The surgical tool kit that was used to perform the autopsy on Napoleon’s body at Saint Helena is on display at the Museum of History of Medicine in Paris.
But few people know that those scalpels probably also emasculated the Emperor.
In his last few months on Saint Helena, Napoleon suffered from excruciating stomach pains. Sir Hudson Lowe, the governor of the island under whose control Bonaparte had been confined, dismissed the whole thing as a slight anemia. Yet on May 5, 1821 Bonaparte died.
The autopsy conducted the following day by Napoleon’s personal physician, Francesco Carlo Antommarchi, revealed that he had been killed by a stomach tumor, aggravated by large ulcers (although the actual causes of death have been debated).
But during the autoptic examination Antommarchi apparently took some liberties.
Francesco Carlo Antommarchi
The heart was extracted and put in in a vase filled with spirit; it was meant to be delivered to the Emperor’s second wife, Maria Luisa, in Parma. In reality, she must have been hardly impressed by such a token of love, since a few months after Napoleon’s death she already married her lover. The stomach, that cancerous organ responsible for Napoleon’s death, was also removed and preserved in liquid. Antommarchi then made a cast of Bonaparte’s face, from which he later produced the famous death mask displayed at the Musée de l’Armée.
But at this point the doctor from Marseilles decided he’d grab a further, macabre trophy: he severed Napoleon’s penis. Antommarchi’s motives for this extra cut are unclear. Some speculate it might have been some sort of revenge for the way the irascible Napoleon mistreated him in the last few months; according to other sources, the doctor (sometimes described as an ignorant and disrespectful man) simply thought he could make a profit out of it.
But perhaps it was not even Antommarchi who took the controversial specimen. Thirty years later, in 1852, Mamluk Ali (Louis-Etienne Saint-Denis, Napoleon’s most faithful valet) published a memorial in the Revue des Mondes. In the article, Ali attributed the responsibility of this mutilation to himself and to Abbot Angelo Paolo Vignali, the chaplain who administered extreme unction to Bonaparte. He stated that he and Vignali had removed some unspecified “portions” of Napoleon’s corpse during the autopsy.
All these stories are quite dubious; it seems unlikely that such a disfigurement could go unnoticed. Five English doctors, plus three English and three French officers, were present at Napoleon’s autopsy. After the embalming, his faithful waiter Marchand dressed his body in uniform. How come no one noticed the absence of manhood on the body of the “little corporal”?
In any case, what may or may not have been Napoleon’s true penis, but a penis nonetheless, began to circulate in Europe.
And even if it’s unclear who was responsible for severing it, in the end it was chaplain Vignali who smuggled it back to Corsica, along with more conventional mementos (documents and letters, a few pieces of silverware, a lock of hair, a pair of breeches, etc.), and the organ passed to his heirs upon Vignali’s death in a bloody vendetta in 1828. It remained in the family for almost a century, and was finally purchased by an anonymous buyer at an auction in 1916, together with the entire collection. In the auction catalog, the penis was described with a euphemism: “mummified tendon“.
After being bought by the famous antiquarian bookstore Maggs of London, the lot was resold in 1924 to Philadelphia collector Abraham Simon Wolf Rosenbach, who exhibited it three years later at the Museum of French Art in New York. Here the penis of Napoleon was on public display for the first and only time, and a jouranlist described it as a “maltreated strip of buck-skin shoelace or a shriveled eel“.
In 1944 Rosenbach sold the collection once again, and it continued to be passed from hand to hand. But despite the historical value of these memorabilia the market proved to be less and less interested, and the Vignali collection remained unsold at various auctions. In 1977 a major part of the collection was acquired by the French government, and destined to join the remains of Napoleon at Les Invalides. Not the penis, however, which the French refused to even acknowledge. It was John K. Lattimer, an American urologist, who bought it for $ 4,000. His intention, it seems, was to permanently remove it from circulation so that it would not be ridiculed.
The urologist had amassed an impressive collection of macabre historical curiosities – from the blood-stained collar that President Lincoln wore on the night of his murder at Ford’s theater, to one of the poison capsules Göring used to commit suicide. Lattimer kept the infamous “mummified tendon” locked away in a suitcase under his bed for years, protecting it from the public’s morbid curiosity, and he always refused any purchase proposal. He X-rayed the specimen, and it turned out to actually be a human penis.
After Lattimer’s death in 2007, his daughter took on the laborious task of archiving this incredible collection.
The penis is still part of the collection: Tony Perrottet, author of the book Napoleon’s Privates, is among the very few who have had the opportunity to see it in person. “It was kind of an amazing thing to behold. There it was: Napoleon’s penis sitting on cotton wool, very beautifully laid out, and it was very small, very shriveled, about an inch and a half long. It was like a little baby’s finger.”
Here is the video showing the moment when the writer finally found himself face to face with the illustrious genitals:
One can understand Perrottet’s obvious excitation in the video: the author declared that, to him, Napoleon’s penis is the symbol “of everything that’s interesting about history. It sort of combines love and death and sex and tragedy and farce all in this one story“. And certainly all these elements do contribute to the fascination we feel for such a relic, which is at once comic, macabre, obscene and titillating. But there’s more.
The body of a man who – for better or for worse – so profoundly changed the history of the world, possesses an almost magical aura. Why then does the thought of it being disrespected and desecrated provoke an unmentionable, subtle satisfaction? Why did Lattimer fear that showing that small, withered and mummified penis would result in public derision?
Perhaps it’s because that little piece of meat looks like a masterpiece of irony, a perfect retaliation.
As comedian George Carlin put it,
men are terrified that their pricks are inadequate and so they have to compete with one another to feel better about themselves and since war is the ultimate competition, basically, men are killing each other in order to improve their self-esteem. You don’t have to be a historian or a political scientist to see the Bigger Dick foreign policy theory at work.
George Carlin, Jammin’ In New York (1992)
The controversial POTUS tweet (01/03/2018) on who might have the “bigger button”.
On the other hand, this relic also reminds us that Napoleon was mortal, after all, and brings his figure back to the concreteness of a corpse on the autopsy table. The mummified penis takes the place of that hominem te memento (“Remember that you are only a man”) that was repeated in the ear of Roman generals returning from a victory so they wouldn’t get a big head, or the sic transit that the protodeacon pronounced at the passage in San Pietro of the newly elected Pope (“thus passes the glory of the world”).
That flap of shrunken and withered skin is at once a symbol of vanitas, and a mockery of the typical machismo so often exhibited by leaders and rulers. It reminds us that “the Emperor has no clothes”.
Worse: he has no clothes, no life, and no manhood.
Part of the informations in this article come from Bess Lovejoy’s wonderful book Rest In Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses (2014).
One chapter of my book Paris Mirabilia is devoted to the Museum of History of Medicine. Tony Perrottet’s Napoleon’s Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzippedis essentially a collection of spicy anecdotes about famous historical figures. Among these, one in particular is relevant. During the WWII, Stalin asked Winston Churchill to help out with the Russian army’s “serious condom shortage”. The British Prime Minister had a special batch of extra-large condoms prepared, then sent them to Russia with the label “Made in Britain – Medium“. This glaring example of foreign policy would have delighted George Carlin.
As the old saying goes, “Never read Bizzarro Bazar while preparing dinner”.
A virtual version of the Library of Babel imagined by Borges has been online for some time now. Wandering around the hexagones and going through random books is a dizzying experience — there are volumes which contain your name, but also everything you’ve done today or you will do tomorrow; but to fully grasp the immense scope of the project, this analysis by Virio Guido Stipa is absolutely excellent [Italian language only].
F.A.Q.: what is one of the most disgusting things that could happen during decomposition? If you have to ask, you probably don’t know adipocere. Keep up with this Atlas Obscura article.
Did we need H. R. Giger to design the Alien egg? No, it would have been enough to look at this nice little mushroom called Clathrus archeri.
Remember my Museum of Failure? Here’s a recent addition: Caproni’s Transaereo. Featuring eight engines and three sets of triple wings, for a total of nine wings, it was designed to transport up to 100 passengers over the Atlantic ocean. It flew only two times, on February 12 and March 4 1921, taking off from Lake Maggiore. It plummeted into the water at the end of the second flight, suffering serious damages and thus ending the ambitious tests.
Italian newspaper Repubblica published a nice video on the Neapolitan tradition of femminielli — an incredible popular strategy to elaborate and accept diversity by making it “theatrical”. But then again, as Orson Welles put it, “Italy is the home of 50 million actors, and the only bad ones are on the stage“.
In 1671, Dutch writer Arnoldus Montanus wrote a book entitled “The New and Unknown World: or Description of America and the Southland, Containing the Origin of the Americans and South-landers, remarkable voyages thither, Quality of the Shores, Islands, Cities, Fortresses, Towns, Temples, Mountains, Sources, Rivers, Houses, the nature of Beasts, Trees, Plants and foreign Crops, Religion and Manners, Miraculous Occurrences, Old and New Wars: Adorned with Illustrations drawn from the life in America, and described by Arnoldus Montanus”.
The printed title was so long that, clearly, no space was left for a small caveat: the fact that good old Arnoldus had never actually left Europe his entire life. And, to be fair, the illustrations kind of gave it away:
In Varanasi the smoke of cremations never ceases; tourists take pictures, enraptured by this deep spiritual experience. But someone has a different view on things: Gagan Chaudhary, one of the “untouchables” who are in charge of the funeral pires. Alcohol and ganja, to which he’s been addicted since he was thirteen, allow him not to faint from the smell; his legs are devastated with wounds and scars; his life was spent amidst abuse, violence and horrible visions. He recounts his experience in a touching article on LiveMint: “I’ve seen bodies where the skin has been ripped apart; I’ve seen bodies with tongues hanging out and blood flowing from orifices. […] I’ve seen bodies cut up and stitched back to a whole. I’ve seen headless corpses; I’ve seen bodies covered with scars. And I’ve burnt them all.“
Balthus is back in the news, on the account of an online petition to remove (or at least contextualize, as it was subsequently declared, to adjust the tone) one of his works exhibited at New York MET. Once again the shadow of pedophilia haunts his paintings: an occasion to reflect on the role of art (is it pure signifier, or should we evaluate it from an ethical perspective?); and to reread the article I devoted to this thorny issue a couple of years ago.
WoodSwimmer is an incredible stop-motion video. Brett Foxwell produced it by cutting logs and pieces of wood in thin slices, and progressively scanning these sections. In his words, “a straightforward technique but one which is brutally tedious to complete“.
The tool in the following picture is a head clamp. In Victorian times it was used to secure the back of the neck of a subject in photographic sessions, during long exposure times.
You already figured out where we’re going: in post mortem pictures this was used to fix bodies into natural poses, as if they were still alive, right?
Well, not quite. Time for a bit of debunking on post mortem photography.
This image comes from an article entitled The Truth About Post Mortem Photography. Never write anything beginning with “The Truth About”.
During the last 59 years, Jim “Antlerman” Phillips has been scouring the hills of Montana looking for elk, deer or antelope antlers. He now has a collection of more than 16.000 pieces. (Thanks, Riccardo!)
They give birth astride of a grave,
the light gleams an instant,
then it’s night once more.
(S. Beckett, Aspettando Godot)
An Italian Horror Story
Castel del Giudice, Italy. On the 5th of August 1875, a pregnant woman, indicated in the documents with the initials F. D’A., died during labor, before being able to give birth to her child. On the following day, without respecting the required minimum waiting time before interment, her body was lowered into the cemetery’s fossa carnaria. This was a kind of collective burial for the poorest classes, still common at the time in hundreds of Italian communes: it consisted in a sealed underground space, a room or a pit, where the corpses were stacked and left to rot (some inside coffins, others wrapped in simple shrouds).
For the body of F. D’A., things began to get ugly right from the start:
She had to be lowered in the pit, so the corpse was secured with a rope, but the rope broke and D’A.’s poor body fell from a certain height, her head bumping into a casket. Some people climbed down, they took D’A. and arranged her on her back upon a nearby coffin, where she laid down with a deathly pale face, her hands tied together and resting on her abdomen, her legs joined by stitched stockings. Thus, and not otherwise, D’A. was left by the participants who buried her.
But when, a couple of days later, the pit was opened again in order to bury another deceased girl, a terrible vision awaited the bystanders:
F. D’A.’s sister hurried to give a last goodbye to her dead relative, but as soon as she looked down to the place where her sister was laid to rest, she had to observe the miserable spectacle of her sister placed in a very different position from the one she had been left in; between her legs was the fetus she had given birth to, inside the grave, and together with whom she had miserably died. […] Officers immediately arrived, and found D’A.’s body lying on her left side, her face intensely strained; her hands, still tied by a white cotton ribbon, formed an arch with her arms and rested on her forehead, while pieces of white ribbon were found between her teeth […]. At the mother’s feet stood a male newborn child with his umbilical cord, showing well-proportioned and developed limbs.
Imagine the horror of the poor woman, waking up in the dark in the grip of labor pains; with her last remaining energy she had succeeded in giving birth to her child, only to die shortly after, “besieged by corpses, lacking air, assistance or food, and exhausted by the blood loss suffered during delivery“. One could hardly picture a more dreadful fate.
The case had ahuge resonance all across Italy; a trial took place at the Court of Isernia, and the town physician, the mayor and the undertaker were found guilty of two involuntary murders “aggravated by gross negligence“, sentenced to six months in jail and fined (51 liras) – but the punishment was later cut by half by the Court of Appeal of Naples in November 1877. This unprecedented reduction of penalty was harshly criticized by the Times correspondant in Italy, who observed that “the circumstances of the case, if well analyzed, show the slight value which is attached to human life in this country“; the news also appeared in the New York Times as well as in other British and American newspapers.
This story, however scary – because it is so scary – should be taken with a pinch of salt. There’s more than one reason to be careful.
First of all, the theme of a pregnant woman believed dead and giving birth in a grave was already a recurring motif in the Nineteeth Century, as taphophobia (the fear of being buried alive) reached its peak.
Folklorist Paul Barber in his Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality (1988) argues that the number of people actually buried alive was highly exaggerated in the chronicles; a stance also shared by Jan Bondeson, who in one of the most complete books on the subject, Buried Alive, shows how the large majority of nineteenth-century premature burial accounts are not reliable.
For the most part it would seem to be a romantic, decadent literary topos, albeit inspired by a danger that was certainly real in the past centuries: interpreting the signs of death was a complex and often approximate procedure, so much so that by the 1700s some treatises (the most famous one being Winslow‘s) introduced a series of measures to verify with greater accuracy the passing of a patient.
A superficial knowledge of decomposition processes could also lead to misunderstandings. When bodies were exhumed, it was not uncommon to find their position had changed; this was due to the cadaver’s natural tendency to move during decomposition, and to be sometimes subjected to small “explosions” caused by putrefaction gasses – explosions that are powerful enough to rotate the body’s upper limbs. Likewise, the marks left by rodents or other scavengers (loose dirt, scratches, bite marks, torn clothes, fallen hair) could be mistaken for the deceased person’s desperate attempts at getting out.
Yet, as we’ve said, there was a part of truth, and some unfortunate people surely ended up alive inside a coffin. Even with all our modern diagnostic tools, every now and then someone wakes up in a morgue. But these events are, today like yesterday, extremely rare, and these stories speak more about a cultural fear rather than a concrete risk.
If being buried alive was already an exceptional fact, then the chances of a pregnant woman actually giving birth inside a grave look even slimmer. But this idea – so charged with pathos it could only fascinate the Victorian sensibility – might as well have come from real observations. Opening a woman’s grave and finding a stillborn child must have looked like a definitive proof of her premature burial. What wasn’t known at the time is that the fetus can, in rare circumstances, be expelled postmortem.
Anaerobic microorganisms, which start the cadaver’s putrefactive phase, release several gasses during their metabolic activity. During this emphysematous stage, internal tissues stretch and tighten; the torso, abdomen and legs swell; the internal pressure caused by the accumulation of gas can lead, within the body of a woman in the late stages of pregnancy, to a separation of amniotic membranes, a prolapse of the uterus and a subsequent total or partial extrusion of the fetus. This event appears to be more likely if the dead woman has been pregnant before, on the account of a more elastic cervix. This strange phenomenon is called Sarggeburt (coffin birth) in early German forensic literature.
The first case of postmortem delivery dates back to 1551, when a woman hanged on the gallows released, four hours after her execution, the bodies of two twins, both dead. (A very similar episode happened in 2007 in India, when a woman killed herself during labor; in that instance, the baby was found alive and healthy.) In Brussels, in 1633, a woman died of convulsions and three days later a fetus was spontaneously expelled. The same thing happened in Weißenfels, Saxony, in 1861. Other cases are mentioned in the first medical book to address this strange event,Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine, published in 1896, but for the most part these accidents occurred when the body of the mother had yet to be buried. It was John Whitridge Williams who, in his fortunate Obstetrics: a text-book for the use of students and practitioners (1904), pointed to the possibility of postmortem delivery taking place after burial.
Fetal extrusion after the mother’s death has also been observed in recent times.
A 2005 case involved a woman who died in her apartment from acute heroine intoxication: upon finding her body, it was noted that the fetus head was protruding from the mother’s underwear; but later on, during the autopsy, the upper part of the baby’s torso was also visible – a sign that gasses had continued to build in the abdominal region, increasing interior pressure. In 2008 a 38 year-old, 7 months pregnant woman was found murdered in a field in advanced state of decomposition, accelerated by tropical climate. During the autopsy a fetus was found inside the woman’s slips, the umbilical cord still attached to the placenta (here is the forensic case study – WARNING: graphic).
Life In Death
So, going back to that unfortunate lady from Castel del Giudice, what really happened to her? Sure, the autopsy report filed at the time and quoted in the trial papers mentioned the presence of air in the baby’s lungs, a proof that the child was born alive. And it’s possible that this was the case.
But on one hand this story fits all too perfectly within a specific popular narrative of its time, whose actual statistical incidence has been doubted by scholars; on the other, the possibility of postmortem fetal extrusion is well-documented, so much so thateven archeologists sometimes struggle to interpret ancient skeletal findings showing fetuses still partially enclosed within the pelvic bone.
The only certain thing is that these stories – whether they’re authentic or made up – have an almost archetypal quality; birth and death entwined in a single place and time.
Maybe they’re so enthralling because, on a symbolic level, they remind us of a peculiar truth, one expressed in a famous verse from Manilius‘ Astronomica:
Nascentes morimur, finisque ab origine pendet.
“As we are born we die, our end commences with our beginning.”
We shouldn’t fear autopsies.
I’m not using this term in its strict legal/medical meaning (even though I always advise anybody to go and see a real autopsy), but rather in its etymological sense: the act of “seeing with one’s own eyes” is the basis for all knowledge, and represents the first step in defeating our fears. By staring directly at what scares us, by studying it and domesticating it, we sometimes discover that our worries were unfounded in the first place.
This is why, on these webpages, I have often openly explored death and all of its complex cultural aspects; because the autoptic act is always fruitful and necessary, even more so if we are addressing the major “collective repressed” in our society.
Bringing forward these very ideas, here is someone who has given rise to a real activist movement advocating a healthier approach to death and dying: Caitlin Doughty.
Caitlin, born in 1984, decided to pursue a career as a mortician to overcome her own fear of death; even as a novice, picking up corpses from homes in a van, preparing them, and facing the peculiar challenges of the crematorium, this brilliant girl had a plan – she intended to change the American funeral industry from the inside. Modern death phobia, which Caitlin directly experienced, has reached paradoxical levels, making the grief elaboration process almost impossible. This irrational anxiety towards dead bodies is the reason we delegate professionals to completely remove the corpse’s “scandalous” presence from our familiar environment, thus depriving relatives of the necessary time to understand their loss. Take the extreme example of online cremation services, through which a parent, for instance, can ship out his own child’s dead body and receive the ashes a few days later: no ritual, no contact, no last image, no memory of this essential moment of transition. How can you come to terms with grief, if you even avoid watching?
From these premises, her somewhat “subversive” project was born: to bring death into people’s homes, to give families the opportunity of taking back their loved ones’ remains, and to turn the undertaking profession into a support service, not preventing relatives from preparing the body themselves, but rather assisting them in a non-invasive way. Spending some time in contact with a dead body does not usually pose any sanitary problem, and could be useful in order to concretely process the loss. To be able to carry out private rituals, to wash and dress the body, to talk to our loved ones one last time, and eventually to have more disposal options: such a positive approach is only possible if we learn to talk openly about death.
Caitlin therefore decided to act on several fronts.
On one hand, she founded The Order of the Good Death, an association of funeral professionals, artists, writers and academics sharing the will to change the Western attitude towards death, funerals, and grief. The Order promotes seminaries, workshops, lectures and organizes the annual Death Salon, a public gathering in which historians, intellectuals, artists, musicians and researchers discuss the various cultural aspects of death.
On the other hand, Caitlin created a successful YouTube channel with the purpose of answering user submitted questions about what goes on behind the scenes of the funeral industry. Her Ask A Mortician webseries doesn’t draw back from any horrific detail (she talks about the thorny problem of post-mortem poo, about the alleged presence of necrophiliacs in the industry, etc.), but her humorous and exuberant approach softens the darker tones and succeeds in passing the underlying message: we shouldn’t be afraid of talking about death.
Finally, to reach an even wider and heterogeneous audience, Caitlin published the thought-provoking Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, an autobiographical account of her time as a funeral home apprentice: with her trademark humor, and to the reader’s secret delight, Caitlin dispenses several macabre anecdotes detailing her misadventures (yes, some chapters ought to be read on an empty stomach), yet she does not hesitate to recount the most tragic and touching moments she experienced on the job. But the book’s main interest really lies in following her ruminations about death and the way her own feelings evolved – eventually leading her to actively try and change the general public attitude towards dying. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes immediately became a best-seller, as a further proof of the fact that people actually want to know more about what is socially kept out of sight.
As an introduction to her work for the Italian readership, I asked Caitlin a few questions.
Has working as a mortician affected the way you look at death?
It has made me more comfortable being around dead bodies. More than that, it has made me appreciate the dead body, and realize how strange it is that we try our best as an industry to hide it. We would be a happier, healthier culture in the West if we didn’t try to cover up mortality.
Did you have to put up some sort of psychological defense mechanism in order to deal with dead bodies on a daily basis?
No, I don’t think so. It’s not the dead bodies that are the issue psychogically. It is far more difficult on the emotions working with the living, taking on their grief, their stories, their pain. You have to strike a balance between being open to the families, but not bringing everything home with you.
“He looks like he’s sleeping” must be the best compliment for a mortician. You basically substitute the corpse with a symbol, a symulacrum. Our society decided long ago that death must be a Big Sleep: in ancient Greece, Tanathos (Death) and Hypnos (Sleep) were brothers, and with Christianity this analogy solidified for good – see f.i. the word “cemetery”, which literally means “sleeping, resting place”. This idea of death being akin to sleep is clearly comforting, but it’s just a story we keep telling ourselves. Do you feel the need for new narratives regarding death?
“He looks like he’s sleeping” wouldn’t necessarily be a compliment to me. I would love for someone to say “he looks dead, but he looks beautiful. I feel like seeing him like this is helping me accept he’s gone”. It’s harder to accept the loss when we insist that someone is perpetually sleeping. They’re not. They’re dead. That’s devastating, but part of the acceptance process.
In your book, you extensively talk about medicalization and removal of death from our societies, a subject which has been much discussed in the past. You made a step further though, becoming an activist for a new, healthier way to approach death and dying – trying to lift the taboo regarding these topics. But, within every culture, taboos play an important role: do you feel that a more relaxed relationship with death could spoil the experience of the sacred, and devoid it of its mystery?
Death will always be mysterious and sacred. But the actual dying process and the dead body, when made mysterious and kept behind the scenes, are made scary. So often someone will say to me, “I thought my father was going to be cremated in a big pile with other people, thank you for telling me exactly how the process works”. People are so terrified of what they don’t know. I can’t help people with spiritual life after death, I can only help with the worldly realities of the corpse. And I know education makes people less afraid. Death is not taboo in many cultures, and there are many scholars who think it’s not a natural or ingrained taboo at all, only when we make it one.
Has the internet changed the way we experience death? Are we really on the verge of a revolution?
The internet has changed death, but that’s not really something we can judge. Everyone got so angry at the teenagers taking selfies at funerals, but that’s just an expression of the new digital landscape. People in the United States in the 1960s thought that cremation was pagan devil sinful stuff, and now almost 50% of Americans choose it. Each generation takes things a step in a new direction, death evolves.
By promoting death at home and families taking care of their own dead, you are somehow rebelling against a multi-million funeral industry. Have you had any kind of negative feedback or angry reactions?
There are all kinds of funeral directors that don’t like me or what I’m saying. I understand why, I’m questioning their relevancy and inability to adapt. I’d hate me too. They find it very difficult to confront me directly, though. They also find it difficult to have open, respectful dialogues. I think it’s just too close to their hearts.
Several pages in your book are devoted to debunking one of the most recent but well-established myths regarding death: the idea that embalming is absolutely necessary. Modern embalming, an all-American practice, began spreading during Civil War, in order to preserve the bodies until they were carried back home from the front. As this procedure does not exist in Italy, we Italians are obviously unaware of its implications: why do you feel this is such an important issue?
First of all, embalming is not a grand important historical American tradition. It’s only a little more than a hundred years old, so it’s silly to pretend like it’s the fabric of our death culture. Embalming is a highly invasive process that ends with filling the bodies with dangerous chemicals. I’m not against someone choosing to have it done, but most families are told it’s necessary by law or to make the body safe to be around, both of which are completely untrue.
The Order of the Good Death is rapidly growing in popularity, featuring a calendar of death-positive events, lectures, workshops and of course the Death Salon. Most of the organizers and members in the Order are female: why do you think women are at the front line in the death awareness movement?
This is the great mystery. Perhaps it has to do with women’s historical connection to death, and the desire to reclaim it. Perhaps it is a feminist act, refusing to let men have control of our bodies in reproduction, healthcare, or death. There are no solid answers, but I’d love someone to do a Phd on this!
All’inizio del secolo scorso la medicina stava entrando nella sua età più matura e progredita; eppure, come abbiamo spesso notato (vedi ad esempio i metodi per aprire una bocca descritti in questo articolo), la pratica terapeutica mancava ancora della doverosa attenzione per il paziente e per la sua sofferenza.
Nei primi anni ’30 il Dr. Hans Killian, uno dei più conosciuti anestesiologi e chirurghi tedeschi, sentì che era tempo di cambiare l’attitudine dei medici nei confronti del dolore. Secondo il Dr. Killian, non soltanto ne avrebbero beneficiato i pazienti in quanto esseri umani, con una propria dignità e sensibilità, ma perfino la pratica medica: riconoscere i sintomi della sofferenza, infatti, avrebbe dovuto essere parte integrante dell’anamnesi clinica. Come esporre la questione in maniera scientifica e al tempo stesso incisiva?
Il Dr. Killian era appassionato di arte e fotografia, ma fino ad allora aveva tenuto ben separati i suoi interessi estetici dalla professione medica. Il suo primo libro di fotografie, intitolato Farfalla, mostrava suggestive immagini delle farfalle che lui stesso allevava, e venne pubblicato sotto pseudonimo, per non mettere a repentaglio la “serietà” del suo status di chirurgo. Questa volta, però, la posta in gioco era troppo alta per non rischiare. Così il Dr. Killian decise di pubblicare a suo nome (anche a discapito della sua carriera) il progetto che più gli stava a cuore, e che avrebbe contribuito a cambiare il rapporto medico-paziente.
Il suo controverso libro, pubblicato nel 1934, si intitolava Facies Dolorosa: Das schmerzensreiche Antlitz (“l’aspetto del dolore”). Si trattava di 64 fotografie di bambini, uomini e donne di ogni età, ricoverati all’ospedale dell’Università di Freiburg in cui egli stesso esercitava come chirurgo. I soggetti dei ritratti erano suoi pazienti, alcuni dei quali terminali, fotografati nei loro letti.
Sfogliando il volume, si avvertiva subito un’evidente (e feconda) ambiguità. Da una parte, la raccolta poteva essere interpretata come testo prettamente medico, un’osservazione empirica relativa al primo stadio di ogni diagnosi, cioè l’esame esterno del paziente: in questo senso, il libro aveva lo scopo di illustrare e catalogare tutti i diversi modi in cui la malattia può manifestarsi sul volto, influenzandone l’espressione. Veniva per esempio mostrata la facies tragica dei malati di ipertiroidismo, in cui la retrazione spastica della palpebra superiore causa una peculiare mimica con “occhi sbarrati”, assieme a diversi altri tipi di “maschera” che indicano specifici disturbi.
Ma la forza del suo libro, il Dr. Killian ne era ben conscio, non stava nella cornice scientifica – che era anzi poco più che un alibi. Molte delle sue fotografie, infatti, non mostravano affatto i segni evidenti della malattia, bensì si focalizzavano sull’ansia, la tristezza e lo sconforto infinito veicolato dagli sguardi dei pazienti. Con la sua Rolleiflex, Killian si prefissava di catturare gli effetti della malattia sull’umore di quelle persone, il loro stato psicologico, la loro essenza umana sotto la fatica e la debilitazione.
Al di là dei dati statistici e misurabili, Killian era alla ricerca di ciò che definiva das Unwägbare, “l’imponderabile”: a suo dire, infatti, ogni diagnosi si affidava anche a una sorta di istinto suggerito dall’esperienza, una fulminea “impressione” che il medico aveva guardando il paziente durante la prima visita. Certo, le analisi in laboratorio avevano il loro peso, ma per Killian l’arte medica viveva innanzitutto di questo genere di intuito.
L’opera del Dr. Killian è tutta racchiusa in questa duplicità, in questa tensione fra la solidità apparente della presentazione scientifica e la dimensione emotiva della sofferenza. Paradossalmente le fotografie di Facies Dolorosa, nonostante non mostrino morbi o deformità particolarmente scioccanti, colpiscono in maniera ancora più profonda l’osservatore: in luogo dell’asetticità che ci si aspetterebbe da un atlante medico, propongono una visione partecipe dello sconforto e del dolore dei soggetti rappresentati. Talvolta i malati guardano in macchina, talvolta il loro sguardo sembra perdersi oltre l’obbiettivo, in una commovente contemplazione della propria condizione. I pochi e spogli dettagli, oltre al volto, concentrano tutta l’attenzione sul corpo, divenuto una gabbia penosa e desolata.
Che l’empatia fosse ciò che davvero interessava a Killian risulta evidente nei due casi in cui l’intimità dell’obbiettivo si spinge fino a fotografare il soggetto prima e dopo la morte.
Il libro ebbe probabilmente un ruolo fondamentale nell’evoluzione del rapporto medico-paziente; oltre a questo, Facies Dolorosa scavalcò coraggiosamente i confini tra scienza ed arte in un periodo in cui queste due discipline erano largamente considerate contrapposte. La sua aura di poetica umanità colpisce anche oggi, tanto che l’esperto di storia della fotografia Martin Parr lo ha definito “forse il più melanconico di tutti i libri fotografici”.
Abbiamo deciso di proporre cinque domande, sempre le stesse, ad alcuni fra i più grandi fotografi che durante la loro carriera hanno affrontato direttamente il tema della morte e del cadavere. Alcuni hanno gentilmente declinato l’invito, come ad esempio Jeffrey Silverthorne, che già negli anni ’70 aveva rifiutato di comparire nel fondamentale saggio The Grotesque in Photography di A. D. Coleman. Altri, invece, ci hanno generosamente concesso questa breve intervista in esclusiva.
Nato a New York nel 1950, figlio unico di padre honduregno e madre afro-cubana, Andres Serrano ha passato gran parte della giovinezza a Brooklyn. La rigida educazione cattolica ricevuta da ragazzo giocherà un ruolo fondamentale nella sua ricerca artistica; affascinato dai pittori del Rinascimento, da Rembrandt così come dai surrealisti, Serrano esplora fin da subito le connessioni nascoste ed estatiche fra l’iconografia religiosa e la concretezza del corpo. Il sangue, archetipo mistico e simbolo di vita e morte al tempo stesso, diviene uno degli elementi fondamentali dei suoi lavori. Più tardi comincerà ad utilizzare altri fluidi corporei, come urina, latte e sperma, rendendoli non semplici oggetti delle sue fotografie, ma veri e propri mezzi espressivi.
Le sue due serie Body Fluids e Immersions (1985-90) fecero scoppiare una furibonda polemica che colse di sorpresa l’autore stesso. Una fotografia, in particolare, si rivelò di una forza provocatoria destinata a rimanere immutata nei decenni successivi: si tratta di Piss Christ, e mostra un crocefisso immerso nell’urina. Considerata blasfema e offensiva, nel 1989 fu oggetto di un acceso dibattito al Senato degli Stati uniti; vandalizzata in Australia e presa di mira da un gruppo di naziskin in Svezia nel 2007, nel 2011 venne distrutta da un gruppo cattolico ad Avignone. Nelle intenzioni dell’artista, la serie Immersions si prefiggeva di visualizzare la dicotomia fra la condizione umana, corporale, terrena, e la tensione mistica: Piss Christ e le altre fotografie della serie sembrano affermare che è possibile trovare la divinità perfino nella fisicità umana, nei fluidi e nella carne, perché in fondo il nostro corpo è santo in tutte le sue manifestazioni.
Nell’immaginario popolare da quel momento Serrano è divenuto un artista “maledetto”, estremo e provocatore. La sua visione non ha mai deviato a causa delle polemiche, ed egli ha sempre rifiutato di censurare le sue fotografie, anche quelle più scabrose contenute nella serie A History of Sex; ma ridurre la sua opera a pietra dello scandalo significherebbe dimenticare le sue abilità di ritrattista mostrate in Nomads (1990), Klan series (1990, che ritrae membri del KKK) o in Budapest Series (1992).
Ma le fotografie che ci interessano qui sono ovviamente quelle contenute nella celebre The Morgue (1992). Serrano ha dichiarato: “credo che sia necessario cercare la bellezza anche nei luoghi meno convenzionali o nei candidati più insospettabili. Se non incontro la bellezza non sono capace di scattare alcuna fotografia”.
In The Morgue, l’obbiettivo del fotografo si concentra sui corpi arrivati all’obitorio, talvolta ancora quasi perfetti, talvolta decomposti, mutilati, dilaniati. Ritratti in composizioni rigorose, veri e propri tableaux dall’illuminazione caravaggesca e dai colori accesi, i morti sembrano in bilico fra la reificazione ultima e una sorta di postuma soggettività.
L’intrusione della macchina di Serrano in questo luogo nascosto, il suo indugiare su questi cadaveri vulnerabili e indifesi è una violazione dell’intimità, o un commosso omaggio? Il suo occhio cede alla seduzione morbosa del macabro, oppure è alla ricerca di qualche segreto dettaglio che dia significato alla morte stessa? Impossibile, e forse inutile, risolvere questa ambiguità. La potenza delle immagini di Andres Serrano sta proprio in questa capacità di estetizzare ciò che viene normalmente reputato osceno, e nella testarda convinzione di poter mostrare la meraviglia anche nel più triste e quotidiano degli orrori.
Ecco quindi la nostra intervista ad Andres Serrano.
1. Perché hai deciso che era importante raffigurare la morte nei tuoi lavori fotografici?
La morte è una parte della vita. Esserne incuriositi è naturale. Io fotografo la morte come un’investigazione, allo stesso tempo spirituale ed estetica. È una ricerca sulla vita alla fine del suo corso.
2. Quale credi che sia lo scopo, se ce n’è uno, delle tue fotografie post-mortem? Stai soltanto fotografando i corpi, o sei alla ricerca di qualcos’altro?
Lo scopo del mio lavoro sui morti è lo stesso del mio lavoro sui vivi: creare opere d’arte potenti e avvincenti.
3. Come succede per tutto ciò che mette alla prova il nostro rifiuto della morte, il tono macabro e sconvolgente delle tue fotografie potrebbe essere visto da alcuni come osceno e irrispettoso. Ti interessa scioccare il pubblico, e come ti poni nei riguardi della carica di tabù presente nei tuoi soggetti?
Lavorando nell’obitorio, a fianco di dottori e assistenti clinici, mi sono sentito parte di un gruppo di professionisti che hanno scelto di lavorare con i cadaveri. Non c’è nulla di disgustoso o irrispettoso nel lavorare con i morti, o nel volere mostrare la bellezza che è nella morte. Non considero il mio lavoro scioccante, né tabù.
4. È stato difficile approcciare i cadaveri, a livello personale? C’è qualche aneddoto particolare o interessante riguardo le circostanze di una tua foto?
Non è mai difficile fare il lavoro che vuoi fare e che ti senti spinto a intraprendere. Non saprei dire se è successo qualcosa che potrei definire aneddotico; l’unica cosa che mi ha sorpreso è che davvero poche persone erano morte di morte naturale. La maggior parte di quei cadaveri erano morti inaspettatamente e prematuramente.
5. Riguardo alle foto post-mortem, ti piacerebbe che te ne venisse scattata una dopo che sei morto? Come ti immagini una simile foto?
Preferirei scattarmela da solo, perché nessun altro saprebbe farla come me.
Le maschere mortuarie sono una delle tradizioni più antiche del mondo, diffusa praticamente ovunque dall’Europa all’Asia all’Africa. Così come assieme al cadavere venivano spesso lasciati viveri, armi o altri oggetti che potessero servire al morto nel suo viaggio verso l’aldilà, spesso coprire il volto con una maschera garantiva al suo spirito maggiore forza e protezione. Nelle tradizioni africane queste maschere erano minacciose e terribili, per spaventare ed allontanare i dèmoni dall’anima del defunto. Nell’antico bacino del Mediterraneo, invece, la maschera veniva forgiata stilizzando le reali fattezze del morto: ricorderete certamente le più famose maschere funerarie, quella di Tutankhamen e quella attribuita tradizionalmente ad Agamennone (qui sopra).
Ma già dal basso Impero Romano, e poi nel Medio Evo, le maschere non si seppellivano più assieme al corpo, si conservavano come ricordi; inoltre si cercò di riprodurre in maniera sempre più fedele il volto del defunto. Si ricorse allora all’uso di calchi in cera o in gesso, applicati sulla faccia poco dopo la morte del soggetto da ritrarre: da questo negativo venivano poi prodotte le maschere funerarie vere e proprie. Si trattava di un processo che pochi si potevano permettere e dunque riservato a un’élite composta da nobili e sovrani – ma anche a personalità di spicco dell’arte, della letteratura o della filosofia. È grazie a questi calchi che oggi conosciamo con esattezza il volto di molti grandi del passato: Dante, Leopardi, Voltaire, Robespierre, Pascal, Newton e innumerevoli altri ancora.
La differenza con un ritratto dipinto o una scultura dal vivo è evidente: nelle maschere mortuarie non è possibile l’idealizzazione, lo scultore riproduce senza imbellettare, e ogni minimo difetto nel volto rimane impresso così come ogni grazia. Non soltanto, alcune maschere mostrano volti con fattezze già cadaveriche, occhi infossati, guance molli e cadenti, mascelle allentate. Con la sensibilità odierna ci si può domandare se sia davvero il caso di ricordare il defunto in questo stato – dubbio non soltanto moderno, visto che Eugène Delacroix aveva dato disposizioni affinché “dopo la sua morte dei suoi lineamenti non fosse conservata memoria”.
Eppure, se pensiamo che la fotografia post-mortem prenderà il posto delle maschere dalla fine del 1800, forse queste estreme, ultime immagini hanno un valore e un significato simbolico necessario. Possibile che ci raccontino qualcosa della persona a cui apparteneva quel volto? Il volto di un cadavere ci interroga sempre, pare nascondere un ambiguo segreto; quando poi si tratta del viso di un grande uomo, l’emozione è ancora più forte. Ci ricorda che la morte arriva per tutti, certo, ma segna anche la fine di una vita straordinaria, magari di un’epoca come nel caso della maschera mortuaria di Napoleone. E, soprattutto, riporta nomi celebri a una concretezza e una fisicità terrena che nessun dipinto, statua o addirittura fotografia potrà mai avere: si fanno segni della loro realtà storica, ci ricordano che questi uomini leggendari sono davvero passati di qui, hanno avuto un corpo come noi, e sono stati capaci di cambiare il mondo.
Se volete approfondire, questa pagina raccoglie molte delle principali maschere mortuarie con splendide foto; è anche consigliata una visita al Virtual Museum of Death Mask, più incentrato sulla tradizione russa, e che permette di confrontare le foto o i ritratti “in vita” e le maschere mortuarie di alcuni personaggi celebri.
L’introduzione del dagherrotipo, nel 1839, rese la fotografia ritrattistica molto più comune, e in breve tempo divenne usanza ritrarre un’ultima immagine del corpo di un caro estinto. Questa, che può sembrare una consuetudine macabra o malsana, era in effetti molto spesso l’unica possibilità per una famiglia di ritenere un’estrema immagine del defunto – e in effetti si trattava nella maggioranza dei casi dell’unica fotografia posseduta dalla famiglia, soprattutto nel caso di morte di un infante, evenienza molto diffusa nell’epoca vittoriana.
Spesso la fotografia veniva inoltre spedita ai parenti rimasti oltremare, che avevano così quell’unica opportunità di vedere il volto del defunto, e di sentirsi così più vicini al dolore e alla perdita dei familiari.
I cadaveri venivano normalmente bloccati in pose che suggerissero un’idea di vita, come se i morti stessero riposando, dormendo o semplicemente sedendo su una sedia. I fotografi talvolta dovevano ingegnarsi a costruire delle vere e proprie armature di metallo per sostenere i corpi in posture che risultassero naturali. Altre volte, specialmente sulle fotografie di bambini, essi intervenivano sul negativo dipingendo occhi spalancati sulle palpebre chiuse del piccolo cadavere.
Recentemente un fotografo tedesco, Walter Schels, e la sua partner Beate Lakotta hanno intervistato diversi malati terminali, inducendoli a parlare delle proprie aspettative e dei timori che nutrivano nei confronti della morte. Hanno poi scattato una fotografia ad ognuno di loro, prima e dopo il loro trapasso. Il risultato è un eccezionale ritratto umano, e un toccante tentativo di discernere, nella differenza fra il volto vivo e quello morto, quella scintilla che fa di ogni essere qualcosa di unico.