celebre professore operava delle pubbliche dissezioni a beneficio degli studenti di medicina, e non solo.
All’epoca gli anatomisti potevano dissezionare esclusivamente i cadaveri dei condannati a morte, e Benedetti propose di estendere il permesso anche ai morti per malattia: fu anche grazie al suo impulso che la pratica settoria si diffuse in ambito medico, ma toccherà aspettare Vesalio (di cui abbiamo parlato in un articolo per l’ultimo numero di Illustrati) perché la mentalità scientifica al riguardo approdi alla piena maturità. E, proprio esaminando il famosissimo frontespizio del suo De humani corporis fabrica, e “cancellando” tutti gli spettatori, si può avere un’idea delle strutture a gradoni che venivano utilizzate durante le dissezioni.
Un secolo dopo l’invenzione del teatro anatomico smontabile di Benedetti, sempre a Padova, insegnava il chirurgo Girolamo Fabrici d’Acquapendente.
Come un gran numero degli anatomisti dell’epoca, anche Fabrici era un personaggio particolare. Era uno studioso infaticabile, curava gratuitamente i poveri, eppure il suo carattere scontroso e la negligenza nello svolgere il suo ruolo di insegnante gli causarono non poche critiche. “Sopraordinario nella lettura di Anatomia e Chirurgia”, nonostante i suoi invidiabili titoli accademici (e il suo stipendio da capogiro), era famoso per la sua incostanza alle lezioni: si dava malato, spesso le iniziava in ampio ritardo, e se finalmente si decideva ad insegnare, gli studenti avevano un bel daffare a comprendere le sue parole, dato che la sua voce era praticamente un sussurro per via di una laringite cronica.
Ironicamente, dobbiamo proprio alla sua pigrizia la nascita del primo teatro anatomico permanente. Fabrici era infatti stanco di dover tenere le lezioni all’aperto, in balia delle bizze metereologiche, e sgolandosi perché gli spettatori delle ultime file non riuscivano a sentire. Quando, attraverso un Console della Nazione Germanica, venne a sapere che anche gli studenti di medicina tedeschi che studiavano a Padova lamentavano la mancanza di un teatro per seguire le lezioni, colse la palla al balzo e commissionò (forse a Fra’ Paolo Sarpi) il progetto.
Nel 1595 venne completato il teatro anatomico all’interno del Palazzo del Bo, sede dell’Università (molti altri verranno costruiti successivamente in diverse facoltà europee). Si tratta di un grande teatro ovale, con sei gallerie estremamente ripide che ricordano facilmente una visione dantesca dell’Inferno. Può contenere circa 300 persone: gli spettatori si affacciavano ai parapetti delle gallerie, mentre sul piano inferiore, il “palcoscenico”, si svolgeva lo spettacolo.
E di vero e proprio spettacolo si trattava, impressionante e macabro. Immaginatevi di stare assiepati in questo vertiginoso teatro a forma di cono rovesciato, nell’oscurità pressoché totale, l’unica luce proveniente da un paio di candelabri posti ai fianchi del tavolo settorio sul fondo. Due “massari”, il cui compito era quello di procurare i cadaveri e assistere il professore, scoprono il corpo senza vita di un condannato (o in alternativa di qualche animale – cani, maiali, e perfino scimmie ed orsi). Entra l’anatomista, che indossa orgogliosamente un grembiule macchiato del sangue di decenni di operazioni chirurgiche e dissezioni. Per gli occhi della gente semplice è quasi un mago: una minuscola orchestra da camera sottolinea la sua entrata con l’esecuzione di una pomposa musichetta. In pochi minuti, il torace del morto viene inciso ed aperto, le interiora messe all’aria; a questo punto l’intero teatro è esposto alle esalazioni maleodoranti. Con pochi, decisi tagli (gran parte del lavoro sporco lo fanno gli assistenti), il professore dimostra la sua esperienza e la sua maestria, estraendo ed esibendo qualche organo in particolare, pontificando sul sistema circolatorio o su determinate afflizioni patologiche. A fine spettacolo, dopo gli applausi e dopo che il pubblico è uscito, viene aperto il tetto mobile per lasciare fuoriuscire i cattivi odori.
L’atmosfera cupa del teatro venne attenuata nel 1844 con la costruzione di un lucernario che potesse far entrare la luce del sole. In seguito, quando le esecuzioni capitali si fecero più rare, a poco a poco le attività del teatro anatomico diminuirono, fino a quando nel 1872 smise definitivamente di funzionare. Ma rimane ancora oggi perfettamente conservato e restaurato, non ha mai subito alcuna modifica ed è parte integrante del percorso di visite guidate di Palazzo Bo.