Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 20

Monday morning according to Gustave Doré.

First of all some quick updates on my upcoming activities.

  • On November 1st, together with my friend Luca Cableri, I will be a guest of the Trieste Science+Fiction Festival. We will talk about wunderkammer and space, in a conference entitled The Space Cabinet of Curiosities. — November 1st, 10 am, Teatro Miela in piazza L. Amedeo Duca degli Abruzzi 3, Trieste.
  • On November 3rd I will speak at Sadistique, the BDSM party organized every first Sunday of the month by Ayzad. The title of my speech: “Pains are my delight”: Erotics of martyrdom. Obviously, given the private context, access is forbidden to the curious and to those who have no intention of participating in the party. Consult prices, rules of conduct and dress code on the event’s official page. — November 3rd, 3-8 pm, Nautilus Club, via Mondovì 7, Milano.
    [BTW, Ayzad recently launched his own podcast Exploring Unusual Sex, you can listen to it on Spreaker and Spotify]
  • I remind you that on November 14 we will inaugurate the collective art exhib REQVIEM at Mirabilia Gallery in Rome. The exhibition, organized by l’Arca degli Esposti and curated by Eliana Urbano Raimondi and myself, will feature works by 10 international artists within the context of the only Roman wunderkammer. — November 14th, 7 pm, Galleria Mirabilia, via di San Teodoro 15, Roma.

Without further ado let’s start with our selection of links & weirdness!

  • In his encyclopedia of natural history L’univers. Les infiniment grands et les infiniments petits (1865) Felix A. Pouchet recounts this case which allegedly happened in 1838 in the French Alps: “A little girl, five years old, called Marie Delex, was playing with one of her companions on a mossy slope of the mountain, when all at once an eagle swooped down upon her and carried her away in spite of the cries and presence of her young friends. Some peasants, hearing her screams, hastened to the spot but sought in vain for the child, for they found nothing but one of her shoes on the edge of a precipice. The child was not carried to the eagle’s nest, where only the two eagles were seen surrounded by heaps of goat and sheep bones. It was not until two months later that a shepherd discovered the corpse of Marie Delec, frightfully mutilared, and lying upon a rock half a league from where she had been borne off.
  • The Halloween special which caused the death of a young boy, pushing the BBC to pretend it never even aired: a nice video tells its story. (Thanks Johnny!)
  • Fungi that turn insects into zombies: I’ve already written about them a few years ago in my little ebook (remember it?). But this video about the cute Entomophthora muscae has some truly spectacular images.

  • Italian creativity really tops itself when it’s time to put up a scam. A small business car ran over a wild boar in the Gallura countryside, forest rangers were alerted so that the accident damage could be reimbursed by the municipality. It turned out the boar had been just taken out of a freezer. (Article in Italian, via Batisfera)
  • In 1929, the Australian writer Arthur Upfield was planning a detective story and while chatting with a friend he came up with a method for the perfect murder. So perfect in fact, that his novel couldn’t even work, because the detective in the the story would never have solved the case. He needed to find a flaw, one small detail that could expose the culprit. To get out of the impasse the frustrated writer began to discuss the plot with various people. Little did he know that one of these listeners would soon decide to test the method himself, by killing three men.
  • I sometimes think back to a little book I had as a kid, Idées Noires by Franquin. Here is an example of the Belgian cartoonist‘s very dark humor.

“The law is clear: everyone who kills another person will have his head cut off.”

  • An since we’re talking about beheadings, I took the above photograph at Vienna’s Kriminalmuseum di Vienna. It is the head of criminal Frank Zahlheim, and on the cultural implications of this kind of specimens I wrote a post last year that you might want to re-read if you’ve got five minutes.
  • Greta Thunberg becomes a pretext to clarify what autism and Asperger’s syndrome really are (article in Italian).
  • In England, back in the days, whenever someone died in the family the first thing to do was tell the bees.
  • To conclude, I leave you with a picture of a beautiful Egyptian mummified phallus (circa 664-332 a.C.). See you next time!

The funeral portraits of Filippo Severati

It is said that there is nothing more flattering for artists than to see their works stolen from the museum in which they are exhibited. If someone is willing to risk jail for a painting, it is ultimately a tribute — however questionable — to the painter’s skills, and an index of high market value.

Yet there is an artist who, if he were alive today, would certainly not appreciate the fact that thieves have stolen almost a hundred his portraits. Because in his case the works in question weren’t displayed in the halls of a museum, but among the rows of gravestones of a cemetery, and there they should have remained so that everyone could see them.

The monumental cemetery of Campo Verano in Rome, with its 83 hectares of surface, strikes the viewer for the sumptuousness of some chapels, and appears as a rather surreal place. Pharaonic mausoleums, exquisitely crafted statues, buildings as big as houses. This is not a simple cemetery, it resembles a metaphysical city; it just shows to what extent men are willing to go in order to keep the memory of their loved ones alive (as well as the hope, or illusion, that death might not be definitive).

Scrolling through the gravestones, along with some weather-worn photos, some particularly refined portraits catch the eye.
These are the peculiar lava paintings by Filippo Severati.

Born in Rome on April 4, 1819, Filippo followed in the footsteps of his father who was a painter, and from the early age of 6 he began to dedicate himself to miniatures, making it his actual job from 11 years onwards. Meanwhile, having enrolled at the Accademia di S. Luca, he won numerous awards and earned several merit mentions; under the aegis of Tommaso Minardi he produced engravings and drawings, and over the years he specialized in portraiture.

It was around 1850 that Severati began using enamel on a lava or porcelain base. This technique was already known for its property of making the colors almost completely unalterable and for the durability of completed works, due to the numerous cooking phases.

In 1859 he patented his fire painting on enamelled lava procedure, which was renewed and improved over previous techniques (you can find a detailed description of the process in this article in Italian); in 1873 he won the medal of progress at the Vienna Exhibition.

1863 was the the turning point, as Severati painted a self-portrait for his own family tomb: he can still be admired posing, palette in hand, while next to him stands a portrait of his parents placed on an easel — a true picture inside the picture.

After that first tomb painting, funeral portraits soon became his only occupation. Thanks to the refinement of his technique, the clipei (effigies of the deceased) made by Severati were able to last a long time keeping intact the brilliance and liveliness of the backgrounds.

This was the real novelty introduced by Severati: he was able to “reproduce in the open air the typology and formal characteristics of the nineteenth-century portrait intended for the interiors of bourgeois houses(1) M. Cardinals – M.B. De Ruggieri – C. Falcucci, “Among the most useful and wonderful discoveries of this century…”. The paintings of F. S. al Verano, in Percorsi della memoria. Il Quadriportico del Verano, a cura di L. Cardilli – N. Cardano, Roma 1998, pp. 165-170. Quoted in Treccani. . Instead of hanging it at home, the family could place a portrait of the deceased directly on the tombstone, even if in small format. And some of these clipei are still striking for their vitality and the touching rendering of the features of the deceased, immortalized by the lava painting process.

Severati died in 1892. Forgotten for almost a century, it was rediscovered by photographer Claudio Pisani, who in 1983 published in the Italian magazine Frigidaire an article of praise accompanied by several photos he had taken at Campo Verano.

Today Filippo Severati remains a relatively obscure figure, but among the experts his talent as a painter is well recognized; so much so that the thieves mentioned at the beginning vandalized many graves by removing about ninety of his portraits from the tombstones of the Roman cemetery.

(I would like to thank Nicola for scanning the magazine. Some photos in the article are mine, others were found online.)

 

Note   [ + ]

1. M. Cardinals – M.B. De Ruggieri – C. Falcucci, “Among the most useful and wonderful discoveries of this century…”. The paintings of F. S. al Verano, in Percorsi della memoria. Il Quadriportico del Verano, a cura di L. Cardilli – N. Cardano, Roma 1998, pp. 165-170. Quoted in Treccani.

Art & Wonder: L’Arca degli Esposti

On these pages I have always given ample space to the visual arts, and even those who seldom check out my blog know quite well what my tastes are in the field: I prefer a type of art (preferably figurative, but not only) that is somehow cruel towards the observer.
I’m not talking about the fake and superficial provocations of shock art; if you’re looking to get traumatized, there’s plenty of websites offering far more extreme images than the ones you get to see in a gallery. I’m thinking of that need to be shaken and intimately touched by an artwork, of some kind of Artaudian cruelty: but to reach that kind of emotional charge, the artist must have a very refined preparation and sensitivity.

If in the past years I presented here, from time to time, some artists that really had me impressed, now there is a big news.
From this year Bizzarro Bazar will actually take an active part in promoting “strange, macabre and wonderful” art!

Together with curator Eliana Urbano Raimondi, I founded L’Arca degli Esposti, an artistic and cultural association based in Palermo.
L’Arca degli Esposti (which means “The Ark of the Exposed”) has the mission to give visibility to those artists who are eccentric and “heretical” with respect to the art system.

I quote from the presentation on our website:

The “exposed” or “exhibited”, therefore, are the artists promoted by the association by virtue of their stylistic independence and the courageous and unique iconography they put forth. Exposed, as selected for the exhibitions organized by the association; exposed as the illegitimate infants who once were abandoned on foundling wheels; exposed because they have the audacity to express a heterodox position with respect to market trends.

With this almost adoptive intent, L’Arca degli Esposti declares its vocation to the elitist custody of the “mirabilia”: the same one that gave life to ancient wunderkammern — symbolized in our logo by the nautilus, a sea creature whose shell is based on the infinite wheel spiral of golden growth, traveling through the waters like a vessel to new worlds.

L’Arca degli Esposti, as I said, is based in Palermo but operates throughout the national territory.
Our first fall season starts on October 12th with Il sogno di Circe (“Circe’s dream”), a collective exhibition that will see a selection of works by Ettore Aldo Del Vigo, Adriano Fida and Fabio Timpanaro.

What these three extraordinary contemporary artists have in common is a dreamlike transfiguration of the human figure; for this reason we chose to summon as our tutelary deity Goddess Circe and her hypnagogic visions, which faded and transcended the nature of the body.
Here are some examples of their production:

On November 14 we will move to Rome inside the sumptuous wunderkammer of my friend Giano Del Bufalo, with whom I have organized several events in the past.


Here for two weeks you will be able to see REQVIEM, a collective exhibition focused on death and the corruption of the body.

In REQVIEM the pictorial, sculptural and photographic works of ten international artists will enteratain a dialogue with the oddities and mirabilia present in the gallery.
The selection of artists is high-profile: Agostino Arrivabene, Philippe Berson, Nicola Bertellotti, Pablo Mesa Capella, Tiziana Cera Rosco, Pierluca Cetera, Gaetano Costa, Olivier De Sagazan, Sicioldr and Nicola Vinci.

Together with Eliana Urbano Raimondi — to whose brilliant work goes most of the credit for this dream come true — we are already preparing many other exhibitions, conferences and seminars focused on weird, dark and alternative culture; we are also trying to bring some really great artists to Italy for the first time, and I must say that I’m beyond excited… but I shall keep you posted.

For the moment I invite you to follow the initiatives of the Arca on the association’s website, on our Facebook page and Instagram; and, if you happen to be around, I look forward to see you on these first two, fantastic dates!

Cannibals at the Pantheon

Among the seven deadly sins, there is one for which the inhabitants of Rome — both ancient and modern — have always been (in)famous: the sin of gluttony.

One of the Roman squares which for centuries was associated with food, groceries and the most varied delicacies was the “Piazza della Ritonna”, that is the square in front of the Pantheon.
Here in the past there were numerous delicatessens called “spizzicherie”, shops in which food was sold “in spizzico”, in small quantities. Eggs, anchovies, salt, but above all cheese and cured meats, for which the piazza was renowned. The pizzicagnoli didn’t sell their merchandise only in authorized delicatessens, but the whole square was regularly invaded and occupied by stalls, sheds, movable booths — in short, it was a sort of chaotic outdoor market.

During Easter, the delicatessens would also set up baroque exhibitions, with spectacular lanscapes created with food in the attempt to impress the crowd with their opulence. In the square began a competition to build the most elaborate sculpture of cold cuts, sausages and cheeses.

Belli gave an account of these scenes in a 1833 poem (the translation for this and the following extracts in Roman dialect are in the notes):

De le pizzicarie che ttutte fanno
la su’ gran mostra pe ppascua dell’ova,
cuella de Bbiascio a la Ritonna è st’anno
la ppiú mmejjo de Roma che sse trova.
Colonne de casciotte, che ssaranno
scento a ddí ppoco, arreggeno un’arcova
ricamata a ssarcicce, e llí cce stanno
tanti animali d’una forma nova.
Fra ll’antri, in arto, sc’è un Mosè de strutto,
cor bastone per aria com’un sbirro,
in cima a una Montaggna de presciutto;
e ssott’a llui, pe stuzzicà la fame,
sc’è un Cristo e una Madonna de bbutirro
drent’a una bbella grotta de salame.
(1)”Among the delicatessens that make a great exhibition for Easter, the best one this year is Biagio’s, in Piazza della Rotonda. Columns of caciottas, a hundred of them to say the least, hold an arc decorated with sausages, and one can see a host of little animals coming in many shapes. Among others, above stands a Moses made of lard, holding his stick in the air like a policeman, on top of a mountain of ham; and below him, to whet your appetite, there are a Christ and a Madonna made of butter, inside a beautiful grotto of salami.”

Another more recent account comes from Giggi Zanazzo in 1908:

Ne le du’ sere der gioveddì e vennardi ssanto, li pizzicaroli romani aùseno a ffa’ in de le bbotteghe la mostra de li caci, de li preciutti, dell’òva e dde li salami. Certi ce metteno lo specchio pe’ ffa’ li sfonni, e ccert’antri cce fanno le grotte d’òva o dde salami, co’ ddrento er sepporcro co’ li pupazzi fatti de bbutiro, che sso’ ‘na bbellezza a vvedesse. E la ggente, in quela sera, uscenno da la visita de li sepporcri, va in giro a rimirà’ le mostre de li pizzicaroli de pòrso, che ffanno a ggara a cchi le pò ffa’ mmejo. (2)”On the two evenings of Thursday and Good Friday, in their shops the Roman pizzicagnoli make an exhibition of cheese, hams, eggs and sausages. Some place a mirror as a background, while others create huge caves of eggs or salami, with the Holy Sepulchre inside, and puppets made of butter which are a beauty to be seen. And on those evenings, the people coming from the visit to the cemetery go around gazing at the shows put up by the most prominent butchers, competing against each other to see who makes the best one.”

The tradition of food cornucopias continued until recent times. But not everyone loved those stalls and shops; in fact the authorities tried many times, starting from the 1400s and then cyclically over the centuries, to clear the square with various decrees and injunctions.

One of these episodes of restoration of the decorum is remembered on a commemorative plaque dating back to 1823 and displayed on the wall of the the building just opposite the Pantheon, at number 14 in Piazza della Rotonda:

POPE PIO VII IN THE XXIII YEAR OF HIS KINGDOM
BY MEANS OF AN OPPORTUNE DEMOLITION
CLAIMED FROM HIDEOUS UGLINESS
THE AREA IN FRONT OF THE PANTHEON OF M. AGRIPPA
OCCUPIED BY IGNOBLE TAVERNS AND
ORDERED THE VIEW BE LEFT FREE AND THE SPACE CLEAR

Of all the butchers working in this area, those coming from the city of Norcia had the reputation of being the most skilled, so much so that it was a common insult to wish the opponent would end up “castrated by a norcino [butcher from Norcia] at the Rotonda”.

And in Piazza della Rotonda, in 1638, there were two butchers from Norcia, husband and wife, whose sausages were the best of all.
From all quarters of the city, people flocked to buy them: these sausages were even too sublime and delicious.

Thus the word began to spread that the butchers were hiding a secret. What did they put in their sausages to make them so tasty? And didn’t someone swear they saw some chubby, round-bodied customers enter the shop and never come out?

The rumor finally reached the ears of the Captain of Justice, who started an investigation; while searching the premises, the police actually found human bones in the basement of the butcher’s shop.
Pope Urban VIII, born Maffeo Vincenzo Barberini, sentenced the two butchers to be executed right in front of the Pantheon: they both were killed, slaughtered and quartered with an ax by another exquisite master in the art of butchery, the Pope’s official executioner.

This story remained alive in the memory of the Romans. The population was so impressed by the crime, that it reappeared from time to time in vernacular poems until as late as 1905, for example in this poem entitled About the skeletons found at the Rotonna (M. D’Antoni, in Marforio, IV, 308 – 1 Luglio 1905):

Ammappeli e che straccio de corata
che ciaveveno que’ li du’ norcini:
attaccaveno l’ommeni a l’ancini
come se fa a ’na bestia macellata.

La carne umana doppo stritolata
l’insaccaveno, e li, que’ l’assassini
faceveno sarcicce, codichini,
vennennola pe’ carne prelibbata.

Saranno stati boja anticamente
a mettese a insaccà la carne umana:
però so’ più bojaccia ’nder presente.

Perchè mò ce sò certi amico caro,
che ar posto de’ la carne un po’ cristiana,
Ce schiaffeno er cavallo cor somaro!! (3)”Wow those two butchers certainly had a lot of gall: they attacked men on hooks like a slaughtered beast. They ground and stuffed the human flesh, and those killers made sausages and cotechino, selling it as delicious meat. In ancient times, those who made sausages from human flesh were surely criminals: but they are even more so in the present. Because nowadays there are some, dear friend, that instead of using meat from a Christian, they mix horse meat with donkey meat!”

We should note at this point that the whole story may well be an urban legend.

The trope of the butcher who sells human flesh for pork is in fact a very ancient and rather widespread type of urban legend: the talented Sofia Lincos analyzed it with Giuseppe Stilo in an in-depth research divided into three parts (one, two and three, Italian only).

As I searched for clues in the judicial chronicles of the time, I managed to find a single reference to the story of the Pantehon’s cannibal butchers. It can be found in a 1883 book by David Silvagni, who quotes a manuscript dossier compiled by Abbot Benedetti:

These dossiers bear the title (given by the Abbott himself) of Ancient Facts Occurred in Rome, and they trace the history of the most famous misdeeds and the most famous executions, starting with the Cenci trial, of which there is another older but identical copy. And it is important to read these faithful accounts of atrocious deeds and even more atrocious executions, which the author narrates with the same calm and simplicity with which today a newspaper chronicler would announce a theater play. […] And so great is the restraint that the diarist shows, that there is not one word of indignation even for the bloodiest of all stories found in the manuscript. In fact, in a very calm and aunassuming style he recounts the “execution of justice commanded by Pope Urban VIII in the year 1638 and performed in the Piazza della Rotonda, in which two impious, wicked butchers who mixed pig meat with human flesh were killed, slaughtered and quartered”.

D. Silvagni, La corte e la società romana
nei secoli XVIII e XIX
(Vol II p. 96-98, 1883)

The abbot Benedetti lived at the end of the eighteenth century, more than a hundred years after the alleged incident. But as his prose is described to be austere and impartial, I am inclined to think that he was transcribing some sort of register, rather than reporting a simple rumor.

So did this story actually happen, is it a legend, or perhaps an exaggeration of real events?

We don’t have a definitive answer. In any case, the history of the two butchers of the Pantheon represents an ironic warning not to indulge in gluttony, the capital sin of the Capital. A warning which, alas, was not given much attention: the people of Rome, known for being gourmands, would gladly turn down all enticements of Paradise for a good plate of carbonara.

[Note: This is the iconic Roman actress & cook Sora Lella. “Who gives a damn, let me eat!”]

Note   [ + ]

1. ”Among the delicatessens that make a great exhibition for Easter, the best one this year is Biagio’s, in Piazza della Rotonda. Columns of caciottas, a hundred of them to say the least, hold an arc decorated with sausages, and one can see a host of little animals coming in many shapes. Among others, above stands a Moses made of lard, holding his stick in the air like a policeman, on top of a mountain of ham; and below him, to whet your appetite, there are a Christ and a Madonna made of butter, inside a beautiful grotto of salami.”
2. ”On the two evenings of Thursday and Good Friday, in their shops the Roman pizzicagnoli make an exhibition of cheese, hams, eggs and sausages. Some place a mirror as a background, while others create huge caves of eggs or salami, with the Holy Sepulchre inside, and puppets made of butter which are a beauty to be seen. And on those evenings, the people coming from the visit to the cemetery go around gazing at the shows put up by the most prominent butchers, competing against each other to see who makes the best one.”
3. ”Wow those two butchers certainly had a lot of gall: they attacked men on hooks like a slaughtered beast. They ground and stuffed the human flesh, and those killers made sausages and cotechino, selling it as delicious meat. In ancient times, those who made sausages from human flesh were surely criminals: but they are even more so in the present. Because nowadays there are some, dear friend, that instead of using meat from a Christian, they mix horse meat with donkey meat!”

Eventi di dicembre

Sorry, this entry is only available in Italian.

Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 16

The wonderful photo above shows a group of Irish artists from the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin, including Margaret Clarke and Estella Solomons (via BiblioCuriosa).
And let’s start with the usual firing of links and oddities!

  • This is the oldest diving suit in the world. It is on exhibit in the Raahe museum in Finland, and dates back to the eighteenth century. It was used for short walks under water, to repair the keels of ships. Now, instead, “it dives into your nightmares” (as Stefano Castelli put it).
  • Rediscovered masterpieces: the Christian comic books of the seventies in which sinners are redeemed by the evangelizing heroes. “The Cross is mightier than the switchblade!” (Thanks, Gigio!)

  • On the facade of the Cologne Town Hall there is a statue of Bishop Konrad von Hochstaden. The severity of his ecclesiastical figure is barely surprising; it’s what’s under the pedestal that leaves you stunned.

The figure engaged in an obscene autofellatio is to be reconnected to the classic medieval marginalia, which often included grotesque and bizarre situations placed “in the margin” of the main work — which could be a book, a fresco, a painting or, as in this case, a sculptural complex.
Given that such figures appear on a good number of churches, mainly in France, Spain and Germany, there has been much speculation as to what their purpose and meaning might have been: these were not just echoes of pagan fertility symbols, but complex allegories of salvation, as this book explains (and if you read French, there’s another good one exclusively dedicated to Brittany). Beyond all conjectures, it is clear that the distinction between the sacred and the profane in the Middle Ages was not as clear and unambiguous as we would be led to believe.

  • Let’s remain in the Middle Ages. When in 1004 the niece of the Byzantine emperor dared to use a fork for the first time at table, she caused a ruckus and the act was condemned by the clergy as blasphemous. (No doubt the noblewoman had offended the Almighty, since He later made her die of plague.)
  • Also dead, for 3230 years, but with all the necessary papers: here is the Egyptian passport issued in 1974 for the mummy of Ramesses II, so that he could fly to Paris without a hitch at the check-in. [EDIT: this is actually an amusing fake, as Gabriel pointed out in the comments]

  • Man, I hate it when I order a simple cappuccino, but the bartender just has to show off.
  • Alex Eckman-Lawn adds disturbing and concrete “layers” to the human face. (Thanks, Anastasia!)
  • Another artist, Arngrímur Sigurðsson, illustrated several traditional figures of Icelandic folklore in a book called Duldýrasafnið, which translated means more or less “The Museum of Hidden Beings”. The volume is practically unobtainable online, but you can see many evocative paintings on the official website and especially in this great article. (Thanks, Luca!)
  • Forget Formula One! Here’s the ultimate racing competition!

  • If you love videogames and hate Mondays (sorry, I meant capitalism), do not miss this piece by Mariano Tomatis (Italian only).
  • Remember my old post on death masks? Pia Interlandi is an artist who still makes them today.
  • And finally, let’s dive into the weird side of porn for some videos of beautiful girls stuck in super glue — well, ok, they pretend to be. You can find dozens of them, and for a good reason: this is a peculiar immobilization fetishism (as this short article perfectly summarizes) combining classic female foot worship, the lusciousness of glue (huh?), and a little sadistic excitement in seeing the victim’s useless attempts to free herself. The big plus is it doesn’t violate YouTube adult content guidelines.

Merry Christmas!

During this holiday season, more than ever, there’s been so much talking about trees.
It seems that the latest fad is positioning Christmas trees upside down. I have my doubts about the “medieval origins” of this “tradition” (as some suggested), but upside down trees definitely have a bizarre and surreal element which I do not dislike.

But here in Italy, and especially in Rome, we’ve been also talking about “Mangy” Christmas trees that fell short of everybody’s expectations.
Leaving all political issues aside, I would like to take these “deviant” trees as a pretext to wish you all a weird, nonconventional, offbeat Christmas.

And to do this, there’s nothing better that this funny little story, narrated by Tom Waits during one of his gigs.

Once upon a time in a forest, there were two trees: there was the crooked tree, and there was the straight tree. And all day long the straight tree would look over at the crooked tree, saying “Look at you, you’re crooked! You’re crooked — look at your branches, they’re crooked too! Even your leaves, they’re crooked! You’re probably crooked underground as well… but look at me. I’m tall. I’m straight. But you’re crooked!”
So one day… the lumberjacks came into the forest.
And they took a look around. And one of them said “Bob, cut off the straight trees.”
And that crooked tree is still there to this day, growing stronger, and stranger, every day.

Happy Holidays!

Pestilence, Sacred Trees And A Glass of Tonic Water

I have a soft spot for tonic water. Maybe because it’s the only soda beverage with a taste I never fully understood, impossible to describe: an ambiguous aroma, a strange contrast between that pinch of sugar and a sour vein that makes your palate dry.
Every now and then, during summer evenings, I happen to take a sip on my balcony while I watch the Alban Hills, where the Roman Castles cling to a long-dead volcano. And as I bring the glass to my lips, I can’t help thinking about how strange history of mankind can be.

Kings, wars, crusades, invasions, revolutions and so on. What is the most powerful cause for change? What agent produced the most dramatic long-term modification of human society?
The answer is: epidemics.
According to some historians, no other element has had such a profound impact on our culture, so much so that without the Plague, social and scientific progress as we know it might not have been possible (I wrote about this some time ago). With each stroke of epidemic, the survivors were left less numerous and much richer, so the arts and sciences could develop and flourish; but the plague also changed the history of medicine and its methods.

“Plague” is actually a very generic word, just like “disease”: it was used throughout history to define different kinds of epidemic. Among these, one of the most ancient and probably the worst that ever hit mankind, was malaria.

It is believed that malaria killed more people than all other causes of death put together throughout the entire human history.
In spite of an impressive reduction of the disease burden in the last decade, the World Health Organization estimates that as many as 300 million people are infected by the disease every year. That’s about the size of the entire US population. Of those who fall sick, more than 400,000 die every year, mostly children: malaria claims the life of one child every two minutes.

Malaria takes its name from the Italian words “mala aria”, the bad air one could breathe in the marshes and swamps that surrounded the city of Rome. It was believed that the filthy, smelly air was the cause of the ague. (Giovanni Maria Lancisi suggested in 1712 that mosquitoes might have something to do with the epidemic, but only at the end of the Nineteenth century Sir Ronald Ross, an English Nobel-awarded gentleman, proved that malaria is transmitted by the Anopheles mosquito.)

Back in Medieval Rome, every summer brought back the scourge, and people died by the hundreds. The plague hit indistinctively: it killed aristocrats, warriors, peasants, cardinals, even Popes. As Goffredo da Viterbo wrote in 1167, “When unable to defend herself by the sword, Rome could defend herself by means of the fever”.

Malaria was widespread throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa. Yet, no one knew exactly what it was, nor did they know how to treat it. There was no cure, no remedy.

Well, this is the part that really blows my mind. I cannot shake the feeling that someone was playing a bad joke on us humans. Because, actually, there was a remedy. But the mocking Gods had placed it in a land which had never been attained by malaria. Worse: it was in a land that no one had discovered yet.

As Europe continued to be ravaged by the terrible marsh fevers, the solution was lying hidden in the jungles of Peru.

Enter the Jesuits.
Their first mission in Peru was founded in 1609. Jesuits could not perform medicine: the instructions left by the founder of the order, St Ignatius of Loyola, forbade his followers to become doctors, for they should only focus on the souls of men. Despite being expressly forbidden to practice medicine, Jesuit priests often turned their attention to the study of herbs and plants. Father Agustino Salumbrino was a Jesuit, and a pharmacist. He was among the firsts missionaries in Peru, and he lived in the College of San Pablo in Lima, putting his knowledge of pharmacy to good use as he built what would become the best and biggest pharmacy in the whole New World. Jesuits wanted to convert the natives to Catholicism, but understood that it couldn’t be done by means of force: first they needed to understand the indios and their culture. The native healers, of course, knew all sorts of plant remedies, and the priests took good notice of all this knowledge, picking never-before-seen plants and herbs, recording and detailing their effects.
That’s when they noted that the Indians who lived in the Andes sometimes drank infusions of a particular bark to stop from shivering. The Jesuits made the connection: maybe that bark could be effective in the treatment of marsh fevers.

By the early 1630s Father Salumbrino (possibly with the help of another Jesuit, Bernabé Cobo) decided to send a small bundle of this dried bark back to Rome, to see if it could help with malaria.
In Rome, at the time, there was another extraordinary character: Cardinal Juan De Lugo, director of the pharmacy of the Hospital Santo Spirito. He was the one responsible for turning the pharmacy from an artisan studio to something approaching an industrial production line: under his direction, the apothecary resembled nothing that had gone before it, either in scale or vision. Thousands of jars and bottles. shelves filled with recipes for preparations of medicines, prescriptions for their use and descriptions of illnesses and symptoms. De Lugo would cure the poor, distributing free medicine. When the Peruvian bark arrived in Rome, De Lugo understood its potential and decided to publicize the medicine as much as he could: this was the first remedy that actually worked against the fever.

Peru handing Science a cinchona branch (XVII C. etching).

The bark of the cinchona tree contains 4 different alkaloids that act against the malaria parasite, the most important of which is quinine. Quinine’s secret is that it calms the fever and shivering but also kills the parasite that causes malaria, so it can be used both as a cure and a preventive treatment.

But not everyone was happy with the arrival of this new, miraculous bark powder.

First of all, it had been discovered by Jesuits. Therefore, all Protestants immediately refused to take the medicine. They just could not accept that the cure for the most ancient and deadly of diseases came from their religious rivals. So, in Holland, Germany and England pretty much everybody rejected the cure.
Secondly, the bark was awfully bitter. “We knew it, those Jesuits are trying to poison us!

But maybe the most violent refusal came from the world of medicine itself.
This might not come as a surprise, once you know how doctors treated malaria before quinine. Many medieval cures involved transferring the disease onto animals or objects: a sheep was brought into the bedroom of a fever patient, and holy chants were recited to displace the ailment from the human to the beast. One cure that was still popular in the seventeenth century involved a sweet apple and an incantation to the three kings who followed the star to Bethlehem: “Cut the apple into three parts. In the first part, write the words Ave Gaspari. In the second write Ave Balthasar, in the third Ave Melchior. Then eat each segment early on three consecutive mornings, and recite three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys”.

Even after the Middle Ages, the medical orthodoxy still blindly believed in Galen‘s teachings. Traditionalists who wanted to preserve the ancient doctrine of Galenic medicine at any cost felt the cinchona bark would overturn their view of the human body – and it was actually going to. According to Galen, fever was a bile-caused disorder: it was not a symptom but a disease in itself. A patient with a high fever was said to be suffering from “fermentation” of the blood. When fermented, blood behaved a little like boiling milk, producing a thick residue that to be got rid of before the patient could recover. For this reason the preferred treatments for fever were bleeding, purging, or both.
But Peruvian bark seemed to be curing the fever without producing any residue. How could it be possible?

The years passed, and the success of the cure came from those who tried it: no one knew why, but it worked. In time, cinchona bark would change the way doctors approached diseases: it would provide one of decisive blows against Galen’s doctrine, and open the door to modern medicine.

A big breakthrough for the acceptance of Jesuits Bark came from a guy named Robert Tabor. Talbor was not a doctor: he had no proper training, he was just a quack. But he managed to become quite famous and fashionable, and when summoned to cure Charles II of England of malaria, he used a secret remedy which he had been experimenting with. It worked, and of course it turned out to be the Jesuits powder, mixed with wine. Charles appointed Talbor as his personal physician much to the fury of the English medical establishment and sent him over to France where he proceeded to cure the King’s son too. Without really realizing it, Talbor had discovered the right way to administrate cinchona bark: the most potent mixtures were made by dissolving the powder into wine — not water — as the cinchona alkaloids were highly soluble in alcohol.

By the end of the 18th century, nearly three hundred ships were arriving in Spanish ports from the Americas every year — almost one each day. One out of three came from Peru, none of which ever failed to carry cinchona bark.

Caventou & Pelletier.

And in 1820, quinine was officially born: two scientists, Pelletier and Caventou, succeeded in isolating the chemical quinine and worked out how to extract the alkaloid from the wood. They named their drug from the original Inca word for the cinchona tree bark, quina or quina-quina, which means “bark of barks” or “holy bark”.

Many other battles were fought for quinine, lives were risked and lost. In the 1840s and 1850s British soldiers and colonials in India were using more than 700 tons of bark every year, but the Spanish had the monopoly on quinine. English and Dutch explorers began to smuggle seeds, and it was the Dutch who finally succeded in establishing plantations in Java, soon controlling the world’s supplies.

During WWII the Japanese occupied Java, and once more men wnt to war over tree bark extract; but fortunately this time a synthetic version of quinine was developed, and for the first time pharmaceutical companies were able to produce the drugs without the need for big plantations.

Troops based in the Colonies all consumed anti-fever, quinine-based pharmaceuticals, like for instance Warburg’s Tincture. This led to the creation, through the addition of soda, of several  QuinineTonic Waters; in 1870 Schweppe’s “Indian Tonic Water” was commercialized, based on the famous carbonated mineral water invented around 1790 by Swiss watchmaker Jacob Schweppe. Indian Tonic Water was specifically aimed at British colonials who started each day with a strong dose of bitter quinine sulphate. It contained citric acid, to dissolve the quinine, and a touch of sugar.

So here I am, now, looking at the Alban Hills. The place where I live is precisely where the dreaded ancient swamps once began; the deadly “bad air” originated from these very lands.
Of course, malaria was eradicated in the 1950s throughout the Italian peninsula. Yet every time I pour myself a glass of tonic water, and taste its bitter quinine flavor, I can’t help thinking about the strange history of mankind — in which a holy tree from across the ocean might prove more valuable than all the kings, wars and crusades in the world.

Most of the info in this post are taken from Fiammetta Rocco, The Miraculous Fever-Tree. Malaria, medicine and the cure that changed the world (2003 Harper-Collins).