The mysterious artist Pierre Brassau

In 1964 the Gallerie Christinae in Göteborg, Sweden, held an exhibition of young avantgarde painters.
Among the works of these promising artists from Italy, Austria, Denmark, England and Sweden, were also four abstract paintings by the french Pierre Brassau. His name was completely unknown to the art scene, but his talents looked undisputable: this young man, although still a beginner, really seemed qualified to become the next Jackson Pollock — so much so that since the opening, his paintings stole the attention from all other featured works.

Journalists and art critics were almost unanimous in considering Pierre Brassau the true revelation of Gallerie Christinae’s exhibit. Rolf Anderberg, a critic for the Posten, was particularly impressed and penned an article, published the next day, in which he affirmed: “Brassau paints with powerful strokes, but also with clear determination. His brush strokes twist with furious fastidiousness. Pierre is an artist who performs with the delicacy of a ballet dancer“.

As should be expected, in spite of the general enthusiasm, there was also the usual skeptic. One critic, making a stand, defiantly declared: “only an ape could have done this“.
There will  always be somebody who must go against the mainstream. And, even if it’s hard to admit, in doing so he sometimes can be right.
Pierre Brassau, in reality, was actually a monkey. More precisely a four-year-old African chimpanzee living in the Borås Zoo.

Showing primate’s works in a modern art exhibition was Åke “Dacke” Axelsso’s idea, as he was at the time a journalist for the daily paper Göteborgs-Tidningen. The concept was not actually new: some years before, Congo the chimp  had become a celebrity because of his paintings, which fascinated Picasso, Miro and Dali (in 2005 Congo’s works were auctioned for 14.400 punds, while in the same sale a Warhol painting and a Renoir sculpture were withdrawn).
Thus Åke decided to challenge critics in this provocative way: behind the humor of the prank was not (just) the will to ridicule the art establishment, but rather the intention of raising a question that would become more and more urgent in the following years: how can we judge an abstract art piece, if it does not contain any figurative element — or if it even denies that any specific competence is needed to produce art?

Åke had convinced the zoo keeper, who was then 17 years old, to provide a chimp named Peter with brushes and canvas. In the beginning Peter had smeared the paint everywhere, except on the canvas, and even ate it: he had a particularly sweet tooth, it is said, for cobalt blue — a color which will indeed be prominently featured in his later work. Encouraged by the journalist, the primate started to really paint, and to enjoy this creative activity. Åke then selected his four best paintings to be shown at the exhibit.

Even when the true identity of mysterious Pierre Brassau was revealed, many critics stuck by their assessment, claiming the monkey’s paintings were better than all the others at the gallery. What else could they say?
The happiest person, in this little scandal, was probably Bertil Eklöt, a private collector who had bought a painting by the chimpanzee for $90 (about $7-800 today). Perhaps he just wanted to own a curious piece: but now that painting could be worth a fortune, as Pierre Brassau’s story has become a classic anecdote in art history. And one that still raises the question on whether works of art are, as Rilke put it, “of an infinite solitude, and no means of approach is so useless as criticism“.

The first international press article on Brassau appeared on Time magazine. Other info taken from this post by Museum of Hoaxes.

(Thanks, Giacomo!)


The Shaggs: la band che non voleva suonare

Sorry, this entry is only available in Italian.


Tea with the Muses

Te delle muse

On November 22, at 4pm inside the beautiful Civic Museum in Reggio Emilia, I will talk about macabre wonders together with historian Carlo Baja Guarienti.

Our chat is part of a series of lectures called Il Tè delle Muse (Tea with the Muses): I find this title quite gorgeous, because the ironic reference to the etymology of “museum” highlights its original function of being a place of enchantment and inspiration. There is therefore no better place to talk about what I have often called dark wonder; on these webpages I have been suggesting for years that we should overcome the prejudice attached to the word “macabre”, and understand that many of the so-called “morbid” curiosities can turn out to be noble and sometimes necessary passions. We will be discussing exoticism, new trends, wunderkammern and intersections between art, science and the sacred.

Here is the official page for the event.


Mouse serenade

Even mice sing.
We have known that for 50 years, but we are only recently beginning to understand the complexity of their songs. Part of the difficulty of studying mice songs lies in their ultrasonic vocalizations, frequencies the human ear cannot perceive: in the wild, this kind of calls happen for example when a mouse pup calls for his mother.

In April, in Frontiers of Behavioral Neuroscience, a new Duke University research appeared, showing how mice songs are really much more intricate than expected.
Researchers Jonathan Chabout, Abhra Sarkar, David B. Dunson and Erich D. Jarvis have exposed the mice to different social contexts and, using new specifically elaborated software, they have analysed the frequency modulation and duration of these ultrasonic calls. Researchers have been able to break down the songs into “syllables” and clusters of sound repeated to a certain rythm, and to discover how they vary according to the situation.

If a male mouse is exposed to female urine, and therefore gets convinced that she is somewhere nearby, his singing becomes louder and more powerful, if somewhat less accurate; to awake a sleeping female, he utilizes the same song, but the “syllables” are now pronounced much more clearly.
Female mice seem to prefer songs that are complex and rich in variations; even so, when a male finds himself near an available female, his elaborate courting song switches to a simpler tune. Once the potential mate has been attracted, in fact, our little mouse needs to save energy to chase her around and try to mate.

The mouse’s ability to sing is not as articulate as in songbirds; and yet, changes in the syntax according to social context prove that the songs convey some meaning and serve a precise purpose. Researchers are not sure how much mice are able to learn to modify their vocalizations (as birds do) or how much they just choose from fixed patterns. Forthcoming studies will try to answer this question.

It is nice to better understand the world of rodents, but why is it so important?
The goal of these studies is actually also relevant to humans. In the last decade, we understood how mice are extremely similar to us on a genetic level; discovering how and to what extent they are able to learn new “syllables” could play a fundamental part in the study of  autism spectrum disorders, particularly in regard to communication deficits and neural circuits controlling vocal learning.

Male mice song syntax depends on social contexts and influences female preferences, Jonathan Chabout, Abhra Sarkar, David B. Dunson, Erich D. Jarvis. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, April 1, 2015.


Anatomical Venuses: the obsession for the feminine

There appears to be a deep obsession, which remained constant through the centuries, and never subsided. The male obsession for the woman’s body.

A magnetic body that attracts (seduces, “leads astray”), pulling the strings of symbol; yielding and pliable flesh, having a receptive function during sexual intercourse, but also abyssal chasm in which one could get lost; castrating body, which excites violence and idolatry, body of a Callipyge goddess to deflower; chest containing the secret of life, deceptive sex whose pleasure is terrible and unknown.

So the female body has been gouged, to try and reveal its mystery; opened, dismembered into pieces just to be recombined again, probed in a search for occult and secret analogies, for hidden geometries, for the algebra of desire, as for instance Hans Bellmer did throughout his career. In his writings and his paintings (as well as his famous dolls), the German artist has manically deconstructed the female figure, drawing unexpected and uncanny parallels between the various anatomical parts, in a feverish, all-embracing fetishism: eyes, vulvas, feet, ears all fluidly melt together in unprecedented configurations of flesh and dream.


histoire de l'oeil (1)

Bellmer’s eroticism lies in a psychopathological, yet very clear, look — both cold and visionary; in his work Rose ouverte la nuit (1934) and all its subsequent variations, the artist gave perhaps the most exact indication of the nature of his enquiry. In the painting, a little girl pulls up the skin of her own womb to examine the underlying bowels.


The act of lifting the woman’s skin, just like a skirt, is one of the most powerful depictions of the obsession we are talking about. It is the ultimate striptease, which leaves the woman more naked than nude, and allows for her insides to be scrutinized, in search for a secret that perhaps mockingly will never be found.
This image is not new, but rather it is meant to evoke the malaise one can feel before the many wonderful, life-size anatomical Venuses, sculpted by fine artists of the past; a tradition born in Florence at the end of XVII Century.





These beautiful young girls, laying down in lingering poses, open the inside of their bodies to the spectator’s eyes, with no sign of shame or pain. Judging by their expression, one would rather say there is a subtle self-satisfaction, some kind of ecstatic pleasure in offering themselves in this absolute nakedness.
Why aren’t these bodies represented as corpses, but essentially alive and awake?
The very existence of similar sculptures may be puzzling today, but it is really a natural evolution of the artistic, scientific and religious preoccupations of the previous centuries. Before delving into these extraordinary ceroplastic works, allow me to summarise their background; I would like to stress the fact that I am not interested here in the history of Venuses, nor exclusively in their scientific relevance, but rather in their peculiar symbolic role in respect to femininity.


Dominion of the gaze
When Vesalius, with incredible bravery (or bravado), immortalized himself on the frontispiece of his De humani corporis fabrica (1543) in the act of personally dissecting a cadaver, he was sending a revolutionary message: galenic medicine, until then undisputed, was packed with errors because no one had bothered to cut open a human body and take a look inside with his own eyes. As a Renaissance man, Vesalius was a strong supporter of direct experience — in a time, and that’s even more remarkable, when “science” as we know it was yet to be born — and he was the first to separate the body from all other metaphysical concerns. After him, the functioning of the human body was no more to be found in astrology, in symbolic-alchemic relationships, or in the elements, but within the body itself.
From this moment on, dissection will remain for centuries the main focus of all medical research. And it is Vesalius’ gaze — daring, haughty, cold as stone — which will become the paradigm of scientific observation.


The moral issue
We have to keep in mind that in the beginning, anatomy was not detached from the religious view, and it was believed that studying Man — the absolute center of Nature, created in the image of the Supreme Being and considered the peak of His work — meant to get closer to God.

And yet, even if direct experience was regarded as fundamental, it was hard to shake the idea that dissecting a corpse was really a form of sacrilege. This troublesome feeling was bypassed by looking for subjects who had somehow lost their “human” status: criminals, suicide victims or poor devils the world would not reclaim. Ideal candidates for the dissection table. The desecration inflicted to their bodies was then further justified by guaranteeing a death Mass and Christian burial to the dissected remains, as a reward for the sacrifice: a privilege they would not have enjoyed otherwise. On the account of their contribution to medical research, having somehow expiated their crime, they were eventually “accepted” by society.

The same sense of guilt for dissection is behind the success of the anatomical engravings featuring the so-called écorchés, the “flayed”. To represent internal structures, it was decided to show the subjects in sculptural poses, alive and kicking despite all appearances, often going to the extent of depicting them as authors or accomplices of their own dissections.
Such a vision was certainly less awkward and shocking than seeing the anatomical parts exposed on a table like butcher meat (see M. Vène, Ecorchés : L’exploration du corps, XVIème-XVIIIème siècle, 2001).

The man, who flayed himself, observes the inside of his own skin, as if trying to work out its secrets. Valverde, Anatomia del corpo humano (1560).

Dal medesimo volume, dissezione del peritoneo in tre atti. Nella terza figura, il personaggio tiene fra i denti la propria parete addominale per mostrarne il reticolo vascolare.

From the same book, dissection of the peritoneum in three acts. In the third figure, the character holds in his teeth his own greater omentum to show the vascular reticulum.


Spiegel and Casseri, De humani corporis fabrica libri decem (1627).


Spiegel and Casseri, Ibid.

Venus deposed
In these écorchés etched prints, there already was a difference between male and female figures. Male subjects were used to illustrate the muscular system, while women very often exhibited internal organs, and since the earliest representations they were almost always pregnant. The visible fetus inside the female womb was meant to underline that the woman’s primary function was to generate life, while on the other hand male écorchés were presented in manly poses, enhancing their physical strenght.

Spiegel and Casseri, Ibid.


A muscular male body poses for a plate actually describing a cranial dissection. De dissectione partium corporis humani libri tres by C. Estienne (1545).

From the same volume, the anatomy of the intestines is baroquely inscribed within a Roman warrior’s armor.

The unveiling of the uterus, a symbolic mise-en-scene of denudation. Carpi commentaria cum amplissimis additionibus super Anatomia Mundini (1521).


Pietro Berrettini’s gravida stands graceful and thin, displaying her reproductive apparatus (1618).

As can be seen in the following prints, female subjects by the middle of XVI century already began to show a certain sensuality, as they abandon themselves in poses that in other contexts would be deemed indecent or obscene. Here the artist pushed things even further, creating anatomical versions of well-known clandestine erotic prints, faithfully copying the characters’ postures — but “flaying” them according to the anatomical tradition, thus ironically dampening the scene.


Woman holding two twins by their placentas. Inspired by an erotic print by Perino Del Vaga. De dissectione partium corporis humani libri tres by C. Estienne (1545).


From the same book, a pregnant woman exhibiting the reproductive apparatus. The bedroom context gives an explicit erotic nuance to her pose.


Another illustration inspired by an erotic print by Perino Del Vaga (see below).

Here is the “forbidden” model for the previous print. (G.G. Caraglio, Giove e Antiope, from Perino del Vaga).

We should not forget that certain anatomical prints were hiding another intent — definitely more mysoginistic: they were meant to deny and unmask the woman’s charm. All her sex appeal, all her tempting beauty is neutralized through the exhibition of her entrails.
Memento by Tarchetti comes to mind:

When I kiss your perfumed lips,
Dear girl, I cannot forget
That a white skull is concealed underneath.

When I press your charming body to mine,
Forget I cannot, dear girl
That a skeleton is hidden beneath.

And engrossed by the horrendous vision,
Wherever I may touch, or kiss, or place my hands
I feel protruding the cold bones of death.

(Disjecta, 1879)

According to Baudrillard (Seduction, 1979), man has always had control over concrete power, while the female in time appropriated the power on the unconscious. And the latter is far more important than the former: here lies the origin of this male obsession, the sense of impotence before the force of symbol the woman holds. With all his violent wars and his virile conquests, man is still seduced and subjugated with no escape.
He then resorts to the final solution: frustrated by a mystery he cannot unveil, he ends up denying it ever existed in the first place.
Ecce mulier! Here is the much dreamt-of female, who makes men lose their mind and engage in sinful acts: just a bunch of disgusting organs and guts.


Valverde, Anatomia del corpo humano (1560).

The mise-en-scene of the obscene
Some XVI Century prints were assembled with different hinged flaps, so that the reader could lift them and remove the various layers from the subject’s body, discovering the anatomy in an active way. The following image, which first appeared in 1570 and was then reprinted many times, is an example of these precursors of pop up books; it was devised specifically for barbers-surgeons (the man holds his hand in a bowl of hot water to bulge the veins in his arm before undergoing a bloodletting), and consists of four flaps the reader could lift to see internal organs.



Anatomical decomposable Venuses were just a three-dimensional version of this kind of sheets. Students could disassemble the organs, study their morphology and position without resorting to a real corpse.




If from the very beginning ceroplastic was meant as a substitute or complement for dissection (a great educational tool for doctors and anatomists who often lacked fresh bodies), these wax statues were also one of the first examples of an anatomical show open to common people. Real dissections were already an instructive entertainment for high society, who willingly paid the admission ticket for the anatomy theater usually built near the University. But the collection of anatomical waxes inside the La Specola Museum in Florence, desired by the Grand Duke of Tuscany, was accessible even to nonspecialists.

As an enlightened sovereign and science enthusiast, he realized, much before other kings, how important the scientific culture was and how it should be available to everybody. […] There were different schedules for learned people and for the populace: the latter could visit the Museum from 8am to 10am “provided that clean clothes are worn”, then leaving room “at 1pm… to intelligent and studious people”. Even if this distinction sounds a bit offensive now, it is clear how opening the Museum to the big public was innovative for the time.

(M. Poggesi, La collezione ceroplastica del Museo La Specola, in Encyclopaedia anatomica, 2001)

Anatomical waxes therefore, besides being a study tool, also relied on other, more hidden fascinations which successfully drew masses of visitors from all classes, becoming a must-see during Grand Tours.





Just like ancient etchings, these wax scultpures show a stereotypical representation of the female body — passive, subdued to the anatomist who is (presumably) dissecting her, the Venus is often with child; her face is never flayed and looks, on the contrary, quite seductive. The male figure is yet again used mainly to illustrate the skeletal-muscular apparatus, the blood and lymphatic vessels, and shows no trace of the sensuality of its female counterpart.





Eros, Thanatos and cruelty
The Florence anatomical Venuses could not fail to excite the interest of the Marquis de Sade.
The Marquis first wrote about them, in the discreet literary style of a tourist, in his Voyage d’Italie; he mentioned them again in Juliette, where his depraved heroine rejoicingly discovers five small tableaux by Zumbo depicting different phases of putrefaction. But it is in the 120 Days Of Sodom that the waxes are used in their most Sadeian dimension: here a young girl is brought inside a room containing several anatomical Venuses, and is forced to choose her favorite way to be killed and dismembered.




Sade’s clear gaze recognized the dark side of these extraordinary works of scientific art: their cruel and disturbing eroticism. Undoubtedly, their seraphic, sometimes almost provocative faces suggest an undisguised pleasure in being torn apart and offered to the public; and at the same time these three-dimensional models make the surreal contradiciton of the écorchés even clearer, as they remain alive in spite of the mortal wounds.
One can argue whether Susini and his other imitators were in fact really aware of this aspect of their work, which is nonetheless not so secondary; but part of these sculptures’ charm surely comes from their sensual ambiguity.
Bataille noted (The Tears of Eros, 1961) that from the moment men became aware of their own death, burying the dead and establishing funeral rites, they also began depicting themselves, in cave paintings, with fully-erect genitals; another proof of how much death and sex are closely related, as opposites which often melt into each other.




Anatomical Venuses, in a sense, perfectly encapsulate all this complexity. They are splendid and precious tools for scientific enquiry, wonderful art objects, mysterious and provocative symbols; with their mix of innocence and cruelty they seem to relate, still today, the intricate vicissitudes of human desire.


For an introduction to the history and artistic relevance of anatomical Venuses, a great starting point is Ode to an Anatomical Venus, by Joanna Ebenstein of Morbid Anatomy (who is also the author of some of the photos in this post).
Here is the page dedicated to anatomical waxes on the Florence Natural History Museum‘s website.


Booksigning a Lucca

Sorry, this entry is only available in Italian.


The witch girl of Albenga

And maybe it is for revenge, maybe out of fear
Or just plain madness, but all along
You are the one who suffers the most
If you want to fly, they drag you down
And if a witch hunt begins,
Then you are the witch.

(Edoardo Bennato, La fata, 1977)

Saint Calocero, Albenga. XIV Century.
A 13-year-old girl was being buried near the church. But the men who were lowering her down decided to arrange her face down, so that her features were sealed by dirt. They did so to prevent her from getting up, and raising back to life. So that her soul could not sneak off her mouth and haunt those places. They did so, ultimately, because that little girl scared them to death.
Not far from there, another woman’s body was lying in a deep pit. Her skeleton was completely burned, and over her grave, the men placed a huge quantity of heavy stones, so she could not climb out of her tomb. Because women like her, everybody knew, were bound to wake up from the dead.



The “witch girl of Albenga”, and a second female skeleton showing deep signs of burning, are two exceptional findings brought to light last year by a team from the Pontifical Institute of Christian Archeology, directed by Professor Philippe Pergola and coordinated by archeologist Stefano Roascio and Elena Dellù. Scholars were particularly puzzled by the proximity of these two anomalous burials to the ancient church which hosted the relics of martyr Saint Calocero: if these two women were considered “dangerous” or “damned”, why were they inhumed in a privileged burial ground, surely coveted by many?



One explanation could be that burying them there was a “sign of submission to the Church”. But there is still extensive analysis to be conducted on the remains, and already skeletons are revealing some clues which could shine a light on this completely forgotten story. Why would a child, not even 60 inches tall, instill such a deep fear in her fellow citizens?
Researchers found out small holes in her skull, which could show she suffered from severe anemia and scurvy. These pathologies could involve fainting, sudden bleeding and epileptic fits; all symptoms that, at the time, could have been easily interpreted as demonic possession.
A possible kinship between the two women has still to be confirmed, but both skeletons seem to show signs of metopism, a genetic condition affecting the suture of the frontal bones.
According to radiocarbon dating, the burials date back to a period between 1440 and 1530 AD – when the infamous witch hunts had already begun.

english-witches-making-a-spell-1489-engraving-b-w-photoIn 1326, the papal bull Super illius specula by Pope John XXII set the basis for witch hunts: as incredible as it may sound, until then intellctuals and theologists had dismissed the idea of a “commerce with the Devil” as a mere superstition, that had to be eradicated.

Therefore in those churches they are given custody of priests have to constantly predicate to God’s people that these things are completely false. […] Who has never experienced going out of one’s body during his sleep, or to have night visions and to see, while sleeping, things he had never seen while wide awake? Who could be so dull or foolish as to believe that all these things which happen in the spirit, could also happen in the body?

(Canon episcopi, X Century)

Instead, starting from the XIV Century, even the intelligentsia was convinced that witches were real, and thus began the fight not just against heresy, but also against witchcraft, a persecution the Church entrusted to mendicant orders (Dominicans and Franciscans) and which would last over four centuries. Following the publishing of Malleus Maleficarum (1487), an actual handbook about witchcraft repression, the trials increased, ironically in conjunction with the Renaissance, up until the Age of Enlightenment. The destiny of the “witch girl” of Albenga has to be framed in this complex historical period: it is not a real mystery, as some newspapers have claimed, but rather another tragic human story, its details vanishing in time. Hopefully at least a small part of it will be reconstructed, little by little, by the international team of researchers who are now working on the San Calocero excavations.

(Thanks, Silvano!)


Ballonfest 1986

On that saturday morning, September 27, 1986, Cleveland was ready for an explosion of wonder.
For six months a Los Angeles company, headed by Treb Heining, had been working to organize the event which would break, in a spectacular way, a weird world record held at the time by Disneyland: in the first hours of the afternoon, a million and a half helium-filled balloons would be released simultaneously in the city sky.

The event was planned by United Way, a nonprofit organization, as part of the fundraising campaign for its activities supporting families in Cleveland.
In Public Square, Heining and his team mounted a huge structure, 250×150 feet wide, supporting a single, huge net built from the same material of the Space Shuttle cargo nets. Under this structure, for hours and hours more than 2.500 students and volunteers had been filling the colored balloons which, held by the net, formed a waving and impressive ceiling. After a first few hours of practice, their sore fingers wrapped in bandage aids, they had begun working automatically, each one of them tying a balloon every 20 seconds. Originally two millions baloons were meant to be prepared, but since some “leaks” had occurred, with several hundreds balloons escaping the net, it was decided to stop at a lower number.


Every precaution had been taken so that the release was completely safe: United Way worked together with the city, the Federal Aviation Administration, the fire and police department, to avoid unpleasant surprises.
Furthermore, the balloons were made of biodegradable latex, and organizers estimated that they would pop or deflate right over Lake Erie, only to decompose quickly and with no environmental impact.
With all this apparently meticulous preparation, no one could suspect that the joyful, colored party could turn into a nightmare.

Weather conditions were not the best: a storm was coming, so the organizers opted for an early release. At 1.50 pm the net was cut loose, and a gigantic cloud of balloons rose up against the buildings and the Terminal Tower, amidst cheering children, the applause and whooping of the crowd.

Like the mushroom cloud from an explosion, expanding in slow motion, the mass ascended in the sky to form a multicolored column.
That is when things took an unexpected turn.

The balloons met a current of cool air which pushed them back down, towards the ground. In little time, the city was completely invaded by a myriad of fluctuating balloons which covered the streets, moving in group, obscuring the sky, preventing drivers from seeing the road and hindering boats and helicopters. According to the witnesses, it felt like moving through an asteroid belt: some cars crashed because drivers steered to avoid a wave of balloons pushed by wind, or because they were distracted by the surreal panorama.

But the worse was yet to come: Raymond Broderick and Bernard Sulzer, two fishermen, had gone out the day before, and were reported missing; the Coast Guard, who was looking for them, spotted their boat near a a breakwater, but had to abandon the search because balloons filled the sky and covered the surface of the water, making it hard for both boats and helicopters.
The two bodies later washed ashore.

During the next days balloons kept raising concern: they caused the temporary shut down of an airport runway, and scared some horses in a pasture so much so that the animals suffered permanent damage. The balloons ended up on the opposite shore of Lake Erie, some 100 km away, so complaints began to come even from Canada. Also because, according to some environmentalists, the plastic was not at all “biodegradable” and would have soiled the coast for at least six months.
Other criticism involved the waste of such large quantities of helium, a gas that is a non-renewable resource on Earth, and which some scientists (including late Nobel Phisics Laureate R. Coleman Richardson) believe there already is a shortage of.

This attempt to create something unforgettable, in the end, was meant to be one of those joyful, purely aesthetic, wonderfully useless experiences that bring out the child in all of us. As laudable this idea was, it turned out to be maybe a little too naive and planned without taking into account with the due consideration all possible consequences. The game ended quite badly.
United Way was sued for several million dollars, turning the fundraising campaign into a failure. The due damages to one of the fishermen’s wife and to the horse breeder were settled for undisclosed terms. This disastrous stunt, which ended in the red and in wide controversy, is the perfect example of a world record nobody will attempt to break again.
Treb Hining and his company, in the meantime, still are in the balloon business, working for the Academy Award, the Super Bowl and many presidential conventions: his team is also in charge of dispersing three thousand pounds of confetti (yep, 100% biodegradable this time) on Times Square, every New Year’s Eve.


Death Salon: Mütter Museum

The French came up with a wonderful expression, l’esprit de l’escalier. It’s that sense of frustration when the right witty answer to someone’s question or criticism pops up in your mind when you have already left, and you’re heading down the stairs (escalier).
This summer a friend asked me the question I should have always been waiting for, and that ironically nobody – not even those who know me well – ever asked me: “Why are you so interested in death?

I remember saying something vague about my fascination with funeral rites, about the relevance of death in art, about every culture being actually defined by its relationship with the afterlife… Yet in my mind I was surprised by the triviality and impersonality of my answers. Maybe the question was a bit naive, like asking an old sailor what he finds so beautiful about ocean waves. But then again her curiosity was totally legitimate: why taking interest in death in a time when it is normally denied and removed? And how could I, after all these years of studying and writing, addressing far more complex issues, have not anticipated and prepared for such a direct question?

Maybe it was in an effort to make up for the esprit de l’escalier which had caught me that day, that I decided to meet up with like-minded people, who happen to cultivate my same interests, to try and understand their motivations.
Now, there is only one place in the world where I could find, all together, the main academics, intellectuals and artists who have made death their main focus. So, I flew up to Philadelphia.

CNhnEftUYAAscDN.jpg large

The Death Salon, for those who haven’t heard of it, is an event organized by the death-positive movement revolving around Caitlin Doughty, whom I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing not long ago. It consists of two days of meetings, conferences, music and games, all of which explore death – in its multiple artistic, cultural, social and philosophical facets.
This year Death Salon took place in an exceptional location, inside Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, one of the best-known pathological anatomy museums in the world.


Besides the pleasure of finally meeting in person several “penfriends” and scholars I admire, I was interested in experiencing first-hand this new reality, to feel its vibes: I wanted to understand what kind of people could, in such a joyful and subversive way, define themselves as death aficionados, while trying to take this topic away from taboo through a more relaxed and open dialogue on everything death-related.

The variety of different Death Salon attendees impressed me from the start, and just like I expected every one of them had his own, very personal reasons to be there: there were writers researching ideas for their next novel, nurses who wanted to understand how they could better relate to the terminally ill, nice old ladies who worked as tour guides in nearby city museums, medical students, morticians, photographers and artists whose work for some reason included death, persons who were struggling to cope with a recent loss and who were hoping to find a more intimate comprehension for their suffering in that multicolored crowd.
The shared feeling was one of strange, subtle excitement: on a superficial level, it could almost seem like a gathering for “death nerds”, all enthusiastically chatting about grave robbers and adipocere in front of their coffee, just like others zealously discuss sports or politics. But that little sparkle in every participant’s eyes actually betrayed a more profound relief, one of being at last free to talk openly about their own fears, protected within a family which does not judge certain obsessions, feeling certain that even their most secret insecurity could be brought to light here.
We are all wounded, in the face of death, and it’s an ancient, ever open wound. The most memorable aspect of Death Salon is that the shame attached to such wound seemed to fade away, at least for the space of two days, and every pain or worry was channeled in a cathartic debate.

And in this context the various conferences, in their heterogeneity, little by little made it clear for me that there was not just one plain answer to the question that brought me there in the first place (“why are you so interested in death?”). Here is a summary of the works presented at Death Salon, and of the many concepts they suggested.

Death is damn interesting
Marianne Hamel is a forensic pathologist, and her report illuminated the differences between her real every-day job and its fictionalized version in movies and TV shows. To clarify the matter, she started off by declaring that she never performed an autopsy in the middle of the night under a single light bulb, nor she ever showed up at a crime scene wearing high heels; among the other debunked myths, “I can only guess the exact time of a victim’s death if they’ve been shot through their watch“. Some implications of her job, if they lack a Hollywood appeal, are actually incredibily important: to quote just one example, forensic pathologists have a clear idea of the state of public health before any other professional. They’re the first to know if a new drug is becoming trendy, or if certain dangerous behaviours are spreading through the population.
At Death Salon other peculiar topics were addressed, such as the difficulties in museum restoration of ancient Egyptian mummies (M. Gleeson), the correct way of “exploding” skulls to prepare them in the tradition of French anatomist Edmé François Chauvot de Beauchêne (R. M. Cohn), and the peptide mass fingerprinting method to assess whether a book is really bound in human skin (A. Dhody, D. Kirby, R. Hark, M. Rosenbloom). There were talks on illustrious dead and their ghosts (C. Dickey) and on Hart Island, a huge, tax-payed mass grave in the heart of New York City (B. Lovejoy).

Death can be fun
A hilarious talk by Elizabeth Harper, author of the delightful blog All The Saints You Should Know, focused on those Saints whose bodies miraculously escaped decomposition, and on the intricate (and far from intuitive) beaurocratic procedures the Roman Catholic Church has established to recognize an “incorrupt” relic from a slightly less prodigious one. It is interesting how certain things we Italians take for granted, as we’ve seen them in every church since we were children, come out as pretty crazy in the eyes of many Americans…
Can we turn a cemetery into a place for the living? At Laurel Hill cemetery, in Philadelphia, recreational activities, film screenings, charity marathons and night shows take place, as reported by Alexis Jeffcoat and Emma Stern.
If all this wasn’t enough to understand that death and entertainment are not enemies, on the last evening the Death Salon organized at the bar National Mechanics, in a jovial pub atmosphere, a Death Quizzo – namely a game show where teams battled over their knowledge of the most curious details regarding death and corpses.

Death is a painful poem
Sarah Troop, executive director of The Order of The Good Death and museum curator, bravely shared with the public what is probably the most traumatic experience of all: the loss of a young child. The difficulty Sarah experienced in elaborating her grief pushed her to seek a more adequate mindset in her Mexican roots. Here, small dead children become angelitos, little angels which the relatives dress up in embroidered clothes and who, being pure souls, can act as a medium between Earth and Heaven. The consolation for a mother who lost her child is in finding, inside a tradition, a specific role, wich modern secularized society fails to supply. And if pain can never go away, it is somehow shared across a culture which admits its existence, and instills it with a deeper meaning.



Death tells us some incredible stories
Evi Numen illustrated the post-mortem scandal of John Frankford, who was victim of one of many truculent incidents that were still happening some thirty years after the Pennsylvania Anatomy Act (1867), due to the chronical lack of cadavers to dissect in medical schools.
And, speaking of gruesome stories, no tradition beats murder ballads, imported from Europe as a sort of chanted crime news. At the Death Salon, after a historical introduction by Lavinia Jones Wright, a trio of great musicians went on to interpret some of the most relevant murder ballads.

Death is a dialogue
Dr. Paul Koudounaris, Death Salon’s real rockstar, explained the difference between cultures who set up a soft border in relation to their dead, as opposed to other cultures which build a hard boundary: in the majority of cultures, until recent times including our own, taking care of the corpses, even years after their death, is a way to maintain ancestors active within the social tissue. What Norman Bates did to his mother in Psycho, in Tana Toraja would be regarded as an example of filial devotion (I talked about it in this article).


Robert Hicks, director of Mütter Museum, explored the implications of displaying human remains in museums today, wondering about the evolution of post mortem imagery and about the politics and ownership of the dead.
David Orr, artist and photographer, offered a review of symmetry in the arts, particularly in regard to the skull, a symbol that refers to our own identity.


Death must be faced and domesticated
Finally, various facets of dying were exposed, often complex and contradictory.
Death defines who we are, affirmed Christine Colby as she told the story of Jennifer Gable, a transgender who during her whole life fought to assert her identity, only to be buried by her family as a man. Death changes together with society, unveiling new layers of complexity.
Dr. Erin Lockard, despite being a doctor herself, while assisting her dying mother had to face other doctors who, maybe as a defense strategy, denied the obvious, delaying the old woman’s agony with endless new therapies.
In closing, here is someone who decided to teach death at the university. Norma Bowe‘s “Death in perspective” class has a three-years waiting list, and offers a series of practical activities: the students take field trips to hospices, hospitals and funeral homes, attend an autopsy, create spaces for meditation and build their own approach to death without philosophical or religious filters, through first-hand experience.

My opinion on Death Salon? Two intense and fruitful days, gone in a flash. Openly talking about death is essential, now more than ever, but – and I think this is the point of the whole Salon – it is also unbelievable, mind-bending fun: all that has been said, both by panelists and the audience, all these unexpected viewpoints, clearly prove that death is, even now, a territory dominated by wonder.

Still overloaded with stimuli, I pondered my unresolved question during the night flight back home. Why am I so fascinated with death?
Looking out the window towards the approaching coast of old Europe, with its little lights, it became clear that the only possible answer, as I suspected from the beginning, was the most elementary one.
Because being interested in death means to be interested in life“.