Merry Christmas!

During this holiday season, more than ever, there’s been so much talking about trees.
It seems that the latest fad is positioning Christmas trees upside down. I have my doubts about the “medieval origins” of this “tradition” (as some suggested), but upside down trees definitely have a bizarre and surreal element which I do not dislike.

But here in Italy, and especially in Rome, we’ve been also talking about “Mangy” Christmas trees that fell short of everybody’s expectations.
Leaving all political issues aside, I would like to take these “deviant” trees as a pretext to wish you all a weird, nonconventional, offbeat Christmas.

And to do this, there’s nothing better that this funny little story, narrated by Tom Waits during one of his gigs.

Once upon a time in a forest, there were two trees: there was the crooked tree, and there was the straight tree. And all day long the straight tree would look over at the crooked tree, saying “Look at you, you’re crooked! You’re crooked — look at your branches, they’re crooked too! Even your leaves, they’re crooked! You’re probably crooked underground as well… but look at me. I’m tall. I’m straight. But you’re crooked!”
So one day… the lumberjacks came into the forest.
And they took a look around. And one of them said “Bob, cut off the straight trees.”
And that crooked tree is still there to this day, growing stronger, and stranger, every day.

Happy Holidays!

“Rachel”: Between Fairy Tales and Anatomy

The last time I wrote about my friend and mentor Stefano Bessoni was four years ago, when his book and short film Gallows Songs came out. Many things have happened since then. Stefano has been teaching in countless stop motion workshops in Italy and abroad, and he published some handbooks on the subject (an introductory book, together with first and second level animation textbooks); but he also continued to explore children’s literature by reinterpreting some classics such as Alice, Pinocchio, the Wizard of Oz and the traditional figure of Mr. Punch / Pulcinella.

Bessoni’s last effort is called Rachel, a thrilling work for several reasons.

First of all, this is the reincarnation of a project Stefano has been working on for decades: when I first met him – eons ago – he was already raising funds for a movie entitled The Land of Inexact Sciences, to this day one of the most genuinely original scripts I have ever read.

Set during the Great War in a faraway village lost on the ocean shores, it told the story of a seeker of wonders in a fantastic world; eccentric characters roamed this land, obsessed with anomalous and pataphysical sciences, amongst ravenous wunderkammern, giant squid hunters, mad anatomists, taverns built inside beached whales, apocriphal zoology shops, ventriloquists, ghosts and homunculi.

A true compendium of Bessoni’s poetics, stemming from his love for dark fairy tales, for the aesthetics of cabinets of curiosities, for 18th Century natural philosophy and Nick Cave’s macabre ballads.

Today Stefano is bringing this very peculiar universe back to life, and Rachel is only one piece of the puzzle. It is in fact the first volume of the Inexact Sciences tetralogy, which will be published every six months and will include three more titles dedicated to the other protagonists of the story: Rebecca, Giona and Theophilus.

Rachel is a sort of prequel, or backstory, for the actual plot: it’s the story of a strange and melancholic little girl, who lives alone in a house on a cliff, in the company of some unlikely imaginary friends. But a terrible revelation awaits…

Although reimagined, the main character is based on the real historical figure of Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750), daughter of famous Dutch anatomist Frederik Ruysch (about whom I’ve written before).

As Bessoni writes:

It is said that Rachel helped her father with his preparations, and that she was actually very good at it. A proof of this unusual childhood activity is her presence in a famous painting by Jan van Neck where, dressed as a little boy, she assists her father during an anatomy lesson on a dissected newborn baby. Rachel’s job was to dress with lace and decorate with flowers the anatomical creations, preserved in a fluid Ruysch had named liquor balsamicus, an extraordinary mixture which could fix in time the ephemeral beauty of dead things; many of these specimens, now on display in museum, still maintain their original skin complexion and the softness of a live body.

But Rachel’s fate was different from what I imagined in my story. She abandoned medicine and anatomy, and grew up to be a very good artist specializing in still life paintings and portraits, one of the very few female artists of her time that we know of. Some of her works are now on display at the Uffizi and at the Palatine Gallery in Florence.

Rachel Ruysch, Still Life with Basket Full of Flowers and Herbs With Insects, 1711

At this point, I feel I should make a confession: Bessoni’s books have always been like a special compass to me. Each time I can’t focus or remember my direction anymore, I only need to take one of his books from the shelf and all of a sudden his illustrations show me what is really essential: because Stefano’s work reflects such a complete devotion to the side of himself that is able to be amazed. And such a purity is precious.

You only need to look at the love with which, in Rachel, he pays homage to Ruysch’s fabulous lost dioramas; behind the talking anatomical dolls, the chimeras, the little children preserved in formaline, or his trademark crocodile skulls, there is no trace of adulteration, no such thing as the mannerism of a recognized artist. There’s only an enthusiastic, childish gaze, still able to be moved by enchantment, still filled with onirical visions of rare beauty — for instance the Zeppelin fleets hovering in the sky over the cliff where little Rachel lives.

This is why knowing that his most ambitious and personal project has come back to light fills me with joy.
And then there’s one more reason.

After so many years, and taking off from these very books, The Inexact Sciences is about to turn into a stop motion feature film, and this time for real. Currently in development, the movie will be a France-Italy co-production, and has alreay been recognized a “film of national interest” by the Italian Ministry of Culture (MiBACT).

And who wouldn’t want these characters, and this macabre, funny world, to come alive on the screen?

Rachel by Stefano Bessoni is available (in Italian) here.

Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 11

As the old saying goes, “Never read Bizzarro Bazar while preparing dinner”.

  • A virtual version of the Library of Babel imagined by Borges has been online for some time now. Wandering around the hexagones and going through random books is a dizzying experience — there are volumes which contain your name, but also everything you’ve done today or you will do tomorrow; but to fully grasp the immense scope of the project, this analysis by Virio Guido Stipa is absolutely excellent [Italian language only].
  • F.A.Q.: what is one of the most disgusting things that could happen during decomposition? If you have to ask, you probably don’t know adipocere. Keep up with this Atlas Obscura article.
  • Did we need H. R. Giger to design the Alien egg? No, it would have been enough to look at this nice little mushroom called Clathrus archeri.

  • Remember my Museum of Failure? Here’s a recent addition: Caproni’s Transaereo. Featuring eight engines and three sets of triple wings, for a total of nine wings, it was designed to transport up to 100 passengers over the Atlantic ocean. It flew only two times, on February 12 and March 4 1921, taking off from Lake Maggiore. It plummeted into the water at the end of the second flight, suffering serious damages and thus ending the ambitious tests.

The dream

The reality

  • New Year’s resolution: finding a patron who will hire me as a decorative garden hermit. I’ve already got the beard.
  • Italian newspaper Repubblica published a nice video on the Neapolitan tradition of femminielli — an incredible popular strategy to elaborate and accept diversity by making it “theatrical”. But then again, as Orson Welles put it, “Italy is the home of 50 million actors, and the only bad ones are on the stage.
  • In 1671, Dutch writer Arnoldus Montanus wrote a book entitled “The New and Unknown World: or Description of America and the Southland, Containing the Origin of the Americans and South-landers, remarkable voyages thither, Quality of the Shores, Islands, Cities, Fortresses, Towns, Temples, Mountains, Sources, Rivers, Houses, the nature of Beasts, Trees, Plants and foreign Crops, Religion and Manners, Miraculous Occurrences, Old and New Wars: Adorned with Illustrations drawn from the life in America, and described by Arnoldus Montanus”.
    The printed title was so long that, clearly, no space was left for a small caveat: the fact that good old Arnoldus had never actually left Europe his entire life. And, to be fair, the illustrations kind of gave it away:

  • A moment of absolute wonder:

  • The cave in the above picture is not a natural cave. It was bored using a beam of pressurized water. For what purpose?
    Welcome to the world of illegal mammoth hunters.

  • Mentalfloss published an article that would have been perfect in my series of posts called “A Love that Would Not Die” (here, here and, in English, this last one): the story of a Missouri widow who installed a small window on her husband’s grave so she could keep watching his face.
  • In Varanasi the smoke of cremations never ceases; tourists take pictures, enraptured by this deep spiritual experience. But someone has a different view on things: Gagan Chaudhary, one of the “untouchables” who are in charge of the funeral pires. Alcohol and ganja, to which he’s been addicted since he was thirteen, allow him not to faint from the smell; his legs are devastated with wounds and scars; his life was spent amidst abuse, violence and horrible visions. He recounts his experience in a touching article on LiveMint: “I’ve seen bodies where the skin has been ripped apart; I’ve seen bodies with tongues hanging out and blood flowing from orifices. […] I’ve seen bodies cut up and stitched back to a whole. I’ve seen headless corpses; I’ve seen bodies covered with scars. And I’ve burnt them all.

  • Balthus is back in the news, on the account of an online petition to remove (or at least contextualize, as it was subsequently declared, to adjust the tone) one of his works exhibited at New York MET. Once again the shadow of pedophilia haunts his paintings: an occasion to reflect on the role of art (is it pure signifier, or should we evaluate it from an ethical perspective?); and to reread the article I devoted to this thorny issue a couple of years ago.
  • WoodSwimmer is an incredible stop-motion video. Brett Foxwell produced it by cutting logs and pieces of wood in thin slices, and progressively scanning these sections. In his words, “a straightforward technique but one which is brutally tedious to complete“.

  • The tool in the following picture is a head clamp. In Victorian times it was used to secure the back of the neck of a subject in photographic sessions, during long exposure times.
    You already figured out where we’re going: in post mortem pictures this was used to fix bodies into natural poses, as if they were still alive, right?
    Well, not quite. Time for a bit of debunking on post mortem photography.

This image comes from an article entitled The Truth About Post Mortem Photography. Never write anything beginning with “The Truth About”.

  • During the last 59 years, Jim “Antlerman” Phillips has been scouring the hills of Montana looking for elk, deer or antelope antlers. He now has a collection of more than 16.000 pieces. (Thanks, Riccardo!)

That’s all for now: I shall leave you with a festive bone GIF, and remind you that if you run out of ideas for Christmas presents, maybe a little colorful book about the quirky side of Paris could do the trick.

Philipp Wiechern, Boneflacke Collection, 2012.

Pestilence, Sacred Trees And A Glass of Tonic Water

I have a soft spot for tonic water. Maybe because it’s the only soda beverage with a taste I never fully understood, impossible to describe: an ambiguous aroma, a strange contrast between that pinch of sugar and a sour vein that makes your palate dry.
Every now and then, during summer evenings, I happen to take a sip on my balcony while I watch the Alban Hills, where the Roman Castles cling to a long-dead volcano. And as I bring the glass to my lips, I can’t help thinking about how strange history of mankind can be.

Kings, wars, crusades, invasions, revolutions and so on. What is the most powerful cause for change? What agent produced the most dramatic long-term modification of human society?
The answer is: epidemics.
According to some historians, no other element has had such a profound impact on our culture, so much so that without the Plague, social and scientific progress as we know it might not have been possible (I wrote about this some time ago). With each stroke of epidemic, the survivors were left less numerous and much richer, so the arts and sciences could develop and flourish; but the plague also changed the history of medicine and its methods.

“Plague” is actually a very generic word, just like “disease”: it was used throughout history to define different kinds of epidemic. Among these, one of the most ancient and probably the worst that ever hit mankind, was malaria.

It is believed that malaria killed more people than all other causes of death put together throughout the entire human history.
In spite of an impressive reduction of the disease burden in the last decade, the World Health Organization estimates that as many as 300 million people are infected by the disease every year. That’s about the size of the entire US population. Of those who fall sick, more than 400,000 die every year, mostly children: malaria claims the life of one child every two minutes.

Malaria takes its name from the Italian words “mala aria”, the bad air one could breathe in the marshes and swamps that surrounded the city of Rome. It was believed that the filthy, smelly air was the cause of the ague. (Giovanni Maria Lancisi suggested in 1712 that mosquitoes might have something to do with the epidemic, but only at the end of the Nineteenth century Sir Ronald Ross, an English Nobel-awarded gentleman, proved that malaria is transmitted by the Anopheles mosquito.)

Back in Medieval Rome, every summer brought back the scourge, and people died by the hundreds. The plague hit indistinctively: it killed aristocrats, warriors, peasants, cardinals, even Popes. As Goffredo da Viterbo wrote in 1167, “When unable to defend herself by the sword, Rome could defend herself by means of the fever”.

Malaria was widespread throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa. Yet, no one knew exactly what it was, nor did they know how to treat it. There was no cure, no remedy.

Well, this is the part that really blows my mind. I cannot shake the feeling that someone was playing a bad joke on us humans. Because, actually, there was a remedy. But the mocking Gods had placed it in a land which had never been attained by malaria. Worse: it was in a land that no one had discovered yet.

As Europe continued to be ravaged by the terrible marsh fevers, the solution was lying hidden in the jungles of Peru.

Enter the Jesuits.
Their first mission in Peru was founded in 1609. Jesuits could not perform medicine: the instructions left by the founder of the order, St Ignatius of Loyola, forbade his followers to become doctors, for they should only focus on the souls of men. Despite being expressly forbidden to practice medicine, Jesuit priests often turned their attention to the study of herbs and plants. Father Agustino Salumbrino was a Jesuit, and a pharmacist. He was among the firsts missionaries in Peru, and he lived in the College of San Pablo in Lima, putting his knowledge of pharmacy to good use as he built what would become the best and biggest pharmacy in the whole New World. Jesuits wanted to convert the natives to Catholicism, but understood that it couldn’t be done by means of force: first they needed to understand the indios and their culture. The native healers, of course, knew all sorts of plant remedies, and the priests took good notice of all this knowledge, picking never-before-seen plants and herbs, recording and detailing their effects.
That’s when they noted that the Indians who lived in the Andes sometimes drank infusions of a particular bark to stop from shivering. The Jesuits made the connection: maybe that bark could be effective in the treatment of marsh fevers.

By the early 1630s Father Salumbrino (possibly with the help of another Jesuit, Bernabé Cobo) decided to send a small bundle of this dried bark back to Rome, to see if it could help with malaria.
In Rome, at the time, there was another extraordinary character: Cardinal Juan De Lugo, director of the pharmacy of the Hospital Santo Spirito. He was the one responsible for turning the pharmacy from an artisan studio to something approaching an industrial production line: under his direction, the apothecary resembled nothing that had gone before it, either in scale or vision. Thousands of jars and bottles. shelves filled with recipes for preparations of medicines, prescriptions for their use and descriptions of illnesses and symptoms. De Lugo would cure the poor, distributing free medicine. When the Peruvian bark arrived in Rome, De Lugo understood its potential and decided to publicize the medicine as much as he could: this was the first remedy that actually worked against the fever.

Peru handing Science a cinchona branch (XVII C. etching).

The bark of the cinchona tree contains 4 different alkaloids that act against the malaria parasite, the most important of which is quinine. Quinine’s secret is that it calms the fever and shivering but also kills the parasite that causes malaria, so it can be used both as a cure and a preventive treatment.

But not everyone was happy with the arrival of this new, miraculous bark powder.

First of all, it had been discovered by Jesuits. Therefore, all Protestants immediately refused to take the medicine. They just could not accept that the cure for the most ancient and deadly of diseases came from their religious rivals. So, in Holland, Germany and England pretty much everybody rejected the cure.
Secondly, the bark was awfully bitter. “We knew it, those Jesuits are trying to poison us!

But maybe the most violent refusal came from the world of medicine itself.
This might not come as a surprise, once you know how doctors treated malaria before quinine. Many medieval cures involved transferring the disease onto animals or objects: a sheep was brought into the bedroom of a fever patient, and holy chants were recited to displace the ailment from the human to the beast. One cure that was still popular in the seventeenth century involved a sweet apple and an incantation to the three kings who followed the star to Bethlehem: “Cut the apple into three parts. In the first part, write the words Ave Gaspari. In the second write Ave Balthasar, in the third Ave Melchior. Then eat each segment early on three consecutive mornings, and recite three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys”.

Even after the Middle Ages, the medical orthodoxy still blindly believed in Galen‘s teachings. Traditionalists who wanted to preserve the ancient doctrine of Galenic medicine at any cost felt the cinchona bark would overturn their view of the human body – and it was actually going to. According to Galen, fever was a bile-caused disorder: it was not a symptom but a disease in itself. A patient with a high fever was said to be suffering from “fermentation” of the blood. When fermented, blood behaved a little like boiling milk, producing a thick residue that to be got rid of before the patient could recover. For this reason the preferred treatments for fever were bleeding, purging, or both.
But Peruvian bark seemed to be curing the fever without producing any residue. How could it be possible?

The years passed, and the success of the cure came from those who tried it: no one knew why, but it worked. In time, cinchona bark would change the way doctors approached diseases: it would provide one of decisive blows against Galen’s doctrine, and open the door to modern medicine.

A big breakthrough for the acceptance of Jesuits Bark came from a guy named Robert Tabor. Talbor was not a doctor: he had no proper training, he was just a quack. But he managed to become quite famous and fashionable, and when summoned to cure Charles II of England of malaria, he used a secret remedy which he had been experimenting with. It worked, and of course it turned out to be the Jesuits powder, mixed with wine. Charles appointed Talbor as his personal physician much to the fury of the English medical establishment and sent him over to France where he proceeded to cure the King’s son too. Without really realizing it, Talbor had discovered the right way to administrate cinchona bark: the most potent mixtures were made by dissolving the powder into wine — not water — as the cinchona alkaloids were highly soluble in alcohol.

By the end of the 18th century, nearly three hundred ships were arriving in Spanish ports from the Americas every year — almost one each day. One out of three came from Peru, none of which ever failed to carry cinchona bark.

Caventou & Pelletier.

And in 1820, quinine was officially born: two scientists, Pelletier and Caventou, succeeded in isolating the chemical quinine and worked out how to extract the alkaloid from the wood. They named their drug from the original Inca word for the cinchona tree bark, quina or quina-quina, which means “bark of barks” or “holy bark”.

Many other battles were fought for quinine, lives were risked and lost. In the 1840s and 1850s British soldiers and colonials in India were using more than 700 tons of bark every year, but the Spanish had the monopoly on quinine. English and Dutch explorers began to smuggle seeds, and it was the Dutch who finally succeded in establishing plantations in Java, soon controlling the world’s supplies.

During WWII the Japanese occupied Java, and once more men wnt to war over tree bark extract; but fortunately this time a synthetic version of quinine was developed, and for the first time pharmaceutical companies were able to produce the drugs without the need for big plantations.

Troops based in the Colonies all consumed anti-fever, quinine-based pharmaceuticals, like for instance Warburg’s Tincture. This led to the creation, through the addition of soda, of several  QuinineTonic Waters; in 1870 Schweppe’s “Indian Tonic Water” was commercialized, based on the famous carbonated mineral water invented around 1790 by Swiss watchmaker Jacob Schweppe. Indian Tonic Water was specifically aimed at British colonials who started each day with a strong dose of bitter quinine sulphate. It contained citric acid, to dissolve the quinine, and a touch of sugar.

So here I am, now, looking at the Alban Hills. The place where I live is precisely where the dreaded ancient swamps once began; the deadly “bad air” originated from these very lands.
Of course, malaria was eradicated in the 1950s throughout the Italian peninsula. Yet every time I pour myself a glass of tonic water, and taste its bitter quinine flavor, I can’t help thinking about the strange history of mankind — in which a holy tree from across the ocean might prove more valuable than all the kings, wars and crusades in the world.

Most of the info in this post are taken from Fiammetta Rocco, The Miraculous Fever-Tree. Malaria, medicine and the cure that changed the world (2003 Harper-Collins).

Head Over Heels

Timothy Reckart is an animator and filmmaker, now in cinemas with his first feature film The Star. His short film Head Over Heels (2012), was developed as graduation work at London National Film and Television School: screened at Cannes Film Festival, it won over thirty international awards and was nominated as Best Animated Short at the 2013 Academy Awards.

At first glance, this stop-motion short film seems to follow a well-known pattern: it takes off from a surreal premise, then proceeds to explore all of its possible implications. But there’s more.
What really makes for an engaging experience is its stunning character development, which cleverly avoids the traps of mainstream romanticism. The elderly couple depicted in the movie is facing a daily routine made of mutual intolerance and little, rude acts of spite, at a time when any affection seems to be lost; with striking sensitivity, Reckart weaves a small parable on the glaciations every love story may inevitably go through.

Yet every crisis has two faces, being both destructive and fertile, and it can turn out to be a chance to start over.
In the director’s own words,

when two people are in love, it’s not this perfect machinery that you see in a Hollywood film, the moments don’t fall into place, you continuously have to make an effort and adjust […]. They’re different people and they constantly have to renew the effort to stay together. And actually it’s the differences and the difficulties that provide them opportunities to show love for each other.

An Odd Interview

If you read Bizzarro Bazar, you might know that I have long been following with admiration the work of Ayzad, who is an expert in alternative sexualities.
A great deal of intelligence, and a perfect lucidity are essential in order to tackle such sensible topics with a reliable yet light approach.

It’s not by chance that Ayzad’s website has been recently nominated by Kinkly fourth-best sex blog written by a male worldwide, and in the 27th overall position (among approximately 500 candidates).
His books and his blog are not just a treasure trove of scrupulous information, which is bound to surprise even those who fancy being experts in BDSM or extreme eros: Ayzad also willingly pursues a taste for the weird, in a constant balance between the fascination for our sexuality’s strangest incarnations, and a liberating laugh — because love among the Homo sapiens, let’s admit it, can sometimes be frankly comical.

Therefore, when he asked me if I would answer some questions for his website, I did not hesitate. What came out of it is not an interview, on the account of the intelligence I mentioned before, but rather an exchange of experiences between two seekers of oddities: one of the best discussions I had recently, where, perfectly at ease with each other, we even delved into some quite personal details (and avoided a quarrel, albeit a friendly one, by a narrow margin).

But I don’t want to spoil your read: here is a chat between an explorer of the Uncanny and a specialist of extreme sex.

Grotta Gino: In The Lair of The Stone People

Article by guestbloggers Alessia Cagnotto and Martina Huni

It is a fine October day, the sky is clear and the sun warms us as if we were still at the beginning of September. We are in Moncalieri, in front of a building that seems to have been meticulously saved from the ravagings of time. The facade is uniformly illuminated; the decors and windows cast very soft shadows, and the Irish-green signs stand out against the salmon pink brick walls, as do the white letters reading “Ristorante La Grotta Gino“.
The entrance shows nothing strange, but we do not let ourselves be deceived by this normality: we know what awaits us inside is far from ordinary.

Upon entering the small bar, we are greeted by a smiling girl who shows us the way to the fairy-tale restaurant.
On our left we see a few set tables, surrounded by ancient pots and pans hanging from the walls, old tools and photographs: our gaze follows these objects unto the opening of the lair that will take us inside another world.
Here we see standing two dark red caryatids, guarding the entrance of the path, and beyond them, the reassuring plaster gives way to a dark grey stone vault, as our eyes wander inside the tunnel lit only by a few spotlights stuck to the ceiling.

Once past the caryatids of the Real World, in order to proceed inside the cave — as in all good adventures — we see a moored boat awaiting to set sail; we soon find ourselves floating on a path of uncertain waters, aboard our personal ferry. Feeling at ease in Jim Hawkins‘ shoes, we decide to enjoy the trip and focus on the statues lined up on both sides of the canal.

Behind a slight bend along the way (more or less 50 meters on a stream of spring water), we meet the first group of stone characters, among which is standing the builder of the cave himself, Mr. Lorenzo Gino, together with the Gentleman King and a chubby cupid holding an inscription dedicated to King Victor Emmanuel.

The story of the Grotta is incredible: over a span of thirty years, from 1855 to 1885, Lorenzo Gino excavated this place all by himself, on the pretext of expanding his carpenter shop. The construction works encountered many difficulties, as he proceeded without following any blueprint or architectural plan, but were nonetheless completed with this amazing result.
In 1902 his son Giovanni dedicated a bust, the one we just passed by, to his father and his efforts; many journalists attended the inauguration of this statue, and a couple of books were published to advertise the astounding Grotta Gino.

Back in the days, the public already looked with wonder at these improvised tunnels where Gino placed depictions of real characters, well-known at the time.
The light coming from above further sculpts the lineaments of the statues, making their eyes look deeper, and from those shady orbits these personified stones fiercely return our curious gaze.
Proceeding along the miniature canal, we eventually dock at a small circular widening. A bit sorry that the ride is already over, we get off the boat and take a look inside the dark niche opening before us: two mustached men emerge from darkness, accompanied by a loyal hunting dog holding a hare in her mouth.

We realize with amazement that we’ve just begun a new adventurous path; we climb a few steps and stumble upon another group of statues standing in circle: they happily dance under a skylight drilled in the vaulted ceiling, which lets some natural sunlight enter this dark space. These rays are so unexpected they seem almost magical.

New burrows branch off from here. On our right there’s a straight tunnel, where calm waters run, reflecting wine bottles and strange little petrified creatures nestled in the walls. The half-busts, some gentlemen as high as their top hats, and an elegant melancholic dame all lean out over the stream, where a bratty little kid is playfully splashing around.

We smile perhaps, feeling in the belly of a whale. Our estrangement is intensified by the eerie lighting: very colorful neons turn the stone red, blue, purple, so we observe the surroundings like a child watches the world through a colored candy paper. The only thing that could bring us back to the reality of the 21st Century would be the sound coming from the radio, but its discrete volume is not enough to break the spell, to shake the feeling that those creatures are looking at us, amused by our astonishment.

We make our way through the tunnels as if searching for a magic treasure chest, hypnotized by the smallest detail; everywhere wine bottles lie covered in dust, while human figures carved in stone seem to point us towards the right way. We enter a semi-circular lair, filled with a number of bottles; we observe them, label after label, as they tower over us arranged on several levels: the bottles decorate a series of recesses inhabited by little, bizarre smiling creatures leaning over towards us. In the middle of this sort of miniature porch, stands a young man of white stone, even more joyful than his roommates, forever bound to celebrate the wine around him.

We keep moving in order to reach a new group of statues: this time there are more characters, once again arranged in a circle — gentlemen sporting a big moustache and high top hats stand beside a playful young fellow and a well-dressed lady with her bulky outfit; the shadows of the fabric match the mistress’ hairstyle. In the dim light, these statues suggest a slight melancholy: we can recognize mankind’s everlasting attempt to sculpt Time itself, to carve in stone a particular instant, a vision that we wouldn’t want to be lost and consumed; a mission that is unfortunately bound to fail because, as the saying goes, “the memory of happiness is not happiness”.
Four a couple of minutes, though, we actually manage to join this Feast of Stone, we walk around the partygoers, following the whirl suggested by their frozen movements.
We eventually leave, in silence, like unwanted guests, without having understood the reason for this celebration.

The burrows take us towards a slight rise, the moist path turns into a stairway. We climb the stairs, accustomed by now to the impressive half-busts keeping us company through the last part of our adventure.


A narrow wrought-iron spiral staircase, green as the signs we met on the outside, leads us back to our current era. Its very presence contrasts with one last, small statue hanging on the opposite wall: a white, fleshy but run-down cupid remains motionless under a little window, sunlight brushing against him. From his niche, he is destined to imagine the world without ever knowing it.

Our trip eventually reaches its end as we enter a big circular dining room, under a high dome. This is the place where receptions and events are usually held.

The way back, which we reluctantly follow, gifts us with one last magical sight before getting our feet back on the ground: seen from our boat, the light coming from outisde, past the red caryatids, appears excessively bright and reverberates on the water creating a weird, oblong reflection, reminding us of depictions in ancient books of legends and fables.

Upon exiting this enchanted lair, and coming back to the Real World, we find the October day still tastes like the beginning of Spetember.
With a smile we silently thank Mr. Lorenzo Gino for digging his little fairy tale inside reality, and for giving substance, by means of stone, to a desire we all harbor: the chance of playing and dreaming again, for a while, just like when we were kids.
When we could turn the world into something magic, by looking at it through a sticky and colorful candy paper.

“La Grotta Gino” is in Piazza Amedeo Ferdinando 2, Moncalieri (TO). Here is its official website and FB page.
On the blog of the speleological association Egeria Centro Ricerche Sotterranee there is an article (in Italian) mentioning the mystery of a second Grotta Gino near Milan.
Take a look at the beautiful photographs taken by the authors of this post: Alessia Cagnotto and Martina Huni.

A Computer In A Skirt

(This article originally appeared on #ILLUSTRATI n. 46: #HEROES)

Credits: NASA/Sean Smith

Next year this beautiful lady, Katherine Johnson, will turn one hundred. When she was a little girl, her father Joshua used to repeat to her: “You are as good as anybody in this town, but you’re no better”.
It was hard to believe you were as good as anybody else for a coloured little girl who had grown up in White Sulphur Springs, where education ended compulsorily with the eighth grade for anybody who was not white.
Katherine’s father, Joshua, worked as a farmer and handyman for the Greenbrier Hotel, the thermal resort where the wealthiest squires of all Virginia used to spend their holidays; it was perhaps for this reason that he wanted his daughter to follow her own path without hesitation, in spite of the segregationist barriers. If she wasn’t allowed to study in the small town where they lived, he was going to bring her to Institute, 130 miles further west.

Katherine, for her part, sped up the process: at the age of 14 she had already finished high school, at the age of 18 she earned a degree with honours in mathematics. In 1938 the Supreme Court established that “white-only” universities should admit coloured students, therefore in 1939 Katherine became the first African-American woman to attend the graduate school at the West Virginia University in Morgantown.
After completing her studies, however, a career was far from being guaranteed. Katherine wished she could take up research, but once again she had to cope with two disadvantages: she was a woman, and on top of that African-American.

She taught mathematics for more than ten years, waiting for a good chance which eventually presented itself in 1952. NASA (called NACA at the time) had started to employ both white and African-American mathematics, and offered her a job. Therefore in 1953 Katherine Johnson joined the very first team of the space agency.
She started working in the “computer in skirts” section, a pool of women whose job was to read the data from the black boxes of planes and carry out other mathematical tasks. One day Katherine was assigned to an all-male flight research team; she was supposed to work with them for a limited time, but Katherine’s knowledge of analytic geometry made her bosses “forget” to return her to her old position.

But she couldn’t escape segregation. Katherine was required to work, eat, and use restrooms in areas separated from those of her white peers. Regardless of whoever had carried out the work, reports were signed only by the men of the pool.
But Katherine had kept in mind her father’s words, and her strategy was to ignore what she was expected to do. She used to participate in the all-male engineering meetings, she signed reports in place of her male superiors, and in spite of any objection. Because she had never thought she was inferior – nor superior – to anybody.

That was a pioneering era and participating in the first Space Task Force in history meant venturing in completely new operations and facing unknown issues. With her competence and talent for geometry, Katherine was one of the most brilliant “human computers”. She calculated the trajectory of the first American space flight, the one of Alan Shepard in 1961.

Then at some point NASA decided to move on to electronic computers, dismantling the team of “human calculators”; the first flight programmed using the machines was that of John Glenn, who orbited around the Earth. But the astronaut himself refused to leave unless Katherine manually verified all the calculations made by the computers. She was the only one he trusted.
Later Katherine helped to calculate the trajectory of Apollo 11, launched in 1969. Seeing Neil Armstrong taking the first step on the Moon moved her, but only to a certain point: for somebody who had been working on that mission for years, this certainly came as no surprise.

For a long time, little was known about the work carried out by Katherine (and her colleagues): overlooked for decades by a society that was always reluctant to acknowledge her real value, today her name is studied at school and her story has been recently narrated by the film Hidden figures (2016, directed by Theodore Melfi). The contribution offered by Katherine to the space race is now regarded as essential – although the ones who became heroes were those astronauts who could have never left the Earth soil without her precise calculations.

Smiling, about to turn one hundred, Katherine Johnson continues to repeat: “I’m as good as anybody, but no better”.

 

Links, curiosities & mixed wonders – 10

Here’s another plate of fresh links and random weirdness to swallow in one bite, like the above frog did with a little snake.

  • In Madagascar there is a kind of double burial called famadihana: somewhat similar to the more famous Sulawesi traditionfamadihana consists in exhuming the bodies of the departed, equipping them with a new and clean shroud, and then burying them again. But not before having enjoyed one last, happy dance with the dead relative.

  • Whining about your writer’s block? Francis van Helmont, alchemist and close friend of  famed philosopher Leibniz, was imprisoned by the Inquisition and wrote a book in between torture sessions. Besides obviously being a tough guy, he also had quite original ideas: according to his theory, ancient Hebrew letters were actually diagrams showing how lips and mouth should be positioned in order to pronounce the same letters. God, in other words, might have “printed” the Hebrew alphabet inside our very anatomy.

  • Reason #4178 to love Japan: giant rice straw sculptures.
  • At the beginning of the last century, it was legal to send babies through the mail in the US. (Do we have a picture? Of course we do.)

  • In France, on the other hand, around the year 1657 children were eager to play a nice little game called Fart-In-The-Face (“Back in my day, we had one toy, and it was our…“).

  • James Ballard was passionate for what he called “invisible literature”: sales recepits, grocery lists, autopsy reports, assembly instructions, and so on. I find a similar thrill in seeking 19th-century embalming handbooks: such technical, professional publications, if read today, always have a certain surreal je ne sais quoi. And sometimes they also come with exceptional photographs, like these taken from a 1897 book.

  • In closing, I would like to remind you of two forthcoming appointments: on October 29, at 7pm, I will be in Rome at Giufà Libreria Caffe’ to present Tabula Esmeraldina, the latest visionary work by my Chilean friend Claudio Romo.
    On November 3-5, you will find me at Lucca Comics & Games, stand NAP201, signing copies of Paris Mirabilia and chatting with readers of Bizzarro Bazar. See you there!

 

Children of the Grave

They give birth astride of a grave,
the light gleams an instant,
then it’s night once more.

(S. Beckett, Aspettando Godot)

An Italian Horror Story

Castel del Giudice, Italy.
On the 5th of August 1875, a pregnant woman, indicated in the documents with the initials F. D’A., died during labor, before being able to give birth to her child.
On the following day, without respecting the required minimum waiting time before interment, her body was lowered into the cemetery’s fossa carnaria. This was a kind of collective burial for the poorest classes, still common at the time in hundreds of Italian communes: it consisted in a sealed underground space, a room or a pit, where the corpses were stacked and left to rot (some inside coffins, others wrapped in simple shrouds).

For the body of F. D’A., things began to get ugly right from the start:

She had to be lowered in the pit, so the corpse was secured with a rope, but the rope broke and D’A.’s poor body fell from a certain height, her head bumping into a casket. Some people climbed down, they took D’A. and arranged her on her back upon a nearby coffin, where she laid down with a deathly pale face, her hands tied together and resting on her abdomen, her legs joined by stitched stockings. Thus, and not otherwise, D’A. was left by the participants who buried her.

But when, a couple of days later, the pit was opened again in order to bury another deceased girl, a terrible vision awaited the bystanders:

F. D’A.’s sister hurried to give a last goodbye to her dead relative, but as soon as she looked down to the place where her sister was laid to rest, she had to observe the miserable spectacle of her sister placed in a very different position from the one she had been left in; between her legs was the fetus she had given birth to, inside the grave, and together with whom she had miserably died. […] Officers immediately arrived, and found D’A.’s body lying on her left side, her face intensely strained; her hands, still tied by a white cotton ribbon, formed an arch with her arms and rested on her forehead, while pieces of white ribbon were found between her teeth […]. At the mother’s feet stood a male newborn child with his umbilical cord, showing well-proportioned and developed limbs.

Imagine the horror of the poor woman, waking up in the dark in the grip of labor pains; with her last remaining energy she had succeeded in giving birth to her child, only to die shortly after, “besieged by corpses, lacking air, assistance or food, and exhausted by the blood loss suffered during delivery“.
One could hardly picture a more dreadful fate.

The case had a huge resonance all across Italy; a trial took place at the Court of Isernia, and the town physician, the mayor and the undertaker were found guilty of two involuntary murders “aggravated by gross negligence“, sentenced to six months in jail and fined (51 liras) – but the punishment was later cut by half by the Court of Appeal of Naples in November 1877.
This unprecedented reduction of penalty was harshly criticized by the Times correspondant in Italy, who observed that “the circumstances of the case, if well analyzed, show the slight value which is attached to human life in this country“; the news also appeared in the New York Times as well as in other British and American newspapers.

This story, however scary – because it is so scary – should be taken with a pinch of salt.
There’s more than one reason to be careful.

Buried Alive?

First of all, the theme of a pregnant woman believed dead and giving birth in a grave was already a recurring motif in the Nineteeth Century, as taphophobia (the fear of being buried alive) reached its peak.

Folklorist Paul Barber in his Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality (1988) argues that the number of people actually buried alive was highly exaggerated in the chronicles; a stance also shared by Jan Bondeson, who in one of the most complete books on the subject, Buried Alive, shows how the large majority of nineteenth-century premature burial accounts are not reliable.

For the most part it would seem to be a romantic, decadent literary topos, albeit inspired by a danger that was certainly real in the past centuries: interpreting the signs of death was a complex and often approximate procedure, so much so that by the 1700s some treatises (the most famous one being Winslow‘s) introduced a series of measures to verify with greater accuracy the passing of a patient.

A superficial knowledge of decomposition processes could also lead to misunderstandings.
When bodies were exhumed, it was not uncommon to find their position had changed; this was due to the cadaver’s natural tendency to move during decomposition, and to be sometimes subjected to small “explosions” caused by putrefaction gasses – explosions that are powerful enough to rotate the body’s upper limbs. Likewise, the marks left by rodents or other scavengers (loose dirt, scratches, bite marks, torn clothes, fallen hair) could be mistaken for the deceased person’s desperate attempts at getting out.

Yet, as we’ve said, there was a part of truth, and some unfortunate people surely ended up alive inside a coffin. Even with all our modern diagnostic tools, every now and then someone wakes up in a morgue. But these events are, today like yesterday, extremely rare, and these stories speak more about a cultural fear rather than a concrete risk.

Coffin Birth

If being buried alive was already an exceptional fact, then the chances of a pregnant woman actually giving birth inside a grave look even slimmer. But this idea – so charged with pathos it could only fascinate the Victorian sensibility – might as well have come from real observations. Opening a woman’s grave and finding a stillborn child must have looked like a definitive proof of her premature burial.
What wasn’t known at the time is that the fetus can, in rare circumstances, be expelled postmortem.

Anaerobic microorganisms, which start the cadaver’s putrefactive phase, release several gasses during their metabolic activity. During this emphysematous stage, internal tissues stretch and tighten; the torso, abdomen and legs swell; the internal pressure caused by the accumulation of gas can lead, within the body of a woman in the late stages of pregnancy, to a separation of amniotic membranes, a prolapse of the uterus and a subsequent total or partial extrusion of the fetus.
This event appears to be more likely if the dead woman has been pregnant before, on the account of a more elastic cervix.
This  strange phenomenon is called Sarggeburt (coffin birth) in early German forensic literature.

The first case of postmortem delivery dates back to 1551, when a woman hanged on the gallows released, four hours after her execution, the bodies of two twins, both dead. (A very similar episode happened in 2007 in India, when a woman killed herself during labor; in that instance, the baby was found alive and healthy.)
In Brussels, in 1633, a woman died of convulsions and three days later a fetus was spontaneously expelled. The same thing happened in Weißenfels, Saxony, in 1861. Other cases are mentioned in the first medical book to address this strange event, Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine, published in 1896, but for the most part these accidents occurred when the body of the mother had yet to be buried.
It was John Whitridge Williams who, in his fortunate Obstetrics: a text-book for the use of students and practitioners (1904), pointed to the possibility of postmortem delivery taking place after burial.

Fetal extrusion after the mother’s death has also been observed in recent times.

A 2005 case involved a woman who died in her apartment from acute heroine intoxication: upon finding her body, it was noted that the fetus head was protruding from the mother’s underwear; but later on, during the autopsy, the upper part of the baby’s torso was also visible – a sign that gasses had continued to build in the abdominal region, increasing interior pressure.
In 2008 a 38 year-old, 7 months pregnant woman was found murdered in a field in advanced state of decomposition, accelerated by tropical climate. During the autopsy a fetus was found inside the woman’s slips, the umbilical cord still attached to the placenta (here is the forensic case study – WARNING: graphic).

Life In Death

So, going back to that unfortunate lady from Castel del Giudice, what really happened to her?
Sure, the autopsy report filed at the time and quoted in the trial papers mentioned the presence of air in the baby’s lungs, a proof that the child was born alive. And it’s possible that this was the case.

But on one hand this story fits all too perfectly within a specific popular narrative of its time, whose actual statistical incidence has been doubted by scholars; on the other, the possibility of postmortem fetal extrusion is well-documented, so much so that even archeologists sometimes struggle to interpret ancient skeletal findings showing fetuses still partially enclosed within the pelvic bone.

The only certain thing is that these stories – whether they’re authentic or made up – have an almost archetypal quality; birth and death entwined in a single place and time.
Maybe they’re so enthralling because, on a symbolic level, they remind us of a peculiar truth, one expressed in a famous verse from
ManiliusAstronomica:

Nascentes morimur, finisque ab origine pendet.

As we are born we die, our end commences with our beginning.”