In the 3rd episode of the Bizzarro Bazar Web Series we talk about some scientists who tried to hybridize monkeys with humans, about an incredible raincoat made of intestines, and about the Holy Foreskin of Jesus Christ.
[Be sure to turn on English subtitles.]
A little boy went out to play.
When he opened his door he saw the world.
As he passed through the doorway he caused a riflection.
Evil was born!
Evil was born and followed the boy.
(D. Lynch, Inland Empire, 2006)
It was a nice late-summer afternoon, in 2013. I remember well.
A friend had invited me to the opening of his latest exhibition. He had picked an unusual place for the event: an ancient and isolated parish church that stood high up on a hill, the church of Nanto. The building had been recently renovated, and it was open to the public only on specific occasions.
Once there, one immediately feels the urge to look around. The view is beautiful, but it pays the price of the impact the construction industry (I was almost about to say “architecture”) has had on the surroundings, with many industrial buildings covering the lanscapes of Veneto region like a tattoo. Better go inside and look at the paintings.
I was early for the opening, so I had the artist, his works and the entire exhibition area all for myself. I could walk and look around without any hurry, and yet I felt something disturbing my peace, something I couldn’t quite pin down at first: it kind of wormed its way into my visual field, calling for attention. On a wall, as I was passing from one painted canvas to the next, I eventually spotted a sudden, indefinite blur of colors. A fresco. An image had been resting there well before the exhibition paintings were placed in front of it!
Despite the restoration, as it happens with many medieval and Renaissance frescoes, some elements were still confused and showed vanishing, vaporous outlines. But once in focus, an unsettling vision emerged: the fresco depicted a quite singular torture scene, the likes of which I had never encountered in any other artwork (but I wouldn’t want to pass as an expert on the subject).
Two female figures, standing on either side, were holding the arms of a blonde child (a young Christ, a child-saint, or a puer sacer, a sacred and mystical infant, I really couldn’t say). The kid was being tortured by two young men: each holding a stiletto, they were slicing the boy’s skin all over, and even his face seemed to have been especially brutalized.
Blood ran down the child’s bound feet into a receiving bowl, which had been specifically placed under the victim’s tormented limbs.
The child’s swollen face (the only one still clearly visible) had an ecstatic expression that barely managed to balance the horror of the hemorrhage and of the entire scene: in the background, a sixth male figure sporting a remarkable beard, was twisting a cloth band around the prisoner throat. The baby was being choked to death!
What is the story of this fresco? What tale does it really tell?
The five actors do not look like peasants; the instruments are not randomly chosen: these are thin, sharp, professional blades. The incisions on the victim’s body are too regular. Who perpetrated this hideous murder, who was the object of the resentment the author intended to elicit in the onlookers? Maybe the fresco was a representation — albeit dramatic and exaggerated — of a true crime. Should the choking, flaying and bleeding be seen as a metaphor for some parasitic exploitation, or do they hint at some rich and eccentric nobleman’s quirkiness? Is this a political allegory or a Sadeian chronicle?
The halo surrounding the child’s head makes him an innocent or a saved soul. Was this a homage, a flattering detail to exhalt the commissioner of this work of art? What character was meant to be celebrated here, the subjects on the sides who are carrying out a dreadful, but unavoidable task, or the boy at the center who looks so obscenely resigned to suffer their painful deeds? Are we looking at five emissaries of some brutal but rational justice as they perform their duties, or the misadventure of a helpless soul that fell in the hands of a ferocious gang of thugs?
At the bottom of the fresco, a date: «ADI ⋅ 3 ⋅ APRILE 1479».
This historical detail brought me back to the present. The church was already crowded with people.
I felt somehow crushed by the overload of arcane symbols, and the frustation of not having the adequate knowledge to interpret what I had seen. I furtively took a snapshot. I gave my host a warm farewell, and then got out, hoping the key to unlock the meaning of the fresco was not irretrievably lost in time.
As I discovered at the beginning of my research on this controversial product of popular iconography, the fresco depicts the martyrdom of Saint Simonino of Trent. Simone Unverdorben, a two-year-old toddler from Trent, disappeared on March 23, 1475. His body was found on Easter Day. It was said to have been mauled and strangled. In Northern Italy, in those years, antisemitic abuses and persecutions stemmed from the widely influential sermons of the clergy. The guilt for the heinous crime immediately fell upon the Trent Jewish community. All of its members had to endure one of the biggest trials of the time, being subjected to tortures that led to confessions and reciprocal accusations.
During the preliminary investigations of the Trent trial, a converted Jew was asked if the practice of ritual homicide of Christian toddlers existed within the Hebrew cult. […] The converted Jew, at the end of the questioning, confirmed with abundant details the practice of ritual sacrifice in the Jewish Easter liturgy.
Another testimony emerged from the interrogation of another of the alleged killers of the little Simone, the Jewish physician Tobia. He declared on the rack there was a commerce in Christian blood among Jews. A Jewish merchant called Abraam was said to have left Trent shortly before Simone’s death with the intention of selling Christian blood, headed to Feltre or Bassano, and to have asked around which of the two cities was closer to Trent. Tobia’s confession took place under the terrifying threat of being tortured and in the desperate attempt to avoid it: he therefore had to be cooperative to the point of fabrication; but it was understood that his testimony, whenever made up, should be consistent and plausible. […] Among the others, another converted man named Israele (Wolfgang, after converting) was also interrogated under torture. He declared he had heard about other cases of ritual murders […]. These instances of ritual homicides were inventions whose protagonists had names that came from the interrogee’s memory, borrowed to crowd these fictional stories in a credible way.
(M. Melchiorre, Gli ebrei a Feltre nel Quattrocento. Una storia rimossa,
in Ebrei nella Terraferma veneta del Quattrocento,
a cura di G.M. Varanini e R.C. Mueller, Firenze University Press 2005)
Many were burned at the stake. The survivors were exiled from the city, after their possessions had been confiscated.
According to the jury, the child’s collected blood had been used in the ritual celebration of the “Jewish Easter”.
The facts we accurately extracted from the offenders, as recorded in the original trials, are the following. The wicked Jews living in Trent, having maliciously planned to make their Easter solemn through the killing of a Christian child, whose blood they could mix in their unleavened bread, commisioned it to Tobia, who was deemed perfect for the infamous deed as he was familiar with the town on the account of being a professional doctor. He went out at 10 pm on Holy Thursday, March 23, as all believers were at the Mass, walked the streets and alleys of the city and having spotted the innocent Simone all alone on his father’s front door, he showed him a big silver piece, and with sweet words and smiles he took him from via del Fossato, where his parents lived, to the house of the rich Jew Samuele, who was eagerly waiting for him. There he was kept, with charms and apples, until the hour of the sacrifice arrived. At 1 am, little twenty-nine-months-old Simone was taken to the chamber adjoining the women’s synagogue; he was stripped naked and a band or belt was made from his clothes, and he was muzzled with a handkerchief, so that he wouldn’t immediately choke to death nor be heard; Moses the Elder, sitting on a stall and holding the baby in his lap, tore a piece of flesh off his cheek with a pair of iron pliers. Samuele did the same while Tobia, assisted by Moar, Bonaventura, Israele, Vitale and another Bonaventura (Samuele’s cook) collected in a basin the blood pouring from the wound. After that, Samuele and the aforementioned seven Jews vied with each other to pierce the flesh of the holy martyr, declaring in Hebrew that they were doing so to mock the crucified God of the Christians; and they added: thus shall be the fate of all our enemies. After this feral ordeal, the old Moses took a knife and pierced with it the tip of the penis, and with the pliers tore a chunk of meat from the little right leg and Samuel, who replaced him, tore a piece out of the other leg. The copious blood oozing from the puerile penis was harvested in a different vase, while the blood pouring from the legs was collected in the basin. All the while, the cloth plugging his mouth was sometimes tightened and sometimes loosened; not satisfied with the outrageous massacre, they insisted in the same torture a second time, with greater cruelty, piercing him everywhere with pins and needles; until the young boy’s blessed soul departed his body, among the rejoicing of this insane riffraff.
Very soon Simonino (“little Simone”) was acclaimed as a “blessed martyr”, and his cult spread thoughout Northern Italy. As devotion grew wider, so did the production of paintings, ex voto, sculptures, bas reliefs, altar decorations.
Despite the fact that the Pope had forbidden the cult, pilgrims kept flocking. The fame of the “saint” ‘s miracles grew, together with a wave of antisemitism. The fight against usury led to the accusation of loan-sharking, extended to all Jews. The following century, Pope Sistus V granted a formal beatification. The cult of Saint Simonino of Trent further solidified. The child’s embalmed body was exhibited in Trent until 1955, together with the alleged relics of the instruments of torture.
In reality, Simone Unverdorben (or Unferdorben) was found dead in a water canal belonging to a town merchant, near a Jewish man’s home, probably a moneylender. If he wasn’t victim of a killer, who misdirected the suspects on the easy scapegoat of the Jewish community, the child might have fallen in the canal and drowned. Rats could have been responsible for the mutilations. In the Nineteenth Century, accurate investigations proved the ritual homicide theory wrong. In 1965, five centuries after the murder, the Church abolished the worship of Saint “Martyr” Simonino for good.
A violent fury against the very portraits of the “torturers” lasted for a long time. Even the San Simonino fresco in Nanto was defaced by this rage. This is the reason why, during that art exhibition, I needed some time to recognize a painting in that indistinct blur of light and colors.
My attempt at gathering the information I needed in order to make sense of the simulacrum in the Nanto parish church, led me to discover an often overlooked incident, known only to the artists who represented it, their commissioners, their audience; but the deep discomfort I felt when I first looked at the fresco still has not vanished.
La cara Pasifae
– R. Po – Chia Hsia, Trent 1475. Stories of a Ritual Murder Trial, Yale 1992
– A. Esposito, D. Quaglioni, Processi contro gli Ebrei di Trento (1475-1478), CEDAM 1990
– A. Toaff, Pasque di sangue: ebrei d’Europa e omicidi rituali, Il Mulino 2008
The traveler who exits the Estación Central in Santiago, Chile and walks down San Francisco de Borja street, after less than twenty meters will stumble upon a sort of votive wall, right on the side of the train station on his left, a space choke-full of little engravings, offerings, perpetually lit candles, photographs and holy pictures. A simple sign says: “Romualdito”, the same name present on every thankful ex voto.
If our hypothetical traveler then takes a cab and heads down the Autopista del Sol towards the suburb of Maipù, he will see by the side of the opposite lane an altar quite similar to the first one, dedicated to a young girl called Astrid whose portrait is almost buried under dozens of toys and plush bears.
Should he cross the entirety of Chile’s narrow strip of land, encased between the mountains and the ocean, maybe crossing from time to time the border to the Argentinian pampas, he would notice that the landscape (both urban and rural) is studded with numerous of these strange little temples: places of devotion where veneration is not directed towards canonical saints, but to the spirits of people whose life ended in tragedy. This is the cult of the animitas.
An expression of popular piety, the animitas are votive boxes that are often built by the side of the road (animita de carretera) to remember some victims of the “mala muerte”, an awful death: even if the remains of these persons are buried at the cemetery, they cannot really rest in peace on the account of the violent circumstances of their demise. Their souls still haunt the places where life was taken from them.
The Romualdito at the train station, for instance, was a little boy who suffered from tubercolosis, assaulted and killed by some thugs who wanted to steal his poncho and the 15 pesos he had on him. But his story, dating back to the 1930s, is told in countless versions, more or less legendary, and it’s impossible to ascertain exactly what happened: one thing is sure, the popular faith in Romualdito is so widespread in Santiago that when it was time to renew and rebuild the station, his wall was left untouched.
Young Astrid, the girl with the plush toys altar, died in 1998 in a motorcycle accident, when she was just 19-years-old. She is now known as the Niña Hermosa.
But these funeral altars can be found by the hundreds, mostly installed by the roadside, shaped like little houses or small churches with crosses sicking out of their tiny roofs.
At first they are built as an act of mercy and remembrance on the exact spot of the fatal accident (or, in the case of fishermen lost at sea, in specific sectors of the coast); but they become the center of a real cult whenevert the soul of the deceased proves to be miraculous (animita muy milagrosa). When, that is, the spirit starts answering to prayers and offerings with particular favors, by interceding bewteen the believer and the Holy Virgin or Christ himself.
The cult of the animitas is an original mixture of the indigenous, pre-Hispanic cult of the dead (where the ancestor turned into a benign presence offering protection to his offspring) and the cult of the souls of Purgatory which arrived here with Catholicism.
For this reason it shows surprising analogies with another form of folk religiosity developed in Naples, at the Fontanelle Cemetery, a place to which I devoted my book De profundis.
The two cults, not officially recognized by the Roman Church, have some fundamental aspects in common.
Animitas, built with recycled material, are folk art objects that closely resemble the carabattoli found in the Fontanelle Cemetery; not only for their shape but also for their function of making a dialectic, a dialogue with the Netherworld possible. Secondly, the system of intercessions and favors, the offerings and the ex voto, are essentially the same in both cases.
But the crucial element is that the objects of veneration are not religious heroes, those saints who accomplished miraculous feats while they were alive, but rather victims of destiny. This allows for the identification between the believer and the invoked soul, the acknowledging of their reciprocal condition, a sharing of human misery – a feeling which is almost impossible when faced with “supernatural” figures like saints. Who of course have themselves an apotropaic function, but always maintain a higher position in respect to common mortals.
On the other hand the animitas, just like the anime pezzentelle in Naples, are “democratic” symbols, offering a much easier relationship: they share with the believers the same social milieu, they know firsthand all the daily hardship and difficulties of survival. They are protective spirits which can be bothered even for more modest, trivial miracles, because they once were ordinary people, and they understand.
But while in Italy the cult developed exclusively in one town, in Chile it is quite ubiquitous. To have an idea of the tenacity and pervasiveness of this faith, there is one last, amazing example. Ghost bikes (white-painted bicycles remembering a cyclist who was run over by a car) can be seen all around the world, and they are meant as a warning against accidents. When these installations began to appear in Chile, they immediately intertwined with popular devotion giving birth to hybrids called bicianimitas. Boxes for the ritual offerings began to appear beside the white bicycles, and the funeral memorials turned into a bridge for communication between the living and the dead.
Those living and dead that, the animitas seem to remind us, are never really separated but coexist on the city streets or along the side of dusty highways stretching out into the desert.
A seguito delle molte richieste ricevute dai nostri lettori, inauguriamo oggi una nuova rubrica, La biblioteca delle meraviglie. In ogni “puntata” vi consiglieremo due libri particolari, strani o fantastici, nella speranza di potervi aiutare a comporre la vostra personale biblioteca bizzarra. Buona lettura a tutti!
SANTI E VAMPIRI – Le avventure del cadavere
(2006, Nuovi Equilibri – www.stampalternativa.it)
Cos’hanno in comune i vampiri e i santi? Molto più di quello che crediamo, a quanto pare. Sono figure di esseri straordinari sui quali le normali leggi della vita e della morte non sembrano avere effetto.
L’affascinante saggio di Carlo Dogheria ci riporta nel pieno dell’epidemia di vampirismo che colpì l’Europa nel 1600, rivelandoci l’immagine di un vampiro radicato nel folklore, molto distante dall’icona che ne hanno dato letteratura e cinema dall’800 in poi. Demone rurale e contadino, il vampiro seicentesco non ha nulla del fascino aristocratico e un po’ dandy dei vari Dracula; sulla base di una dettagliata e precisissima ricerca sui documenti e i resoconti dell’epoca, l’autore ci guida alla scoperta di una delle più strane e particolari isterie di massa della nostra storia.
Nella seconda parte del libro, invece, si affronta la spinosa questione dei santi e dei loro cadaveri miracolosi. Cadaveri incorrotti, proprio come quelli dei vampiri (come se la soprannaturale assenza di putrefazione potesse indicare sia una particolare vicinanza a Dio che a Satana). Cadaveri smembrati per ricavarne reliquie, i cui pezzi seguitano ad avere magiche virtù. Cadaveri talvolta abusivi, di “finti” santi. Cadaveri miracolosi… e qui arriva la parte più sorprendente del libro.
Tratti da una vastissima letteratura agiografica, i miracoli postumi dei santi sono molto diversi da ciò che ci aspetteremmo. Ci sono santi che cantano dalla loro tomba, durante la messa, assieme ai fedeli; altri che, spogliati dopo la morte, provvedono ripetutamente a coprirsi da sé le vergogne. Dalla quarta di copertina: “santi che storpiano bambini colpevoli di giocare nei pressi della loro tomba, santi che espellono altri defunti di cui non gradiscono la sotterranea vicinanza, santi che accecano il custode della chiesa reo di avere spento la lampada davanti al loro sepolcro…”
Una lettura illuminante ed estremamente documentata, che ci fa riflettere sul ruolo del cadavere nella nostra cultura e sulle paure e superstizioni ad esso collegate.
John Harley Warner, James M. Edmonson
DISSECTION: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine 1880-1930
(2009, Blast Books)
Fin dall’avvento della fotografia nel XIX e XX secolo, gli studenti di medicina americani, spesso in segreto, si scattavano foto che li ritraevano assieme ai cadaveri che avevano appena dissezionato, i loro primi “pazienti”. Le foto venivano poi spedite a casa, per “dimostrare” ai parenti che i loro ragazzi stavano diventando dei veri medici – e che avevano pelo sullo stomaco.
Lo splendido Dissection raccoglie 138 storiche fotografie, e alcuni saggi illuminanti su queste pratiche studentesche. C’è qualcosa di commovente in questi volti giovani, sorridenti, spesso orgogliosi, radunati attorno a una salma smembrata dopo un’autopsia; un’atmosfera sospesa, antica, assolutamente straniante. Particolarmente destabilizzanti, infine, sono le immagini contenute nella sezione dedicata alla goliardia: invertendo i ruoli in una specie di umoristica rivincita dei morti sui vivi, gli studenti più burloni si facevano fotografare stesi sul tavolo settorio, attorniati dai cadaveri in procinto di “vendicarsi”.
La circoncisione di Gesù avvenne, secondo i Vangeli (Luca, 2,21) 8 giorni dopo la sua nascita. Per secoli la Chiesa Cattolica Romana ha festeggiato questa ricorrenza (il primo giorno di Gennaio), e la Chiesa Ortodossa continua a farlo tutt’oggi.
In sé la cosa non avrebbe nulla di strano, se non fosse che il prepuzio tagliato del Salvatore ha, nel corso del tempo, scatenato acerrime lotte e controversie.
Il Medioevo, si sa, fu l’ “epoca d’oro” delle reliquie: oltre ai corpi (incorrotti e non) dei santi, o ai frammenti di legno della Santa Croce, comparivano di volta in volta le reliquie più varie e fantasiose. Il campionario comprendeva il latte della Vergine, le tre vertebre della coda dell’asino cavalcato da Cristo al suo ingresso a Gerusalemme, il pelo della barba di San Giovanni Battista, la cinta di Maria caduta a terra durante la sua ascensione al cielo e addirittura un piolo della scala vista (in sogno!) da Giacobbe.
Il Santo Prepuzio era una delle reliquie più gettonate: a seconda della fonte, in varie città europee c’erano otto, dodici, quattordici o addirittura diciotto diversi Santi Prepuzi. Contemporaneamente.
Secondo la versione “ufficiale” dell’epoca, Carlo Magno, mentre pregava presso il Santo Sepolcro, avrebbe ricevuto in dono il Prepuzio da un angelo. In seguito, l’avrebbe regalato a Leone III il 25 dicembre 800 in occasione della sua incoronazione. Secondo un’altra versione invece il prepuzio sarebbe un dono di Irene di Bisanzio, ricevuto da Carlo Magno in occasione delle nozze. Leone III collocò la reliquia nel Sancta sanctorum della Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano a Roma, assieme alle altre.
Ma Roma era soltanto un nome tra gli altri, sull’affollata mappa delle basiliche che rivendicavano il possesso del Santo Prepuzio: ce n’era uno a Santiago di Compostela, uno a Coulombs nella diocesi di Chartres (Francia), uno a Chartres stessa; e anche le chiese di Besançon, Metz, Hildesheim, Charroux, Conques, Langres, Anversa, Fécamp, Puy-en-Velay, e Auvergne ritenenevano ciascuna di essere in possesso dell’unico vero Santo Prepuzio.
Uno dei più famosi prepuzi era quello conservato dal 1100 in poi ad Anversa, prepuzio che era stato venduto al re Baldovino I di Gerusalemme in quel di Palestina nel corso di una crociata. Durante una messa, il vescovo di Cambray ne vide uscire tre gocce di sangue che macchiarono i lini dell’altare. In onore di questo santissimo e sanguinante pezzetto di pelle, nonché della macchiata tovaglia, venne subito costruita una speciale cappella e vennero periodicamente tenute festose processioni; il miracoloso prepuzio divenne oggetto di culto e meta di pellegrinaggi.
Nel 1557 venne rinvenuto un Santo Prepuzio nella cittadina di Calcata (Viterbo). Il Prepuzio di Calcata è degno di nota perché è il più longevo di cui si abbia notizia: il reliquiario venne portato in processione anche recentemente (nel 1983) durante la Festa della Circoncisione. La tradizione ebbe fine quando dei ladri rubarono il contenitore ricoperto di gioielli e le reliquie in esso contenute.
Il Prepuzio di Calcata fu anche al centro di un acceso dibattito teologico. Infatti i monaci di una abbazia rivale, quella di Charroux, sostenevano che il Santo Prepuzio conservato nella loro chiesa fosse stato donato direttamente, dall’immancabile Carlo Magno. Nei primi anni del XII secolo il Prepuzio venne portato in processione fino a Roma, perché Innocenzo III ne verificasse l’autenticità, ma il Papa rifiutò di farlo. La reliquia in seguito andò perduta, per ricomparire solo nel 1856, quando un operaio che lavorava nell’abbazia dichiarò di aver trovato il reliquiario nascosto nello spessore di un muro. La riscoperta portò ad uno scontro teologico con il Prepuzio ufficiale di Calcata, che era venerato ufficialmente dalla Chiesa da centinaia di anni. Nel 1900 la Chiesa risolse il dilemma vietando a chiunque di scrivere o parlare del Santo Prepuzio, pena la scomunica (Decreto no. 37 del 3 febbraio 1900). Nel 1954, dopo lungo dibattito, la punizione venne portata al vitandi (persona da evitare), il grado più grave della scomunica; successivamente il Concilio Vaticano Secondo rimosse dal calendario liturgico la festività della Circoncisione di Cristo.
Il Santo Prepuzio di Calcata rimase per lungo tempo l’ultimo sopravvissuto ai vari saccheggi. A seguito del furto in epoca moderna del reliquiario di Calcata, non si sa se qualcuno dei Prepuzi sia tuttora esistente. Il mistero riguardante una delle più bizzarre reliquie della storia cristiana resiste ancora.