“Julia Pastrana” is coming!

I’m excited to announce the imminent release of my new book: Julia Pastrana. The Monkey Woman, for Logos Edizioni.

The book traces the life of Julia Pastrana (Sinaloa, 1834 – Moscow, March 25, 1860), who suffered from hypertrichosis and gingival hypertrophy; as a famous circus performer and “curiosity of nature”, she toured extensively the US and Europe, first with her manager J.W. Beach, and then with her husband Theodore Lent. While on tour in Moscow she gave birth to a child, also suffering from hypertrichosis, who survived for only three days. Julia fell victim to puerperal sepsis and five days later she followed the same fate of her son. After her death, Theodore Lent had both mother and baby embalmed, and continued to exhibit the two mummies in London and across Europe until his own death in 1884. The body of Julia Pastrana was exhibited at various fairs in Norway from 1921 until the 70s, and was eventually forgotten inside a warehouse…

The vicissitudes this woman had to endure, both before and after her death, make her an absolutely unique and relevant figure, so much so that she still inspires artists from all over the world: I think her story is quite exceptional even compared to the already incredible ones of many other freakshow performers, because it contains the germs of many current issues.

To me, Julia Pastrana unwillingly embodied a sort of tragic heroine; and like all the best tragedies, her story is about human cruelty, the clash between nature and culture, the need for love and redemption — but also the ambiguity, the uncertainty of existence. To tell all this, an objective, classic essay would not have been enough. I felt I had to try a different direction, and I decided to let her tell us her story.

Using the first person singular was a rosky choice for two reasons: the first is that there are parts of her existence we know very little about, and above all we ignore what her true feelings were. But this actually allows for a modicum of speculation, and gave me a bit of room for poetic invention even when sticking to historical facts.

The second problem is of an ethical nature, and that is what worried me the most. ulia Pastrana has had to suffer various prejudices which unfortunately are not only a reflection of the era in which she lived: even today, it is hard to imagine a tougher destiny than being born a woman, physically different, and of Mexican nationality. Now, I am none of these three things.
To fully convey the archetypal significance of her life, I tried to approach her with empathy and humility, the only two feelings that allowed me to insert some touches of fantasy without lacking respect.

I really hope that the finished text bears the evidence of this scrupulousness, and that it might entice the reader to an emotional participation in Julia’s troubled life.

Fortunately, the task of doing justice to Julia did not fall on my shoulders alone: Marco Palena, a young and talented illustrator, graced the book with his wonderful works.
Right from our very first discussions, I immediately found he had that same meticulous carefulness — even a bit obsessive at times — that also guided me in reconstructing the historical context where the events took place. The result of this extreme consideration is evident in Marco’s illustrations, which I find particularly sweet and of a rare sensitivity.

Pastrana, who was unfortunate in life as in death, finally found peace in 2013 thanks to the joined efforts of artist Laura Anderson Barbata, governor Mario López Valdez and the Norwegian authorities: her body was transferred from Oslo to Mexico, and buried in Sinaloa de Leyva on February 12 in front of hundreds of people.
Our book is not intended to be yet another biography, but rather a small tribute to an extraordinary woman, and to the indelible mark that her figure left in the collective imagination.
Julia is still alive.

“Julia Pastrana. The Monkey Woman” will be available starting October 21st, but you can pre-order your copy in English at this link.
(I remind you that ordering my books online through the official Bizzarro Bazar bookshop helps support my work.)
Finally, I invite you to follow Marco Palena on his official website, Facebook and Instagram pages.

The Terrible Tucandeira

The initiation ritual of tucandeira is typical of the Sateré-Mawé people stationed along the Amazon River on the border between the states of Amazonas and Pará of Brazil.
The ritual is named after a giant ant (the Paraponera clavata, also known as “bullet ant”) whose painful sting, 30 times more poisonous than that of a bee, causes swelling, redness, fever and violent chills.

This test of courage and endurance sanctions a tennager’s entry into adulthood: every young man who wants to become a true warrior must submit to it.

The tucandeira takes place during the Amazonian summer months (October to December).
First the ants must be captured and taken from their anthills, usually located at the base of hollow trees, and they are enclosed in an empty bamboo called tum-tum. A mixture of water and cajú leaves is then prepared, and the ants are immersed and left in this anesthetic “soup”.

Once they are asleep, the ants are inserted one by one within the knitting of a straw glove, their fearsome stingers stuck on the inside of the mitten. They are then left to awaken from their numbness: realizing that they are trapped, the ants begin to get more and more angry.

When the time for the actual ritual finally arrives, the whole village meets to observe and encourage the adolescents who undergo initiation. It is the much feared moment of the test. Will they resist pain?

He who leads the dance intones a song, adapting the words to the circumstance. The women sit in front of the group of men and accompany the melody. Some candidates paint their hands black with Genipa berries and then drink a very strong liquor called taruhà, based on fermented cassava, useful for reducing pain and giving the necessary strength to face the ritual. Those who undergo the tucandeira for the first five times must apply to certain diets. When the ants awaken, the actual ritual begins. The dance director slips the gloves on the candidates’ hands and blows tobacco smoke into the gloves to further irritate the ants. Then the musicians begin to play rudimentary wooden tubes while the boys dance.

(A. Moscè , I Sateré Mawé e il rito della tucandeira, in “Etnie”, 23/01/2014)

The angry ants begin to prick the hands of the young, who are made to dance to distract themselves from the pain. In a short time their hands and arms get paralyzed; in order to pass the test, the candidate must wear the gloves for at least ten minutes.


After this time, the gloves are removed and the pain begins to manifest itself again. It will take twenty-four hours for the effect of inoculated neurotoxins to subside; the young man will be the victim of excruciating pain and sometimes prey to uncontrollable tremors even in the following days.
And this is just the beginning for him: to be fully completed, the ritual will have to be repeated 19 more times.

Through this ritual, a Sateré Mawé recognizes his origins, laws and customs; and from adolescence on, he will have to repeat it at least twenty times to be able to draw its beneficial effects. The whole population participates in the ritual and observes how the candidates face it. It is an important time to get to know each other, gather, and contract future marriages.
The tucandeira is also a propitiatory rite, through which a boy can become a good fisherman and hunter, have luck in life and work, turn into a strong and courageous man. People come together very willingly for this ritual, which in addition to its festive and playful aspect is also an opportunity to recall the cosmogonic myths of the origin of the stars, the sun, the moon, water, air and all living things.

(A. Moscè, Ibid.)

In this National Geographic video on tucandeira, the chief summarizes in an admirable way the ultimate meaning of these practices:

“If you live your life without suffering anything, or without any kind of effort, it won’t be worth anything to you.”

(Thanks, Giulio!)

 

In The Bowels of Christ

In episode 8 of the Bizzarro Bazar web series, I showed a very special piece from my curio collection: a 17th-century wax crucifix, whose abdomen is equipped with a small door revealing the internal organs of Jesus.
In presenting it I used the most widespread definition for this kind of artifacts, namely that of “anatomical Christ”. I briefly summarized its function by saying that the allegorical intent was to demonstrate the humanity of the Redeemer right down to his bowels.

Some time before recording that episode, however, I had been contacted by art historian Teodoro De Giorgio, who was conducting the first accurate census of all existing crucifixes of this kind. During our meeting he had examined my ceroplastic specimen, kindly promising to let me know when his study was published.

His research finally appeared in August on the Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz, one of the oldest and most prestigious journals of international art history. The essay’s translated title reads: “The Origins of the Iconography in Visceribus Christi. From medieval influences of cordial devotion to the modern representation of the bowels of Christ“.

And here is the surprise: the fascinating analysis that Prof. De Giorgio has conducted refuses both the denomination of “anatomical Christ” and the function of the object as I exposed it, based on the few existing studies.
Instead, his essay reveals how these wax crucifixes were invested with a much deeper symbolic and theological value, which I wish to summarize here. (Note: although the paper is accompanied by a generous photographic apparatus, out of respect for the owners’ image rights I will only include in this article photos of my crucifix.)

De Giorgio’s study includes and minutely describes the few existing crucifixes we know of: nineteen specimens in all, produced between the 17th and 19th centuries in southern Italy, most likely in Sicilian wax-making workshops.

To understand the complex stratification of meaning that links the image of Christ with his bowels exposed to the concept of divine mercy, the author first examines the biblical anthology. Here we discover that

in the Holy Scriptures the bowels are a powerful verbal image with a double meaning: figurative and real. The same term, depending on the context and the dialogic referent, can qualify both divine infinity and human finiteness. […] in the Septuagint, which is largely faithful to the original Hebrew text of the Old Testament, there is a substantial semantic homology between the Greek terms σπλάγχνα (viscera), καρδία (heart) and κοιλία (belly). At the core of this equivalence lies the biblical conception of mercy: “to feel mercy” is to be compassionate “down to one’s bowels” […] In Semitic languages, particularly in Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic, divine mercy shows not only a visceral significance, but also — and above all — a uterine value.

Through various examples from the Old and New Testament, De Giorgio shows this “visceral” mercy was thought to be a prerogative of both God and Christ, and how the womb was identified from time to time as a seat of divine compassion or as a metaphorical uterus representing God’s maternal care towards Israel. The heart and bowels – of God, of Christ – were therefore intended as a fountain of mercy quenching the believer’s thirst, a divine spring of love.

In the Middle Ages this concept took the form of a devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which began to spread thanks to the celestial visions of some female mystics such as Saint Lutgardis, Mechthild of Magdeburg, Gertrude of Hackeborn, Mechthilde of Helfta and Gertrude the Great.

In the tradition of the Latin Church an expression marks the mercy of Christ: in visceribus Christi [“in the viscera of Christ”]. With this Latin formula, […] the Christian implored Jesus Christ in order to obtain graces through his divine mercy. Praying in visceribus Christi meant weaving a privileged spiritual relationship with the Savior in the hope of moving his bowels of mercy, which he had fully manifested on the cross.

The Jesuits were among the first congregations to join the new cult, and the practice of directing the prayers to the Sacred Heart and to the bowels of Christ, and the author attibutes these particular wax crucifixes with abdominal flaps to the Society of Jesus. It was precisely in the 16th-17th century that the need to identify an adequate iconography for worship became urgent.

If the mercy of God revealed itself in all its magnificence in the figure of Jesus of Nazareth, who — as attested by the Gospels — harbored ‘visceral compassion’ towards humanity, there were very specific reasons for contemplating the Savior’s innards and in the 17th century, along with the growing freedom of representations of the Sacred Heart and a parallel progress in anatomical and physiological knowledge, the time was ripe to do so by making use of a specific iconography.

Pompeo Batoni, Sacred Heart of Jesus (1767), Chiesa del Gesù, Roma.

Yet the task did not go without dangers:

In European spiritual circles, especially those related to confraternity associations, other images had to circulate unofficially and be reserved for personal devotion or that of small groups of followers […]. The iconography in question must have seen the light in this climate of emotional and passionate popular fervor, which manifested itslef in many pious practices, and at the same time one of rational dissent of a part of the high ecclesiastical hierarchy, which saw in the adoration of the fleshy heart of Christ the seeds of the Arian heresy.

Far from being mere anatomical representations aimed at showing the Savior’s human suffering, the crucifixes had instead a much more important function, namely

to invite devotees, in the so-called ‘strong times’ (such as the Lenten season or during Holy Week, and in particular in the Easter Triduum or, even more, on Good Friday) or in times of need, to contemplate the bowels of mercy of the Savior by opening the appropriate door. Right there to His bowels prayers and supplications had to be addressed, right there the rite of the faithful kiss had to be carried out, and right there patches and cotton wool had to be placed, according to the customs of the time, to be kept as real contact relics. The iconography in question, which we can call in visceribus Christi, could only be formulated in the precise devotional context of the Jesuit society, linked to the sphere of brotherhoods. That was the appropriate place in which the veneration of the sacred bowels of Christ could be carried out, as such an explicit vision could cause the indignation of many, including ecclesiastics who were less theologically knowledgeable than the Jesuits or who were, more simply, weak-stomached. The choice of a small format, on the other hand, is understandable precisely because of the limited devotional scope of these waxworks, which were reserved for small groups of people or for private worship.

De Giorgio states that these crucifixes were not simply an “Ecce homo anatomicus“, but rather an instrument for directing prayers to the very source of divine mercy.

I for my part can add that they appeared in a period, the Renaissance, in which iconography was often aimed at reviving the mystery of the incarnation and the humanity of Jesus by means of a dramtic realism, for example in the so-called ostentatio genitalium, the representation of the genitals of Christ (as a child or on the cross).

Two wooden crucifixes attributed to Michelangelo (Cucifix of Santo Spirito and Crucifix Gallino).

Showing the sacrificed body of Christ in all its fragile nudity had the purpose of favoring the believers’ identification and imitatio of Christ, as devotees were invited to “nakedly follow the naked Christ“. And what nakedness can be more extreme than the anatomical disclosure?
On the other hand, as Leo Steinberg showed in his classic essay on the sexuality of Christ, this was also a way for artsits to find a theological foundation and justification for the figurative realism advocated by the Renaissance.

Thus, thanks to De Giorgio’s contribution, we discover that wax crucifixes in visceribus Christi hid a very dense symbolic meaning. Sacred accessories of a cult suspected of heresy and not yet endorsed by the hierarchies of the Church (the adoration of the Sacred Heart will be officially allowed only in 1765), these were secret objects of devotion and contemplation.
And they remain a particularly touching testimony of the perhaps desperate attempt to move to compassion — down to the “bowels” — that God who too often seems willing to abandon man to his own destiny.

All quotations (translated by me) are taken from Teodoro De Giorgio, “L’origine dell’iconografia in visceribus Christi. Dai prodromi medievali della devozione cordicolare alla rappresentazione moderna delle viscere di Cristo”, in «Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz», LXI, 2019, 1, pp. 74-103. The magazine can be purchased by contacting the Centro Di publishing house, at this link.

ILLUSTRATI GENESIS: Day 5

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

DAY 5 – THE ANIMALS OF WATER AND HEAVENS

The well-known detail: Around April-May, when plants become luxuriant again after winter hibernation, for many people the nightmare starts again: rhinitis, asthma, conjunctivitis. If you don’t know anyone who is allergic to pollens, maybe you are the one: in Italy, about one person out of five suffers from this chronic disease.

Dandelion seed – photography by Matthias Kabel

The background: Pollens cause the majority of allergies, but it is wrong to assume that these tiny grains are the only little creatures flying in the wind.

In 1910 some German scholars had already discovered some algae that live in the air; in the 1960s Malcolm Brown of the University of Austin, Texas, noticed that some types of clouds contained certain species of algae along with many other microbes.
Actually, a beautiful and seemingly clear sky is not only crossed by flocks of birds: to date, 1,000 species of bacteria (with a concentration of about 500 per m³), 40,000 varieties of fungal spores and hundreds of algae have been detected in the air, along with mosses, protozoans and liverworts.
Not to mention the most minute insects or those spiders that produce a spider’s web and let it swing until a draught lifts them in flight and then drops them off many miles away.

Aerobiologists, who study this biodiversity throbbing in the atmosphere, use the term ‘aeroplankton’ to define these floating organic particles as a whole, by analogy with the floating aquatic organisms carried by sea currents or freshwater pools.
Aeroplankton literally means “wandering in the air”: although unable to fly autonomously, some of these living creatures eat, evacuate and even reproduce in the sky.


The Fifth Lesson: Try and imagine that the sky is like the sea. Trees and plants grow attached to the seabed, mammals and other land creatures crawl and walk over them. We are also there, submerged under thousands of meters of an ethereal substance, where countless tiny creatures frantically move. Above the surface of this enormous ocean that covers everything, nothing is left but the sidereal cold.
This image – which is not so visionary, as we have learned – may not provide a relief against allergy symptoms … but our small daily problems are going to be less burdensome when looked at from this perspective, bearing in mind that we are part of a strange, absurd, gigantic bubble in which everything is impregnated with life.


This post is part of the series ILLUSTRATI GENESIS:
Day 1 & 2
Day 3
Day 4
– Day 5 (this article)

Art & Wonder: L’Arca degli Esposti

On these pages I have always given ample space to the visual arts, and even those who seldom check out my blog know quite well what my tastes are in the field: I prefer a type of art (preferably figurative, but not only) that is somehow cruel towards the observer.
I’m not talking about the fake and superficial provocations of shock art; if you’re looking to get traumatized, there’s plenty of websites offering far more extreme images than the ones you get to see in a gallery. I’m thinking of that need to be shaken and intimately touched by an artwork, of some kind of Artaudian cruelty: but to reach that kind of emotional charge, the artist must have a very refined preparation and sensitivity.

If in the past years I presented here, from time to time, some artists that really had me impressed, now there is a big news.
From this year Bizzarro Bazar will actually take an active part in promoting “strange, macabre and wonderful” art!

Together with curator Eliana Urbano Raimondi, I founded L’Arca degli Esposti, an artistic and cultural association based in Palermo.
L’Arca degli Esposti (which means “The Ark of the Exposed”) has the mission to give visibility to those artists who are eccentric and “heretical” with respect to the art system.

I quote from the presentation on our website:

The “exposed” or “exhibited”, therefore, are the artists promoted by the association by virtue of their stylistic independence and the courageous and unique iconography they put forth. Exposed, as selected for the exhibitions organized by the association; exposed as the illegitimate infants who once were abandoned on foundling wheels; exposed because they have the audacity to express a heterodox position with respect to market trends.

With this almost adoptive intent, L’Arca degli Esposti declares its vocation to the elitist custody of the “mirabilia”: the same one that gave life to ancient wunderkammern — symbolized in our logo by the nautilus, a sea creature whose shell is based on the infinite wheel spiral of golden growth, traveling through the waters like a vessel to new worlds.

L’Arca degli Esposti, as I said, is based in Palermo but operates throughout the national territory.
Our first fall season starts on October 12th with Il sogno di Circe (“Circe’s dream”), a collective exhibition that will see a selection of works by Ettore Aldo Del Vigo, Adriano Fida and Fabio Timpanaro.

What these three extraordinary contemporary artists have in common is a dreamlike transfiguration of the human figure; for this reason we chose to summon as our tutelary deity Goddess Circe and her hypnagogic visions, which faded and transcended the nature of the body.
Here are some examples of their production:

On November 14 we will move to Rome inside the sumptuous wunderkammer of my friend Giano Del Bufalo, with whom I have organized several events in the past.


Here for two weeks you will be able to see REQVIEM, a collective exhibition focused on death and the corruption of the body.

In REQVIEM the pictorial, sculptural and photographic works of ten international artists will enteratain a dialogue with the oddities and mirabilia present in the gallery.
The selection of artists is high-profile: Agostino Arrivabene, Philippe Berson, Nicola Bertellotti, Pablo Mesa Capella, Tiziana Cera Rosco, Pierluca Cetera, Gaetano Costa, Olivier De Sagazan, Sicioldr and Nicola Vinci.

Together with Eliana Urbano Raimondi — to whose brilliant work goes most of the credit for this dream come true — we are already preparing many other exhibitions, conferences and seminars focused on weird, dark and alternative culture; we are also trying to bring some really great artists to Italy for the first time, and I must say that I’m beyond excited… but I shall keep you posted.

For the moment I invite you to follow the initiatives of the Arca on the association’s website, on our Facebook page and Instagram; and, if you happen to be around, I look forward to see you on these first two, fantastic dates!

Cannibals at the Pantheon

Among the seven deadly sins, there is one for which the inhabitants of Rome — both ancient and modern — have always been (in)famous: the sin of gluttony.

One of the Roman squares which for centuries was associated with food, groceries and the most varied delicacies was the “Piazza della Ritonna”, that is the square in front of the Pantheon.
Here in the past there were numerous delicatessens called “spizzicherie”, shops in which food was sold “in spizzico”, in small quantities. Eggs, anchovies, salt, but above all cheese and cured meats, for which the piazza was renowned. The pizzicagnoli didn’t sell their merchandise only in authorized delicatessens, but the whole square was regularly invaded and occupied by stalls, sheds, movable booths — in short, it was a sort of chaotic outdoor market.

During Easter, the delicatessens would also set up baroque exhibitions, with spectacular lanscapes created with food in the attempt to impress the crowd with their opulence. In the square began a competition to build the most elaborate sculpture of cold cuts, sausages and cheeses.

Belli gave an account of these scenes in a 1833 poem (the translation for this and the following extracts in Roman dialect are in the notes):

De le pizzicarie che ttutte fanno
la su’ gran mostra pe ppascua dell’ova,
cuella de Bbiascio a la Ritonna è st’anno
la ppiú mmejjo de Roma che sse trova.
Colonne de casciotte, che ssaranno
scento a ddí ppoco, arreggeno un’arcova
ricamata a ssarcicce, e llí cce stanno
tanti animali d’una forma nova.
Fra ll’antri, in arto, sc’è un Mosè de strutto,
cor bastone per aria com’un sbirro,
in cima a una Montaggna de presciutto;
e ssott’a llui, pe stuzzicà la fame,
sc’è un Cristo e una Madonna de bbutirro
drent’a una bbella grotta de salame.
(1)”Among the delicatessens that make a great exhibition for Easter, the best one this year is Biagio’s, in Piazza della Rotonda. Columns of caciottas, a hundred of them to say the least, hold an arc decorated with sausages, and one can see a host of little animals coming in many shapes. Among others, above stands a Moses made of lard, holding his stick in the air like a policeman, on top of a mountain of ham; and below him, to whet your appetite, there are a Christ and a Madonna made of butter, inside a beautiful grotto of salami.”

Another more recent account comes from Giggi Zanazzo in 1908:

Ne le du’ sere der gioveddì e vennardi ssanto, li pizzicaroli romani aùseno a ffa’ in de le bbotteghe la mostra de li caci, de li preciutti, dell’òva e dde li salami. Certi ce metteno lo specchio pe’ ffa’ li sfonni, e ccert’antri cce fanno le grotte d’òva o dde salami, co’ ddrento er sepporcro co’ li pupazzi fatti de bbutiro, che sso’ ‘na bbellezza a vvedesse. E la ggente, in quela sera, uscenno da la visita de li sepporcri, va in giro a rimirà’ le mostre de li pizzicaroli de pòrso, che ffanno a ggara a cchi le pò ffa’ mmejo. (2)”On the two evenings of Thursday and Good Friday, in their shops the Roman pizzicagnoli make an exhibition of cheese, hams, eggs and sausages. Some place a mirror as a background, while others create huge caves of eggs or salami, with the Holy Sepulchre inside, and puppets made of butter which are a beauty to be seen. And on those evenings, the people coming from the visit to the cemetery go around gazing at the shows put up by the most prominent butchers, competing against each other to see who makes the best one.”

The tradition of food cornucopias continued until recent times. But not everyone loved those stalls and shops; in fact the authorities tried many times, starting from the 1400s and then cyclically over the centuries, to clear the square with various decrees and injunctions.

One of these episodes of restoration of the decorum is remembered on a commemorative plaque dating back to 1823 and displayed on the wall of the the building just opposite the Pantheon, at number 14 in Piazza della Rotonda:

POPE PIO VII IN THE XXIII YEAR OF HIS KINGDOM
BY MEANS OF AN OPPORTUNE DEMOLITION
CLAIMED FROM HIDEOUS UGLINESS
THE AREA IN FRONT OF THE PANTHEON OF M. AGRIPPA
OCCUPIED BY IGNOBLE TAVERNS AND
ORDERED THE VIEW BE LEFT FREE AND THE SPACE CLEAR

Of all the butchers working in this area, those coming from the city of Norcia had the reputation of being the most skilled, so much so that it was a common insult to wish the opponent would end up “castrated by a norcino [butcher from Norcia] at the Rotonda”.

And in Piazza della Rotonda, in 1638, there were two butchers from Norcia, husband and wife, whose sausages were the best of all.
From all quarters of the city, people flocked to buy them: these sausages were even too sublime and delicious.

Thus the word began to spread that the butchers were hiding a secret. What did they put in their sausages to make them so tasty? And didn’t someone swear they saw some chubby, round-bodied customers enter the shop and never come out?

The rumor finally reached the ears of the Captain of Justice, who started an investigation; while searching the premises, the police actually found human bones in the basement of the butcher’s shop.
Pope Urban VIII, born Maffeo Vincenzo Barberini, sentenced the two butchers to be executed right in front of the Pantheon: they both were killed, slaughtered and quartered with an ax by another exquisite master in the art of butchery, the Pope’s official executioner.

This story remained alive in the memory of the Romans. The population was so impressed by the crime, that it reappeared from time to time in vernacular poems until as late as 1905, for example in this poem entitled About the skeletons found at the Rotonna (M. D’Antoni, in Marforio, IV, 308 – 1 Luglio 1905):

Ammappeli e che straccio de corata
che ciaveveno que’ li du’ norcini:
attaccaveno l’ommeni a l’ancini
come se fa a ’na bestia macellata.

La carne umana doppo stritolata
l’insaccaveno, e li, que’ l’assassini
faceveno sarcicce, codichini,
vennennola pe’ carne prelibbata.

Saranno stati boja anticamente
a mettese a insaccà la carne umana:
però so’ più bojaccia ’nder presente.

Perchè mò ce sò certi amico caro,
che ar posto de’ la carne un po’ cristiana,
Ce schiaffeno er cavallo cor somaro!! (3)”Wow those two butchers certainly had a lot of gall: they attacked men on hooks like a slaughtered beast. They ground and stuffed the human flesh, and those killers made sausages and cotechino, selling it as delicious meat. In ancient times, those who made sausages from human flesh were surely criminals: but they are even more so in the present. Because nowadays there are some, dear friend, that instead of using meat from a Christian, they mix horse meat with donkey meat!”

We should note at this point that the whole story may well be an urban legend.

The trope of the butcher who sells human flesh for pork is in fact a very ancient and rather widespread type of urban legend: the talented Sofia Lincos analyzed it with Giuseppe Stilo in an in-depth research divided into three parts (one, two and three, Italian only).

As I searched for clues in the judicial chronicles of the time, I managed to find a single reference to the story of the Pantehon’s cannibal butchers. It can be found in a 1883 book by David Silvagni, who quotes a manuscript dossier compiled by Abbot Benedetti:

These dossiers bear the title (given by the Abbott himself) of Ancient Facts Occurred in Rome, and they trace the history of the most famous misdeeds and the most famous executions, starting with the Cenci trial, of which there is another older but identical copy. And it is important to read these faithful accounts of atrocious deeds and even more atrocious executions, which the author narrates with the same calm and simplicity with which today a newspaper chronicler would announce a theater play. […] And so great is the restraint that the diarist shows, that there is not one word of indignation even for the bloodiest of all stories found in the manuscript. In fact, in a very calm and aunassuming style he recounts the “execution of justice commanded by Pope Urban VIII in the year 1638 and performed in the Piazza della Rotonda, in which two impious, wicked butchers who mixed pig meat with human flesh were killed, slaughtered and quartered”.

D. Silvagni, La corte e la società romana
nei secoli XVIII e XIX
(Vol II p. 96-98, 1883)

The abbot Benedetti lived at the end of the eighteenth century, more than a hundred years after the alleged incident. But as his prose is described to be austere and impartial, I am inclined to think that he was transcribing some sort of register, rather than reporting a simple rumor.

So did this story actually happen, is it a legend, or perhaps an exaggeration of real events?

We don’t have a definitive answer. In any case, the history of the two butchers of the Pantheon represents an ironic warning not to indulge in gluttony, the capital sin of the Capital. A warning which, alas, was not given much attention: the people of Rome, known for being gourmands, would gladly turn down all enticements of Paradise for a good plate of carbonara.

[Note: This is the iconic Roman actress & cook Sora Lella. “Who gives a damn, let me eat!”]

Note   [ + ]

1. ”Among the delicatessens that make a great exhibition for Easter, the best one this year is Biagio’s, in Piazza della Rotonda. Columns of caciottas, a hundred of them to say the least, hold an arc decorated with sausages, and one can see a host of little animals coming in many shapes. Among others, above stands a Moses made of lard, holding his stick in the air like a policeman, on top of a mountain of ham; and below him, to whet your appetite, there are a Christ and a Madonna made of butter, inside a beautiful grotto of salami.”
2. ”On the two evenings of Thursday and Good Friday, in their shops the Roman pizzicagnoli make an exhibition of cheese, hams, eggs and sausages. Some place a mirror as a background, while others create huge caves of eggs or salami, with the Holy Sepulchre inside, and puppets made of butter which are a beauty to be seen. And on those evenings, the people coming from the visit to the cemetery go around gazing at the shows put up by the most prominent butchers, competing against each other to see who makes the best one.”
3. ”Wow those two butchers certainly had a lot of gall: they attacked men on hooks like a slaughtered beast. They ground and stuffed the human flesh, and those killers made sausages and cotechino, selling it as delicious meat. In ancient times, those who made sausages from human flesh were surely criminals: but they are even more so in the present. Because nowadays there are some, dear friend, that instead of using meat from a Christian, they mix horse meat with donkey meat!”

10 Years of Bizzarro Bazar!

Today Bizzarro Bazar is 10 years old.
I don’t want to indulge in self-congratulations, but allow me a little pride because this is quite an achievement — for all of us.

August 2009.
In a dimly lit room, a thirty year old man is typing on a laptop.
The Internet was a different place then, so much so that it feels like a century ago.
Michael Jackson had died less than two months earlier, the news causing all major word websites to crash. Facebook was starting to outnumber MySpace. SMS were the only way to text your friends; in Italy perhaps a dozen people were testing this new esoteric thing called Whatsapp.
The Web looked promising. Many were convinced the internet would be the key to improving things, canceling boundaries and distances, promoting solidarity, forging a new, connected and cooperative humanity.

One fundamental tool for the imminent social revolution (there was no doubt about this) would be blogs, as they were the main tools to democratize culture, making it freely available to all.
If you were looking for a website dedicated to the macabre and the marvelous, you would have surely come across the glorious Morbid Anatomy, which back then was at its peak; there were a few good thematic blogs, but nothing in Italian.


So that afternoon of August 20th I registered the name of this blog on WordPress, wrote a welcome post (with a nod to Monty Python), and I sent an email to a dozen friends inviting them to take a look. My hope was that at least some of them would be interested for a month or two. I needed to tell someone how incredible, terrible and amazing this reality we often take for granted seemed to me. How many unexpected treasures hide behind those things that terrify us most, if we only care to understand.

 

CUT TO: August 2019.
In a dimly lit room, a forty year old man is typing on a laptop.
The magical world of the internet has changed, and it no longer feels that magical.
Many feel harassed by its ubiquitous tentacles that crush every cell of time and life. Users have become customers, and you don’t need to be a hacker to know that the Web is full of dangers and traps. The Internet is today a privileged tool for those who want to spread fear and hatred, erase all diversity, strengthen barriers and boundaries instead of overcoming them. At first glance it would seem that the dream has been crushed.
Yet I am still here, writing on the very same blog. The Internet has remained in many ways an extraordinary space in which new initiatives are organized, different points of view are discovered, in which at times you may even change your mind.

What has all this got to do with a little blog about death, taboos, freakshows, bizarre collections and historical oddities?
In a sense I believe that here, you and I are doing an act of resistance. Not so much in a political sense — the polis cares about what happens inside or around the city walls — but some kind of cultural resistance. One might say we are resisting banality, and reduction of complexity. The lovers of the bizarre are people who prefer questions over answers, and want to explore ever stranger places.

In spite of the incalculable hours I spent studying, writing, answering all the questions from readers (and fixing bugs and server issues, damn), Bizzarro Bazar has always remained an ad-free, uncensored space.
With its 850 posts, it now looks like a mini-encyclopedia of the weird & wonderful. And if I reread some bits here and there, I can see my writing style gradually evolve thanks to your advice and your criticisms.

The web series I released this year on YouTube is a fundamental step in this long journey, carried out with passion and some sacrifices. We have invested so much effort, so many resources in it, and your response has been enthusiastic.
Many of you have expressed the hope that there might be a second season, so let’s get to the point: for the first time Bizzarro Bazar is summoning its army of freak and heretic followers!

We started a campaign on the Italian crowdfunding website produzionidalbasso.com to finance the new season.
Here is the video for our project (be sure to turn on the English subtitles):

This is our only chance at the moment to keep the most anomalous Italian web series alive. But in reality it means much more.
If you help us, what will see the light will no longer be “the Bizzarro Bazar series”, but your own series.

The (Google-translated) page for our campaign is available at THIS LINK.
Shortlink to copy and share with friends: bit.ly/bizzarrobazar
Note: for us, the best method to receive a donation is by credit card/wire transfer, because PayPal is bleeding us with very high commissions, but shhhh, I didn’t tell you anything. 😉

Thank you all for these unbelievable ten years, thanks if you’ll be kind enough to consider donating… and to those who will shamelessly spam our project among their acquaintances.

Still and always, vive la Résistance! — in other words,

Anatomy Lessons

The Corpse on Stage

Frontispiece of Vesalius’ Fabrica (1543).

Andreas Vesalius (of whom I have already written several times), was among the principal initiators of the anatomical discipline.
An aspect that is not often considered is the influence that the frontispiece of his seminal De Humani Corporis Fabrica has had on the history of art.

Vesalius was probably the first and certainly the most famous among medical scholars to be portrayed in the act of dissecting a corpse: on his part, this was obviously a calculated affront to the university practice of the time, in which anatomy was learned exclusively from books. Any lecture was just a lectio, in that it consisted in the slavish reading of the ancient Galenic texts, reputed to be infallible.
With that title page, a true hymn to empirical reconnaissance, Vesalius was instead affirming his revolutionary stance: he was saying that in order to understand how they worked, bodies had to be opened, and one had to look inside them.

Johannes Vesling, Syntagma Anatomicum (1647).

Giulio Cesare Casseri, Tabulae Anatomicae (1627, here from the Frankfurt edition, 1656)

Thus, after the initial resistance and controversy, the medical community embraced dissection as its main educational tool. And if until that moment Galen had been idolized, it didn’t take long for Vesalius to take his place, and it soon became a must for anatomists to have themselves portrayed on the title pages of their treatises, in the act of emulating their new master’s autopsies.

Anatomy lecture, School of Bartolomeo Passarotti (1529-1592)

Frontispiece commissioned by John Banister (ca. 1580)

Apart from some rare predecessors, such as the two sixteenth-century examples above, the theme of the “anatomy lesson” truly became a recurring artistic motif in the 17th century, particularly in the Dutch university context.
In group portraits, whose function was to immortalize the major anatomists of the time, it became fashionable to depict these luminaries in the act of dissecting a corpse.

Michiel Jansz van Miereveld, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Willem van der Meer (1617)

However, the reference to the dissecting practice was not just realistic. It was above all a way to emphasize the authority and social status of the painted subjects: what is still evident in these pictures is the satisfaction of the anatomists in being portrayed in the middle of an act that impressed and fascinated ordinary people.

Nicolaes Eliaszoon Pickenoy, The Osteology Lesson of Dr. Sebastiaes Egbertsz (1619)

The dissections carried out in anatomical theaters were often real public shows (sometimes accompanied with a small chamber orchestra) in which the Doctor was the absolute protagonist.
It should also be remembered that the figure of the anatomist remained cloaked in an aura of mystery, more like a philosopher who owned some kind of esoteric knowledge rather than a simple physician. In fact an anatomist would not even perform surgical operations himself – that was a job for surgeons, or barbers; his role was to map the inside of the body, like a true explorer, and reveal its most hidden and inaccessible secrets.

Christiaen Coevershof, The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Zacheus de Jager (1640)

Among all the anatomy lessons that punctuate the history of art, the most famous remain undoubtedly those painted by Rembrandt, which also constituted his first major engagement at the beginning of his career in Amsterdam. The Guild of Surgeons at the time used to commission this type of paintings to be displayed in the common room. Rembrandt painted one in 1632 and a second in 1656 (partially destroyed, only its central portion remains).

Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632)

Countless pages have been written about The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, as the painting is full of half-hidden details. The scene depicted here becomes theatrical, a space of dramatic action in which the group portrait is no longer static: each character is shown in a specific pose, turning his gaze in a precise direction. Thanks to an already wise use of light, Rembrandt exploits the corpse as a repoussoir, an element of attraction that suddenly pulls the viewer “inside” the painting. And the lifeless body seems to counterbalance the absolute protagonist of the picture, Dr. Tulp: slightly off-centered, he is so important that he deserves to have a light source of his own.
Perhaps the most ironic detail to us is that open book, on the right: it is easy to guess which text is consulted during the lectio. Now it is no longer Galen, but Vesalius who stands on the lectern.

Detail of the illuminated face of Dr. Tulp.

The umbra mortis, a shadow that falls on the eyes of the dead.

The navel of the corpse forms the “R” for Rembrandt.

Detail of the book.

Detail of tendons.

The way the dissection itself is portrayed in the picture has been discussed at length, as it seems implausible that an anatomical lesson could begin by exposing the arm tendons instead of performing the classic opening of the chest wall and evisceration. On the other hand, a renowned anatomist like Tulp would never have lowered himself to perform the dissection himself, but would have delegated an assistant; Rembrandt’s intent of staging the picture is evident. The same doubts of anatomical / historical unreliability have been advanced for the following anatomical lesson by Rembrandt, that of Dr. Deyman, in which the membranes of the brain may be incorrectly represented.

Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Deyman (1656)

But, apart from the artistic licenses he may have taken, Rembrandt’s own (pictorial) “lesson” made quite a lot of proselytes.

Cornelis De Man, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Cornelis Isaacz.’s Gravenzande (1681)

Jan van Neck, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Frederik Ruysch (1683)

Another curiosity is hidden in The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Frederck Ruysch by Jan van Neck. I have already written about Ruysch and his extraordinary preparations elsewhere: here I only remember that the figure that looks like a pageboy and exhibits a fetal skeleton, on the right of the picture, is none other than the daughter of the anatomist, Rachel Ruysch. She helped her father with dissections and anatomical preservations, also sewing lace and laces for his famous preparations. Upon reaching adulthood, Rachel set aside cadavers to become a popular floral painter.

Detail of Rachel Ruysch.

A century after the famous Tulp portrait, Cornelis Troost shows a completely different attitude to the subject.

Cornelis Troost, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Willem Roëll (1728)

De Raadt writes about this picture:

This art work belongs to the transition period that takes us from humanism to modernism […]. Judging by the lack of interest in the students, the enlightened anatomy does not generate wonder in its students. A measure of disdain. The characters are dressed like French aristocrats with their powdered wig affecting wealth and power.

Anon., William Cheselden gives an anatomical demonstration to six spectators (ca. 1730/1740)

In Tibout Regters‘ version of the theme (below), the corpse has even almost completely disappeared: only a dissected head is shown, on the right, and it seems nothing more than an accessory to carelessly show off; the professors’ cumbersome pomposity now dominates the scene.

Tibout Regters, Lezione di anatomia del Dottor Petrus Camper (1758)

The rationalism and materialism of the Enlightenment era gave way, in the 19th century, to an approach largely influenced by romantic literature, as proof that science is inevitably connected with the imagination of its time.

Of all disciplines, anatomy was most affected by this literary fascination, which was actually bi-directional. On one hand, gothic and romantic writers (the Scapigliati more than anybody) looked at anatomy as the perfect combination of morbid charm and icy science, a new style of “macabre positivism”; and for their part the anatomists became increasingly conscious of being considered decadent “heroes”, and medical texts of the time are often filled with poetic flourishes and obvious artistic ambitions.

Thomas Eakins, The Gross Clinic (1875)

Thomas Eakins, The Agnew Clinic (1889)

This tendency also affected the representation of anatomical lessons. The two paintings above, by the American artist Thomas Eakins, painted respectively in 1875 and 1889, are not strictly dissections because they actually show surgical operations. Yet the concept is the same: we see a luminary impressing with his surgical prowess the audience, crowded in the shadows. The use of light underlines the grandiose severity of these heroic figures, yet the intent is also to highlight the innovations they supported. Dr. Gross is shown in the act of treating an osteomyelitis of the femur with a conservative procedure – when an amputation would have been inevitable until a few years earlier; in the second picture, painted fourteen years after the first, we can recognize how the importance of infection prevention was beginning to be understood (the surgical theater is bright, clean, and the surgeons all wear a white coat).

Georges Chicotot, Professor Poirier verifying a dissection (1886)

A painting from 1886 by physician and artist Georges Chicotot is a mixture of raw realism and accents of “involuntary fantasy”. Here, there’s no public at all, and the anatomist is shown alone in his study; a corpse is hanging from the neck like a piece of meat, bones lie on the shelves and purple patches of blood smear the tablecloth and apron. It’s hard not to think of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Enrique Simonet Lombardo, Anatomy of the heart (1890)

But the 19th century, with its tension between romanticism and rationality, is all ideally enclosed in the Anatomy of the heart by the Spanish artist Enrique Simonet. Painted in 1890, it is the perfect summary of the dual soul of its century, since it is entirely played on opposites. Masculine and feminine, objectivity and subjectivity, life and death, youth and old age, but also the white complexion of the corpse in contrast with the black figure of the anatomist. Once again there is no audience here, this is a very intimate dimension. The professor, alone in an anonymous autopsy room, observes the heart he has just taken from the chest of the beautiful girl, as if he were contemplating a mystery. The heart, a favorite organ for the Romantics, is represented here completely out of metaphor, a concrete and bloody organ; yet it still seems to holds the secret of everything.

J. H. Lobley, Anatomy Lessons at St Dunstan’s (1919)

With the coming of the 20th century the topos of the anatomy lesson gradually faded away, and the “serious” depictions became increasingly scarce. Yet the trend did not disappear: it ended up contaminated by postmodern quotationism, when not turned into explicit parody. In particular it was Dr. Tulp who rose to the role of a true icon, becoming the protagonist – and sometimes the victim – of fanciful reinventions.

Édouard Manet, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, copy from Rembrandt (1856)

Gaston La Touche, Anatomy of love (19 ??)

Georges Léonnec, The Anatomy Lesson of Professor Cupid (1918)

Although Manet had revisited the famous painting in the Impressionist manner in 1856, La Touche had imagined an ironic Anatomy of love, and Léonnec parroted Rembrandt with his cupids, it’s actually in the last quarter of the 20th century that Tulp began to pop up almost everywhere, in comics, films and television.

Asterix and the Soothsayer (1973) Goscinny-Uderzo

Tulp (1993, dir: Stefano Bessoni)

With the advent of the internet the success of the famous Doctor spread more and more, as his figure began to be photoshopped and replicated to infinity.
A bit like what happened to Mona Lisa, disfigured by Duchamp’s mustache, Tulp has now become the reference point for anyone who’s into black, un-pc humor.

Tulp, Lego version.

Hillary White, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Bird (2010)

FvrMate, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicholaes Tulp, (2016)

HANGBoY, The Anatomy Lesson (2016)

Contemporary art increasingly uses the inside of the body as a subversive and ironic element. The fact that Tulp is still a “pop icon” on a global scale proves the enormous influence of Rembrandt’s painting; and of Vesalius who, with his frontispiece, started the motif of the anatomical lesson, thus leaving a deep mark in the history of visual arts.

This article is a spin-off of my previous post on the relationship between anatomy and surrealism.

“Brighter Than A Thousand Suns”: The Man Who Entered a Particle Accelerator

We have all heard of particle accelerators, if only for the “discovery” of the Higgs boson a few years ago.
And there are just two questions laymen like us ask themeselves about these machines:

1. What the heck are accelerators anyway, and how do they work?
2. What happens if I put my hand in a functioning particle accelerator?

Okay, maybe I’m the only one asking the second question.

© 2017 Robert Hradil, Monika Majer/ProStudio22.ch

Anyway, regarding question #1, CERN’s official website puts it this way:

An accelerator propels charged particles, such as protons or electrons, at high speeds, close to the speed of light. They are then smashed either onto a target or against other particles circulating in the opposite direction. By studying these collisions, physicists are able to probe the world of the infinitely small.
When the particles are sufficiently energetic, a phenomenon that defies the imagination happens: the energy of the collision is transformed into matter in the form of new particles, the most massive of which existed in the early Universe. This phenomenon is described by Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2, according to which matter is a concentrated form of energy, and the two are interchangeable.

As for the second question, from a quick search it turns out that I’m not the only fool asking it: on the internet, as soon as one claims to be working on an accelerator, he or she is overwhelmed by the requests of those who can’t wait to get hit by a bundle of protons in the hope of acquiring superpowers.

Even some physicists at CERN have tried to answer the age-old question of the hand-in-the-accelerator, in the first 4 minutes of this video.
And yet, either because they might know everything about physics but they’re not doctors, or because it is too childish and frivolous a question, these luminaries seem rather clueless and their attempts to answer can be summed up in a quite embarrassed “we don’t know”. (How come they didn’t prepare a better answer? Has no one ever asked them stupid questions before?)

Well, no harm done, because on this delicate issue the only scientist whose answer I would blindly trust is not at CERN, but in Russia.
His name is Anatoli Bugorski, and he didn’t put his hand in a particle accelerator… he stuck his whole head in one.

© Sergey Velichkin – TASS

On 13 July 1978 Bugorski was inspecting the U-70 synchrotron at the Institute of High Energy Physics in the city of Protvino.
Inaugurated in 1967, this circular accelerator with a perimeter of 1.5 km had held the world record in beam energy for five years (the “70” refers to the amount of gigaelectronvolts it can reach in its final phase); and still today it is the most powerful accelerator in all of Russia.

Inspecting such a monster is not quite like opening the hood of your car anche and checking the engine – although, for this writer, these two activities are equally esoteric. To perform maintenance that morning, Burgoski had to actually slip into the accelerator circuit. Therefore, before heading downstairs, he told the control center to turn off the beam in the next five minutes.
He arrived at the experimental room a minute or two in advance, but did not pay it too much attention because he found the door was open; furthermore, the safety signal was off, meaning that the machinery was no longer in operation. “How efficient, my good old pals, up at the station! – he must have thought – Knowing I was coming down here, they’ve already turned everything off.”

The boys in the control room.

All being nice and quiet, he decided to open the accelerator.
What he didn’t know was that the door had been left ajar by mistake; and that the light bulb inside the warning sign had just burned out.

© Sergey Velichkin – TASS

As soon as he peeked inside the corridor, his head was instantly pierced by a beam of protons of 2×3 millimeters in size, shot at a dizzying speed.
Burgoski saw a flash “brighter than a thousand suns”, as the beam entered the back of the skull and, in a fraction of a second, burned a straight line through his brain, coming out near his left nostril.
The whole thing was too fast for Burgoski to feel any pain; but not fast enough (at least, this is what I like to imagine) to prevent him from mentally cursing the security staff.

Burgoski was taken to the infirmary, and within a short time the left half of his face was swelling. The beam had pierced his middle ear, and the wound continued to slowly burn the nerves in his face. But the real problem was radiation.
In that thousandth of a second, Bugorski had been exposed to a radiation of 200,000 / 300,000 röntgen, which is 300 times greater than the lethal amount.

To the scientists, this unfortunate graduate student had suddenly become an interesting case study.
Burgoski’s days were numbered, so he was rushed to a clinic in Moscow to be placed under observation during what were presumably the last couple of weeks of his life. Scholars came from all over just to watch him die, because no one before him had ever been the victim of such a concentrated beam of radiation, as this article in The Atlantic reminds us:

unique to Bugorski’s case, radiation was concentrated along a narrow beam through the head, rather than being broadly distributed from nuclear fallout, as was the case for many victims of the Chernobyl disaster or the bombing of Hiroshima. For Bugorski, particularly vulnerable tissues, such as bone marrow and the gastrointestinal track, might have been largely spared. But where the beam shot through Bugorski’s head, it deposited an obscene amount of radiation energy, hundreds of times greater than a lethal dose.

Yet, in spite of any prediction, Burgoski did not die.
Following the accident he completely lost hearing from his left ear (replaced by a tinnitus), suffered epileptic seizures and facial hemiparesis for the rest of his life. But apart from this damage, which was permanent but not lethal, he recovered his health completely: within 18 months he was back to work, he completed his doctorate and continued his career as a scientist and experimental coordinator.
He was forbidden from talking about his accident until the end of the 1980s, due to Russia’s secrecy policy surrounding anything even remotely connected with nuclear power. Burgoski is still alive and well at the age of 77.

Maybe his story does not exactly answer our childish question about what would happen if we stuck our hand inside an accelerator, but it can give us a rough idea.
As summarized by Professor Michael Merrifield in the aforementioned video:

The Flea Circus

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

Vinicio Capossela, I pagliacci (2000)

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

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

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

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

A Brief History of the Microscopic Circus

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

The Infernal Discipline, or How To Tame A Flea

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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