A Nostalgia For What We Lose: Interview with Nunzio Paci

The hybrid anatomies created by Nunzio Paci,born in Bologna in 1977, encountered a growing success, and they granted him prestigious exhibitions in Europe, Asia and the US.
The true miracle this artist performs on his canvas is to turn what is still usually perceived as a taboo – the inside of our bodies – into something enchanting.


But his works are complex and multilayered: in his paintings the natural elements and creatures fuse together and as they do so, all boundaries lose their meaning, there is no more an inside and an outside; each body explodes and grows branches, becoming indefinable. Even if besides the figures there still are numbers, anatomical annotations and “keys”, these unthinkable flourishes of the flesh tend to checkmate our vision, sabotage all categories and even dismantle the concept of identity.

But rather than just writing about it, I thought it best to interview Nunzio and let our chat be an introduction to his art.

You began as a street artist, in a strictly urban environment; what was your relationship with nature back then? Did it evolve over the years?

I was born and raised in a small country town in the province of Bologna and I still live in a rural area. Nature has always been a faithful companion to me. I too did go through a rebellious phase: in those years, as I recall them, everything looked like a surface I could spray paint or write on. Now I feel more like a retired warrior, seeking a quiet and dimly lit corner where I can think and rest.

In the West, man wants to think himself separated from nature: if not a proper dominator, at least an external observer or investigator.
This feeling of being outside or above natural laws, however, entails a feeling of exclusion, a sort of romantic longing for this “lost” connection with the rest of the natural world.
Do you think your works express this melancholy, a need for communion with other creatures? Or are you suggesting that the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms have actually always been inertwined, and all barriers between them are a cultural construct, an illusion?

I think my work is about “longing for what we constantly lose” – voices, perfumes, memories… I often have the feeling I’m inventing those fragments of memories I had forgotten: I believe this is a form of self-defense on my part, to survive the melancholy you mention. For this reason, through my work, I try to translate what cannot be preserved through time into a visual form, so that I can retrieve these memories in my most nostalgic moments.

Yours are autoptic visions: why do you feel the need to dissect, to open the bodies you draw? As the inside of the body is still a taboo in many ways, how does the public react to the anatomical details in your works?

I need to be selfish. I never think about what the audience might feel, I don’t ask myself what others would or wouldn’t want to see. I am too busy taming my thoughts and turning my traumas into images.
I can’t recall exactly when I became interested in anatomy, but I will never forget the first time I saw somebody skin a rabbit. I was a very young child, and I was disturbed and at the same time fascinated – not by the violent scene in itself, but by what was hidden inside that animal. I immediately decided I would never harm a living being but I would try and understand their “engineering”, their inner design.
Later on, the desire to produce visionary artworks took over, and I started tracing subjects that could be expressive without offending any sensibility. But in the end what we feel when we look at something is also a product of our own background; so generally speaking I don’t think it’s possible to elicit am unambiguous sensation in the public.

You stated you’re not a big fan of colors, and in fact you often prefer earthy nuances, rusty browns, etc. Your latest woks, including those shown in the Manila exhibit entitled Mimesis, might suggest a progressive opening in that regard, as some floral arrangements are enriched by a whole palette of green, purple, blue, pink. Is this a way to add chromatic intricacy or, on the contrary, to make your images “lighter” and more pleasing?

I never looked at color as a “pleasing” or “light” element. Quite the opposite really. My use of color in the Mimesis cyle, just like in nature, is deceptive. In nature, color plays a fundamental role in survival. In my work, I make use of color to describe my subjects’ feelings when they are alone or in danger. Modifying their aspect is a necessity for them, a form of self-defense to protect themselves from the shallowness, arrogance and violence of society. A society which is only concerned with its own useless endurance.

In one of your exhibits, in 2013, you explicitly referenced the theory of “signatures”, the web of alleged correspondences among the different physical forms, the symptoms of illness, celestial mutations, etc.
These analogies, for instance those found to exist between a tree, deer antlers and the artery system, were connected to palmistry, physiognomy and medicine, and were quite popular from Paracelsus to Gerolamo Cardano to Giambattista della Porta.
In your works there’s always a reference to the origins of natural sciences, to Renaissance wunderkammern, to 15th-16th Century botanics. Even on a formal level, you have revisited some ancient techniques, such as the encaustic technique.
What’s the appeal of that period?

I believe that was the beginning of it all, and all the following periods, including the one we live in, are but an evolution of that pioneering time. Man still studies plants, observes animal behavior, tries in vain to preserve the body, studies the mechanisms of outer space… Even if he does it in a different way, I don’t think much has really changed. What is lacking today is that crazy obsession with observation, the pleasure of discovery and the want to take care of one’s own time. In learning slowly, and deeply, lies the key to fix the emotions we feel when we discover something new.

A famous quote (attributed to Banksy, and inspired by a poem by Cesar A. Cruz) says: “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable”.
Are your paintings meant to comfort or disturb the viewer?

My way of life, and my way of being, are reflected in my work. I never felt the urge to shock or distrub the public with my images, nor did I ever try to seek attention. Though my work I wish to reach people’s heart. I want to do it tiptoe, silently, and by asking permission if necessary. If they let me in, that’s where I will grow my roots and reside forever.

 

Werner Herzog, a filmmaker who often addressed in his movies the difficult relationship between man and nature, claims in Grizzly Man (2006) that “the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder”. Elsewhere, he describes the Amazon jungle as a never-ending “collective massacre”.
As compared to Herzog’s pessimistic views, I have a feeling that you might see nature as a continuum, where any predator-pray relationship is eventually an act of “self-cannibalism”. Species fight and assault each other, but in the end this battle is won by life itself, who as an autopoietic system is capable of finding constant nourishment within itself. Decomposition itself is not bad, as it allows new germinations.
What is death to you, and how does it relate to your work?

As far as I’m concerned, death plays a fundamental role, and I find myself constantly meditating on how all is slowly dying. A new sprout is already beginning to die, and that goes for all that’s living. One of the aspects of existence that most fascinate me is its decadence. I am drawn to it, both curious and scared, and my work is perhaps a way to exorcise all the slow dying that surrounds us.

You can follow Nunzio Paci on his official website, Facebook page and Instagram account.

The Law of the Tongue

This article originally appeared on #ILLUSTRATI n. 50 – Il posto delle balene

In the nineteenth century the coastal town of Eden, Australia, was one of the epicentres of whaling. It fronted (as it still does) onto Twofold Bay, where between winter and spring the southern right whale used to appear, ready for mating.

This huge cetacean moves very slowly, its body size prevents it from springing and leaping. It was therefore the perfect prey for whale hunters, who were able to obtain many barrels of oil from a single mammal; during one hunting season, as many as 22 specimens were caught, and they guaranteed enough income for the entire year to the families of Eden.
But every winter, together with the whales, even the school of killer whales arrived, and wanted the same thing as the fishermen.

At the beginning the fishermen, feeling in competition with them, tried to chase the killer whales away.
But, as far as we know, things began to change from about 1840, when the whalers started to recruit some aborigines of the Thaua tribe as harpooners. These natives had actually practised whale hunting for thousands of years before the European arrived, and had made a “deal” with the killer whales.

When the killer whales intercepted a group of migrating whales, they surrounded them and pushed them into Twofold Bay, by the coastline. Here a male killing whale, the leader, swam to the dock to alert the whalers, leaping and slapping the water with its tail. The men jumped on the boats and easily harpooned and killed the whales. In return for this help, the whalers established the so-called “law of the tongue”: they used to fasten the carcass of the whale they had just killed to a boat or a buoy and left it in the water all night so that the killing whales could reclaim their share of the spoils – namely, the cetacean’s huge lips and tongue for their meal. The killer whales did not touch the rest of the body, which contained the fat and bones that were precious for the fishermen.

A whale carcass photographed in 1908: killer whales had already eaten its tongue and lips.

The killer whales became fundamental partners for the citizens of Eden, they were freed as soon as they got caught in the fishing nets and it is said that they even kept the dangerous sharks away from the whalers’ fragile lifeboats.
One male killer whale that most interacted with the men, drawing their attention, was seven metres long and weighed about six tons: it became well-known by the nickname of Old Tom.

A whaler and Old Tom.

This cooperation lasted for almost a century.
In 1923 someone called John Logan, a retired breeder, went hunting with third-generation whaler George Davidson. As he used to do, Old Tom pushed a small whale towards the men and they killed it. But a storm was approaching, and the season had really been meagre: Logan, being afraid that that whale may be the last of the year, decided to break the law of the tongue for the very first (and last) time.
He used his harpoon to push Old Tom, that was properly demanding its reward, away from the prey. With a badly executed blow, without really wanting it, Logan yanked off two of the poor killing whale’s teeth. When wounded Old Tom swam away from the boat, Logan whispered: “Oh my God, what have I done?”.

The gums of Old Tom became infected and during the following years the killing whale had to struggle harder and harder to feed; on September 18, 1930 it was found beached near Eden. It had died of consumption and starvation.
From that moment on, its school disappeared and never returned.

Today, the skeleton of Old Tom is exhibited at the Eden Killer Whale Museum, in everlasting memory of the weird, but fruitful alliance between men and killer whales.

Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 14

  • Koko, the female gorilla who could use sign language, besides painting and loving kittens, died on June 19th. But Koko was not the first primate to communicate with humans; the fisrt, groundbreaking attempt to make a monkey “talk” was carried out in quite a catastrophic way, as I explained in this old post (Italian only – here’s the Wiki entry).
  • Do you need bugs, butterflies, cockroaches, centipedes, fireflies, bees or any other kind of insects for the movie you’re about to shoot? This gentleman creates realistic bug props, featured in the greatest Hollywood productions. (Thanks, Federico!)
  • If you think those enlarge-your-penis pumps you see in spam emails are a recently-invented contraption, here’s one from the 19th Century (taken from Albert Moll, Handbuch der Sexualwissenschaften, 1921).

  • Ghanaian funerals became quite popular over the internet on the account of the colorful caskets in the shape of tools or barious objects (I talked about it in the second part of this article — Italian only), but there’s a problem: lately the rituals have become so complicated and obsessive that the bodies of the deceased end up buried months, or even several years, after death.
  • This tweet.
  • 1865: during the conquest of Matterhorn, a strange and upsetting apparition took place. In all probability it was an extremely rare atmospheric phenomenon, but put yourselves in the shoes of those mountain climbers who had just lost four members of the team while ascending to the peak, and suddenly saw an arc and two enormous crosses floating in the sky over the fog.
  • The strange beauty of time-worn daguerrotypes.

  • What’s so strange in these pictures of a man preparing some tacos for a nice dinner with his friends?
    Nothing, apart from the fact that the meat comes from his left foot, which got amputated after an accident.

Think about it: you lose a leg, you try to have it back after the operation, and you succeed. Before cremating it, why not taste a little slice of it? It is after all your leg, your foot, you won’t hurt anybody and you will satiate your curiosity. Ethical cannibalism.
This is what a young man decided to try, and he invited some “open-minded” friends to the exclusive tasting event. Then, two years later, he decided to report on Reddit how the evening went. The human-flesh tacos were apparently quite appreciated by the group, with the exception of one tablemate (who, in the protagonist’s words, “had to spit me on a napkin“).
The experiment, conducted without braking any law since in the US there is none to forbid cannibalism, did raise some visceral reactions, as you would expect; the now-famous self-cannibal was even interviewed on Vice. And he stated that this little folly helped him to overcome his psychological thrauma: “eating my foot was a funny and weird and interesting way to move forward“.

  • Since we’re talking disgust: a new research determined that things that gross us out are organized in six main categories. At the first place, it’s no surprise to find infected wounds and hygiene-related topics (bad smells, excrements, atc.), perhaps because they act as signals for potentially harmful situations in which our bodies run the risk of contracting a disease.
  • Did someone order prawns?
    In Qingdao, China, the equivalent of a seafood restaurant fell from the sky (some photos below). Still today, rains of animals remain quite puzzling.

EDIT: This photo is fake (not the others).

  • In Sweden there is a mysterious syndrom: it only affects Soviet refugee children who are waiting to know if their parents’ residency permit will be accepted.
    It’s called “resignation syndrome”. The ghost of forced repatriation, the stress of not knowing the language and the exhausting beaurocratic procedures push these kids first into apathy, then catatonia and eventually into a coma.  At first this epidemic was thought to be some kind of set-up or sham, but doctors soon understood this serious psychological alteration is all but fake: the children can lie in a coma even for two years, suffer from relapses, and the domino effect is such that from 2015 to 2016 a total of 169 episodes were recorded.
    Here’s an article on this dramatic condition. (Thanks, David!)

Anatomy of the corset.

  • Nuke simulator: choose where to drop the Big One, type and kilotons, if it will explode in the air or on the ground. Then watch in horror and find out the effects.
  • Mari Katayama is a Japanese artist. Since she was a child she started knitting peculiar objects, incorporating seashells and jewels in her creations. Suffering from ectrodactyly, she had both legs amputated when she was 9 years old. Today her body is the focus of her art projects, and her self-portraits, in my opinion, are a thing of extraordinary beauty. Here are some of ther works.
    (Official website, Instagram)

Way back when, medical students sure knew how to pull a good joke (from this wonderful book).

  • The big guy you can see on the left side in the picture below is the Irish Giant Charles Byrne (1761–1783), and his skeleton belongs to the Hunterian Museum in London. It is the most discussed specimen of the entire anatomical collection, and for good reason: when he was still alive, Byrne clearly stated that he wanted to be buried at sea, and categorically refused the idea of his bones being exhibited in a museum — a thought that horrified him.
    When Byrne died, his friends organized his funeral in the coastal city of Margate, not knowing that the casket was actually full of stones: anatomist William Hunter had bribed an undertaker to steal the Giant’s valuable body. Since then, the skeleton was exhibited in the museum and, even if it certainly contributed to the study of acromegalia and gigantism, it has always been a “thorny” specimen from an ethical perspective.
    So here’s the news: now that the Hunterian is closed for a 3-year-long renovation, the museum board seems to be evaluating the possibility of buring Byrne’s skeletal remains. If that was the case, it would be a game changer in the ethical exhibit of human remains in museums.

  • Just like a muder mystery: a secret diary written on the back of floorboards in a French Castle, and detailing crime stories and sordid village affairs. (Thanks, Lighthousely!)
  • The most enjoyable read as of late is kindly offered by the great Thomas Morris, who found a  delightful medical report from 1852. A gentleman, married with children but secretly devoted to onanism, first tries to insert a slice of a bull’s penis into his own penis, through the urethra. The piece of meat gets stuck, and he has to resort to a doctor to extract it. Not happy with this result, he  decides to pass a 28 cm. probe through the same opening, but thing slips from his fingers and disappears inside him. The story comes to no good for our hero; an inglorious end — or maybe proudly libertine, you decide.
    It made me think of an old saying: “never do anything you wouldn’t be caught dead doing“.

That’s all for now folks!

The Spann Case: A Chronicle

Article by guestblogger “La cara Pasifae”

The law is some tricky shit, isn’t it?
(Thelma & Louise, 1991)

From her first marriage, Patricia Ann Spann had three children: a boy, then a girl and another boy. Things were not too good, evidently, because Patricia lose custody over them and the children were legally adopted by her mother-in-law.

But in 2008 Patricia met Cody Spann Jr., her oldest son, who at the time was 18. And she married him.
In Lawton, Comanche County, Oklahoma. She signed the papers using both her maiden and her married name, “Patricia Ann Clayton Spann”.

Fifteen moths later, in 2010, at the boy’s request a judge nullified their marriage on the grounds of incest. The Oklahoma laws categorically forbids unions with direct descendants.

In 2014 Patricia met her daughter, at the time 23 years old, Misty Velvet Dawn Spann.


And on March 25, 2016, the two women got married.

They moved in together in Duncan, Stephens County (OK), nearly 30 miles from the Texas border and less than 20 from Lawton where, once again, the wedding had taken place.
To get around the obstacle of their shared family name, Patricia Spann had used her maiden name upon filing the marriage licence application.

Perhaps not all the neighbors were fine with this new, close but reserved couple settling in. So, in August, Patricia and Misty received the visit of a Human Services Child Welfare Division investigator who, while assessing the state of the Spann children, found out that mother and daughter were legally married.

The women admitted both to their biological bond and to being married. Patricia declared to the investigator that she didn’t think they were breaking any law since her name no longer appeared on her daughter’s birth certificate, and that anyway, after being reunited, “they hit it off”.

Thus the authorities came to know of the incestuous relationship. The case was assigned to Duncan Police Detective Dustin Smith, who began the investigations on August 26, 2016, after a warning from the Human Services Division. In September, just months after they had married, in compliance with the law, the Spanns were formally charged.
Felony arrest warrants were issued in Stephens County District Court for both of them. If found guilty, they would face up to 10 years in prison.
After the arrest Misty and Patricia Ann were put in custody in Stephens County Jail. The bail was set at $10,000 for each woman.

As reported by Lawton Constitution, Patricia Spann insisted that she hadn’t had contact with her children until a few years earlier, claim contradicted by court records regarding her former marriage with her biological son. No charges were pressed for that marriage.

At Misty’s request, the marriage with her mother was annulled Oct. 12, 2017, as court records show. In November the girl, who claimed she was fraudulently induced into marriage by her mother, pleaded guilty to her incest charge. She was sentenced to probation for 10 years, two of which to be spent under the supervision of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

But after the verdict, a legal technicality emerged, which does not allow deferred senteces – like probation – in incest cases. She was therefore allowed to withdraw her guilty plea and to enter a new plea.
After pleading guilty to the felony count, on March 13, 2018, 46.years-old Spann, born in Norman (OK), was transferred to prison for incest. A judged sentenced her to two years of prison, eight years probation and a $2,791 fine allocated as follows: a $1,500 fine, $300 to the State victims’ compensation fund, and $991 in legal fees. Upon her release, she will also be registered as a sex offender.
In this moment, the woman is held in prison in a Oklahoma State Jail, where she passed her first three months as a recluse.

Thus we have compiled a chronicle of a strange story from the deep South Central. The nature of these facts can amaze and astonish, pushing us to try and guess the inner dinamics that moved its protagonist, Patricia Ann Spann. What were her motivations? Is it possible to really understand?

This is why this is no biography. We can only get a glimpse of the vast array of different interpretation such a story can sustain, of the extent of speculations it suggests, of the powerful, mythical narratives it brings to mind. Where should we start?

(La cara Pasifae)

Myrtle The Four-Legged Girl

Mrs. Josephine M. Bicknell died only one week before her sixtieth birthday; she was buried in Cleburne, Texas, at the beginning of May, 1928.

Once the coffin was lowered into the ground,her husband James C. Bicknell stood watching as the grave was filled with a thick layer of cement; he waited for an hour, maybe two, until the cement dried completely. Eventually James and the other relatives could head back home, relieved: nobody would be able to steal Mrs. Bicknell’s body – not the doctors, nor the other collectors who had tried to obtain it.

It is strange to think that a lifeless body could be tempting for so many people.
But the lady who was resting under the cement had been famous across the United States, many years before, under her maiden name: Josephine Myrtle Corbin, the Four-Legged Girl from Texas.

Myrtle was born in 1868 in Lincoln County, Tennessee, with a rare fetal anomaly called dipygus: her body was perfectly formed from her head down to her navel, below which it divided into two pelvises, and four lower limbs.

Her two inner legs, although capable of movement, were rudimentary, and at birth they were found laying flat on the belly. They resembled those of a parasitic twin, but in reality there was no twin: during fetal development, her pervis had split along the median axis (in each pair of legs, one was atrophic).

 Medical reports of the time stated that

between each pair of legs there is a complete, distinct set of genital organs, both external and internal, each supported by a pubic arch. Each set acts independently of the other, except at the menstrual period. There are apparently two sets of bowels, and two ani; both are perfectly independent,– diarrhoea may be present on one side, constipation on the other.

Myrtle joined Barnum Circus at the age of 13. When she appeared on stage, nothing gave away her unusual condition: apart from the particularly large hips and a clubbed right foot, Myrtle was an attractive girl and had an altogether normal figure. But when she lifted her gown, the public was left breathless.

She married James Clinton Bicknell when she was 19 years old, and the following year she went to Dr. Lewis Whaley on the account of a pain in her left side coupled with other worrying symptoms. When the doctor announced that she was pregnant in her left uterus, Myrtle reacted with surprise:

“I think you are mistaken; if it had been on my right side I would come nearer believing it”; and after further questioning he found, from the patient’s observation, that her right genitals were almost invariably used for coitus.

That first pregnancy sadly ended with an abortion, but later on Myrtle, who had retired from show business, gave birth to four children, all perfectly healthy.

Given the enormous success of her show, other circuses tried to replicate the lucky formula – but charming ladies with supernumerary legs were nowhere to be found.
With typical sideshow creativity, the problem was solved by resorting to some ruse.
The two following diagrams show the trick used to simulate a three-legged and a four-legged woman, as reported in the 1902 book The New Magic (source: Weird Historian).

If you search for Myrtle Corbin’s pictures on the net, you can stumble upon some photographs of Ashley Braistle, the most recent example of a woman with four legs.
The pictures below were taken at her wedding, in July 1994, when she married a plumber from Houston named Wayne: their love had begun after Ashley appeared in a newspaper interview, declaring that she was looking for a “easygoing and sensitive guy“.

Unfortunately on May 11, 1996, Ashley’s life ended in tragedy when she made an attempt at skiing and struck a tree.

Did you guess it?
Ashley’s touching story is actually a trick, just like the ones used by circus people at the turn of the century.
This photographic hoax comes from another bizarre “sideshow”, namely the Weekly World News, a supermarket tabloid known for publishing openly fake news with funny and inventive titles (“Mini-mermaid found in tuna sandwich!” “Hillary Clinton adopts a baby alien!”, “Abraham Lincoln was a woman!”, and so on).

The “news” of Ashley’s demise on the July 4, 1996 issue.

 

Another example of a Weekly World News cover story.

To end on a more serious note, here’s the good news: nowadays caudal duplications can, in some instances, be surgically corrected after birth (it happened for example in 1968, in 1973 and in 2014).

And luckily, pouring cement is no longer needed in order to prevent jackals from stealing an extraordinary body like the one of Josephine Myrtle Corbin Bicknell.

Bizzarro Bazar a Palermo

Sorry, this entry is only available in Italian.

The Golden Mummy

What’s inside the giant surprise egg above?

How lucky! It’s a mummy!

These photos date back to 2016; they were taken in the temple of Chongfu, located on a hill in the city of Quanzhou in China, during the opening of the vase containing the mummified remains of Fu Hou, a Buddhist monk who had died in 2012 at the age of 94.

The body still sat in the lotus position and looked well-preserved; so it was washed and disinfected, wrapped in gauze, sealed in red lacquer and finally covered with gold leaves. He was dressed and placed inside a glass case, so that he could be revered by worshippers.

Mummification of those monks who are believed to have achieved a higher spiritual perfection is not unheard of: at one time a sort of “self-mummification” was even practised (I wrote about it in this old post, Italian only). And in 2015, some Dutch scholars made a CT scan of a statue belonging to the Drents Museum collection and discovered that it contained the remains of master Liquan, who died around 1100 AD.

It might seem a paradox that in the Buddhist tradition, which has made accepting impermanence (anitya) one of the cornerstones of ritual and contemplative practice, so much attention is placed on the bodies of these “holy” monks, to the extent of turning them into relics.
But veneration for such characters is probably an effect of the syncretism, which took place in China, between Buddhism and Taoism; the Buddhist concept of arhat, which indicates the person who has experienced nirvana (even without reaching the higher status of bodhisattva or true “buddhahood“), has blended with the Taoist figure of zhenren, the “True Man”, able to spontaneously conform his actions to the Tao.

In the excellent preservation of the mummies, many Buddhists see a proof that these great spiritual masters are not really dead, but simply suspended in an advanced, perfect state of meditation.

Mocafico, Haeckel, Blaschka & The Juncture of Wonder

In this post I would like to address three different discoveries I made over the years, and their peculiar relationship.

∼ 2009 ∼

I had just started this blog. During my nightly researches, I remember being impressed by the work of an Italian photographer who specialized in still life pictures: Guido Mocafico.
I was particularly struck – for obvious reasons of personal taste – by his photographs inspired by Dutch vanitas paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries: the pictures showed an outstanding, refined use of light and composition (they almost looked like paintings), but that was not all there was.

In this superb series, Mocafico represented many classic motifs used to symbolize transience (the homo bulla, man being like a soap bubble, but also the hourglass, the burning candle, etc.) with irreproachable taste and philologic attention; the smallest details betrayed a rigorous and deep preparation, a meticulous study which underpinned each of his photographs.

I went on to archive these fascinating photographs, promising myself I would talk about them sooner or later. I never kept that promise, until now.

∼ 2017 ∼

Last year Taschen published a somptuous, giant-size edition of Ernst Haeckel‘s works.
The German scientist, who lived between late 19th century and early 20th century, was an exceptional figure: marine biologist, naturalist, philosopher, he was among the major popularizers of Darwin’s theory of evolution in Germany. He discovered and classified thousands of new species, but above all he depicted them in hundreds of colorful illustrations.

Taschen’s luxurious volume is a neverending wonder, page after page. An immersion into an unknown and alien world – our world, inhabited by microorganisms of breathtaking beauty, graceful jellyfish, living creatures of every shape and structure.

It is a double aesthetic experience: one one hand we are in awe at nature’s imaginative skills, on the other at the artist’s mastery.
I’ll confess that going through the book, I often willingly forget to check the taxonomic labels: after a while, human categories and names seem to lose their meaning, and it’s best to just get lost in sheer contemplation of those perfect, intricate, unusual, exuberant forms.

∼ 2018 ∼

London, Natural History Museum, a couple of weeks ago.
There I am, bewildered for half an hour, looking at the model of a radiolarian, a single-celled organism found in zooplankton. In the darkened room, the light coming from above emphasizes the model’s intricate craftsmanship. The level of detail, the fragility of its thin pseudopods and the rendering of the protozoa’s translucid texture are mind-blowing.

This object’s peculiarity is that it’s made of glass. It’s one of the models created by 19th-century master glassmakers Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka.
And this is just one among thousands and thousands of similar masterpieces created by the two artists from Dresden.

The Blaschkas were a Bohemian family of glass artisans, and when Leopold was born he inherited the genes of several generations of glassmakers. Being especially talented from an early age, he created decorations and glass eyes for many years, until in a short span of time he happened to lose his wife, his son and his father to cholera. Shattered by grief, he took sails towards America but the ship was stopped at sea for two week due to a lack of wind. During this forced arrest, in the darkest period of his life, Leopold was saved by wonder: one night he was looking at the dark ocean, when suddenly he noticed “a flashlike bundle of light beams, as if it is surrounded by thousands of sparks, that form true bundles of fire and of other bright lighting spots, and the seemingly mirrored stars”. He observed those sea creatures in awe, and took sketches of their structure. Since that night, the memory of the magical spectacle he had witnessed never left him.

Years later, back in Dresden and happily remarried, he began creating glass flowers, as a hobby; his orchids were so perfectly crafted that they caught the eye of prince Camille de Rohan first, and then of the director of the Natural History Museum. The latter commissioned twelve sea anemones models; and thus Leopold, remembering that night on the stranded ship, began to work on scientific models. Soon Blaschka’s sea animals – and glass flowers – became famous; Leopold, with the help of his son Rudolph, collaborated with all the most important museums. After his father’s death, Rudolph continued to work developing an even more refined technique, producing 4.400 plant models for Harvard University’s Herbarium.
Together, father and son crafted a total of around 10.000 glass models of sea creatures.

Their artistry attained such perfection that, after them, no glassmaker would ever be able replicate it. “Many people thinkLeopold wrote in 1889 – that we have some secret apparatus by which we can squeeze glass suddenly into these forms, but it is not so. We have tact. My son Rudolf has more than I have, because he is my son, and tact increases in every generation”.

∼ Convergence ∼

Some of our interests, at first glance independent from one another, sometimes turn out to be actually correlated. It is as if, on the map of our own passions, we suddenly discover a secret passage between two areas that we thought were distinct, a “B” spot connecting points “A” and “C”.

In this case, for me the “A” point was Guido Mocafico, the author of the evocative series of photographs entitled Vanités; whom I discovered years ago, and guiltily forgotten.
Haeckel was, in retrospect, my “C” point.
And I never would have thought of linking one to the other, before a “B” point, Blaschka’s glass models, appeared on my mind map

Because, here is the thing: to build their incredible glass invertebrates, Leopold and his son Rudolph were inspired, among other things, by Haeckel’s illustrations.
And you can imagine my surprise when I found out that all the best photographs of the Blaschka models, those you can see in this very article, were taken by… Guido Mocafico.
Unbeknownst to me, during the years I had lost sight of him, the photographer dedicated some amazing series of pictures to the Blaschka models, as you can see on his official website.

I always felt there was a tight connection between Haeckel’s fantastic microorganisms and my beloved vanitas. Their intimate bond, perhaps, was sensed by Mocafico too, in his aesthetic research.
A wonder for the creatures of the world is also the astonishment in regard to their impermanence.
At heart, we – human beings, animals, plants, ecosystems, maybe even reality itself – are but immensely beautiful, yet very fragile, glass masterpieces.

Oedipus in Indonesia

This article originally apeared on #ILLUSTRATI n. 49, “Incest”

There were once two animals: a dog called Tumang, and a female boar named Celeng Wayungyang. They weren’t ordinary animals, but two deities transformed into beasts because of a sin they had committed long before.
One day, in the jungle, the sow-goddess drank the urine of a king who was hunting nearby and got pregnant; being a supernatural creature, she gave birth to her daughter within a few hours. The king, who was still in the jungle, heard the baby cry, and when he found her, he adopted her.
The little girl, called Dayang Sumbi, grew up at the palace and became a skilful weaver, a beautiful girl courted by many princes and noblemen.
One day, while she was spinning on the terrace, her loom fell down to the courtyard and since, being a princess, she could not put her feet on the ground to go and get it, Dayang Sumbi promised aloud that she would marry anyone who would bring it back to her. To her great disconcert, it was Tumang the dog the one who granted her wish, and she was obliged to marry him, unaware that he was actually a demigod. As soon as the king found out about the outrageous union between his daughter and a dog, he disowned her and banished her from the palace.
The couple went to live in a hut in the jungle, where Dayang Sumbi soon discovered that on full moon nights Tumang returned to his original appearance, turning into a young and wonderful lover; together they conceived a son, and they called him Sangkuriang.

When Sangkuriang was ten years old, his mother asked him to find a deer’s liver, for which she had a taste. So the boy went hunting in the jungle with his loyal dog Tumang (he didn’t know the dog was his father).
In the forest there was no sign of deer, but the two of them bumped into a beautiful female boar, and Sangkuriang thought that maybe her liver would do anyway. However, when he tried to kill the beast, Tumang the dog – having realized it was the goddess, which means Sangkuriang’s grandmother – diverted the bow and made him miss the target. Sangkuriang was furious and aimed his arrows at Tumang, killing him. Then he brought the dog’s liver to his mother, who cooked it believing it was wild game. As soon as she discovered the trick, though, poor Dayang Sumbi flared up, realizing that she had just eaten her husband’s liver; therefore she hit her son on the head with a ladle, and the blow was so severe that the boy completely lost his memory, and ran away into the forest, terrified.

Twelve long years passed.
Sangkuriang had become a handsome, strong and attractive young man. He didn’t remember anything at all about his mother, so when one day he accidentally met her – being the daughter of a goddess, she was still young and beautiful – he fell in love with her. They decided to get married, until one day Dayang Sumbi, while she was combing her fiancé, noticed on his head the scar left by the ladle and realized Sangkurian was her son.
She tried to convince him to break off the engagement but the young man, still a victim of amnesia, didn’t believe her and insisted that the wedding should be celebrated.

Then Dayang Sumbi devised a trick, an impossible proof of love. She told Sangkuriang she would marry him only if he managed to fill the entire valley with water: furthermore, still before the cock crowed, he should build a boat so that the two of them could sail together on the newly formed lake. The woman was sure that this was going to be an impossible task.
But, to her great surprise, Sangkuriang invoked the help of heavenly spirits and made the riverbanks collapse, filling the valley with water: he had managed to create a lake!
Then he cut down a huge tree and started to carve a boat.
Dayang Sumbi realized that her son was going to succeed in the challenge, so she feverishly started to weave huge red veils; she too prayed the heavenly creatures, and they spread the big veils along the horizon. The cocks, deceived, thought that dawn had already come and began to crow. Deceived, Sangkuriang flared up and kicked the unfinished boat upside down, which turned into an enormous mountain. The splinters formed other mountaintops around the first one.

Mount Tangkuban Perahu, its profile reminiscent of a capsized boat.

This very old legend is still told nowadays by the Sundanese people of the Island of Java, and it sounds surprising not only because of its resemblance with the story of Oedipus.
This myth actually explains the creation of the Bandung basin, of Mount Tangkuban Parahu (which literally means “capsized boat”) and of the mountains nearby. But Lake Bandung, described in the legend, is dried out since no less than 16,000 years and the mountains took shape even earlier, because of a series of volcanic eruptions.
Archaeologists and anthropologists are positive that in the colourful legend of Sankguriang and of the challenges his mother threw down at him to avoid the incestuous relationship there is a kernel of historical truth: orally handed down through generations, it seems to bear the ancestral memory of the lake which disappeared thousands of years ago and of the seismic events which gave rise to the mountain range.
On the base of this myth, scholars have therefore dated the settlement of the Sundanese people in this geographical area to approximately 50,000 years ago.

Macabre Masks

The Templo Mayor, built between 1337 and 1487, was the political and religious heart of Tenochtitlán, the city-state in Valley of Mexico that became the capital of the Aztec empire starting from the 15th Century.
Since its remains were accidentally discovered in 1978, during the excavations for Mexico City’s subway, archeologists have unearthed close to 80 ceremonial buildings and an extraordinary number of manufacts from the Aztec (Mexica) civilization.

Among the most peculiar findings, there are some masks created from human skulls.
These masks are quite elaborate: the back of the skull was removed, probably in order to wear them or apply them to a headgear; the masks were colored with dye; flint blades and other decorations were inserted into the eye sockets and nostrils.

In 2016 a team of anthropologists from the University of Montana conducted an experimental research on eight of these masks, comparing them with twenty non-modified skulls found on the same site, in order to learn their sex, age at death, possible diseases and life styles. The results showed that the skull masks belonged to male individuals, 30 to 45-years old, with particularly good teeth, indicating above-average health. From the denture’s shape the anthropologists even inferred that these men came from faraway locations: Toluca Valley, Western Mexico, the Gulf coast and other Aztec towns in the Valley of Mexico. Therefore the skulls very likely belonged to prisoners of noble origins, excellently nourished and lacking any pathologies.

Human sacrifices at the Templo Mayor, for which the Aztecs are sadly known, were a spectacle that could entail different procedures: sometimes the victims were executed by beheading, sometimes through the extraction of the heart, or burned, or challenged to deathly combats.
The masks were produced from the bodies of sacrified warriors; wearing them must have had a highly symbolic value.

If these items survived the ravages of time, it’s because they’re made of bones. But there existed other, more unsettling disguises that have been inevitably lost: the masks made from the flayed skin of a sacrified enemy’s face.

The conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo described these skin masks as tanned to look “like glove leather” and said that they were worn during celebrations of military victories. Other masks, made of human skin, were displayed as offerings on temple altars, just as a number of the skull masks, reanimated by shell and stone eyeballs, noses, and tongues, were buried in offerings at the Templo Mayor. Because a defeated enemy’s former powers were believed to be embedded in his skin and bones, masks made of his relics not only transferred his powers to the new owner but could serve as worthy offerings to the god as well.

(Cecelia F. Klein, Aztec Masks, in Mexicolore, September 2012)

During a month-long ceremony called Tlacaxiphualiztli, “the Flaying of Men”, the skin of sacrified prisoners was peeled off and worn for twenty days to celebrate the war god Xipe Totec. The iconography portrays this god clothed in human skin.

Such masks, wether made of bone or of skin, have a much deeper meaning than the ritual itself. They play an important role in establishing identity:

In Aztec society a warrior who killed his first captive was said to ‘assume another face.’ Regardless of whether this expression referred literally to a trophy mask or was simply a figure of speech, it implies that the youth’s new “face” represented a new social identity or status. Aztec masks therefore must be understood as revelations, or signs, of a person’s special status rather than as disguises […]. In Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs, the word for face, xayacatl, is the same word used to refer to something that covers the face.

(Cecelia F. Klein, Ibid.)

Here is the interesting point: there’s not a single culture in the whole world which hasn’t elaborated its own masks, and they very rarely are simple disguises.
Their purpose is “the development of personality […], or more accurately, the development of the person [which] is a question of magical prestige“: the masks “are actually used among primitives in in totem ceremonies, for instance, as a means of enhancing or changing the personality” (Carl Gustav Jung, The Ego and the Uncoscious, 1928, p. 155).

Much in the same way, the decorated skulls of Templo Mayor are not so “exotic” as we might like to imagine. These manufacts are but a different declination of ideas we are quite familiar with — ideas that are at the very core of our own society.

The relationship between the face (our identity and individuality) and the mask we wear, is a very ancient paradox. Just like for the Aztecs the term xayacatl could indicate both the mask and the face, for us too they are often indistinguishable.

The very word person comes from the Latin “per-sonare”, “to resound through”: it’s the voice of the actor behind his mask.
Greek tragedy was born between the 7th and 5th century BCE, a representation that essentialy a substitute for human sacrifices, as Réné Girard affirmed. One of the most recognized etimologies tells us that tragedy is actually the song of the scapgoat: an imitation of the ritual killing of the “internal stranger” on the altar, of the bloody spectacle with which society cleansed itself, and washed away its most impure, primiteve urges. Tragedy plays – which Athenians were obligated to attend by law, during Dionysus celebrations – substituted the ancestral violence of the sacrifice with its representation, and the scapegoat with the tragic hero.

Thus the theater, in the beginning, was conflict and catharsis. A duel between the Barbarian, who knows no language and acts through natural instinct, and the Citizen, the son of order and logos.
Theater, just like human sacrifice, created cultural identity; the Mask creates the person needed for the mise-en-scene of this identity, forming and regulating social interactions.

The human sacrifices of the ancient Greeks and of the Aztec both met the same need: cultural identity is born (or at least reinforced) by contrast with the adversary, offered and killed on the altar.
Reducing the enemy to a skull — as the Aztecs did with the tzompantli, the terrible racks used to exhibit dozens, maybe hundreds of sacrifice victims skulls — is a way of depriving him of his mask/face, of annihilating his identity. Here are the enemies, all alike, just bleached bones under the sun, with no individual quality whatsoever.

But turning these skulls into masks, or wearing the enemy’s skin, implies a tough work, and therefore means performing an even more conscious magical act: it serves the purpose of acquiring his strength and power, but also of reasserting that the person (and, by extension, society) only exists because of the Stranger it was able to defeat.