I wrote about him five years ago, in this post: besides being the only taxidermist in Italy to offer “artistic” (i.e., non-naturalistic) taxidermy creations, Alberto also specializes in taxidermy of pets.
I have always found it very moving that different species manage to create a deep relationship with each other, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the coldness of the world; when the affection between a human being and another animal becomes so intense, it is clear that grieving can be difficult and painful. For this reason, on Friday we will also discuss taxidermy in relation to pet grief with various personalities from science and culture: in addition to the meeting with Alberto Michelon and director Rossella Laeng, the evening will therefore include talks by Anna Cordioli (psychoanalyst), Stefania Uccheddu (Head of the Service of Behavioral Medicine, Clinic S. Marco), Gianni Vitale (journalist, President Promovies), and myself. I will talk about the history of taxidermy and its relationship to other types of remains preservation, such as relics.
In this episode of season 2 of Bizzarro Bazar, produced in collaboration with the Civic Museums of Reggio Emilia: the secret behind the grotesque wedding organized by Tsar Peter the Great; the story of a sperm whale cub that beached in Italy in the 1930s; the black flood that swept a neighborhood in Boston in 1919.
Could there be a solution to appeal vegans, vegeterians and meat lovers? It’s called post-animal bio-economy, and among other things it involves growing laboratory meat from stem cells.
A totally painless method for animals, who could at last lead their happy lives without us giving up a steak, a glass of milk or a poached egg. These would note be alternative products, but the same products, developed in a much more sustainable way in respect to linear agriculture (which has proven problematic for the quantity of land, chemicals, pesticides, energy resources, needed water and work, and emissions of greenhouse gases).
Take the highly controversial foie gras: in the near future it could be produced from the stem cells gathered from the tip of a duck’s feather. It might seem a bit sci-fi, but the first lab foie gras is already here, and this journalist tasted it.
There are just two obstacles: on one hand, the costs of lab meat are still too high for large-scale production (but this shouldn’t take too long to fix); on the other, there’s the small detail that this is a cultural, and not just agricultural, revolution. We will find out how traditional farmers will react, and above all if consumers are rady to try these new cruelty-free products.
The city of Branau am Inn, in Austria, is sadly known as the birthplace of a certain dictator called Adolf. But it should be remembered for another reason: the story of Hans Steininger, a burgomaster who on September 28, 1567, was killed by his own beard. A thick and prodigiously long set of hair, which turned out to be fatal during a great fire: while escaping the flames, mayor Hans forgot to roll his 2-meters-long beard and put it in his pocket, as he usually did, tripped on it and fell down the stairs breaking his neck.
As in the 1500s there was no such thing as the Darwin Awards, his fellow citizens placed a nice plaque on the side of the church and preserved the killer beard, still visible today at Branau’s Civic Museum.
But if you think silly deaths are an exclusively human achievement, hear this: “due to the humidity in its environment and how slowly a sloth moves, plant life will grow in its fur. This, combined with poor eyesight, leads to some sloths grabbing their own arms, thinking it’s a tree branch, and falling to their deaths.” (via Seriously Strange)
Furthermore, there’s the genius rodent who slipped into a 155-years-old mousetrap on exhibit in a museum. Slow clap.
You’re always so nervous and depressed, they said.
Why don’t you learn a musical instrument, just to chill out and amuse yourself?, they said.
It served them well.
The Flying Dutch of the 20th Century was called SS Baychimo, a cargo ship that got stuck in the Alaskan ice in 1931 and was abandoned there. For the next 38 years the ghost ship kept turning up and was spotted on several occasions; somebody even managed to board it, but each time the Baychimo successfully escaped without being recovered. (Thanks, Stefano!)
The terrible story of “El Negro”: when collectors of natural curiosities didn’t just ship animal skins back to Europe from the Colonies, but also the skin of human beings they dug out of their graves during the night.
Since we’re talking about human remains, the biggest traveling mummy exhibit was launched eight years ago (featuring a total of 45 mummies). You never got to see it? Neither did I. Here are some nice pictures.
Japanese aesthetics permeates even the smallest details: take a look at these two pages from a late-XVII C. manuscript showing the different kinds of design for wagashi (tipical pastries served during the tea ceremony. Ante litteram food porn.
Some researchers form the University of Wisconsin and the University of Maryland created music specifically studied to be appealing to cats, with frequences and sounds that should be, at least in theory, “feline-centric“. The tracks can be bought here even if, to be honest, my cats didn’t seem to be particularly impressed by the music samples. But then again, those two are fastidious and spoiled rotten.
Among the most bizarre museums, there is the wonderful Museum of Broken Relationships. It consists of objects, donated by the public, that symbolize a terminated relationship: the pearl necklace given as a gift by a violent fiancé to his girlfriend, in the attempt to be forgiven for his last abuses; an axe used by a woman to chop all of her ex-grilfriend’s furniture into pieces; the Proust volumes that a husband read out loud to his wife — the last 200 hundred pages still untouched, as their relationship ended before they’d finished reading the book. Well, can a love story ever last longer than the Recherche? (via Futility Closet)
I look above me, towards the movable hooks once used to hang the meat, and I visualize the blood and pain that these walls had to contain – sustain – for many long years. Death and pain are the instruments life has to proceed, I tell myself.
I’m standing inside Padua’s former slaughterhouse: a space specifically devised for massacre, where now animals are living a second, bizarre life thanks to Alberto Michelon’s artworks.
When I meet him, he immediately infects me with the feverish enthusiasm of someone who is lucky (and brave) enough to be following his own vocation. What comes out of his mouth must clearly be a fifth of what goes through his mind. As John Waters put it, “without obsession, life is nothing“.
Animals and taxidermy are Alberto’s obsession.
Taxidermy is traditionally employed in two main fields: hunting trophies, and didactical museum installations.
In both context, the demand for taxidermic preparations is declining. On one hand we are witnessing a drop in hunting activities, which find less and less space in European culture as opposed to ecological preoccupations and the evolution of the ethical sensitiviy towards animals. On the other hand, even great Natural History Museums already have their well-established collections and seldom acquire new specimens: often a taxidermist is only called when restoration is required on already prepared animals.
“This is why – Alberto explains – I mainly work for private customers who want to preserve their domestic pets. It is more difficult, because you have to faithfully recreate the cat or dog’s expressiveness based on their photographs; preparing a much-loved and familiar pet requires the greatest care. But I get a huge satisfaction when the job turns out well. Customers often burst into tears, they talk to the animal – when I present them with the finished work, I always step aside and leave them a bit of intimacy. It’s something that helps them coming to terms with their loss.”
What he says doesn’t surprise me: in a post on wunderkammern I associated taxidermy’s second youth (after a time in which it looked like this art had become obsolete) to the social need of reconfiguring our relationship with death.
But the reason I came here is Alberto is not just an ordinary taxidermist: he is Italy’s only real exponent of artistic taxiermy.
Until November 5, here at the ex-slaughterhouse, you can visit his exhibition Inanimus – A Contemporary Bestiary, a collection of his main works.
To a casual observer, artistic non-naturalist taxidermy could seem not fully respectful towards the animal. In realuty, most artists who use animal organic material as a medium do so just to reflect on our own relationship with other species, creating their works from ethical sources (animals who died of natural causes, collected in the wild, etc.).
Alberto too follows such professional ethics, as he began his experiment using leftovers from his workshop. “I was sorry to have to throw away pieces of skin, or specimens that wouldn’t find an arrangement“, he tells me. “It began almost like a diversion, in a very impulsive way, following a deep urge“.
He candidly confesses that he doesn’t know much about the American Rogue Taxidermy scene, nor about modern art galleries. And it’s clear that Alberto is somewhat alien to the contemporary art universe, so often haughty and pretentious: he keeps talking about instinct, about playing, but must of all – oh, the horror! – he takes the liberty of doing what no “serious” artist would ever dream of doing: he explains the message of his own works, one by one.
His installations really have much to say: rather than carrying messages, though, they are food for thought, a continuous and many-sided elaboration of the modernity, an attempt to use these animal remains as a mirror to investigate our own face.
Some of his works immediately strike me for the openness with which they take on current events: from the tragedy of migrants to GMOs, from euthanasia to the present-day fear of terrorist attacks.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen any other artist using taxidermy to confront the present in such a direct way.
A roe deer head covered in snake skin, wearing an orange uniform reminiscent of Islamic extremists’ prisoners, is chained to the wall. The reference is obvious: the heads of decapitated infidels are assimilated to hunting trophies.
To be honest, I find this explicit allusion to current events imagery (which, like it or not, has gained a “pop” quality) pretty unsettling, and I’m not even sure that I like it – but if something pulls the rug out from under my feet, I bless it anyways. This is what the best art is supposed to do.
Other installations are meant to illustrate Western contradictions, halfway through satire and open criticism to a capitalistic system ever harder to sustain.
A tortoise, represented as an old bejeweled lady with saggy breasts, is the emblem of a conservative society based on economic privilege: a “prehistoric” concept that, just like the reptile, has refused to evolve in any way.
A conqueror horse, fierce and rampant, exhibits a luxurious checked fur composed from several equines.
“A social climber horse: to be where he stands, he must have done away with many other horses“, Alberto tells me with a smile.
An installation shows the internal organs of a tiger, preserved in jars that are arranged following the animal’s anatomy: the eyes, tomgue and brain are placed at the extremity where the head should be, and so on. Some chimeras seem to be in the middle of a bondage session: an allusion to poaching for aphrodisiac elixirs such as the rhino horn, and to the fil rouge linking us to those massacres.
A boar, sitting on a toilet, is busy reading a magazine and searching for a pair of glass eyes to fill his empty eye sockets.
The importance of freedom of choice regarding the end of life is incarnated by two minks who hanged themselves – rather than ending up in a fur coat.
The skulls of three livestock animals are hanged like trophies, and plastic flowers come out of the hole bored by the slaughterhouse firearm (“I picked up the flowers from the graves at the cemetery, replacing them with new flowers“, Michelon tells me).
As you might have understood by now, the most interesting aspect of the Inanimus works is the neverending formal experimentation.
Every installation is extremely different from the other, and Alberto Michelon always finds new and surprising ways of using the animal matter: there are abstract paintings whose canvas is made of snake or fish skin; entomological compositions; anthropomorphic taxidermies; a crucifix entirely built by patiently gluing together bone fragments; tribal masks, phallic snakes mocking branded underwear, skeletal chandeliers, Braille texts etracted from lizard skin.
Ma gli altri tassidermisti, diciamo i “puristi”, non storcono il naso?
“Certamente alcuni non la ritengono vera tassidermia, forse pensano che io mi sia montato la testa. Non mi importa. Cosa vuoi farci? Questo progetto sta prendendo sempre più importanza, mi diverte e mi entusiasma.”
On closer inspection, there’s not a huge difference between classic and artistic taxidermy. The stuffed animals we find in natural science museums, as well as Alberto’s, are but representations, interpretations, simulachra.
Every taxidermist uses the skin, and shape, of the animal to convey a specific vision of the world; and the museum narrative (although so conventional as to be “invisible” to our eyes) is maybe no more legit than a personal perspective.
Although Alberto keeps repeating that he feels he’s a novice, still unripe artist, the Inanimus works show a very precise artistic direction. As I approach the exit, I feel I have witnessed something unique, at least in the Italian panorama. I cannot therefore back away from the ritual prosaic last question: future projects?
“I want to keep on getting better, learning, experimenting new things“, Alberto replies as his gaze wanders all around, lost in the crowd of his transfigured animals.
Inanimus – un bestiario contemporaneo Padova, Cattedrale Ex-macello, Via Cornaro 1
Until October 17, 2017 [Extended to November 5, 2017] Facebook – Instagram
(Second and last part – you can find the first one here.)
In the Nineteenth Century, wunderkammern disappeared.
The collections ended up disassembled, sold to private citizens or integrated in the newly born modern museums. Scientists, whose discipline was already defined, lost interest for the ancient kind of baroque wonder, perhaps deemed child-like in respect to the more serious postitivism.
This type of collecting continued in sporadic and marginal ways during the first decades of the Twetieth Century. Some rare antique dealer, especially in Belgium, the Netherlands or Paris, still sold some occasional mirabilia, but the golden age of the trade was long gone.
Of the few collectors of this first half of the century the most famous is André Breton, whose cabinet of curiosities is now on permanent exhibit at the Centre Pompidou.
The interest of wunderkammern began to reawaken during the Eighties from two distinct fronts: academics and artists.
On one hand, museology scholars began to recognize the role of wunderkammern as precursors of today’s museal collections; on the other, some artists fell in love with the concept of the chamber of wonders and started using it in their work as a metaphor of Man’s relationship with objects.
But the real upswing came with the internet. The neo-wunderkammer “movement” developed via the web, which opened new possibilities not only for sharing the knowledge but also to revitalize the commerce of curiosities.
Let’s take a look, as we did for the classical collections, to some conceptual elements of neo-wunderkammern.
A Democratic Wunderkammer
The first macroscopic difference with the past is that collecting curiosities is no more an exclusive of wealthy billionaires. Sure, a very-high-profile market exists, one that the majority of enthusiasts will never access; but the good news is that today, anybody who can afford an internet conection already has the means to begin a little collection. Thanks to the web, even a teenager can create his/her own shelf of wonders. All that’s needed is good will and a little patience to comb through the many natural history collectibles websites or online auctions for some real bargain.
There are now children’s books, school activities and specific courses encouraging kids to start this form of exploration of natural wonders.
The result of all this is a more democratic wunderkammer, within the reach of almost any wallet.
We talked about the classic category of exotica, those objects that arrived from distant colonies and from mysterious cultures.
But today, what is really exotic – etymologically, “coming from the outside, from far away”? After all we live in a world where distances don’t matter any more, and we can travel without even moving: in a bunch of seconds and a few clicks, we can virtually explore any place, from a mule track on the Andes to the jungles of Borneo.
This is a fundamental issue for the collectors, because globalization runs the risk of annihilating an important part of the very concept of wonder. Their strategies, conscious or not, are numerous.
Some collectors have turned their eyes towards the only real “external space” that is left — the cosmos; they started looking for memorabilia from the heroic times of the Space Race. Spacesuits, gear and instruments from various space missions, and even fragments of the Moon.
Others push in the opposite direction, towards the most distant past; consequently the demand for dinosaur fossils is in constant growth.
But there are other kinds of new exotica that are closer to us – indeed, they pertain directly to our own society.
Internal exoticism: not really an oxymoron, if we consider that anthropologists have long turned the instruments of ethnology towards the modern Western worold (take for instance Marc Augé). To seek what is exotic within our own cultre is to investigate liminal zones, fringe realities of our time or of the recent past.
Thus we find a recent fascination for some “taboo” areas, related for example to crime (murder weapons, investigative items, serial killer memorabilia) or death (funerary objecs and Victorian mourning apparel); the medicalia sub-category of quack remedies, as for example electric shock terapies or radioactive pharamecutical products.
Building a wunderkammer today is an eminently artistic endeavour. The scientific or anthropological interest, no matter how relevant, cannot help but be strictly connected to aesthetics.
There is a greater general attention to the interplay between the objects than in the past. A painting can interact with an object placed in front of it; a tribal mask can be made to “dialogue” with an other similar item from a completely different tradition. There is undoubtedly a certain dose of postmodern irreverence in this approach; for when pop culture collectibles are allowed entrance to the wunderkammer, ending up exhibited along with precious and refined antiques, the self-righteous art critic is bound to shudder (see for instance Victor Wynd‘s peculiar iconoclasm).
An example I find paradigmatic of this search for a deeper interaction are the “adventurous” juxtapositions experimented by friend Luca Cableri (the man who brought to Moon to Italy); you can read the interview he gave me if you wish to know more about him.
Wearing A Wunderkammer
Fashion is always aware of new trends, and it intercepted some aspects of the world of wunerkammern. Thanks mainly to the goth and dark subcultures, one can find jewelry and necklaces made from naturalistic specimens: on Etsy, eBay or Craigslist, countless shops specialize in hand-crafted brooches, hair clips or other fashion accessories sporting skulls, small wearable taxidermies and so on.
Conceptual Art and Rogue Taxidermists
As we said, the renewed interest also came from the art world, which found in wunderkammern an effective theoretical frame to reflect about modernity.
The first name that comes to mind is of course Damien Hirst, who took advantage of the concept both in his iconic fluid-preserved animals and in his kaleidoscopic compositions of lepidoptera and butterflies; but even his For The Love of God, the well-known skull covered in diamonds, is an excessively precious curiosity that would not have been out of place in a Sixteenth Century treasure chamber.
Hirst is not the only artist taking inspiration from the wunderkammer aesthetics. Mark Dion, for instance, creates proper cabinets of wonders for the modern era: in his work, it’s not natural specimens that are put under formaldeyde, but rather their plastic replicas or even everyday objects, from push brooms to rubber dildos. Dion builds a sort of museum of consumerism in which – yet again – Nature and Culture collide and even at times fuse together, giving us no hope of telling them apart.
In 2013 Rosamund Purcell’s installation recreated a 3D version of the Seventeenth Century Ole Worm Museum: reinvention/replica, postmodern doppelgänger and hyperreal simulachrum which allows the public to step into one of the most famous etchings in the history of wunderkammern.
Besides the “high” art world – auction houses and prestigious galleries – we are also witnessing a rejuvenation of more artisanal sectors.
This is the case with the art of taxidermy, which is enjoying a new youth: today taxidermy courses and workshops are multiplying.
Remember that in the first post I talked about taxidermy as a domestication of the scariest aspects of Nature? Well, according to the participants, these workshops offer a way to exorcise their fear of death on a comfortably small scale, through direct contact and a creative activity. (We shall return on this tactile element.)
A further push towards innovation has come from yet another digital movement, called Rogue Taxidermy.
Initially born as a consortium of three artists – Sarina Brewer, Scott Bibus e Robert Marbury – who were interested in taxidermy in the broadest sense (Marbury does not even use real animals for his creations, but plush toys), rogue taxidermy quickly became an international movement thanks to the web.
The fantastic chimeras produced by these artists are actually meta-taxidermies: by exhibiting their medium in such a manifest way, they seem to question our own relationship with animals. A relationship that has undergone profound changes and is now moving towards a greater respect and care for the environment. One of the tenets of rogue taxidermy is in fact the use of ethically sourced materials, and the animals used in preparations all died of natural causes. (Here’s a great book tracing the evolution and work of major rogue taxidermy artists.)
So we are left with the fundamental question: why are wunderkammern enjoying such a huge success right now, after five centuries? Is it just a retro, nostalgic trend, a vintage frivolous fashion like we find in many subcultures (yes I’m looking at you, my dear hipster friends) or does its attractiveness lie in deeper urgencies?
It is perhaps too soon to put forward a hypothesis, but I shall go out on a limb anyway: it is my belief that the rebirth of wunderkammern is to be sought in a dual necessity. On one hand the need to rethink death, and on the other the need to rethink art and narratives.
(And While We’re At It, Why Not Domesticate It)
Swiss anthropologist Bernard Crettaz was among the first to voice the ever more widespread need to break the “tyrannical secrecy” regarding death, typical of the Twentieth Century: in 2004 he organized in Neuchâtel the first Café mortel, a free event in which participants could talk about grief, and discuss their fears but also their curiosities on the subject. Inspired by Crettaz’s works and ideas, Jon Underwood launched the first British Death Café in 2011. His model received an enthusiastic response, and today almost 5000 events have been held in 50 countries across the world.
Meanwhile, in the US, a real Death-Positive Movement was born.
Originated from the will to drastically change the American funeral industry, criticized by founder Caitlin Doughty, the movement aims at lifting the taboo regarding the subject of death, and promotes an open reflection on related topics and end-of-life issues. (You probably know my personal engagement in the project, to which I contributed now and then: you can read my interview to Caitlin and my report from the Death Salon in Philadelphia).
What has the taboo of death got to do with collecting wonders?
Over the years, I have had the opportunity of talking to many a collector. Almost all of them recall, “as if it were yesterday“, the emotion they felt while holding in their hands the first piece of their collection, that one piece that gave way to their obsession. And for the large majority of them it was a naturalistic specimen – an animal skeleton, a taxidermy, etc.: as a friend collector says, “you never forget your first skull“.
The tactile element is as essential today as it was in classical wunderkammern, where the public was invited to study, examine, touch the specimens firsthand.
Owning an animal skull (or even a human one) is a safe and harmless way to become familiar with the concreteness of death. This might be the reason why the macabre element of wunderkammern, which was marginal centuries ago, often becomes a prevalent aspect today.
Ryan Matthew Cohn collection – photo Dan Howell & Steve Prue, from Morbid Curiosities (courtesy P. Gambino)
Rethinking Art: The Aesthetics Of Wonder
After the decline of figurative arts, after the industrial reproducibility of pop art, after the advent of ready-made art, conceptual art reached its outer limit, giving a coup the grace to meaning. Many contemporary artists have de facto released art not just from manual skill, from artistry, but also from the old-fashioned idea that art should always deliver a message.
Pure form, pure signifier, the new conceptual artworks are problematic because they aspire to put a full stop to art history as we know it. They look impossible to understand, precisely because they are designed to escape any discourse.
It is therefore hard to imagine in what way artistic research will overcome this emptiness made of cold appearance, polished brilliance but mere surface nonetheless; hard to tell what new horizon might open up, beyond multi-million auctions, artistars and financial hikes planned beforehand by mega-dealers and mega-collectors.
To me, it seems that the passion for wunderkammern might be a way to go back to narratives, to meaning. An antidote to the overwhelming surface. Because an object is worth its place inside a chamber of marvels only by virtue of the story it tells, the awe it arises, the vertigo it entails.
I believe I recognize in this genre of collecting a profound desire to give back reality to its lost enchantment.
Lost? No, reality never ceased to be wonderous, it is our gaze that needs to be reeducated.
Eventually, a wunderkammer is just a collection of objects, and we already live submerged in an ocean of objects.
But it is also an instrument (as it once was, as it has always been) – a magnifying glass to inspect the world and ourselves. In these bizarre and strange items, the collector seeks a magical-narrative dimension against the homologation and seriality of mass production. Whether he knows it or not, by being sensitive to the stories concealed within the objects, the emotions they convey, their unicity, the wunderkammer collector is carrying out an act of resistence: because placing value in the exception, in the exotic, is a way to seek new perspectives in spite of the Unanimous Vision.
Why has the new millennium seen the awakening of a huge interest in “cabinets of wonder”? Why does such an ancient kind of collecting, typical of the period between the 1500s and the 1700s, still fascinate us in the internet era? And what are the differences between the classical wunderkammern and the contemporary neo-wunderkammern?
I have recently found myself tackling these subjects in two diametrically opposed contexts.
The first was dead serious conference on disciplines of knowledge in the Early Modern Period, at the University of PAdua; the second, a festival of magic and wonder created by a mentalist and a wonder injector. In this last occasion I prepared a small table with a micro-wunderkammer (really minimal, but that’s what I could fit into my suitcase!) so that after the talk the public could touch and see some curiosities first-hand.
Two traditionally quite separate scenarios – the academic milieu and the world of entertainment – both decided to dedicate some space to the discussion of this phenomenon, which strikes me as indicative of its relevance.
So I thought it might be interesting to resume, in very broad terms, my speech on the subject for the benefit of those who could not attend those meetings.
For practical purposes, I will divide the whole thing into two posts.
In this first one, I will trace what I believe are the key characteristics of historical wunderkammern – or, more precisely, the key concepts worth reflecting upon.
In the next post I will address XXI Century neo-wunderkammern, to try and pinpoint what might be the reasons of this peculiar “rebirth”.
Evidently, the fundamental concept for a wunderkammer, beginning from the name itself, was the idea of wonder; from the aristocratic cabinets of Ferdinand II of Austria or Rudolf II to the more science-oriented ones like Aldrovandi‘s, Cospi‘s, or Kircher‘s, the purpose of all ancient collections was first and foremost to amaze the visitor.
It was a way for the rich person who assembled the wunderkammer to impress his court guests, showing off his opulence and lavish wealth: cabinets of curiosities were actually an evolution of treasure chambers (schatzkammern) and of the great collections of artworks of the 1400s (kunstkammer).
This predilection of rare and expensive objects generated a thriving international commerce of naturalistic and ethnological items cominc from the Colonies.
The Theatre of the World
But wunderkammern were also meant as a sort of microcosm: they were supposed to represent the entirety of the known universe, or at least to hint at the incredibly vast number of creatures and natural shapes that are present in the world. Samuel Quiccheberg, in his treatise on the arrangement of a utopian museum, was the first to use the word “theatre”, but in reality – as we shall see later on – the idea of theatrical representation is one of the cardinal concepts in classical collections.
Because of its ability to represent the world, the wunderkammer was also understood as a true instrument of research, an investigation tool for natural philosophers.
The System of Knowledge
The organization of a huge array of materials did not initially follow any specific order, but rather proceeded from the collector’s own whims and taste. Little by little, though, the idea of cataloguing began to emerge, which at first entailed the distinction between three macro-categories known as naturalia, artificialia and mirabilia, later to be refined and expanded in different other classes (medicalia, exotica, scientifica, etc.).
Medicalia, exotica, scientifica
This ever growing need to distinguish, label and catalogue eventually led to Linnaeus’ taxonomy, to his dispute with Buffon, all the way to Lamarck, Cuvier and the foundation of the Louvre, which marks the birth of the modern museum as we know it.
The Aesthetics of Accumulation
Perhaps the most iconic and well-known aspect of wunderkammern is the cramming of objects, the horror vacui that prevented even the tiniest space from being left empty in the exposition of curiosities and bizarre artifacts gathered around the world.
This excessive aesthetic was not just, as we said in the beginning, a display of wealth, but aimed at astounding and baffling the visitor. And this stunned condition was an essential moment: the wonder at the Universe, that feeling called thauma, proceeds certainly from awe but it is inseparable from a sense of unease. To access this state of consciousness, from which philosophy is born, we need to step outof our comfort zone.
To be suddenly confronted with the incredible imagination of natural shapes, visually “assaulted” by the unthinkable moltitude of objects, was a disturbing experience. Aesthetics of the Sublime, rather than Beauty; this encyclopedic vertigo is the reason why Umberto Eco places wunderkammern among his examples of “visual lists”.
Conservation and Representation
One of the basic goals of collecting was (and still is) the preservation of specimens and objects for study purposes or for posterity. Yet any preservation is already a representation.
When we enter a museum, we cannot be fully aware of the upstream choices that have been made in regard to the exhibit; but these choices are what creates the narrative of the museum itself, the very “tale” we are told room after room.
Multiple options are involved: what specimens are to be preserved, which technique is to be used to preserve them (the result will vary if a biological specimen is dried, texidermied, or put in a preserving fluid), how to group them, how to arrange their exhibit?
It is just like casting the best actors, choosing the stage costumes, a particular set design, and the internal script of the museum.
The most illuminating example is without doubt taxidermy, the ultimate simulacrum: of the original animal nothing is left but the skin, stretched on a dummy which mimics the features and posture of the beast. Glass eyes are applied to make it more convincing. That is to say, stuffed animals are meant to play the part of living animals. And when you think about it, there is no more “reality” in them than in one of those modern animatronic props we see in Natural History Museums.
But why do we need all this theatre? The answer lies in the concept of domestication.
Domestication: Nature vs. Culture
Nature is opposed to Culture since the time of ancient Greeks. Western Man has always felt the urge to keep his distance from the part of himself he perceived as primordial, chaotic, uncontrollable, bestial. The walls of the polis locked Nature outside, keeping Culture inside; and it’s not by chance that barbarians – seen as half-men half-beasts – were etymologically “those who stutter”, who remained outside of the logos.
The theatre, an advanced form of representation, was born in Athens likely as a substitute for previous ancient human sacrifices (cf. Réné Girard), and it served the same sacred purposes: to sublimate the animal desire of cruelty and violence. The tragic hero takes on the role of the sacrificial victim, and in fact the evidence of the sacred value of tragedies is in the fact that originally attending the theatrical plays was mandatory by law for all citizens.
Theatre is therefore the first attempt to domesticate natural instincts, to bring them literally “inside one’s home” (domus), to comprehend them within the logos in order to defuse their antisocial power. Nature only becomes pleasant and harmless once we narrate it, when we turn it into a scenic design.
And here’s why a stuffed lion (which is a narrated lion, the “image” of a lion as told through the fiction of taxidermy) is something we can comfortably place in our living room without any worry. All study of Nature, as it was conceived in the wunderkammern, was essentially the study of its representation.
By staging it, it was possible to exert a kind of control over Nature that would have been impossible otherwise. Accordingly, the symbol of the wunderkammern, that piece that no collection could do without, was the chained crocodile — bound and incapable of causing harm thanks to the ties of Reason, of logos, of knowledge.
It is worth noting, in closing this first part, that the symbology of the crocodile was also borrowed from the world of the sacred. These reptiles in chains first made their apparition in churches, and several examples can still be seen in Europe: in that instance, of course, they were meant as a reminder of the power and glory of Christ defeating Satan (and at the same time they impressed the believers, who in all probability had never seen such a beast).
A perfect example of sacred taxidermy; domestication as a bulwark against the wild, sinful unconscious; barrier bewteen natural and social instincts.
This article originally appeared on Death & The Maiden, a website exploring the relationship between women and death.
Padova, Italy. 1863.
One ash-grey morning, a young girl jumped into the muddy waters of the river which ran just behind the city hospital. We do not know her name, only that she worked as a seamstress, that she was 18 years old, and that her act of suicide was in all probability provoked by “amorous delusion”.
A sad yet rather unremarkable event, one that history could have well forgotten – hadn’t it happened, so to speak, in the right place and time.
The city of Padova was home to one of the oldest Universities in history, and it was also recognized as the cradle of anatomy. Among others, the great Vesalius, Morgagni and Fallopius had taught medicine there; in 1595 Girolamo Fabrici d’Acquapendente had the first stable anatomical theater built inside the University’s main building, Palazzo del Bo.
In 1863, the chair of Anatomical Pathology at the University was occupied by Lodovico Brunetti (1813-1899) who, like many anatomists of his time, had come up with his own process for preserving anatomical specimens: tannization. His method consisted in drying the specimens and injecting them with tannic acid; it was a long and difficult procedure (and as such it would not go on to have much fortune) but nonetheless gave astounding results in terms of quality. I have had the opportunity of feeling the consistency of some of his preparations, and still today they maintain the natural dimensions, elasticity and softness of the original tissues.
But back to our story.
When Brunetti heard about the young girl’s suicide, he asked her body be brought to him, so he could carry out his experiments.
First he made a plaster cast of the her face and upper bust. Then he peeled away all of the skin from her head and neck, being especially careful as to preserve the girl’s beautiful golden hair. He then proceeded to treat the skin, scouring it with sulfuric ether and fixing it with his own tannic acid formula. Once the skin was saved from putrefaction, he laid it out over the plaster cast reproducing the girl’s features, then added glass eyes and plaster ears to his creation.
But something was wrong.
The anatomist noticed that in several places the skin was lacerated. Those were the gashes left by the hooks men had used to drag the body out of the water, unto the banks of the river.
Brunetti, who in all evidence must have been a perfectionist, came up with a clever idea to disguise those marks.
He placed some wooden branches beside her chest, then entwined them with tannised snakes, carefully mounting the reptiles as if they were devouring the girl’s face. He poured some red candle wax to serve as blood spurts, and there it was: a perfect allegory of the punishment reserved in Hell to those who committed the mortal sin of suicide.
He called his piece The Punished Suicide.
Now, if this was all, Brunetti would look like some kind of psychopath, and his work would just be unacceptable and horrifying, from any kind of ethical perspective.
But the story doesn’t end here.
After completing this masterpiece, the first thing Brunetti did was showing it to the girl’s parents.
And this is where things take a really weird turn.
Because the dead girl’s parents, instead of being dismayed and horrified, actually praised him for the precision shown in reproducing their daughter’s features.
“So perfectly did I preserve her physiognomy – Brunetti proudly noted, – that those who saw her did easily recognize her”.
But wait, there’s more.
Four years later, the Universal Exposition was opening in Paris, and Brunetti asked the University to grant him funds to take the Punished Suicide to France. You would expect some kind of embarrassment on the part of the university, instead they happily financed his trip to Paris.
At the Exposition, thousands of spectators swarmed in from all around the world to see the latest innovations in technology and science, and saw the Punished Suicide. What would you think happened to Brunetti then? Was he hit by scandal, was his work despised and criticized?
Not at all. He won the Grand Prix in the Arts and Professions.
If you feel kind of dizzy by now, well, you probably should.
Looking at this puzzling story, we are left with only two options: either everybody in the whole world, including Brunetti, was blatantly insane; or there must exist some kind of variance in perception between our views on mortality and those held by people at the time.
It always strikes me how one does not need to go very far back in time to feel this kind of vertigo: all this happened less than 150 years ago, yet we cannot even begin to understand what our great-great-grandfathers were thinking.
Of course, anthropologists tell us that the cultural removal of death and the medicalization of dead bodies are relatively recent processes, which started around the turn of the last century. But it’s not until we are faced with a difficult “object” like this, that we truly grasp the abysmal distance separating us from our ancestors, the intensity of this shift in sensibility.
The Punished Suicide is, in this regard, a complex and wonderful reminder of how society’s boundaries and taboos may vary over a short period of time.
A perfect example of intersection between art (whether or not it encounters our modern taste), anatomy (it was meant to illustrate a preserving method) and the sacred (as an allegory of the Afterlife), it is one of the most challenging displays still visible in the ‘Morgagni’ Museum of Anatomical Pathology in Padova.
This nameless young girl’s face, forever fixed in tormented agony inside her glass case, cannot help but elicit a strong emotional response. It presents us with many essential questions on our past, on our own relationship with death, on how we intend to treat our dead in the future, on the ethics of displaying human remains in Museums, and so on.
On the account of all these rich and fruitful dilemmas, I like to think her death was at least not entirely in vain.
The “Morgagni” Museum of Pathology in Padova is the focus of the latest entry in the Bizzarro Bazar Collection, His Anatomical Majesty. Photography by Carlo Vannini. The story of the ‘Punished Suicide’ was unearthed by F. Zampieri, A. Zanatta and M. Rippa Bonati on Physis, XLVIII(1-2):297-338, 2012.
The time has finally come to unveil the project I have been spending a good part of this year on.
Everything started with a place, a curious secret nestled in the heart of Rome, a stone’s throw away from the Circo Massimo. Very likely, my favorite haven in the whole city: the wunderkammer Mirabilia, a cabinet of wonders recreating the philosophy and taste of sixteenth-century collections, from which modern museums evolved.
Taxidermied giraffes and lions, high-profile artworks and rarities from all over the world were gathered here after many years of research and adventures by the gallery owner, Giano Del Bufalo, a young collector I previously wrote about.
This baroque studio, where beauty marries the macabre and the wonderful, has become for me a special spot in which to withdraw and to dream, especially after a hard day.
Given these premises, it was just a matter of time before the idea of a collaboration between Bizzarro Bazar and Mirabilia was born.
And now we’re getting there.
On October 9, within this gallery’s perfect setting, the Academy of Enchantment will open its doors.
What Giano and I have designed is an alternative cultural center, unprecedented in the Italian scenario and tailor-made for the lovers of the unusual.
The Academy will host a series of meetings with scientists, writers, artists and scholars who devoted their lives to the exploration of reality’s strangest facets: they range from mummification specialists to magic books researchers, from pathologists to gothic literature experts, from sex historians to some of the most original contemporary artists.
You can easily guess how much this project is close to my heart, as it represents a physical transposition of many years of work on this blog. But the privilege of planning its ‘bursting into’ the real world has been accorded only by the friendly willingness of a whole number of kindred spirits I have met over the years thanks to Bizzarro Bazar.
I was surprised and actually a bit intimidated by the enthusiasm shown by these extraordinary people, whom I hold in the highest regard: University professors, filmmakers, illusionists and collectors of oddities all warmly responded to my call for action, which can be summarized by the ambitious objective of “cultivating the vertigo of amazement”.
I address a similar appeal to this blog’s followers: spread the word, share the news and participate to the events if you can. It will be a unique occasion to listen and discuss, to meet these exceptional lecturers in person, to train your dream muscles… but above all it will be an opportunity to find each other.
This is indeed how we like to think of the Academy of Enchantment: as a frontier outpost, where the large family of wonder pioneers and enthusiasts can finally meet; where itineraries and discoveries can intersect; and from which, eventually, everyone will be able to head off towards new explorations.
In order to attain the meetings you will be requested to join the Mirabilia cultural association; on the Accademia dell’Incanto website you will soon find all about the next events and application methods. The Accademia dell’Incanto is also on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
“Keep the World Weird!”
Tomorrow I will be at Winchester University to take part in a three-day interdisciplinary conference focusing on Death, art and anatomy. My talk will focus on memento mori in relation to the Capuchin Crypt in Rome — which, together with other Italian religious ossuaries, I explored in my Mors Pretiosa.
Waiting to tell you more about the event, and about the following days I will spend in London, I leave you with some curiosities to savour.
SynDaver Labs, which already created a synthetic cadaver for autopsies (I wrote about it in this post), is developing a canine version for veterinary surgery training. This puppy, like his human analogue, can breathe, bleed and even die.
Even if it turned out to be fake, this would still be one of the tastiest news in recent times: in Sculcoates, East Yorks, some ghost hunters were visiting a Nineteenth century cemetery when they suddenly heard some strange, eerie moanings. Ghost monks roaming through the graves? A demonic presence haunting this sacred place? None of the above. In the graveyard someone was secretely shooting a porno.
Speaking of unusual places to make love, why not inside a whale? It happened in the 1930s at Gotheburg Museum of Natural History, hosting the only completely taxidermied blue whale inside of which a lounge was built, equipped with benches and carpets. After a couple was caught having sex in there, the cetacean was unfortunately closed to the public.
In case you’ve missed it, there was also a man who turned a whale’s carcass into a theatre.
The borders of medieval manuscripts sometimes feature rabbits engaged in unlikely battles and different cruelties. Why? According to this article, it was basically a satire.
If you think warmongering rabbits are bizarre, wait until you see cats with jetpacks on their backs, depicted in some Sixteenth century miniatures. Here is a National Geographic article about them.
One last iconographic enigma. What was the meaning of the strange Sixteenth century engravings showing a satyr fathoming a woman’s private parts with a plumb line? An in-depth and quite beautiful study (sorry, Italian only) unveils the mystery.
Adventurous lives: Violet Constance Jessop was an ocean liner stewardess who in 1911 survived the Olympia ship incident. Then in 1912 she survived the sinking of the Titanic. And in 1916 the sinking of the Britannic.