The Flea Circus

One, two, three!
Watch the elephants standing
All the fleas jump
Watch out, here comes the trainer!

Vinicio Capossela, I pagliacci (2000)

Fleas that pull carriages and horses, fleas diving into a glass of water from the top of a trampoline, duelling with tiny swords, even shooting themselves from a miniature cannon just like the most famous human cannonballs.

The circus has always thrived on the most extreme, impossible challenges, as only the ordinary is left out of the Big Top. It is therefore only natural that classical animal trainers – who made dangerous and enormous beasts bend the knee – would be featured alongside the opposite end of the spectrum, those tamers who managed to make microscopic creatures perform exceptional stunts.
This is why the Flea Circus is one of the most enduring (albeit misunderstood) sideshow acts.

First of all, let’s address the question that might  already cross your mind: are there any fleas in these shows at all, or is it just an optical illusion?

The short answer is that yes, in the beginning real fleas would be used; then gradually the number slipped into the field of illusionism.
It is worthwhile, however, to enjoy the longer answer, retracing the fascinating story of this strange entomological circus – which was invented by an Italian.

A Brief History of the Microscopic Circus

It all started when, in 1578, a London blacksmith named Mark Scalliot, in order to show off his skill, built a tiny lock complete with a key made of iron, steel and brass, for the total weight of “a grain of gold”. He then forged a golden chain composed of 43 rings, so thin that it could be tied around the neck of a flea. The insect pulled the padlock and the key with it.

Almost two centuries later, in the attempt to replicate Scalliot’s publicity stunt, a watchmaker named Sobieski Boverick built an ivory mini-carriage “with figures of six horses attached to it—a coachman on the box, a dog between his legs, four persons inside, two footmen behind, and a postillion on the fore horse, all of which were drawn by a single flea”.

In the 1830s, inspired by these two predecessors, the Genoese emigrant Luigi Bertolotto employed the little pests for the first time in a circus context, exhibiting his trained fleas in Regent Street.
Following in Boverick’s steps, he too proposed the number of the flea pulling a carriage with horses – an element that would later become a mainstay of the genre – but his show went far beyond that: with the typical Italian taste for theatricality, Bertolotto turned his fleas into proper actors.

 

He made tiny custom-made suits, and delighted his audience with several tableaux vivants featuring several fleas at a time. First of all there was the Arab scene which saw the Sultan as protagonist, with his harem and the odalisques; then came the hematophagous version of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
One of the highlights was when the insects did a pocket-size reenactment of the Battle of Waterloo, in which the amused spectators could recognize Napoleon, the Duke of Wellington and Prussian field marshal Blücher, all dressed in uniform. Another part of the show was the fancy ball, in which a pair of insects dressed in gorgeous clothes danced accompanied by an orchestra of 12 elements.
The public was astonished and laughed at the evident satire: here is the lavish world of high society, miniaturized and ridiculed; here are some great war heroes, personified by the lowest animals in all creation. You could have crushed with one finger even the Emperor himself.

Bertolotto became the first (and last) true flea superstar; his fortune was such that he left for an international tour, finally settling in Canada. Imitators soon began to appear, and although they never topped his fame they spread the flea taming act throughout the world.
There were many incarnations of the Flea Circus, ranging from the most basic street performance, often employing a simple suitcase as a stage where fleas made elementary stunts, to more elaborate versions.

The last great flea manager was in all probability William Heckler, a circus performer who at the beginning of the 20th century left his career as a strongman to devote himself full-time to fleas. After touring the United States far and wide, in 1925 his circus became part of the Hubert’s Museum in Times Square.

Here for a few dollars you could see Prince Randian the Human Caterpillar (who would later appear in Tod Browning’s Freaks), Olga the Bearded Woman, Suzie the Elephant-Skinned Girl, and snake charmer Princess Sahloo. Another, smaller princess performed in the museum’s cellar: Princess Rajah, the flea who played the role of the oriental dancer in Professor Heckler’s circus.

In addition to performing traditional athletic feats, such as jumping into a hoop or kicking a ball, Heckler’s fleas played a xylophone (allegedly made of nail clippings), juggled small balls, and staged boxing matches on a miniature ring. Heckler continued to work with his mini-cast until the 1950s: at the height of his success, his show could yield more than $250 a day, the current equivalent of  $3,000.

The Infernal Discipline, or How To Tame A Flea

Human fleas, in spite of their annoying bites and the fact that they can be carriers of plague and other dangerous diseases, are actually really extraordinary insects.

Imagine you could jump more than 90 meters vertically, leaping over the Statue of Liberty, and 230 meters horizontally. This, in proportion, is the ability of the pulex irritans.
The muscles of its hind legs are not the only ones responsible for this incredible propulsive force: in fact they prepare the jump by compressing and slowly distorting an elastic pad composed of resilin, which during this “charging” phase is kept locked by a tendon, and can thus store muscle energy. When it comes to jumping, the tendon snaps back into position therefore releasing the pad. The flea takes off with a dizzying acceleration of 100 times the force of gravity. To put things in perspective, a person can only withstand a vertical acceleration of 5g before passing out.

You might then understand how the first and biggest problem a trainer had to solve was how to convince his fleas not to jump off the scene.

For this purpose the insects were kept for a long time in a test tube: they would hit their heads on the glass until they learned that jumping was not an appropriate behavior. A more drastic remedy consisted in gluing them onto the stage or tying them to some object, but this could only work for those elements of the “cast” that were supposed to remain still (for instnace the orchestra players).
As for all the other fleas, which had to perform more complex actions, it was necessary to select those that showed a more docile character (usually females); the bridle was assigned only to the slower ones, which were destined to pull carriages and carts, while the more lively ones became soccer players or divers. All this, of course, if we are to trust the literature of the time on the subject.

In order to force these little daredevils to perform their stunts, various techniques were used – although, to be honest, it’s a bit difficult to view these tricks as a proper “training”.
In fact, if you look at it from a flea’s point of view, the circus appears to be a place of cruelty and terror, in which a sadistic and gigantic jailer is subjecting his prisoners to an endless series of tortures.

Towing fleas were harnessed with a very thin thread of cloth or metal passed around their head; once positioned, this leash would remain there for the insect’s entire life. The difficult part was to exert the right binding pressure, because if the thread was fastened too tight then the flea could no longer swallow, and died.
As for saber-fencing fleas, two small pieces of metal were glued to their frontal limbs; naturally the insects tried to get rid of them, shaking their paws in vain, thus giving the impression of dueling each other.


Soccer players were selected among the fleas that jumped higher: a ball was soaked in insect repellent (often citronella oil, or a disinfectant like Listerine), then pushed towards them as they were kept in a vertical position, and they kicked it away with their hind legs.
Similar trick was used for juggling fleas which were fixed or glued on their back, with their paws up in the air; as they tried to get rid of the toxic ball that was placed over them, they made it roll and spin.

As for the musicians and dancers, an article from 1891 describes the show in detail. Two “dancers” are glued each to one end of a piece of golden paper:

They are placed in a reversed position to each other – one looking one way, the other another way. Thus tied, they are placed in a sort of arena on the top of the musical box; at one end of the box sits an orchestra composed of fleas, each tied to its seat, and having the resemblance of some musical instrument tied on the foremost of their legs.The box is made to play, the exhibitor touches each of the musicians with a bit of stick, and they all begin waving their hands about, as performing an elaborate piece of music. The fleas tied to the gold paper feel the jarring of the box below them, and begin to run round and round as fast as their little legs will carry them. This is called the Flea’s Waltz.

To balance all this horror, let us point out that the flea trainer personally nourished all his precious professionals with his own blood. For the parasites it was certainly a rough and hectic life, but at least they never skipped a meal.

Now you see me, now you don’t:
Illusory Fleas & The Zeitgeist

There does not seem to be a vast literature on fake fleas.
What is certain is that “flea-circuses-without-fleas” began to exist alongside the authentic ones as early as the 1930s. The circus act continued shifting towards the sphere of illusionism and magic until the 1950s, when particularly elaborate versions of the trick began to appear and trainers stopped using real fleas.

Michael Bentine, one of the members of the Goons, had his own circus in which non-existent fleas pushed balls along inclined planes, jumped on a table covered with sand (each jump was “visualized” via a puff of sand), climbed a ladder by “pressing” one step at a time, and splashed into a glass of water. Other fake trainers used magnets and wires to drop the obstacles allegedly knocked off by running fleas, while electric or mechanical gimmicks operated the trapeze and moved the fake fleas balancing on a wire; some mentalists even exploited invisible “telepathic fleas” to read in the minds of the spectators.

Today only one well-known circus still uses real fleas: it is the Floh Circus, which makes its appearance every year at Oktoberfest.
The rest of the few circuses in circulation are all based on illusion: one of the most famous is the Acme Miniature Flea Circus, run by Adam Gertsacov. According to him, this type of show is the purest and most suitable for our times, precisely because it is based on uncertainty:

People watching say, ‘What am I really seeing?’ I like that. You haven’t really been to a flea circus unless you’ve been bamboozled by the flea-circus guy. It would be interesting to watch real trained fleas, but only for three or four minutes. That’s not enough these days when you can Google insects and see them mating, up close and personal. My show is about showmanship.

Perhaps these fake flea circuses imprudently rely on a kind of naivety which no longer exists.
Yet it is true that, in a time when our perception is constantly challenged, these deceptive gadgets take on an unexpected symbolic meaning. Although designed to be harmless and amusing, they are based on the same principles as the far more menacing deep fakes and all those hate and fear narratives we are daily subjected to: every illusion really only works if we want to believe it.

And while Gertsacov and his colleagues continue to claim the superiority of the art of story-telling over mere reality, the fleas – the real ones – are thankful it’s all over.

Most of the information in this article comes from Dr Richard Wiseman’s Staging a Flea Circus, which contains many other curiosities (for example on the difficulties of finding flea supplies), and from Ernest B. Furgurson, A Speck of Showmanship, in The American Scholar, June 3, 2011.
A good study directory on fleas and their history is The Flea Circus Research Library.

Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 19

Boy, am I bored. Luckily, there’s a new collection of links on Bizzarro Bazar.” (Photo: Tim Walker)

Forget icecream: to fight the heat, nothing better than some icy and chilling reads, directly from my (mortuary) freezer!

  • James Hirst (1738-1829) used to ride on a bull he had trained; he kept foxes and bears as pets; he built a wicker carriage so large that it contained a double bed and an entire wine cellar; he installed a sail on his cart, so as to navigate on land, but at the first road bend he ended up flying through a tailor’s window; he saved himself from a duel to the death by placing a dummy in his place; he received dozens of garters from English noblewomen in exchange for the privilege of standing inside his self-constructed eccentric coffin; he refused an invitation from the King because he was “too busy” teaching an otter the art of fishing. (I, on the other hand, have vacuumed the house today.)
  • Jason Shulman uses very long exposures to photograph entire films. The result is spectacular: a one-image “summary” of the movie, 130,000 frames compressed in a single shot. “Each of these photographs — says Shulman — is the genetic code of a film, its visual DNA“. And it is fascinating to recognize the contours of some recurring shots (whose imprint is therefore less blurry): the windows of the van in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the static scenic desing in Méliès movies, the bokeh street lights of Taxi Driver. And I personally never thought about it, but there must be so many close-ups of Linda Lovelace in Deep Throat, in order to make that ghostly face appear… (Thanks, Eliana!)

  • Since we’re talking about photography, take a look at Giovanni Bortolani’s manipulations. In his Fake Too Fake series he has some fun slicing up and reassembling the body of beautiful male and female models, as in the example above. The aesthetics of fashion photography meets the butcher counter, with surreal and disturbing results.
  • It’s still taboo to talk about female masturbation: so let’s talk about it.
    A nice article on L’Indiscreto [sorry, Italian only] recounts the history of female auto-eroticism, a practice once considered pathological, and today hailed as a therapy. But, still, you can’t talk about it.
  • While we’re at it, why not re-watch that nice Disney cartoon about menstruation?
  • I thought I’d found the perfect summer gadget, but it turns out it’s out of stock everywhere. So no beach for me this year. (Thanks, Marileda!)

 

  • You return to your native village, but discover that everyone has left or died. So what do you do to make this ghost town less creepy? Easy: you start making life-size rag dolls, and place them standing motionless like scarecrows in the fields, you place them on benches, fill the empty classrooms, you position them as if they were waiting for a bus that’ll never come. Oh, and you give these puppets the faces of all the dead people from the village. Um. Ms. Ayano Tsukimi is so lovely, mind you, and her loneliness is very touching, but I haven’t decided yet whether her work is really “cheerful” and poetic, as some say, or rather grotesque and disturbing. You decide.
  • If you can readItalian well, there is a beautiful and fascinating study by Giuditta Failli on the irruption of the Marvelous in medieval culture starting from the 12th century: lots of monsters, skeleton armies, apparitions of demons and ghosts. Here is the first part and the second part. (Thanks, Pasifae!)

  • What is this strange pattern above? It is the demonstration that you can always think outside the box.
    Welcome to the world of heterodox musical notations.
  • But then again music is supposed to be playful, experimental, some kind of alchemy in the true sense of the term — it’s all about using the elements of the world in order to transcend them, through the manipulation and fusion of their sounds. Here’s another great nonconformist, Hermeto Pascoal, who in this video is intent on playing a freaking lagoon.
  • I am going to seek a great perhaps“, said François Rabelais as he laid dying.
    Now I am about to take my last voyage, a great leap in the dark“, Thomas Hobbes whispered.
    Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough!” Karl Marx muttered in his last breath.
    Have you prepared your grand, romantic, memorable last words? Well, too bad that you probably won’t get to say them. Here is an interesting article on what people really say while they’re dying, and why it might be important to study how we communicate during our last moments.
  • Speaking of last words, my favorite ones must be those pronounced by John Sedgwick on May 9, 1864 during the Battle of Spotsylvania. The heroic general urged his soldiers not to retreat: “Why are you dodging like this? They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” Soon after he had said this, a bullet reached him under his left eye, killing him on the spot.

Sedgwick: 0 – Karma: 1.

  • Let’s get this party started!” These cheerful and jovial gentlemen who, with admirable enthusiasm, pop their eyes out of their sockets with knives, are celebrating the Urs festival, an event held every year at Ajmer in Rajasthan to commemorate the death of Sufi master Moʿinoddin Cishti. You can find more photos of this merry custom in this article.
  • And finally here is a really wonderful short film, recommended by my friend Ferdinando Buscema. Enjoy it, because it is the summary of all that is beautiful in mankind: our ability to search for meaning in little things, through work and creation, and the will to recognize the universal even in the humblest, most ordinary objects.

 

Hatari

Article by guestblogger Verina Romagna

The 2019 edition of the Eurovision Song Contest is open, the audience waves their flags in the stalls or collapses on the couch at home to watch the live event on TV: everyone is dazzled by the glittering, ever-smiling singers, by catchy songs obsessively repeating “love, love, love”.
It is now Iceland’s turn, a small competitor which never turned out to be very successful or surprising, and suddenly the stage turns blood red. With a harsh metallic beat, the scene is revealed: there’s a cage, and a group of androgynous creatures dressed in leather and latex; one of the singers lies like a dying man on a staircase; the other does not sing, he screams from the top of his lungs. With a growl that is not wild or liberating, but rather cold and hallucinated, the lyrics deliver a terrible message: HATRIÐ MUN SIGRA, “hatred will prevail”.

“What’s this? How could this happen?”, the shocked audience ask themselves.
Let’s take a step back.


Four years ago, on a bright summer evening, as the midnight sun was shining, two boys strolled through Reykjavík contemplating the rise of populism, the ruin of capitalism and the crimes of growing individualism in Europe. To them, the only possible answer was: Hatari.

Meet the band

Hatari translates as “haters”. The band defines itself as an “award-winning performative, anti-capitalist, anti-systemic, industrial, techno-dystopic, BDSM” band, modifying and adding adjectives at their will. Hatari is a multimedia project, chaired by a nebulous company going by the suspicious name of Svikamylla ehf. (“Relentless Scam/Web of Lies Inc. “).

The project is based on the musical band founded by the two boys of the story, singers Klemens Hannigan and Matthías Tryggvi Haraldsson, together with their “drummer gimp” Einar Hrafn Stefánsson. Joining the trio is a variable team of performers, dancers, choreographers, visual artists and independent stylists responsible for a keenly designed fetish wardrobe, as well as a series of branded gym wear for the band’s moments of relax.

The legend of Hatari’s foundation is a brazen ironic hoax, regularly administered to the press by Klemens and Matthías, but there are some irrefutable facts: Hatari has indeed won several awards, and most of its members actually graduated from the Art Academy of Reykjavík. Matthías, aged twenty-five, already gained some recognition as a playwright and his writing is at the heart of Hatari’s nihilistic lyrics. Klemens is a carpenter and set designer, Einar also plays in the indie-pop band Vök.

Defining Hatari’s musical genre is a tricky task, because the band is eager to reinvent its style whenever it gets too close to being apprehended. Asking Klemens or Matthías will result in the usual long list of adjectives created on the spot: it might start off with almost fitting terms such as “techno-punk”, but will soon turn to “pop”, “bondage” and “doomsday”, and eventually end up being defined as “cabaret” and “bonanza”. Among their musical influences are Rammstein, Die Antwoord, Rage Against The Machine, Abba (“if only they were more Marxist“), the Spice Girls, Naomi Kline, Noam Chomsky, Donald Trump and Theresa May.

Hatari’s songs feature an electronic rhythmic base, enhanced by Einar’s live drumming, and two contrasting voices: Matthías’ growl delivers the main part, while Klemens will usually sing the melodic line in a soft, imploring and plaintive tone which can rise to a shrill falsetto, as in the song Hatrið mun sigra performed at Eurovision.

Music, however, is just one specific feature in Hatari’s wider concept, which is carried out through different performances: their act consists in staging a fascist dystopia set at the end of humanity, in the unmasking of the relentless scam we are subjected to in everyday life, in dismantling capitalism… and maybe, in the meantime, sell some CDs and T-shirts. After all, as the band put it, “it’s not cheap to bring down capitalism“.

Hatari’s key feature is precisely this love of contradiction, paradox, opposition. The BDSM clothing aesthetic is deemed necessary, because BDSM “liberates you, but it constrains you at the same time […], just like capitalism“.
But their use of contrast is also evident in the relationship between the singers Klemens and Matthías, a dualism ceaselessly exhibited on and off stage, which, as we shall see, might be the true focus of the entire project.

Hatari’s characters

Matthías, the leader of the group, plays the role of the absolute ruler and dictator in Hatari’s dystopia. He is brown-haired, cold and imposing, and his voice has a solemn and cavernous tone. The tyrant Matthías is characterized by rigidity, repressed movements, and a blank expression. He barely moves when he’s onstage, and he addresses the audience with a few controlled gestures, dry and theatrical, a Nazi-inspired reference. Angry screams rise from his granite, absent face, lost in a hateful frenzy of self-assertion. Even when he is not singing, Matthías maintains his apathetic composure; if he utters ironic and paradoxical sentences, he does so avoiding any hint of hilarity.

Klemens is Matthías’ right-hand man, an innocent martyr that the dictator subdues and persecutes. He’s a victim whose torment becomes obscene ecstasy: Klemens represents the compassionate undertaker of a dying humanity. He is small, with blond or sometimes bright-red hair, sparkling and ephebic. Like Matthías, he exhibits Hatari’s odd rhetoric with the utmost seriousness, but does not follow the same self-discipline. The inspiration for his body language and expressive range comes from a variety of traditionally feminine incarnations: the tender and fragile angel, the cheeky lolita sporting a blatant look, the bored prostitute, the sleepy men-eating vamp.

Beside a frozen Matthías, Klemens staggers without peace along the stage and dances to the rhythm. His arms are raised, hips swaying, his body is softly disjointed, keeping the pelvis as a center of gravity. With his skimpy costumes and orgasmic moans, Klemens becomes the spokesperson for the erotic element in Hatari’s performance: he symbolizes light, life, sex, against the darkness and dryness of Matthías.

Einar, the drummer gimp, is a silent character. But then again, he always wears a studded leather mask which hides the lower half of his face, limiting his communication possibilities. Contact lenses blacken his sclera, or narrow the pupil, so that his features are unrecognizable and the only noticeable trait is his gigantic stature.

During performances Einar beats on the drums with a metronome’s stolidity, or he spins around a spiked mace. Sometimes he just stands motionless behind the band and stares at the audience, like a fearsome Golem disguised as a sex toy. The only sentence he has spoken so far, the one time Klemens generously opened the zipper over his mouth, is the prophetic title of the song Hatrið mun sigra.

Some dancers who collaborate in Hatari’s performances complete the whole picture: the elegant and lanky slave Sigurður Andrean Sigurgeirsson and the pale, robotic dominatrices Sólbjört Sigurðardóttir and Ástrós Guðjónsdóttir. Female dancers are no less dressed than men, and even if they happen to interact with male performers, they never do so in an allusive way: in Hatari’s choreography the sensuality remains exclusively homoerotic and masculine.

Rise and scandal at the Eurovision

So how could this freakshow ever get to arrive at Eurovision?
The first step was to win the Söngvakeppnin, the Icelandic musical competition where every year the national representative at Eurovision is chosen.
The band’s participation in a television pop competition made a sensation, not only because so far the band only played the underground scene, but also because Hatari in theory just split up – with a farewell concert and a press statement on Iceland Music News (the “most honest information channel in Iceland“, actually another fictitious company of theirs). The motivation behind the split up is the aknwledgemtn that their pojects has failed: “We could not bring an end to capitalism, in the two years we gave ourselves“. But this farewell lasted just ten days.
Their taking part in Söngvakeppnin was announced with a promotional video designed to reassure the event’s pop audience: in the video, the smiling group is dressed in middle-class clothes (Einar’s without his trademark mask, for the first time ) and gets together to eat a cake. In order to make this family picture more intimate, Klemens’ daughter also participates, along with the daughter of Einar and Sólbjört, who are engaged in private life.
Did Hatari become a family-friendly and bourgeois band? Not exactly: the script of the video is a copycat of the electoral campaign of Bjarni Benediktsson, a controversial politician who devotes himself to cake design.

When, during the award ceremony, Hatari was proclaimed the winner, taking everyone by surprise, Matthías nodded condescendingly and repeated Hatari’s leitmotiv: “Everything’s according to the plan“. Capitalism shall be dismantled starting from the Eurovision contest, he reasoned, since having Hatari as national representative will at least cause the collapse of the Icelandic economy. Hatari already prepared an apology letter to the government, in case of victory.

So let’s get back to the Eurovision, a festival that supports peace and friendship among peoples. The 2019 edition took place in Israel, in Tel Aviv, in the scenario of an occupation that is not at all peaceful and inclusive.
It was clear that Hatari was the ideal candidate to exploit this paradox, and the band was seen as an inconvenient competitor since their first public statements. The group clamied to be backed by an imaginary sponsor, a carbonated water called SodaDream – which echoes the name of the Israeli brand SodaStream but which unlike the latter “has never operated in any kind of occupied territory“, as Hatari was eager to specify.
A video appeared in which the band challenged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to a match of glíma (Icelandic wrestling), raffling Icelandic or Israeli territories to be colonized at will by the winner.

In the European Broadcasting Union headquarters, anxiety was growing about Hatari’s stunts and interviews: what is this “plan” they were constantly talking about? Were they planning to disregard the competition guidelines?
Warned by the EBU, Hatari agreed to change their attitude: they switched to a more glittering look, and shunned any question that could can be seen as political, including the ones about their favorite foods. They made it clear that their song Hatrið mun sigra wasn’t really meant to incite hatred, but rather to inspire the same spirit of union at the base of Eurovision: an invitation to love, before Hatari’s dystopia might come true.

Everyone began to relax. All in all, maybe Hatari were just a clique of funny jokers, and any Eurovision edition must have their “freak” contestants. As the final evening approached, it seemed clear enough that no such thing as “the plan” really existed. The very idea of bringing capitalism to an end was nothing but a joke.

But then, just as the final score was being announced, the unthinkable happened. While the band was to appear live from the Eurovision’s “green room”, a second before going on air, Matthias exchanged a quick nod with Klemens.
He then extracted from one of his kinky boots some scarves decorated with the Palestinian flag, which the band secretly managed to smuggle past the Israeli military checkpoints.

As soon as it was announced that Iceland had gained tenth place, and as the crowd booed, security broke in to seize the scarves. Meanwhile, on Hatari’s Instagram profile, a giant Palestine flag appeared, while on YouTube a new videoclip was published: a collaboration with Palestinian gay artist Bashar Murad, shot in the desert of Jericho.

Male intimacy, the ultimate provocation

Besides their transparent political alignment, and having the nerve to remind the Eurovision audience that we do not live in the best possible world, Hatari also offered one final provocation – a perhaps more subtle but insidious provocation, destined to polarize and upset even their fans: the emotional and physical harmony between Klemens and Matthías.

In public appearances Klemens and Matthías coordinate perfectly their gestures and words, finishing each other’s sentences and sometimes even talking in sync. Yet sometimes the dynamics of domination and submission they exhibit during their musical performances seem to reverse: one of their running gags during the interviews is Klemens whispering some words in the ear of his “master” Matthías, who then just reports them impassively.

Still, what’s really confusing to the public is not even this inversion of dom/sub roles, but rather the peculiar intimacy between the two characters.
Klemens often leans against Matthías and reclines his head on his partner’s shoulder; Matthías, on the other hand, holds his friend to his chest, wraps him in his arms with a protective attitude.


The two singers claim to have a special, intense and long-standing relationship: Klemens supports and encourages the stoic Matthías to express himself completely, while Matthías acts like a shield and safe haven for that “very unconstrained emotional being”. They are two opposites completing each other, the feminine and the masculine, the Yin and the Yang.
Yet – and here is where gender prejudice arise – the two singers are cousins, childhood friends and above all heterosexuals.

The reactions are of dismay. “Impossible! Are they bisexual? Is it just a hoax? They must be lovers! ”
It seems that the public prefers to imagine a homosexual incest, rather than admitting that two heterosexual males can share such a mutual trust and fondness for physical contact; the affection and tenderness Klemens and Matthias show during their effusions is an even stronger taboo than homosexuality, as it seems to question the traditional and all too fragile concept of masculinity.

In spite of all their paraphernalia, their trickster attitude, their parodistic smoke screens and raw, gloomy aesthetics, Hatari’s real message lies in the group dynamics, which stand out as a true antidote. They give each other strength and courage, they trust in one another, they consciously abandon their bodies in the hands of their fellow members. They know how to nurture each other’s most unruly and dark sides, and how to mix them as if they were ingredients of a cake “full of love, but a bit sticky“.

Hatari’s quixotic struggle against capitalism is perhaps just another one of their jokes; yet if we want to avoid living in the toxic and deadly world they foreshadow, our only tools are empathy, trust, respect, bonding.
We just need someone to accept us, support us and – why not – cuddle us, without fear of ridicule, without it making us feel less masculine; here lies the strength we need to express ourselves.
And when self-expression, creativity and vitality are allowed to shine, then hatred cannot prevail.

ILLUSTRATI GENESIS: Day 4

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

DAY 4 – THE SUN, THE MOON AND THE STARS

The well-known detail: It’s dawn. Same as every morning, the alarm goes off at 7.30: while we were asleep, time continued to go by. Another day is gone and now we have to wake up and face the future that is waiting for us.

The background: When we think about the passing of time, in our mind we picture a kind of road or ribbon unravelling through a figurative landscape. The future is in front of us and the past behind us. Everything is in constant motion: we move forward on the time line (“we’re getting closer to the end of the year”), but the flow is actually continuous and so the landscape is inevitably sliding towards us as well (“The end of the year’s coming”).
Whether the observer moves through the landscape or the landscape moves towards them, in both cases we always use spatial metaphors when we talk about time. But we would be wrong to believe these metaphors are the only possible ones: anthropologists and linguists who study different cultures have come across temporal models which are radically different from ours.
For many African cultures, for example, time is related to events. Therefore, it only passes if something is happening:

Europeans make mistakes when they think that people in traditional African societies are “wasting time” when sitting idly under a tree without activities. When Africans are not doing anything, they produce no happenings, no markings of rhythm, no ‘time’. […] When the time concept is event-related, it means that no event is no time. There is nothing to ‘waste’ and nothing to ‘save’. […] One logical result is that the taxi-browse (“the bus operating in the bush”) will leave, not at a fixed moment of the day, but when it is full, when it has enough passengers to pay for the fee, so that it can make the trip. Similarly, a meeting will start “when people (most of them) have come,” not at a point fixed beforehand on an abstract clock. It is the event, “it is full” or “people have come,” that triggers action, not the moment according to a measurable time standard.(1)

Also the idea that the future is in front of us and the past behind us is not universal.
For the Malagasy it is exactly the opposite: the future is behind us, and the past is ahead of us. The observer doesn’t move and time reaches them from behind. Their most common New Year’s greeting is arahaba fa tratry ny taona (“congratulations on being caught up by the new year”).
In this model, the past is ahead because it is known, and therefore visible; the future, on the contrary, must necessarily be behind us, because nobody can see it.

We can find a similar concept in the Aymara language, spoken in the Andean Highlands (Bolivia, Peru and Chile). In this language, they use the word nayra, a term indicating what stands before, when talking about the past. Similarly the world for ‘back’, qhipa, also indicates the future. This concept partially derives

from the strong emphasis Aymara puts on visual perception as a source of knowledge. The Aymara language precisely distinguishes the source of knowledge of any reported information by grammatically imposing a distinction between personal and nonpersonal knowledge and by marking them with verbal inflection or syntactic structures. […] So, in Aymara, if a speaker says “Yesterday, my mother cooked potatoes,” he or she will have to indicate whether the source of knowledge is personal or nonpersonal. If the speaker meant “She cooked potatoes, but I did not see her do it”.

Therefore it should not come as a surprise that

Aymara speakers tend to speak more often and in more detail about the past than about the future. Indeed, often elderly Aymara speakers simply refused to talk about the future on the grounds that little or nothing sensible could be said about it.(2)

The Fourth Lesson: The idea of time derives from the alternation of the sun and the stars, the succession of light and darkness. Just like every idea, it is relative and it changes according to historical eras, latitudes and languages. So, let’s try a little experiment. After turning off the alarm, try and imagine that the new day is behind you. You cannot face it because it’s not facing you. You cannot know what it is going to bring, but you feel it lurking behind you. This idea might sound a bit scary, but it is also liberating: you just have to yield and let the future reach you.

The first three Days of ILLUSTRATI GENESIS are available here and here.

1) Ø. Dahl, “When The Future Comes From Behind: Malagasy and Other Time Concepts and Some Consequences For Communication”, in International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 19:2 (1995), pp. 197-209
2) R.E. Núñez ed E. Sweetser, “With the Future Behind Them: Convergent Evidence From Aymara Language and Gesture in the Crosslinguistic Comparison of Spatial Construals of Time”, in Cognitive Science, 30 (2006), pp. 401–450

The Mummies of Palermo: A Silent Dialogue

This article originally appeared on the first number (entitled “Apocrifo Siciliano”) of the book/magazine Cariddi – Rivista Vorace, published by Rossomalpelo Edizioni. The magazine explores the forgotten, occult, magical and fantastical side of Sicily, in a collective effort which saw the participation of journalists, writers, illustratoris, literature scholars and photographers confronting Sicily’s countless faces.
Cariddi is in Italian only, but you can order it on Amazon and other online stores, or you can order a copy by writing an email to the publishing house.

You never forget your first.
As soon as I entered the Capuchin Catacombs, I had the impression of finding myself in front of a gigantic exercitus mortuorum, a frightening army of revenants. Dead bodies all around, their skin parched and withered, hundreds of gaping mouths, jaws lowered by centuries of gravity, empty yet terribly expressive eye sockets. The feeling lasted a few seconds, because in reality down in the hypogeum so perfect a peace reigned that the initial bewilderment gave way to a different feeling: I felt I was an intruder.

A stranger, a living man in a sacred space inhabited by the dead; all those who come down here suddenly fall silent. The visitor is under scrutiny.
I was also alien to a culture, the Sicilian culture, showing such an inconceivable familiarity with the dead for someone born and raised in Northern Italy. Here death, I thought, was not hidden behind slabs of marble, on the contrary: it was turned into a spectacle. Presented theatrically, exhibited as mirabilis – worthy of admiration – here was on display the true repressed unconscious of our time: the Corpse.

The Corpse had been carefully worked by the friars, following a process refined over time. One of the technical terms anthropologists use to indicate the process of draining and mummifying bodies is “thanato-metamorphosis”, which gives a good idea of the actual, structural transformation to which the body is subjected.
Moreover, such conservation was considerably expensive, and only the wealthiest could afford it (even in death, there are first and second class citizens). But this is not surprising if we think of the countless monumental citadels of the dead, which the living are willing to raise at the cost of enormous efforts and fortunes. What struck me, as I strolled by the mummies, was that in this case the investment didn’t have the purpose of building a grand, sumptuous mausoleum, but rather of freezing, as much as possible, the features of these dead people over time.

Ah yes, time. Down there time flowed differently than on the city surface, or perhaps it didn’t flow at all. As if suspended by miracle, time had stopped devouring and transfiguring all matter.
As I dwelled on ancient faces, worn out clothes, and withered hands, the purpose of this practice became clear: it was meant to preserve not just the memory of the deceased, but their very identity.
Unlike the basic concept behind ossuaries, where the dead are all the same, the mummification process has the virtue of making each body different from the other, thus giving the remains a distinct personality – an effect further amplified if a mummy is dressed in the clothes he or she wore when alive.
Among all the barriers men have raised in the quixotic attempt to deny impermanence, this is perhaps the one that comes closest to success; it is a strange strategy, because instead of warding off death, it seems to embrace it until it becomes part of everyday life. So these individuals never really died: family members could come back and visit them, talk to them, take care of them. They were ancestors who had never quite crossed the threshold.

Little by little, I began sensing the benign and sympathetic nature of the mummies’ gaze – the kindness that shines through anyone who’s really aware of mortality. Their skeletal faces, which could be frightening at first, actually appeared serene if observed long enough; so much so that I was no longer sure I should pity their condition. Within me I began a sort of conversation with this silent crowd, the guardians of an inviolable secret. Perhaps, as their whispers reached out for me from the other side, all they were trying to do was reassure me; maybe they were talking the end of all trouble.

That unspoken, mysterious dialogue between us never stopped since that day.
A few years later I returned to the Catacombs together with photographer Carlo Vannini. We stayed about a week in the company of mummies, day and night. Who knows if they recognized me? For my part I learned to tell them apart, one by one, and to discern each of their voices – for they still called me without words.

My first book, published for Logos Edizioni, was The Eternal Vigil.
In 2017 the book was reissued with a preface by the scientific conservator of the catacombs, paleopathologist Dario Piombino-Mascali – who in turn, as I’m writing this, has just published what promises to be the definitive historical-scientific guide on the Catacombs, for Kalòs Edizioni.
From the analysis of mummies a paleopathologist is able to get clues about their life habits, and unravel their personal history: to an expert like him, these bodies really do speak. But I am sure that in this very moment they’re also whispering to the visitors who just descended the staircase and stepped into the underground corridors, enchanted by the extraordinary vision.
These mummies, to which I am bound by ties inscrutable and deep, murmur to anyone who really knows how to listen.

Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: Episode 10

In the 10th episode of Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: the psychedelic story of crainal trepanation advocates; the african fetish hiding a dark secret; the Club that has the most macabre initiation ritual in the whole world.
[Be sure to turn on English captions]

And so we came to the conclusion … at least for this first season.
Will there be another one? Who knows?

For the moment, enjoy this last episode and consider subscribing to the channel if you haven’t yet. Cheers!

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

Cool 3D World

The Web coined a new vocabulary, gave birth to its own expressive instances, even elaborated an unprecedented kind of humor. With regard to “the weird“, internet users had an exceptional training ground: the now-defunct Vine platform. Here videos had to be 6-second-long, so an original and very complex aesthetic began to take form. In order to make their videos incisive, users had to come up with unsettling narrative tricks: an intelligent use of off-screen space, cross references, brilliantly interrupted climax, shock and surprise.

This was the perfect environment for New York musician and digital artist Brian Tessler, and his accomplice Jon Baken, to create their original and hugely successful project Cool 3D World.

Cool 3D World videos present the viewer with alienating situations, in which monstrous beings perform esoteric and incomprehensible actions. Through the paroxysmal distortion of their characters’ facial features (stretched or compressed to the limit of modeling possibilities, with effects that would normally be considered errors in classical 3D animation) and the build-up of illogical situations, Tessler & Baken plunge us into a sick world where anything can happen. In this universe, any unpleasant detail can hide mystical and psychedelic abysses. This is a hallucinated, exhilarating, disturbing reality yet sometimes its madness gives way to some unexpectedly poetic touches.

What sets apart the Cool 3D World duo from other artists coming from the “weird side” of the internet is their care for the visual aspect, which is always deliberately poised between the professional and the amateur, and for the alwyas great sound department curated by Tessler.
The result is some kind of animated couterpart to Bizarro Fiction; every new release raises the bar of the previous one and — despite the obvious attempt to package the perfect viral product — Cool 3D World never falls back on a repetitive narrative.

Today, Cool 3D World has a YouTube channel, an Instagram account and a Facebook page. Recently Tessler & Baken started a partnership with Adult Swim, and began experimenting with longer formats.
Here is a selection of some of their best works,.

Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: Episode 9

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

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

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

Napoleon’s Penis

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

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

Francesco Carlo Antommarchi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Carlin, Jammin’ In New York (1992)

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

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

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

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

Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: Episode 8

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

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

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