Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: Episode 9

In the 9th episode of Bizzarro Bazar: the incredible history of tonic water; a touching funerary artifact; the mysterious “singing sand” of the desert. [Be sure to turn on English captions.]

If you like this episode please consider subscribing to the channel, and most of all spread the word. Enjoy!

Written & Hosted by Ivan Cenzi
Directed by Francesco Erba
Produced by Ivan Cenzi, Francesco Erba, Theatrum Mundi & Onda Videoproduzioni

Napoleon’s Penis

The surgical tool kit that was used to perform the autopsy on Napoleon’s body at Saint Helena is on display at the Museum of History of Medicine in Paris.
But few people know that those scalpels probably also emasculated the Emperor.

In his last few months on Saint Helena, Napoleon suffered from excruciating stomach pains. Sir Hudson Lowe, the governor of the island under whose control Bonaparte had been confined, dismissed the whole thing as a slight anemia. Yet on May 5, 1821 Bonaparte died.
The autopsy conducted the following day by Napoleon’s personal physician, Francesco Carlo Antommarchi, revealed that he had been killed by a stomach tumor, aggravated by large ulcers (although the actual causes of death have been debated).
But during the autoptic examination Antommarchi apparently took some liberties.

Francesco Carlo Antommarchi

The heart was extracted and put in in a vase filled with spirit; it was meant to be delivered to the Emperor’s second wife, Maria Luisa, in Parma. In reality, she must have been hardly impressed by such a token of love, since a few months after Napoleon’s death she already married her lover. The stomach, that cancerous organ responsible for Napoleon’s death, was also removed and preserved in liquid. Antommarchi then made a cast of Bonaparte’s face, from which he later produced the famous death mask displayed at the Musée de l’Armée.

But at this point the doctor from Marseilles decided he’d grab a further, macabre trophy: he severed Napoleon’s penis. Antommarchi’s motives for this extra cut are unclear. Some speculate it might have been some sort of revenge for the way the irascible Napoleon mistreated him in the last few months; according to other sources, the doctor (sometimes described as an ignorant and disrespectful man) simply thought he could make a profit out of it.

But perhaps it was not even Antommarchi who took the controversial specimen. Thirty years later, in 1852, Mamluk Ali (Louis-Etienne Saint-Denis, Napoleon’s most faithful valet) published a memorial in the Revue des Mondes. In the article, Ali attributed the responsibility of this mutilation to himself and to Abbot Angelo Paolo Vignali, the chaplain who administered extreme unction to Bonaparte. He stated that he and Vignali had removed some unspecified “portions” of Napoleon’s corpse during the autopsy.

All these stories are quite dubious; it seems unlikely that such a disfigurement could go unnoticed. Five English doctors, plus three English and three French officers, were present at Napoleon’s autopsy. After the embalming, his faithful waiter Marchand dressed his body in uniform. How come no one noticed the absence of manhood on the body of the “little corporal”?

In any case,  what may or may not have been Napoleon’s true penis, but a penis nonetheless, began to circulate in Europe.
And even if it’s unclear who was responsible for severing it, in the end it was chaplain Vignali who smuggled it back to Corsica, along with more conventional mementos (documents and letters, a few pieces of silverware, a lock of hair, a pair of breeches, etc.), and the organ passed to his heirs upon Vignali’s death in a bloody vendetta in 1828. It remained in the family for almost a century, and was finally purchased by an anonymous buyer at an auction in 1916, together with the entire collection. In the auction catalog, the penis was described with a euphemism: “mummified tendon“.

After being bought by the famous antiquarian bookstore Maggs of London, the lot was resold in 1924 to Philadelphia collector Abraham Simon Wolf Rosenbach, who exhibited it three years later at the Museum of French Art in New York. Here the penis of Napoleon was on public display for the first and only time, and a jouranlist described it as a “maltreated strip of buck-skin shoelace or a shriveled eel“.

In 1944 Rosenbach sold the collection once again, and it continued to be passed from hand to hand. But despite the historical value of these memorabilia the market proved to be less and less interested, and the Vignali collection remained unsold at various auctions. In 1977 a major part of the collection was acquired by the French government, and destined to join the remains of Napoleon at Les Invalides. Not the penis, however, which the French refused to even acknowledge. It was John K. Lattimer, an American urologist, who bought it for $ 4,000. His intention, it seems, was to permanently remove it from circulation so that it would not be ridiculed.

The urologist had amassed an impressive collection of macabre historical curiosities – from the blood-stained collar that President Lincoln wore on the night of his murder at Ford’s theater, to one of the poison capsules Göring used to commit suicide. Lattimer kept the infamous “mummified tendon” locked away in a suitcase under his bed for years, protecting it from the public’s morbid curiosity, and he always refused any purchase proposal. He X-rayed the specimen, and it turned out to actually be a human penis.

After Lattimer’s death in 2007, his daughter took on the laborious task of archiving this incredible collection.
The penis is still part of the collection: Tony Perrottet, author of the book Napoleon’s Privates, is among the very few who have had the opportunity to see it in person. “It was kind of an amazing thing to behold. There it was: Napoleon’s penis sitting on cotton wool, very beautifully laid out, and it was very small, very shriveled, about an inch and a half long. It was like a little baby’s finger.
Here is the video showing the moment when the writer finally found himself face to face with the illustrious genitals:

Perrottet was not given permission to film the actual penis at the time, but in a 2015 reading he exhibited an alleged replica, which you can see below.

One can understand Perrottet’s obvious excitation in the video: the author declared that, to him, Napoleon’s penis is the symbol “of everything that’s interesting about history. It sort of combines love and death and sex and tragedy and farce all in this one story“. And certainly all these elements do contribute to the fascination we feel for such a relic, which is at once comic, macabre, obscene and titillating. But there’s more.

The body of a man who – for better or for worse – so profoundly changed the history of the world, possesses an almost magical aura. Why then does the thought of it being disrespected and desecrated provoke an unmentionable, subtle satisfaction? Why did Lattimer fear that showing that small, withered and mummified penis would result in public derision?

Perhaps it’s because that little piece of meat looks like a masterpiece of irony, a perfect retaliation.
As comedian George Carlin put it,

men are terrified that their pricks are inadequate and so they have to compete with one another to feel better about themselves and since war is the ultimate competition, basically, men are killing each other in order to improve their self-esteem. You don’t have to be a historian or a political scientist to see the Bigger Dick foreign policy theory at work.

George Carlin, Jammin’ In New York (1992)

The controversial POTUS tweet (01/03/2018) on who might have the “bigger button”.

On the other hand, this relic also reminds us that Napoleon was mortal, after all, and brings his figure back to the concreteness of a corpse on the autopsy table. The mummified penis takes the place of that hominem te memento (“Remember that you are only a man”) that was repeated in the ear of Roman generals returning from a victory so they wouldn’t get a big head, or the sic transit that the protodeacon pronounced at the passage in San Pietro of the newly elected Pope (“thus passes the glory of the world”).

That flap of shrunken and withered skin is at once a symbol of vanitas, and a mockery of the typical machismo so often exhibited by leaders and rulers. It reminds us that “the Emperor has no clothes”.
Worse: he has no clothes, no life, and no manhood.

Part of the informations in this article come from Bess Lovejoy’s wonderful book Rest In Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses (2014).
One chapter of my book
Paris Mirabilia is devoted to the Museum of History of Medicine.
Tony Perrottet’s Napoleon’s Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped is essentially a collection of spicy anecdotes about famous historical figures. Among these, one in particular is relevant. During the WWII, Stalin asked Winston Churchill to help out with the Russian army’s “serious condom shortage”. The British Prime Minister had a special batch of extra-large condoms prepared, then sent them to Russia with the label “Made in Britain – Medium“. This glaring example of foreign policy would have delighted George Carlin.

Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: Episode 8

In the 8th episode of Bizzarro Bazar: the most extraordinary lives of people born with extra limbs; a wax crucifix hides a secret; two specular cases of animal camouflage. [Be sure to turn on English captions.]

If you like this episode please consider subscribing to the channel, and most of all spread the word. Enjoy!

Written & Hosted by Ivan Cenzi
Directed by Francesco Erba
Produced by Ivan Cenzi, Francesco Erba, Theatrum Mundi & Onda Videoproduzioni

Rita Fanari: The Last of the Dwarfs

ROLL UP! ROLL UP! The great phenomenon of nature, the smallest woman in the world, 70 cm tall, 57 years old, weighing 5 Kg. RITA FANARI, from UXELLUS. She has been blind since the age of 14 and yet she threads yarn throug a needle, she sews, and all this in the presence of the public. She responds to any query. Every day at all hours you can see this great phenomenon.

So read the 1907 billboard announcing the debut on the scene of Rita Fanari. Unfortunately it was not a prestigious stage, but a sideshow at the Santa Reparata fair in the small town of Usellus (Oristano), at the time a very remote town in Sardinia, a community of just over a thousand souls. Rita shared her billboard – and perhaps even the stage – with a taxidermy of a two-headed lamb: we can suppose that whoever made that poster added it because he doubted that the tiny woman, alone, would be able to fascinate the gaze of passers-by… So right from the start, little Rita’s career was certainly not stellar.

Rita Fanari was born on 26 January 1850, daughter of Appolonia Pilloni and Placito Fanari. She suffered from pituitary dwarfism, and her sight abandoned her during adolescence; she lived with her parents until in 1900, when they probably died and she was adopted, at the age of fifty, by the family of Raimondo Orrù. This educated and wealthy man exhibited her in various fairs and village festivals including that of Santa Croce in Oristano. Since she had never found a husband, Rita used to appear on stage wearing the traditional dress for bagadia manna (elderly unmarried woman), and over time she gained enough notoriety to even enter vernacular expressions: when someone sang with a high-pitched  voice, people used to mock them by saying “mi paris Arrita Fanài cantendi!” (“You sound like Rita Fanari singing!”).

Rita died in 1913. Her life might seem humble, as negligible as her own stature. A blind little woman, who managed to survive thanks to the interest of a landowner who forced her to perform at village fairs: a person not worthy of note, mildly interesting only to those researching local folklore. One of the “last”, those people whose memory is fogotten by history.

Yet, on closer inspection, her story is significant for more than one reason. Not only she was the only documented case of a Sardinian woman suffering from dwarfism who performed at a sideshow; Rita Fanari was also a rather unusual case for Italy in those years. Let’s try to understand why.

Among all congenital malformations, dwarfism has always attracted particular attention over the centuries. People suffering from this growth deficiency, often considered a sign of good luck and fortune (or even divine incarnations, as apparently was the case among the Egyptians), sometimes enjoyed high favors and were in great demand in all European courts. Owning and even “collecting” dwarfs became an obsession for many rulers, from Sigismund II Augustus to Catherine de’ Medici to the Tsar Peter the Great — who in 1710 organized the scandalous “wedding of dwarfs” I mentioned in this article (Italian only).

The public exhibition of Rita Fanari should therefore not surprise us that much, especially if we think of the success that human wonders were having in traveling circuses and amusement parks around the world. A typical American freak show consisted exactly in what Fanari did: the deformed person would sit on the stage, ready to satisfy the curiosity and answer questions from the spectators (“she responds to any query“, emphasized Rita’s poster).

Yet in the early 1900s the situation in Italy was different compared to the rest of the world. Only in Italian circuses, in fact, the figure of the dwarf clown had evolved into that of the “bagonghi”.

The origin of this term is uncertain, and according to some sources it comes from the surname of a Bolognese chestnut street seller who was 70 centimeters high and who in 1890 was hired by the Circus Guillaume. However, this nickname soon became a generic name identifying a unique act in the circus world. The bagonghi was not a simple “midget clown”, but a complete artist:

The bagonghi does not merely display his deformity, he performs – leaping, juggling, jesting; and he needs, therefore, like any other actor or clown, talent, devotion and long practice of his art. But he also must be from the beginning monstrous and afflicted, which is to say, pathetic. Indeed, there is a pop mythology dear to Italian journalists which insists on seeing all bagonghi as victims of their roles.

(L. Fiedler, Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self, 1978)

A few examples: the bagonghi Giuseppe Rambelli, known as Goliath, was an acrobat as well as an equestrian vaulter; Andrea Bernabè, born in Faenza in 1850, performed as an acrobat on the carpet, a magician, a juggler; Giuseppe Bignoli, born in 1892 – certainly the most famous bagonghi in history – was considered one of the best acrobatic riders tout court, so much so that many circuses were fighting for the chance to book him.

Giuseppe Bignoli (1893-1939)

After the war Francesco Medori and Mario Bolzanella, both employed in the Circo Togni, became famous; the first, a skillful stunter, died trying to tame a terrible fire in 1951; the second hit the headlines when he married Lina Traverso, who was also a little person, and above all when the news brok that a jealous circus chimpazee had scratched the bride in the face. A comic and grotesque scene, perfectly fitting with the classical imagery of the bagonghi, who

can be considered as a sort of Harlequin born between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, and that quickly became a typical character, like those of the commedia dell’arte. The bagonghi is therefore a sort of modern masked “type” that first appeared and was developed within the Italian circus world, and then spread worldwide.

(M. Fini, Fenomeni da baraccone. Miti e avventure dei grandi circensi italiani, Italica Edizioni, 2013)

Going back to our Rita Fanari, we can understand why her career as a “great phenomenon of nature” was decidedly unusual and way too old for a time when the audience had already started to favor the show of diversity (a theatrical, choreographic performance) over its simple exhibition.

The fact that her act was more rudimentary than those performed in the rest of Italy can be undoubtedly explained with the rural context she lived in, and with her visual impairment. A handicap that, despite being advertised as a doubtful added value, actually did not allow her to show off any other skill other than to put the thread through the needle’s eye and start sewing. Not exactly a dazzling sight.
Rita was inevitably the last among the many successful dwarfs, little people like her who in those years were having a huge success under the Big Top, and who sometimes got very rich ( “I spent my whole life amassing a fortune”, Bignoli wrote in his last letter). As she was cut off from actual show business, and incapacitated by her disability, her luck was much more modest; so much so that her very existence would certainly have been forgotten, if a few years ago Dr. Raimondo Orru, the descendant and namesake of her benefactor, had not found some details of her life in the family archives.

But those very circumstances that prevented her from keeping up with the times, also made her “the last one” in a more meaningful sense. Perhaps because of the rustic agro-pastoral context, her act was very old-fashioned. In fact, hers may have been the last historical case in Italy of a person with dwarfism exhibited as a pure lusus naturae, an exotic “freak of nature”, a prodigy to parade and display.
In mainland Italy, as we said, things were already changing. Midgets and dwarfs, well before any other “different” or disabled person, had to prove their desire to overcome their condition, making a show of their skills and courage, performing exceptional stunts.
Along with this idea, and with the definitive pathologization of physical anomalies during the twentieth century, the mythological aura surrounding exceptional, uneven bodies will be lost; and a gaze of pity/admiration will become established. Today, the spectacle of disability is only accepted in these two modes — it’s either tragedy, the true motor of charity events and telethons, or the exemplum, the heroic overcoming of the disabled person’s own “limits”, with all the plethora of inspirational, motivational, life-affirming anecdotes that come with it.

It is impossible to know precisely how the villagers considered Rita at the time. Was she the object of ridicule, or wonder?
The only element available to us, that billboard from 1907, definitely shows her as an admirable creature in herself. In this sense Rita was really someone out of the past, because she presented herself in the public eye just for what she was. The last of the dwarfs of times past, who had the capacity to fascinate without having to do acrobatics: she needed nothing more than herself and her extraordinary figure, half old half child, to be at least considered worthy the price of admission.

On the ethics of our approach to disability, check out my article Freaks: Gaze and Disability.
I would like to thank Stefano Pisu, beacuse all the info on Rita Fanari in this article come from a Facebook post he wrote on the page of the Associazione culturale Julia Augusta di Usellus.
Pictures of the original billboard are shown here courtesy of Raimondo Orru; his findings on Rita’s life are included in the book Usellus. Costume popolare e matrimonio (Edizioni Grafica del Parteolla, 2000).

Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: Episode 7

In the seventh episode of Bizzarro Bazar: the tragic and startling story of the Sutherland Sisters; a piece of the Moon which fell to Earth; a creature halfway between the plant kingdom and the animal kingdom. [Be sure to turn on English captions.]

If you like this episode please consider subscribing to the channel, and most of all spread the word. Enjoy!

Written & Hosted by Ivan Cenzi
Directed by Francesco Erba
Produced by Ivan Cenzi, Francesco Erba, Theatrum Mundi & Onda Videoproduzioni

ILLUSTRATI GENESIS: Day 3

Seven little lessons to rediscover our everyday life.
Seven days for the Creation… of a new perspective.

DAY 3 – EARTH

The well-known detail: We open Google Maps, a geographic atlas or any world map. We can identify the proportions of the different countries, the position of the continents, the structure of the whole globe.

Mercator projection of the Earth, Daniel R. Strebe 2011.

The background: The map we all know is untruthful. Or rather, it is a very useful tool but it is inaccurate, like the majority of the maps. The problem arises when you project the spherical surface of our planet on a two-dimensional sheet, and you obviously get a distorted image. The most famous and known projection was made by Gerardus Mercator, a Flemish astronomer and cartographer, in 1569: it owes its good fortune to its ability to represent lines of constant course as straight segments that keep the angles with the meridians, thus facilitating navigation; but in so doing, it gradually distorts the sizes of objects as the latitude increases near the poles. This means that Antarctica and Greenland appear much larger than they actually are, while landmasses near the equator appear smaller.

Mercator’s projection is not the only option. In 1973, Arno Peters published a map in which the world was divided into 100 horizontal and 100 vertical sections in order to maintain the correct sizes of the continents. Africa appears to be stretched out but South America looks correctly bigger than North America.

Gall-Peters projection of the Earth, Daniel R. Strebe 2011.

The curious thing about Peters is that he wasn’t actually a geographer, but an historian: this map was part of a wider project aiming at a total rethinking of our concept of human history. In his volume Synchronoptische Weltgeschichte (Synchronous Optical Map of World History, 1952), he tells the story of ancient Greece and Rome in parallel with the story of African, Asian and pre-Columbian people, equating all cultures in order to fight the idea of the Mediterranean basin being the cradle of civilization. This preconception is also the reason why Europe is always depicted in the centre of the maps.

Going ahead with this reasoning, another question inevitably arises: who decided that the North Pole should necessary lie on top? The poles are merely the imaginary extremities of the earth’s rotational axis, but they actually do not lie on top or at the bottom of anything, since in outer space any direction is relative.
But, even cardinal directions have political and psychological implications, as much as placing Europe at the centre of the world.
Researches show that the north-south axis ends up being associated with prejudices. In Italy, the North is associated with the idea of wealth and prosperity, the opposite of the South; in Great Britain or in France the opposite is true, and northern areas are generally considered to be poorer and needier. On a global scale, the Northern Hemisphere still represents the ‘better’ part of the world. According to some studies, it is often sufficient to reverse a map to make this cognitive bias in the observer disappear.

Map of Europe with South at the top, Tyrannus Mundi 2012.

We do not often take into consideration the metaphorical and political implications of geographic maps but they have been existing for centuries. In the Middle Ages, the “T-O maps” were quite common, for instance, as they showed the known world as a circle, the letter O, with a T inscribed inside to represent the Mediterranean Sea, dividing Europe from Asia and Africa. At the centre of these maps lied the most important city to the Christian civilization: Jerusalem. The world map appearing on the UN emblem surrounded by two olive branches conveys a completely different symbolic meaning. It represents an azimuthal equidistant projection centred on the North Pole and has been chosen in order not to give prominence to any particular country.

Orbis Terrae (T-O) map taken from the Etimologies by Saint Isidore of Seville, 1472, and a version obtained with modern cartography.

The Third Lesson: If all geographic maps are distorted, the same goes for the mental maps we use every day. According to the philosopher Alfred Korzybski, all abstractions we make in order to better understand reality work only if we keep in mind that they are mere simplifications. Also, language is a system of signs and should not be confused with the objects it refers to: the word ‘snow’ is not white, a map is not the territory, judging people ‘bad’ on the basis of their actions is an oversimplification. As we saw with the Mercator projection, having a clear “world view” – always discerning north from south, right from wrong, black from white – can be useful and convenient provided we don’t believe too much in it, risking to forget the vast complexity of the real world.

The first two Days of ILLUSTRATI GENESIS are available here.

Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: Episode 6

In the sixth episode of the Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: scientific experiments to defeat death; a Russian spacesuit; the blue-skinned family. [Be sure to turn on English captions.]

If you like this episode please consider subscribing to the channel, and most of all spread the word. Enjoy!

Written & Hosted by Ivan Cenzi
Directed by Francesco Erba
Produced by Ivan Cenzi, Francesco Erba, Theatrum Mundi & Onda Videoproduzioni

Čapec

[SORRY, THIS POST IS IN ITALIAN ONLY]

Qualche anno fa vi avevo già parlato di Hurricane Ivan, illustratore, musicista e cartoonist che assieme a una ciurma di weirdissimi complici mantiene vivo il fumetto underground in Italia.

Oggi vi segnalo la sua ultima fatica editoriale, in cui ancora una volta si conferma l’abilità di Hurricane nell’aggregare e catalizzare talenti diversi: la rivista autoprodotta Čapec.

Questo nuovo progetto è a suo modo davvero titanico. Pensate che per realizzare le 80 pagine di Čapec, Hurricane Ivan ha reclutato quasi un centinaio di autori da tutto il mondo!

La lista è troppo lunga da pubblicare qui (la potete consultare in questo post su Facebook), ma include mostri sacri del fumetto assieme a molti altri personaggi che per un motivo o per l’altro sono “non allineati” — qui tutti impegnati a parodiare e scardinare le regole del classico magazine, con tanto di rubriche farlocche, reportage demenziali e inchieste sovversive.

C’è la pagina di economia che insegna i trucchi per svaligiare una banca, curata da un autentico rapinatore; ci sono le vignette in stile Risate a denti stretti, ammorbate però da un umorismo nerissimo e scorretto; c’è il laboratorio di scienza in cui si impara come costruirsi una giacca resistente al taser della polizia; c’è il gioco per bambini che permette di costruirsi la propria discarica abusiva; ci sono rubriche di cinema, moda, benessere ecc., ovviamente tutte bagnate al vetriolo.

Ma Čapec offre anche racconti (tra cui il bellissimo I poveri si sparano allo specchio di Pino Tripodi), fumetti collettivi, stralci dal vero diario di un ergastolano, e molto altro. Si tratta di 80 pagine di pura follia anarchica tra insolenza e satira sociale, che sembrano uscite dalla San Francisco di fine anni ’60, quella dei gloriosi Zap Comix di Robert Crumb.

E non vi ho ancora detto la notizia più bella: Čapec è disponibile gratuitamente online sul sito di Le Strade Bianche, ma se volete una copia cartacea potete ordinarla — e il prezzo lo decidete voi.

Anch’io ho dato il mio piccolo contributo a questo salutare delirio, stilando il manifesto del Movimento degli Anatomizzatori, che potete ammirare qui sotto (cliccate sull’immagine per aprire la versione PDF in alta qualità, 9MB).

Buona lettura!

Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: Episode 5

In the fifth episode of the Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: the incredible case of Mary Toft, one of the biggest scandals in early medical history; an antique and macabre vase; the most astounding statue ever made. [Be sure to turn on English captions.]

If you like this episode please consider subscribing to the channel, and most of all spread the word. Enjoy!

Written & Hosted by Ivan Cenzi
Directed by Francesco Erba
Produced by Ivan Cenzi, Francesco Erba, Theatrum Mundi & Onda Videoproduzioni

Aristotle’s Perversion

The ladies and gentlemen you see above are practicing the sexual roleplay called pony play, in which one of the two participants takes on the role of the horse and the other of the jockey. This is a quirky niche within the wider field of dom/sub relationships, yet according to the alternative sexuality expert Ayzad

aficionados can reach impressive levels of specialization: there are those who prefer working on posture and those who organize real races on the track, some live it as a sexual variant while others tend to focus on the psychological experience. Ponygirls often report loving this game because it allows them to regress to a primordial perception of the world, in which every feeling is experienced with greater intensity: many describe reverting to their usual “human condition” as harsh and unpleasant. Although there are no precise figures, it is believed that pony play is actively practiced by no more than 2,000 people worldwide, yet this fantasy is appreciated by a far greater number of sympathizers.

Ayzad, XXX. Il dizionario del sesso insolito, Castelvecchi. Edizione Kindle.

But few people know that this erotic mis-en-scene has an illustrious forerunner: the first unwilling ponyboy in history was none other than the greatest philosopher of ancient times1, Aristotle!

(Well, not really. But what is reality, dear Aristotle?)

At the beginning of the 1200s, in fact, a curious legend began to circulate: the story featured Aristotle secretly falling in love with Phyllis, wife of Alexander the Macedonian (who was a pupil of the great philosopher) .
Phyllis, a beautiful and shrewd woman, decided to exploit Aristotle’s infatuation to teach a lesson to her husband, who was neglecting her by spending whole days with his mentor. So she told Aristotle that she would grant him her favors if he agreed to let her ride on his back. Blinded by passion, the philosopher accepted and Phyllis arranged for Alexander the Great to witness, unseen, this comic and humiliating scene.

The story, mentioned for the first time in a sermon by Jacques de Vitry, became immediately widespread in popular iconography, so much so that it was represented in etchings, sculptures, furnishing objects, etc. To understand its fortune we must focus for a moment on its two main protagonists.

First of all, Aristotle: why is he the victim of the satire? Why targeting a philosopher, and not for instance a king or a Pope?
The joke worked on different levels: the most educated could read it as a roast of the Aristotelian doctrine of enkráteia, i.e. temperance, or knowing how to judge the pros and cons of pleasures, knowing how to hold back and dominate, the ability to maintain full control over oneself and one’s own ethical values.
But even the less educated understood that this story was meant to poke fun at the hypocrisy of all philosophers — always preaching about morality, quibbling about virtue, advocating detachment from pleasures and instincts. In short, the story mocked those who love to put theirselves on a pedestal and teach about right and wrong.

On the other hand, there was Phyllis. What was her function within the story?
At first glance the anecdote may seem a classic medieval exemplum designed to warn against the dangerous, treacherous nature of women. A cautionary tale showing how manipulative a woman could be, clever enough to subdue and seduce even the most excellent minds.
But perhaps things are not that simple, as we will see.

And finally there’s the act of riding, which implies a further ambiguity of a sexual nature: did this particular type of humiliation hide an erotic allusion? Was it a domination fantasy, or did it instead symbolize a gallant disposition to serve and submit to the beloved maiden fair?

To better understand the context of the story of Phyllis and Aristotle, we must inscribe it in the broader medieval topos of the “Power of Women” (Weibermacht in German).
For example, a very similar anecdote saw Virgil in love with a woman, sometimes called Lucretia, who one night gave him a rendez-vous and lowered a wicker basket from a window so he coulf be lifted up to her room; but she then hoisted the basket just halfway up the wall, leaving Virgil trapped and exposed to public mockery the following morning.

Judith beheading Holofernes, Jael driving the nail through Sisara’s temple, Salome with the head of the Baptist or Delilah defeating Samson are all instances of very popular female figures who are victorious over their male counterparts, endlessly represented in medieval iconography and literature. Another example of the Power of Women trope are funny scenes of wives bossing their husbands around — a recurring  theme called the “battle of the trousers”.
These women, whether lascivious or perfidious, are depicted as having a dangerous power over men, yet at the same time they exercise a strong erotic fascination.

The most amusing scenes — such as Aristotle turned into a horse or Virgil in the basket — were designed to arouse laughter in both men and women, and were probably also staged by comic actors: in fact the role reversal (the “Woman on Top”) has a carnivalesque flavor. In presenting a paradoxical situation, maybe these stories had the ultimate effect of reinforcing the hierarchical structure in a society dominated by males.
And yet Susan L. Smith, a major expert on the issue, is convinced that their message was not so clearcut:

the Woman on Top is best understood not as a straightforward manifestation of medieval antifeminism but as a site of contest through which conflicting ideas about gender roles could be expressed.

Susan L. Smith, Women and Gender in Medieval Europe: An Encyclopedia (2006)

The fact that the story of Phyllis and Aristotle lent itself to a more complex reading is also confirmed by Amelia Soth:

It was an era in which the belief that women were inherently inferior collided with the reality of female rulers, such as Queen Elizabeth, Mary Tudor, Mary, Queen of Scots, Queen Catherine of Portugal, and the archduchesses of the Netherlands, dominating the European scene. […] Yet the image remains ambiguous. Its popularity cannot be explained simply by misogyny and distrust of female power, because in its inclusion on love-tokens and in bawdy songs there is an element of delight in the unexpected reversal, the transformation of sage into beast of burden.

Perhaps even in the Middle Ages, and at the beginning of the modern period, the dynamics between genres were not so monolithic. The story of Phyllis and Aristotle had such a huge success precisely because it was susceptible to diametrically opposed interpretations: from time to time it could be used to warn against lust or, on the contrary, as a spicy and erotic anecdote (so much so that the couple was often represented in the nude).

For all these reasons, the topos never really disappeared but was subjected to many variations in the following centuries, of which historian Darin Hayton reports some tasty examples.

In 1810 the parlor games manual Le Petit Savant de Société described the “Cheval d’Aristote”, a vaguely cuckold penalty: the gentleman who had to endure it was obliged to get down on all fours and carry a lady on his back, as she received a kiss from all the other men in a circle.

The odd “Aristotle ride” also makes its appearance in advertising posters for hypnotists, a perfect example of the extravagances hypnotized spectators were allegedly forced to perform. (Speaking of the inversion of society’s rules, those two men on the left poster, who are compelled to kiss each other, are worth noting.)

In 1882 another great philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, brought to the stage his own version of Phyllis and Aristotle, himself taking on the role of the horse. In the photographs, he and his friend Paul Rée are at the mercy of the whip held by Lou von Salomé (the woman Nietzsche was madly in love with).

And finally let’s go back to the present day, and to those pony guys we saw at the beginning.
Today the “perversion of Aristotle”, far from being a warning about the loss of control, has come to mean the exact opposite: it has become a way to allow free rein (pun intended) to erotc imagination.

Ponies on the Delta, a ponly play festival, is held every year in Louisiana where a few hundred enthusiasts get together to engage in trot races, obstacle races and similar activities before a panel of experts. There are online stores that specialize in selling hooves and horse suits, dozens of dedicated social media accounts, and even an underground magazine called Equus Eroticus.

Who knows what the austere Stagirite would have thought, had he known that his name was going to be associated with such follies.
In a certain sense, the figure of Aristotle was really “perverted”: the philosopher had to submit not to the imaginary woman named Phyllis, but to the apocryphal legend of which he became the unwilling protagonist.