The mysteries of Sansevero Chapel – II

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The Prince, just like a sorcerer, is stirring the preparation in a big cauldron. Eventually, the long-awaited reaction takes place: a mysterious liquid is ready. On the other side of the room, the two bound and gagged servants can’t even scream anymore. The man is sobbing, while the woman, even immobilized, stays vigilant and alert — perhaps the new life she carries in her womb prevents her from giving in to fear, commanding an already impossible defense. The Prince hasn’t got much time, he has to act quickly. He pours the liquid down a strange pump, then he gets close to his victims: in their eyes he sees an unnameable terror. He starts with the man, puncturing the jugular vein and injecting the liquid right into his bloodstream with a syringe. The heart will pump the preparation throughout the body, and the Prince watches the agonizing man’s face as the dense poison begins to circulate. There, it’s all done: the servant is dead. It will take two to three hours for the mixture to solidify, and surely more than a month for the putrified flesh to fall off the skeleton and the network of veins, arteries and capillaries the process turned into marble.
Now it’s the woman’s turn.

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What you just read is the legend surrounding the two “anatomical machines” still visible in the Underground Chamber of the Sansevero Chapel. According to this story, Prince Raimondo di Sangro created them by sacrifying the life of his servants in order to obtain an exact representation of the vascular system. to an otherwise impossible to achieve level of accuracy. Even Benedetto Croce mentioned the legend in his  Storie e leggende napoletane (1919): “with the pretext of a minor fault, he had two of his servants killed, a man and a woman, and their bodies weirdly embalmed so that they showed all their internal viscera, the arteries and veins, and kept them locked in a closet…“. The two “machines” are in fact a man and a woman (pregnant, even if the fetus was stolen in the Sixties), their skeletons still wrapped in the thick net of circulatory apparatus.

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How were the “machines” really built?
The answer is maybe less exciting but also less cruel than legend has it: they were created through great expertise and great patience. And not by Raimondo di Sangro himself: in fact, the Prince commissioned this work in 1763-64 to Giuseppe Salerno, a physician from Palermo, providing for the iron wire and wax necessary to the construction, and gratifying the Sicilian artist with a nice pension for the rest of his life. If the skeletons are undoubtedly authentic, the whole vascular system was recreated using wire, which was then wrapped up in silk and later imbued in a peculiar mix of pigmented beewax and varnish, allowing the wire to be manipulated, bent in every direction and acting as a shock-absorbant material during transportation.
Giuseppe Salerno was not the only person to build such “machines”, for as early as 1753 and 1758 in Palermo a doctor called Paolo Graffeo had already presented a similar couple of anatomical models, complete with a 4-month-old fetus.

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The “black” legend about servants mercilessly killed stems from the figure of Raimondo di Sangro, whose life and work — just like the Sammartino’s Christ we talked about in our previous article — seem to be covered by a veil, albeit a symbolic one.
An extraordinary intellectual and inventor, chemistry, physics and technology enthusiast, Raimondo di Sangro was always regarded as suspisious because of his Freemasonry and alchemic interests, so much so that he became some sort of devil in popular fantasy.

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At the dawn of science, in the middle of XVIII Century, rationalism had yet to abandon alchemic symbology: alchemists obviously worked on concrete matter (chemistry will later grow from these very researches), but every procedure or preparation was also interpreted according to different metaphysical readings. Raimondo di Sangro claimed he invented tens of contraptions, such as a folding stage, a color typography, a sea chariot, hydraulic machines and alchemic marbles, fireproof paper and waterproof tissues, and even a much-celebrated “eternal candle”; but all the information about these creations come from his own Lettera apologetica, published in 1750, and some scholars maintain that these very inventions, whether they really existed or not, should be interpreted as symbols of the Prince’s alchemic research. Accordingly, the originary placement of the “anatomical machines”, inside the Phoenix Apartment on a revolving platform, looks like a symbolic choice: maybe Raimondo di Sangro thought of them as a depiction of the rubedo, a stage in the search for the philosopher’s stone in which matter recomposes itself, granting immortality.

Today, the two “machines” still amaze scholars for their realism and accuracy, and they prove that in the XVIII Century an almost perfect knowledge of the circulatory system had already been reached. Modern versions of these models, created through injection of sylicon polymers (this time on real cadavers), can be seen throughout the well-known Body Worlds exhibitions coordinated by Gunther Von Hagens, the inventor of plastination.

Here is some more info (in Italian): an article on the Prince buying the machines; an in-depth analysis of his inventions’ esoteric symbolism; an essay on Raimondo di Sangro in reference to his relationship with Free Masonry. And, of course, the Sansevero Chapel Museum website.

My wunderkammer

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

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My wunderkammer

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

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

Colonialist postcard (fronte)

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

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

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

The mysteries of Sansevero Chapel – I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Excerpt from Restaurars)

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

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

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

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

Buon compleanno ! – VI

BBMoss

Today is Bizzarro Bazar’s sixth birthday.

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

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

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

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

Keep The World Weird!

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The island that wasn’t there

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toshio Saeki

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ulisse Aldrovandi

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

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

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

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

Image of death, by Hans Leinberger, XVI Century.

Disabled man, anonimous, XVI Century.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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