Links, curiosities & mixed wonders – V

Here’s a gift pack of strange food for the mind and weird stuff that should keep you busy until Christmas.

  • You surely remember Caitlin Doughty, founder  of the Order of the Good Death as well as author of best-seller Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. In the past I interviewd her, I wrote a piece for the Order, and I even flew to Philadelphia to meet her for a three-day conference.
    Caitlin is also famous for her ironic videos on the culture of death. The latest episode is dedicated to a story that will surely sound familiar, if you follow this blog: the story of the ‘Punsihed Suicide’ of Padua, which was published for the first time in my book His Anatomical Majesty.
    With her trademark humor, Caitlin succeeds in asking what in my view is the fundamental question: is it worth judging a similar episode by our contemporary ethical standards, or is it better to focus on what this tale can tell us about our history and about the evolution of sensibility towards death?

  • In 1966 a mysterious box washed up on a British shore: it contained swords, chandeliers, red capes, and a whole array of arcane symbols related to occultism. What was the function of these objects, and why were they left to the waves?
  • While we’re at it, here is an autopsy photograph from the 1920s, probably taken in Belgium. Was pipe smoking a way of warding off the bad smell?
    (Seen here, thanks again Claudia!)

  • A new photographic book on evolution is coming out, and it looks sumptuous. Robert Clark’s wonderful pictures carry a disquieting message: “Some scientists who study evolution in real time believe we may be in the midst of the world’s sixth mass extinction, a slow-motion funnel of death that will leave the planet with a small fraction of its current biodiversity. One reason that no one can forecast how it will end—and who will be left standing—is that, in many ways, our understanding of evolution itself continues to evolve“.
  • But don’t get too alarmed: our world might eventually be just an illusion. Sure, this concept is far from new: all the great spiritual, mythological or artistic messages have basically been repeating us for millennia that we should not trust our senses, suggesting ther is more to this reality than meets the eye. Yet, up until now, no one had ever tried to prove this mathematically. Until now.
    A cognitive science professor at the University of California elaborated an intriguing model that is causing a bit of a fuss: his hypothesis is that our perception has really nothing to do with the world out there, as it is; our sensory filter might not have evolved to give us a realistic image of things, but rather a convenient one. Here is an article on the Atlantic, and here is a podcast in which our dear professor quietly tears down everything we think we know about the world.
  • Nonsense, you say? What if I told you that highly evolved aliens could already be among us — without the need for a croncrete body, but in the form of laws of physics?

Other brilliant ideas: Goodyear in 1961 developed these illuminated tires.

  • Mariano Tomatis’ Blog of Wonders is actually Bizzarro Bazar’s less morbid, but more magical twin. You could spend days sifting through the archives, and always come up with some pearl you missed the first time: for example this post on the hidden ‘racism’ of those who believe Maya people came from outer space (Italian only).
  • In Medieval manuscripts we often find some exceedingly unlucky figures, which had the function of illustrating all possible injuries. Here is an article on the history and evolution of the strange and slightly comic Wound Man.

  • Looking at colored paint spilled on milk? Not really a mesmerizing thought, until you take four minutes off and let yourself be hypnotized by Memories of Painting, by Thomas Blanchard.

  • Let’s go back to the fallacy of our senses, ith these images of the Aspidochelone (also called Zaratan), one of the fantastical beasts I adored as a child. The idea of a sea monster so huge that it could be mistaken for an island, and on whose back even vegetation can grow, had great fortune from Pliny to modern literature:

  • But the real surprise is to find that the Zaratan actually exists, albeit in miniature:

  • Saddam Hussein, shortly after his sixtieth birthday, had 27 liters of his own blood taken just to write a 600-page calligraphied version of the Quran.
    An uncomfortable manuscript, so much so that authorities don’t really know what to do with it.
  • Time for a couple of Christmas tips, in case you want to make your decorations slightly menacing: 1) a set of ornaments featuring the faces of infamous serial killers, namely Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey DahmerEd Gein and H. H. Holmes; 2) a murderous Santa Claus. Make your guests understand festivities stress you out, and that might trigger some uncontrolled impulse. If you wish to buy these refined, tasteful little objects, just click on pictures to go to the corresponding Etsy store. You’re welcome.

  • Finally, if you run out of gift ideas for Christmas and you find yourself falling back on the usual book, at least make sure it’s not the usual book. Here are four random, purely coincidental examples…
    Happy holidays!

(Click on image to open bookshop)

A Most Unfortunate Execution

The volume Celebrated trials of all countries, and remarkable cases of criminal jurisprudence (1835) is a collection of 88 accounts of murders and curious proceedings.
Several of these anecdotes are quite interesting, but a double hanging which took place in 1807 is particularly astonishing for the collateral effects it entailed.

On November 6, 1802, John Cole Steele, owner of a lavander water deposit, was travelling from Bedfont, on the outskirts of London, to his home on Strand. It was deep in the night, and the merchant was walking alone, as he couldn’t find a coach.
The moon had just come up when Steele was surrounded by three men who were hiding in the bushes. They were John Holloway and Owen Haggerty — two small-time crooks always in trouble with the law; with them was their accomplice Benjamin Hanfield, whom they had recruited some hours earlier at an inn.
Hanfield himself would prove to be the weak link. Four years later, under the promise of a full pardon for unrelated offences, he would vividly recount in court the scene he had witnessed that night:

We presently saw a man coming towards us, and, on approaching him, we ordered him to stop, which he immediately did. Holloway went round him, and told him to deliver. He said we should have his money,
and hoped we would not ill-use him. [Steele] put his hand in his pocket, and gave Haggerty his money. I demanded his pocket-book. He replied that he had none. Holloway insisted that he had a book, and if he
did not deliver it, he would knock him down. I then laid hold of his legs. Holloway stood at his head, and swore if he cried out he would knock out his brains. [Steele] again said, he hoped we would not ill-use him. Haggerty proceeded to search him, when [Steele] made some resistance, and struggled so much that we got across the road. He cried out severely, and as a carriage was coming up, Holloway said, “Take care, I’ll silence the b—–r,” and immediately struck him several violent blows on the head and body. [Steele] heaved a heavy groan, and stretched himself out lifeless. I felt alarmed, and said, “John, you have killed the man”. Holloway replied, that it was a lie, for he was only stunned. I said I would stay no longer, and immediately set off towards London, leaving Holloway and Haggerty with the body. I came to Hounslow, and stopped at the end of the town nearly an hour. Holloway and Haggerty then came up, and said they had done the trick, and, as a token, put the deceased’s hat into my hand. […] I told Holloway it was a cruel piece of business, and that I was sorry I had any hand in it. We all turned down a lane, and returned to London. As we came along, I asked Holloway if he had got the pocketbook. He replied it was no matter, for as I had refused to share the danger, I should not share the booty. We came to the Black Horse in Dyot-street, had half a pint of gin, and parted.

A robbery gone wrong, like many others. Holloway and Haggerty would have gotten away with it: investigations did not lead to anything for four years, until Hanfield revealed what he knew.
The two were arrested on the account of Hanfield’s testimony, and although they claimed to be innocent they were both sentenced to death: Holloway and Haggerty would hang on a Monday, February 22, 1807.
During all Sunday night, the convicts kept on shouting out they had nothing to do with the murder, their cries tearing the “awful stillness of midnight“.

On the fatal morning, the two were brought at the Newgate gallows. Another person was to be hanged with them,  Elizabeth Godfrey, guilty of stabbing her neighbor Richard Prince.
Three simultaneous executions: that was a rare spectacle, not to be missed. For this reason around 40.000 perople gathered to witness the event, covering every inch of space outside Newgate and before the Old Bailey.

Haggertywas the first to walk up, silent and resigned. The hangman, William Brunskill, covered his head with a white hood. Then came Holloway’s turn, but the man lost his cold blood, and started yelling “I am innocent, innocent, by God!“, as his face was covered with a similar cloth. Lastly a shaking Elizabeth Godfrey was brought beside the other two.
When he finished with his prayers, the priest gestured for the executioner to carry on.
Around 8.15 the trapdoors opened under the convicts’ feet. Haggerty and Holloway died on the instant, while the woman convulsively wrestled for some time before expiring. “Dying hard“, it was called at the time.

But the three hanged persons were not the only victims on that cold, deadly morning: suddenly the crowd started to move out of control like an immense tide.

The pressure of the crowd was such, that before the malefactors appeared, numbers of persons were crying out in vain to escape from it: the attempt only tended to increase the confusion. Several females of low stature, who had been so imprudent as to venture amongst the mob, were in a dismal situation: their cries were dreadful. Some who could be no longer supported by the men were suffered to fall, and were trampled to death. This was also the case with several men and boys. In all parts there were continued cries “Murder! Murder!” particularly from the female part of the spectators and children, some of whom were seen expiring without the possibility of obtaining the least assistance, every one being employed in endeavouring to preserve his own life. The most affecting scene was witnessed at Green-Arbour Lane,
nearly opposite the debtors’ door. The lamentable catastrophe which took place near this spot, was attributed to the circumstance of two pie-men attending there to dispose of their pies, and one of them having his basket overthrown, some of the mob not being aware of what had happened, and at the
same time severely pressed, fell over the basket and the man at the moment he was picking it up, together with its contents. Those who once fell were never more enabled to rise, such was the pressure of the crowd. At this fatal place, a man of the name of Herrington was thrown down, who had in his hand his younger son, a fine boy about twelve years of age. The youth was soon trampled to death; the father recovered, though much bruised, and was amongst the wounded in St. Bartholomew’s Hospital.

The following passage is especially dreadful:

A woman, who was so imprudent as to bring with her a child at the breast, was one of the number killed: whilst in the act of falling, she forced the child into the arms of the man nearest to her, requesting him, for God’s sake, to save its life; the man, finding it required all his exertion to preserve himself, threw the infant from him, but it was fortunately caught at a distance by anotner man, who finding it difficult to ensure its safety or his own, disposed of it in a similar way. The child was again caught by a person, who contrived to struggle with it to a cart, under which he deposited it until the danger was over, and the mob had dispersed.

Others managed to have a narrow escape, as reported by the 1807 Annual Register:

A young man […] fell down […], but kept his head uncovered, and forced his way over the dead bodies, which lay in a pile as high as the people, until he was enabled to creep over the heads of the crowd to a lamp-iron, from whence he got into the first floor window of Mr. Hazel, tallow-chandler, in the Old Bailey; he was much bruised, and must have suffered the fate of his companion, if he had not been possessed of great strength.

The maddened crowd left a scene of apocalyptic devastation.

After the bodies were cut down, and the gallows was removed to the Old Bailey yard, the marshals and constables cleared the streets where the catastrophe had occurred, when nearly one hundred persons, dead or in a state of insensibility, were found in the street. […] A mother was seen to carry away the body of her dead son; […] a sailor boy was killed opposite Newgate, by suffocation; in a small bag which he carried was a quantity of bread and cheese, and it is supposed he came some distance to witness the execution. […] Until four o’clock in the afternoon, most of the surrounding houses contained some person in a wounded state, who were afterwards taken away by their friends on shutters or in hackney coaches. At Bartholomew’s Hospital, after the bodies of the dead were stripped and washed, they were ranged round a ward, with sheets over them, and their clothes put as pillows under their heads; their faces were uncovered, and there was a rail along the centre of the room; the persons who were admitted to see the shocking spectacle, and identified many, went up on one side and returned on the other. Until two o’clock, the entrances to the hospital were beset with mothers weeping for their sons! wives for their husbands! and sisters for their brothers! and various individuals for their relatives and friends!

There is however one last dramatic twist in this story: in all probability, Hollow and Haggerty were really innocent after all.
Hanfield, the key witness, might have lied to have his charges condoned.

Solicitor James Harmer (the same Harmer who incidentally inspired Charles Dickens for Great Expectations), even though convinced of their culpability in the beginning, kept on investigating after the convicts death and eventually changed his mind; he even published a pamphlet on his own expenses to denounce the mistake made by the Jury. Among other things, he discovered that Hanfield had tried the same trick before, when charged with desertion in 1805: he had attempted to confess to a robbery in order to avoid military punishment.
The Court itself was aware that the real criminals had not been punished, for in 1820, 13 years after the disastrous hanging, a John Ward was accused of the murder of Steele, then acquitted for lack of evidence (see Linda Stratmann in Middlesex Murders).

In one single day, Justice had caused the death of dozens of innocent people — including the convicts.
Really one of the most unfortunate executions London had ever seen.

___________________

I wrote about capital punsihment gone wrong in the past, in this article about Jack Ketch; on the same topic you can also find this post on ‘Bloody Murders’ pamphlets from Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (both articles in Italian only, sorry!).

Adam and Eve Raised Cain

We all know how hard it is for talent to emerge in the art field. That is why from time to time, in my own small way, I have tried  to give voice to young promising artists; some of them went on with their careers with excellent results, as did Fulvio Risuleo whose work I wrote about and who then won the first prize of the “Semaine de la Critique” at Cannes Film Festival.
I say this not to brag about my farsightedness, but in the secret hope that Bizzarro Bazar might turn out to be bringing good luck also in the future: today I would like to present you with a curious Italian stop-motion short film which in my view is a true little gem.

Entitled Adam and Eve Raised Cain, it was written, directed, animated and edited by Francesco Erba, born in 1986, from Bergamo.
Before discussing the short with his author, I advise you to take some 20 minutes off and let yourself drift into the fark, disturbing atmosphere of this little film.

The short film starts off with a declaration of love to Sci-Fi B-movies from the Fifties (Jack Arnold, Roger Corman, Bert I. Gordon  and their giant radioactive monsters), and goes on to pay homage even to the father of fantasy in motion pictures, Georges Méliès.
But the true references here are to horror and science fiction film directors from the Eighties, Carpenter, Hooper or Cronenberg. These nods are perfectly inserted in their context (an all too rare occurrence these days): the main character’s passion for monster movies, for instance, becomes a pivotal dramatic element in a scene where the child’s toys are sold, a psychologically scarring moment for little Albert.
Any citationism, even when done with a purpose, entails the risk of breaking the spectator’s identification, projecting the public “outside” of the film, and lessening its emotional impact. It could be because of the visceral and painful nature of the themes addressed in this short, but Francesco Erba succeeds in the task of creating an even stronger connection with his character: it’s as if, when observed through the filter of the American movies the 80’s generation grew up with, Albert’s trauma became more recognizable, more humane – despite his rough stop-motion puppet appearance.

Since he was a child, Francesco has been living and breathing cinema. How could he tell a tale of fear and love, if not by going back to those films which frightened him or made him fall in love?
This, in my opinion, is the admirable subtlety of Adam and Eve Raised Cain, a sensitivity which many narratives of nostalgia lack.
Behind the animated film facade, behind the entertainment, Erba is depicting a world of solitude and mental cages. And whenever he relies on some vintage stylistic elements, he’s not throwing them to his audience like peanuts just to stimulate some cinephile pavlovian response: he is using them because, to him, they still represent the best (maybe the only) way to really tell us about the wounds and anguish tormenting his character, both a victim and a perpetrator.

I asked Francesco Erba a few questions about his work.

How was this project born, and how did you manage to make it happen?

The concept for Adam and Eve was one of many sitting in my “Ideas” folder, on my laptop. After spending much time working with and for others, I decided it was time to shoot something new for myself. Sifting through the folder (and discarding all million-budget ideas!), the one that was left was a live-action version of Adam and Eve.
I started working on it, inserting new elements and focusing on the structure until I realized what I was really trying to tell: my film was about imprisonment, in all its possible meanings.

Once the script was completed, it started to dawn on me that this film could – should – be realized in stop motion: enclosing some puppets in a 1.5x1m box would cartainly take this idea of “imprisonment” to the extreme.

I knew all too well that to shoot this film in stop motion, as I had it layed out and with the resources at hand, it would take at least 2 years of work. I had to prepare a complete storyboard, character studies and preliminary drawings, set and prop construction, sculpting and mold making, motion tests, all leading up to several weeks of shooting in a dark room. And then the digital effects, and compositing the live actors’ eyes on the latex puppets, a process that had to be done frame by frame…

I mustered up all my masochism, started filming, and in the end I discovered I was even too optimistic. It took nearly three and a half years to complete the short movie!

Was the choice of stop motion limiting or did it give you more freedom? Which challenges were the most tough in producing the film?

Stop motion, which I do not consider just an animation technique, but THE animation technique, has an unquestionable charm which transcends time and technological innovations. But it can also be a real bitch!
If on one hand it allows full artistic freedom even on a tight budget, on the other it is certainly demanding in shooting time, shooting process, scenic design (sometimes down to miniaturization). Every aspect needs to be considered in advance, carefully calculated and measured, and you very often have to use your ingenuity to bypass problems: if I cannot move my camera, then I need to build a slider rig, and so on.

All these limitations, I think, really disappear when looking at the final result, at what you can create with this incredible technique. Take for example the movies produced by Laika today: they teach us that stop motion, although very old and almost the same age of cinema itself, has no limits other than those dictated by budget or creativity.

Adam and Eve seems to tap into the current vein of nostalgia for the 80’s (Super 8, Stranger Things, the San Junipero episode from Black Mirror, etc.). Did any film in particular inspire you? Is there some director’s work you had in mind while writing the script?

The short was filmed back in 2011, before this new wave of nostalgia for the cinema of the 80’s and 90’s (at least I chose to put it online at the right time!). Inevitably, it ended up containing many elements from the films I grew up with, which are now part of my DNA; these are references I cannot leave out of consideration.

Actually when you think about it, even those cinematic references coming from my imprinting are enclosed, like the rest of the story, in a chinese box system. Besides the cinema from the 80’s and 90’s, I chose to include some references to the films those very directors took inspiration from and sometimes plagiarised, namely monster movies from the 50’s. Taking it to the extreme, as I did with every aspect of the short, I went even further, paying homage to Méliès himself.

Sometimes directors get asked to summarize in few words the style they’re aiming for. My answer, right from the start, was: “think Rob Zombie doing stop-motion animation”. A coarse, wicked, sharp and sometimes repulsive style, which had to be recognizable in each aspect of the film.
But ofcourse I’m semplifying. If I think back to all the directors who inspired me, it might look like a meaningless list, and yet in Adam and Eve‘s world of opposites and extremes they make perfect sense to me: Carpenter, Cronenberg, Jackson, Spielberg, Selick, Park Chan-wook, Harryhausen, Quay, Svankmajer, Peter Lord and Aardman, Laika… they all influenced in a creative way the approach I chose for this short film, and its genesis.

The film shows extremely adult themes: phobia, alienation, family violence, unwanted pregnancy, despair. Yet all this is filtered through obvious irony: the handcrafted animation and the homages to the imaginary of American cinema make the film a “second level” experience. I personally find this ambiguity to be one of the strenghts of the project. But in your intent, should Adam and Eve be seen as pure entertainment, or taken more seriously?

This is one aspect of the “research” which I very humbly try to carry on with my work. One of he constants that can be found in everything I’ve done until now, from short films to music videos, from a pilot for a children TV show to the feature film I’m working on, is a search for the limit and the balance between two opposite extremes.

Using stop motion (which is often regarded as a technique for “children movies”) to tell an adult story, making an adult film about imprisonment, alienation and phobias with latex puppets, this is already a strong combination. To “cage” a real actor’s eyes inside the puppet, thus closing him within these narrow limits, to me is a further exaggeration of this concept. If you then imagine myself, the animator, stuck in strange positions and “prisoner” of a small dark room, the narrative gets really dizzying!

And what about the entertainment? Well, I’m not one of those who think cinema has the power to save the world, but it certainly makes it a little better. To me, films should not try to give answers, just to ask questions and create emotions.  It you’re looking for important answers, you’d better get a ticket for the museum, rather than for the movie theatre.
According to this philosphy, Adam and Eve is of course to be taken as a visual experience and not just as an artistic research: I think the scenes in which I “physically” enter the main character’s brain to show his past. make it clear that it’s also meant to be a product of pure entertainment.

This short film must have been quite a training ground. Will you continue with animation? What are your future projects? 

I am finishing my first live action feature film: here my personal research has evolved even further, as my movie is narratively and stylistically composed of an investigative report, a mockumentary and a more “traditional” film.
In the last few months I have been working on a TV animated puppet series for 5/6-years-old children, a project I very much believe in, and which gave me the opportunity to experiment with a different kind of animation.

As for stop motion, its “call” is very strong, despite the huge sacrifices that Adam and Eve demanded. One day I would love to be able to film my peculiar horror version of Peter Pan, or another small short film on Tesla and Edison.
A director’s work is often based on human interaction and mediation… I confess I sometimes miss being alone in my little dark room, moving my puppet’s head frame after frame!

Here is Adam and Eve Raised Cain Facebook page.

The Grim Reaper at the Chessboard

Few games lend themselves to philosophical metaphors like the game of chess.
The two armies, one dark and one bright, have been battling each other for millennia in endless struggle. An abstract fight of mathematical perfection, as mankind’s “terrible love of war” is inscribed within an orthogonal grid which is only superficially reassuring.
The chessboard hides in fact an impossible combinatory vertigo, an infinity of variations. One should not be fooled by the apparent simplicity of the scheme (the estimate of all possible games is a staggering number), and remember that famous Pharaoh who, upon accepting to pay a grain of wheat on the first square and to double the number of grains on the following squares, found himself ruined.

The battle of 32 pieces on the 64 squares inspired, aside from the obvious martial allegories, several poems tracing the analogy between the chessboard and the Universe itself, and between the pawns and human condition.
The most ancient and famous is one of Omar Khayyám‘s quatrains:

Tis all a Chequer-board of nights and days
Where Destiny with men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the closet lays.

This idea of God moving men over the chessboard as he pleases might look somewhat disquieting, but Jorge Luis Borges multiplied it into an infinite regress, asking if God himself might be an unknowing piece on a larger chessboard:

Weakling king,  slanting bishop, relentless
Queen, direct rook and cunning pawn
Seek and wage their armed battle
Across the black and white of the field.

They know not that the player’s notorious
Hand governs their destiny,
They know not that a rigor adamantine
Subjects their will and rules their day.

The player also is a prisoner
(The saying  is Omar’s) of another board
Of black nights and of white days.

God moves the player, and he, the piece.
Which god behind God begets the plot
Of dust and time and dream and agonies?

This cosmic game is of course all about free will, but is also part of the wider context of memento mori and of Death being  the Great Leveler. Whether we are Kings or Bishops, rooks or simple pawns; whether we fight for the White or Black side; whether our army wins or loses — the true outcome of the battle is already set. We will all end up being put back in the box with all other pieces, down in “time’s common grave“.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Death many times sat at the chessboard before Man.

In the oldest representations, the skeleton was depicted as cruel and dangerous, ready to violently clutch the unsuspecting bystander; but by the late Middle Ages, with the birth of the Danse Macabre (and possibly with the influence of the haunting but not malevolent Breton figure of Ankou) the skeleton had become unarmed and peaceful, even prone to dancing, in a carnival feast which, while reminding the viewer of his inevitable fate, also had an exorcistic quality.

That Death might be willing to allow Man a game of chess, therefore, is connected with a more positive idea in respect to previous iconographic themes (Triumph of Death, Last Judgement, the Three Kings, etc.). But it goes further than that: the very fact that the Reaper could now be challenged, suggests the beginning of Renaissance thought.

In fact, in depictions of Death playing chess, just like in the Danse Macabre, there are no

allusions or symbols directly pointing to the apocalyptic presence of religion, nor to the necessity of its rituals; for instance, there are no elements suggesting the need of receiving, in the final act, the extreme confort of a priest or the absolution as a viaticum for the next world, which would stress the feeling of impotence of man. Portrayed in the Danse Macabre is a man who sees himself as a part of the world, who acknowledges his being the maker of change in personal and social reality, who is inscribed in historical perspective.

(A. Tanfoglio, Lo spettacolo della morte… Quaderni di estetica e mimesi del bello nell’arte macabra in Europa, Vol. 4, 1985)

The man making his moves against Death was no more a Medieval man, but a modern one.
Later on, the Devil himself was destined to be beat at the game: according to the legend, Sixteenth Century chess master Paolo Boi from Syracuse played a game against a mysterious stranger, who left horrified when on the chessboard the pieces formed the shape of a cross…

But what is probably the most interesting episode happened in recent times, in 1985.
A Dr. Wolfgang Eisenbeiss and an aquaintance decided to arrange a very peculiar match: it was to be played between two great chess masters, one living and one dead.
The execution of the game would be made possible thanks to Robert Rollans, a “trustworthy” medium with no knowledge of chess (so as not to influence the outcome).
The odd party soon found a living player who was willing to try the experiment, chess grandmaster Viktor Korchnoi; contacting the challenger proved to be a little more difficult, but on June 15 the spirit of Géza Maróczy, who had died more than 30 years before on May 29, 1951, agreed to pick up the challenge.
Comunicating the moves between the two adversaries, through the psychic’s automatic writing, also took more time than expected. The game lasted 7 years and 8 months, until the Maróczy’s ghost eventually gave up, after 47 moves.

This “supernatural” game shows that the symbolic value of chess survived through the centuries.
One of the most ancient games is still providing inspiration for human creativity, from literature (Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass was built upon a chess enigma) to painting, from sculpture to modern so-called mysteries (how could chess not play a part in Rennes-le-Château mythology?).
From time to time, the 64 squares have been used as an emblem of seduction and flirtation, of political challenges, or of the great battle between the White and the Black, a battle going on within ourselves, on the chessboard of our soul.

It is ultimately an ambiguous, dual fascination.
The chessboard provides a finite, clear, rationalist battlefield. It shows life as a series of strategical decisions, of rules and predictable movements. We fancy a game with intrinsic accuracy and logic.
And yet every game is uncertain, and there’s always the possibility that the true “endgame” will suddenly catch us off guard, as it did with the Pharaoh:

CLOV (fixed gaze, tonelessly):
Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished.
(Pause.)
Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap.

(Thanks, Mauro!)

The Abominable Vice

Among the bibliographic curiosities I have been collecting for years, there is also a little book entitled L’amico discreto. It’s the 1862 Italian translation of The silent friend (1847) by R. e L. Perry; aside from 100 beautiful anatomical plates, the book also shows a priceless subtitle: Observations on Onanism and Its Baneful Results, Including Mental and Sexual Incapacity and Impotence.

Just by skimming through the table of contents, it’s clear how masturbation was indicated as the main cause for a wide array of conditions: from indigestion to “hypoconriac melancholy”, from deafness to “bending of the penis”, from emaciated complexion to the inability to walk, in a climax of ever more terrible symptoms preparing the way for the ultimate, inevitable outcome — death.
One page after the other, the reader learns why onanism is to be blamed for such illnesses, specifically because it provokes an

excitement of the nervous system [which] by stimulating the organs to transient vigour, brings, ere middle life succeeds the summer of manhood, all the sensible infirmities and foibles of age; producing in its impetuous current, such an assemblage of morbid irritation, that even on trivial occasions its excitement is of a high and inflammable character, and its endurance beyond the power of reason to sustain.

But this is just the beginning: the worst damage is on the mind and soul, because this state of constant nervous stimulation

places the individual in a state of anxiety and misery for the remainder of his existence, — a kind of contingency, which it is difficult for language adequately to describe; he vegetates, but lives not: […] leading the excited deviating mind into a fertile field of seductive error — into a gradual and fatal degradation of manhood — into a pernicious, disgraceful, and ultimately almost involuntary application of those inherent rights which nature wisely instituted for the preservation of her species […] in defiance of culture, moral feeling, moral obligation, and religious impressions: thus the man, who, at the advent of youth and genius was endowed with gaiety and sociality, becomes, ere twenty-five summers have shed their lustre on him, a misanthrope, and a nadir-point of discontent! What moral region does that man live in? […] Is it nothing to light the gloomy torch that guides, by slow and melancholy steps to the sepulchre of manhood, in the gay and fascinating spring-time of youth and ardent desire; when the brilliant fire of passion, genius, and sentiment, ought to electrify the whole frame?

This being a physiology and anatomy essay, today its embellishments, its evocative language (closer to second-rate poetry than to science) seem oddly out of place — and we can smile upon reading its absurd theories; yet The Silent Friend is just one of many Nineteeth Century texts demonizing masturbation, all pretty popular since 1712, when an anonymous priest published a volume called Onania, followed in 1760 by L’Onanisme by Swiss doctor Samuel-Auguste Tissot, which had rapidly become a best-seller of its time.
Now, if physicians reacted in such a harsh way against male masturbation, you can guess their stance on female auto-eroticism.

Here, the repulsion for an act which was already considered aberrant, was joined by all those ancestral fears regarding female sexuality. From the ancient vagina dentata (here is an old post about it) to Plato’s description of the uterus (hystera) as an aggressive animale roaming through the woman’s abdomen, going through theological precepts in Biblical-Christian tradition, medicine inherited a somber, essentially misogynistic vision: female sexuality, a true repressed collective unconscious, was perceived as dangerous and ungovernable.
Another text in my library is the female analogue of Tissot’s Onania: written by J.D.T. de Bienville, La Ninfomania ovvero il Furore Uterino (“Nymphomania, or The Uterine Fury”) was originally published in France in 1771.
I’m pasting here a couple of passages, which show a very similar style in respect to the previous quotes:

We see some perverted young girls, who have conducted a voluptuous life over a long period of time, suddenly fall prey to this disease; and this happens when forced retirement is keeping them from those occasions which facilitated their guilty and fatal inclination. […] All of them, after they are conquered by such malady, occupy themselves with the same force and energy with those objects which light in their passion the infernal flame of lewd pleasure […], they indulge in reading lewd Novels, that begin by bending their heart to soft feelings, and end up inspiring the most depraved and gross incontinence. […] Those women who, after taking a few steps in this horrible labyrinth, miss the strength to come back, are drawn almost imperceptibly to excesses, which after corrupting and damaging their good name, deprive them of their own life.

The book goes on to describe the hallucinatory state in which the nymphomaniacs fall, frantically hurling at men (by nature all chaste and pure, it seems), and barely leaving them “the time to escape their hands“.
Of course, this an Eighteenth Century text. But things did not improve in the following century: during the Nineteenth Century, actually, the ill-concealed desire to repress female sexuality found one of its cruelest incarnations, the so-called “extirpation”.

This euphemism was used to indicate the practice of clitoridectomy, the surgical removal of the clitoris.
Everybody kows that female genital mutilations continue to be a reality in many countries, and they have been the focus of several international campaigns to abandon the practice.
It seems hard to believe that, far from being solely a tribal tradition, it became widespread in Europe and in the United States within the frame of modern Western medicine.
Clitoridectomy, a simple yet brutal operation, was based on the idea that female masturbation led to hysteria, lesbianism and nymphomania. The perfect circular reasoning behind this theory was the following: in mental institutions, insane female patients were often caught masturbating, therefore masturbation had to be the cause of their lunacy.

One of the most fervent promoters of extirpation was Dr. Isaac Baker Brown, English gynaecologist and obstetrical surgeon.
In 1858 he opened a clinic on Notting Hill, ad his therapies became so successful that Baker Brown resigned from Guy’s Hospital to work privately full time. By means of clitoridectomy, he was able to cure (if we are to trust his own words) several kinds of madness, epilepsy, catalepsy and hysteria in his patients: in 1866 he published a nice little book on the subject, which was praised by the Times because Brown “brought insanity within the scope of surgical treatment“. In his book, Brown reported 48 cases of female masturbation, the heinous effects on the patients’ health, and the miraculous result of clitoridectomy in curing the symptoms.

We don’t know for sure how many women ended up under the enthusiastic doctor’s knife.
Brown would have probably carried on with his mutilation work, if he hadn’t made the mistake of setting up a publicity campaign to advertise his clinic. Even then, self-promotion was considered ethically wrong for a physician, so on April 29, 1866, the British Medical Journal published a heavy j’accuse against the doctor. The Lancet followed shortly after, then even the Times proved to have changed position and asked if the surgical treatment of illness was legal at all. Brown ended up being investigated by the Lunacy Commission, which dealt with the patients’ welfare in asylums, and in panic he denied he ever carried out clitoridectomies on his mentally ill patients.

But it was too late.
Even the Royal College of Surgeons turned away from him, and a meeting decided (with 194 approving votes against 38 opposite votes) his removal from the Obstetric Society of London.
R. Youngson and I. Schott, in A Brief History of Bad Medicine (Robinson, 2012), highlight the paradox of this story:

The extraordinary thing was that Baker Brown was disgraced, not because he practised clitoridectomy for ridiculuous indications, but because, out of greed, he had offended against professional ethics. No one ever suggested that there was anything wrong with clitoridectomy, as such. Many years were to pass before this operation was condemned by the medical profession.

And many more, until eventually masturbation could be freed from medical criminalization and moral prejudice: at the beginning of the Twentieth Century doctors still recommended the use of constrictive laces and gears, straight-jackets, up to shock treatments like cauterization or electroconvulsive therapy.

1903 patent to prevent erections and nocturnal pollutions through the use of spikes, electric shocks and an alarm bell.

Within this dreadful galaxy of old anti-masturbation devices, there’s one looking quite harmless and even healthy: corn flakes, which were invented by famous Dr. Kellogg as an adjuvant diet against the temptations of onanism. And yet, whenever cereals didn’t do the trick, Kellogg advised that young boys’ foreskins should be sewn with wire; as for young girls, he recommended burning the clitoris with phenol, which he considered

an excellent means of allaying the abnormal excitement, and preventing the recurrence of the practice in those whose will-power has become so weakened that the patient is unable to exercise entire self-control.
The worse cases among young women are those in which the disease has advanced so far that erotic thoughts are attended by the same voluptuous sensations that accompany the practice. The author has met many cases of this sort in young women, who acknowledged that the sexual orgasm was thus produced, often several times daily. The application of carbolic acid in the manner described is also useful in these cases in allaying the abnormal excitement, which is a frequent provocation of the practice of this form of mental masturbation.

(J. H. Kellogg, Plain Facts for Old And Young, 1888)

It was not until the Kinsey Reports (1948-1953) that masturbation was eventually legitimized as a natural and healthy part of sexuality.
All in all, as Woody Allen put it, it’s just “sex with someone you love“.

On the “fantastic physiology” of the uterus, there is a splendid article (in Italian language) here. Wikipedia has also a page on the history of masturbation. I also recommend Orgasm and the West. A History of Pleasure from the Sixteenth Century to the Present, by R. Muchembled.

R.I.P. Leonard Cohen

He had seen the future. He knew the darkness and the light. He always observed the world with no pulling back, in almost cruel honesty, he did not refrain from sharing his own failures. He understood that those very wounds we all carry inside of us, allowed for beauty.
Lately, he looked like a man preparing for death by getting rid of all his masks, one by one.
It’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.” This he wrote just few months ago to Marianne Ihlen, the muse who had inspired him, and who was in those days approaching her own death.

Leonard Cohen’s itinerary was tormented, in a constant precarious balance between the two ends of the spectrum of experience: vice and exstasy, depression and  mysticism, excesses and frugality, cynism and romanticism.
Yet it would be useless to search for any trace of self-indulgence or presumption in his words. Just take a look at any interview, and you will see an almost embarassed modesty (back in the day, his legendary shyness brought him much trouble with live performances), and the courtesy of someone who is well aware of the pain of being alive.

This was the focus of his poems, and his musica. The liturgic quality of many of his lyrics was perhaps to him the most natural register to confront the problem of suffering, but he didn’t hesitate to contaminate it with profane elements. In fact his research was always synthetic, an attempt to conciliate the opposites he had lived through: and it also resulted in a patient work of condensing words (five years to write Hallelujah, ten for Anthem). The goal was achieving, as much as possible, a perfection of simplicity.
It led to verses like this one, capable of summarizing in a brief touch the most authentic idea of  love: “You go your way / I’ll go your way too“.

This hunger for transcendence brought the “little Jew” enamoured of the Kabbalah upon different spiritual paths, even locking him up in a Zen monastery — not as a “tourist”, but for six years. Until he realized, as he confessed in his last published single, that his demons had always been shamefully middle-class and boring.

Indeed, that last black jewel, You Want It Darker; a sort of testament or a preparation for the end.
A somber dialogue between the man-Cohen, the Man of every time and latitude, and a God with which no compromise is possible (“If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game / If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame / If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame”); a God who refuses to stretch out his hand towards man, leaving him lost in his arranged hell (“A million candles burning for the help that never came”).
A cold, enigmatic God, a mystery from which even the Evil seems to stem, so much so that all horror is likely a result of His inscrutable order: if God wants this Earth a little darker, we stand ready to “kill the flame“.
And it is in this desolate landscape that, as a final breath, as an extreme prayer, comes that heartwrenching hineni. “Here I am“, the word Abraham spoke before setting to sacrifice his own son on behalf of the Lord.
I’m ready“, Leonard whispers.

And maybe he really, finally was.

Speciale: Francesco Busani

Sono ormai diversi anni che mi interesso di illusionismo.
Intendiamoci, non ho neanche mai provato a far sparire un fazzoletto: quello che mi intriga è la portata simbolica del gioco di prestigio, lo scarto di prospettiva che opera, ma soprattutto il potere performativo di rendere instabile il confine tra realtà e finzione. La capacità dell’illusionista di toglierci il terreno sotto i piedi senza ricorrere a tanti giri di parole teorici, con un semplice gesto.
Eppure più si studia, più ci si accorge che a rendere possibile la magia è ancora e sempre la storia che si sta raccontando. Che sia sotterranea o esplicita, la narrativa rimane il vero meccanismo dell’incanto (o dell’inganno).

Quando il mentalista Francesco Busani ha accettato di partecipare all’inaugurazione dell’Accademia dell’Incanto, ho studiato la sua performance nei minimi dettagli.
Non tanto per scoprire i suoi trucchi — esercizio tutto sommato sterile e destinato alla delusione, perché come insegna Teller, “il segreto più grande dietro la messa in scena di un effetto magico che inganni in modo efficace è quello di realizzarlo con un metodo il più brutto possibile”.
No, il suo trucco migliore lo conoscevo già: sapevo che, prima di tutto, Busani è un eccezionale storyteller (uno storyteller “con gli effetti speciali”, come ama definirsi). Così mi sono concentrato sul modo in cui egli tirava i fili della sua narrazione. E sono rimasto con un sorriso stampato sul volto per l’intero show.
Perché durante un suo spettacolo succede qualcosa di strano: tutti ci rendiamo conto razionalmente che le storie fantastiche che Busani racconta sono, almeno in parte, frutto di fantasia; ma non sappiamo fino a che punto, e ci accorgiamo con sorpresa che esiste un’incontrollabile parte di noi che è disposta a crederci.

Un solo esempio: Busani ha raccontato la storia di due monete seppellite per anni assieme a un morto, sugli occhi del cadavere. Con l’aiuto di una spettatrice che si è offerta volontaria dal pubblico, in una routine che non vi svelo, le monete hanno dimostrato di aver acquisito virtù esoteriche e misteriose, a causa del prolungato contatto con la salma.
A colpirmi non è stato soltanto l’effetto finale, pure strabiliante, bensì un altro dettaglio a cui magari pochi hanno prestato attenzione: a chiusura del suo gioco, Francesco ha consegnato le monete nel palmo della spettatrice, e quest’ultima con uno scatto immediato e del tutto involontario ha tirato indietro le mani per non toccarle.

Ecco, quando quelle due monete sono cadute rumorosamente sul tavolo ho compreso quale eccezionale narratore fosse Francesco Busani.

Gran parte del fascino deriva proprio dal fatto che egli fa il “verso”, per così dire, a medium e sensitivi. Possiamo guardare con superiorità chi si affida a cartomanti e maghi, ma con un semplice gioco di prestigio raccontato nella giusta maniera Busani ci dimostra quanto il mito sia ancora intrinsecamente e inconsciamente efficace sulla nostra mente. E non è solo una lezione di umiltà: è anche a suo modo un tributo alla potenza della sconfinata fantasia umana.

Non mi sono dunque lasciato sfuggire l’occasione, la mattina successiva, di fargli qualche domanda in più sulla sua professione.

Partiamo dalla domanda inevitabile: quando e come hai cominciato a interessarti al paranormale da una parte, e all’illusionismo dall’altra?

Il mio è un percorso piuttosto anomalo per un mentalista.  Non mi sono formato nei club magici o negli ambienti dove si ritrovano i prestigiatori, ma arrivo del mondo della ricerca sul paranormale e sull’occulto, che ho coltivato fin da quando, a circa 12 anni, mi sono spaventato durante una seduta spiritica. In quel momento ho capito che l’unico modo per esorcizzare le mie paure era capire se potevano realmente esistere sistemi per contattare l’aldilà.
Successivamente mi sono interessato anche alle facoltà ESP, a figure di sensitivi e medium e ai casi di cronaca misteriosi. Durante tutti questi anni ho visitato luoghi infestati, cimiteri, castelli, ho visto all’opera sensitivi, cartomanti e anche qualche medium. Ho partecipato a ritiri spirituali, ascoltato decine di testimonianze relative a situazioni paranormali, letto centinaia di libri scritti sia da scettici che da believer. Visto che la maggior parte delle persone di cui sentivo o leggevo le testimonianze erano in buona fede, ho cominciato a chiedermi come mai io, assieme ad altre migliaia di ricercatori, non riuscissi a verificare alcunché di particolare.
Questo percorso è proseguito in parallelo con quello religioso di cattolico praticante fino ai ventiquattro anni, quando sono giunto alla conclusione che non esistono prove oggettive e scientifiche di fenomenologie paranormali. In quel preciso momento mi sono staccato anche dal percorso religioso che avevo mantenuto fino a quel momento solo per motivi sociali.
Infine ho scoperto che esistevano illusionisti che, utilizzando perlopiù tecniche derivate dai medium, “simulavano” i prodigi delle sedute spiritiche. Da lì al mentalismo il passo è stato breve.

Ti definisci “scettico al 100%”, eppure a fini scenici utilizzi tutto l’armamentario simbolico dell’occultismo e del paranormale. Non c’è una contraddizione?

Essere scettici e mentalisti non è per nulla un contraddizione: anzi forse è vero il contrario. I più grandi performer, da Derren Brown a Silvan solo per citarne due conosciuti in Italia, sono dichiaratamente scettici. E d’altronde se qualcuno possedesse doti paranormali, non avrebbe bisogno né di definirsi mentalista, né di mantenere il segreto sulle sue tecniche… né probabilmente di esibirsi per soldi!
La mia scelta stilistica, nella maggior parte dei miei spettacoli, è quella di utilizzare contesti e narrazioni che richiamano il mondo dell’occulto e dello spiritismo. Il mentalista è un intrattenitore – non dimentichiamolo – e la sua performance consiste nel sospendere l’incredulità nello spettatore. Questo processo avviene per gradi.
All’inizio di un mio show lo spettatore è cosciente che sta assistendo ad uno spettacolo. Poi, passo dopo passo, uso varie tecniche ed effetti per traghettare lo spettatore verso uno stato di dubbio sempre più profondo, fino a quando non è più in grado di capire dove finisce la finzione e inizia la realtà.

Nei tuoi spettacoli ti poni in maniera radicalmente differente rispetto ai classici mentalisti che sfoggiano “superpoteri” e abilità psichiche sovrumane: spesso si ha la sensazione che tu voglia rimanere un po’ in disparte, come se la tua funzione fosse quella del catalizzatore e del testimone di eventi inspiegabili, piuttosto che il loro diretto artefice. In altre parole, eviti programmaticamente l’effetto “et voilà!”.
Quanto è difficile per un performer questa rimozione dell’ego? Non rischia di diminuire l’impatto dei tuoi trucchi?

Penso che il mentalismo raggiunga il suo effetto più dirompente quando è il pubblico stesso a realizzare dei prodigi. Lo spettatore si aspetta che un illusionista possa stupirlo, ma non che sarà stupito da se stesso.
Questo scarto, seppure non sempre attuabile, è a parer mio l’ultimo gradino della trasmissione della meraviglia al pubblico, quello più alto. Infatti io spesso ci arrivo per gradi. Ad esempio in uno spettacolo scritto da me e dall’amico Luca Speroni, abile mentalista e copywriter, accadeva che ogni effetto magico fosse un passo per far acquisire al pubblico (tutto il pubblico in sala!) i poteri tipici delle guaritrici magiche che ancora oggi esistono nell’Appennino Tosco-Emiliano. Attraverso alcuni riti e un percorso ascetico ogni spettatore che saliva sul palco si trovava ad avere questi poteri sempre più amplificati.
Oppure prendi il mio intervento durante una conferenza/spettacolo con il collettivo Wu Ming e Mariano Tomatis (esiste un video della performance su YouTube): sono riuscito a far gridare a tutto il pubblico una parola che lo spettatore sul palcoscenico aveva soltanto pensato. L’effetto è stato stranissimo: le persone tra il pubblico si guardavano l’un l’altro divertite e si chiedevano come potesse essere accaduto.
Detto questo, non esiste un “modo corretto” per trasmettere lo stupore al pubblico: ogni performer deve trovare il proprio. Il mentalista-superuomo in determinati casi potrebbe far pesare troppo la sua abilità e risultare altezzoso, ma è anche vero che ci sono colleghi preparatissimi che rivestono in modo magistrale il personaggio del mentalista con poteri da X-Men.
Dipende anche dalla situazione. Lo spostamento dell’attenzione sullo spettatore funziona bene con un pubblico non troppo numeroso, ma spesso di fronte a platee più ampie, ad esempio negli spettacoli aziendali, rimango invece vestito dell’abito tipico del mentalista.

Al di là dei tuoi spettacoli di bizarre magic, hai sviluppato un’originale declinazione di mentalismo one-to-one. Come cambia il tuo lavoro quando ti trovi di fronte a un solo spettatore? Quali libertà ti puoi permettere, e a quali devi rinunciare?

Amo in particolar modo il contesto one-to-one, mi consente di esibirmi in ambienti e ambiti in cui spesso sarebbe impossibile realizzare uno spettacolo. Lavorare davanti a un solo spettatore è una bella sfida, sia psicologicamente che tecnicamente: sono indispensabili grande empatia, capacità di improvvisazione e sicurezza. La libertà che ti puoi permettere è quella di “affidare” allo spettatore stesso una parte dell’effetto, vale a dire che è lui che ne elabora e ne gestisce il senso, il significato speciale che un gioco può ricoprire rispetto alla sua sfera personale. Di contro, parlavamo di egocentrismo del performer: ecco, nel one-to-one devi assolutamente scordartelo, va messo da parte e soprattutto dal punto di vista etico bisogna rinunciare alla tentazione del potere quasi illimitato che quel ruolo, in quel momento, ti consentirebbe di avere.

Nel libro Magia a tu per tu racconti nel dettaglio come sei arrivato a costruire i tuoi effetti migliori, e in generale risulta evidente il perfezionismo nello studiare ogni minimo dettaglio della performance. Ti spingi perfino a dare suggerimenti minuziosi sulla logistica, su come posizionare o preparare la scena, eccetera. Eppure una delle cose che mi ha più colpito sono i passaggi in cui, di contro, parli dell’importanza dell’improvvisazione: quei preziosi momenti in cui – magari per quello che potrebbe sembrare a prima vista un incredibile colpo di fortuna – il numero travalica l’intento originario, e diventa qualcosa di più, sorprendendo perfino te stesso. Questo tipo di “fiuto” che ti permette di volgere la casualità a tuo favore, ho il sospetto che nasca proprio dalla meticolosità della preparazione, dall’esperienza. In che misura lasci la porta aperta all’imprevisto?

Un mentalista deve saper cogliere ogni situazione che si crea durante la performance, e volgerla a proprio favore. Non di rado, sia sul palco che in one-to-one, un’informazione ricevuta dallo spettatore permette di creare una variazione che risulta molto più potente dell’effetto magico programmato che, a quel punto, passa in secondo piano e può essere accantonato.
Chiaramente ogni improvvisazione, sia in ambito musicale che teatrale o illusionistico, necessita di una perfetta conoscenza della materia: da qui la maniacale preparazione di tutta l’impalcatura che deve sorreggere una mia performance.
Questa caratteristica di cambiare repentinamente traiettoria è anche una delle differenze che si notano tra gli illusionisti ed i sensitivi: i primi solitamente propongono allo spettatore uno schema che rimane invariato indipendentemente da ciò che lo spettatore comunica (volontariamente o involontariamente). Al contrario i sensitivi, dai quali io prendo ispirazione, sono estremamente opportunisti e se colgono uno spiraglio da cui possono trarre maggior stupore lo utilizzano al volo. Certo, è molto meno faticoso proporre una routine magica in modo “meccanico”, ma penso che la seconda strada porti a risultati eccezionali, e regali grande soddisfazione anche allo spettatore.

Qual è il tuo consiglio d’oro per qualcuno che volesse muovere i primi passi sulla strada del mentalismo?

Vorresti conseguire il brevetto di volo in una scuola dove nessun insegnante ha mai volato? Piuttosto rischioso… Eppure in questi anni ho visto nascere corsi di mentalismo tenuti da performer che non hanno mai fatto uno show in vita loro. Analoga situazione per i libri e i corsi online: hanno la pretesa di spiegare tecniche ed effetti, ma del loro ideatore non trovi traccia. Hai un bel cercare uno show del “docente” per andare a vederlo in scena, è tutto inutile: mai una foto di lui sul palco, mai una recensione. Ecco perché consiglio di frequentare lezioni e corsi tenuti di mentalisti che lavorano sul serio a contatto con il pubblico, che fanno davvero spettacolo.
Diverso è il discorso per i libri di storia dell’illusionismo, di storytelling e di principi generali: in Italia abbiamo scrittori riconosciuti in tutto il mondo, uno per tutti Mariano Tomatis che con il suo ambizioso progetto Mesmer – Lezioni di mentalismo ha realizzato una vera e propria enciclopedia relativa alla storia del mentalismo partendo dal ‘700.

Anche il mestiere ideale ha sempre qualche lato frustrante. C’è qualche aspetto del tuo lavoro che proprio non ti va giù?

La frustrazione inizia quando non si è più in grado di esprimere se stessi dal punto di vista artistico. Per questo motivo cerco sempre di rinnovarmi, e presentare testi che siano stimolanti per me, prima ancora che per il pubblico. Per ora non ho incontrato aspetti negativi, forse perché il mentalismo, pur essendo la mia professione, non riesco ancora a considerarlo un lavoro: rimane sempre la più grande delle mie passioni.

Ecco il sito ufficiale di Francesco Busani.

Booksigning 2016

There will be plenty of opportunities to meet before the year is over.

His Anatomical Majesty will be presented at the University of Padova on November 22. Here are the event details:


But that’s not all. Besides the usual appointment at Lucca Comics & Games (tomorrow you will find me there, at the stand Logos, E137 Napoleone), I will also be in Florence on November 3 to converse with Claudio Romo, author of Nueva Carne — not to mention all the events of the Academy of Enchantment, taking place every Sunday in Rome.

If you want your book copy signed, if you would love to chat a bit about those topics you never get to discuss with anybody (because how-can-you-like-things-like-that) or even just to drop by and say hello, here is my schedule.
See you soon!

The Punished Suicide

This article originally appeared on Death & The Maiden, a website exploring the relationship between women and death.

Padova, Italy. 1863.

One ash-grey morning, a young girl jumped into the muddy waters of the river which ran just behind the city hospital. We do not know her name, only that she worked as a seamstress, that she was 18 years old, and that her act of suicide was in all probability provoked by “amorous delusion”.
A sad yet rather unremarkable event, one that history could have well forgotten – hadn’t it happened, so to speak, in the right place and time.

The city of Padova was home to one of the oldest Universities in history, and it was also recognized as the cradle of anatomy. Among others, the great Vesalius, Morgagni and Fallopius had taught medicine there; in 1595 Girolamo Fabrici d’Acquapendente had the first stable anatomical theater built inside the University’s main building, Palazzo del Bo.
In 1863, the chair of Anatomical Pathology at the University was occupied by Lodovico Brunetti (1813-1899) who, like many anatomists of his time, had come up with his own process for preserving anatomical specimens: tannization. His method consisted in drying the specimens and injecting them with tannic acid; it was a long and difficult procedure (and as such it would not go on to have much fortune) but nonetheless gave astounding results in terms of quality. I have had the opportunity of feeling the consistency of some of his preparations, and still today they maintain the natural dimensions, elasticity and softness of the original tissues.
But back to our story.

When Brunetti heard about the young girl’s suicide, he asked her body be brought to him, so he could carry out his experiments.
First he made a plaster cast of the her face and upper bust. Then he peeled away all of the skin from her head and neck, being especially careful as to preserve the girl’s beautiful golden hair. He then proceeded to treat the skin, scouring it with sulfuric ether and fixing it with his own tannic acid formula. Once the skin was saved from putrefaction, he laid it out over the plaster cast reproducing the girl’s features, then added glass eyes and plaster ears to his creation.

But something was wrong.
The anatomist noticed that in several places the skin was lacerated. Those were the gashes left by the hooks men had used to drag the body out of the water, unto the banks of the river.
Brunetti, who in all evidence must have been a perfectionist, came up with a clever idea to disguise those marks.

He placed some wooden branches beside her chest, then entwined them with tannised snakes, carefully mounting the reptiles as if they were devouring the girl’s face. He poured some red candle wax to serve as blood spurts, and there it was: a perfect allegory of the punishment reserved in Hell to those who committed the mortal sin of  suicide.

He called his piece The Punished Suicide.

Now, if this was all, Brunetti would look like some kind of psychopath, and his work would just be unacceptable and horrifying, from any kind of ethical perspective.
But the story doesn’t end here.
After completing this masterpiece, the first thing Brunetti did was showing it to the girl’s parents.
And this is where things take a really weird turn.
Because the dead girl’s parents, instead of being dismayed and horrified, actually praised him for the precision shown in reproducing their daughter’s features.
So perfectly did I preserve her physiognomy – Brunetti proudly noted, – that those who saw her did easily recognize her”.

But wait, there’s more.
Four years later, the Universal Exposition was opening in Paris, and Brunetti asked the University to grant him funds to take the Punished Suicide to France. You would expect some kind of embarrassment on the part of the university, instead they happily financed his trip to Paris.
At the Exposition, thousands of spectators swarmed in from all around the world to see the latest innovations in technology and science, and saw the Punished Suicide. What would you think happened to Brunetti then? Was he hit by scandal, was his work despised and criticized?
Not at all. He won the Grand Prix in the Arts and Professions.

If you feel kind of dizzy by now, well, you probably should.
Looking at this puzzling story, we are left with only two options: either everybody in the whole world, including Brunetti, was blatantly insane; or there must exist some kind of variance in perception between our views on mortality and those held by people at the time.
It always strikes me how one does not need to go very far back in time to feel this kind of vertigo: all this happened less than 150 years ago, yet we cannot even begin to understand what our great-great-grandfathers were thinking.
Of course, anthropologists tell us that the cultural removal of death and the medicalization of dead bodies are relatively recent processes, which started around the turn of the last century. But it’s not until we are faced with a difficult “object” like this, that we truly grasp the abysmal distance separating us from our ancestors, the intensity of this shift in sensibility.
The Punished Suicide is, in this regard, a complex and wonderful reminder of how society’s boundaries and taboos may vary over a short period of time.
A perfect example of intersection between art (whether or not it encounters our modern taste), anatomy (it was meant to illustrate a preserving method) and the sacred (as an allegory of the Afterlife), it is one of the most challenging displays still visible in the ‘Morgagni’ Museum of Anatomical Pathology in Padova.

This nameless young girl’s face, forever fixed in tormented agony inside her glass case, cannot help but elicit a strong emotional response. It presents us with many essential questions on our past, on our own relationship with death, on how we intend to treat our dead in the future, on the ethics of displaying human remains in Museums, and so on.
On the account of all these rich and fruitful dilemmas, I like to think her death was at least not entirely in vain.

The “Morgagni” Museum of Pathology in Padova is the focus of the latest entry in the Bizzarro Bazar Collection, His Anatomical Majesty. Photography by Carlo Vannini. The story of the ‘Punished Suicide’ was unearthed by F. Zampieri, A. Zanatta and M. Rippa Bonati on Physis, XLVIII(1-2):297-338, 2012.