Mocafico, Haeckel, Blaschka & The Juncture of Wonder

In this post I would like to address three different discoveries I made over the years, and their peculiar relationship.

∼ 2009 ∼

I had just started this blog. During my nightly researches, I remember being impressed by the work of an Italian photographer who specialized in still life pictures: Guido Mocafico.
I was particularly struck – for obvious reasons of personal taste – by his photographs inspired by Dutch vanitas paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries: the pictures showed an outstanding, refined use of light and composition (they almost looked like paintings), but that was not all there was.

In this superb series, Mocafico represented many classic motifs used to symbolize transience (the homo bulla, man being like a soap bubble, but also the hourglass, the burning candle, etc.) with irreproachable taste and philologic attention; the smallest details betrayed a rigorous and deep preparation, a meticulous study which underpinned each of his photographs.

I went on to archive these fascinating photographs, promising myself I would talk about them sooner or later. I never kept that promise, until now.

∼ 2017 ∼

Last year Taschen published a somptuous, giant-size edition of Ernst Haeckel‘s works.
The German scientist, who lived between late 19th century and early 20th century, was an exceptional figure: marine biologist, naturalist, philosopher, he was among the major popularizers of Darwin’s theory of evolution in Germany. He discovered and classified thousands of new species, but above all he depicted them in hundreds of colorful illustrations.

Taschen’s luxurious volume is a neverending wonder, page after page. An immersion into an unknown and alien world – our world, inhabited by microorganisms of breathtaking beauty, graceful jellyfish, living creatures of every shape and structure.

It is a double aesthetic experience: one one hand we are in awe at nature’s imaginative skills, on the other at the artist’s mastery.
I’ll confess that going through the book, I often willingly forget to check the taxonomic labels: after a while, human categories and names seem to lose their meaning, and it’s best to just get lost in sheer contemplation of those perfect, intricate, unusual, exuberant forms.

∼ 2018 ∼

London, Natural History Museum, a couple of weeks ago.
There I am, bewildered for half an hour, looking at the model of a radiolarian, a single-celled organism found in zooplankton. In the darkened room, the light coming from above emphasizes the model’s intricate craftsmanship. The level of detail, the fragility of its thin pseudopods and the rendering of the protozoa’s translucid texture are mind-blowing.

This object’s peculiarity is that it’s made of glass. It’s one of the models created by 19th-century master glassmakers Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka.
And this is just one among thousands and thousands of similar masterpieces created by the two artists from Dresden.

The Blaschkas were a Bohemian family of glass artisans, and when Leopold was born he inherited the genes of several generations of glassmakers. Being especially talented from an early age, he created decorations and glass eyes for many years, until in a short span of time he happened to lose his wife, his son and his father to cholera. Shattered by grief, he took sails towards America but the ship was stopped at sea for two week due to a lack of wind. During this forced arrest, in the darkest period of his life, Leopold was saved by wonder: one night he was looking at the dark ocean, when suddenly he noticed “a flashlike bundle of light beams, as if it is surrounded by thousands of sparks, that form true bundles of fire and of other bright lighting spots, and the seemingly mirrored stars”. He observed those sea creatures in awe, and took sketches of their structure. Since that night, the memory of the magical spectacle he had witnessed never left him.

Years later, back in Dresden and happily remarried, he began creating glass flowers, as a hobby; his orchids were so perfectly crafted that they caught the eye of prince Camille de Rohan first, and then of the director of the Natural History Museum. The latter commissioned twelve sea anemones models; and thus Leopold, remembering that night on the stranded ship, began to work on scientific models. Soon Blaschka’s sea animals – and glass flowers – became famous; Leopold, with the help of his son Rudolph, collaborated with all the most important museums. After his father’s death, Rudolph continued to work developing an even more refined technique, producing 4.400 plant models for Harvard University’s Herbarium.
Together, father and son crafted a total of around 10.000 glass models of sea creatures.

Their artistry attained such perfection that, after them, no glassmaker would ever be able replicate it. “Many people thinkLeopold wrote in 1889 – that we have some secret apparatus by which we can squeeze glass suddenly into these forms, but it is not so. We have tact. My son Rudolf has more than I have, because he is my son, and tact increases in every generation”.

∼ Convergence ∼

Some of our interests, at first glance independent from one another, sometimes turn out to be actually correlated. It is as if, on the map of our own passions, we suddenly discover a secret passage between two areas that we thought were distinct, a “B” spot connecting points “A” and “C”.

In this case, for me the “A” point was Guido Mocafico, the author of the evocative series of photographs entitled Vanités; whom I discovered years ago, and guiltily forgotten.
Haeckel was, in retrospect, my “C” point.
And I never would have thought of linking one to the other, before a “B” point, Blaschka’s glass models, appeared on my mind map

Because, here is the thing: to build their incredible glass invertebrates, Leopold and his son Rudolph were inspired, among other things, by Haeckel’s illustrations.
And you can imagine my surprise when I found out that all the best photographs of the Blaschka models, those you can see in this very article, were taken by… Guido Mocafico.
Unbeknownst to me, during the years I had lost sight of him, the photographer dedicated some amazing series of pictures to the Blaschka models, as you can see on his official website.

I always felt there was a tight connection between Haeckel’s fantastic microorganisms and my beloved vanitas. Their intimate bond, perhaps, was sensed by Mocafico too, in his aesthetic research.
A wonder for the creatures of the world is also the astonishment in regard to their impermanence.
At heart, we – human beings, animals, plants, ecosystems, maybe even reality itself – are but immensely beautiful, yet very fragile, glass masterpieces.

Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 12

Eli Bowen “the Legless Wonder” with his family welcome you to this new batch of oddities and news from around the world! Let’s start!

  • Could there be a solution to appeal vegans, vegeterians and meat lovers? It’s called post-animal bio-economy, and among other things it involves growing laboratory meat from stem cells.
    A totally painless method for animals, who could at last lead their happy lives without us giving up a steak, a glass of milk or a poached egg. These would note be alternative products, but the same products, developed in a much more sustainable way in respect to linear agriculture (which has proven problematic for the quantity of land, chemicals, pesticides, energy resources, needed water and work, and emissions of greenhouse gases).
    Take the highly controversial foie gras: in the near future it could be produced from the stem cells gathered from the tip of a duck’s feather. It might seem a bit sci-fi, but the first lab foie gras is already here, and this journalist tasted it.
    There are just two obstacles: on one hand, the costs of lab meat are still too high for large-scale production (but this shouldn’t take too long to fix); on the other, there’s the small detail that this is a cultural, and not just agricultural, revolution. We will find out how traditional farmers will react, and above all if consumers are rady to try these new cruelty-free products.

  • The city of Branau am Inn, in Austria, is sadly known as the birthplace of a certain dictator called Adolf. But it should be remembered for another reason: the story of Hans Steininger, a burgomaster who on September 28, 1567, was killed by his own beard. A thick and prodigiously long set of hair, which turned out to be fatal during a great fire: while escaping the flames, mayor Hans forgot to roll his 2-meters-long beard and put it in his pocket, as he usually did, tripped on it and fell down the stairs breaking his neck.
    As in the 1500s there was no such thing as the Darwin Awards, his fellow citizens placed a nice plaque on the side of the church and preserved the killer beard, still visible today at Branau’s Civic Museum.

  • But if you think silly deaths are an exclusively human achievement, hear this: “due to the humidity in its environment and how slowly a sloth moves, plant life will grow in its fur. This, combined with poor eyesight, leads to some sloths grabbing their own arms, thinking it’s a tree branch, and falling to their deaths.” (via Seriously Strange)

  • Furthermore, there’s the genius rodent who slipped into a 155-years-old mousetrap on exhibit in a museum. Slow clap.
  • You’re always so nervous and depressed, they said.
    Why don’t you learn a musical instrument, just to chill out and amuse yourself?, they said.
    It served them well.

  • The Flying Dutch of the 20th Century was called SS Baychimo, a cargo ship that got stuck in the Alaskan ice in 1931 and was abandoned there. For the next 38 years the ghost ship kept turning up and was spotted on several occasions; somebody even managed to board it, but each time the Baychimo successfully escaped without being recovered. (Thanks, Stefano!)
  • The terrible story of “El Negro”: when collectors of natural curiosities didn’t just ship animal skins back to Europe from the Colonies, but also the skin of human beings they dug out of their graves during the night.

  • Since we’re talking about human remains, the biggest traveling mummy exhibit was launched eight years ago (featuring a total of 45 mummies). You never got to see it? Neither did I. Here are some nice pictures.
  • Japanese aesthetics permeates even the smallest details: take a look at these two pages from a late-XVII C. manuscript showing the different kinds of design for wagashi (tipical pastries served during the tea ceremony. Ante litteram food porn.
  • Some researchers form the University of Wisconsin and the University of Maryland created music specifically studied to be appealing to cats, with frequences and sounds that should be, at least in theory, “feline-centric“. The tracks can be bought here even if, to be honest, my cats didn’t seem to be particularly impressed by the music samples. But then again, those two are fastidious and spoiled rotten.
  • An article published two years ago, and unfortunately still relevant today: transgender people have a hard time being recognized as such, even when theyr’e dead.

“Almost ready dear, let me put on some pearls and we can go out.”

  • Among the most bizarre museums, there is the wonderful Museum of Broken Relationships. It consists of objects, donated by the public, that symbolize a terminated relationship: the pearl necklace given as a gift by a violent fiancé to his girlfriend, in the attempt to be forgiven for his last abuses; an axe used by a woman to chop all of her ex-grilfriend’s furniture into pieces; the Proust volumes that a husband read out loud to his wife — the last 200 hundred pages still untouched, as their relationship ended before they’d finished reading the book. Well, can a love story ever last longer than the Recherche? (via Futility Closet)

In closing, I’d like to remind you that on Saturday 17 I will be in Bologna, at the library-wunderkammer Mirabilia (via de’ Carbonesi 3/e) to launch my new book from the Bizzarro Bazar Collection. You will also get to meet photographer Carlo Vannini and Professor Alberto Carli, curator of the Paolo Gorini Anatomical Collection. I hope to see you there!

Dolphinophilia

Art by Dr Louzou.

[…] by common accord they glide towards one another underwater, the female shark using its fins, Maldoror cleaving the waves with his arms; and they hold their breath in deep veneration, each one wishing to gave for the first time upon the other, his living portrait. When they are three yards apart they suddenly and spontaneously fall upon one another like two lovers and embrace with dignity and gratitude, clasping each other as tenderly as brother and sister. Carnal desire follows this demonstration of friendship. Two sinewy thighs press tightly against the monster’s viscous flesh, like two leeches; and arms and fins are clasped around the beloved object, while their throats and breasts soon form one glaucous mass amid the exhalations of the seaweed; amidst the tempest which was continuing to rage; by the light of lightning-flashes; with the foaming waves for marriage-bed; borne by an undersea current and rolling on top of one another down into the unknown deeps, they joined in a long, chaste and ghastly coupling!… At last I had found one akin to me… from now on I was no longer alone in life…! Her ideas were the same as mine… I was face to face with my first love!

I always loved this sulfurous description of the intercourse between Maldoror and a shark, found in the second chant of Lautréamont’s masterpiece.
It came back to mind when a friend recently suggested I look up Malcolm Brenner. You know you’ve found an interesting guy, when Wikipedia introduces him as an “author, journalist, and zoophile“.
Malcolm, it seems, has a thing for dolphins.

Now, zoophilia is a very delicate topic — I tried to address it in this post (Italian only) — because it doesn’t only touch on sensitive areas of sexuality, but it also concerns animal rights. I’m returning on the subject in order to tell two very different stories, which I find particularly remarkable: they are both about sexual encounters between humans and dolphins.
The first one is, indeed, Brennan’s.

I advise you to invest 15 minutes of your time and watch the extraordinary Dolphin Lover, embedded below, which chronicles the unconventional love story between Malcom and a female dolphin named Dolly.
The merit of this short documentary lies in the sensitivity with which it approaches its subject: a man who was abused at a tender age, still visibly marked by what he believes has been a wonderful sentimental and spiritual connection with the animal.
Viewing the video certainly poses an intriguing variety of questions: besides the intrinsic problems of zoophilia (the likelihood of inter-species love, the validity of including zoophiliac tendencies within a pathological spectrum, the issue of consent in animals), some daring points are made, such as the parallellism that Malcom puts forward with inter-racial marriages. “150 years ago, black people were considered degenerate subspecies of the human being, and at the time miscegenation was a crime in many states, as today inter-species sex or bestiality is a crime in many states. And I’m hoping that in a more enlightened future zoophilia will be no more regarded as controversial or harmful than interracial sex is today.

The documentary, and Brenner’s book Wet Goddess (2009), caused some stir, as you would expect. “Glorifying human sexual interactions with other species is inappropriate for the health and well being of any animal. It puts the dolphin’s own health and social behavioral settings at risk”, said expert Dr. Hertzing to the Huff Post.

But if you think the love story between Malcom and Dolly is bizarre, there’s at least another one that surpasses it in weirdness. Let me introduce you to Margaret Lovatt.

Margaret Lovatt. Foto: Matt Pinner/BBC

When she was younger, Margaret — who has no inclination or interest in zoophilia at all — was the target of a male dolphin’s erotic attention. And there would be nothing surprising in this: these mammals are notorious for their sexual promiscuity with trainers and other humans who are swimming with them. At times, they even get aggressive in their sexual advances (proving, if there ever was any need to, that consent is a stricly human concern).

In other words, the fact that a dolphin tried to hit on her is anything but unusual. But the context in which this happened is so delightfully weird, and her story so fascinating, that it deserves to be told.

Virgin Islands, early 1960s.
Doctor John C. Lilly was at the peak of his researches (which, many decades later, earned him a way cooler Wiki description than Brennan’s). This brilliant neuroscientist had already patented several manometers, condensers and medical meters; he had studied the effects of high altitude on brain physiology; he had created a machine to visualize brain activity through the use of electrodes (this kind of stimulation, still used today, is called “Lilly’s wave”). Intrigued by psychoanalisis, he also had already abandoned more conventional areas of scientific investigation to invent sensory deprivation tanks.


Built in 1954 and initally intended as a way to study brain neurophysiology in the absence of external stimuli, isolation tanks had unexpectedly turned out to be an altered-state-inducing tool, prompting a sort of deep and meditative trance. Lilly began to see them as spiritual or psychic vessels: “I made so many discoveries that I didn’t dare tell the psychiatric group about it at all because they would’ve said I was psychotic. I found the isolation tank was a hole in the universe.” This discovery led to the second part of his career, that saw him become an explorer of consciousness.

The early Sixties were also the time when John Lilly began to experiment with LSD, took interest in aliens and… in dolphins.

The scientist was convinced that these mammals were extremly intelligent, and he had discovered that they seemed able to replicate some human sounds. Wouldn’t it be nice, Lilly thought,if we could communicate with cetaceans? What enlightening concepts would their enormous brains teach us? He published his ideas in Man and Dolphin (1961), which instantly became a best-seller; in the book he prophetized a future in which dolphins would widen our perspective on history, philosophy and even world politics (he was confident a Cetacean consulting Seat could be established at the United Nations).


Lilly’s next step was to raise funds for a project aimed at teaching dolphins to speak English.
He tried to involve NASA and the Navy — as you do, right? —, and succeded. Thus Lilly founded the Communication Research Institute, a marine secret laboratory on the caraibic island of St. Thomas.

This is the context in which, in 1964, our Margaret began working with Peter, one of the three dolphins being studied at Lilly’s facility. Margaret moved in to live inside the dolphinarium for three months, in contact with Peter for six days a week. Here she gave English lessons to the animal, for instance teaching him how to articulate the words “Hello Margaret”.
‘M’ was very difficult […]. I worked on the ‘M’ sound and he eventually rolled over to bubble it through the water. That ‘M’, he worked on so hard.
But Peter also showed to be curious about many other things: “He was very, very interested in my anatomy. If I was sitting here and my legs were in the water, he would come up and look at the back of my knee for a long time. He wanted to know how that thing worked and I was so charmed by it.

Spending so much time on intimate terms with the dolphin introduced Lovatt to the cetacean’s sexual needs: “Peter liked to be with me. He would rub himself on my knee, or my foot, or my hand.” At that point, in order not to interrupt their sessions, Margaret began to manually satisfy Peter’s necessities, as they arose. “I allowed that. I wasn’t uncomfortable with it, as long as it wasn’t rough. It would just become part of what was going on, like an itch – just get rid of it, scratch it and move on. And that’s how it seemed to work out. […] It wasn’t sexual on my part. Sensuous perhaps. It seemed to me that it made the bond closer. Not because of the sexual activity, but because of the lack of having to keep breaking. And that’s really all it was. I was there to get to know Peter. That was part of Peter.

As months went by, John Lilly gradually lost interest in dolphins. He increasingly committed himself to his scientific research on psychedelics, at the time of great interest for the Government, but this eventually became a personal rather than a professional interest:  as recalled by a friend, “I saw John go from a scientist with a white coat to a full blown hippy.”

Psychedelic counter-culture icons: Ginsberg, Leary & Lilly.

The lab lost its fundings, the dolphins were moved to another aquarium in Miami, and Margaret didn’t hear about Peter until a few weeks later. “I got that phone call from John Lilly. John called me himself to tell me. He said Peter had committed suicide.
Just like Dolly in Malcolm Brenner’s account, Peter too had decided to stop breathing (which is voluntary in dolphins).

After more than a decade, in the late 1970s, Hustler magazine published a sexploitation piece about Margaret Lovatt and her “sexual” relationship with Peter, which included an explicit cartoon. Unfortunately, despite all attempts to put her story back within the frame of those pioneering experiments, Margaret was marked for many years as the woman who made love to dolphins.
It’s a bit uncomfortable,” she declared in a Guardian interview. “The worst experiment in the world, I’ve read somewhere, was me and Peter. That’s fine, I don’t mind. But that was not the point of it, nor the result of it. So I just ignore it.

Towards the end of his career, John Lilly became convinced that some gigantic cosmic entities (which he visualized during his acid trips) were responsible for all inexplicable coincidences.
Appropriately enough, just as I was finalizing this post, I stumbled upon one of these coincidences. I opened the New York Times website to find this article: a team of scientists from the University of Chile just published a paper, claiming to have trained an orca to repeat some English words.

So Lilly’s dream of communicating with cetaceans lives on.
Brennan’s dream, on the other hand, is still controversial, as are zoophile associations such as the German ZETA (“Zoophile Engagement for Tolerance and Enlightenment”), who believe in a future without any sexual barrier between species.
A future where one can easily make love to a dolphin without awakening anyone’s morbid curiosity.
Without anyone necessarily writing about it in a blog of oddities.

(Thanks, Fabri!)

Inanimus, Monsters & Chimeras of the Present

I look above me, towards the movable hooks once used to hang the meat, and I visualize the blood and pain that these walls had to contain – sustain – for many long years. Death and pain are the instruments life has to proceed, I tell myself.

I’m standing inside Padua’s former slaughterhouse: a space specifically devised for massacre, where now animals are living a second, bizarre life thanks to Alberto Michelon’s artworks.
When I meet him, he immediately infects me with the feverish enthusiasm of someone who is lucky (and brave) enough to be following his own vocation. What comes out of his mouth must clearly be a fifth of what goes through his mind. As John Waters put it, “without obsession, life is nothing“.
Animals and taxidermy are Alberto’s obsession.

Taxidermy is traditionally employed in two main fields: hunting trophies, and didactical museum installations.
In both context, the demand for taxidermic preparations is declining. On one hand we are witnessing a drop in hunting activities, which find less and less space in European culture as opposed to ecological preoccupations and the evolution of the ethical sensitiviy towards animals. On the other hand, even great Natural History Museums already have their well-established collections and seldom acquire new specimens: often a taxidermist is only called when restoration is required on already prepared animals.

This is why – Alberto explains – I mainly work for private customers who want to preserve their domestic pets. It is more difficult, because you have to faithfully recreate the cat or dog’s expressiveness based on their photographs; preparing a much-loved and familiar pet requires the greatest care. But I get a huge satisfaction when the job turns out well. Customers often burst into tears, they talk to the animal – when I present them with the finished work, I always step aside and leave them a bit of intimacy. It’s something that helps them coming to terms with their loss.”

What he says doesn’t surprise me: in a post on wunderkammern I associated taxidermy’s second youth (after a time in which it looked like this art had become obsolete) to the social need of reconfiguring our relationship with death.
But the reason I came here is Alberto is not just an ordinary taxidermist: he is Italy’s only real exponent of artistic taxiermy.

Until November 5, here at the ex-slaughterhouse, you can visit his exhibition Inanimus – A Contemporary Bestiary, a collection of his main works.
To a casual observer, artistic non-naturalist taxidermy could seem not fully respectful towards the animal. In realuty, most artists who use animal organic material as a medium do so just to reflect on our own relationship with other species, creating their works from ethical sources (animals who died of natural causes, collected in the wild, etc.).

Alberto too follows such professional ethics, as he began his experiment using leftovers from his workshop. “I was sorry to have to throw away pieces of skin, or specimens that wouldn’t find an arrangement“, he tells me. “It began almost like a diversion, in a very impulsive way, following a deep urge“.
He candidly confesses that he doesn’t know much about the American Rogue Taxidermy scene, nor about modern art galleries. And it’s clear that Alberto is somewhat alien to the contemporary art universe, so often haughty and pretentious: he keeps talking about instinct, about playing, but must of all – oh, the horror! – he takes the liberty of doing what no “serious” artist would ever dream of doing: he explains the message of his own works, one by one.

His installations really have much to say: rather than carrying messages, though, they are food for thought, a continuous and many-sided elaboration of the modernity, an attempt to use these animal remains as a mirror to investigate our own face.
Some of his works immediately strike me for the openness with which they take on current events: from the tragedy of migrants to GMOs, from euthanasia to the present-day fear of terrorist attacks.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen any other artist using taxidermy to confront the present in such a direct way.
A roe deer head covered in snake skin, wearing an orange uniform reminiscent of Islamic extremists’ prisoners, is chained to the wall. The reference is obvious: the heads of decapitated infidels are assimilated to hunting trophies.
To be honest, I find this explicit allusion to current events imagery (which, like it or not, has gained a “pop” quality) pretty unsettling, and I’m not even sure that I like it – but if something pulls the rug out from under my feet, I bless it anyways. This is what the best art is supposed to do.

Other installations are meant to illustrate Western contradictions, halfway through satire and open criticism to a capitalistic system ever harder to sustain.
A tortoise, represented as an old bejeweled lady with saggy breasts, is the emblem of a conservative society based on economic privilege: a “prehistoric” concept that, just like the reptile, has refused to evolve in any way.

A conqueror horse, fierce and rampant, exhibits a luxurious checked fur composed from several equines.
A social climber horse: to be where he stands, he must have done away with many other horses“, Alberto tells me with a smile.

An installation shows the internal organs of a tiger, preserved in jars that are arranged following the animal’s anatomy: the eyes, tomgue and brain are placed at the extremity where the head should be, and so on. Some chimeras seem to be in the middle of a bondage session: an allusion to poaching for aphrodisiac elixirs such as the rhino horn, and to the fil rouge linking us to those massacres.

A boar, sitting on a toilet, is busy reading a magazine and searching for a pair of glass eyes to fill his empty eye sockets.
The importance of freedom of choice regarding the end of life is incarnated by two minks who hanged themselves – rather than ending up in a fur coat.
The skulls of three livestock animals are hanged like trophies, and plastic flowers come out of the hole bored by the slaughterhouse firearm (“I picked up the flowers from the graves at the cemetery, replacing them with new flowers“, Michelon tells me).

As you might have understood by now, the most interesting aspect of the Inanimus works is the neverending formal experimentation.
Every installation is extremely different from the other, and Alberto Michelon always finds new and surprising ways of using the animal matter: there are abstract paintings whose canvas is made of snake or fish skin; entomological compositions; anthropomorphic taxidermies; a crucifix entirely built by patiently gluing together bone fragments; tribal masks, phallic snakes mocking branded underwear, skeletal chandeliers, Braille texts etracted from lizard skin.

Ma gli altri tassidermisti, diciamo i “puristi”, non storcono il naso?
Certamente alcuni non la ritengono vera tassidermia, forse pensano che io mi sia montato la testa. Non mi importa. Cosa vuoi farci? Questo progetto sta prendendo sempre più importanza, mi diverte e mi entusiasma.

On closer inspection, there’s not a huge difference between classic and artistic taxidermy. The stuffed animals we find in natural science museums, as well as Alberto’s, are but representations, interpretations, simulachra.
Every taxidermist uses the skin, and shape, of the animal to convey a specific vision of the world; and the museum narrative (although so conventional as to be “invisible” to our eyes) is maybe no more legit than a personal perspective.

Although Alberto keeps repeating that he feels he’s a novice, still unripe artist, the Inanimus works show a very precise artistic direction. As I approach the exit, I feel I have witnessed something unique, at least in the Italian panorama. I cannot therefore back away from the ritual prosaic last question: future projects?
I want to keep on getting better, learning, experimenting new things“, Alberto replies as his gaze wanders all around, lost in the crowd of his transfigured animals.

Inanimus – un bestiario contemporaneo
Padova, Cattedrale Ex-macello, Via Cornaro 1
Until October 17, 2017 [Extended to November 5, 2017]
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Wunderkammer Reborn – Part II

(Second and last part – you can find the first one here.)

In the Nineteenth Century, wunderkammern disappeared.
The collections ended up disassembled, sold to private citizens or integrated in the newly born modern museums. Scientists, whose discipline was already defined, lost interest for the ancient kind of baroque wonder, perhaps deemed child-like in respect to the more serious postitivism.
This type of collecting continued in sporadic and marginal ways during the first decades of the Twetieth Century. Some rare antique dealer, especially in Belgium, the Netherlands or Paris, still sold some occasional mirabilia, but the golden age of the trade was long gone.
Of the few collectors of this first half of the century the most famous is André Breton, whose cabinet of curiosities is now on permanent exhibit at the Centre Pompidou.

The interest of wunderkammern began to reawaken during the Eighties from two distinct fronts: academics and artists.
On one hand, museology scholars began to recognize the role of wunderkammern as precursors of today’s museal collections; on the other, some artists fell in love with the concept of the chamber of wonders and started using it in their work as a metaphor of Man’s relationship with objects.
But the real upswing came with the internet. The neo-wunderkammer “movement” developed via the web, which opened new possibilities not only for sharing the knowledge but also to revitalize the commerce of curiosities.

Let’s take a look, as we did for the classical collections, to some conceptual elements of neo-wunderkammern.

A Democratic Wunderkammer

The first macroscopic difference with the past is that collecting curiosities is no more an exclusive of wealthy billionaires. Sure, a very-high-profile market exists, one that the majority of enthusiasts will never access; but the good news is that today, anybody who can afford an internet conection already has the means to begin a little collection. Thanks to the web, even a teenager can create his/her own shelf of wonders. All that’s needed is good will and a little patience to comb through the many natural history collectibles websites or online auctions for some real bargain.

There are now children’s books, school activities and specific courses encouraging kids to start this form of exploration of natural wonders.

The result of all this is a more democratic wunderkammer, within the reach of almost any wallet.

Reinventing Exotica

We talked about the classic category of exotica, those objects that arrived from distant colonies and from mysterious cultures.
But today, what is really exotic – etymologically, “coming from the outside, from far away”? After all we live in a world where distances don’t matter any more, and we can travel without even moving: in a bunch of seconds and a few clicks, we can virtually explore any place, from a mule track on the Andes to the jungles of Borneo.

This is a fundamental issue for the collectors, because globalization runs the risk of annihilating an important part of the very concept of wonder. Their strategies, conscious or not, are numerous.
Some collectors have turned their eyes towards the only real “external space” that is left — the cosmos; they started looking for memorabilia from the heroic times of the Space Race. Spacesuits, gear and instruments from various space missions, and even fragments of the Moon.

Others push in the opposite direction, towards the most distant past; consequently the demand for dinosaur fossils is in constant growth.

But there are other kinds of new exotica that are closer to us – indeed, they pertain directly to our own society.
Internal exoticism: not really an oxymoron, if we consider that anthropologists have long turned the instruments of ethnology towards the modern Western worold (take for instance Marc Augé). To seek what is exotic within our own cultre is to investigate liminal zones, fringe realities of our time or of the recent past.

Thus we find a recent fascination for some “taboo” areas, related for example to crime (murder weapons, investigative items, serial killer memorabilia) or death (funerary objecs and Victorian mourning apparel); the medicalia sub-category of quack remedies, as for example electric shock terapies or radioactive pharamecutical products.

Jessika M. collection – photo Brian Powell, from Morbid Curiosities (courtesy P. Gambino)

Funerary collectibles.

Violet wand kit; its low-voltage electric shock was marketed as the cure for everything.

Even curiosa, vintage or ancient erotic objects, are an example of exotica coming from a recent past which is now transfigured.

A Dialogue Between The Objects

Building a wunderkammer today is an eminently artistic endeavour. The scientific or anthropological interest, no matter how relevant, cannot help but be strictly connected to aesthetics.
There is a greater general attention to the interplay between the objects than in the past. A painting can interact with an object placed in front of it; a tribal mask can be made to “dialogue” with an other similar item from a completely different tradition. There is undoubtedly a certain dose of postmodern irreverence in this approach; for when pop culture collectibles are allowed entrance to the wunderkammer, ending up exhibited along with precious and refined antiques, the self-righteous art critic is bound to shudder (see for instance Victor Wynd‘s peculiar iconoclasm).

An example I find paradigmatic of this search for a deeper interaction are the “adventurous” juxtapositions experimented by friend Luca Cableri (the man who brought to Moon to Italy); you can read the interview he gave me if you wish to know more about him.

Wearing A Wunderkammer

Fashion is always aware of new trends, and it intercepted some aspects of the world of wunerkammern. Thanks mainly to the goth and dark subcultures, one can find jewelry and necklaces made from naturalistic specimens: on Etsy, eBay or Craigslist, countless shops specialize in hand-crafted brooches, hair clips or other fashion accessories sporting skulls, small wearable taxidermies and so on.

Conceptual Art and Rogue Taxidermists

As we said, the renewed interest also came from the art world, which found in wunderkammern an effective theoretical frame to reflect about modernity.
The first name that comes to mind is of course Damien Hirst, who took advantage of the concept both in his iconic fluid-preserved animals and in his kaleidoscopic compositions of lepidoptera and butterflies; but even his For The Love of God, the well-known skull covered in diamonds, is an excessively precious curiosity that would not have been out of place in a Sixteenth Century treasure chamber.

Hirst is not the only artist taking inspiration from the wunderkammer aesthetics. Mark Dion, for instance, creates proper cabinets of wonders for the modern era: in his work, it’s not natural specimens that are put under formaldeyde, but rather their plastic replicas or even everyday objects, from push brooms to rubber dildos. Dion builds a sort of museum of consumerism in which – yet again – Nature and Culture collide and even at times fuse together, giving us no hope of telling them apart.

In 2013 Rosamund Purcell’s installation recreated a 3D version of the Seventeenth Century Ole Worm Museum: reinvention/replica, postmodern doppelgänger and hyperreal simulachrum which allows the public to step into one of the most famous etchings in the history of wunderkammern.

Besides the “high” art world – auction houses and prestigious galleries – we are also witnessing a rejuvenation of more artisanal sectors.
This is the case with the art of taxidermy, which is enjoying a new youth: today taxidermy courses and workshops are multiplying.

Remember that in the first post I talked about taxidermy as a domestication of the scariest aspects of Nature? Well, according to the participants, these workshops offer a way to exorcise their fear of death on a comfortably small scale, through direct contact and a creative activity. (We shall return on this tactile element.)
A further push towards innovation has come from yet another digital movement, called Rogue Taxidermy.

Artistic, non-traditional taxidermy has always existed, from fake mirabilia and gaffs such as mummified sirens and Jenny Hanivers to Walter Potter‘s antropomorphic dioramas. But rogue taxidermists bring all this to a whole new level.

Initially born as a consortium of three artists – Sarina Brewer, Scott Bibus e Robert Marbury – who were interested in taxidermy in the broadest sense (Marbury does not even use real animals for his creations, but plush toys), rogue taxidermy quickly became an international movement thanks to the web.

The fantastic chimeras produced by these artists are actually meta-taxidermies: by exhibiting their medium in such a manifest way, they seem to question our own relationship with animals. A relationship that has undergone profound changes and is now moving towards a greater respect and care for the environment. One of the tenets of rogue taxidermy is in fact the use of ethically sourced materials, and the animals used in preparations all died of natural causes. (Here’s a great book tracing the evolution and work of major rogue taxidermy artists.)

Wunderkammer Reborn

So we are left with the fundamental question: why are wunderkammern enjoying such a huge success right now, after five centuries? Is it just a retro, nostalgic trend, a vintage frivolous fashion like we find in many subcultures (yes I’m looking at you, my dear hipster friends) or does its attractiveness lie in deeper urgencies?

It is perhaps too soon to put forward a hypothesis, but I shall go out on a limb anyway: it is my belief that the rebirth of wunderkammern is to be sought in a dual necessity. On one hand the need to rethink death, and on the other the need to rethink art and narratives.

Rethinking Death
(And While We’re At It, Why Not Domesticate It)

Swiss anthropologist Bernard Crettaz was among the first to voice the ever more widespread need to break the “tyrannical secrecy” regarding death, typical of the Twentieth Century: in 2004 he organized in Neuchâtel the first Café mortel, a free event in which participants could talk about grief, and discuss their fears but also their curiosities on the subject. Inspired by Crettaz’s works and ideas, Jon Underwood launched the first British Death Café in 2011. His model received an enthusiastic response, and today almost 5000 events have been held in 50 countries across the world.

Meanwhile, in the US, a real Death-Positive Movement was born.
Originated from the will to drastically change the American funeral industry, criticized by founder Caitlin Doughty, the movement aims at lifting the taboo regarding the subject of death, and promotes an open reflection on related topics and end-of-life issues. (You probably know my personal engagement in the project, to which I contributed now and then: you can read my interview to Caitlin and my report from the Death Salon in Philadelphia).

What has the taboo of death got to do with collecting wonders?
Over the years, I have had the opportunity of talking to many a collector. Almost all of them recall, “as if it were yesterday“, the emotion they felt while holding in their hands the first piece of their collection, that one piece that gave way to their obsession. And for the large majority of them it was a naturalistic specimen – an animal skeleton, a taxidermy, etc.: as a friend collector says, “you never forget your first skull“.

The tactile element is as essential today as it was in classical wunderkammern, where the public was invited to study, examine, touch the specimens firsthand.

Owning an animal skull (or even a human one) is a safe and harmless way to become familiar with the concreteness of death. This might be the reason why the macabre element of wunderkammern, which was marginal centuries ago, often becomes a prevalent aspect today.

Ryan Matthew Cohn collection – photo Dan Howell & Steve Prue, from Morbid Curiosities (courtesy P. Gambino)

Rethinking Art: The Aesthetics Of Wonder

After the decline of figurative arts, after the industrial reproducibility of pop art, after the advent of ready-made art, conceptual art reached its outer limit, giving a coup the grace to meaning.  Many contemporary artists have de facto released art not just from manual skill, from artistry, but also from the old-fashioned idea that art should always deliver a message.
Pure form, pure signifier, the new conceptual artworks are problematic because they aspire to put a full stop to art history as we know it. They look impossible to understand, precisely because they are designed to escape any discourse.
It is therefore hard to imagine in what way artistic research will overcome this emptiness made of cold appearance, polished brilliance but mere surface nonetheless; hard to tell what new horizon might open up, beyond multi-million auctions, artistars and financial hikes planned beforehand by mega-dealers and mega-collectors.

To me, it seems that the passion for wunderkammern might be a way to go back to narratives, to meaning. An antidote to the overwhelming surface. Because an object is worth its place inside a chamber of marvels only by virtue of the story it tells, the awe it arises, the vertigo it entails.
I believe I recognize in this genre of collecting a profound desire to give back reality to its lost enchantment.
Lost? No, reality never ceased to be wonderous, it is our gaze that needs to be reeducated.

From Cabinets de Curiosités (2011) – photo C. Fleurant

Eventually, a  wunderkammer is just a collection of objects, and we already live submerged in an ocean of objects.
But it is also an instrument (as it once was, as it has always been) – a magnifying glass to inspect the world and ourselves. In these bizarre and strange items, the collector seeks a magical-narrative dimension against the homologation and seriality of mass production. Whether he knows it or not, by being sensitive to the stories concealed within the objects, the emotions they convey, their unicity, the wunderkammer collector is carrying out an act of resistence: because placing value in the exception, in the exotic, is a way to seek new perspectives in spite of the Unanimous Vision.

Da Cabinets de Curiosités (2011) – foto C. Fleurant

Wunderkammer Reborn – Part I

Why has the new millennium seen the awakening of a huge interest in “cabinets of wonder”? Why does such an ancient kind of collecting, typical of the period between the 1500s and the 1700s, still fascinate us in the internet era? And what are the differences between the classical wunderkammern and the contemporary neo-wunderkammern?

I have recently found myself tackling these subjects in two diametrically opposed contexts.
The first was dead serious conference on disciplines of knowledge in the Early Modern Period, at the University of PAdua; the second, a festival of magic and wonder created by a mentalist and a wonder injector. In this last occasion I prepared a small table with a micro-wunderkammer (really minimal, but that’s what I could fit into my suitcase!) so that after the talk the public could touch and see some curiosities first-hand.

Two traditionally quite separate scenarios – the academic milieu and the world of entertainment – both decided to dedicate some space to the discussion of this phenomenon, which strikes me as indicative of its relevance.
So I thought it might be interesting to resume, in very broad terms, my speech on the subject for the benefit of those who could not attend those meetings.

For practical purposes, I will divide the whole thing into two posts.
In this first one, I will trace what I believe are the key characteristics of historical wunderkammern – or, more precisely, the key concepts worth reflecting upon.
In the next post I will address XXI Century neo-wunderkammern, to try and pinpoint what might be the reasons of this peculiar “rebirth”.

Mirabilia

Evidently, the fundamental concept for a wunderkammer, beginning from the name itself, was the idea of wonder; from the aristocratic cabinets of Ferdinand II of Austria or Rudolf II to the more science-oriented ones like Aldrovandi‘s, Cospi‘s, or Kircher‘s, the purpose of all ancient collections was first and foremost to amaze the visitor.

It was a way for the rich person who assembled the wunderkammer to impress his court guests, showing off his opulence and lavish wealth: cabinets of curiosities were actually an evolution of treasure chambers (schatzkammern) and of the great collections of artworks of the 1400s (kunstkammer).

This predilection of rare and expensive objects generated a thriving international commerce of naturalistic and ethnological items cominc from the Colonies.

The Theatre of the World

But wunderkammern were also meant as a sort of microcosm: they were supposed to represent the entirety of the known universe, or at least to hint at the incredibly vast number of creatures and natural shapes that are present in the world. Samuel Quiccheberg, in his treatise on the arrangement of a utopian museum, was the first to use the word “theatre”, but in reality – as we shall see later on – the idea of theatrical representation is one of the cardinal concepts in classical collections.

Because of its ability to represent the world, the wunderkammer was also understood as a true instrument of research, an investigation tool for natural philosophers.

The System of Knowledge

The organization of a huge array of materials did not initially follow any specific order, but rather proceeded from the collector’s own whims and taste. Little by little, though, the idea of cataloguing began to emerge, which at first entailed the distinction between three macro-categories known as naturalia, artificialia and mirabilia, later to be refined and expanded in different other classes (medicalia, exotica, scientifica, etc.).

Naturalia

Artificialia

Artificialia

Mirabilia

Mirabilia

Medicalia, exotica, scientifica

This ever growing need to distinguish, label and catalogue eventually led to Linnaeus’ taxonomy, to his dispute with Buffon, all the way to Lamarck, Cuvier and the foundation of the Louvre, which marks the birth of the modern museum as we know it.

The Aesthetics of Accumulation

Perhaps the most iconic and well-known aspect of wunderkammern is the cramming of objects, the horror vacui that prevented even the tiniest space from being left empty in the exposition of curiosities and bizarre artifacts gathered around the world.
This excessive aesthetic was not just, as we said in the beginning, a display of wealth, but aimed at astounding and baffling the visitor. And this stunned condition was an essential moment: the wonder at the Universe, that feeling called thauma, proceeds certainly from awe but it is inseparable from a sense of unease. To access this state of consciousness, from which philosophy is born, we need to step outof our comfort zone.

To be suddenly confronted with the incredible imagination of natural shapes, visually “assaulted” by the unthinkable moltitude of objects, was a disturbing experience. Aesthetics of the Sublime, rather than Beauty; this encyclopedic vertigo is the reason why Umberto Eco places wunderkammern among his examples of  “visual lists”.

Conservation and Representation

One of the basic goals of collecting was (and still is) the preservation of specimens and objects for study purposes or for posterity. Yet any preservation is already a representation.

When we enter a museum, we cannot be fully aware of the upstream choices that have been made in regard to the exhibit; but these choices are what creates the narrative of the museum itself, the very “tale” we are told room after room.

Multiple options are involved: what specimens are to be preserved, which technique is to be used to preserve them (the result will vary if a biological specimen is dried, texidermied, or put in a preserving fluid), how to group them, how to arrange their exhibit?
It is just like casting the best actors, choosing the stage costumes, a particular set design, and the internal script of the museum.

The most illuminating example is without doubt taxidermy, the ultimate simulacrum: of the original animal nothing is left but the skin, stretched on a dummy which mimics the features and posture of the beast. Glass eyes are applied to make it more convincing. That is to say, stuffed animals are meant to play the part of living animals. And when you think about it, there is no more “reality” in them than in one of those modern animatronic props we see in Natural History Museums.

But why do we need all this theatre? The answer lies in the concept of domestication.

Domestication: Nature vs. Culture

Nature is opposed to Culture since the time of ancient Greeks. Western Man has always felt the urge to keep his distance from the part of himself he perceived as primordial, chaotic, uncontrollable, bestial. The walls of the polis locked Nature outside, keeping Culture inside; and it’s not by chance that barbarians – seen as half-men half-beasts – were etymologically “those who stutter”, who remained outside of the logos.

The theatre, an advanced form of representation, was born in Athens likely as a substitute for previous ancient human sacrifices (cf. Réné Girard), and it served the same sacred purposes: to sublimate the animal desire of cruelty and violence. The tragic hero takes on the role of the sacrificial victim, and in fact the evidence of the sacred value of tragedies is in the fact that originally attending the theatrical plays was mandatory by law for all citizens.

Theatre is therefore the first attempt to domesticate natural instincts, to bring them literally “inside one’s home” (domus), to comprehend them within the logos in order to defuse their antisocial power. Nature only becomes pleasant and harmless once we narrate it, when we turn it into a scenic design.

And here’s why a stuffed lion (which is a narrated lion, the “image” of a lion as told through the fiction of taxidermy) is something we can comfortably place in our living room without any worry. All study of Nature, as it was conceived in the wunderkammern, was essentially the study of its representation.

By staging it, it was possible to exert a kind of control over Nature that would have been impossible otherwise. Accordingly, the symbol of the wunderkammern, that piece that no collection could do without, was the chained crocodile — bound and incapable of causing harm thanks to the ties of Reason, of logos, of knowledge.

It is worth noting, in closing this first part, that the symbology of the crocodile was also borrowed from the world of the sacred. These reptiles in chains first made their apparition in churches, and several examples can still be seen in Europe: in that instance, of course, they were meant as a reminder of the power and glory of Christ defeating Satan (and at the same time they impressed the believers, who in all probability had never seen such a beast).
A perfect example of sacred taxidermy; domestication as a bulwark against the wild, sinful unconscious; barrier bewteen natural and social instincts.

(Continues in Part Two)

Links, curiosities & mixed wonders – 6

Step right up! A new batch of weird news from around the world, amazing stories and curious facts to get wise with your friends! Guaranteed to break the ice at parties!

  • Have you seen those adorable and lovely fruit bats? How would you like to own a pet bat, making all those funny expressions as you feed him a piece of watermelon or banana?
    In this eye-opening article a bat expert explains all the reasons why keeping these mammals as domestic pets is actually a terrible idea.
    There are not just ethical reasons (you would practically ruin their existence) or economic reasons (keeping them healthy would cost you way more than you can imagine); the big surprise here is that, despite those charming OMG-it’s-so-cuuute little faces, bats — how should I put it — are not exactly good-mannered.
    As they hang upside down, they rub their own urine all over their body, in order to stink appropriately. They defecate constantly. And most of all, they engage in sex all the time — straight, homosexual, vaginal, oral and anal sex, you name it. If you keep them alone, males will engage in stubborn auto-fellatio. They will try and hump you, too.
    And if you still think ‘Well, now, how bad can that be’, let me remind you that we’re talking about this.
    Next time your friend posts a video of cuddly bats, go ahead and link this pic. You’re welcome.
  • Sex + animals, always good fun. Take for example the spider Latrodectus: after mating, the male voluntarily offers himself in sacrifice to be eaten by his female partner, to benefit their offspring. And he’s not the only animal to understand the evolutionary advantages of cannibalism.
  • From cannibals to zombies: the man picture below is Clairvius Narcisse. He is sitting on his own grave, from which he rose transformed into a real living dead.
    You can find his story on Wikipedia, in a famous Haitian etnology book, in the fantasy horror film Wes Craven adapted from it, and in this in-depth article.
  • Since we’re talking books, have you already invested your $3 for The Illustrati Archives 2012-2016? Thirty Bizzarro Bazar articles in kindle format, and the satisfaction of supporting this blog, keeping it free as it is and always will be. Ok, end of the commercial break.
  • Under a monastery in Rennes, France, more than 1.380 bodies have been found, dating from 14th to 18th Century. One of them belonged to noblewoman Louise de Quengo, Lady of Brefeillac; along with her corpse, in the casket, was found her husband’s heart, sealed in a lead lock box. The research on these burials, recently published, could revolutionize all we know about mummification during the Renaissance.

  • While we’re on the subject, here’s a great article on some of the least known mummies in Italy: the Mosampolo mummies (Italian language).
  • Regarding a part of the Italian patrimony that seldom comes under the spotlight, BBC Culture issued a good post on the Catacombs of Saint Gaudiosus in Naples, where frescoes show a sort of danse macabre but with an unsettling ‘twist’: the holes that can be seen where a figure’s face should be, originally harbored essicated heads and real skulls.

  • Now for a change of scenario. Imagine a sort of Blade Runner future: a huge billboard, the incredible size of 1 km², is orbiting around the Earth, brightening the night with its eletric colored lights, like a second moon, advertising some carbonated drink or the last shampoo. We managed to avoid all this for the time being, but that isn’t to say that someone hasn’t already thought of doing it. Here’s the Wiki page on space advertising.
  • Since we are talking about space, a wonderful piece The Coming Amnesia speculates about a future in which the galaxies will be so far from each other that they will no longer be visible through any kind of telescope. This means that the inhabitants of the future will think the only existing galaxy is their own, and will never come to theorize something like the Big Bang. But wait a second: what if something like that had already happened? What if some fundamental detail, essential to the understanding of the nature of cosmos, had already, forever disappeared, preventing us from seeing the whole picture?
  • To intuitively teach what counterpoint is, Berkeley programmer Stephen Malinowski creates graphics where distinct melodic lines have different colors. And even without knowing anything about music, the astounding complexity of a Bach organ fugue becomes suddenly clear:

  • In closing, I advise you to take 10 minutes off to immerse yourself in the fantastic and poetic atmosphere of Goutte d’Or, a French-Danish stop-motion short directed by Christophe Peladan. The director of this ironic story of undead pirates, well aware he cannot compete with Caribbean blockbusters, makes a virtue of necessity and allows himself some very French, risqué malice.

The Academy of Enchantment

The time has finally come to unveil the project I have been spending a good part of this year on.

Everything started with a place, a curious secret nestled in the heart of Rome, a stone’s throw away from the Circo Massimo. Very likely, my favorite haven in the whole city: the wunderkammer Mirabilia, a cabinet of wonders recreating the philosophy and taste of sixteenth-century collections, from which modern museums evolved.

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Taxidermied giraffes and lions, high-profile artworks and rarities from all over the world were gathered here after many years of research and adventures by the gallery owner, Giano Del Bufalo, a young collector I previously wrote about.

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This baroque studio, where beauty marries the macabre and the wonderful, has become for me a special spot in which to withdraw and to dream, especially after a hard day.
Given these premises, it was just a matter of time before the idea of a collaboration between Bizzarro Bazar and Mirabilia was born.

And now we’re getting there.
On October 9, within this gallery’s perfect setting, the Academy of Enchantment will open its doors.

programma-fronte

What Giano and I have designed is an alternative cultural center, unprecedented in the Italian scenario and tailor-made for the lovers of the unusual.
The Academy will host a series of meetings with scientists, writers, artists and scholars who devoted their lives to the exploration of reality’s strangest facets: they range from mummification specialists to magic books researchers, from pathologists to gothic literature experts, from sex historians to some of the most original contemporary artists.

You can easily guess how much this project is close to my heart, as it represents a physical transposition of many years of work on this blog. But the privilege of planning its ‘bursting into’ the real world has been accorded only by the friendly willingness of a whole number of kindred spirits I have met over the years thanks to Bizzarro Bazar.
I was surprised and actually a bit intimidated by the enthusiasm shown by these extraordinary people, whom I hold in the highest regard: University professors, filmmakers, illusionists and collectors of oddities all warmly responded to my call for action, which can be summarized by the ambitious objective of “cultivating the vertigo of amazement”.

I address a similar appeal to this blog’s followers: spread the word, share the news and participate to the events if you can. It will be a unique occasion to listen and discuss, to meet these exceptional lecturers in person, to train your dream muscles… but above all it will be an opportunity to find each other.

This is indeed how we like to think of the Academy of Enchantment: as a frontier outpost, where the large family of wonder pioneers and enthusiasts can finally meet; where itineraries and discoveries can intersect; and from which, eventually, everyone will be able to head off towards new explorations.

mirabilia

In order to attain the meetings you will be requested to join the Mirabilia cultural association; on the Accademia dell’Incanto website you will soon find all about the next events and application methods.
The Accademia dell’Incanto is also on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
“Keep the World Weird!”

An elephant on the gallows

The billboards for Sparks World Famous Shows, which appeared in small Southern American towns a couple of days before the circus’ arrival, seem quite anomalous to anyone who has a familiarity with this kind of poster design from the beginning of the Twentieth Century.
Where one could expect to see emphatic titles and hyperbolic advertising claims, Sparks circus — in a much too unpretentious way — was defined as a “moral, entertaining and instructive” spectacle; instead of boasting unprecedented marvels, the only claim was that the show “never broke a promise” and publicized its “25 years of honest dealing with the public“.

The reason why owner Charlie Sparks limited himself to stress his show’s transparency and decency, was that he didn’t have much else to count on, in order to lure the crowd.
Despite Sparks’ excellent reputation (he was among the most respected impresarios in the business), his was ultimately a second-category circus. It consisted of a dozen cars, against the 42 cars of his main rival in the South, John Robinson’s Circus. Sparks had five elephants, Robinson had twelve. And both of them could never hope to compete with Barnum & Bailey’s number one circus, with its impressive 84-car railroad caravan.
Therefore Sparks World Famous Shows kept clear of big cities and made a living by serving those smaller towns, ignored by more famous circuses, where the residents would find his attractions worth paying for.

Although Sparks circus was “not spectacularly but slowly and surely” growing, in those years it didn’t offer much yet: some trained seals, some clowns, riders and gymnasts, the not-so-memorable “Man Who Walks on His Head“, and some living statues like the ones standing today on public squares, waiting for a coin.
The only real resource for Charlie Sparks, his pride and joy widely displayed on the banners, was Mary.

Advertides as being “3 inches taller than Jumbo” (Barnum’s famous elephant), Mary was a 5-ton indian pachyderm capable of playing different melodies by blowing horns, and of throwing a baseball as a pitcher in one of her most beloved routines. Mary represented the main source of income for Charlie Sparks, who loved her not just for economical but also for sentimental reasons: she was the only real superior element of his circus, and his excuse for dreaming of entering the history of entertainment.
And in a sense it is because of Mary if Sparks is still remembered today, even if not for the reason he might have suspected or wanted.

On September 11, 1916, Sparks pitched his Big Top in St. Paul, a mining town in Clinch River Valley, Virginia. On that very day Walter “Red” Eldridge, a janitor in a local hotel, decided that he had enough of sweeping floors, and joined the circus.
Altough Red was a former hobo, and clearly knew nothing about elephants, he was entrusted with leading the pachyderms during the parade Sparks ran through the city streets every afternoon before the show.
The next day the circus moved to Kingsport, Tennessee, where Mary paraded quietly along the main street, until the elephants were brought over to a ditch to be watered. And here the accounts begin to vary: what we know for sure is that Red hit Mary with a stick, infuriating the beast.
The rogue elephant grabbed the inexperienced handler with its trunk, and threw him in the air. When the body fell back on the ground, Mary began to trample him and eventually crushed his head under her foot. “And blood and brains and stuff just squirted all over the street“, as one witness put it.

Charlie Sparks immediately found himself in the middle of the worst nightmare.
Aside from his employee’s death on a public street — not really a “moral” and “instructive” spectacle — the real problem was that the whole tour was now in jeopardy: what town would allow an out-of-control elephant near its limits?
The crowd demanded the animal to be suppressed and Sparks unwillingly understood that if he wanted to save what was left of his enterprise, Mary had to be sacrified and, with her, his personal dreams of grandeur.
But killing an elephant is no easy task.

The first, obvious attempt was to fire five 32-20 rounds at Mary. There’s a good reason however if elephants are called pachyderms: the thick skin barrier did not let the bullets go deep in the flesh and, despite the pain, Mary didn’t fall down. (When in 1994 Tyke, a 3.6-ton elephant, killed his handler running amok on the streets of Honolulu, it took 86 shots to stop him. Tyke became a symbol for the fights against animal cruelty in circuses, also because of the heartbreaking footage of his demise.)
Someone then suggested to try and eliminate Mary by electrocution, a method used more than a decade before in the killing of Topsy in Coney Island. But there was no nearby way of producing the electricity needed to carry out the execution.
Therefore it was decided that Mary would be hung.

The only gallows that could bear such a weight was to be found in the railyards in Erwin, where there was a derrick capable of lifting railcars to place them on the tracks.
Charlie Sparks, knowing he was about to lose an animal worth $20.000, was determined to make the most out of the desperate situation. In the brief time that took for Mary to be moved from Kingsport to Erwin, he had already turned his elephant’s execution into a public event.

On September 13, on a rainy and foggy afternoon, more than 2.500 people gathered at the railyards. Children stood in the front line to witness the extraordinary endeavour.
Mary was brought to the makeshift gallows, and her foot was chained to the tracks while men struggled to pass a chain around her neck. They then tied the chain to the derric, started the winch, and the hanging began.
In theory, the weight of her body would have had to quickly break her neck. But Mary’s agony was to be far from swift and painless; in the heat of the moment, someone forgot to untie the animal’s foot, which was still bound to the rails.

When they began to lift her up — a witness recalled — I heard the bones and ligaments cracking in her foot“; the men hastily released the foot, but right then the chain around Mary’s neck broke with a metallic crack.

The elephant fell on the ground and sat there upright, unable to move because in falling she had broken her hip.

The crowd, unaware that Mary at this point was wounded and paralyzed, panicked upon seeing the “murderous” elephant free from any restraint. As everyone ran for cover, one of the roustabouts climbed on the animal’s back and applaied a heavier chain to her neck.
The derrick once more began to lift the elephant, and this time the chain held the weight.
After she was dead, Mary was left to hang for half an hour. Her huge body was then buried in a large grave which had been excavated further up the tracks.

Mary’s execution, and the photograph of her hanging, were widely reported in the press. But to search for an article where this strange story was recounted with special emotion or participation would be useless. Back then, Mary’s incident was little more than quintessential, small-town oddity piece of news.
After all, people were used to much worse. In Erwin, in those very years, a black man was burned alive on a pile of crosstiles.

Today the residents of this serene Tennessee town are understandably tired of being associated with a bizarre and sad page of the city history — a century-old one, at that.
And yet still today some passing foreigner asks the proverbial, unpleasand question.
Didn’t they hang an elephant here?

A well-researched book on Mary’s story is The Day They Hung the Elephant by Charles E. Price. On Youtube you can find a short documentary entitled Hanging Over Erwin: The Execution of Big Mary.

My week of English wonders – I

England, despite the sweetness of its mild hills standing out, or its pleasantly green countryside, always had a funereal quality to my eye.

I am well aware that such an impression, indistinct and irrational as it is, is but an indefensible generalization; yet I cannot help this feeling deep inside of me every time I go back across the Channel.
It may be because of the many convent ruins characterizing the landscape since Reformation, or because of the infamously leaden sky, or the lingering memory of Victorian mournings; but I suspect the idea that this whole country could have an affinity with death was actually suggested to me by the British I happened to know throughout the years, who seemed to be fighting against a sort of innate, philosophical resignation with the weapons of irony.
In his sketches, John Cleese often made fun of the deferential British austerity, that fear of hurting or being hurt if feelings are given free rein — the same bottled up behaviour which finds its counterpart in the cruelty of British humour, in Blake’s dazzling ecstatic explosions, in the dandies’ iconoclasm or in punk nihilism. Thus, as hard as I have tried, I cannot get rid of the sensation that the English people think more than others, or maybe with less distractions, about vanitas, and are able to transform this awareness of futility (even in respect to social conventions) into a subversive undercurrent.

This is why heading to England to talk about memento mori felt somehow natural right from the start.
At the University of Winchester was gathered a heterogeneous crowd of academics (medievalists, medical historians, anatomists, paleopathologists, experts in literature and painting) and artists, all interested in the relationship between death, art and anatomy.

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These three days of memorable intellectual stimulation really fueled my mind, by nature already overexcited.
Therefore I arrived in London in a state of augmented perception, as the town greeted me with a bright sun and crystal blue skies over its buildings, as if eager to deny all the aforementioned stereotypes. And yet, in retrospect, the days I spent in the capital proved to be a protraction and a follow-up to the meditations initiated in Winchester.

My first, inevitable visit was obviously paid to the Wellcome Collection. This Museum, founded in 2007, is particularly dear to me because it addresses, like I often do on these pages, the intersections between science, art and the sacred. Its permanent collections feature anatomical dolls, memento mori, human remains (for instance a Peruvian 5 to 7 centuries-old mummy); but also fakirs sandals, shrunken heads, chastity belts and religious objects.

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A fascinating temporary exhibition entitled States of mind: Tracing the edges of consciousness introduces the visitor to the mysteries of the Self, of what we call “consciousness”, through the liminal territories of nightmare, somnambulism and its opposite — hypnagogic paralysis —, all the way to the uncharted realms of vegetative state. In the last room I learned with a shiver how recent studies suggest that patients suspended between life and death might be much more aware than we thought.


The Grant Museum of Zoology, just a five-minute walk from the Wellcome Collection, is the only remaining University zoological museum in the capital. The space open to the public is not very big, but it is packed to the ceiling with thousands of specimens covering the entire spectrum of animal kingdom. Skeletons, wet and taxidermied specimens are a silent — yet meaningful — reminder of the vortex of biodiversity.

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Another ten-minute walk, and I reached 1 Scala Street, the location for what is probably one of the most peculiar and evocative museums in London: Pollock’s Toy Museum.

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The visitor must proceed by climbing steep narrow stairs, passing through corridors and small rooms, in a sort of maze unfolding on multiple levels across two different houses, one built in the 1880s and the other dating back to the previous century. Ancient toys are stacked everywhere: dolls, tin soldiers, train models, stuffed animals, rocking horses, puppets, kaleidoscopes.
Coming from the Zoology Museum, I can’t help but think of how play is a fundamental activity for the human mammal. But what could appear just as a curious excursus in the history and diverse typologies of toys soon turns into something different.

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Standing before the display cases crowded with hundreds of time-worn puppets, overwhelmed by the incredible quantity of details, one could easily fall prey to a vague malaise. But this is not that sort of phobia some people have for old dolls and their vitreous gaze; it is a subtle, ancient melancholia.

What happened to the children who held those teddy bears, who played out fantastic stories on tiny cardboard theaters, who opened their eyes wide in front of a magic lantern?

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It might have been just another suggestion caused by previous days spent in heartfelt discussions on the symbols and simulacra of death; or, once more, my preconceptions were to blame.
But to me, even a museum dedicated to child entertainment somehow looked like a triumph of impermanence.

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(This article continues here)