Visitors From The Future

This article was originally published on #ILLUSTRATI n. 42, Visitors.

If we had the opportunity to communicate through time with humans of year 8113, would we be able to understand each other?
Supposing that every trace of our current civilisation had been erased, how could we explain our present to these remote descendants, these true aliens?

In 1936 this question arose in the mind of Dr Thornwell Jacobs, the then director of the Oglethorpe University in Georgia, and lead to his decision to create a compendium of the human knowledge acquired by that time. What’s more, he thought it would have been better to show to the future men and women a wide range of significant objects that could convey a clear idea of the customs and traditions of the XX century.
It wasn’t an easy matter. Let’s think about it: what object would you include in your virtual museum if you had to summarise the entire history of the human race?

With the help of Thomas K. Peters, photographer, film producer and inventor, Dr Jacobs spent three years building his collection. As time passed by, the list of objects got more and more impressive and it included some unexpected items, which clearly the two curators reckoned that the humans of the ninth millennium needed to see.

Among others, the collection contained 600.000 pages of text on microfilm, 200 narrative books, drawings of the greatest human inventions, a list of sports and hobbies which were fashionable during the past century, film showing historical events and audio recordings of the speeches of Hitler, Mussolini, Roosevelt and Stalin. And again: air shots of the main cities of the world, eyeglasses, dental plates, artificial limbs, navigation instruments, flower and plant seeds, clothes, typewriters… up to Budweiser beers, aluminium foil, Vaseline, nylons and plastic toys.

The two men then patiently sealed that huge pile of objects in hermetic recipients made of steel and glass, filling some capsules with nitrogen, in order to prevent the material oxidation. At last, they collocated the “museum”, exhibiting six millenniums of human knowledge, in a crypt under the Phoebe Hearst Memorial Hall. They did not forget to place a machinery called Language Integrator in front of the entrance: a tool that can teach how to speak English to the future historians, in case the Shakespeare language would not be at its bests any more.

The chamber was officially sealed on the 25th of May 1940. The plate affixed to the enormous stainless door specified that its insides did not contain any gold or jewelleries. Better safe than sorry.

This strange and restricted museum is still present and, if everything goes as planned, will remain untouched until year 8113, as indicated on the inscription. Yes, but why this specific year?
Dr Jacobs considered the year 1936 as the bookmark on a hypothetical timeline, then added 6.177 years, corresponding to the amount of time passed from the establishment of the Egyptian Calendar (4241 B.C.).

The Oglethorpe University experience was regarded as the first “time capsule” of human history. The idea obtained a huge resonance and was followed by many other attempts of preserving the human knowledge and identity for future generations, by burying similar collections of memories and information.

Will the homo sapiens be still around in 8113? What will he look like? Would he be interested in discovering how we lived during the 40s of the XX century?
Beside the sci-fi (utopic or dystopic) visions of the future evoked by the time capsules, their charm resides in what they can tell about the past. An optimistic time, permeated by a blind trust in the human progress and still unscratched by the Second world war disaster, the holocausts and the nuclear horrors, an era unaware of the countless tragedies to come. A time when it was still possible to fiercely believe that future generations would have looked up to us with respect and curiosity.

Nowadays it is impossible to conceive in human terms such a distant future. The technology in our hands is already transforming us, our species, in ways that were unthinkable just a few decades ago. Our impact on the ecological and social system has already reached unprecedented levels.
Therefore, should we picture a “visitor” from year 8113 anyway… it is reasonable to presume that looking at us, his long-lost ancestors, he would shiver in disgust.

(Thanks, Masdeca!)

Neapolitan Ritual Food

by Michelangelo Pascali

Everybody knows Italian cuisine, but few are aware that several traditional dishes hold a symbolic meaning. Guestblogger Michelangelo Pascali uncovers the metaphorical value of some Neapolitan recipes.

Neapolitan culture shows a dense symbology that accompanies the preparation and consumption of certain dishes, mostly for propitiatory purposes, during heartfelt ritual holidays. These very ancient holidays, some of which were later converted to Christian holidays, are linked to the passage of time and to the seasons of life.
The symbolic meaning of ritual food can sometimes refer to the cyclic nature of life, or to some exceptional social circumstances.

One of the most well-known “devotional courses” is certainly the white and crunchy torrone, which is eaten during the festivities for the Dead, between the end of October and the beginning of November. The almonds on the inside represent the bones of the departed which are to be absorbed in an vaguely cannibal perspective (as with Mexican sugar skeletons). The so-called torrone dei morti (“torrone of the Dead”) can also traditionally be squared-shaped, its white paste covered with dark chocolate to mimick the outline of a tavùto (“casket”).

The rhombus-shaped decorations on the pastiera, an Easter cake, together with the wheat forming its base, are meant to evoke the plowed fields and the coming of the mild season, more favorable for life.


The rebirth of springtime, after the “death” of winter, finds another representation in the casatiello, the traditional Easter Monday savory pie, that has to be left to rise for an entire night from dusk till dawn. Its ring-like shape is a reminder of the circular nature of time, as seen by the ancient agricultural, earthbound society (and therefore quite distant, in many ways, from the linear message of Christian religion); the inside cheese and sausages once again represent the dead, buried in the ground. But the real peculiarity, here, is the emerging of some eggs from the pie, protected by a “cross” made of crust: a bizarre element, which would have no reason to be there were it not an allegory of birth — in fact, the eggs are placed that way to suggest a movement that goes “from the underground to the surface“, or “from the Earth to the Sky“.

In the Neapolitan Christmas Eve menu, “mandatory courses are still called ‘devotions’, just like in ancient Greek sacred banquets”, and “the obligation of lean days is turned into its very opposite” (M. Niola, Il sacrificio del capitone, in Repubblica, 15/12/2013).
The traditional Christmas dinner is carried out along the lines of ancient funerary dinners (with the unavoidable presence of dried fruit and seafood), and it also has the function of consuming the leftovers before the arrival of a new year, as for example in the menestra maretata (‘married soup’).

But the main protagonist is the capitone, the huge female eel. This fish has a peculiar reproduction cycle (on the account of its migratory habits) and is symbolically linked to the Ouroboros. The capitone‘s affinity with the snake, an animal associated with the concept of time in many cultures, is coupled with its being a water animal, therefore providing a link to the most vital element.
The capitone is first bred and raised within the family, only to be killed by the family members themselves (in a ritual that even allows for the animal to “escape”, if it manages to do so): an explicit ritual sacrifice carried out inside the community.

While still alive, the capitone is cut into pieces and thrown in boiling oil to be fried, as each segment still frantically writhes and squirms: in this preparation, it is as if the infinite moving cycle was broken apart and then absorbed. The snake as a metaphor of Evil seems to be a more recent symbology, juxtaposed to the ancient one.

Then there are the struffoli, spherical pastries covered in honey — a precious ingredient, so much so that the body of Baby Jesus is said to be a “honey-dripping rock” — candied fruit and diavulilli (multi-colored confetti); we suppose that in their aspect they might symbolize a connection with the stars. These pastries are indeed offered to the guests during Christmas season, an important cosmological moment: Macrobius called the winter solstice “the door of the Gods“, as under the Capricorn it becomes possible for men to communicate with divinities. It is the moment in which many Solar deities were born, like the Persian god Mitra, the Irish demigod Cú Chulainn, or the Greek Apollo — a pre-Christian protector of Naples, whose temple was found where the Cathedral now is. And the Saint patron Januarius, whose blood is collected right inside the Cathedral, is symbolically close to Apollo himself.
Of course the Church established the commemoration of Christ’s birth in the proximity of the solstice, whereas it was first set on January 6:  the Earth reaches its maximum distance from the Sunon the 21st of December, and begins to get closer to it after three days.

The sfogliatella riccia, on the other hand, is an allusion to the shape of the female reproductive organ, the ‘valley of fire’ (this is the translation of its Neapolitan common nickname, which has a Greek etymology). It is said to date back to the time when orgiastic rites were performed in Naples, where they were widespread for over a millennium and a half after the coming of the Christian Era, carried out in several peculiar places such as the caves of the Chiatamone. This pastry was perhaps invented to provide high energetic intake to the orgy participants.

Lastly, an exquistely mundane motivation is behind the pairing of chiacchiere and sanguinaccio.
Chiacchiere look like tongues, or like those strings of paper where, in paintings and bas-relief, the words of the speaking characters were inscribed; and their name literally means “chit-chat”. The sanguinaccio is a sort of chocolate black pudding which was originally prepared with pig’s blood (but not any more).
During the Carnival, the only real profane holiday that is left, the association between these two desserts sounds like a code of silence: it warns and cautions not to contaminate with ordinary logic the subversive charge of this secular rite, which is completely egalitarian (Carnival masks hide our individual identy, making us both unrecognizable and also indistinguishable from each other).
What happens during Carnival must stay confined within the realm of Carnival — on penalty of “tongues being drowned in blood“.

Links, curiosities & mixed wonders – VI

Step right up! A new batch of weird news from around the world, amazing stories and curious facts to get wise with your friends! Guaranteed to break the ice at parties!

  • Have you seen those adorable and lovely fruit bats? How would you like to own a pet bat, making all those funny expressions as you feed him a piece of watermelon or banana?
    In this eye-opening article a bat expert explains all the reasons why keeping these mammals as domestic pets is actually a terrible idea.
    There are not just ethical reasons (you would practically ruin their existence) or economic reasons (keeping them healthy would cost you way more than you can imagine); the big surprise here is that, despite those charming OMG-it’s-so-cuuute little faces, bats — how should I put it — are not exactly good-mannered.
    As they hang upside down, they rub their own urine all over their body, in order to stink appropriately. They defecate constantly. And most of all, they engage in sex all the time — straight, homosexual, vaginal, oral and anal sex, you name it. If you keep them alone, males will engage in stubborn auto-fellatio. They will try and hump you, too.
    And if you still think ‘Well, now, how bad can that be’, let me remind you that we’re talking about this.
    Next time your friend posts a video of cuddly bats, go ahead and link this pic. You’re welcome.
  • Sex + animals, always good fun. Take for example the spider Latrodectus: after mating, the male voluntarily offers himself in sacrifice to be eaten by his female partner, to benefit their offspring. And he’s not the only animal to understand the evolutionary advantages of cannibalism.
  • From cannibals to zombies: the man picture below is Clairvius Narcisse. He is sitting on his own grave, from which he rose transformed into a real living dead.
    You can find his story on Wikipedia, in a famous Haitian etnology book, in the fantasy horror film Wes Craven adapted from it, and in this in-depth article.
  • Since we’re talking books, have you already invested your $3 for The Illustrati Archives 2012-2016? Thirty Bizzarro Bazar articles in kindle format, and the satisfaction of supporting this blog, keeping it free as it is and always will be. Ok, end of the commercial break.
  • Under a monastery in Rennes, France, more than 1.380 bodies have been found, dating from 14th to 18th Century. One of them belonged to noblewoman Louise de Quengo, Lady of Brefeillac; along with her corpse, in the casket, was found her husband’s heart, sealed in a lead lock box. The research on these burials, recently published, could revolutionize all we know about mummification during the Renaissance.

  • While we’re on the subject, here’s a great article on some of the least known mummies in Italy: the Mosampolo mummies (Italian language).
  • Regarding a part of the Italian patrimony that seldom comes under the spotlight, BBC Culture issued a good post on the Catacombs of Saint Gaudiosus in Naples, where frescoes show a sort of danse macabre but with an unsettling ‘twist’: the holes that can be seen where a figure’s face should be, originally harbored essicated heads and real skulls.

  • Now for a change of scenario. Imagine a sort of Blade Runner future: a huge billboard, the incredible size of 1 km², is orbiting around the Earth, brightening the night with its eletric colored lights, like a second moon, advertising some carbonated drink or the last shampoo. We managed to avoid all this for the time being, but that isn’t to say that someone hasn’t already thought of doing it. Here’s the Wiki page on space advertising.
  • Since we are talking about space, a wonderful piece The Coming Amnesia speculates about a future in which the galaxies will be so far from each other that they will no longer be visible through any kind of telescope. This means that the inhabitants of the future will think the only existing galaxy is their own, and will never come to theorize something like the Big Bang. But wait a second: what if something like that had already happened? What if some fundamental detail, essential to the understanding of the nature of cosmos, had already, forever disappeared, preventing us from seeing the whole picture?
  • To intuitively teach what counterpoint is, Berkeley programmer Stephen Malinowski creates graphics where distinct melodic lines have different colors. And even without knowing anything about music, the astounding complexity of a Bach organ fugue becomes suddenly clear:

  • In closing, I advise you to take 10 minutes off to immerse yourself in the fantastic and poetic atmosphere of Goutte d’Or, a French-Danish stop-motion short directed by Christophe Peladan. The director of this ironic story of undead pirates, well aware he cannot compete with Caribbean blockbusters, makes a virtue of necessity and allows himself some very French, risqué malice.

Tiny Tim, Outcast Troubadour

Remember, it’s better to be a has-been than a never-was.
(Tiny Tim)

That an outsider like Tiny Tim could reach success, albeit briefly, can be ascribed to the typical appetite for oddities of the Sixties, the decade of the freak-out ethic/aesthetic, when everybody was constantly looking for out-of-line pop music of liberating and subversive madness.
And yet, in regard to many other weird acts of the time, this bizarre character embodied an innocence and purity the Love Generation was eager to embrace.

Born Herbert Khaury in New York, 1932, Tiny Tim was a big and tall man, sporting long shabby hair. Even if in reality he was obsessed with cleansing and never skipped his daily shower during his entire life, he always gave the impression of a certain gresiness. He would come up onstage looking almost embarassed, his face sometimes covered with white makeup, and pull his trusty ukulele out of a paper bag; his eyes kept rolling in ambiguous winks, conveying a melodramatic and out-of-place emphasis. And when he started singing, there came the ultimate shock. From that vaguely creepy face came an incredible, trembling falsetto voice like that of a little girl. It was as if Shirley Temple was held prisoner inside the body of a giant.

If anything, the choice of songs played by Tiny Tim on his ukulele tended to increase the whole surreal effect by adding some ancient flavor: the setlist mainly consisted of obscure melodies from the 20s or the 30s, re-interpreted in his typical ironic, overblown style.

It was hard not to suspect that such a striking persona might have been carefully planned and engineered, with the purpose of unsettling the audience while making them laugh at the same time. And laughter certainly didn’t seem to bother Tiny Tim. But the real secret of this eccentric artist is that he wasn’t wearing any mask.
Tiny Tim had always remained a child.

Justin Martell, author of the artist’s most complete biography (Eternal Troubadour: The Improbable Life of Tiny Tim, with A. Wray Mcdonald), had the chance to decypher some of Tiny’s diaries, sometimes compiled boustrophedonically: and it turned out he actually came within an inch of being committed to a psychiatric hospital.
Whether his personality’s peculiar traits had to do with some autistic spectrum disorder or not, his childish behaviour was surely not a pose. Capable of remembering the name of every person he met, he showed an old-fashioned respect for any interlocutor – to the extent of always referring to his three wives as “Misses”: Miss Vicki, Miss Jan, Miss Sue. His first two marriages failed also because of his declared disgust for sex, a temptation he strenuously fought being a fervent Christian. In fact another sensational element for the time was the candor and openness with which he publicly spoke of his sexual life, or lack thereof. “I thank God for giving me the ability of looking at naked ladies and think pure thoughts“, he would say.
If we are to believe his words, it was Jesus himself who revealed upon him the possibilities of a high-pitched falsetto, as opposed to his natural baritone timbre (which he often used as an “alternate voice” to his higher range). “I was trying to find an original style that didn’t sound like Tony Bennett or anyone else. So I prayed about it, woke up with this high voice, and by 1954, I was going to amateur nights and winning.

Being on a stage meant everything for him, and it did not really matter whether the public just found him funny or actually appreciated his singing qualities: Tiny Tim was only interested in bringing joy to the audience. This was his naive idea of show business – it all came down to being loved, and giving some cheerfulness in return.

Tiny avidly scoured library archives for American music from the beginning of the century, of which he had an encyclopedic knwoledge. He idolized classic crooners like Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby and Russ Columbo: and in a sense he was mocking his own heroes when he sang standards like Livin’ In The Sunlight, Lovin’ In The Moonlight or My Way. But his cartoonesque humor never ceased to be respectful and reverential.

Tiny Tim reached a big unexpected success in 1968 with his single Tiptoe Through The Tulips, which charted #17 that year; it was featured in his debut album, God Bless Tiny Tim, which enjoyed similar critic and public acclaim.
Projected all of a sudden towards an improbable stardom, he accepted the following year to marry his fiancée Victoria Budinger on live TV at Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, before 40 million viewers.

In 1970 he performed at the Isle of Wight rock festival, after Joan Baez and before Miles Davis; according to the press, with his version of There’ll Always Be An England he managed to steal the scene “without a single electric instrument”.

But this triumph was short-lived: after a couple of years, Tiny Tim returned to a relative obscurity which would last for the rest of his career. He lived through alternate fortunes during the 80s and 90s, between broken marriages and financial difficulties, sporadically appearing on TV and radio shows, and recording albums where his beloved songs from the past mixed with modern pop hits cover versions (from AC/DC to Bee Gees, from Joan Jett to The Doors).

According to one rumor, any time he made a phone call he would ask: “do you have the tape recorder going?
And indeed, in every interview Tiny always seemed focused on building a personal mythology, on developing his romantic ideal of an artist who was a “master of confusion“, baffling and elusive, escaping all categorization. Some believe he remained a “lonely outcast intoxicated by fame“; even when fame had long departed. The man who once befriended the Beatles and Bob Dylan, who was a guest at every star’s birthday party, little by little was forgotten and ended up singing in small venues, even performing with the circus. “As long as my voice is here, and there is a Holiday Inn waiting for me, then everything’s just swell.

But he never stopped performing, in relentelss and exhausting tours throughout the States, which eventually took their toll: in spite of a heart condition, and against his physician’s advice, Tiny Tim decided to go on singing before his ever decreasing number of fans. The second, fatal heart stroke came on November 30, 1996, while he was onstage at a charity evening singing his most famous hit, Tiptoe Through The Tulips.

And just like that, on tiptoes, this eternally romantic and idealistic human being of rare kindness quietly left this world, and the stage.
The audience had already left, and the hall was half-empty.

Ghost Marriages

China, Shanxi province, on the nothern part of the Republic.
At the beginningof 2016, the Hongtong County police chief gave the warning: during the three previous years, at least a dozen thefts of corpses were recorded each year. All the exhumed and smuggled bodies were of young women, and the trend is incresing so fast that many families now prefer to bury their female relatives near their homes, rather than in secluded areas. Others resort to concrete graves, install surveillance cameras, hire security guards or plant gratings around the burial site, just like in body snatchers England. It looks like in some parts of the province, the body of a young dead girl is never safe enough.
What’s behind this unsettling trend?

These episodes of body theft are connected to a very ancient tradition which was thought to be long abandoned: the custom of “netherworld marriages”.
The death of a young unmarried male is considered bad lack for the entire family: the boy’s soul cannot find rest, without a mate.
For this reasons his relatives, in the effort of finding a spouse for the deceased man, turn to matchmakers who can put them in contact with other families having recently suffered the lost of a daughter. A marriage is therefore arranged for the two dead young persons, following a specific ritual, until they are finally buried together, much to the relief of both families.
This kind of marriages seem to date back to the Qin dinasty (221-206 a.C.) even if the main sources attest a more widespread existence of the practice starting from the Han dinasty (206 a.C.-220 d.C.).

The problem is that as the traffic becomes more and more profitable, some of these matchmakers have no qualms about exhuming the precious corpses in secret: to sell the bodies, they sometimes pretend to be relatives of the dead girl, but in other cases they simply find grieving families who are ready to pay in order to find a bride for their departed loved one, and willing to turn a blind eye on the cadaver’s provenance.

Until some years ago, “ghost marriages” were performed by using symbolic bamboo figurines, dressed in traditional clothes; today weath is increasing, and as much as 100,000 yan (around $15,000) can be spent on the fresh body of a young girl. Even older human remains, put back together with wire, can be worth up to $800. The village elders, after all, are the ones who warn new generations: to cast away bad luck nothing beats an authentic corpse.
Although the practice has been outlawed in 2006, the business is so lucrative that the number of arrests keep increasing, and at least two cases of murder have been reported in the news where the victim was killed in order to sell her body.

If at first glance this tradition may seem macabre or senseless, let us consider its possible motivations.
In the province where these episodes are more frequent, a large number of young men work in coal mines, where fatal accidents are sadly common. The majority of these boys are the sole children of their parents, because of the Chinese one-child policy, effective until 2013.
So, apart from reasons dictated by superstition, there is also an important psychological element: imagine the relief if, in the process of elaborating grief, you could still do something to make your dearly departed happy. Here’s how a “ghost wedding” acts as a compensation for the loss of a loved boy, who maybe died while working to support his family.

Marriages between two deceased persons, or between a living person and a dead one, are not even unique to China, for that matter. In France posthumous marriages (which usually take place when a woman prematurely loses her fiancé) are regularly requested to the President of the Republic, who has the power of issuing the authorization. The purpose is to acknowledge children who were conceived before the premature death, but there may also been purely emotional motivations. In fact there’s a relatively long list of countries that allowed for marriages in which one or both the newlywed were no longer alive.

In closing, here is a little curiosity.
In the well-known Tim Burton film Corpse Bride (2005), inspired by a centuries-old folk tale (the short story Die Todtenbraut by F. A. Schulze, found within the Fantasmagoriana anthology, is a Romantic take on that tale), the main character puts a ring on a small branch, unaware that this light-hearted move is actually sanctioning his netherworld engagement.
Quite similar to that harmless-looking twig is a “trick” used in Taiwan when a young girl dies unmarried: her relatives leave out on the streets a small red package containing Hell money, a lock of hair or some nails from the dead woman. The first man to pick up the package has to marry the deceased girl, if he wants to avoid misfortune. He will be allowed to marry again, but he shall forever revere the “ghost” bride as his first, real spouse.

These rituals become necessary when an individual enters the afterlife prematurely, without undergoing a fundamental rite of passage like marriage (therefore without completing the “correct” course of his life). As is often the case with funeral customs, the practice has a beneficial and apotropaic function both for the social group of the living and for the deceased himself.
On one hand all the bad luck that could harm the relatives of the dead is turned away; a bond is formed between two different families, which could not have existed without a proper marriage; and, at the same time, everybody can rest assured that the soul will leave this world at peace, and will not depart for the last voyage bearing the mark of an unfortunate loneliness.

Luca Cableri, Seeker of Wonders

Luca Cableri is a man devoured by an endless passion.
An art dealer and a collectionist, he has been studying the history of wunderkammern for decades; yet when he talks about it, his eyes still light up. Anyone who insists in searching for wonder, does so because he refuses to forget the gaze of the child — the child he was, the child we all once were.

Luca’s spectacular creation is Theatrum Mundi, a most original and atypical wunderkammer right in the middle of Arezzo’s historical city centre.
Upon crossing the gallery’s threshold, the visitor enters a puzzling space: under the beautiful frescoed vaults of the nobile palace hosting this collection, ancient and modern wonders can be admired — dinosaur skeletons and space suits, original editions of Aldrovandi’s Monstrorum historia and ritual cannibal forks, exotic taxidermies and contemporary design installations.

These “heretical” juxtapositions of objects of classic museology and references to pop culture are not in the least arbitrary, but they follow a philology that aims at showing the evolution of the concept of wonder through the centuries. If the stuffed crocodile hanging from the ceiling was once a true icon of astonishment (no wunderkammer was complete without a crocodile or a narwhal tusk!), a modern collector cannot ignore contemporary conjugations of wonder: that’s why on exhibit at Theatrum Mundi you can also find specimens of the Space Age or relics coming from younger arts, such as cinema.

Luca follows this aesthetics with a surrealist and somehow snarky attitude, exhibiting for instance a shamanic mask next to the one used in Jim Carrey’s The Mask.

The project Theatrum Mundi testifies that the concept of wunderkammer can be still relevant today, and it has the merit of proposing a way to update it. With his personal method of giving new life to the art of collecting and displaying curiosities, Luca is also inviting us to come up with our own.

In October I invited Luca for a talk for the Academy of Enchantment, at Giano Del Bufalo’s Mirabilia Art Gallery in Rome; and though all our evenings received a wonderful feedback, his talk was sold out in just a few hours.
Considering the interest, I thought I would ask him some questions for Bizzarro Bazar, for the benefit of those who could not attend his lecture on how to “reinvent” a wunderkammer.

Do you remember how your love for cabines of wonders started?

It all began when I was very little, my father used to take me down to the river where I would collect rocks and sticks that had unusual and almost alien shapes; then came the passion for seashells and after that, when I was in my teens, I dabbled in patchworks, cutting magazines in search for all the most bizarre images that stroke my imagination.
At the University I discovered the concept of wunderkammer and I was immediately fascinated. I studied a lot, started visiting exhibitions and museums… and so now, my job is to collect wonders.

I believe your work at Theatrum Mundi has the great merit of denying an axiom that many take for granted: the idea that wunderkammer collecting is only a subgenre of antique collecting. Do your combinations of ancient and modern pieces often upset the purists?

The gallery Theatrum Mundi in Arezzo, which I opened together with my partner Iacopo Briano, was a big “calculated gamble” in a period of economic crisis and of hardship for classic antique dealers. It was really innovative on our part to try and propose meteorites, space suits, dinosaurs, pre-Columbian masks, Egyptian sarcophagi or original movie props, and when you’re trying something new you will always be met with a bit of suspicion and criticism. Everything unknown or undermining normality looks a tad scary in the beginning. But many classic antique dealers, after turning up their noses at first, began appreciating our approach to wunderkammern. There is also an undisputed advantage in exhibiting in the same room, with all ease, a Roman bust and Batman’s original suit, a ritual New Guinea mask and a contemporary painting. The important thing is giving the objects a chance to “converse” between themselves.

Is there really an idea — a unique, precise concept — of wunderkammer? What is the element that defines e a collection as belonging to this “genre” of collecting?

The fundamental element characterizing a wunderkammer is of course wonder: the objects have to be surprising, either for their aspect, their history or their function.
Princes and high aristocracy were the first to collect all their time’s curiosities inside one room, to surprise their astonished and amazed guests.
Therefore if we consider the classic concept of wunderkammer (which evolved from XV Century kunstkammer, and went on to have its biggest fortune during the XVI Century, across all Europe), the essential charateristics was the presence of four categories. Objects of nature coming from the Indies, the Americas or from Africa were called naturalia. Imagine how astonished Europeans must have been upon seeing the first rhino or giraffe. Mirabilia, instead, were objects created by Man — think of the great jewellery artworks, in which goldsmiths created fantastic and precious figures. Exotica meant everything that came from very far away, from beyond the Pillars of Hercules: natives costumes, their artistic production. And finally there were scientifica, objects of the new science, astrolabes, globes, telescopes, automata.
In the XXI Century, these categories are still valid in order to properly define a cabinet of wonder, but I felt the need to update them. Therefore I include in my naturalia section fossils and dinosaurs, in mirabilia original movie props like Darth Vader’s mask or Russel Crowe’s gladiator armour; within the exotica, which in a globalized world like ours have lost their original connotation, find their place the meteorites; and in the scientifica I place everything related to the conquest of space, like a piece of a shuttle, or a space suit that actually travelled in the cosmos.
These are just examples, of course, everyone is free to create his personal wunderkammer following his own taste, culture and collecting disposition. The important thing, I think, is keeping in mind these four main categories, unless the whole collection ends up being just a miscellaneous set of objects.

In my experience, the more you look for wonder, the more wonder comes to you: the circumstances in which you find yourself are often bizarre and surreal. What is the latest strange thing that’s happened to you?

Years ago in Paris I bought a relic-mannequin, the Niombo of the Bwendè statuary art, a big human-like doll made of straw and tissue. I liked its bizarre shape and the tattos painted on his chest. There was a fantastic story attached to it, because it is said that these objects contain the remains of a dead shaman who, through the puppet’s arms, acts as a medium between the Gods and the people.
I placed the object in my catalogue, and some time ago a collector called me from Southern France. He said he was interested in the Niombo, on one condition: it had to have bones inside, otherwise it meant it was only a decorative gaff, created to fool gullible tourists in the Fifties.
So I took the doll to the Arezzo Hospital, in the radiology department. Among the general curiosity and hilarity we X-rayed the doll, scanning from its feet up to the head without any result… then all of a sudden, with great surprise, there was our much sought-after bone. Hooray!

Venturing into this kind of research also has, in my opinion, one further appeal, and it’s the human factor. The people you meet while chasing a particular piece. Some collectors are as eccentric as their collections! Who is the most extravagant person you have ever met?

That must surely be one American collector with a passion for minerals and fossils. One evening, at a trade fair, he invited me to his immense ranch near Tucson, Arizona, and showed me his huge collection. I was left speachless because of the vast number and the quality of the objects, this guy had virtually everything!
After dinner we sat on the porch to admire a wonderful starry sky, sipping beer. In those latitudes, out in the desert and without light pollution, the night sky seems closer and much more beautiful.
At one point he confided his forbidden dream to me: he said there was one mineral he still did not possess. So I asked him which one, and he pointed at the moon. He wanted a real piece of the moon. I therefore started a frantic research and I found out that in Eastern Europe there was a small fragment donated by an American President to an ambassador… but sadly I also discovered it was illegal to trade in lunar specimens. So I fell back on an extraordinary fragment of lunar meteor to comply with my interlocutor’s request.
He was not discouraged, on the contrary; he told me that in the following years he woud contact some retired NASA engineers to have a private rocket built that could land on the moon, collect a sample, and come back to Earth!

Regardless of the different economic resources, all collectors that we meet are just like that: eternal dreamers.
This is why I often think of my father, who used to say to me, when I was a kid: “I’m curious to find out what you’re going do when you grow up”… Well, today I can honestly say that I am proud to be a “wunderkammer man”, a seeker of the impossible and the wonderous!

Here is the  official site of Theatrum Mundi.

The Homunculus Inside

Paracelsushomunculus, the result of complicated alchemic recipes, is an allegorical figure that fascinated the collective uncoscious for centuries. Its fortune soon surpassed the field of alchemy, and the homunculus was borrowed by literature (Goethe, to quote but one example), psychology (Jung wrote about it), cinema (take the wonderful, ironic Pretorius scene from The Bride of Frankenstein, 1935), and the world of illustration (I’m thinking in particular of Stefano Bessoni). Even today the homunculus hasn’t lost its appeal: the mysterious videos posted by a Russian youtuber, purportedly showing some strange creatures developed through unlikely procedures, scored tens of millions of views.

Yet I will not focus here on the classic, more or less metaphorical homunculus, but rather on the way the word is used in pathology.
Yes beacuse, unbeknownst to you, a rough human figure could be hiding inside your own body.
Welcome to a territory where the grotesque bursts into anatomy.

Let’s take a step back to how life starts.
In the beginning, the fertilized cell (zygote) is but one cell; it immediately starts dividing, generating new cells, which in turn proliferate, transform, migrate. After roughly two weeks, the different cellular populations organize into three main areas (germ layers), each one with its given purpose — every layer is in charge of the formation of a specific kind of structure. These three specialized layers gradually create the various anatomical shapes, building the skin, nerves, bones, organs, apparatuses, and so on. This metamorphosis, this progressive “surfacing” of order ends when the fetus is completely developed.

Sometimes it might happen that this very process, for some reason, gets activated again in adulthood.
It is as if some cells, falling for an unfathomable hallucination, believed they still are at an embryonic stage: therefore they begin weaving new structures, abnormal growths called teratomas, which closely resemble the outcome of the first germ differentiations.

These mad cells start producing hair, bones, teeth, nails, sometimes cerebral or tyroid matter, even whole eyes. Hystologically these tumors, benign in most cases, can appear solid, wrapped inside cystes, or both.

In very rare cases, a teratoma can be so highly differentiated as to take on an antropomorphic shape, albeit rudimentary. These are the so-called fetiform teratomas (homunculus).

Clinical reports of this anomaly really have an uncanny, David Cronenberg quality: one homunculus found in 2003 inside an ovarian teratoma in a 25-year-old virginal woman, showed the presence of brain, spinal chord, ears, teeth, tyroid gland, bone, intestines, trachea, phallic tissue and one eye in the middle of the forehead.
In 2005 another fetiform mass had hairs and arm buds, with fingers and nails. In 2006 a reported homunculus displayed one upper limb and two lower limbs complete with feet and toes. In 2010 another mass presented a foot with fused toes, hair, bones and marrow. In 2015 a 13-year-old patient was found to carry a fetiform teratoma exhibiting hair, vestigial limbs, a rudimentary digestive tube and a cranial formation containing meninxes and neural tissue.

What causes these cells to try and create a new, impossible life? And are we sure that the minuscule, incomplete fetus wasn’t really there from the beginning?
Among the many proposed hypothesis, in fact, there is also the idea that homunculi (difficult to study because of their scarcity in scientific literature) may not be actual tumors, but actually the remnants of a parasitic twin, incapsulated within his sibling’s body during the embryonic phase. If this was the case, they would not qualify as teratomas, falling into the fetus in fetu category.

But the two phenomenons are mainly regarded as separate.
To distinguish one from the other, pathologists rely on the existence of a spinal column (which is present in the fetus in fetu but not in teratomas), on their localization (teratomas are chiefly found near the reproductive area, the fetus in fetu within the retroperitoneal space) and on zygosity (teratomas are often differentiated from the surrounding tissues, as if they were “fraternal twins” in regard to their host, while the fetus in fetu is homozygote).

The study of these anomalous formations might provide valuable information for the understanding of human development and parthenogenesis (essential for the research on stem cells).
But the intriguing aspect is exactly their problematic nature. As I said, each time doctors encounter a homunculus, the issue is always how to categorize it: is it a teratoma or a parasitic twin? A structure that “emerged” later, or a shape which was there from the start?

It is interesting to note that this very uncertainty also has existed in regard to normal embryos for the over 23 centuries. The debate focused on a similar question: do fetuses arise from scratch, or are they preexistent?
This is the ancient dispute between the supporters of epigenesis and preformationism, between those who claimed that embryonic structures formed out of indistinct matter, and those who thought that they were already included in the egg.
Aristotle, while studying chicken embryos, had already speculated that the unborn child’s physical structures acquire solidity little by little, guided by the soul; in the XVIII Century this theory was disputed by preformationism. According to the enthusiasts of this hypothesis (endorsed by high-profile scholars such as Leibniz, Spallanzani and Diderot), the embryo was already perfectly formed inside the egg, ab ovo, only too small to be visible to the naked eye; during development, it would just have to grow in size, as a baby does after birth.
Where did this idea come from? An important part was surely played by a well-known etching by Nicolaas Hartsoeker, who was among the first scientists to observe seminal fluid under the microscope, as well as being a staunch supporter of the existence of minuscule, completely formed fetuses hiding inside the heads of sperm cells.
And Hartsoeker, in turn, had taken inspiration precisely from the famous alchemical depictions of the homunculus.

In a sense, the homunculus appearing in an ancient alchemist’s vial and the ones studied by pathologists nowadays are not that different. They can both be seen as symbols of the enigma of development, of the fundamental mystery surrounding birth and life. Miniature images of the ontological dilemma which has been forever puzzling humanity: do we appear from indistinct chaos, or did our heart and soul exist somewhere, somehow, before we were born?


Little addendum of anatomical pathology (and a bit of genetics)
by Claudia Manini, MD

Teratomas are germ cell tumors composed of an array of tissues derived from two or three embryonic layers (ectoderm, mesoderm, endoderm) in any combination.
The great majority of teratomas are benign cystic tumors mainly located in ovary, containing mature (adult-type) tissues; rarely they contains embryonal tissues (“immature teratomas”) and, if so, they have a higher malignant potential.
The origin of teratomas has been a matter of interest, speculation, and dispute for centuries because of their exotic composition.
The partenogenic theory, which suggests an origin from the primordial germ cell, is now the most widely accepted. The other two theories, one suggesting an origin from blastomeres segregated at an early stage of embryonic development and the second suggesting an origin from embryonal rests have few adherents currently. Support for the germ cell theory has come from anatomic distribution of the tumors, which occurs along the body midline of migration of the primordial germ cell, from the fact that the tumors occur most commonly during the reproductive age (epidemiologic-observational but also experimental data) and from cytogenetic analysis which has demonstrated genotypic differences between omozygous teratomatous tissue and heterozygous host tissue.
The primordial germ cells are the common origins of gametes (spermatozoa and oocyte, that are mature germ cells) which contain a single set of 23 chromosomas (haploid cells). During fertilization two gametes fuse together and originate a new cell which have a dyploid and heterozygous genetic pool (a double set of 23 chromosomas from two different organism).
On the other hand, the cells composing a teratoma show an identical genetic pool between the two sets of chromosomes.
Thus teratomas, even when they unexpectedly give rise to fetiform structures, are a different phenomenon from the fetus in fetu, and they fall within the scope of tumoral and not-malformative pathology.
All this does not lessen the impact of the observation, and a certain awe in considering the differentiation potential of one single germ cell.

References
Kurman JR et al., Blaustein’s pathology of the female genital tract, Springer 2011
Prat J., Pathology of the ovary, Saunders 2004

Four-legged Espionage

The cat does not offer services. The cat offers itself.
(William S. Burroughs, The Cat Inside, 1986)

Today, after Wikileaks and Snowden, we are used to think of espionage as cyberwarfare: communication hacking, trojans and metadata tracking, attacks to foreign routers, surveillance drones, advanced software, and so on.
In the Sixties, in the middle of the Cold War, the only way to intercept enemy conversations was to physically bug their headquarters.

The problem, of course, was that all factions listend, and knew they were listened to. No agent would talk top secret matters inside a state building hall. The safest method was still the one we’ve seen in many films — if you wanted to discuss in all tranquillity, you had to go outside.
It was therefore essential, for all intelligence systems, to find an appropriate countermeasure: but how could they eavesdrop a conversation out in the open, without arousing suspicion?

In 1961 someone at CIA Directorate of Science and Technology had a flash of inspiration.
There was only one thing the enemy spies would not pay attention to, in the midst of a classified conversation: a cat passing by.
In the hope of achieving the spying breakthrough of the century, CIA launched a secret program called “Acoustic Kitty”. Goal of the project: to build cybercats equipped with surveillance systems, train them to spy, and to infiltrate them inside the Kremlin.

After all, as Terry Pratchett put it, “it is well known that a vital ingredient of success is not knowing that what you’re attempting can’t be done“.

After the first years of theoretical studies, researchers proceeded to test them in vivo.
They implanted a microphone inside a cat’s earing canal, a transmitter with power supply, and an antenna extending towards the animal’s tail. According to the testimony of former CIA official Victor Marchetti, “they slit the cat open, put batteries in him, wired him up. They made a monstrosity“. A monstrosity which nonetheless could allow them to record everything the kitty was hearing.

But there was another, not-so-secondary issue to deal with. The furry incognito agent would have to reach the sensible target without getting distracted along its way — not even by an untimely, proverbial little mouse. And everybody knows training a cat is a tough endeavour.

Some experiments were conducted in order to guide the cat from a distance, basicially to operate it by remote control through electrical impulses (remember José Delgado?). This proved to be harder than expected, and tests followed one antoher with no substantial results. The felines could be “trained to move short distances“; hardly an extraordinary success, even if researchers tried to make it look like a “remarkable scientific achievement“.
Eventually, having lost their patience, or maybe hoping for some unexpected miracle, the agents decided to run some empirical field test. They sent the cat on its first true mission.

On a bright morning in 1966, two Soviet officials were sitting on a park bench on Wisconsin Avenue, right outside the Washington Embassy of Russia, unaware of being targeted for one of the most absurd espionage operations ever.
In a nearby street, history’s first 007 cat was released from an anonymous van.
Now imagine several CIA agents, inside the vehicle, all wearing headphone and receivers, anxiously waiting. After years of laboratory studies, the moment of truth had come at last: would it work? Would they succeed in piloting the cat towards the target? Would the kitty obediently eavesdrop the conversation between the two men?

Their excitement, alas, was short lived.

After less than 10 feet, the Acoustic Kitty was run over by a taxi.
RIP Acoustic Kitty.

With this inglorious accident, after six years of pioneering research which cost 20 million dollars, project Acoustic Kitten was declared a total failure and abandoned.
One March 1967 report, declassified in 2001, stated that “the environmental and security factors in using this technique in a real foreign situation force us to conclude that […] it would not be practical“.

One last note: the story of the cat being hit by a taxi was told by the already mentioned Victor Marchetti; in 2013 Robert Wallace, former director of the Office of Technical Service, disputed the story, asserting that the animal simply did not do what the researchers wanted. “The equipment was taken out of the cat; the cat was re-sewn for a second time, and lived a long and happy life afterwards“.

You can choose your favorite ending.

Dreams of Stone

Stone appears to be still, unchangeable, untouched by the tribulations of living beings.
Being outside of time, it always pointed back to the concept fo Creation.
Nestled, inaccessible, closed inside the natural chest of rock, those anomalies we called treasures lie waiting to be discovered: minerals of the strangest shape, unexpected colors, otherworldly transparency.
Upon breaking a stone, some designs may be uncovered which seem to be a work of intellect. One could recognize panoramas, human figures, cities, plants, cliffs, ocean waves.

Who is the artist that hides these fantasies inside the rock? Are they created by God’s hand? Or were these visions and landscapes dreamed by the stone itself, and engraved in its heart?

If during the Middle Ages these stone motifs were probably seen as an evidence of the anima mundi, at the beginning of the modern period they had already been relegated to the status of simple curiosities.
XVI and XVII Century naturalists, in their wunderkammern and in books devoted to the wonders of the world, classified the pictures discovered in stone as “jokes of Nature” (lusus naturæ). In fact, Roger Caillois writes (La scrittura delle pietre, Marietti, 1986):

The erudite scholars, Aldrovandi and Kircher among others, divided these wonders into genres and species according to the image they saw in them: Moors, bishops, shrimps or water streams, faces, plants, dogs or even fish, tortoises, dragons, skulls, crucifixes, anything a fervid imagination could recognize and identify. In reality there is no being, monster, monument, event or spectacle of nature, of history, of fairy tales or dreams, nothing that an enchanted gaze couldn’t see inside the spots, designs and profiles of these stones.

It is curious to note, incidentally, that these “caprices” were brought up many times during the long debate regarding the mystery of fossils. Leonardo Da Vinci had already guessed that sea creatures found petrified on mountain tops could be remnants of living organisms, but in the following centuries fossils came to be thought of as mere whims of Nature: if stone was able to reproduce a city skyline, it could well create imitations of seashells or living things. Only by the half of XVIII Century fossils were no longer considered lusus naturæ.

Among all kinds of pierre à images (“image stones”), there was one in which the miracle most often recurred. A specific kind of marble, found near Florence, was called pietra paesina (“landscape stone”, or “ruin marble”) because its veinings looked like landscapes and silhouettes of ruined cities. Maybe the fact that quarries of this particular marble were located in Tuscany was the reason why the first school of stone painting was established at the court of Medici Family; other workshops specializing in this minor genre arose in Rome, in France and the Netherlands.

 

Aside from the pietra paesina, which was perfect for conjuring marine landscapes or rugged desolation, other kinds of stone were used, such as alabaster (for celestial and angelic suggestions) and basanite, used to depict night views or to represent a burning city.

Perhaps it all started with Sebastiano del Piombo‘s experiments with oil on stone, which had the intent of creating paintings that would last as long as sculptures; but actually the colors did not pass the test of time on polished slates, and this technique proved to be far from eternal. Sebastiano del Piombo, who was interested in a refined and formally strict research, abandoned the practice, but the method had an unexpected success within the field of painted oddities — thanks to a “taste for rarities, for bizarre artifices, for the ambiguous, playful interchange of art and nature that was highly appreciated both during XVI Century Mannerism and the baroque period” (A. Pinelli on Repubblica, January 22, 2001).

Therefore many renowned painters (Jacques Stella, Stefano della Bella, Alessandro Turchi also known as l’Orbetto, Cornelis van Poelemburgh), began to use the veinings of the stone to produce painted curios, in tension between naturalia e artificialia.

Following the inspiration offered by the marble scenery, they added human figures, ships, trees and other details to the picture. Sometimes little was needed: it was enough to paint a small balcony, the outline of a door or a window, and the shape of a city immediately gained an outstanding realism.

Johann König, Matieu Dubus, Antonio Carracci and others used in this way the ribbon-like ornaments and profound brightness of the agate, the coils and curves of alabaster. In pious subjects, the painter drew the mystery of a milky supernatural flare from the deep, translucent hues; or, if he wanted to depict a Red Sea scene, he just had to crowd the vortex of waves, already suggested by the veinings of the stone, with frightened victims.

Especially well-versed in this eccentric genre, which between the XVI and XVIII Century was the object of extended trade, was Filippo Napoletano.
In 1619 the painter offered to Cosimo II de’ Medici seven stories of Saints painted on “polished stoned called alberese“, and some of his works still retain a powerful quality, on the account of their innovative composition and a vivid expressive intensity.
His extraordinary depiction of the Temptations of Saint Anthony, for instance, is a “little masterpiece [where] the artist’s intervention is minimal, and the Saint’s entire spiritual drama finds its echo in the melancholy of a landscape of Dantesque tone” (P. Gaglianò on ExibArt, December 11, 2000).

The charm of a stone that “mimicks” reality, giving the illusion of a secret theater, is unaltered still today, as Cailliois elegantly explains:

Such simulacra, hidden on the inside for a long time, appear when the stones are broken and polished. To an eager imagination, they evoke immortal miniature models of beings and things. Surely, chance alone is at the origin of the prodigy. All similarities are after all vague, uncertain, sometimes far from truth, decidedly gratuitous. But as soon as they are perceived, they become tyrannical and they offer more than they promised. Anyone who knows how to observe them, relentlessly discovers new details completing the alleged analogy. These kinds of images can miniaturize for the benefit of the person involved every object in the world, they always provide him with a copy which he can hold in his hand, position as he wishes, or stash inside a cabinet. […] He who possesses such a wonder, produced, extracted and fallen into his hands by an extraordinary series of coincidences, happily imagines that it could not have come to him without a special intervention of Fate.

Still, unchangeable, untouched by the tribulations of living beings: it is perhaps appropriate that when stones dream, they give birth to these abstract, metaphysical landscapes, endowed with a beauty as alien as the beauty of rock itself.

Several artworks from the Medici collections are visible in a wonderful and little-known museum in Florence, the Opificio delle Pietre Dure.
The best photographic book on the subject is the catalogue
Bizzarrie di pietre dipinte (2000), curate by M. Chiarini and C. Acidini Luchinat.