Lanterns of the Dead

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In several medieval cemeteries of west-central France stand some strange masonry buildings, of varying height, resembling small towers. The inside, bare and hollow, was sufficiently large for a man to climb to the top of the structure and light a lantern there, at sundawn.
But what purpose did these bizarre lighthouses serve? Why signal the presence of a graveyard to wayfarers in the middle of the night?

The “lanterns of the dead”, built between the XII and XIII Century, represent a still not fully explained historical enigma.

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Part of the problem comes from the fact that in medieval literature there seems to be no allusion to these lamps: the only coeval source is a passage in the De miraculis by Peter the Venerable (1092-1156). In one of his accounts of miraculous events, the famous abbot of Cluny mentions the Charlieu lantern, which he had certainly seen during his voyages in Aquitaine:

There is, at the center of the cemetery, a stone structure, on top of which is a place that can house a lamp, its light brightening this sacred place every night  as a sign of respect for the the faithful who are resting here. There also are some small steps leading to a platform which can be sufficient for two or three men, standing or seated.

This bare description is the only one dating back to the XII Century, the exact period when most of these lanterns are supposed to have been built. This passage doesn’t seem to say much in itself, at least at first sight; but we will return to it, and to the surprises it hides.
As one might expect, given the literary silence surrounding these buildings, a whole array of implausible conjectures have been proposed, multiplying the alleged “mysteries” rather than explaining them — everything from studies of the towers’ geographical disposition, supposed to reveal hidden, exoteric geometries, to the decyphering of numerological correlations, for instance between the 11 pillars on Fenioux lantern’s shaft and the 13 small columns on its pinnacle… and so on. (Incidentally, these full gallop speculations call to mind the classic escalation brilliantly exemplified by Mariano Tomatis in his short documentary A neglected shadow).

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A more serious debate among historians, beginning in the second half of XIX Century, was intially dominated by two theories, both of which appear fragile to a more modern analysis: on one hand the idea that these towers had a celtic origin (proposed by Viollet-Le-Duc who tried to link them back to menhirs) and, on the other, the hypothesis of an oriental influence on the buildings. But historians have already discarded the thesis that a memory of the minarets or of the torch allegedly burning on Saladin‘s grave, seen during the Crusades, might have anything to do with the lanterns of the dead.

Without resorting to exotic or esoteric readings, is it then possible to interpret the lanterns’ meaning and purpose by placing them in the medieval culture of which they are an expression?
To this end, historian Cécile Treffort has analysed the polysemy of the light in the Christian tradition, and its correlations with Candlemas — or Easter — candles, and with the lantern (Les lanternes des morts: une lumière protectrice?, Cahiers de recherches médiévales, n.8, 2001).

Since the very first verses of Genesis, the divine light (lux divina) counterposes darkness, and it is presented as a symbol of wisdom leading to God: believers must shun obscurity and follow the light of the Lord which, not by chance, is awaiting them even beyond death, in a bright afterworld permeated by lux perpetua, a heavenly kingdom where prophecies claim the sun will never set. Even Christ, furthermore, affirms “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn 8:12).
The absence of light, on the contrary, ratifies the dominion of demons, temptations, evil spirits — it is the kingdom of the one who once carried the flame, but was discharged (Lucifer).

In the Middle Ages, tales of demonic apparitions and dangerous revenants taking place inside cemeteries were quite widespread, and probably the act of lighting a lantern had first and foremost the function of protecting the place from the clutches of infernal beings.

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But the lantern symbology is not limited to its apotropaic function, because it also refers to the Parable of the Ten Virgins found in Matthew’s gospel: here, to keep the flame burning while waiting for the bridegroom is a metaphor for being vigilant and ready for the Redeemer’s arrival. At the time of his coming, we shall see who maintained their lamps lit — and their souls pure — and who foolishly let them go out.

The Benedictine rule prescribed that a candle had to be kept always lit in the convent’s dorms, because the “sons of light” needed to stay clear of darkness even on a bodily level.
If we keep in mind that the word cemetery etymologically means “dormitory”, lighting up a lantern inside a graveyard might have fulfilled several purposes. It was meant to bring light in the intermediary place par excellence, situated between the church and the secular land, between liturgy and temptation, between life and death, a permeable boundary through which souls could still come back or be lost to demons; it was believed to protect the dead, both physically and spiritually; and, furthermore, to symbolically depict the escatological expectation, the constant watch for the Redeemer.

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One last question is left, to which the answer can be quite surprising.
The theological meaning of the lanterns of the dead, as we have seen, is rich and multi-faceted. Why then did Peter the Venerable only mention them so briefly and in an almost disinterested way?

This problem opens a window on a little known aspect of ecclesiastical history: the graveyard as a political battleground.
Starting from the X Century, the Church began to “appropriate” burial grounds ever more jealously, laying claim to their management. This movement (anticipating and preparing for the introduction of Purgatory, of which I have written in my De Profundis) had the effect of making the ecclesiastical authority an undisputed judge of memory — deciding who had, or had not, the right to be buried under the aegis of the Holy Church. Excommunication, which already was a terrible weapon against heretics who were still alive, gained the power of cursing them even after their death. And we should not forget that the cemetery, besides this political control, also offered a juridical refuge as a place of inviolable asylum.

Peter the Venerable found himself in the middle of a schism, initiated by Antipope Anacletus, and his voyages in Aquitaine had the purpose of trying to solve the difficult relationship with insurgent Benedictine monasteries. The lanterns of the dead were used in this very region of France, and upon seeing them Peter must have been fascinated by their symbolic depth. But they posed a problem: they could be seen as an alternative to the cemetery consecration, a practice the Cluny Abbey was promoting in those years to create an inviolable space under the exclusive administration of the Church.
Therefore, in his tale, he decided to place the lantern tower in Charlieu — a priorate loyal to his Abbey — without even remotely suggesting that the authorship of the building’s concept actually came from the rival Aquitaine.

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This copyright war, long before the term was invented, reminds us that the cemetery, far from being a simple burial ground, was indeed a politically strategic liminal territory. Because holding the symbolic dominion over death and the afterworld historically proved to be often more relevant than any temporal power.

Although these quarrels have long been returned to dust, many towers still exist in French cemeteries. Upright against the tombs and the horizontal remains waiting to be roused from sleep, devoid of their lanterns for centuries now, they stand as silent witnesses of a time when the flame from a lamp could offer protection and hope both to the dead and the living.

(Thanks, Marco!)

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Subversive farts & musical anuses

Those who have been reading me for some time know my love for unconventional stories, and my stubborn belief that if you dig deep enough into any topic, no matter how apparently inappropriate, it is possible to find some small enlightenments.
In this post we will attempt yet another tightrope walking exercise. Starting from a question that might sound ridiculous at first: can flatulence give us some insight about human nature?

An article appeared on the Petit Journal on May 1st 1894 described “a more or less lyrical artist whose melodies, songs without words, do not come exactly from the heart. To do him justice it must be said that he has pioneered something entirely his own, warbling from the depth of his pants those trills which others, their eyes towards heaven, beam at the ceiling“.
The sensational performer the Parisian newspaper was referring to was Joseph Pujol, famous by his stage name Le Pétomane.

Born in Marseille, and not yet thirty-seven at the time, Pujol had initially brought his act throughout the South of France, in Cette, Béziers, Nîmes, Toulouse and Bordeaux, before eventually landing in Paris, where he performed for several years at the Moulin Rouge.
His very popular show was entirely based on his extraordinary abilities in passing wind: he was able to mimic the sound of different musical instruments, cannon shots, thunders; he could modulate several popular melodies, such as La Marseillese, Au clair de la lune, O sole mio; he could blow out candles with an air blast from 30 centimeters away; he could play flutes and ocarinas through a tube connected with his derriere, with which he was also able to smoke a cigarette.
Enjoying an ever-increasing success between XIX and XX Century, he even performed before the Prince of Whales, and Freud himself attended one of his shows (although he seemed more interested in the audience reactions rather than the act itself).

Pujol had discovered his peculiar talent by chance at the age of thirteen, when he was swimming in the sea of his French Riviera. After sensing a piercing cold in his intestine, he hurried back to the shore and, inside a bathing-hut, he discovered that his anus had, for some reason, taken in a good amount of sea water. Experimenting throughout the following years, Pujol trained himself to suck air into his bottom; he could not hold it for very long, but this bizarre gift guaranteed him a certain notoriety among his peers at first, and later among his fellow soldiers when he joined the army.
Once he had reached stage fame, and was already a celebrated artist, Pujol was examined by several doctors who were interested in studying his anatomy and physiology. Medicine papers are a kind of literature I very much enjoy reading, but few are as delectable as the article penned by Dr. Marcel Badouin and published in 1892 on the Semaine médicale with the title Un cas extraordinaire d’aspiration rectale et d’anus musical (“An extraordinary case of rectal aspiration and musical anus”). If you get by in French, you can read it here.
Among other curiosities, in the article we discover that one of Pujol’s abilities (never included in his acts on grounds of decency) was to sit in a washbowl, sucking in the water and spraying it in a strong gush up to a five-meter distance.

The end of Joseph Pujol’s carreer coincided with the beginning of the First World War. Aware of the unprecedented inhumanity of the conflict, Pujol decided that his ridiculous and slightly shameful art was no longer suitable in front of such a cruel moment, and he retired for good to be a baker, his father’s job, until his death in 1945.
For a long time his figure was removed, as if he was an embarassement for the bougeoisie and those French intellectuals who just a few years earlier were laughing at this strange ham actor’s number. He came back to the spotlight only in the second half of XX Century, namely because of a biography published by Pauvert and of the movie Il Petomane (1983) directed by Pasquale Festa Campanile, in which the title character is played by Italian comedian Ugo Tognazzi with his trademark bittersweet acting style (the film on the other hand was never released in France).

Actually Pujol was not the first nor the last “pétomane”. Among his forerunners there was Roland the Farter, who lived in XII-Century England and who earned 30 acres of land and a huge manorfor his services as a buffoon under King Henry II. By contract he went on to perform before the sovereign, at Christmas, “unum saltum et siffletum et unum bumbulum” (one jump, one whistle and one fart).
But the earliest professional farter we know about must be a medieval jester called Braigetóir, active in Ireland and depicted in the most famous plate of John Derricke’s The Image of Irelande, with a Discoverie of Woodkarne (1581).

The only one attempting to repeat Pujol’s exploits in modern times is British performer Paul Oldfield, known as Mr. Methane, who besides appearing on Britain’s Got Talent also recorded an album and launched his own Android app. If you look for some of his videos on YouTube, you will notice how times have unfortunately changed since the distinguished elegance shown by Pujol in the only remaining silent film of his act.


Let’s get back now to our initial question. What does the story of Joseph Pujol, and professional farters in general, tell us? What is the reason of their success? Why does a fart make us laugh?

Flatulence, as all others bodily expressions associated with disgust, is a cultural taboo. This means that the associated prohibition is variable in time and latitude, it is acquired and not “natural”: it is not innate, but rather something we are taught since a very early age (and we all know what kind of filthy behavior kids are capable of).
Anthropologists link this horror for bodily fluids and emissions to the fear of our animal, pre-civilized heritage; the fear that we might become primitive again, the fear of seeing our middle-class ideal of dignity and cleanliness crumble under the pressure of a remainder of bestiality. It is the same reason for which societies progressively ban cruelty, believed to be an “inhuman” trait.

The interesting fact is that the birth of this family of taboos can be historically, albeit conventionally, traced: the process of civilization (and thus the erection of this social barrier or fronteer) is usually dated back to the XVI and XVII Centuries — which not by chance saw the growing popularity of Della Casa’s etiquette treatise Il Galateo.
In this period, right at the end of the Middle Ages, Western culture begins to establish behavioral rules to limit and codify what is considered respectable.

But in time (as Freud asserted) the taboo is perceived as a burden and a constriction. Therefore a society can look for, or create, certain environments that make it acceptable for a brief period to bend the rules, and escape the discipline. This very mechanism was behind the balsphemous inversions taking place in Carnival times, which were accepted only because strictly limited to a specific time of the year.

In much the same way, Pujol’s fart shows were liberating experiences, only possible on a theatrical stage, in the satyrical context of cabaret. By fracturing the idealistic facade of the gentleman for an hour or so, and counterposing the image of the physiological man, the obscenity of the flesh and its embarassements, Pujol on a first level seemed to mock bourgeois conventions (as later did Buñuel in the infamous dinner scene from his 1974 film The Phantom of Liberty).
Had this been the case, had Pujol’s act been simply subversive, it would had been perceived as offensive and labeled as despicable; his success, on the other hand, seems to point in another direction.

It’s much more plausible that Pujol, with his contrived and refined manners conflicting with the grotesque intestinal noises, was posing as a sort of stock comic character, a marionette, a harmless jester: thanks to this distance, he could arguably enact a true cathartic ritual. The audience laughed at his lewd feats, but were also secretely able to laugh at themselves, at the indecent nature of their bodies. And maybe to accept a bit more their own repressed flaws.

Perhaps that’s the intuition this brief, improper excursus can give us: each time a fart in a movie or a gross toilet humor joke makes us chuckle, we are actually enacting both a defense and an exorcism against the reality we most struggle to accept: the fact that we still, and anyway, belong to the animal kingdom.

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Special: Claudio Romo

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On April the 4th, inside the Modo Infoshop bookshop in Bologna I have had the pleasure to meet Chilean artist Claudio Andrés Salvador Francisco Romo Torres, to help him present his latest illustrated book A Journey in the Phantasmagorical Garden of Apparitio Albinus in front of a crowd of his fans.

I don’t want to go into much detail about his work, because he himself will talk about it in the next paragraphs. I would only like to add one small personal note. In my life I’ve been lucky enough to know, to various degrees of intimacy, several writers, filmmakers, actors, illustrators: some of them were my personal heroes. And while it’s true that the creator is always a bit poorer than his creation (no one is flawless), I noticed the most visionary and original artists often show unexpected kindness, reserve, gentleness. Claudio is the kind of person who is almost embarassed when he’s the center of attention, and his immense imagination can only be guessed behind his electric, enthusiast, childlike glance. He is the kind of person who, after the presentation of his book, asks the audience permission to take a selfie with them, because “none of my friends or students back home will ever believe all this has really happened“.
I think men like him are more precious than yet another maudit.

What follows is the transcription of our chat.

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We’re here today with Claudio Romo (I can never remember his impossibly long full name), to talk about his latest work A Journey in the Phantasmagorical Garden of Apparitio Albinus, a book I particularly love because it offers a kind of mixture of very different worlds: ingredients like time travel, giant jellyfish, flashes of alchemy, flying telepathic cities and countless creatures and monsters with all-too-human characteristics. And rather like Calvino’s Invisible Cities, this garden is a kind of place within the mind, within the soul… and just like the soul, the mind is a mysterious and complicated place, not infrequently with perverse overtones. A place where literary and artistic references intermix and intertwine.
From an artistic viewpoint, this work certainly brings to mind Roland Topor’s film Fantastic Planet, although filtered by a Latin American sensibility steeped in pre-Columbian iconography. On the other hand, certain illustrations vividly evoke Hieronymus Bosch, with their swarming jumble of tiny physically and anatomically deformed mutant creatures. Then there are the literary references: impossible not to think of Borges and his Book Of Imaginary Beings, but also the end of his Library of Babel; and certain encounters and copulations between mutant bodies evoke the Burroughs of Naked Lunch, whereas this work’s finale evokes ‘real’ alchemical procedures, with the Emerald Tablet of Hermes and its famous phrase “That which is below is like that which is above & that which is above is like that which is below to do the miracles of one only thing”. At the end of the book it is revealed that the garden is as infinite as the cosmos, but also that it is connected to an infinite number of other infinities, not only his personal garden but also mine and yours. In a sense, the universe which emerges is an interpenetration of marvels in which it is highly difficult to grasp where reality finishes and imagination begins, because fantasy too can be extremely concrete. It’s as though Claudio was acting as a kind of map-maker of his mental ecosystem, doing so with the zest of a biologist, an ethnologist and an entomologist, studying and describing all the details and behaviour of the fauna inhabiting it. From this point of view, the first question I’d like to ask concerns precisely reality and imagination. How do they interact, for you? For many artists this dichotomy is important, and the way they deal with it helps us to understand more about their art.

First of all, I’d like to thank Ivan, because he has presented a good reading of my book.
I have always thought that no author is autonomous, we all depend on someone, come from someone, we have an inheritance transmitted not through a bloodline but through a spiritual or conceptual bond, an inheritance received from birth through culture. Borges is my point of departure, the alchemical inscription, the science fiction, fantastical literature, popular literature… all these elements contribute to my work. When I construct these stories I am assembling a collage, a structure, in order to create parallel realities.
So, to answer Ivan’s question, I think that reality is something constructed by language, and so the dichotomy between reality and imagination doesn’t exist, because human beings inhabit language and language is a permanent and delirious construction.
I detest it when people talk about the reality of nature, or static nature. For me, reality is a permanent construction and language is the instrument which generates this construction.
This is why I take as models people like Borges, Bioy Casares, Athanasius Kircher (a Jesuit alchemist named as maestro of a hundred arts who created the first anatomical theatre and built a wunderkammer)… people who from very different backgrounds have constructed different realities.

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In this sense, the interesting thing is that the drawings and stories of Apparitio Albinus remind us of – or have a layer, we might say, that makes them resemble – the travel journals of explorers of long ago. Albinus could almost be a Marco Polo visiting a faraway land, where the image he paints is similar to a mediaeval bestiary, in which animals were not described in a realistic way, but according to their symbolic function… for example the lion was represented as an honest animal who never slept, because he was supposed to echo the figure of Christ… actually, Claudio’s animals frequently assume poses exactly like those seen in mediaeval bestiaries. There is also a gaze, a way of observing, that has something childish about it, a gaze always eager to marvel, to look for magic in the interconnection between different things, and I’d like to ask you if this child exists inside you, and how much freedom you allow him in your creative process.

When I first began creating books, I concentrated solely on the engravings, and technically engraving was extremely powerful for me. I was orthodox in my practice, but the great thing about the graphic novel is that its public is adult but also infantile, and the thing that interests me above all is showing and helping children understand that reality is soft.
The first book I made on this subject is called The Album Of Imprudent Flora, a kind of bestiary conceived and created to attract children and lead them towards science, botany, the marvel of nature… not as something static, but as something mobile. For example I described trees which held Portuguese populations that had got lost searching for the Antarctic: then they had become tiny through having eaten Lilliputian strawberries, and when they died they returned to a special place called Portugal… and then there were also plants which fed on fear and which induced the spirits on Saturn to commit suicide and the spirits on Mars to kill… and then die. I created a series of characters and plants whose purpose was to fascinate children. There was a flower that had a piece of ectoplasm inside its pistil, and if you put a mouse in front of that flower the pistil turned into a piece of cheese, and when the mouse ate the cheese the plant ate the mouse… after which, if a cat came by, the pistil turned into a mouse, and so on. The idea was to create a kaleidoscope of plants and flowers.
There was another plant which I named after an aunt of mine, extremely ugly, and in honour of her I gave this plant the ability to transform itself constantly: by day it was transfigured, and in certain moments it had a colloidal materiality, while in others it had a geometric structure… an absolutely mutant flower. This is all rather monstrous, but also fascinating, which is why I called the book “the imprudent flora”, because it went beyond the bounds of nature. Basically I think that when I draw I do it for children, in order to build up a way of interpreting reality in a broad and rich kind of way.

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This corporal fluidity is also visible in this latest book, but there’s another aspect that I also find interesting, and this is the inversions that Claudio likes to create. For example, Lazarus is not resurrected, he ends up transformed into ghost by the phantasmagorical machine; we get warrior automatons which reject violence and turn into pacifists and deserters, and then again, in one of my favourite chapters, there is a time machine, built to transport us into the future, which actually does the opposite, because it transports the future into our present – a future we’d never have wanted to see, because what appears in the present is the corpses we will become. It seems that irony is clearly important in your universe, and I’d like to you tell us about that.

That’s a good question. I’m glad you asked me, there are two wonderful themes involved.
One is the theme of the ghost, because for the phantasmagorical machine I based the idea on an Argentinian author called Bioy Casares and his The Invention of Morel. In that story, Morel is a scientist who falls in love with Faustina, and since she doesn’t love him, he invents a machine which will absorb her spirit, record it, and later, in a phantasmagorical island, reproduce it eternally… but the machine turns out to kill the people it has filmed, and so Morel commits suicide by filming himself together with Faustine, thus ending up on this island where every day the same scene is repeated, featuring these two ghosts. But the story really begins when another man arrives on the island, falls in love with the ghost of Faustine, learns to work the machine and then films himself while Faustine is gazing at the sea. So he too commits suicide in order to remain in the paradise of Faustine’s consciousness.
This is a hallucinatory theme, and I was fascinated by the desire of a man who kills himself in order to inhabit the consciousness of the woman he loves, even though the woman in question is actually a ghost!
And the other question… on irony. Most of the machines I construct in the book are fatuous failures and mistakes: those who want to change time end up meeting themselves as corpses, those who want to invent a machine for becoming immortal drop dead instantly and end up in an eternal limbo… I like talking about ghosts but also about failed adventures, as metaphors for life, because in real life every adventure is a failure… except for this journey to Italy, which has turned out to absolutely wonderful!

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A few days ago, on Facebook, I saw a fragment of a conversation in which you, Claudio, argued that the drawing and the word are not really so different, that the apparent distance between logos and image is fictional, which is why you use both things to express your meaning. You use them like two parallel rail tracks, in the same way, and this is also evident through the way that in your books the texts too have a painterly visual shape, and if it weren’t for the pristine paper of this edition, we might think we were looking at a fantastical encyclopedia from two or three centuries ago.
So, I wanted to ask a last question on this subject, perhaps the most banal question, which resembles the one always asked of songwriter-singers (which comes first, the words or the music?)… but do your visions emerge firstly from the drawing paper and only later do you form a kind of explicative text? Or do they emerge as stories from the beginning?

If I had to define myself, I’d say I was a drawing animal. All the books I have created were planned and drawn firstly, and the conceptual idea was generated by the image. Because I’m not really a writer, I never have been. I didn’t want to write this book either, only to draw it, but Lina [the editor] forced me to write it! I said to her, Lina, I have a friend who is fantastic with words, and she replied in a dictatorial tone: I’m not interested. I want you to write it. And today I’m grateful to her for that.
I always start from the drawing, always, always…

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The English version of Claudio Romo’s new book can be purchased here.

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Witch mirrors

A couple years ago, I wrote a piece for the magazine Illustrati called The Two Sides of the Mirror, in which I talked about the symbology of this common object and its deep esoteric connotations.

But there is a peculiar kind of magic mirror that has a long and interesting tradition: the so-called “eye of the witch” (œil de sorcière).

It is a round, convex mirror giving a comprehensive view of the room it’s placed in: because of its curved surface, the reflection is distorted in much the same way of a wide-angle barrel distortion. Sometimes called “banker’s mirrors”, they were used since the XIV Century by money changers and goldsmiths to control their shops from a wider visual. But these mirrors found widespread diffusion two hundred years later, becoming part of bourgeois interior furniture in all Northern Europe; a luxury that was democratized in the XIX Century, when they began to be industrially produced.

Surrounded by superstition and magic beliefs, these mirrors were considered a “third eye” of sorts, capable of keeping watch over the servants whenever the master was away from home; but they were also meant as a status symbol, precious and valued objects. They were hung in a clearly visible spot, often sumptuously framed and encircled by other, smaller mirrors. To enhance the surveillance effect, perhaps, but also to give light to interiors by reflecting lamps and windows, so much so that in time they got decorated with golden wooden rays, as if they were a private sun lighting up the house. For this reason, little by little the mirrors shifted from being surveillance instruments to being considered lucky charms, benign eyes protecting the family.

The miroirs de sorcière appear in several paintings by Flemish masters, for instance in the famous Jan van Eyck‘s Arnolfini Portrait. Here the mirror is used for the first time as a device to break the “fourth wall”, showing in perspective the part of the scene that is usually invisible; van Eyck turns the mirror into a Christian symbol of purity showing the sacred bond of marriage (it reflects the wedding witnesses), but many other painters used it to include themselves in the portrait, to bring an additional light source to their painting, to symbolize pride or fleeting beauty in the vanitas depictions.

Among the artists who placed these mirrors in their paintings are Quentin Metsys, Petrus Christus, Parmigianino, Caravaggio, but the list would really be too long: for a history of the miroir de sorcière in art you can look up this article.

Today these objects, rich with history and mystery, come back to life in the Canestrelli workshop in Venice, the only studio specialized in the production of these convex mirrors, hand crafted by the owner Stefano Coluccio.

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Lost Property

Lost Property (2014) is a short movie directed by Åsa Lucander, a London-based Finnish illustrator.

It tells the surreal story of an old lady who enters the Lost Property Office every day, eager to retrieve something she has lost; but, for some reason, the office worker doesn’t seem to be able to find the stuff the woman is looking for.

Dealing with the theme of loss, this poetic short delicately leads us towards an unexpected, touching conclusion.

Here is the film’s official website.

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The Stone Pinacotheca

Article by guestblogger Stefano Cappello

I lived in Catania for several years, first as a student at the liberal-arts college, then on the account of my work. Art always fascinated me, and being ale to live and travel throughout Sicily allowed me to discover this place where the highest expressions of human creativity lived together for thousands of years, sometimes blending together with unique results.

Visiting one of Catania’s churches, I happened to notice how the marble on the altar formed curious shapes: through the veinings, one could almost grasp grotesque faces, animal masks, bizarre figures.

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The practice of putting two marble stones near each other in order to obtain a specular image is known as “macchia aperta” (book matched). Used for thousands of years, such a technique combines two consecutive slabs, which are cut and then put side by side, so that the veinings can form the image that up until then had been “sleeping” in the marble.

I started to visit other churches in town, only to find the phenomenon was quite widespread. The cutting of slabs and their arrangement were intentional, and these examples cannot be explained with pareidolia — the subconscious illusion that leads us to interpret artificial or natural visual stimuli as recognizable shapes.
Perhaps we should better think of these marble figures in relation to the concept of Gamahés, implying a sacred aspect of images and forms, which the Anima Mundi impresses within the stone in the shape of faces, animals, symbols or even whole landscapes, as in the case of the Paesina Stone. Through the same occult process, pictures could be ingrained in the marble by that very creative force, the natura naturans generating every aspect of reality, and they could be waiting for a sharp wit who, thanks to his sensitivity, will be able to bring them to light.

All these churches have in common the fact that they’ve been rebuilt from scratch after the devastating earthquake which on January 11, 1693, destroyed Catania. The city suffered huge losses, about 16.000 victims on a 20.000 citizen population.
A huge emergency project was set afoot to bring things back to normal in reasonable time. The reconstruction of the city shows how the catastrophe entailed a search for innovative architectural solutions of the highest quality. These innovations, which were applied in various degrees to all the villages struck by the earthquake in the Noto valley, were elaborated by what could be considered as a “unique experimental workshop of Baroque international models”.

In the particular case of Catania, the unity of this project can be seen on a structural level, as shock-absorbing materials were used in view of a possible new shake, and on a urban level. The city was completely re-planned, with broader streets and escape routes [1].
One of the marbles used in churches, the Libeccio Antico of Sicily, is also called Breccia Pontificia, because it was also used in the Vatican. This rare and precious marble, extracted from the Custonaci caves, is perfect for macchia aperta manufacturing, so that the internal veinings can emerge.

The fact that its figurative use was intentional is quite evident in the S. Agata la Vetere Church where, on the side altar that once contained the remains of the Martyr, these marbles can be found.

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It looks like this red jasper slab was meant to represent the outline of the Saint’s body laying in a sarcophage. If we rotate the image, the composition is even clearer.

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We can see the head, shoulders, the arms bent on her chest, her hips, legs, and her feet emerging from the garment.
Suggestion may go even further. On the silhouette’s chest, for example, one could almost see a Flaming Heart. A spherical shape is at the base of the figure, which is surrounded by a sort of aura.
The whole shape is consistent, in its proportions, with a female body.
The visual stimuli such a contour can suggest, if we consider it as standing on a globe, refer to the iconography of the Virgin Mary. This hypothetical “transfer” would be justified when applied to a female Saint, as in Christian tradition all female figures are in fact manifestations of the Sacred Feminine archetype.

Another example of the intentionality of these marble depictions can be found in the Church of St. Micheal Archangel. Here, like in other churches in town, the representations often appear in couples, at the bottom of the columns near the side altars.

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These marbles show two stylized figures, of which we can make out the head, neck, stretched-out arms, chest and tunic. Behind these silhouettes are shapes that could be interpreted as wings, of which the veinings even seem to trace the plumage. The whole figure could refer to the Byzantine iconography of the Archangel.

In Catania’s churches, marbles take us on a trip through beasts, men, Saints and demons.

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The following mirrored marbles seem to represent several faces, each wearing a hat that resembles a wolf’s head. This depiction could refer to the iconography of  Hades, god of the Underworld, wearing the kunée, the Helm of Darkness.

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If we suppose that marble workers acted freely, without their ecclesial clients knowing, we can imagine that their craftmanship combined with a knowledge of treatises was used to explore this figurative expression, and it could testify the existence of a clandestine ideology. These marbles could offer an example of such underground symbolism.

Here are two grotesque faces, of which we can identify the eyes, nose, mouth, and what looks like a mitre.

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Here’s another curious image emerging from these slabs: a grinning creature, with what could be its hands (the veinings seem to outline the fingers) held before its chest, in a triangular shape.

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The peculiarity of this grotesque face is that it can be found behind an altar, hidden from direct view. Is this an example of the typical Baroque need to fill out every empty space, of the horror vacui?

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In the church of S. Francesco all’Immacolata we can find the following marbles, showing what looks like a donkey-headed seated figure. We can see its long ears, its snout, its nostrils. The hands, coherent in proportions, are in its lap and the symmetrical neinings on the slab’s sides give the perspective idea of a throne. What is interesting is that this figure has been created with an inlay work, using both the natural veinings and an artificial technique in order to obtain a specific figurative suggestion. This practice was already documented by Pliny, who in his Naturalis historia reported how, in his time, marble-cutters managed not only to cover with marble the walls of temples and public buildings, but even to carve them and insert small stones in shape of animals and other things. They actually began “painting with stone” (“coepimus et lapide pingere”, Nat. hist., Liber xxxv, 3).

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The composition of these marble slabs seem to copy the structure of a railing from Samothracia, an important place for Mystery (Orphic) Cults in the Greek world. Here we have veinings that take the form of two bucrania on each side, and in the middle — where in the Samothracian version there was an eight-petal flower — a greek cross with four additional rays, as if to remain faithful to the original symbology.

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We can imagine that such compositions sometimes referred to pre-existing models, and thus marble-makers were researching those exact shapes in the stone, while in other cases the veinings themselves suggested an image. These simulacra manifested themselves both with the firmness of symbols, archetypes, and the ever-changing uncertainty of the colored surface, the evanescent shape given by an immanent Nature.

The interesting aspect of this unsung chapter of Sicilian Baroque is that the Monstrous, the Grotesque, the Uneven which had not been adopted in religious or civil buildings, actually penetrated them in disguise. From three-dimensional sculpture to two-dimensional slabs, subtly flattened on the walls, decorating the altars right near those very paintings which were used to maintain the Church’s power in the form of Biblia pauperum, these marbles were a kind of parallel stone pinachoteca.

We do not know the ultimate goal of this figurative expression.

We can be sure it was intentional, and it was a thousand-year old decorative system which found its use in representing the bizarre and the grotesque, typical of Baroque culture and especially of the Sicilian Baroque. Probably known in the ecclesial environment at the time, at least in its highest levels, this art form was kept secret and not divulged to the masses.
The inherent ambiguity of these visual stimuli is similar to the lack of objectivity in the Rorschach inkblots, a projective test for which there are no correct answers but rather a subjective meaning.

One could ponder if clients and marble-workers considered the eventuality of the believers noticing these hidden compositions, only apparently chaotic. But even if someone became aware of it, he would had probably never mentioned it without risking the Inquisition, which was active on the island and only abolished in 1782.
Why then selecting rare and precious marbles to compose figures depicting grotesque masks? Was it a simple aesthetic pleasure for a selected few, or rather a specific apotropaic function, the monstrous image used as a spell to ward off the danger of a catastrophe similar to the one that destroyed the city?
The motivation behind such representations is still open to analysis. Several hypothesis could be put forward, just like many analogies can be found with the esoteric tradition — but we should not forget that “there is nothing an enchanted glare cannot recognize in shapes, spots, profiles within the stone” (Roger Caillois, La Scrittura delle Pietre).

To complete our visit to the Stone Pinachoteca, the slab which best represents the beginning and the end of this Voyage is one we can call “The Jester”.

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Its vibrant eyes, sardonic smile, cap and bells. It reminds us of The Fool, the tarot card whose value is 0, the great multiplier. It is the archetype of everything beyond comprehension, the pilgrim on its Way, emerging from the stone to shout his warning: “Open your eyes!

 


[1] Giuseppe Lanza Duke Camastra, who was nominated general vicar, and architect Giovan Battista Vaccarini were the two personalities mainly remembered for the reconstruction of Catania, while the documents from the Historic Archive and other sources do not report specific information about the workers, who remained anonymous.
Of the few names mentioned in the first years of re-building after the earthquake, a notable one is architect Salvatore De Amico, who is sometimes called Caput Magister, and was born in Aci S. Antonio, a feud belonging to the bishop of Catania. De Amico for five years acted as a bridge between the bishop’s curia and the construction sites: he himself managed funds, hired, coordinated and directed workers, evaluated and bought the materials and the necessary plots of land (Le maestranze acesi nella fase iniziale di ricostruzione di Catania, S. Condorelli).
The architect also designed the new map, and directed works, for the epicopal Palace and five other churches in the city.
The Episcopal curia was the direct client for these works and it is very likely that some religious personalities, among which the bishop Andrea Riggio (son of luigi Riggio Branciforte prince of Campofiorito, renowned aristocrat and diplomat), visited the building sites during construction, and were therefore aware of the decor that would adorn the interiors.

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Capsula Mundi

I have sometimes talked about the false dichotomy between Nature and Culture, that weird, mostly Western aberration that sees mankind separated and opposed to the rest of the environment. This feeling of estrangement is what’s behind the melancholy for the original union, now presumed lost: we look at birds in a tree, and regret we are not that carefree and unrestrained; we look at our cities and struggle to find them “natural”, because we insisted in building them with rigid geometries rarely found elsewhere, as if to mark the difference with all other habitats in which straight lines seldom exist.
This vision of man as a creature completely different from other living beings has found an obvious declination in Western burials. It’s one of the very few traditions in which the grave is designed to keep the body from returning to earth (of course in the past centuries this also had to do with the idea of preserving the body for the ultimate Resurrection).
But there is someone who is trying to change this perspective.

Picture your death as a voyage through three different states of matter. Imagine crossing the boundaries between animal, mineral and plant kingdom.
This is the concept behind Capsula Mundi, an italian startup devised by Anna Citelli and Raoul Bretzel, which over the past decade has been trying to achieve a new, eco-friendly and poetic kind of burial. An egg made of biodegradable material will wrap the body arranged in fetal position, or the ashes; once planted underground, it will grow a specific tree, chosen by the deceased when still alive. One after the other, these “graves” will form a real sacred forest where relatives and friends can wander around, taking care of the very plants grown, fed and left as inheritance by their dear departed. A more joyful alternative to the heavy, squared marble gravestone, and a way of accepting death as a transition, a transformation rather than the end of life.

Actually the very idea of a “capsule” incorporates two separate connotations. On one hand there’s the scientific idea of a membrane, of a cell, of a seed for new life. And the shell enveloping the body — not by chance arranged in fetal position — is a sort of replica of the original embryo, a new amniotic sac which symbolically affirms the specularity (or even the identity) of birth and death. On the other, there is the concept of a “capsule” as a vehicle, a sci-fi pod, a vessel leading the corpse from the animal kingdom to the mineral kingdom, allowing all the body components to decompose and to be absorbed by the plant roots.
Death may look like a black monolith, but it gives rise to the cosmic fetus, the ever-changing mutation.

The planting of a tree on burial grounds also refers to the Roman tradition:

For the ancients, being buried under the trees enabled the deceased body to be absorbed by the roots, and matter to be brought back to life within the plant. Such an interpenetration between the corpse and the arboreal organism therefore suggested a highly symbolic meaning: plunging his roots inside mother earth and pushing his top towards the sky, it was like the deceased was stretching out his arms, to protect and save his descendants, in a continuing dialogue with posterity’s affection and memory. 

(N. Giordano, Roma, potenza e simbologia: dai boschi sacri al “Miglio d’oro”, in SILVÆ – Anno VI n. 14)

I asked some questions to Anna Citelli, creator of Capsula Mundi along with Raoul Bretzel.

It is clear today that the attitude towards death and dying is changing, after a century of medicalization and removal: more and more people feel the need to discuss these topics, to confront them and above all to find new (secular) narratives addressing them. In this sense, Capsula Mundi is both a practical and symbolic project. From what did you draw inspiration for this idea? The “capsule” was shaped like an egg from the beginning, or were you initially thinking of something else?

We unveiled the Capsula Mundi project in 2003, at the Salone del Mobile in Milan. It was not the first time we exhibited at the Salon, albeit independently from one another. Our works at the time were already a reflection on sustainability, and when we had the occasion to work together we asked ourselves some questions about the role of designers in a society which appears removed from nature, well-satisfied and overwhelmed by objects for every necessity.
We decided to devote our work to a moment in life of extreme importance, charged with symbolic references, just like birth and wedding. Death is a delicate passage, mysterious and inevitable. It is the moment in which the person stops consuming or producing, therefore in theory it’s something distant from the glossy environment of design. But if we look at it as a natural phenomenon, a transformation of substances, death is the moment in which the being is reconnected with nature, with its perpetual changing. The coffin, an object neglected by
designers, becomes a way of reflecting on the presumption that we are not part of the biological cycle of life, a reflection on a taboo. Adopting the perfect shape of the egg was an immediate and instinctive choice, the only one that could indicate our thought: that death is not an end or an interruption, but the beginning of a new path.

How does Capsula Mundi relate to the death-positive movement? Is your project, while not aspiring to replace traditional burials but rather to offer an alternative choice, also intended to promote a cultural debate?

We have been presenting the concept of Capsula Mundi for more than a decade now, and in the last few years in the public we have finally seen a rising need to talk about death, free from any negative cultural conditioning. It is a collective and transversal need which leads to an enrichment we’ve all been waiting for. We receive a lot of letters from all over the world, from architecture students to palliative treatments operators, from botany students to documentary filmmakers. A whole variety of human beings sharing different experiences, trying to achieve a social change through debate and confrontation, to gain a new perspective on the end of life.

What point is the project at, and what difficulties are you encountering?

Green burials are prohibited in Italy, but seeing the huge demand we receive every day we decided to start the production of the small version of Capsula Mundi, for cremated remains. In the meantime we are carrying on the studies to build capsules for the whole body, but we still need some time for research.

Green burials are already a reality in other countries, as are humanist funerals. Do you think the Italian legislation in funeral matters will change any time soon?

We think that laws are always a step behind social changes. In Italy cemetery regulations date back to Napoleonic times, and legislative change will not happen quickly. But the debate is now open, and sooner or later we too will have memorial parks. Regarding cremated remains, for instance, many things have already changed, almost all regions adjusted to the citizens requests and chose some areas in which the ashes can be spread. Up until some years ago, the urn had to be left within the cemetery, under lock and key and in the keeper’s custody.

How is the audience responding to your project?

Very well. Since the beginning, in 2003, our project never caused any uproar or complaint. It was always understood beyond our expectations. Now, with the help of social medias, its popularity has grown and we just reached 34.000 likes on Facebook. In november 2015 we presented Capsula Mundi to an English-speaking audience at TEDx Torino and it’s been a huge success. For us it is a wonderful experience.

Official site: Capsula Mundi.

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Links, curiosities and mixed wonders

Almost every post appearing on these pages is the result of several days of specific study, finding sources, visiting the National Library, etc. It often happens that this continuous research makes me stumble upon little wonders which perhaps do not deserve a full in-depth analysis, but I nonetheless feel sorry to lose along the way.

I have therefore decided to occasionally allow myself a mini-post like this one, where I can point out the best bizarre news I’ve come across in recent times, passed on by followers, mentioned on Twitter (where I am more active than on other social media) or retrieved from my archive.

The idea — and I candidly admit it, since we’re all friends here — is also kind of useful since this is a time of great excitement for Bizzarro Bazar.
In addition to completing the draft for the new book in the BB Collection, of which I cannot reveal any details yet, I am working on a demanding but thrilling project, a sort of offline, real-world materialization of Bizzarro Bazar… in all probability, I will be able to give you more precise news about it next month.

There, enough said, here’s some interesting stuff. (Sorry, some of my own old posts linked here and there are in Italian only).

  • The vicissitudes of Haydn’s head: Wiki page, and 1954 Life Magazine issue with pictures of the skull’s burial ceremony. This story is reminiscent of Descartes’s skull, of which I’ve written here. (Thanks, Daniele!)
  • In case you missed it, here’s my article (in English) for Illustrati Magazine, about midget pornstar Bridget Powers.
  • Continuing my exploration of human failure, here is a curious film clip of a “triphibian” vehicle, which was supposed to take over land, water and the skies. Spoiler: it didn’t go very far.

  • In the Sixties, the western coast of Lake Victoria in Tanzania fell prey to a laughter epidemics.
  • More recent trends: plunging into a decomposing whale carcass to cure rheumatism. Caitlin Doughty (whom I interviewed here) teaches you all about it in a very funny video.

  • Found what could be the first autopsy ever recorded on film (warning, strong images). Our friend pathologist says: “This film clip is a real gem, really beautiful, and the famous Dr. Erdheim’s dissecting skills are remarkable: he does everything with a single knife, including cutting the breastbone (very elegant! I use some kind of poultry shears instead); he proceeds to a nice full evisceration, at least of thoracic organs (you can’t see the abdomen) from tongue to diaphragm, which is the best technique to maintain the connection between viscera, and… he doesn’t get splattered at all! He also has the table at the right height: I don’t know why but in our autopsy rooms they keep on using very high tables, and therefore you have to step on a platform at the risk of falling down in you lean back too much. It is also interesting to see all the activity behind and around the pathologist, they were evidently working on more than one table at the same time. I think the pathologist was getting his hands dirty for educational reasons only, otherwise there would have been qualified dissectors or students preparing the bodies for him. It’s quite a sight to see him push his nose almost right into the cadaver’s head, without wearing any PPE…”

  • A long, in-depth and thought-provoking article on cryonics: if you think it’s just another folly for rich people who can’t accept death, you will be surprised. The whole thing is far more intriguing.
  • For dessert, here is my interview for The Thinker’s Garden, a wonderful website on the arcane and sublime aspects of art, history and literature.
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The misfortunes of Willie Dee

As I was going down impassive Rivers,
I no longer felt myself guided by haulers.

(A. Rimbaud, The Drunken Boat, 1871)

In the hypotetical Museum of Failure I proposed some time ago, the infamous destroyer USS William D. Porter (DD-579) would hold a place of honor.
The account of its war exploits is so tragicomic that it sounds like it’s scripted, but even if some anecdotes are probably no more than legends, the reputation the ship earned in its two years of service was sadly deserved.

The career of “Willie Dee“, as the Porter was nicknamed, started off with an exceptional task.
Soon after its launch, the ship was assigned to a top-secret, crucial mission: escorting Franklin Delano Roosevelt across the Atlantic ocean — infested by nazi submarines — to North Africa, where the President was to meet Stalin and Churchill for the first time. The summit of the Three Greats would later become known as the Tehran Conference, and together with the following meetings (the most famous one held in Yalta) contributed to change the European post-war layout.
Yet, on account of Willie Dee, the meeting almost failed to happen.

Destroyers are agile and fast ships, specifically designed to shield and protect bigger vessels. On November 12, 1943, the Porter was ordered to join the rest of the fleet escorting USS Iowa, a 14,000-tons battleship on which the President had already boarded, together with the Secretary of State and the executive top brass.

Willie Dee‘s crew at the time consisted of 125 sailors, under Captain Wilfred Walter’s command. But in times of war the Army needed a vast number of soldiers, and therefore enlisted boys who were still in high school, or had only worked in a family farm. A huge part of military accidents was caused by inexperienced rookies, who has had no proper training and were learning from their own mistakes, directly in the field. Nearly all of Willie Dee‘s crew had never boarded a ship before (including the 16 officials, of which only 4 had formerly been at sea), and this top-secret-mission baptism by fire surely increased the crew’s psychological pressure.

Anyway, right from the start Willie Dee made its debut under a bad sign. By forgetting to weigh anchor.
As Captain Walter was maneuvering to exit the Norfolk harbor, a terrible metal noise was heard. Looking out, the crew saw that the anchor had not been completely raised and, still hanging on the ship’s side, had tore out the railings of a nearby sister ship, destroying a life raft and ripping up other pieces of equipment. The Willie Dee had suffered just some scratches and, being already late, Captain Walter could only offer some quick apologies before setting sail towards the Iowa, leaving it to port authorities to fix the mess.
But it wasn’t over. During the next 48 hours, the Willie Dee was going to fall into a maelstrom of shameful incompetence.

After less than a day, just as the Iowa and the other ships were entering a zone notoriously infested by German U-boats, a heavy explosion shook the waters. All units, convinced they had fallen under attack, frantically began diversion maneuvers, as radar technicians in high alert scanned the ocean floor in search for enemy submarines.
Until the Iowa received an embarassed message from Captain Walter: the detonation had been caused by one of their depth charges, accidentally dropped into the water because the safe had not been correctly positioned. Luckily the explosion had not injured the ship.
As if accidentally dropping a bomb was not enough, things got even more desperate in the following hours. Soon after that a freak wave washed one of the sailors overboard, who was never found. Not one hour after that tragedy, the Willie Dee‘s boiler room suffered a mechanical failure and lost power, leaving the destroyer plodding along in a backward position behind the rest of the convoy.

At this point, aboard the Iowa the anxiety for Willie Dee‘s blunders was tangible. Under the scrutiny of all these high personalities, the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest J. King, personally took the radio microphone to reprimand Captain Walter. The skipper, realizing that the opportunities of a high-profile mission were quickly turning into a catastrophe, humbly vowed to “improve the ship’s performance“. And in a sense he kept his word, by causing the ultimate disaster.

Even proceeding at full speed, it would have taken more than a week for the fleet to reach destination. It was therefore of crucial importance to carry out war drills, so that the (evidently inexperienced) crews could prepare for a potential surprise attack.
On November 14, east of Bermuda, the Iowa Captain decided to show Roosevelt and the other passengers how his ship was able to defend itself against an air attack. Some weather balloons were released as targets, as the President and other officials were invited to seat on the deck to enjoy the show of cannons taking them down one by one.
Captain Walter and his crew stood watching from 6,000 yards away, growing eager to participate in the drill and to redeem their ship’s name. When Iowa missed some balloons, which drifted into Willie Dee‘s fire range, Walter ordered his men to shoot them down. At the same time, he commanded a torpedo drill.

Belowdecks two members of the crew, Lawton Dawson and Tony Fazio, made sure the primers were removed from the torpedos — otherwise they would have actually launched — and gave the OK signal to the deck. The bridge commander ordered fire, and the first “fake” torpedo was activated. Then the second, “fire!“. And the third.
At that point, the bridge commander heard the last sound he’d wanted to hear. The unmistakable hiss of a real torpedo trailing away.
To fully understand the horror the official must have felt in that moment, we must remember one detail. Usually in a drill one of the nearby ships was chosen as a practice target. The closest target was the Iowa.

The Porter had just fired a torpedo towards the President of the United States.

WTUS_WWII_Dunlap_pic

Aboard the Willie Dee, hell broke loose. One lieutenant ran up to Captain Walter, and asked him if he had given permission to fire a torpedo. His answer was certainly not a historic war dictum:  “Hell, No, I, I, aaa, iiiiii — WHAT?!“.
Only a couple of minutes were left before the torpedo hit Iowa‘s side, sinking it together with America’s most important personalities.
Walter immediately ordered to raise the alarm, but the strictest radio silence had been commanded to avoid the risk of interception, as the fleet sailed in a dangerous zone. So the signalman decided to use a flashing light instead.
But, falling prey to a justifiable panic, the young sailor who had to warn Iowa of the fatal mistake got quite confused. The mothership began receiving puzzling, uncomprehensible messages: “A torpedo is moving away from Iowa“, and shortly after “Our ship is going in reverse at full speed“.
Time was running out, and realizing that Morse code was not a viable option, Walter decided to break radio silence. “Lion, Lion, come right!” “Identify and say again. Where is submarine?” “Torpedo in the water! Lion, come right! Emergency! Come right, Lion! Come right!
At that point the torpedo had already been spotted from the Iowa. The ship made an emergency manoeuvre, increasing speed and turning right, as all cannons shot towards the incoming torpedo. President Roosevelt asked his Secret Service bodyguard to move his wheelchair to the railing, so he could better see the missile. According to the story, the bodyguard even took out his gun to shoot the torpedo, as if his bullets could stop its course.
Meanwhile, over the Willie Dee a ghastly silence had fallen, as everyone stood frozen, holding their breath and waiting for the explosion.

Four minutes after being fired, the missile exploded in water, not far from Iowa, providentially without damaging it. The President later wrote in his diary: “On Monday last a gun drill. Porter fired a torpedo at us by mistake. We saw it — missed it by 1,000 feet“.

With the best will in the world, such an accident could not be overlooked — also because at that point there was a strong suspicion that the Willie Dee crew might have been infiltrated, and that the claimed clumsy error was in fact an actual assassination plot. So the Iowa ordered the Porter out of the convoy and sent it back to a US base in Bermuda; Walter and his crew shamefully made a u-turn and, once they entered the harbor, were greeted by fully armed Marines who placed them all under arrest. Days of interrogations and investigations followed, and Dawson, the 22-tear-old sailor who forgot to remove the primer from the torpedo, was sentenced to 14 years of hard labour. When he heard of the sentence, Roosevelt himself intervened to pardon the poor boy.

The rest of the convoy in the meantime reached Africa unharmed, and Roosevelt (despite another, but this time real, attempted assassination) went on to sign with Churchill and Stalin those deals which, once the war was over, would radically change Europe.
The Willie Dee was sent off Alaskan shores, where it could not cause much trouble, and in time it became some sort of a sailor’s myth. Other unverified rumors began circulating around the “black sheep” of the US Navy, such as one about a drunk sailor who one night allegedly shot a 5-inch shell towards a military base on the coast, destroying a commander’s front yard. Humorous, exaggerated legends that made it a perfect scapegoat, the farcical anti-heroine into which the anxiety of failure could be sublimated.
The resonance of Willie Dee’s infamous deeds preceded it in every harbor, where invariably the ship was saluted by radioing the ironic greeting “Don’t shoot! We’re Republicans!“.

USS_William_D._Porter_(DD-579)_sinking

The ship eventually sank during the Battle of Okinawa — ingloriously taken down by an already-crashed plane which exploded under its hull.
On that day, more than a seaman probably heaved a sigh of relief. The unluckiest ship in American history was finally resting at the bottom of the ocean.

52664605.william_d_porterweb

(Thanks, Andrea!)

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Heaven is full of perverts

Ayzad is one of the biggest Italian experts in alternative sexuality and BDSM, author of several books on the subject. My respect for his work is unconditional: even if you are not into whips or bondage, my advice is to follow him anyway, because his explorations of the galaxies of extreme sex often entail innovative viewpoints and intuitions on all sexuality, on the psychology of relationships, on the semantics of eroticism and on the narratives we tell ourselves while we think we are simply making love. Addressing these issues in a meticulous yet ironic way, his cartography of the weirdest sexual practices offers lots of fun, awe and many surprises.
I met him the night before the opening of Rome BDSM Conference, where he was lecturing, and he kindly agreed to pen a report for Bizzarro Bazar on this unusual event.

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The Rome BDSM Conference report

by Ayzad

I spent the last few days surrounded by people in tears. Which was to be expected, since the setting was the largest BDSM convention in Europe. The surprising part, in fact, was the reason of their crying – but we’ll get to it later.

The third edition of the Rome BDSM Conference was held in a nice suburban hotel set in the farthest possible environment from the romantic imagery one usually associates with the Eternal City. The area is so existentially dreadful to be the subject of an actual gag in a rather famous Italian movie, where not even the overly optimistic protagonist can find anything good to it. Although I had been there the for the previous edition already, the mismatch with common expectations was no less bizarre – and would prove to be but the first of many during the kinky weekend.

What could be shocking for most people, who generally identify erotic deviations with crass porn or with the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon, is that a sadomasochists’ convention doesn’t look that different from any corporate event or professional gathering. The lobby placards that point the attendees to the conference halls sit side by side with the indications for boring accountancy quarterly meetings, people wear nametags on a lanyard not unlike at an orthodontics exhibition, and exhausted-looking participants sneak out to the lobby bar to catch their breath – and the occasional nap in a corner armchair.
Ties and power suits are a rare sight among the casual outfits preferred by most, yet fetish clothing is equally uncommon. You don’t really see more naughty high heels or suggestive details in the common areas than you would on any given working day: the few discreet slave collars and corsets are largely offset by regular t-shirts and jeans.

The people themselves, on the other hand, are striking in their diversity. Besides their geographical provenience (foreigners outnumber Italians, puzzling the organization), it is apparent that this bunch is happily unburdened by the anxiety of conforming to social standards. Same sex couples mingle with a lack of care so refreshingly alien from the unending controversy fabricated by the local media and politicians around equal rights; several unapologetically oversized persons who’d be frowned upon in another milieu are accepted just as much as the coolest fetish models here, and the same goes for the random disabled ones. Twentysomethings mix with seniors on polite yet equal terms. The situation closely reminded me of naturist resorts, where nakedness is quickly forgotten as you instinctively see people for their human essence and value, not their appearance.

As a matter of fact, this aspect of the Conference has a tendency to pull the rug from under your feet whenever you stop and consider the situation from an outsider’s perspective. «Wait, am I actually discussing anal fisting with a Slovakian asexual surgeon and a girl who’s barely one third of my own age and identifies as a bratty pony?» It took the better part of one day, for example, for me to realize that I had been talking with a trans person, even if this was pretty apparent: I simply hadn’t given this aspect the littlest thought. On a similar note, once you are immersed in such environment it takes a little while to notice that sitting in a workshop dedicated to the various techniques to safely penetrate a woman with a bayonet, or watching a lesson about biting people, isn’t exactly normal – even for me. Because yes: of course the BDSM Conference is a pretty hands-on affair too.

The event itself takes place in the convention area of the hotel, consisting of several lecture rooms set along a hallway where kinky artisans sell whips, collars, floggers, leather locking cuffs and other wicked toys. This year they shared the space with an exhibition featuring the photos from an art contest organized by the largest Italian leather association, whose winner was announced during the gala dinner held on the second day of the Conference.
The program offered over eighty workshops, each of them one hour and a half long. Presenters come from all over Europe, Israel and the USA (and Japan, in the previous editions), and this is where the similarities with other conventions end.

In the attendees-only area of the hotel participants remained indeed cheerful and civil, but the sounds coming from behind the classes doors often left no doubt on the nature of the lessons. Whip cracks and loud moans mixed with laughter and the occasional yelp, as the workshops continued with a barrage of bizarre titles. Violet wands, what to do with electricity ran side to side with The culture of consent; you could jump from Negotiating a scene to Artistic cutting or the rather technical Progressions for freestyle suspension bondage; high concept classes such as The reality of total power exchange relationships, Destructuring a BDSM scene or my own Polyamory and BDSM coexisted with the definitely down-to-earth The ups and downs of anal play and Needleplay for sadists. Other topics included fetishes, psychology, kinbaku, safety, communication, instruments and subjects as exotic as erotic tickling and the semantics of sex. The one thing you couldn’t find anywhere were the chudwahs.

Chudwah’ stands for Clueless Heterosexual Dominant Wannabe, a portmanteau indicating the sort of troglodytes who plague kinky communities both on- and offline thinking that a loud voice and a snarl are all it takes to bring home hot partners willing to provide oral sex and housekeeping in exchange for a few face slaps. They cannot conceive that BDSM is an art that in order to be safe and pleasurable requires dedication, much less actual study.
All the Conference participants were definitely committed to bring their game to a higher level instead, so they behaved like proper scholars. This made the workshops an especially surreal experience, with people keenly taking notes as desperate interpreters struggled to find the appropriate words to translate speeches about topics as improbable as erotic ageplay, extreme mindfuck, traditional Japanese bondage or the historical origin of a flogger flourish in Reinassance Italy. Trust me when I say that few things in life are weirder than finding yourself at the end of a class compiling a feedback form and wondering with a fellow student whether the genital suturing demonstration should get four or five stars.

No matter how apparently absurd the situation, everyone was seriously committed to learning and sharing, because this sort of knowledge immediately translates into pleasure and safety once you hit the bedroom – or the dungeon. Extreme erotic literacy took absolute priority throughout the event, keeping the discussion going all the time. Even on the third day, when everybody was positively exhausted, the bilingual conversation during lunch focused for example on the comparative merits of the lecturing style of two presenters who had both tackled erotic humiliation in their lessons. Everyone agreed that the shock of feeling seriously humiliated does help to shed your everyday persona and give yourself permission to leave inhibitions behind. One teacher however had carefully built a safe mindspace to explore embarrassment, while the other had subjected his partner to an extremely degrading session which many attendees found plainly abusive. A heated yet educated debate ensued, and it would have continued if it wasn’t for yet another set of classes coming up and demanding our attention. But it wasn’t just work and no play, of course.

You cannot expect to corral hundreds of kinksters in a secluded locations without them getting to have fun in their own unique ways. The retreat program thus included two parties: one for the attendees only and a larger one the night after, open to outsiders as well. They were both held in the large, warehouse-like rooms where the bondage and singletail workshops had taken place during the day, due to their major space requirements. The same carpeted floors that normally accomodated sleep-inducing corporate presentations were cleared of conference chairs and outfitted with an impressive array of St. Andrew’s crosses, whipping benches, cages, fisting slings, pillories and other unsettling furniture. An immense structure built with the kind of tubes used for construction scaffoldings looked like the biggest jungle gym ever, but it was meant as a support for multiple suspension bondages.

I won’t delve in any depth on the parties. What really set them apart from many analogous play nights was simply being surrounded by the very same people you had met red-eyed at breakfast, then as diligent students during the day, then slacking off at the bar or making their moves in the lobby, then elegantly (or outrageously) dressed for the gala dinner, and now flaunting their latex and leather outfits as they writhed in pain and delight in the dimly-lit halls. As I queued with them again at the pancake and juice stations the morning after, I felt sort of voyeuristically privileged for the chance I was given to see these strangers so thoroughly naked in all their daily masks and without, candidly exposing sides of their character that only spouses would witness otherwise – and not even all of them at that.
If 24/7 intimacy begets deep bonding already, the awareness that everyone was there for their passion for extreme eroticism took things one step further. With our psychosexual phantasms exposed from the start, the need to conceal and sublimate our libido simply disappeared, with three curious effects.

The former was the utter absence of the sort of neurotic behavior that’s so common throughout our daily lives; repressed sexual urges and thoughts are the overwhelming cause of personal issues, after all. I venture to say that the rare uneasy persons I stumbled into all appeared to harbor problems of a different nature.
Another peculiarity was that lechery and creepiness were nowhere to be seen. People eyed each other, sure, but erotic proposals were offered and received with a characteristic lack of drama, just like refusals got gallantly accepted. Why wrapping a normal, healthy part of life in the shroud of anxiety, indeed? The contrast with the intensely sexualized imagery spewing from the few television screens and the magazines in the hotel lobby highlighted how “normal” society twists the joy of sex into its evil twin – and how weird it is that we ended up believing this dreadful charade, often missing entirely the point of sexuality itself.

The latter and possibly most fascinating effect of the unusual cohabitation was to witness the subtle changes in the participants’ body language. The more the event got underway, the more people looked relaxed and accepting of their own bodies – including the bruises and marks that were gladly worn not unlike actual badges of honor. Far from the frigid Helmut Newton stereotypes that are still so prominent in BDSM imagery, smiles and hugs abounded; movements became softer and more deliberate; people literally had learned not to be afraid of each other and of themselves. The general attitude changed as well: instead of being always ready to criticize or get annoyed by every minor glitch as it often happens in our everyday lives, on this particular occasion everybody tended to be more inclined towards being on the lookout for whatever opportunity of pleasure – be it a new erotic practice or a simple bit of nice conversation – ignoring the rest. As a sexologist friend commented during the previous edition, anyone who had came in looking for perversion and depravity would feel disconcerted by the tenderness displayed by the attendees.

And this is why, come the end of that three-days extravaganza, so many participants were crying at the closing cerimony. For these outcasts who finally found their home and tribe, this final moment becomes so emotionally loaded that they even bet on how long will it take for the burly organizer himself to burst into tears during his thank you speech. He is not alone in that, though: just imagine how would you feel if you had finally spent a heavenly weekend, and you knew you had to wait another whole year to feel among kindred spirits again. Imagine what it is like to have experienced a perfect world – free of prejudices, ignorance, pettiness, fear, competition, hate – and having to leave it behind to step back into the mundane mess we all suffer. Imagine how strange it is to realize that life would be so much better if only more people grew less scared of their own sexuality, and how odd to discover this at a kinky convention.

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