My wunderkammer

In the last few years, Illustrati (a magazine published by Logos and freely available in Italian libraries and online) has been featuring a Bizzarro Bazar column. Generally the articles appearing on Illustrati are not presented again here, but this time I will make an exception because September issue’s topic – “Mirabilia” – is especially dear to me, and I decided to contribute with a much more personal and intimate piece.

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La mia wunderkammer

I love to stay awake: the big city finally surrenders to exhaustion, and I can almost perceive the dreams of my neighbours coming out of the houses until they form a huge blanket, in iridescent colours and patterns, unfolding over the silent roofs.
When the night is about to turn into morning, I happen to pause in front of my cabinets of wonders.
There are human and animal skulls, red Gorgons and starfishes, taxidermic specimens preserved in liquids, ancient texts of pathological anatomy, prints and engravings representing human cruelty over the centuries (the big repressed impulse that we wish was only the remnant of our beastly past, and which has never left us instead). And then pornographic photographs of the 1920s, old medical tools, and a whole series of objects concerning the intersection between the sacred and the profane (historiated skullcaps, shinbones turned into musical instruments, death masks, funerary art, mourning portraits, and so on).
My collection talks to me, with its peculiar voice which is in fact a multitude of voices. And it is a phase, a tool for the research that has always absorbed me.

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Although I own this collection, I don’t think of myself as a collector. I am not compulsive.
What I love in the objects I collect is the fact that they are packed with history, with life. I happened to know collectors of corkscrews, irons, majolicas, coffee cans; those who do not share their passion are overwhelmed by boredom within five minutes.
On the other hand, I have learnt that nobody is indifferent to a cabinet of wonders. Reactions can range from disgust (much more rarely than it is commonly believed) to childlike amazement, from scientific interest to moral outrage in front of some habits that today we find questionable: consider the cilice of the beginning of the Twentieth century, the tiny Chinese shoes for bandaged feet, the souvenir postcard, hand-coloured and dated 1907, which shows a proud English colonialist holding the head of an executed pirate. Children, for their part, go crazy for stuffed animals and bones.

Colonialist postcard (fronte)

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Every collection is a sort of map that reflects and describes the collector’s personality, his taste, his small obsessions.
Stefano Bessoni is most probably the one who taught me – without words, of course – that we shouldn’t be ashamed of our own obsessions, but we should instead cultivate them with enthusiasm. And his incredible wunderkammer is a clear objectification of his imagination, a physical offshoot of his inner world: it possesses a wonderful and strict disorder that makes it similar to the dusty booty of a Victorian explorer, a mix of Livingstone and Darwin, where one’s gaze gets lost among a thousand confused details.
My collection is of course different, because it is mine. One of my obsessions is people’s relationship with death, with the barriers and the symbols we have invented – every time and in every place – to put up with the anguish it causes. What are stuffed or mummified animals but an attempt to stop time and defeat decay? In these objects, the wonder for the world and natural shapes is mixed with a secret fear of
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And this dread of eternal decay, which would deprive our existence of meaning, is visible behind the impulse to analyse, classify, make maps and, in the end, control the whole cosmos; to investigate our body in order to defeat disease and old age; to invent any kind of deity in order to be assured that the abovementioned decay is not really definitive. And eroticism, hosted by a section of my cabinets, is maybe the most intense symbolic representation of the instincts related to death.

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Sometimes, when all is quiet, my wunderkammer looks like a psychic spacecraft. Enigmatic conglomerate of temporary forms, clots of pains and lives returned to dust, amazed gaze, mystery of things.
We spend our whole life practicing impermanence. Let’s assume tomorrow I lose my entire collection in a fire: I would shed a few tears, of course, but I wouldn’t scream or damn my fate. If I did it, I would prove I have not understood the lesson that the wunderkammer softly whispers to me every night.

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You can read every Illustrati issue here. The texts are both in Italian and English. More pictures on the Flickr album for my cabinet.

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The mysteries of Sansevero Chapel – I

If you have never fallen victim to the Stendhal syndrome, then you probably have yet to visit the Cappella Sansevero in Naples.
The experience is hard to describe. Entering this space, full to the brim with works of art, you might almost feel assaulted by beauty, a beauty you cannot escape, filling every detail of your field of vision. The crucial difference here, in respect to any other baroque art collection, is that some of the works exposed inside the chapel do not offer just an aesthetic pleasure, but hinge on a second, deeper level of emotion: wonder.
Some of these are seemingly “impossible” sculptures, much too elaborate and realistic to be the result of a simple chisel, and the gracefulness of shapes is rendered with a technical dexterity that is hard to conceive.

The Release from Deception (Il Disinganno), is, for example, an astounding sculpted group: one could spend hours admiring the intricate net, held by the male figure, and wonder how Queirolo was able to extract it from a single marble block.

The Chastity (La Pudicizia) by Corradini, with its drapery veiling the female character as if it was transparent, is another “mystery” of sculpting technique, where the stone seems to have lost its weight, becoming ethereal and almost floating. Imagine how the artist started his work from a squared block of marble, how his mind’s eye “saw” this figure inside of it, how he patiently removed all which didn’t belong, freeing the figure from the stone little by little, smoothing the surface, refining, chiselling every wrinkle of her veil.

But the attention is mostly drawn by the most famous art piece displayed in the chapel, the Veiled Christ.
This sculpture has fascinated visitors for two and a half centuries, astounding artists and writers (from the Marquis de Sade to Canova), and is considered one of the world’s best sculpted masterpieces.
Completed in 1753 by Giuseppe Sanmartino and commissioned by Raimondo di Sangro, it portrays Christ deposed after crucifixion, covered by a transparent veil. This veil is rendered with such subtlety as to be almost deceiving to the eye, and the effect seen in person is really striking: one gets the impression that the “real” sculpture is lying underneath, and that the shroud could be easily grabbed and lifted.

It’s precisely because of Sanmartino’s extraordinary virtuosity in sculpting the veil that a legend surrounding this Christ dies hard – fooling from time to time even specialized magazines and otherwise irreproachable art websites.
Legend has it that prince Raimondo di Sangro, who commissioned the work, actually fabricated the veil himself, laying it down over Sanmartino’s sculpture and petrifying it with an alchemic method of his own invention; hence the phenomenal liquidness of the drapery, and the “transparence” of the tissue.

This legend keeps coming back, in the internet era, thanks to articles such as this:

The news is the recent discovery that the veil is not made of marble, as was believed until now, but of fine cloth, marbled through an alchemic procedure by the Prince himself, so that it became a whole with the underlying sculpture. In the Notarial Archives, the contract between Raimondo di Sangro and Sanmartino regarding the statue has been found. In it, the sculptor commits himself to deliver “a good and perfect statue depicting Our Lord dead in a natural pose, to be shown inside the Prince’s gentilitial church”. Raimondo di Sangro binds himself, in addition to supplying the marble, “to make a Shroud of weaved fabric, which will be placed over the sculpture; after this, the Prince will manipulate it through his own inventions; that is, coating the veil with a subtle layer of pulverized marble… until it looks like it’s sculpted with the statue”. Sammartino also commits to “never reveal, after completing the statue, the Prince’s method for making the shroud that covers the statue”. With this amazing contract, comes another document describing the recipe for powdered marble. If the two documents unequivocally prove the limits of Sammartino’s skills, they also show the alchemic genius of Sansevero, who put his expertise at the service of the hermetic doctrine, realizing one of the most important mysteric images of christian symbolism, that Holy Shroud Jesus was wrapped in, after he died on the cross.

(Excerpt from Restaurars)

Digging a bit deeper, it looks like this “sensational” discovery is not even recent, but goes back to the Eighties. It was made by neapolitan researcher Clara Miccinelli, who became interested in Raimondo di Sangro after being contacted by his spirit during a seance. Miccinelli published a couple of books, in 1982 and 1984, centered on the enigmatic figure of the Prince, freemason and alchemist, a character depicted in folklore as both a mad scientist and a genius.
The document Miccinelli found in the Archives is actually a fake. Here is what the Sansevero Chapel Museum has to say about it:

The document […], transcribed and published by Clara Miccinelli, is unanimously considered nonauthentic by scholars. In particular, a very accurate analysis of the document was conducted by Prof. Rosanna Cioffi, who in note 107, page 147 of her book “La Cappella Sansevero. Arte barocca e ideologia massonica” (sec. ed., Salerno 1994) lists and discusses as much as nine reasons – frankly inconfutable – for which the document cannot be held to be authentic (from the absence of watermark on the paper, to the handwriting being different from every other deed compiled by notary Liborio Scala, to the fact that the sheet of paper is loose and not included in the volume collecting all the deeds for the year 1752, to the notary’s “signum” which just in this document is different from all the other deeds, etc.). […] There are on the other hand certainly authentic documents, that can be consulted freely and publicly, in the Historic Archive of the Banco di Napoli, unearthed by Eduardo Nappi and published on different occasions: from a negotiable instrument dated December 16 1752, in which Raimondo di Sangro describes the statue in the making as “a statue of Our Lord being dead, and covered with a veil from the same marble”, to the payment of 30 ducats (as a settlment of 500 ducats) on February 13 1754, in which the Prince of Sansevero unequivocally describes the Christ as being “covered with a transparent shroud of the same marble”. All this without taking into account one of the Prince’s famous letters to Giraldi on the “eternal light”, published for the first time in May 1753 in “Novelle Letterarie” in Florence, in which he thus talks about the Christ: “the marble statue of Our Lord Jesus Christ being dead, wrapped in a transparent veil of the same marble, but executed with such expertise as to fool the most accurate observers”. […]
All the documentary evidence, therefore, points to one conclusion: the Veiled Christ is a work entirely made of marble. To settle things once and for all, there was eventually a scientific non-invasive analysis conducted by the company “Ars Mensurae”, which concluded that the only material present in this work is marble. The analysis report was published in 2008 in: S. Ridolfi, “Analisi di materiale lapideo tramite sistema portatile di Fluorescenza X: il caso del ‘Cristo Velato’ nella Cappella Sansevero di Napoli”. […]
We believe that the fact that Sanmartino’s Christ is entirely made from marble only adds charm […] to the work.

Miccinelli has subsequently found in her home a chest containing an incredible series of Jesuit manuscripts which completely overturn the whole precolonial history of Andean civilizations as we know it. The “case” has divided the ethnological community, even jeopardizing accademic relationships with Peru (see this English article), as many italian specialists believe the documents to be authentic, whereas by the majority of Anglosaxon and South American scholars they are considered artfully constructed fakes. The harsh debate did not discourage Miccinelli, who just can’t seem to be able to open a drawer without discovering some rare unpublished work: in 1991 it was the turn of an original writing by Dumas, which enabled her to decrypt the alchemical symbologies of the Count of Monte Cristo.

Our next article will be dedicated to another legend surrounding the Sansevero Chapel, namely the one regarding the two “anatomical machines” preserved in the Underground Chamber.

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Buon compleanno ! – VI

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Today is Bizzarro Bazar’s sixth birthday.

This year has not been ungenerous: so far, we’ve hosted stories of deserters in drag, mysterious graffiti on highway walls, cocktails featuring human fingers, ferocious mutinies, baboons employed as railroadmen, crucifixion labs, crazy postmen, martyrs, saints, cannibals, automatons, shrunken heads and famous skulls. And, of course, the tomb of Jesus Christ in Japan.

Meanwhile, a third volume of the Bizzarro Bazar Collection is in development, and will be available soon: after The Eternal Vigil and De Profundis, our next book will close this “trilogy” about Italian sacred places where a direct contact with death and human remains is still possible.

I would like to take the opportuinity to thank readers, who through comments and submissions contribute to keep this space alive. And I especially thank those who decided to donate through PayPal: they prove that, in Italy, we too can change the way of thinking, by actively supporting the work we love.

So we’re not celebrating ourselves: we are wishing “happy birthday” to the small independent community that in time has gathered around Bizzarro Bazar, a multitude of oddities enthusiasts, researchers of wonders, dream collectors and explorers of awe.

Keep The World Weird!

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The island that wasn’t there

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Umberto Eco writes in his Book of Legendary Lands (2013):

There have been lands that were dreamed, described, searched for, registered on maps, and which then disappeared from maps and now everybody knows they never existed. And yet these lands had for the development of civilization the same utopic function of the reign of Prester John, to find which Europeans explored both Asia and Africa, of course finding other things.

And then there are imaginary lands which crossed the threshold of fantasy and stepped right into our world, as improbable as it seems, bursting into shared reality – even if for a brief time.

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In 1968, Rose Island stood some 7 miles from the coast of Rimini, bordering international waters.
It wasn’t a proper island, but rather a man-made platform, which had taken ten years of work and sacrifices to build. Why did it took so long to erect it? Because Rose Island had something different from other marine platforms: it was constructed bypassing or ignoring laws and permits, in a constant fight against bureaucracy. It wasn’t just an extreme case of unauthorized development, it was a true libertarian project. Rose Island declared itself to be an independent Republic.

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This micronation‘s President was Giorgio Rosa, born in 1925, who had been an engineer since 1950. In 1958 he began to shape his dream, his life’s accomplishment. Among economic and technical difficulties, in the following ten years he succeded to plant nine pylons out in the sea, on which he then had the platform’s structure built: 4,300 squared feet of reinforced concrete, suspended at 26 feet above the water level. Rosa and his accomplices even found a freshwater aquifer under the sea bed, which proved useful for the island’s supplies and to create a protected space for docking (which they called “Green Harbor”).

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The idea Giorgio Rosa had was somewhat anarchic and pacific at the same time: “my initial project was to build something that could be free from any constraint, and wouldn’t require a lot of money. On dry land, bureaucracy had become suffocating. […] We wanted to open a bar and a restaurant. Just eat, drink and watch the ships from Trieste passing close by, sometimes even too close. My fondest memory is that of the first night, on the island under construction. Along came a storm, and it looked like it would tear everything apart. But in the morning the sun was shining, everything seemed beautiful and possible. Then trouble began“, he recalls.

Yes, because bureaucracy started fighting back, in a war to chase the rebels who attempted to live over the waves, without paying the government its due.
As the second floor of the platform was finished, Rose Island gained notoriey, while ships and motorboats called there, driven by curiosity. Worried by the growing traffic, port authorities, Italian finance police and government were already on guard.

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That’s how, in the (desperate) attempt to free himself from Italy and its prohibitions once and for all, Rosa unilaterally declared his Island independent on May 1, 1968. Even if he was quite distant from hippies and countercultures, his move was in tune with the fighting spirit of the times: a couple of days later, to the cries of “Banning is banned“, the rebellious civil unrest of May 1968 would begin to take place in Paris.
The newly-born “nation” adopted esperanto as the official language. It began printing its own stamps, and was about to coin its own currency.

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But suddenly things took a bad turn. Points of order were put forward in Parliament both by right and left wing, for once united against the transgressors; Secret Services were sure that the platform actually concealed a base for soviet submarines; others thought the whole thing was an obscure Albanian maneuver.
Once the media event broke out, authorities responded ruthlessly.

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On February 11, 1969, all the concrete parts were demolished, the steel poles and joints were cut, and 165 lb of explosive were detonated on each pylon. On the impact, Rose Island tilted, bended over… but refused to collapse.

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Then, two days later, artificers applied 264 lb of charge to each pillar – a total of more than a ton of explosive. Yet once again, the Island resisted, tilting forward a bit more. Like a dream stubbornly refusing to surrender to the blows of a tangible reality.
It was not to the military that Rose Island eventually decided to give up, but to a violent storm, sinking into the Adriatic Sea on February 26, 1969.

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Today, after 40 years of oblivion, the Insulo de la Rozoj – the esperanto name of this micronation – is the object of renewed attention, through documentaries, novels, theatre plays, shows and museum exhibits, Facebook pages and blogs devoted to it. There are those who doubt the idealistic nature of the project, suspecting that the entire operation was nothing more than an attempt to build a tax haven (Rosa never denied the commercial and turistic purpose of the Island); those who, like the curators of the Museum of Vancouver, find connections with Thomas More‘s writings; and even those who think that Rosa’s feat prefigured the collapse of faith in representative democracy through a mix of political activism, architecture and technology.

Giorgio Rosa is now 90-years-old, and seems amused by his adventure’s revival. After losing his war (“the only one Italy was ever able to win“, he sarcastically stresses out) and having paid for the cost of demolition, he went on with his engineering career. “Don’t even bother to ask me, I’ll tell you: no more islands!

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But if the interest for his experiment is well alive and kicking, it means that we still find that dream of freedom, escape and independence seducing. We could ascribe its modern appeal to our impatience towards the ever more suffocating bureaucracy, to the alluring idea of escaping the economic crisis, to our disillusionment towards institutions, to fear of authorities interfering with our privacy; but maybe the truth is that Rose Island was the realization of one of humanity’s most ancient dreams, Utopia. Which is both a “perfect place” (eu-topia), away from the misery and malfunctions of society, and “non-place” (ou-topia), unreal.

And it’s always pleasant to cherish an impossible, unattainable idea – even though, or provided that, it remains a fantasy.

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Giorgio Rosa’s quotes are taken from here and here. (Thanks Daniele!)

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Toshio Saeki

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Among all the artists adressing the liminal zones of obscenity and taboo, few have explored the Unheimliche in all its variations with Toshio Saeki’s precision.

Born in 1945 in Miyazaki prefecture, he moved to Osaka when he was 4 years old and then landed in Tokyo at 24, right when the sex industry was booming. After a few months in a publicity agency, Saeki decided to focus exclusively on adult illustration. His drawings were published on Heibon Punch and other magazines, and slowly gained international interest. Today, after 40 years of activity, Toshio Saeki is among the most praised japanese erotic artists, with solo exhibitions even outside Japan — in Paris, London, Tel Aviv, New York, San Francisco and Toronto.135

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For Saeki, art — like fantasy — cannot and should not know any limit.
In spite of the sulfurous nature of his drawings, he had surprisingly little trouble with censorship: apart from some “warning” notified by the police to the magazines featuring his plates, Saeki never experienced true pressions because of his work. And this is understandable if we take into account the cultural context, because his work, although modern, is deeply rooted in tradition.
As the critic Erick Gilbert put it, “if you look at Saeki’s art outside of its cultural sphere, you may be troubled by its violence. But once you go inside that cultural sphere, you know that this violence is well-understood, that ‘it’s only lines on paper,’ to quote cartoonist Robert Crumb. This extreme imagery of Japanese artists, and their characteristic need to go as far as possible, can be traced several centuries back to the so-called bloody ukiyo-e of the 19th century“.

To fully understand Toshio Saeki, it’s essential to look back to the muzan-e, a bloody subgenre of prints (ukiyo) which appeared around the half of ‘800, drawn by masters such as Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. This latter created the Twenty-eight famous murders with verse, in which he depicted all sorts of atrocities and violent deaths, taken from the news or from the stories of Kabuki theater. Here are some examples of Yoshitoshi’s extreme production.

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Other muzan-e, often particularly cruel, were drawn by Utagawa Yoshiiku, Kawanabe Kyōsai, and more marginally Hokusai; this current would then influence the more recent generation of artists and mangaka interested in developing the themes of ero guro – eroticism contaminated by surreal, bizarre, grotesque and crooked elements. Among the contemporary most prominent figures, Shintaro Kago and the great (and hyper-violent) Suehiro Maruo stand out.
So our Toshio Saeki is in good company, as he mixes the solid tradition of muzan-e with classical figures of japanese demons, bringing to the surface the erotic tension already hidden in ancient plates, making it both explicit and obsessive.

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His work is a visionary maelstrom in which sex and torture are inseparable, where erotic pulsion is intertwined with frenzy and psychopatology. The manic intensity of his illustrations, however, is coupled with a formal and stylish elegance, which cools down and crystallizes the nightmare: his prints are not created on the spot, because this precise refinement points to a deep study of the image.
Often they are connected with nightmares I had as a child, or extreme fantasies of my youth. These images made an impression on me, and I exaggerate them until they become those works that seem to have such a stong impact on the viewer“, declared the artist. These visions are carefully considered by Saeki, before he puts them on paper. For this reason his work looks like some sort of cartography of the further limits of erotic fantasy, those fringes where desire ultimately transforms into cupio dissolvi and cupio dissolvere (the desire to be annihilated, and to annihilate).

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But, for all their shocking power, Saeki’s paitings are always just dreams. “Leave other people to draw seemingly beautiful flowers that bloom within a nice, pleasant-looking scenery. I try instead to capture the vivid flowers that sometimes hide and sometimes grow within a shameless, immoral and horrifying dream. […] Let’s not forget that the images I draw are fictional“.

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And, again: “The important thing, to me, is awakening the viewer’s sensitiviy. I don’t care if he is a bigot or not. I want to give him the sensation that in his life — basically a secure and ordinary existence — there might be “something wrong”. Then hopefully the observer could discover a part of himself he did not know was there”.

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Quotes appearing in this post are taken from: here, here and here.
For a deeper treatise on muzan-e, here’s an article (in Italian) on the wonderful website Kainowska.

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Ulisse Aldrovandi

Dario Carere, our guestblogger who already penned the article about monstrous pedagogy, continues his exploration of the monster figure with this piece on the great naturalist Aldrovandi.

Why are monsters born? The ordering an archiving instinct, which always accompanied scientific analysis, never stopped going along with the interest for the odd, the unclassifiable. What is a monster to us?  It would be interesting to understand when exactly the word monstrum lost its purely marvelous meaning to become more hideous and dangerous. Today what scares us is “monstrous”; and yet monstra have always been the object of curiosity, so much so that they became a scientific category.  The horror movie is a synthesis of our need to be scared, because we do not believe in monsters anymore, or almost.

Bestiaries, wunderkammern and legends about fabulous beasts all have in common a desire to understand nature’s mysteries: this desire never went away, but the difference is that while long ago false things were believed to be true, nowadays the unknown is often exaggerated in order to forcedly obtain an attractive monstrosity, as in the case of aliens, lights in the sky, or Big Foot.

Maybe the wunderkammern, those collections of oddities assembled by rich and cultured men of the past, are the most interesting testimony of the aforementioned instinct.  One of the most famous cabinet of wonders was in Innsbruck, and belonged to Ferdinand II of Austria (1529 – 1595).  Here, beside a splendid woodcarved Image of death, which certainly would have appealed to romantic writers two centuries later, there is a vast array of paintings depicting unique subjects, as well as persons showing strange diseases. The interest for the bizarre becomes here a desire for possession, almost a prestige: what for us would be a news story, at the time was a trophy, a miraculous object; it’s a circus in embryo, where repulsion is the attraction.

Image of death, by Hans Leinberger, XVI Century.

Disabled man, anonimous, XVI Century.

This last fascinating painting, depicting a man who probably made a living out of his deformity, calls to mind another extraordinary collector of oddities: Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522 – 1605), born in Bologna, who dedicated his life to study Henry presentation of living creatures and nature.  His studies on deformity are particularly interesting. This ingenious man wrote several scientific books on common and less common phenomena, commissioning several wonderful illustrations to different artists; these boks were mainly destined to universities, and could be considered as the first “virtual” museum of natural science. After his death, his notes and images of monstrous creatures were collected in a huge posthumous work, the Monstruorum historia, together with various considerations by the scholar who curated the edition.  The one I refer to (1642) can be easily consulted, as many other works by Aldrovandi, in the digital archive of historic works of the University of Bologna.

It was a juicy evolution of the concept of bestiary: the monster was not functional to a moralizing allegory anymore, but became a real case of scientific study, and oddities or deformities were illustrated as an aspect of reality (even if some mythical and literary suggestions remain in the text; the 16th century still had not parted from classical sources, quite fantastic but deemed reliable at the time).

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The book mainly examines anthropomorphic monsters; these were often malformed cases, and even if they did not qualify as a new species, for Aldrovandi they were interesting enough for a scientific account. The anatomical malformation began to find place in a medical context, and Aldrovandi anticipated Linnaeus for nomenclatures and precision, even if he wasn’t a systematic classifier: he was preoccupied with presenting the various anomalies to future scholars, but in his work there is still a certain confusion between observation and legend.

Faceless men, armless men, but also men with a surplus of arms or heads were presented along centaurs, satyrs, winged creatures and the Sciapods (legendary men with one gigantic foot which protected them from the sun, as described by Plinius). There were also images of exotic people, wild tribes living in remote places, wearing strange hats or jewelry; although not deformed, they were nonetheless wonderous, strange. All monstra.

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A great introduction to Aldrovandi’s “mythology” is Animali e creature mostruose di Ulisse Aldrovandi, curated by Biancastella Antonino. Beside richly presenting wonderful color illustrations of animals, seashells and monsters from Aldrovandi’s work, this book also features some interesting essays; among the contributors, patologist Paolo Scarani speculates that Aldrovandi’s gaze upon his subjects was not always one of curiosity, but also of compassion. If this naturalist saw and met first-hand come “monsters”, how did he feel about them? Maybe the purpose of his studies was to provide the scientific community  with a new approach to the monstrosities of nature − a more humane approach; to prove his point Scarani examines the image of an unlikely bird-man pierced by several arrows. Moreover Scarani examines the illustrations of Aldrovandi’s monsters in the light of now well-known malformations: anencephaly, sirenomelia, parasitic twins, etc., and concludes that Aldrovandi may be considered an innovator in the medical field too, on the account of his peculiar attention to deformity in humans and animals (an example is the seven-legged veal, illustrated from a real specimen).

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Given the eccentricity of some of these monsters, it is not always easy to determine exactly when fantasy is mixed to the scientific account. Aldrovandi is an interesting meeting point between ancient beliefs (supported by respected sources that could not be contradicted) and the rising scientific revolution. The appearance of some monsters can be attributed to “familiar” pathologies (two-headed persons, legless persons, people with their face entirely covered with hair are now commonly seen on controversial TV shows), but others look like they came from a fantasy saga or some medieval bas relief. As Scarani puts it:

[Aldrovandi’s care for details], together with the clarity with which the malformations are represented, contributes to the feeling of embarassment before the figures of clearly invented malformations. Later interpolations? I don’t think so. The fact that some illustrations are hybrid, showing known malformations besides fantastic creatures (as a child with a frog’s face), makes me think that Aldrovandi included them, maybe from popular etchings, because it’s the weorld he lived in! They were so widely discussed, even in respected publications, […] that he had to conform to the sources. Of course, respect fo the authority principle and ancient traditions does not help progress. Everyone does what he can.

Aldrovandi’s work can be considered a great wunderkammer, an uneven collection of notable findings, devoid of a rigid and aristotelic classification but inspired by an endless curiosity which pairs the observation with an enthsaism for the wonderous and the unexplainable. Two other scholars from Bologna, B. Sabelli and S. Tommasini, write:

All this [the exposition of miscellaneous objects in the cabinets of curiosities] was inherited from the past, but also followed the spirit of the time which saw natural products as a proof and symbol for the legendary tradition – metamorphosis is a constant element in myths – and considered the work of nature and the work of the artist homogeneous, or even anthagonist, as the artist tried to reach and exceed nature.

From this idea of “exceeding” Nature come those illustrations in which animals we could easily identify (rhinos, lizards, turtles) are altered because the animal lived in a distant land, a place neither Aldrovandi nor the reader would ever visit; and the weirdest oddity was attributed in ancient times to faraway places, also because “normality” is often just a purely geographic concept.

Today, monsters do not inhabit mysterious and distant lands; yet, have our repulsion and our curiosity changed? There’s no use in denying it: we need monsters, even if only to reassure ourselves of out normality, to gain some degree of control over what we do not understand. Aldrovandi anticipated 19th century teratology: many of his illustrations remained perfectly valid through the following centuries, and those “extraordinary lives” we see on TV had already been studied and presented in his work. Examples span from the irsute lady to the woman born with no legs who had, as chronicles reported, an enchanting face. The circus never left town, it has just become standardized. Scarani writes:

What is striking, in these representations, is their being practically superimposable to the other illustrated teratologic casebooks that followed Aldrovandi. Maybe his plates were copied. I don’t think this is the only explanation, even if plausible given the enormous success of Aldrovandi’s iconography. More recent preparations of malformed specimens, or photographs, are still perfectly superimposable to many of Aldrovandi’s plates.

How weird, for our modern sensibility, to find next to these rare patologies the funny and legendary Sciapods, depicted in their canonic posture!

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Aldrovandi, on the other hand, did not just chase monsters, for teratology was only one of the many areas of study he engaged in. Within this word, “teratology”, lies the greek root for “monster”, “wild beast”: because of men of extraordinary ingenuity, like Aldrovandi, luckily today we do not associate diversity with evil anymore. Yet the monstrous does not cease to attract us, even now that the general tendency is to “flatten” human categories. It is a reminder of how frail our supremacy over reality is, a reality which seems to be equipping us with a certain number of legs or eyes by mere coincidence. The monster symbolizes chaos, and chaos, even if it is not forcedly evil, even if we no longer have mythical-religious excuses to get rid of it, will perhaps always be seen as an enemy.

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A love that would not die – III

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In the past years we have already delved into love stories that surpass the barrier of death (the case of Carl Tanzler and a similar story which took place in Vietnam).
Perhaps less macabre than these other two incidents, but just as moving, was Jonathan Reed’s passion for his wife Mary E. Gould Reed.

When Mary died, she was buried in her father’s crypt, at the Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn. But Jonathan, who then was in his sixties, could not abandon his wife. He kept telling himself that maybe, by showing her his unconditional love, things could go on like before.
His visits to her grave began to be judged excessively frequent, even for a grieving widower who, as a retired businessman, had plenty of free time. As the neighbors began to murmur, Mary’s father asked Reed to behave in a more discreet manner: he therefore reduced his apparitions at the graveyard. But when his father-in-law passed away, for Jonathan there were no more obstacles.

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He bought a new mausoleum in another section of the cemetery in which he transferred his dead wife’s body. Beside Mary’s casket he positioned a second empty one, where he himself would be lying when time came to join her.
Eventually Jonathan moved into the crypt.

He took some domestic furniture to the vestibule of the tomb, and hung a clock to the funeral cell wall; he equipped the mausoleum with a potbelly stove, complete with chimney tubes carrying the smoke out through the roof. He decided to decorate the small room with all the things Mary loved – flower pots, picture showing her at different ages, fine paintings on the walls, her last half-finished knitting – and even found place inside the tomb for their pets, a parrot and a squirrel.

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Jonathan Reed’s routine knew no variation. He came to the cemetery when gates opened, at six o’clock in the morning, entered the mausoleum and lit the fire. He then went up to Mary’s coffin, which he had especially equipped with a small window, at eye level, that he could open: through that peephole he could see his wife, and talk to her. “Good morning Mary, I have come to sit with you”, was his morning greeting.
Jonathan spent his whole day in there, chatting with his wife as if she could hear him, telling her the latest news, reading books to her. The he would dine in their wedding china. After lunch, he would pull out a deck of cards and play some game with Mary, laying down the cards for her.
Whenever he wanted some fresh air, he sat before the entrance in a rocking chair: he looked just like a classic old man on his front porch, always politely saying hello to whoever was passing by.
At six o’clock in the evening the cemetery closed and he was forced to leave, after wishing his Mary goodnight.

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This strange character quickly became a small celebrity in the district. Some said he could communicate with the afterworld. Come said he was crazy. Some said he was convinced that his wife would wake up sooner or later, and he wanted to be the first person for Mary to see when she came back. Some said he developed complicated theories about the “heat”that would bring her back to life.
The story of the widower who refused to leave his wife’s grave appeared in several short pieces even on international press, and litlle by little a curious crowd began to show up every day. In his first year as a resident at Evergreens some 7000 people came to greet him. Many women, it is said, intended to “save” him from his obsession, but he always kindly replied that his heart belonged to Mary. According to the reports, Reed even received the visit of seven Buddhist monks from Burma, who were convinced that he might have acquired some secret knowledge on the afterlife. Jonathan had to disappoint them, confessing he was just there to be close to his wife.

The everyday life of Evergreens Cemetery’s most famous resident went on undisturbed for ten years, until on March 23, 1905, he was found unconscious on the mausoleum’s floor, in cardiac arrest. Jonathan Reed was transferred to Kings County Hospital, where he died some days later, aged seventy. He was buried in the grave he had spent the last decade of his life in, beside his wife.

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An article on the New York Times claimed that “Mr. Reed could never be made to believe that his wife was really dead, his explanation for her condition being that the warmth had simply left her body and that if he kept the mausoleum warm she would continue to sleep peacefully in the costly metallic casket in which her remains were put. Friends often visited him in the tomb, and although they at first tried to convince him that his wife was really dead, they long ago gave up that argument, and have for years humored the whims of the old man”.
The article on the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which appeared the very day of his admission at the hospital. had a similar tone; the author once again described Reed as obsessed by the idea of keeping Mary’s body warm, even if it was noted that “in spite of this remarkable eccentricity in regard to his dead wife, Mr. Reed is in other respects an unusually intelligent and interesting man. He converses on all subjects with a degree of knowledge and insight rare to a person of his age. It is only upon the subject of death that he appears to be at all deranged”.

Clearly, the story the papers loved to tell was one about denial of grief, about a man who rejected the very idea of death, too painful to accept; what was appealing was the figure of a romantic, crazy man, stubbornly convinced that not all was lost, and that his Beauty might still come back to life.
And it could well be that in his last years the elderly man had somewhat lost touch with reality.

But maybe, beyond all legends, rumors and colorful newspaper articles, Reed’s choice had a much simpler motivation: he and Mary had been deeply in love. And when a relationship comes to be the only really important thing in life, it also becomes an indispensable crutch, without which one feels completely lost.
In 1895, the first year he spent in the cemetery, Jonathan Reed replied to a Brooklyn Daily Eagle interviewer with these words: “My wife was a remarkable woman and our lives were blended into one. When she died, I had no ambition but to cherish her memory. My only pleasure is to sit here with all that is left of her”.

No whacky theories in this interview, nor the belief that Mary could come back from the grave. Simply, a man who was sure he couldn’t find happiness away from the woman he loved.

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The Mysteries of Saint Cristina

(English translation courtesy of Elizabeth Harper,
of the wonderful All the Saints You Should Know
)

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Two days ago, one of the most unusual solemnities in Italy was held as usual: the “Mysteries” of Saint Cristina of Bolsena, a martyr who lived in the early fourth century.

Every year on the night of July 23rd, the statue of St. Cristina is carried in a procession from the basilica to the church of St. Salvatore in the highest and oldest part of the village. The next morning, the statue follows the path in reverse. The procession stops in five town squares where wooden stages are set up. Here, the people of Bolsena perform ten tableaux vivants that retrace the life and martyrdom of the saint.

These sacred representations have intrigued anthropologists and scholars of theater history and religion for more than a century. Their origins lie in the fog of time.

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In our article Ecstatic Bodies, which is devoted to the relationship between the lives of the saints and eroticism, we mentioned the martyrdom of St. Cristina. In fact, her hagiography is (in our opinion) a masterful little narrative, full of plot twists and underlying symbolism.

According to tradition, Cristina was a 12-year old virgin who secretly converted to Christianity against the wishes of her father, Urbano. Urbano held the position of Prefect of Volsinii (the ancient name for Bolsena). Urbano tried every way of removing the girl from the Christian faith and bringing her back to worship pagan gods, but he was unsuccessful. His “rebellious” daughter, in her battle against her religious father, even destroyed the golden idols and distributed the pieces to the poor. After she stepped out of line again, Urban decided to bend her will through force.

It is at this point the legend of St. Cristina becomes unique. It becomes one of the most imaginative, brutal, and surprising martyrologies that has been handed down.

Initially, Cristina was slapped and beaten with rods by twelve men. They became exhausted little by little, but the strength of Cristina’s faith was unaffected. So Urbano commanded her to be brought to the wheel, and she was tied to it. When the wheel turned, it broke the body and disarticulated the bones, but that wasn’t enough. Urban lit an oil-fueled fire under the wheel to make his daughter burn faster.  But as soon as Cristina prayed to God and Jesus, the flames turned against her captors and devoured them (“instantly the fire turned away from her and killed fifteen hundred persecutors and idolaters, while St. Cristina lay on the wheel as if she were on a bed and the angels served her”).

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So Urbano locked her up in prison where Cristina was visited by her mother – but not even maternal tears could make it stop. Desperate, her father sent five slaves out at night. They picked up the girl, tied a huge millstone around her neck and threw her in the dark waters of the lake.

The next morning at dawn, Urbano left the palace and sadly went down to the shore of the lake. But suddenly he saw something floating on the water, a kind of mirage that was getting closer. It was his daughter, as a sort of Venus or nymph rising from the waves. She was standing on the stone that was supposed to drag her to the bottom; instead it floated like a small boat. Seeing this, Urban could not withstand such a miraculous defeat. He died on the spot and demons took possession of his soul.

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But Cristina’s torments were not finished: Urbano was succeeded by Dione, a new persecutor. He administered his cruelty by immersing the virgin in a cauldron of boiling oil and pitch, which the saint entered singing the praises of God as if it were a refreshing bath. Dione then ordered her hair to be cut and for her to be carried naked through the streets of the city to the temple of Apollo. There, the statue of the god shattered in front of Cristina and a splinter killed Dione.

The third perpetrator was a judge named Giuliano: he walled her in a furnace alive for five days. When he reopened the oven, Cristina was found in the company of a group of angels, who by flapping their wings held the fire back the whole time.

Giuliano then commanded a snake charmer to put two vipers and two snakes on her body. The snakes twisted at her feet, licking the sweat from her torments and the vipers attached to her breasts like infants. The snake charmer agitated the vipers, but they turned against him and killed him. Then the fury and frustration of Giuliano came to a head. He ripped the breasts off the girl, but they gushed milk instead of blood. Later he ordered her tongue cut out. The saint collected a piece of her own tongue and threw it in his face, blinding him in one eye. Finally, the imperial archers tied her to a pole and God graciously allowed the pains of the virgin to end: Cristina was killed with two arrows, one in the chest and one to the side and her soul flew away to contemplate the face of Christ.

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In the aforementioned article we addressed the undeniable sexual tension present in the character of Cristina. She is the untouchable female, a virgin whom it’s not possible to deflower by virtue of her mysterious and miraculous body. The torturers, all men, were eager to torture and punish her flesh, but their attacks inevitably backfired against them: in each episode, the men are tricked and impotent when they’re not metaphorically castrated (see the tongue that blinds Giuliano). Cristina is a contemptuous saint, beautiful, unearthly, and feminine while bitter and menacing. The symbols of her sacrifice (breasts cut off and spewing milk, snakes licking her sweat) could recall darker characters, like the female demons of Mesopotamian mythology, or even suggest the imagery linked to witches (the power to float on water), if they were not taken in the Christian context. Here, these supernatural characteristics are reinterpreted to strengthen the stoicism and the heroism of the martyr. The miracles are attributed to the angels and God; Cristina is favored because she accepts untold suffering to prove His omnipotence. She is therefore an example of unwavering faith, of divine excellence.

Without a doubt, the tortures of St. Cristina, with their relentless climax, lend themselves to the sacred representation. Because of this, the “mysteries”, as they are called, have always magnetically attracted crowds: citizens, tourists, the curious, and groups arrive for the event, crowding the narrow streets of the town and sharing this singular euphoria. The mysteries selected may vary. This year on the night of 23rd, the wheel, the furnace, the prisons, the lake, and the demons were staged, and the next morning the baptism, the snakes, the cutting of the tongue, the arrows and the glorification were staged.

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The people are immobile, in the spirit of the tableaux vivant, and silent. The sets are in some cases bare, but this ostentatious poverty of materials is balanced by the baroque choreography. Dozens of players are arranged in Caravaggio-esque poses and the absolute stillness gives a particular sense of suspense.

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In the prison, Cristina is shown chained, while behind her a few jailers cut the hair and amputate the hands of other unfortunate prisoners. You might be surprised by the presence of children in these cruel representations, but their eyes can barely hide the excitement of the moment. Of course, there is torture, but here the saint dominates the scene with a determined look, ready for the punishment. The players are so focused on their role, they seem almost enraptured and inevitably there is someone in the audience trying to make them laugh or move. It is the classic spirit of the Italians, capable of feeling the sacred and profane at the same time; without participation failing because of it. As soon as they close the curtain, everyone walks back behind the statue, chanting prayers.

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The scene with the demons that possess the soul of Urbano (one of the few scenes with movement) ends the nighttime procession and is undoubtedly one of the most impressive moments. The pit of hell is unleashed around the corpse of Urbano while the half-naked devils writhe and throw themselves on each other in a confusion of bodies; Satan, lit in bright colors, encourages the uproar with his pitchfork. When the saint finally appears on the ramparts of the castle, a pyrotechnic waterfall frames the evocative and glorious figure.

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The next morning, on the feast of St. Cristina, the icon traces the same route back and returns to her basilica, this time accompanied by the band.

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Even the martyrdom of snakes is animated. The reptiles, which were once collected near the lake, are now rented from nurseries, carefully handled and protected from the heat. The torturer agitates the snakes in front of the impassive face of the saint before falling victim to the poison. The crowd erupts into enthusiastic applause.

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The cutting of the tongue is another one of those moments that would not be out of place in a Grand Guignol performance. A child holds out a knife to the executioner, who brings the blade to the lips of the martyr. Once the tongue is severed, she tilts her head as blood gushes from her mouth. The crowd is, if anything, even more euphoric.

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Here Cristina meets her death with two arrows planted in her chest. The last act of her passion happens in front of a multitude of hard-eyed and indifferent women, while the ranks of archers watch for her breathing to stop.

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The final scene is the glorification of the saint. A group of boys displays the lifeless body covered with a cloth, while chorus members and children rise to give Cristina offerings and praise.

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One striking aspect of the Mysteries of Bolsena is their undeniable sensuality. It’s not just that young, beautiful girls traditionally play the saint, even the half-naked male bodies are a constant presence. They wear quivers or angel wings; they’re surrounded by snakes or they raise up Cristina, sweetly abandoned to death, and their muscles sparkle under lights or in the sun, the perfect counterpoint to the physical nature of the passion of the saint. It should be emphasized that this sensuality does not detract from the veneration. As with many other folk expressions common in our peninsula, the spiritual relationship with the divine becomes intensely carnal as well.

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The legend of St. Cristina effectively hides an underlying sexual tension and it is remarkable that such symbolism remains, even in these sacred representations (heavily veiled, of course). While we admire the reconstructions of torture and the resounding victories of the child martyr and patron saint of Bolsena, we realize that getting onstage is not only the sincere and spontaneous expression in the city. Along with the miracles they’re meant to remember, the tableaux seem to allude to another, larger “mystery”. These scenes appear fixed and immovable, but beneath the surface there is bubbling passion, metaphysical impulses and life.

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Cadaver

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On the day his sister, a med student at Chicago’s Northwestern University, had to perform her first autopsy, Jonah Ansell wrote a little whimsical poem to lighten her mood and celebrate that important moment on her path to becoming a doctor.
My sister successfully cut open her cadaver. I successfully moved onto other projects. A year passed. But something in the poem kept prying me back to it. Beneath the rhyme that tickled the ear lurked a text that tackled a truth“, he recalls.

That is the genesis of Cadaver (2013), an animated award-winning short movie, longlisted for the Academy Awards and featuring the voices of great actors Christopher Lloyd and Kathy Bates. It’s a humorous, melancholic story with a peculiar charm: a man, convinced that love is stronger than death, is ready for a desperate quest to offer his heart to the most important person. But several revelations await, because in death one may discover things he ignored in life… and even a happy ending could really hide new painful illusions.

That is why Jonah Ansell is willing to share his work “with anyone who has had their heart broken – and with anyone who has broken a heart. It is a story for the hopeful romantics. It is a story for the harshest cynics“.

The short movie has also been published in the form of a picture book (Cadaver: A Bittersweet Love Story) and, if everything goes well, could even become a feature-lenght musical. Here is the film’s official website.

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Special: Innocenzo Manzetti

We like to think scientific progress as something evolving in a clear way, relying exclusively on research and method, and that the authority of a scholar is assessed on the basis of his results. But, as it goes for all human things, many unpredictable factors may intervene in the success of a theory or discovery — human factors, as well as social, political, commercial factors: which, in a word, have nothing to do with science.

There are good possibilities you never heard about Innocenzo Manzetti, even if he was one of the most fertile and dynamic italian geniuses. And if things had turned out differently for him, less than a month ago, on the 29th of June, we would have celebrated the 150th anniversary of his major invention, which had a profound impact on history and our own lives: the telephone.

But, on the account of a streak of unlucky events you’ll read about in a moment, the paternity of the first device for long-distance transmission of sound was attributed to others. This story takes place in a time of fertile change, in the midst of an international rush for technological innovation, a no-holds-barred struggle to the ultimate patent: in this kind of conflict, among inventors in good faith, spies, legal litigations and strategic moves, inevitably someone gets cut out. Maybe because he lives in a particularly secluded region, or because he is not wealthy like his opposers. Or simply because he, a hopeless idealist, is less interested in disputing than in research.

Innocenzo Manzetti’s figure belongs to the heterogeneous family of innovators, scientists and thinkers who, for these or other reasons, were confined to an undeserved oblivion, never to show up in history books. Yet his creativity and ingenuity were far from ordinary.

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Born in Aosta on March 17th 1826, Innocenzo was the fourth of eight siblings. Interested, since he was a kid, in physics ad mechanics, he got his diploma in surveying in Turin, and then settled back in his home town for good. Manzetti divided himself between his job at the civil engineering department, and his real passion: physics experiments on one hand, and on the other, designing and building mechanical devices.

The range of his interests was all-encompassing, and his fervid mind knew no repose. In 1849 he presented to the public his “flute player”: an iron and steel automaton, covered in suede, complete with porcelain eyes. The mechanical man was able to move his arms, take off his hat, talk, and perform up to twelve different melodies on his instrument. An astonishing result, which thanks to a municipal grant Manzetti was able to showcase at the London World’s Fair in 1851; but ultimately destined, like many of his inventions, to never achieve the hoped-for resonance.

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His love for mechanical gear pushed him to build a flying automated parakeet, and a music box featuring an animated puppet. But beyond these brilliant inventions, which were meant to amaze the audience and show off his exceptional mechanical expertise, Manzetti also devised very useful, practical solutions: he developed a new hydrated lime, built a water pump which was used to drain the floodings in the Ollomont mines, but also a machine for making pasta, a filtering system for public drinking water, a pantograph with which he was able to etch a medallion with the image of Pope Pious IX on a grain of rice.

Excerpt from Manzetti’s pasta machine patent.

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3D reconstruction of the pasta amchine.

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3D reconstruction of the 3-seat velocipede.

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3D reconstruction of the steam-powered automobile.

Over the years, his fellow citizens learned to be amazed by the inventions of this eccentric character.
But it wasn’t until 1865 that Manzetti presented the two prototypes which could have granted him, on paper at least, fame and fortune: an automobile with an internal-combustion engine, the first steam-powered car with a functional steering system; and above all the “vocal telegraph”, true precursor of the telephone – six years before Antonio Meucci registered his idea in 1871, and eleven years ahead of Alexander Graham Bell‘s patent (1876).

If the legal battle over the paternity of the telephone between these last two inventors is well known, then why is Manzetti’s name so very seldom mentioned? Why didn’t this forerunner gain a prominent status in the history of telecommunications? And just how reliable are the rumors depicting him as a victim of a complex case of international espionnage?

There may be various causes condemning a scientist, albeit brilliant, to oblivion.
We decided to talk about it with one of the major experts in Manzetti’s life and work, Mauro Caniggia Nicolotti, who authored together with Luca Poggianti a series of biographies on the inventor from the Aosta Valley. Following is a transcription of the interesting conversation we had with Mauro.

Between the ‘800 and the ‘900, a series of extraordinary technological innovations took place, which in turn produced spectacular patent litigations – featuring many hits below the belt – to secure the rights of these revolutionary inventions: from radio to cinema, from the automobile to the telephone.
In fact, several scientists, physicists, engineers and inventors in different parts of the globe came to similar conclusions at the same time, and what proved most successful in the long run was not the novelty of the project itself, but rather a small improvement in respect to the versions proposed by the adversaries.
What was the atmosphere like in those times of great change? How was this turmoil perceived in Italy? Did the economic and cultural conditions of the Aosta Valley at the time play a part in Manzetti’s marginalization and bad luck?

I think what you said is true for every context in which an “invention” occurs. It is as if there were a thousand ideas floating in the sky, and somebody turns out to be the only one capable of grabbing the right ones.
Aosta Valley was very isolated. Just consider that major roads were built barely a century ago. Aosta at the time was known as a cul-de-sac, a dead end. Manzetti operated in this out-of-the-way context, which was quite rich culturally but not very technologically advanced. The first local newspapers were arising right then, and they were re-publishing news appearing on international papers; Manzetti absorbed every details about the inventions he read about in the news. He was like some sort of Gyro Gearloose, you know… in a word, a genius. In every field, not just plain science: he was a fine engraver, he was requested as a callygrapher in Switzerland, his interests were wide.
In his “workshop of wonders” he tried first of all to solve the problems of his own town, as for instance public lighting, or water supplying from the Buthier creek, which was particularly muddy, so he built filters for that… he tried to refine some solutions he learned from the papers, or he came up with original ideas. He absorbed, perfected, created.
So even in this limited context, Manzetti was an explosion of creativity. The local papers kept saying that he should have been living elsewhere for his genius to shine through, and the muncipal administration paid for his trip to the Exposition in London, so really, his talent was acknowledged, but for his entire life he was forced to operate with the poorest means.

Manzetti had undoubtedly a prolific mind: would his career have been different, had he cultivated a more entrepreneurial attitude? Was he well-integrated in the social fabric of his time? What did his fellow citizens think of him?

Certainly Manzetti was no entrepreneur. I think he really was a dreamer: although poor, he never went for the money. Instead he preferred to help out, so much so that he was elected to a post that today we would call “Commissioner of public works”. So yes, in a sense he was socially integrated.
Recently I discovered a vintage article (we weren’t able to include it in our new book) in which a traveller, describing the inhabitants of the Aosta Valley, used a derogatory term: he called them “hillbillies”, and wrote that they were ignorant and badly dressed. In this very article the author pointed out that, apart from the bishop who came from Ivrea (as the episcopal seat was vacant) and must have looked like an alien, the only other elegantly dressed citizen was Manzetti. So the feeling is that he was seen, maybe not really as a foreign body, but nevertheless as a person well above the average.

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In 1865 Innocenzo Manzetti presented his “vocal telegraph”, after envisioning it at the end of 1843 and having spent more than fifteen years in experiments and development. Some years before (1860-62) Johann Philipp Reis had demonstrated the use of his experimental phone, probably based on Charles Bourseul‘s research: this device however was meant as a prototype, useful for further studies, and was not entirely functional. How was Manzetti’s version different? I read that his telegraph had some flaws, especially in the output of consonants: is that true?

It’s true, in Manzetti’s first experiments of sound transmission the voice was not clear. You have to keep in mind that carbon filters were not available, along with every improvement that came along later on. His first attempt was done with makeshift gears, or at least with low-quality materials. Actually even inside his much celebrated automaton there were some low-quality pieces, so much so that it stopped working now and then.
The true problem is that the man who experimented the vocal telegraph with Manzetti was his friend, the canon Édouard Bérard: and Bérard was a perfectionist, even a bit fastidious.
That’s why he didn’t report just the news of sound transmission but, instead of giving in to the excitement of having been the first human being to hear a long-distance call, he felt the need to specify that the sound performance was “not clear”. Looking at it today, it sounds a little bit like complaining that the first plane ever built was able to fly “only” for some hundred meters.

Why didn’t Manzetti patent his invention?

He didn’t patent it for a number of reasons. Firstly, patents were extremely expensive and Manzetti couldn’t afford it. The only things he patented were the ones that could hopefully bring in a little money: the pasta machine, which is still under his patent today, and the hydrated lime which looked promising.
His telephone was immediately torn to shreds.
Between July and August 1864 Minister Matteucci visited Aosta Valley, and saw Manzetti’s telephone: so there must have been an unofficial presentation, a year before the public one. The Minister however openly confronted Manzetti, and his disapproval was expressed along these lines: “Are you crazy? We just united Italy, we faced revolutionary movements… the telegraph operator today is able to send a message, but at the same time to check its contents. A telephone call between two persons, without any mediator, without any control, could be dangerous for the government”. Even some newspapers in Florence skeptically asked who in the world could find such an invention to be useful: maybe young mushy lovers wishing one another goodnight? There was widespread criticism about him and his device, which would be of absolutely no use whatsoever.

Then again we have to remember that Manzetti himself had not a clear idea of all the developments his invention could entail: he thought of it simply as a way to make his automaton talk. So much so, that the first newspapers called the device “the Mouth”, because it was designed to fit into the automaton’s face. I don’t think he immediately understood what he had invented. His friends slowly made him realize that his device could be useful in a number of other ways.

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Letter by Innocenzo’s brother, describing the first experiments in 1843.

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Alexander Graham Bell officially patented the telephone on February the 14th 1876. A year later, on March the 15th, Manzetti died in Aosta, forgotten and in poverty. And here the waters begin to get muddy, because the dispute between Bell and Meucci kicked off: did they both know Manzetti? According to your research, what are the elements suggesting a case of international espionnage? How reliable are they?

The battle over the paternity of the telephone consisted of two phases. The first one is all-Italian, in that Manzetti presented his “vocal telegraph” in 1865 (after his friends finally convinced him); the news travelled around the world, and in August it showed up in New York’s Italian-American newspaper L’eco d’Italia. Meucci was in NYC at the time, and he read the news. He replied with a series of articles in which he stated he invented something similar himself, and he described his device – which however was limited in respect to Manzetti’s, because instead of the handset it featured a conductor foil one had to keep between his teeth in order to transmit the words through vibrations. The articles ended with Meucci inviting Manzetti to collaborate. We don’t know whether Manzetti ever read this series of articles, so the question seemed closed until 1871, when Meucci deposited a caveat for his rudimental invention, which was not yet a proper telephone.

In a following moment, there was the litigation between Meucci and Bell. Bell frequented the same company with which Meucci deposited his invention, and strangely enough he patented his telephone in 1876, in the exact moment Meucci’s caveat expired. Then in the 1880’s a whole series of lawsuits followed, because precursors and inventors, real or alleged, sprang up like mushrooms. Once the dust settled, only Bell and Meucci were left to stand.

And then there was the issue of the “American intrigue”. The Aosta newspaper reported in 1865 that some English “mechanics” (i.e., scientists) came to Aosta to attend Manzetti’s presentation of his telegraph, maybe to figure out his secrets: according to some sources, among them was a young Bell, not yet renowned at the time, and Manzetti himself later said he still had Bell’s business card.
I would like to stress that we are not 100% sure that it really was Bell who travelled to Aosta in ’65, but the unpublished documents seem to confirm this hypothesis (and being private notes, there would have been no reason to lie about that).

But the real “scandal” happened later. On December the 19th 1879, a certain Horace H. Eldred, director of the telegraph society in NYC, met up with Bell: he was nominated President of Missouri Bell Telephone Company, and immediately took off to Europe. He arrived in Aosta on February the 6th, went to a notary together with Manzetti’s widow, and he acquired all the rights to the vocal telegraph: the deal was that he would appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States to recognize Manzetti as the true inventor of the telephone. He obviously did not tell the  grieving woman that he was one of Bell’s emissaries.
Perhaps Bell calculated that by buying exclusive rights from Manzetti, who was already thought to be the first inventor, he could keep in check all the others who were battling him.

Eldred took all the projects and everything with him.
But at some point I believe Eldred realized what he had just bought. He understood he held in his hands an improvement of the telephone, and thus he immediately came back to America, on April the 14th. In spite of Bell, he patented the device under his own name. A predictable litigation ensued, between him and Bell: Eldred won, opened a nice big factory on Front Street, New York, ran ads about his product, became vice-president of Telephones in the US and delegate in Europe. Eventually, he parted with Bell but went on to have a stunning career.

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In your opinion, is Innocenzo Manzetti destined to remain in that crowded gallery of characters who showed prodigius talent – but were defeated right on the verge of glory – or will there be a late acknowledgement and a revival of his figure? Do you have some events planned for the anniversary?

We launched the “150th Forgotten Anniversary” with a small conference – but everyone here was busy with another recurrence, the first ascent on the Matterhorn (which was even celebrated with military aerobatics shows). Regarding Manzetti, there is no acknowledgement whatsoever; I intend to repeat the conference in July and August, but I already know the results will be even worse. Nobody cares, nor does the Administration. We had to fight for years just to have a tiny museum room, 6.5 by 7.5 meters wide, inside the sacristy of a church, where the automaton is on display along with some digital panels… nobody intends to believe in this.

Nemo propheta in patria, “nobody’s a prophet in his own country”: in the Aosta Valley, as long as there’s just me and Luca working on this, we will always be seen as visionaries. Maybe if some interest for Manzetti arose from the outside, then things could change — because when a voice comes from “outside the valley”, it is always taken more seriously. If only some English-speaking literature began to appear on the subject… but it takes time.
As far as I’m concerned, I count on being still present for the bicentenary, even if I will be almost a hundred years old. I will be a senile man, but I’ll be there!

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To further explore Manzetti’s life and inventions, and learn more details about the fascinating case of “American espionnage”, you can find a whole load of information at Manzetti’s Online Virtual Museum, curated by Mauro Caniggia Nicolotti e Luca Poggianti.

We also thank our reader Elena.

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