Macabre Masks

The Templo Mayor, built between 1337 and 1487, was the political and religious heart of Tenochtitlán, the city-state in Valley of Mexico that became the capital of the Aztec empire starting from the 15th Century.
Since its remains were accidentally discovered in 1978, during the excavations for Mexico City’s subway, archeologists have unearthed close to 80 ceremonial buildings and an extraordinary number of manufacts from the Aztec (Mexica) civilization.

Among the most peculiar findings, there are some masks created from human skulls.
These masks are quite elaborate: the back of the skull was removed, probably in order to wear them or apply them to a headgear; the masks were colored with dye; flint blades and other decorations were inserted into the eye sockets and nostrils.

In 2016 a team of anthropologists from the University of Montana conducted an experimental research on eight of these masks, comparing them with twenty non-modified skulls found on the same site, in order to learn their sex, age at death, possible diseases and life styles. The results showed that the skull masks belonged to male individuals, 30 to 45-years old, with particularly good teeth, indicating above-average health. From the denture’s shape the anthropologists even inferred that these men came from faraway locations: Toluca Valley, Western Mexico, the Gulf coast and other Aztec towns in the Valley of Mexico. Therefore the skulls very likely belonged to prisoners of noble origins, excellently nourished and lacking any pathologies.

Human sacrifices at the Templo Mayor, for which the Aztecs are sadly known, were a spectacle that could entail different procedures: sometimes the victims were executed by beheading, sometimes through the extraction of the heart, or burned, or challenged to deathly combats.
The masks were produced from the bodies of sacrified warriors; wearing them must have had a highly symbolic value.

If these items survived the ravages of time, it’s because they’re made of bones. But there existed other, more unsettling disguises that have been inevitably lost: the masks made from the flayed skin of a sacrified enemy’s face.

The conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo described these skin masks as tanned to look “like glove leather” and said that they were worn during celebrations of military victories. Other masks, made of human skin, were displayed as offerings on temple altars, just as a number of the skull masks, reanimated by shell and stone eyeballs, noses, and tongues, were buried in offerings at the Templo Mayor. Because a defeated enemy’s former powers were believed to be embedded in his skin and bones, masks made of his relics not only transferred his powers to the new owner but could serve as worthy offerings to the god as well.

(Cecelia F. Klein, Aztec Masks, in Mexicolore, September 2012)

During a month-long ceremony called Tlacaxiphualiztli, “the Flaying of Men”, the skin of sacrified prisoners was peeled off and worn for twenty days to celebrate the war god Xipe Totec. The iconography portrays this god clothed in human skin.

Such masks, wether made of bone or of skin, have a much deeper meaning than the ritual itself. They play an important role in establishing identity:

In Aztec society a warrior who killed his first captive was said to ‘assume another face.’ Regardless of whether this expression referred literally to a trophy mask or was simply a figure of speech, it implies that the youth’s new “face” represented a new social identity or status. Aztec masks therefore must be understood as revelations, or signs, of a person’s special status rather than as disguises […]. In Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs, the word for face, xayacatl, is the same word used to refer to something that covers the face.

(Cecelia F. Klein, Ibid.)

Here is the interesting point: there’s not a single culture in the whole world which hasn’t elaborated its own masks, and they very rarely are simple disguises.
Their purpose is “the development of personality […], or more accurately, the development of the person [which] is a question of magical prestige“: the masks “are actually used among primitives in in totem ceremonies, for instance, as a means of enhancing or changing the personality” (Carl Gustav Jung, The Ego and the Uncoscious, 1928, p. 155).

Much in the same way, the decorated skulls of Templo Mayor are not so “exotic” as we might like to imagine. These manufacts are but a different declination of ideas we are quite familiar with — ideas that are at the very core of our own society.

The relationship between the face (our identity and individuality) and the mask we wear, is a very ancient paradox. Just like for the Aztecs the term xayacatl could indicate both the mask and the face, for us too they are often indistinguishable.

The very word person comes from the Latin “per-sonare”, “to resound through”: it’s the voice of the actor behind his mask.
Greek tragedy was born between the 7th and 5th century BCE, a representation that essentialy a substitute for human sacrifices, as Réné Girard affirmed. One of the most recognized etimologies tells us that tragedy is actually the song of the scapgoat: an imitation of the ritual killing of the “internal stranger” on the altar, of the bloody spectacle with which society cleansed itself, and washed away its most impure, primiteve urges. Tragedy plays – which Athenians were obligated to attend by law, during Dionysus celebrations – substituted the ancestral violence of the sacrifice with its representation, and the scapegoat with the tragic hero.

Thus the theater, in the beginning, was conflict and catharsis. A duel between the Barbarian, who knows no language and acts through natural instinct, and the Citizen, the son of order and logos.
Theater, just like human sacrifice, created cultural identity; the Mask creates the person needed for the mise-en-scene of this identity, forming and regulating social interactions.

The human sacrifices of the ancient Greeks and of the Aztec both met the same need: cultural identity is born (or at least reinforced) by contrast with the adversary, offered and killed on the altar.
Reducing the enemy to a skull — as the Aztecs did with the tzompantli, the terrible racks used to exhibit dozens, maybe hundreds of sacrifice victims skulls — is a way of depriving him of his mask/face, of annihilating his identity. Here are the enemies, all alike, just bleached bones under the sun, with no individual quality whatsoever.

But turning these skulls into masks, or wearing the enemy’s skin, implies a tough work, and therefore means performing an even more conscious magical act: it serves the purpose of acquiring his strength and power, but also of reasserting that the person (and, by extension, society) only exists because of the Stranger it was able to defeat.

Simone Unverdorben, The False Martyr

Article by guestblogger La cara Pasifae

A little boy went out to play.
When he opened his door he saw the world.
As he passed through the doorway he caused a riflection.
Evil was born!
Evil was born and followed the boy.

(D. Lynch, Inland Empire, 2006)

It was a nice late-summer afternoon, in 2013. I remember well.
A friend had invited me to the opening of his latest exhibition. He had picked an unusual place for the event: an ancient and isolated parish church that stood high up on a hill, the church of Nanto. The building had been recently renovated, and it was open to the public only on specific occasions.
Once there, one immediately feels the urge to look around. The view is beautiful, but it pays the price of the impact the construction industry (I was almost about to say “architecture”) has had on the surroundings, with many industrial buildings covering the lanscapes of Veneto region like a tattoo. Better go inside and look at the paintings.

I was early for the opening, so I had the artist, his works and the entire exhibition area all for myself. I could walk and look around without any hurry, and yet I felt something disturbing my peace, something I couldn’t quite pin down at first:  it kind of wormed its way into my visual field, calling for attention. On a wall, as I was passing from one painted canvas to the next, I eventually spotted a sudden, indefinite blur of colors. A fresco. An image had been resting there well before the exhibition paintings were placed in front of it!

Despite the restoration, as it happens with many medieval and Renaissance frescoes, some elements were still confused and showed vanishing, vaporous outlines. But once in focus, an unsettling vision emerged: the fresco depicted a quite singular torture scene, the likes of which I had never encountered in any other artwork (but I wouldn’t want to pass as an expert on the subject).
Two female figures, standing on either side, were holding the arms of a blonde child (a young Christ, a child-saint, or a puer sacer, a sacred and mystical infant, I really couldn’t say). The kid was being tortured by two young men: each holding a stiletto, they were slicing the boy’s skin all over, and even his face seemed to have been especially brutalized.


Blood ran down the child’s bound feet into a receiving bowl, which had been specifically placed under the victim’s tormented limbs.

The child’s swollen face (the only one still clearly visible) had an ecstatic expression that barely managed to balance the horror of the hemorrhage and of the entire scene: in the background, a sixth male figure sporting a remarkable beard, was twisting a cloth band around the prisoner throat. The baby was being choked to death!

What is the story of this fresco? What tale does it really tell?
The five actors do not look like peasants; the instruments are not randomly chosen: these are thin, sharp, professional blades. The incisions on the victim’s body are too regular. Who perpetrated this hideous murder, who was the object of the resentment the author intended to elicit in the onlookers? Maybe the fresco was a representation — albeit dramatic and exaggerated — of a true crime. Should the choking, flaying and bleeding be seen as a metaphor for some parasitic exploitation, or do they hint at some rich and eccentric nobleman’s quirkiness? Is this a political allegory or a Sadeian chronicle?
The halo surrounding the child’s head makes him an innocent or a saved soul. Was this a homage, a flattering detail to exhalt the commissioner of this work of art? What character was meant to be celebrated here, the subjects on the sides who are carrying out a dreadful, but unavoidable task, or the boy at the center who looks so obscenely resigned to suffer their painful deeds? Are we looking at five emissaries of some brutal but rational justice as they perform their duties, or the misadventure of a helpless soul that fell in the hands of a ferocious gang of thugs?

At the bottom of the fresco, a date: «ADI ⋅ 3 ⋅ APRILE 1479».
This historical detail brought me back to the present. The church was already crowded with people.
I felt somehow crushed by the overload of arcane symbols, and the frustation of not having the adequate knowledge to interpret what I had seen. I furtively took a snapshot. I gave my host a warm farewell, and then got out, hoping the key to unlock the meaning of the fresco was not irretrievably lost in time.

As I discovered at the beginning of my research on this controversial product of popular iconography, the fresco depicts the martyrdom of Saint Simonino of Trent. Simone Unverdorben, a two-year-old toddler from Trent, disappeared on March 23, 1475. His body was found on Easter Day. It was said to have been mauled and strangled. In Northern Italy, in those years, antisemitic abuses and persecutions stemmed from the widely influential sermons of the clergy. The guilt for the heinous crime immediately fell upon the Trent Jewish community. All of its members had to endure one of the biggest trials of the time, being subjected to tortures that led to confessions and reciprocal accusations.

During the preliminary investigations of the Trent trial, a converted Jew was asked if the practice of ritual homicide of Christian toddlers existed within the Hebrew cult. […] The converted Jew, at the end of the questioning, confirmed with abundant details the practice of ritual sacrifice in the Jewish Easter liturgy.
Another testimony emerged from the interrogation of another of the alleged killers of the little Simone, the Jewish physician Tobia. He declared on the rack there was a commerce in Christian blood among Jews. A Jewish merchant called Abraam was said to have left Trent shortly before Simone’s death with the intention of selling Christian blood, headed to Feltre or Bassano, and to have asked around which of the two cities was closer to Trent. Tobia’s confession took place under the terrifying threat of being tortured and in the desperate attempt to avoid it: he therefore had to be cooperative to the point of fabrication; but it was understood that his testimony, whenever made up, should be consistent and plausible.
[…] Among the others, another converted man named Israele (Wolfgang, after converting) was  also interrogated under torture. He declared he had heard about other cases of ritual murders […]. These instances of ritual homicides were inventions whose protagonists had names that came from the interrogee’s memory, borrowed to crowd these fictional stories in a credible way.

(M. Melchiorre, Gli ebrei a Feltre nel Quattrocento. Una storia rimossa,
in Ebrei nella Terraferma veneta del Quattrocento,
a cura di G.M. Varanini e R.C. Mueller, Firenze University Press 2005)

Many were burned at the stake. The survivors were exiled from the city, after their possessions had been confiscated.
According to the jury, the child’s collected blood had been used in the ritual celebration of the “Jewish Easter”.

The facts we accurately extracted from the offenders, as recorded in the original trials, are the following. The wicked Jews living in Trent, having maliciously planned to make their Easter solemn through the killing of a Christian child, whose blood they could mix in their unleavened bread, commisioned it to Tobia, who was deemed perfect for the infamous deed as he was familiar with the town on the account of being a professional doctor. He went out at 10 pm on Holy Thursday, March 23, as all believers were at the Mass, walked the streets and alleys of the city and having spotted the innocent Simone all alone on his father’s front door, he showed him a big silver piece, and with sweet words and smiles he took him from via del Fossato, where his parents lived, to the house of the rich Jew Samuele, who was eagerly waiting for him. There he was kept, with charms and apples, until the hour of the sacrifice arrived. At 1 am, little twenty-nine-months-old Simone was taken to the chamber adjoining the women’s synagogue; he was stripped naked and a band or belt was made from his clothes, and he was muzzled with a handkerchief, so that he wouldn’t immediately choke to death nor be heard; Moses the Elder, sitting on a stall and holding the baby in his lap, tore a piece of flesh off his cheek with a pair of iron pliers. Samuele did the same while Tobia, assisted by Moar, Bonaventura, Israele, Vitale and another Bonaventura (Samuele’s cook) collected in a basin the blood pouring from the wound. After that, Samuele and the aforementioned seven Jews vied with each other to pierce the flesh of the holy martyr, declaring in Hebrew that they were doing so to mock the crucified God of the Christians; and they added: thus shall be the fate of all our enemies. After this feral ordeal, the old Moses took a knife and pierced with it the tip of the penis, and with the pliers tore a chunk of meat from the little right leg and Samuel, who replaced him, tore a piece out of the other leg. The copious blood oozing from the puerile penis was harvested in a different vase, while the blood pouring from the legs was collected in the basin. All the while, the cloth plugging his mouth was sometimes tightened and sometimes loosened; not satisfied with the outrageous massacre, they insisted in the same torture a second time, with greater cruelty, piercing him everywhere with pins and needles; until the young boy’s blessed soul departed his body, among the rejoicing of this insane riffraff.

(Annali del principato ecclesiastico di Trento dal 1022 al 1540, pp. 352-353)

Very soon Simonino (“little Simone”) was acclaimed as a “blessed martyr”, and his cult spread thoughout Northern Italy. As devotion grew wider, so did the production of paintings, ex voto, sculptures, bas reliefs, altar decorations.

Polichrome woodcut, Daniel Mauch’s workshop, Museo Diocesano Tridentino.

Questionable elements, taken from folktales and popular belief, began to merge with an already established, sterotyped antisemitism.

 

From Alto Adige, April 1, 2017.

Despite the fact that the Pope had forbidden the cult, pilgrims kept flocking. The fame of the “saint” ‘s miracles grew, together with a wave of antisemitism. The fight against usury led to the accusation of loan-sharking, extended to all Jews. The following century, Pope Sistus V granted a formal beatification. The cult of Saint Simonino of Trent further solidified. The child’s embalmed body was exhibited in Trent until 1955, together with the alleged relics of the instruments of torture.

In reality, Simone Unverdorben (or Unferdorben) was found dead in a water canal belonging to a town merchant, near a Jewish man’s home, probably a moneylender. If he wasn’t victim of a killer, who misdirected the suspects on the easy scapegoat of the Jewish community, the child might have fallen in the canal and drowned. Rats could have been responsible for the mutilations. In the Nineteenth Century, accurate investigations proved the ritual homicide theory wrong. In 1965, five centuries after the murder, the Church abolished  the worship of Saint “Martyr” Simonino for good.

A violent fury against the very portraits of the “torturers” lasted for a long time. Even the San Simonino fresco in Nanto was defaced by this rage. This is the reason why, during that art exhibition, I needed some time to recognize a painting in that indistinct blur of light and colors.

My attempt at gathering the information I needed in order to make sense of the simulacrum in the Nanto parish church, led me to discover an often overlooked incident, known only to the artists who represented it, their commissioners, their audience; but the deep discomfort I felt when I first looked at the fresco still has not vanished.

La cara Pasifae


Suggested bibliography:
– R. Po – Chia Hsia, Trent 1475. Stories of a Ritual Murder Trial, Yale 1992
– A. Esposito, D. Quaglioni, Processi contro gli Ebrei di Trento (1475-1478), CEDAM 1990
– A. Toaff, Pasque di sangue: ebrei d’Europa e omicidi rituali, Il Mulino 2008

First Day

The great French writer Jacques Prévert died April 11, 1977.

Here is one of his poems, Premier jour.
It is truly amazing to see how he manages, with minimalist touches and a masterful use of color, to plunge us into the tragedy of a death during childbirth.

And then there is that word, dans (“inside”), recurring in each verse and suggesting a strange telescope effect. One thing is always inside another, everything is connected; the event is inscribed in a wider perspective – the house, the town, the night.

This is why one should not be deceived by the poem’s apparent formal simplicity. In reality, it encompasses both joy and drama, the mystery of life and death; and a dark cosmos (the night), of which we will never know whether it is compassionate or indifferent.

Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 13

GIF art by Colin Raff

These last times have been quite dense, in the wake of the publication of The Petrifier.
Allow me a breif summary. 1) On the Italian magazine Venerdì di Repubblica a nice article by Giulia Villoresi came out: it starts out by reviewing the book but soon shifts to the wider subject of new aesthetics of the macabre, saving some nice words for this blog. 2) I was featured on the Swiss website Ossarium for their series Death Expert of the Month, and upon answering one of their three questions I recounted a tragic episode that particularly influenced my work. 3) I also took part in The Death Hangout, a podcast + YouTube series in which I chatted for half an hour with hosts Olivier and Keith, discussing museums and disturbing places, the symbolic meaning of human remains, the cruelty and bestiality of death, etc. 4) Carlo Vannini‘s photographs served as an inspiration to the talented Claudia Crobatia of A Course In Dying for her excellent considerations on the morbid but fruitful curiosity of the generation that grew up with websites like Rotten.com.

Let’s start immediately with the links, but not before having revisited a classic 1972 Monty Python sketch, in which Sam Peckinpah, who in those years was quite controversial for his violent westerns, gets to direct a movie about British upper class’ good old days.

  • The blog Rocaille – dedicated to the kind of Beauty that lurks in the dark – is one of my favorite virtual spaces. And recently Annalisa visited the wunderkammer Theatrum Mundi (I also wrote about it a while ago), which in turn is one of my favorite concrete spaces. So, you can imagine, I was twice as delighted.
  • Another friend I unconditionally admire is relic hunter Elizabeth Harper, who runs the All The Saints You Should Know website. A few days ago she published a truly exceptional account of the Holy Week processions in Zamora, Spain: during those long days dedicated to the celebration of Christ’s death, she witnessed a paradoxical loosening of social and sexual inhibitions. But is it really a paradox? Maybe not, if, as Georges Bataille pointed out, eroticism is ultimately an anticipation of death itself, which erases individual boundaries. This might be why it is so strictly connected to ecstasy, and to the sacred.

  • Since we’re talking Bataille: in his obscene Story of the Eye, there’s this unforgettable passage where the protagonist Simone slips between her legs the eyeball she tore off the corpse of a priest (the engraving above, inspired by the scene in question , is by Bellmer).
    This eyed vagina, or vagina oculata, is an extreme and repulsive image, but it has an archetypal quality and it is representative of the complex eye/egg analogy that underlies the whole story.
    Following the same juxtaposition between creation (bringing to light) and vision, some have inserted a pinhole camera into the female genitalia. The Brainoise blog talks about it in a fascinating article (Italian only): several artists have in fact tried to use these rudimentary and handcrafted appliances in a Cronenberg-like fusion with the human body.
  • By the way, one of the first posts on Bizzarro Bazar back in 2009 was dedicated to Wayne Martin Belger’s pinhole cameras, which contain organic materials and human remains.
  • Toru Kamei creates beautiful still, or not-so-still, life paintings. Here are some of his works:

  • When it comes to recipes, we Italians can be really exasperating. Post a pic of chicken spaghetti, and in zero time you will be earning many colorful and unlikely names. A food nazi Twitter account.

  • Above is a mummified skeleton found 15 years ago in the Atacama desert of Chile. Many thought — hoped — it would be proved to be of alien origin. DNA tests have shown a much more earthly, and touching, truth.
  • A typical morning in Australia: you wake up, still sleepy, you put your feet down and you realize that one of your slippers has disappeared. Where the heck can it be? You’re sure you left it there last night, beside the other one. You also don’t recall seeing that three-meter python curled up in the bedroom.

  • Everybody knows New Orleans Mardi Gras, but few are familiar with its more visceral version, held each year in several Cajun communities of South Louisiana: the courir de Mardi Gras. Unsettling masks and attires of ancient origin mocking noblemen’s clothes and the clergy, armies of unruly pranksters, bring chaos in the streets and whipped by captains on horseback, sacrificial chickens chased through muddy fields… here are some wonderful black and white photos of this eccentric manifestation. (Thanks, Elisa!)

  • There are several “metamorphic” vanitas, containing a skull that becomes visible only if the image is looked at from a certain distance. This is my favorite one, on the account of the unusual side view and the perfect synthesis of Eros and Thanatos; anybody knows who the artist is? [EDIT: art by Bernhard Gutmann, 1905, “In the midst of life we are in death”. Thanks Roberto!]

  • Country homes in Vermont often feature a special, crooked window that apparently serves no practical purpose. Perhaps they are meant to discourage witches that might be fluttering around the house.
  • My Twitter went a little crazy since I posted the photos of this magnificent goat, found mainly in Siria and Lebanon. The breed is the result of careful genetic selection, and it won several beauty contests for ruminants. And I bet this cutie would break many a heart in the Star Wars Cantina, too.

  • Finally, I would like to leave you with a little gift that I hope is welcome: I created a playlist on Spotify for all readers of Bizzarro Bazar. A very heterogeneous musical offer, but with a common denominator which is ultimately the same underlying this blog: wonder. Whether it’s an experimental indie piece, a dark melody, a tattered and frenzied polka, a nostalgic song, some old blues about death, an ironic and weird reinterpretation of a classic theme, or an example of outsider music played by homeless people and deviant characters, these tunes can surprise you, transport you to unusual soundscapes, sometimes push you out of your comfort zone.
    Each song has been selected for a specific reason I could even explain in a didactic way — but I won’t. I will leave you the pleasure of discovery, and also the freedom to guess why I included this or that.
    The playlist consists of more than 8 hours of music (and I will continue to add stuff), which should be enough for anyone to find a little something, maybe just a starting point for new research and discoveries. Enjoy!