Wunderkammer Reborn – Part I

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”.

Mirabilia

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.).

Naturalia

Artificialia

Artificialia

Mirabilia

Mirabilia

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.

(To be continued in Part Two)

Links, curiosities & mixed wonders – 7

Back with Bizzarro Bazar’s mix of exotic and quirky trouvailles, quite handy when it comes to entertaining your friends and acting like the one who’s always telling funny stories. Please grin knowingly when they ask you where in the world you find all this stuff.

  • We already talked about killer rabbits in the margins of medieval books. Now a funny video unveils the mystery of another great classic of illustrated manuscripts: snail-fighting knights. SPOILER: it’s those vicious Lumbards again.
  • As an expert on alternative sexualities, Ayzad has developed a certain aplomb when discussing the most extreme and absurd erotic practices — in Hunter Thompson’s words, “when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro“. Yet even a shrewd guy like him was baffled by the most deranged story in recent times: the Nazi furry scandal.
  • In 1973, Playboy asked Salvador Dali to collaborate with photographer Pompeo Posar for an exclusive nude photoshoot. The painter was given complete freedom and control over the project, so much so that he was on set directing the shooting. Dali then manipulated the shots produced during that session through collage. The result is a strange and highly enjoyable example of surrealism, eggs, masks, snakes and nude bunnies. The Master, in a letter to the magazine, calimed to be satisfied with the experience: “The meaning of my work is the motivation that is of the purest – money. What I did for Playboy is very good, and your payment is equal to the task.” (Grazie, Silvia!)

  • Speaking of photography, Robert Shults dedicated his series The Washing Away of Wrongs to the biggest center for the study of decomposition in the world, the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University. Shot in stark, high-contrast black and white as they were shot in the near-infrared spectrum, these pictures are really powerful and exhibit an almost dream-like quality. They document the hard but necessary work of students and researchers, who set out to understand the modifications in human remains under the most disparate conditions: the ever more precise data they gather will become invaluable in the forensic field. You can find some more photos in this article, and here’s Robert Shults website.

  • One last photographic entry. Swedish photographer Erik Simander produced a series of portraits of his grandfather, after he just became a widower. The loneliness of a man who just found himself without his life’s companion is described through little details (the empty sink, with a single toothbrush) that suddenly become definitive, devastating symbols of loss; small, poetic and lacerating touches, delicate and painful at the same time. After all, grief is a different feeling for evry person, and Simander shows a commendable discretion in observing the limit, the threshold beyond which emotions become too personal to be shared. A sublime piece of work, heart-breaking and humane, and which has the merit of tackling an issue (the loss of a partner among the elderly) still pretty much taboo. This theme had already been brought to the big screen in 2012 by the ruthless and emotionally demanding Amour, directed by Michael Haneke.
  • Speaking of widowers, here’s a great article on another aspect we hear very little about: the sudden sex-appeal of grieving men, and the emotional distress it can cause.
  • To return to lighter subjects, here’s a spectacular pincushion seen in an antique store (spotted and photographed by Emma).

  • Are you looking for a secluded little place for your vacations, Arabian nights style? You’re welcome.
  • Would you prefer to stay home with your box of popcorn for a B-movies binge-watching session? Here’s one of the best lists you can find on the web. You have my word.
  • The inimitable Lindsey Fitzharris published on her Chirurgeon’s Apprentice a cute little post about surgical removal of bladder stones before the invention of anesthesia. Perfect read to squirm deliciously in your seat.
  • Death Expo was recently held in Amsterdam, sporting all the latest novelties in the funerary industry. Among the best designs: an IKEA-style, build-it-yourself coffin, but above all the coffin to play games on. (via DeathSalon)
  • I ignore how or why things re-surface at a certain time on the Net. And yet, for the last few days (at least in my whacky internet bubble) the story of Portuguese serial killer Diogo Alves has been popping out again and again. Not all of Diogo Alves, actually — just his head, which is kept in a jar at the Faculty of Medicine in Lisbon. But what really made me chuckle was discovering one of the “related images” suggested by Google algorythms:

Diogo’s head…

…Radiohead.

  • Remember the Tsavo Man-Eaters? There’s a very good Italian article on the whole story — or you can read the English Wiki entry. (Thanks, Bruno!)
  • And finally we get to the most succulent news: my old native town, Vicenza, proved to still have some surprises in store for me.
    On the hills near the city, in the Arcugnano district, a pre-Roman amphitheatre has just been discovered. It layed buried for thousands of years… it could accomodate up to 4300 spectators and 300 actors, musicians, dancers… and the original stage is still there, underwater beneath the small lake… and there’s even a cave which acted as a megaphone for the actors’ voices, amplifying sounds from 8 Hz to 432 Hz… and there’s even a nearby temple devoted to Janus… and that temple was the real birthplace of Juliet, of Shakespearean fame… and there are even traces of ancient canine Gods… and of the passage of Julius Cesar and Cleopatra…. and… and…
    And, pardon my rudeness, wouldn’t all this happen to be a hoax?


No, it’s not a mere hoax, it is an extraordinary hoax. A stunt that would deserve a slow, admired clap, if it wasn’t a plain fraud.
The creative spirit behind the amphitheatre is the property owner, Franco Malosso von Rosenfranz (the name says it all). Instead of settling for the traditional Italian-style unauthorized development  — the classic two or three small houses secretely and illegally built — he had the idea of faking an archeological find just to scam tourists. Taking advantage of a license to build a passageway between two parts of his property, so that the constant flow of trucks and bulldozers wouldn’t raise suspicions, Malosso von Rosenfranz allegedly excavated his “ancient” theatre, with the intention of opening it to the public at the price of 40 € per visitor, and to put it up for hire for big events.
Together with the initial enthusiasm and popularity on social networks, unfortunately came legal trouble. The evidence against Malosso was so blatant from the start, that he immediately ended up on trial without any preliminary hearing. He is charged with unauthorized building, unauthorized manufacturing and forgery.
Therefore, this wonderful example of Italian ingenuity will be dismanteled and torn down; but the amphitheatre website is fortunately still online, a funny fanta-history jumble devised to back up the real site. A messy mixtre of references to local figures, famous characters from the Roman Era, supermarket mythology and (needless to say) the omnipresent Templars.


The ultimate irony is that there are people in Arcugnano still supporting him because, well, “at least now we have a theatre“. After all, as the Wiki page on unauthorized building explains, “the perception of this phenomenon as illegal […] is so thin that such a crime does not entail social reprimand for a large percentage of the population. In Italy, this malpractice has damaged and keeps damaging the economy, the landscape and the culture of law and respect for regulations“.
And here resides the brilliance of old fox Malosso von Rosenfranz’s plan: to cash in on these times of post-truth, creating an unauthorized building which does not really degrade the territory, but rather increase — albeit falsely — its heritage.
Well, you might have got it by now. I am amused, in a sense. My secret chimeric desire is that it all turns out to be an incredible, unprecedented art installations.  Andthat Malosso one day might confess that yes, it was all a huge experiment to show how little we care abot our environment and landscape, how we leave our authenticarcheological wonders fall apart, and yet we are ready to stand up for the fake ones. (Thanks, Silvietta!)

The Carney Landis Experiment

Suppose you’re making your way through a jungle, and in pulling aside a bush you find yourself before a huge snake, ready to attack you. All of a sudden adrenaline rushes through your body, your eyes open wide, and you instantly begin to sweat as your heartbeat skyrockets: in a word, you feel afraid.
But is your fear triggering all these physical reactions, or is it the other way around?
To make a less disquieting example, let’s say you fall in love at first sight with someone. Are the endorphines to be accounted for your excitation, or is your excitation causing their discharge through your body?
What comes first, physiological change or emotion? Which is the cause and which is the effect?

This dilemma was a main concern in the first studies on emotion (and it still is, in the field of affective neurosciences). Among the first and most influential hypothesis was the James-Lange theory, which maintained the primacy of physiological changes over feelings: the brain detects a modification in the stimuli coming from the nervous system, and it “interprets” them by giving birth to an emotion.

One of the problems with this theory was the impossibility of obtaining clear evidence. The skeptics argued that if every emotion arises mechanically within the body, then there should be a gland or an organ which, when conveniently stimulated, will invariably trigger the same emotion in every person. Today we know a little bit more of how emotions work, in regard to the amygdala and the different areas of cerebral cortex, but at the beginning of the Twentieth Century the objection against the James-Lange theory was basically this — “come on, find me the muscle of sadness!

In 1924, Carney Landis, a Minnesota University graduate student, set out to understand experimentally whether these physiological changes are the same for everybody. He focused on those modifications that are the most evident and easy to study: the movement of facial muscles when emotion arises. His study was meant to find repetitive patterns in facial expressions.

To understand if all subjects reacted in the same way to emotions, Landis recruited a good number of his fellow graduate students, and began by painting their faces with standard marks, in order to highlight their grimaces and the related movement of facial muscles.
The experiment consisted in subjecting them to different stimuli, while taking pictures of their faces.

At first volunteers were asked to complete some rather harmless tasks: they had to listen to jazz music, smell ammonia, read a passage from the Bible, tell a lie. But the results were quite discouraging, so Landis decided it was time to raise the stakes.

He began to show his subjects pornographic images. Then some medical photos of people with horrendous skin conditions. Then he tried firing a gunshot to capture on film the exact moment of their fright. Still, Landis was having a hard time getting the expressions he wanted, and in all probability he began to feel frustrated. And here his experiment took a dark turn.

He invited his subjects to stick their hand in a bucket, without looking. The bucket was full of live frogs. Click, went his camera.
Landis encouraged them to search around the bottom of the mysterious bucket. Overcoming their revulsion, the unfortunate volunteers had to rummage through the slimy frogs until they found the real surprise: electrical wires, ready to deliver a good shock. Click. Click.
But the worst was yet to come.

The experiment reached its climax when Landis put a live mouse in the subject’s left hand, and a knife in the other. He flatly ordered to decapitate the mouse.
Most of his incredulous and stunned subjects asked Landis if he was joking. He wasn’t, they actually had to cut off the little animal’s head, or he himself would do it in front of their eyes.
At this point, as Landis had hoped, the reactions really became obvious — but unfortunately they also turned out to be more complex than he expected. Confronted with this high-stress situation, some persons started crying, others hysterically laughed; some completely froze, others burst out into swearing.

Two thirds of the paricipants ended up complying with the researcher’s order, and carried out the macabre execution. In any case, the remaining third had to witness the beheading, performed by Landis himself.
As we said, the subjects were mainly other students, but one notable exception was a 13 years-old boy who happened to be at the department as a patient, on the account of psychological issues and high blood pressure. His reaction was documented by Landis’ ruthless snapshots.

Perhaps the most embarassing aspect of the whole story was that the final results for this cruel test — which no ethical board would today authorize — were not even particularly noteworthy.
Landis, in his Studies of Emotional Reactions, II., General Behavior and Facial Expression (published on the Journal of Comparative Psychology, 4 [5], 447-509) came to these conclusions:

1) there is no typical facial expression accompanying any emotion aroused in the experiment;
2) emotions are not characterized by a typical expression or recurring pattern of muscular behavior;
3) smiling was the most common reaction, even during unpleasant experiences;
4) asymmetrical bodily reactions almost never occurred;
5) men were more expressive than women.

Hardly anything that could justify a mouse massacre, and the trauma inflicted upon the paritcipants.

After obtaining his degree, Carney Landis devoted himself to sexual psychopatology. He went on to have a brillant carreer at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. And he never harmed a rodent again, despite the fact that he is now mostly remembered for this ill-considered juvenile experiment rather than for his subsequent fourty years of honorable research.

There is, however, one last detail worth mentioning.
Alex Boese in his Elephants On Acid, underlines how the most interesting figure of all this bizarre experiment went unnoticed: the fact that two thirds of the subjects, although protesting and suffering, obeyed the terrible order.
And this percentage is in fact similar to the one recorded during the infamous Milgram experiment, in which a scientist commanded the subjects to inflict an electric shock to a third individual (in reality, an actor who pretended to receive the painful discharge). In that case as well, despite the ethical conflict, the simple fact that the order came from an authority figure was enough to push the subjects into carrying out an action they perceived as aberrant.

The Milgram experiment took place in 1961, almost forty years after the Landis experiment. “It is often this way with experiments — says Boese — A scientis sets out to prove one thing, but stumbles upon something completely different, something far more intriguing. For this reason, good researchers know they should always pay close attention to strange events that occur during their experiments. A great discovery might be lurking right beneath their eyes – or beneath te blade of their knife.

On facial expressions related to emotions, see also my former post on Guillaume Duchenne (sorry, Italian language only).

Mirages

All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.
(E.A. Poe)

∼ Inferior Mirages ∼

Very hot air close to the ground, colder air  above. Light rays refracted from distant objects get deviated by the column of scorching air moving upwards. Here is the classical mirage of Sahara Bedouins, fresh oasis among the dunes and water poodles where there is nothing but dusty desert.

A mirage which is bound to also haunt another kind of nomad, the soul who cannot help but travel because he’s a victim of the highway blues, and he knows all too well that the tarmac road might look wet under the torrid sun.

The more we get close to it, the more the illusion vanishes. We hurry towards the much coveted water to find it was mere deceit; and all our hurrying did was worsen our thirst. “If a mirage were water, why is water not seen by those nearby?Nāgārjuna asked – The way this world is seen as real by those afar is not so seen by those nearby for whom it is signless like a mirage“. Maybe we too will be soon close enough to the truth to realize it is an illusion.

∼ Superior Mirages∼

The ocean liner, in the dark night brightened only by the stars, eased out majestically on the water. Aboard, feasting passengers: on the horizon, a strange mist. Reginald Lee was on watch:

A clear, starry night overhead, but at the time of the accident there was a haze right ahead, […] in fact it was extending more or less round the horizon. There was no moon.

A dark mist, a vague tremor just above the horizon, but too far away to seem like a menacing sign. Then, from the nothingness of that fog, without warning, like a giant bursting on the scene from a funereal curtain, came the huge milky silhouette.

It was a dark mass that came through that haze and there was no white appearing until it was just close alongside the ship.

It looks like it might have gone that way: the Titanic probably sank due to a mirage. The mountain of ice remained hidden until the very last moment inside the sidereal light, which had been bended by the cold of the sea.

Ironically, this was the same kind of mirage which gave another ship, albeit fantastic, an eternal and persistant place in sailors’ fantasies. The immortal Flying Dutchman, floating over the ocean waves, perhaps owes his legend to the illusion called “superior mirage”. Superior, because its phantasmagoria appears above the horizon, and sometimes ships sailing beyond the Earth’s curve, which we shouldn’t be able to see, look like they are suspended in mid air.


Like mountaineers, who fear and respect the mountain, the people of the sea knew a secret which escaped the mainland inhabitants. They were aware of the insidious nature of water, they knew all about whirlpools always ready to gape unexpectedly, about the visions, the magical fires up on the mast, the terrible twin monsters waiting for ships to pass in the narrow strip between Sicily and Calabria.

∼ Fata Morgana ∼

It is right on the Straits of Messina that the Castle in the Sky is sometimes spotted, home to the Enchantress, cruel sister of Arthur son of Pendragon. The witch’s magical arts make the winged castle visible both from the coast of the island and from the opposite shore. Many believed they could conquer its trembling stronghold, and drowned.

Thus Morgan le Fay, “Fata Morgana”, gave her name to the rarest among superior mirages, capable of blending together three or more layers of inverted and distorted objects, in a constantly changing visual blur. The ultimate mirage, where nothing is what it seems; impossible apparitions of distant gloomy towers, enchanted cities, ghost forests. The horizon is not a promise anymore, but a mocking imposture.

∼ The Mirage of Everything ∼

Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.

What Zhuangzi is not considering is the possibility that both him and the butterfly might be a dream: someone else’s dream.
Quantum physicists, who are the modern poets, mystics, artists, suggest ours could potentially be a holographic cosmos. According to some scientists, the whole universe might be a simulacrum, a sophisticated simulation (atoms-pixels), us being the characters who little by little are realizing they’re part of a game. Galileo’s mehtod is now teaming up with the opium eaters’ lucid hallucinations, and math itself seems to tell us that “life is but a dream“.

Among the supporters of the hypothesis of the universe being an elaborate fiction inside an alien algorythm, there is a controversial, visionary innovator who is trying to keep us safe from the dangers of strong AI. His inconceivable plan: to fuse our cerebral cortexes with the Net, forever freeing us from the language virus and, in time, reprogramming  our already obsolete bodies from the inside. Mutate or die!
And this mutation is going  to happen, rest assured, not in two hundred years, but in the next ten or fifteen.

Today we take a look around, and all we see is mirage.
For thousands of years philosophers have been discussing the Great Dream, but never before the veil of Maya has been so thin, so close to be torn at any moment.
What does it mean for us to accept the possible unreality of everything? Does it entail an absolute relativism, does it mean that killing is nothing serious after all, that nothing has value? Weren’t Hassan-i Sabbāh‘s last words “nothing is true, everything is permitted”?
[Old Uncle Bill smiles slyly from his parallel universe, surrounded by seductive centipede-boys.]
Are we instead to understand mirage as a liberation? Because death will finally turn out to be that “passage” every enlightened guru told us about, and this is not the true world? But does a true world really exist? Or is it just another mirage within a mirage?

Zhuangzi, the butterfly man, again:

All the while, the stupid believe they are awake, busily and brightly assuming they understand things, calling this man ruler, that one herdsman — how dense! Confucius and you are both dreaming!  It is a dream even for me to say that you are dreaming.

(Thanks, Bruno!)

Stupire! – The Festival of Wonders

There are places where the sediments of Time deposited, through the centuries, making the atmosphere thick and stratified like the different, subsequent architectural elements one can detect within a single building: in these places, the past never seems to have disappeared, it seems to survive — or at least we believe we can feel its vestigial traces.

Rocca Sanvitale in Fontanellato (Parma) is one of such majestic places of wonder: it has been the scene of conspiracies, battles, sieges, as well as — certainly — of laughters, romance, banquets and joy; a place full of art (Parmigianino was summoned to paint the fresco in the Room of Diane and Actaeon in 1523) and science (at the end of XIX Century the count Giovanni Sanvitale installed an incredible optical chamber inside the South tower, a device still functioning today).
Here, History is something you breathe. Walking through the rooms of the castle, you wouldn’t be surprised to encounter one of those faded ghosts who incessantly repeat the same gesture, trapped in a sadness deeper than death itself.

And it’s right inside these walls and towers that the first edition of Stupire!, the Festival of Wonders, will be held: three days of surprising shows, workshops, experiments, meetings with mentalists and mad scientists. The purpose of the event is to spread culture in entertaining and unexpected ways, using the tools of illusionism.

Behind this initiative, supported by the municipality of Fontanellato and organized in collaboration with the  Circolo Amici della Magia di Torino, are two absolutely extraordinary minds: Mariano Tomatis and Francesco Busani.

If you follow my blog, you may already know them: they appeared on these pages more than once, and they both performed at my Academy of Enchantment.
Mariano Tomatis (one of my personal heroes) is the fertile wonder injector who is revolutionizing the world of magic from the outside, so to speak. Half historian of illusionism, half philosopher of wonder, and for another additional half activist of enchantment, Mariano fathoms the psychological, sociological and politcal implications of the art of magic, succeeding in shifting its focal point towards a new balance. Starting from this year, his Blog of Wonders is twinned to Bizzarro Bazar.
If Mariano is the “theorist” of the duo, Francesco Busani is the true mentalist, experienced in bizarre magick, investigator of the occult and unrivaled raconteur. As he explained when I interviewed him months ago, he was among the first magicians to perform one-to-one mentalism in Italy.
This partnership has already given birth to Project Mesmer, a hugely successful mentalism workshop. The Stupire! festival is the crowning result of this collaboration, perhaps their most visionary endeavour.

I will have the honor of opening the Festival, together with Mariano, on May 19.
During our public meeting I will talk about collecting curiosities, macabre objects, ancient cabinets of wonder and neo-wunderkammern. I will also bring some interesting pieces, directly from my own collection.

In the following days, besides Busani’s and Tomatis’ amazing talks performances (you really need to see them to understand how deep they can reach through their magic), the agenda features: Diego Allegri‘s trickeries and shadow puppets, street magic by Hyde, Professor Alchemist and his crazy experiments; Gianfranco Preverino, among the greatest experts in gambling and cheating, will close the festival.
But the event will not be limited to the inside of the castle. On Saturday and Sunday, the streets of Fontanellato will become the scene for the unpredictable guerrilla magic of the group Double Joker Face: surprise exhibitions in public spaces, baffling bystanders.
If that wasn’t enough, all day long on Saturday and Sunday, just outside the Rocca, those who seek forgotten oddities will have a chance to sift through a magic and antique market.

Lastly, Mariano Tomatis’ motto “Magic to the People!” will result in a final, very welcome abracadabra: all the events you just read about will be absolutely free of charge (until seats are available).
Three days of culture, illusionism and wonder in a place where, as we said in the beginning, History is all around. A week-end that will undoubtedly leave the participants with more enchanted eyes.
Because the world does not need more magic, but our own gaze does.

Here you can find the detailed schedule, complete with links to reserve seats for free.

Spirits of the Road: The Cult of Animitas

The traveler who exits the Estación Central in Santiago, Chile and walks down San Francisco de Borja street, after less than twenty meters will stumble upon a sort of votive wall, right on the side of the train station on his left, a space choke-full of little engravings, offerings, perpetually lit candles, photographs and holy pictures. A simple sign says: “Romualdito”, the same name present on every thankful ex voto.

If our hypothetical traveler then takes a cab and heads down the Autopista del Sol towards the suburb of Maipú, he will see by the side of the opposite lane an altar quite similar to the first one, dedicated to a young girl called Astrid whose portrait is almost buried under dozens of toys and plush bears.

Should he cross the entirety of Chile’s narrow strip of land, encased between the mountains and the ocean, maybe crossing from time to time the border to the Argentinian pampas, he would notice that the landscape (both urban and rural) is studded with numerous of these strange little temples: places of devotion where veneration is not directed towards canonical saints, but to the spirits of people whose life ended in tragedy. This is the cult of the animitas.

An expression of popular piety, the animitas are votive boxes that are often built by the side of the road (animita de carretera) to remember some victims of the “mala muerte”, an awful death: even if the remains of these persons are buried at the cemetery, they cannot really rest in peace on the account of the violent circumstances of their demise. Their souls still haunt the places where life was taken from them.

 

The Romualdito at the train station, for instance, was a little boy who suffered from tubercolosis, assaulted and killed by some thugs who wanted to steal his poncho and the 15 pesos he had on him. But his story, dating back to the 1930s, is told in countless versions, more or less legendary, and it’s impossible to ascertain exactly what happened: one thing is sure, the popular faith in Romualdito is so widespread in Santiago that when it was time to renew and rebuild the station, his wall was left untouched.

Young Astrid, the girl with the plush toys altar, died in 1998 in a motorcycle accident, when she was just 19-years-old. She is now known as the Niña Hermosa.

But these funeral altars can be found by the hundreds, mostly installed by the roadside, shaped like little houses or small churches with crosses sicking out of their tiny roofs.

At first they are built as an act of mercy and remembrance on the exact spot of the fatal accident (or, in the case of fishermen lost at sea, in specific sectors of the coast); but they become the center of a real cult whenevert the soul of the deceased proves to be miraculous (animita muy milagrosa). When, that is, the spirit starts answering to prayers and offerings with particular favors, by interceding bewteen the believer and the Holy Virgin or Christ himself.

 The cult of the animitas is an original mixture of the indigenous, pre-Hispanic cult of the dead (where the ancestor turned into a benign presence offering protection to his offspring) and the cult of the souls of Purgatory which arrived here with Catholicism.
For this reason it shows surprising analogies with another form of folk religiosity developed in Naples, at the Fontanelle Cemetery, a place to which I devoted my book
De profundis.
The two cults, not officially recognized by the Roman Church, have some fundamental aspects in common.

Animitas, built with recycled material, are folk art objects that closely resemble the carabattoli found in the Fontanelle Cemetery; not only for their shape but also for their function of making a dialectic, a dialogue with the Netherworld possible.
Secondly, the system of intercessions and favors, the offerings and the ex voto, are essentially the same in both cases.

But the crucial element is that the objects of veneration are not religious heroes, those saints who accomplished miraculous feats while they were alive, but rather victims of destiny. This allows for the identification between the believer and the invoked soul, the acknowledging of their reciprocal condition, a sharing of human misery – a feeling which is almost impossible when faced with “supernatural” figures like saints. Who of course have themselves an apotropaic function, but always maintain a higher position in respect to common mortals.
On the other hand the
animitas, just like the anime pezzentelle in Naples, are “democratic” symbols, offering a much easier relationship: they share with the believers the same social milieu, they know firsthand all the daily hardship and difficulties of survival. They are protective spirits which can be bothered even for more modest, trivial miracles, because they once were ordinary people, and they understand.

But while in Italy the cult developed exclusively in one town, in Chile it is quite ubiquitous. To have an idea of the tenacity and pervasiveness of this faith, there is one last, amazing example.
Ghost bikes (white-painted bicycles remembering a cyclist who was run over by a car) can be seen all around the world, and they are meant as a warning against accidents. When these installations began to appear in Chile, they immediately intertwined with popular devotion giving birth to hybrids called
bicianimitas. Boxes for the ritual offerings began to appear beside the white bicycles, and the funeral memorials turned into a bridge for communication between the living and the dead.
Those living and dead that, the
animitas seem to remind us, are never really separated but coexist on the city streets or along the side of dusty highways stretching out into the desert.

The blog Animitas Chilenas intends to create an archive of all animitas, recording for each one the name of the soul, her history and GPS coordinates.
Besides the links in the article, I highly recommend the essay by Lautaro Ojeda,
Animitas – Una expresión informal y democrática de derecho a la ciudad (in ARQ Santiago no.81 agosto 2012) and the in-depth post El culto urbano de la muerte: el origen y la trascendencia de las animitas en Chile, by Criss Salazar.
Photographer Patricio Valenzuela Hohmann put up a
wonderful animitas photo gallery.
Lastly, you should check out the
Difunta Correa, Argentina’s most famous animita, dedicated to the legendary figure of a woman who died of thirst and fatigue in the Nineteenth Century while following her husband – who had been forced to enroll in the army; her body was found under a tree, still holding her newborn baby to her breast. The cult of the Difunta Correa is so widespread that it led to the construction of a real sanctuary in Vallecito, visited by one million pilgrims every year.

Henry Tonks and the Faceless Boys

I have wrote in the past about how plastic surgery was originally born during the Great War as reconstructive surgery. If a soldier missing an arm or a leg was indeed a familiar figure, the introduction of new weapons during the world conflict led to the appearance of a kind of wounds precedently almost unheard of: the gueules cassées, “disfigured faces”.
Helmets were able to protect the head from granade splinters, but not the face; therefore field hospitals began to receive an unimaginable number of soldier whose faces had been blown away in large portions by the explosions.
It was an injury rarely discussed in the press, where the more iconic and patriotic image of the veteran amputee was considered more suitable, but the numbers speak for themselves: within English troops alone, 41.000 amputations were carried out, as opposed to the 60.500 men who suffered head or eye injury.
One had a higher probability of finding himself without a face rather than without legs.

Practically on every front, experimental procedures were adopted to reconstruct faces destroyed by shrapnel or burned by mustard gas.
In January 1916, at the military hospital in Aldershot, England, pioneer surgeon Harold Gillies encountered doctor Henry Tonks, who was serving as a temporary lieutenant in the Royal Army Medical Corps.

Henry Tonks was a doctor and an artist: besides being part of the Royal College of Surgeons, he also taught drawing and anatomy at the Slade Academy.

Soldiers were sent back from the front in desperate conditions, and  Tonks had the feeling that he could not handle, from a professional and humane point of view, such a catastrophe. As he himself confessed in a letter: “I have decided that I am not any use as a doctor“. And in another letter he recounted: “the wounds are horrible, and I for one will be against wars in the future, you have no right to ask men to endure such suffering. It would not matter if the wounds did well but they are practically all septic“.
And as the war progressed, things did not improve. Afer the Somme offensive, on July the 1st 1916, more than 2.000 patients flooded the hospital: “men without half their faces; men burned and maimed to the condition of animal“.

Thus, when Gillies asked Tonks to document his reconstructive operations by portraying the patients’ faces before and after surgery, Tonks happily accepted, as he was certainly more at ease in the artistic dimension.
To draw portraits could seem redundant, as photographs of the disfigured soldiers were already being taken, but both doctors were convinced that the cold-hearted objectiveness of film could be misleading in respect to the tactile and expressive quailties of a painting.

Thanks to his collaboration with Gillies, Henry Tonks produced a seried of facial wound portraits which stil today stands unsurpassed for its emotional impact, scientific interest and subtlety of representation.
Sure, these pastel portraits had first of all a didactic intent, and the author himself did not wish them to be seen by the general public. And yet these works show a complexity that transcends their function of medical illustrations.

To understand how Tonks worked on his subjects, we have an extraordinary fortune: in some cases, the archives still have both his pastel portraits and the medical photographs. We can therefore watch, side by side, two images of the same patient, one recorded on film and the other one composed by the charcoal and colors of the artist.

Comparing Tonks’ drawings with the photographic shots, what emerges is the abstraction operated by the artist, which is meant to remove any hint at the patient’s suffering or interiority. These are accurate works, detached and at the same time compassionate, focusing mainly on the open wound, depicted with an almost “tactile” precision through the stratification of color (a consequence of the artist’s surgical training).
And yet the uncanny quality of these drawings lies in their absolutely modern ambiguity.
What could by all means be a portrait of a normal male face — ordinary traits, well-groomed hair, a knotted tie — becomes somehow “sabotaged” by the presence of the wound. It is as if our gaze, wondering over the painting’s surface, could register all these common details, just to be short-circuited the moment it meets the scandal of the injury. An inconceivable monstrosity, which appears impossible to integrate with the rest of the image.
It is then inevitable for us to fall back to the eyes of the portrayed subject, to his gaze fixed upon us, and to wonder about its impenetrable meaning.

Another peculiarity is the use of pastel, a medium considered “feminine” in respect to more virile, lively oil color or tempera; a choice that in this case allows for the lacerations of the flesh to be rendered in a softer and more tolerable way. What’s more, thaks to the lighter tone of these colors, Tonks provides his subjects with a delicate beauty and tenderness that no photgraph could have ever captured.
These portraits seem as vulnerable as the mutilated youth they represent.

Suzannah Biernoff, in her wonderful essay Flesh Poems: Henry Tonks and the Art of Surgery (from which I stole most of the information for this post — you can read it in Visual Culture in Britain, n.11, 2010) defines Henry Tonks’ works as “anti-portraits, in the sense that they stage the fragility and mutability of subjectivity rather than consolidating the self portrayed“.

Henry Tonks’ studies are set apart from classic medical illustration by virtue of this research of a particular beauty. They do not recoil from the horror they intend to portray, but cover it with a veil of elusive sensuality, in which a face becomes the sign of the uncertainty of existence, and a symbol of the cruelty Man inflicts upon himself.

Visitors From The Future

This article was originally published on #ILLUSTRATI n. 42, Visitors.

If we had the opportunity to communicate through time with humans of year 8113, would we be able to understand each other?
Supposing that every trace of our current civilisation had been erased, how could we explain our present to these remote descendants, these true aliens?

In 1936 this question arose in the mind of Dr Thornwell Jacobs, the then director of the Oglethorpe University in Georgia, and lead to his decision to create a compendium of the human knowledge acquired by that time. What’s more, he thought it would have been better to show to the future men and women a wide range of significant objects that could convey a clear idea of the customs and traditions of the XX century.
It wasn’t an easy matter. Let’s think about it: what object would you include in your virtual museum if you had to summarise the entire history of the human race?

With the help of Thomas K. Peters, photographer, film producer and inventor, Dr Jacobs spent three years building his collection. As time passed by, the list of objects got more and more impressive and it included some unexpected items, which clearly the two curators reckoned that the humans of the ninth millennium needed to see.

Among others, the collection contained 600.000 pages of text on microfilm, 200 narrative books, drawings of the greatest human inventions, a list of sports and hobbies which were fashionable during the past century, film showing historical events and audio recordings of the speeches of Hitler, Mussolini, Roosevelt and Stalin. And again: air shots of the main cities of the world, eyeglasses, dental plates, artificial limbs, navigation instruments, flower and plant seeds, clothes, typewriters… up to Budweiser beers, aluminium foil, Vaseline, nylons and plastic toys.

The two men then patiently sealed that huge pile of objects in hermetic recipients made of steel and glass, filling some capsules with nitrogen, in order to prevent the material oxidation. At last, they collocated the “museum”, exhibiting six millenniums of human knowledge, in a crypt under the Phoebe Hearst Memorial Hall. They did not forget to place a machinery called Language Integrator in front of the entrance: a tool that can teach how to speak English to the future historians, in case the Shakespeare language would not be at its bests any more.

The chamber was officially sealed on the 25th of May 1940. The plate affixed to the enormous stainless door specified that its insides did not contain any gold or jewelleries. Better safe than sorry.

This strange and restricted museum is still present and, if everything goes as planned, will remain untouched until year 8113, as indicated on the inscription. Yes, but why this specific year?
Dr Jacobs considered the year 1936 as the bookmark on a hypothetical timeline, then added 6.177 years, corresponding to the amount of time passed from the establishment of the Egyptian Calendar (4241 B.C.).

The Oglethorpe University experience was regarded as the first “time capsule” of human history. The idea obtained a huge resonance and was followed by many other attempts of preserving the human knowledge and identity for future generations, by burying similar collections of memories and information.

Will the homo sapiens be still around in 8113? What will he look like? Would he be interested in discovering how we lived during the 40s of the XX century?
Beside the sci-fi (utopic or dystopic) visions of the future evoked by the time capsules, their charm resides in what they can tell about the past. An optimistic time, permeated by a blind trust in the human progress and still unscratched by the Second world war disaster, the holocausts and the nuclear horrors, an era unaware of the countless tragedies to come. A time when it was still possible to fiercely believe that future generations would have looked up to us with respect and curiosity.

Nowadays it is impossible to conceive in human terms such a distant future. The technology in our hands is already transforming us, our species, in ways that were unthinkable just a few decades ago. Our impact on the ecological and social system has already reached unprecedented levels.
Therefore, should we picture a “visitor” from year 8113 anyway… it is reasonable to presume that looking at us, his long-lost ancestors, he would shiver in disgust.

(Thanks, Masdeca!)