The Homunculus Inside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four-legged Espionage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Their excitement, alas, was short lived.

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

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

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

You can choose your favorite ending.

Dreams of Stone

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2017: A New Year of Wonders

New Year’s Day is just a convention; yet this holiday’s ultimate meaning is to make us aware of seasons, of the cyclic nature of things, to remind us that Time is both an incessant end and a continuous beginning. We suddenly feel able to turn the page, to start anew, allowing ourselves those very reveries and hopes we held back until the day before. New Year’s Day is the time to dream new dreams.

As for Bizzarro Bazar, 2017 promises to be an annus mirabilis: plenty of new things coming our way.
I still have to keep most of these projects secret (they wouldn’t be suprises, would they), but all will be revealed in due time throughout the year.

A first anticipation leaked out yesterday on Facebook.
Cult+, an RSI (Swiss Radio and Television) web format, will devote some episodes of the next season to the macabre and curious side of Rome: who do you think they called to be their guide?

The eccentric Ronco (Stefano Roncoroni, creator of the series), asked me to introduce him not just to the darker side of the Capital and Italy’s macabre heritage, but also to Rome’s underworld of seekers, scholars and creators of wonder.
An ever more present reality, which — I say this with a bit of pride — is emerging also thanks to this blog acting as a catalyst, in particular with the successful initiatives of the Academy of Enchantment. The Swiss crew was present at one of our meetings at the wunderkammer Mirabilia, interviewing both lecturers and participants from the audience; it will be interesting to see what a foreign eye saw in our passions!
You can follow all the developments on Cult+ Facebook page.

But every new year also entails looking back.
Therefore, as a welcome to 2017, I thought I would gather my four years of collaborations with the art magazine Illustrati, published by Logos, in one single e-book.

The Illustrati Archives 2012-2016 is an anthology of all the articles published on the magazine until now, pieces which never appeared on this blog.
Here’s a glance of what awaits you:

A deaf and dumb abbott sculpting a secret, monumental work; several men surviving for six years trapped in a bunker; one single man causes more damage to the planet than any other organism in the history of the world. And then: trousers made of human skin, zombie ants, haunted forests, mini porn stars, wacky scientific theories, and the mystery of the color blue – which for the ancient Greeks did not exist.

Three dollars for thirty treats of wonder.
The Kindle e-book is available at this link.
(My gratitude to those who will choose to support Bizzarro Bazar this way.)

And now back to work, unearthing new oddities, of which reality is always prodigal.
Because “the larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder“.