The Flea Circus

One, two, three!
Watch the elephants standing
All the fleas jump
Watch out, here comes the trainer!

Vinicio Capossela, I pagliacci (2000)

Fleas that pull carriages and horses, fleas diving into a glass of water from the top of a trampoline, duelling with tiny swords, even shooting themselves from a miniature cannon just like the most famous human cannonballs.

The circus has always thrived on the most extreme, impossible challenges, as only the ordinary is left out of the Big Top. It is therefore only natural that classical animal trainers – who made dangerous and enormous beasts bend the knee – would be featured alongside the opposite end of the spectrum, those tamers who managed to make microscopic creatures perform exceptional stunts.
This is why the Flea Circus is one of the most enduring (albeit misunderstood) sideshow acts.

First of all, let’s address the question that might  already cross your mind: are there any fleas in these shows at all, or is it just an optical illusion?

The short answer is that yes, in the beginning real fleas would be used; then gradually the number slipped into the field of illusionism.
It is worthwhile, however, to enjoy the longer answer, retracing the fascinating story of this strange entomological circus – which was invented by an Italian.

A Brief History of the Microscopic Circus

It all started when, in 1578, a London blacksmith named Mark Scalliot, in order to show off his skill, built a tiny lock complete with a key made of iron, steel and brass, for the total weight of “a grain of gold”. He then forged a golden chain composed of 43 rings, so thin that it could be tied around the neck of a flea. The insect pulled the padlock and the key with it.

Almost two centuries later, in the attempt to replicate Scalliot’s publicity stunt, a watchmaker named Sobieski Boverick built an ivory mini-carriage “with figures of six horses attached to it—a coachman on the box, a dog between his legs, four persons inside, two footmen behind, and a postillion on the fore horse, all of which were drawn by a single flea”.

In the 1830s, inspired by these two predecessors, the Genoese emigrant Luigi Bertolotto employed the little pests for the first time in a circus context, exhibiting his trained fleas in Regent Street.
Following in Boverick’s steps, he too proposed the number of the flea pulling a carriage with horses – an element that would later become a mainstay of the genre – but his show went far beyond that: with the typical Italian taste for theatricality, Bertolotto turned his fleas into proper actors.

 

He made tiny custom-made suits, and delighted his audience with several tableaux vivants featuring several fleas at a time. First of all there was the Arab scene which saw the Sultan as protagonist, with his harem and the odalisques; then came the hematophagous version of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
One of the highlights was when the insects did a pocket-size reenactment of the Battle of Waterloo, in which the amused spectators could recognize Napoleon, the Duke of Wellington and Prussian field marshal Blücher, all dressed in uniform. Another part of the show was the fancy ball, in which a pair of insects dressed in gorgeous clothes danced accompanied by an orchestra of 12 elements.
The public was astonished and laughed at the evident satire: here is the lavish world of high society, miniaturized and ridiculed; here are some great war heroes, personified by the lowest animals in all creation. You could have crushed with one finger even the Emperor himself.

Bertolotto became the first (and last) true flea superstar; his fortune was such that he left for an international tour, finally settling in Canada. Imitators soon began to appear, and although they never topped his fame they spread the flea taming act throughout the world.
There were many incarnations of the Flea Circus, ranging from the most basic street performance, often employing a simple suitcase as a stage where fleas made elementary stunts, to more elaborate versions.

The last great flea manager was in all probability William Heckler, a circus performer who at the beginning of the 20th century left his career as a strongman to devote himself full-time to fleas. After touring the United States far and wide, in 1925 his circus became part of the Hubert’s Museum in Times Square.

Here for a few dollars you could see Prince Randian the Human Caterpillar (who would later appear in Tod Browning’s Freaks), Olga the Bearded Woman, Suzie the Elephant-Skinned Girl, and snake charmer Princess Sahloo. Another, smaller princess performed in the museum’s cellar: Princess Rajah, the flea who played the role of the oriental dancer in Professor Heckler’s circus.

In addition to performing traditional athletic feats, such as jumping into a hoop or kicking a ball, Heckler’s fleas played a xylophone (allegedly made of nail clippings), juggled small balls, and staged boxing matches on a miniature ring. Heckler continued to work with his mini-cast until the 1950s: at the height of his success, his show could yield more than $250 a day, the current equivalent of  $3,000.

The Infernal Discipline, or How To Tame A Flea

Human fleas, in spite of their annoying bites and the fact that they can be carriers of plague and other dangerous diseases, are actually really extraordinary insects.

Imagine you could jump more than 90 meters vertically, leaping over the Statue of Liberty, and 230 meters horizontally. This, in proportion, is the ability of the pulex irritans.
The muscles of its hind legs are not the only ones responsible for this incredible propulsive force: in fact they prepare the jump by compressing and slowly distorting an elastic pad composed of resilin, which during this “charging” phase is kept locked by a tendon, and can thus store muscle energy. When it comes to jumping, the tendon snaps back into position therefore releasing the pad. The flea takes off with a dizzying acceleration of 100 times the force of gravity. To put things in perspective, a person can only withstand a vertical acceleration of 5g before passing out.

You might then understand how the first and biggest problem a trainer had to solve was how to convince his fleas not to jump off the scene.

For this purpose the insects were kept for a long time in a test tube: they would hit their heads on the glass until they learned that jumping was not an appropriate behavior. A more drastic remedy consisted in gluing them onto the stage or tying them to some object, but this could only work for those elements of the “cast” that were supposed to remain still (for instnace the orchestra players).
As for all the other fleas, which had to perform more complex actions, it was necessary to select those that showed a more docile character (usually females); the bridle was assigned only to the slower ones, which were destined to pull carriages and carts, while the more lively ones became soccer players or divers. All this, of course, if we are to trust the literature of the time on the subject.

In order to force these little daredevils to perform their stunts, various techniques were used – although, to be honest, it’s a bit difficult to view these tricks as a proper “training”.
In fact, if you look at it from a flea’s point of view, the circus appears to be a place of cruelty and terror, in which a sadistic and gigantic jailer is subjecting his prisoners to an endless series of tortures.

Towing fleas were harnessed with a very thin thread of cloth or metal passed around their head; once positioned, this leash would remain there for the insect’s entire life. The difficult part was to exert the right binding pressure, because if the thread was fastened too tight then the flea could no longer swallow, and died.
As for saber-fencing fleas, two small pieces of metal were glued to their frontal limbs; naturally the insects tried to get rid of them, shaking their paws in vain, thus giving the impression of dueling each other.


Soccer players were selected among the fleas that jumped higher: a ball was soaked in insect repellent (often citronella oil, or a disinfectant like Listerine), then pushed towards them as they were kept in a vertical position, and they kicked it away with their hind legs.
Similar trick was used for juggling fleas which were fixed or glued on their back, with their paws up in the air; as they tried to get rid of the toxic ball that was placed over them, they made it roll and spin.

As for the musicians and dancers, an article from 1891 describes the show in detail. Two “dancers” are glued each to one end of a piece of golden paper:

They are placed in a reversed position to each other – one looking one way, the other another way. Thus tied, they are placed in a sort of arena on the top of the musical box; at one end of the box sits an orchestra composed of fleas, each tied to its seat, and having the resemblance of some musical instrument tied on the foremost of their legs.The box is made to play, the exhibitor touches each of the musicians with a bit of stick, and they all begin waving their hands about, as performing an elaborate piece of music. The fleas tied to the gold paper feel the jarring of the box below them, and begin to run round and round as fast as their little legs will carry them. This is called the Flea’s Waltz.

To balance all this horror, let us point out that the flea trainer personally nourished all his precious professionals with his own blood. For the parasites it was certainly a rough and hectic life, but at least they never skipped a meal.

Now you see me, now you don’t:
Illusory Fleas & The Zeitgeist

There does not seem to be a vast literature on fake fleas.
What is certain is that “flea-circuses-without-fleas” began to exist alongside the authentic ones as early as the 1930s. The circus act continued shifting towards the sphere of illusionism and magic until the 1950s, when particularly elaborate versions of the trick began to appear and trainers stopped using real fleas.

Michael Bentine, one of the members of the Goons, had his own circus in which non-existent fleas pushed balls along inclined planes, jumped on a table covered with sand (each jump was “visualized” via a puff of sand), climbed a ladder by “pressing” one step at a time, and splashed into a glass of water. Other fake trainers used magnets and wires to drop the obstacles allegedly knocked off by running fleas, while electric or mechanical gimmicks operated the trapeze and moved the fake fleas balancing on a wire; some mentalists even exploited invisible “telepathic fleas” to read in the minds of the spectators.

Today only one well-known circus still uses real fleas: it is the Floh Circus, which makes its appearance every year at Oktoberfest.
The rest of the few circuses in circulation are all based on illusion: one of the most famous is the Acme Miniature Flea Circus, run by Adam Gertsacov. According to him, this type of show is the purest and most suitable for our times, precisely because it is based on uncertainty:

People watching say, ‘What am I really seeing?’ I like that. You haven’t really been to a flea circus unless you’ve been bamboozled by the flea-circus guy. It would be interesting to watch real trained fleas, but only for three or four minutes. That’s not enough these days when you can Google insects and see them mating, up close and personal. My show is about showmanship.

Perhaps these fake flea circuses imprudently rely on a kind of naivety which no longer exists.
Yet it is true that, in a time when our perception is constantly challenged, these deceptive gadgets take on an unexpected symbolic meaning. Although designed to be harmless and amusing, they are based on the same principles as the far more menacing deep fakes and all those hate and fear narratives we are daily subjected to: every illusion really only works if we want to believe it.

And while Gertsacov and his colleagues continue to claim the superiority of the art of story-telling over mere reality, the fleas – the real ones – are thankful it’s all over.

Most of the information in this article comes from Dr Richard Wiseman’s Staging a Flea Circus, which contains many other curiosities (for example on the difficulties of finding flea supplies), and from Ernest B. Furgurson, A Speck of Showmanship, in The American Scholar, June 3, 2011.
A good study directory on fleas and their history is The Flea Circus Research Library.

Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 19

Boy, am I bored. Luckily, there’s a new collection of links on Bizzarro Bazar.” (Photo: Tim Walker)

Forget icecream: to fight the heat, nothing better than some icy and chilling reads, directly from my (mortuary) freezer!

  • James Hirst (1738-1829) used to ride on a bull he had trained; he kept foxes and bears as pets; he built a wicker carriage so large that it contained a double bed and an entire wine cellar; he installed a sail on his cart, so as to navigate on land, but at the first road bend he ended up flying through a tailor’s window; he saved himself from a duel to the death by placing a dummy in his place; he received dozens of garters from English noblewomen in exchange for the privilege of standing inside his self-constructed eccentric coffin; he refused an invitation from the King because he was “too busy” teaching an otter the art of fishing. (I, on the other hand, have vacuumed the house today.)
  • Jason Shulman uses very long exposures to photograph entire films. The result is spectacular: a one-image “summary” of the movie, 130,000 frames compressed in a single shot. “Each of these photographs — says Shulman — is the genetic code of a film, its visual DNA“. And it is fascinating to recognize the contours of some recurring shots (whose imprint is therefore less blurry): the windows of the van in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the static scenic desing in Méliès movies, the bokeh street lights of Taxi Driver. And I personally never thought about it, but there must be so many close-ups of Linda Lovelace in Deep Throat, in order to make that ghostly face appear… (Thanks, Eliana!)

  • Since we’re talking about photography, take a look at Giovanni Bortolani’s manipulations. In his Fake Too Fake series he has some fun slicing up and reassembling the body of beautiful male and female models, as in the example above. The aesthetics of fashion photography meets the butcher counter, with surreal and disturbing results.
  • It’s still taboo to talk about female masturbation: so let’s talk about it.
    A nice article on L’Indiscreto [sorry, Italian only] recounts the history of female auto-eroticism, a practice once considered pathological, and today hailed as a therapy. But, still, you can’t talk about it.
  • While we’re at it, why not re-watch that nice Disney cartoon about menstruation?
  • I thought I’d found the perfect summer gadget, but it turns out it’s out of stock everywhere. So no beach for me this year. (Thanks, Marileda!)

 

  • You return to your native village, but discover that everyone has left or died. So what do you do to make this ghost town less creepy? Easy: you start making life-size rag dolls, and place them standing motionless like scarecrows in the fields, you place them on benches, fill the empty classrooms, you position them as if they were waiting for a bus that’ll never come. Oh, and you give these puppets the faces of all the dead people from the village. Um. Ms. Ayano Tsukimi is so lovely, mind you, and her loneliness is very touching, but I haven’t decided yet whether her work is really “cheerful” and poetic, as some say, or rather grotesque and disturbing. You decide.
  • If you can readItalian well, there is a beautiful and fascinating study by Giuditta Failli on the irruption of the Marvelous in medieval culture starting from the 12th century: lots of monsters, skeleton armies, apparitions of demons and ghosts. Here is the first part and the second part. (Thanks, Pasifae!)

  • What is this strange pattern above? It is the demonstration that you can always think outside the box.
    Welcome to the world of heterodox musical notations.
  • But then again music is supposed to be playful, experimental, some kind of alchemy in the true sense of the term — it’s all about using the elements of the world in order to transcend them, through the manipulation and fusion of their sounds. Here’s another great nonconformist, Hermeto Pascoal, who in this video is intent on playing a freaking lagoon.
  • I am going to seek a great perhaps“, said François Rabelais as he laid dying.
    Now I am about to take my last voyage, a great leap in the dark“, Thomas Hobbes whispered.
    Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough!” Karl Marx muttered in his last breath.
    Have you prepared your grand, romantic, memorable last words? Well, too bad that you probably won’t get to say them. Here is an interesting article on what people really say while they’re dying, and why it might be important to study how we communicate during our last moments.
  • Speaking of last words, my favorite ones must be those pronounced by John Sedgwick on May 9, 1864 during the Battle of Spotsylvania. The heroic general urged his soldiers not to retreat: “Why are you dodging like this? They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” Soon after he had said this, a bullet reached him under his left eye, killing him on the spot.

Sedgwick: 0 – Karma: 1.

  • Let’s get this party started!” These cheerful and jovial gentlemen who, with admirable enthusiasm, pop their eyes out of their sockets with knives, are celebrating the Urs festival, an event held every year at Ajmer in Rajasthan to commemorate the death of Sufi master Moʿinoddin Cishti. You can find more photos of this merry custom in this article.
  • And finally here is a really wonderful short film, recommended by my friend Ferdinando Buscema. Enjoy it, because it is the summary of all that is beautiful in mankind: our ability to search for meaning in little things, through work and creation, and the will to recognize the universal even in the humblest, most ordinary objects.

 

The Mummies of Palermo: A Silent Dialogue

This article originally appeared on the first number (entitled “Apocrifo Siciliano”) of the book/magazine Cariddi – Rivista Vorace, published by Rossomalpelo Edizioni. The magazine explores the forgotten, occult, magical and fantastical side of Sicily, in a collective effort which saw the participation of journalists, writers, illustratoris, literature scholars and photographers confronting Sicily’s countless faces.
Cariddi is in Italian only, but you can order it on Amazon and other online stores, or you can order a copy by writing an email to the publishing house.

You never forget your first.
As soon as I entered the Capuchin Catacombs, I had the impression of finding myself in front of a gigantic exercitus mortuorum, a frightening army of revenants. Dead bodies all around, their skin parched and withered, hundreds of gaping mouths, jaws lowered by centuries of gravity, empty yet terribly expressive eye sockets. The feeling lasted a few seconds, because in reality down in the hypogeum so perfect a peace reigned that the initial bewilderment gave way to a different feeling: I felt I was an intruder.

A stranger, a living man in a sacred space inhabited by the dead; all those who come down here suddenly fall silent. The visitor is under scrutiny.
I was also alien to a culture, the Sicilian culture, showing such an inconceivable familiarity with the dead for someone born and raised in Northern Italy. Here death, I thought, was not hidden behind slabs of marble, on the contrary: it was turned into a spectacle. Presented theatrically, exhibited as mirabilis – worthy of admiration – here was on display the true repressed unconscious of our time: the Corpse.

The Corpse had been carefully worked by the friars, following a process refined over time. One of the technical terms anthropologists use to indicate the process of draining and mummifying bodies is “thanato-metamorphosis”, which gives a good idea of the actual, structural transformation to which the body is subjected.
Moreover, such conservation was considerably expensive, and only the wealthiest could afford it (even in death, there are first and second class citizens). But this is not surprising if we think of the countless monumental citadels of the dead, which the living are willing to raise at the cost of enormous efforts and fortunes. What struck me, as I strolled by the mummies, was that in this case the investment didn’t have the purpose of building a grand, sumptuous mausoleum, but rather of freezing, as much as possible, the features of these dead people over time.

Ah yes, time. Down there time flowed differently than on the city surface, or perhaps it didn’t flow at all. As if suspended by miracle, time had stopped devouring and transfiguring all matter.
As I dwelled on ancient faces, worn out clothes, and withered hands, the purpose of this practice became clear: it was meant to preserve not just the memory of the deceased, but their very identity.
Unlike the basic concept behind ossuaries, where the dead are all the same, the mummification process has the virtue of making each body different from the other, thus giving the remains a distinct personality – an effect further amplified if a mummy is dressed in the clothes he or she wore when alive.
Among all the barriers men have raised in the quixotic attempt to deny impermanence, this is perhaps the one that comes closest to success; it is a strange strategy, because instead of warding off death, it seems to embrace it until it becomes part of everyday life. So these individuals never really died: family members could come back and visit them, talk to them, take care of them. They were ancestors who had never quite crossed the threshold.

Little by little, I began sensing the benign and sympathetic nature of the mummies’ gaze – the kindness that shines through anyone who’s really aware of mortality. Their skeletal faces, which could be frightening at first, actually appeared serene if observed long enough; so much so that I was no longer sure I should pity their condition. Within me I began a sort of conversation with this silent crowd, the guardians of an inviolable secret. Perhaps, as their whispers reached out for me from the other side, all they were trying to do was reassure me; maybe they were talking the end of all trouble.

That unspoken, mysterious dialogue between us never stopped since that day.
A few years later I returned to the Catacombs together with photographer Carlo Vannini. We stayed about a week in the company of mummies, day and night. Who knows if they recognized me? For my part I learned to tell them apart, one by one, and to discern each of their voices – for they still called me without words.

My first book, published for Logos Edizioni, was The Eternal Vigil.
In 2017 the book was reissued with a preface by the scientific conservator of the catacombs, paleopathologist Dario Piombino-Mascali – who in turn, as I’m writing this, has just published what promises to be the definitive historical-scientific guide on the Catacombs, for Kalòs Edizioni.
From the analysis of mummies a paleopathologist is able to get clues about their life habits, and unravel their personal history: to an expert like him, these bodies really do speak. But I am sure that in this very moment they’re also whispering to the visitors who just descended the staircase and stepped into the underground corridors, enchanted by the extraordinary vision.
These mummies, to which I am bound by ties inscrutable and deep, murmur to anyone who really knows how to listen.

Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: Episode 10

In the 10th episode of Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: the psychedelic story of crainal trepanation advocates; the african fetish hiding a dark secret; the Club that has the most macabre initiation ritual in the whole world.
[Be sure to turn on English captions]

And so we came to the conclusion … at least for this first season.
Will there be another one? Who knows?

For the moment, enjoy this last episode and consider subscribing to the channel if you haven’t yet. Cheers!

Written & Hosted by Ivan Cenzi
Directed by Francesco Erba
Produced by Ivan Cenzi, Francesco Erba, Theatrum Mundi & Onda Videoproduzioni

Cool 3D World

The Web coined a new vocabulary, gave birth to its own expressive instances, even elaborated an unprecedented kind of humor. With regard to “the weird“, internet users had an exceptional training ground: the now-defunct Vine platform. Here videos had to be 6-second-long, so an original and very complex aesthetic began to take form. In order to make their videos incisive, users had to come up with unsettling narrative tricks: an intelligent use of off-screen space, cross references, brilliantly interrupted climax, shock and surprise.

This was the perfect environment for New York musician and digital artist Brian Tessler, and his accomplice Jon Baken, to create their original and hugely successful project Cool 3D World.

Cool 3D World videos present the viewer with alienating situations, in which monstrous beings perform esoteric and incomprehensible actions. Through the paroxysmal distortion of their characters’ facial features (stretched or compressed to the limit of modeling possibilities, with effects that would normally be considered errors in classical 3D animation) and the build-up of illogical situations, Tessler & Baken plunge us into a sick world where anything can happen. In this universe, any unpleasant detail can hide mystical and psychedelic abysses. This is a hallucinated, exhilarating, disturbing reality yet sometimes its madness gives way to some unexpectedly poetic touches.

What sets apart the Cool 3D World duo from other artists coming from the “weird side” of the internet is their care for the visual aspect, which is always deliberately poised between the professional and the amateur, and for the alwyas great sound department curated by Tessler.
The result is some kind of animated couterpart to Bizarro Fiction; every new release raises the bar of the previous one and — despite the obvious attempt to package the perfect viral product — Cool 3D World never falls back on a repetitive narrative.

Today, Cool 3D World has a YouTube channel, an Instagram account and a Facebook page. Recently Tessler & Baken started a partnership with Adult Swim, and began experimenting with longer formats.
Here is a selection of some of their best works,.

Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: Episode 9

In the 9th episode of Bizzarro Bazar: the incredible history of tonic water; a touching funerary artifact; the mysterious “singing sand” of the desert. [Be sure to turn on English captions.]

If you like this episode please consider subscribing to the channel, and most of all spread the word. Enjoy!

Written & Hosted by Ivan Cenzi
Directed by Francesco Erba
Produced by Ivan Cenzi, Francesco Erba, Theatrum Mundi & Onda Videoproduzioni

Napoleon’s Penis

The surgical tool kit that was used to perform the autopsy on Napoleon’s body at Saint Helena is on display at the Museum of History of Medicine in Paris.
But few people know that those scalpels probably also emasculated the Emperor.

In his last few months on Saint Helena, Napoleon suffered from excruciating stomach pains. Sir Hudson Lowe, the governor of the island under whose control Bonaparte had been confined, dismissed the whole thing as a slight anemia. Yet on May 5, 1821 Bonaparte died.
The autopsy conducted the following day by Napoleon’s personal physician, Francesco Carlo Antommarchi, revealed that he had been killed by a stomach tumor, aggravated by large ulcers (although the actual causes of death have been debated).
But during the autoptic examination Antommarchi apparently took some liberties.

Francesco Carlo Antommarchi

The heart was extracted and put in in a vase filled with spirit; it was meant to be delivered to the Emperor’s second wife, Maria Luisa, in Parma. In reality, she must have been hardly impressed by such a token of love, since a few months after Napoleon’s death she already married her lover. The stomach, that cancerous organ responsible for Napoleon’s death, was also removed and preserved in liquid. Antommarchi then made a cast of Bonaparte’s face, from which he later produced the famous death mask displayed at the Musée de l’Armée.

But at this point the doctor from Marseilles decided he’d grab a further, macabre trophy: he severed Napoleon’s penis. Antommarchi’s motives for this extra cut are unclear. Some speculate it might have been some sort of revenge for the way the irascible Napoleon mistreated him in the last few months; according to other sources, the doctor (sometimes described as an ignorant and disrespectful man) simply thought he could make a profit out of it.

But perhaps it was not even Antommarchi who took the controversial specimen. Thirty years later, in 1852, Mamluk Ali (Louis-Etienne Saint-Denis, Napoleon’s most faithful valet) published a memorial in the Revue des Mondes. In the article, Ali attributed the responsibility of this mutilation to himself and to Abbot Angelo Paolo Vignali, the chaplain who administered extreme unction to Bonaparte. He stated that he and Vignali had removed some unspecified “portions” of Napoleon’s corpse during the autopsy.

All these stories are quite dubious; it seems unlikely that such a disfigurement could go unnoticed. Five English doctors, plus three English and three French officers, were present at Napoleon’s autopsy. After the embalming, his faithful waiter Marchand dressed his body in uniform. How come no one noticed the absence of manhood on the body of the “little corporal”?

In any case,  what may or may not have been Napoleon’s true penis, but a penis nonetheless, began to circulate in Europe.
And even if it’s unclear who was responsible for severing it, in the end it was chaplain Vignali who smuggled it back to Corsica, along with more conventional mementos (documents and letters, a few pieces of silverware, a lock of hair, a pair of breeches, etc.), and the organ passed to his heirs upon Vignali’s death in a bloody vendetta in 1828. It remained in the family for almost a century, and was finally purchased by an anonymous buyer at an auction in 1916, together with the entire collection. In the auction catalog, the penis was described with a euphemism: “mummified tendon“.

After being bought by the famous antiquarian bookstore Maggs of London, the lot was resold in 1924 to Philadelphia collector Abraham Simon Wolf Rosenbach, who exhibited it three years later at the Museum of French Art in New York. Here the penis of Napoleon was on public display for the first and only time, and a jouranlist described it as a “maltreated strip of buck-skin shoelace or a shriveled eel“.

In 1944 Rosenbach sold the collection once again, and it continued to be passed from hand to hand. But despite the historical value of these memorabilia the market proved to be less and less interested, and the Vignali collection remained unsold at various auctions. In 1977 a major part of the collection was acquired by the French government, and destined to join the remains of Napoleon at Les Invalides. Not the penis, however, which the French refused to even acknowledge. It was John K. Lattimer, an American urologist, who bought it for $ 4,000. His intention, it seems, was to permanently remove it from circulation so that it would not be ridiculed.

The urologist had amassed an impressive collection of macabre historical curiosities – from the blood-stained collar that President Lincoln wore on the night of his murder at Ford’s theater, to one of the poison capsules Göring used to commit suicide. Lattimer kept the infamous “mummified tendon” locked away in a suitcase under his bed for years, protecting it from the public’s morbid curiosity, and he always refused any purchase proposal. He X-rayed the specimen, and it turned out to actually be a human penis.

After Lattimer’s death in 2007, his daughter took on the laborious task of archiving this incredible collection.
The penis is still part of the collection: Tony Perrottet, author of the book Napoleon’s Privates, is among the very few who have had the opportunity to see it in person. “It was kind of an amazing thing to behold. There it was: Napoleon’s penis sitting on cotton wool, very beautifully laid out, and it was very small, very shriveled, about an inch and a half long. It was like a little baby’s finger.
Here is the video showing the moment when the writer finally found himself face to face with the illustrious genitals:

Perrottet was not given permission to film the actual penis at the time, but in a 2015 reading he exhibited an alleged replica, which you can see below.

One can understand Perrottet’s obvious excitation in the video: the author declared that, to him, Napoleon’s penis is the symbol “of everything that’s interesting about history. It sort of combines love and death and sex and tragedy and farce all in this one story“. And certainly all these elements do contribute to the fascination we feel for such a relic, which is at once comic, macabre, obscene and titillating. But there’s more.

The body of a man who – for better or for worse – so profoundly changed the history of the world, possesses an almost magical aura. Why then does the thought of it being disrespected and desecrated provoke an unmentionable, subtle satisfaction? Why did Lattimer fear that showing that small, withered and mummified penis would result in public derision?

Perhaps it’s because that little piece of meat looks like a masterpiece of irony, a perfect retaliation.
As comedian George Carlin put it,

men are terrified that their pricks are inadequate and so they have to compete with one another to feel better about themselves and since war is the ultimate competition, basically, men are killing each other in order to improve their self-esteem. You don’t have to be a historian or a political scientist to see the Bigger Dick foreign policy theory at work.

George Carlin, Jammin’ In New York (1992)

The controversial POTUS tweet (01/03/2018) on who might have the “bigger button”.

On the other hand, this relic also reminds us that Napoleon was mortal, after all, and brings his figure back to the concreteness of a corpse on the autopsy table. The mummified penis takes the place of that hominem te memento (“Remember that you are only a man”) that was repeated in the ear of Roman generals returning from a victory so they wouldn’t get a big head, or the sic transit that the protodeacon pronounced at the passage in San Pietro of the newly elected Pope (“thus passes the glory of the world”).

That flap of shrunken and withered skin is at once a symbol of vanitas, and a mockery of the typical machismo so often exhibited by leaders and rulers. It reminds us that “the Emperor has no clothes”.
Worse: he has no clothes, no life, and no manhood.

Part of the informations in this article come from Bess Lovejoy’s wonderful book Rest In Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses (2014).
One chapter of my book
Paris Mirabilia is devoted to the Museum of History of Medicine.
Tony Perrottet’s Napoleon’s Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped is essentially a collection of spicy anecdotes about famous historical figures. Among these, one in particular is relevant. During the WWII, Stalin asked Winston Churchill to help out with the Russian army’s “serious condom shortage”. The British Prime Minister had a special batch of extra-large condoms prepared, then sent them to Russia with the label “Made in Britain – Medium“. This glaring example of foreign policy would have delighted George Carlin.

Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: Episode 7

In the seventh episode of Bizzarro Bazar: the tragic and startling story of the Sutherland Sisters; a piece of the Moon which fell to Earth; a creature halfway between the plant kingdom and the animal kingdom. [Be sure to turn on English captions.]

If you like this episode please consider subscribing to the channel, and most of all spread the word. Enjoy!

Written & Hosted by Ivan Cenzi
Directed by Francesco Erba
Produced by Ivan Cenzi, Francesco Erba, Theatrum Mundi & Onda Videoproduzioni

Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: Episode 5

In the fifth episode of the Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: the incredible case of Mary Toft, one of the biggest scandals in early medical history; an antique and macabre vase; the most astounding statue ever made. [Be sure to turn on English captions.]

If you like this episode please consider subscribing to the channel, and most of all spread the word. Enjoy!

Written & Hosted by Ivan Cenzi
Directed by Francesco Erba
Produced by Ivan Cenzi, Francesco Erba, Theatrum Mundi & Onda Videoproduzioni

Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: Episode 4

In the fourth episode of the Bizzarro Bazar Web Series we talk about the most incredible automatons in history, about the buttocks of a girl named Fanny, and about a rather unique parasite. [Be sure to turn on English captions.]

If you like this episode please consider subscribing to the channel, and most of all spread the word. Enjoy!

Written & Hosted by Ivan Cenzi
Directed by Francesco Erba
Produced by Ivan Cenzi, Francesco Erba, Theatrum Mundi & Onda Videoproduzioni