Simone Unverdorben, The False Martyr

Article by guestblogger La cara Pasifae

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

(D. Lynch, Inland Empire, 2006)

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

From Alto Adige, April 1, 2017.

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

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

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

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

La cara Pasifae


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

Children of the Grave

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

(S. Beckett, Aspettando Godot)

An Italian Horror Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buried Alive?

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

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

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

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

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

Coffin Birth

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

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

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

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

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

Life In Death

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

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

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

Nascentes morimur, finisque ab origine pendet.

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

Fumone, the invisible castle

If by “mystery”, even in its etymological root, we mean anything closed, incomprehensible and hidden, then the castrum (castle), being a locked and fortified place, has always played the role of its perfect frame; it is the ideal setting for supernatural stories, a treasure chest of unspeakable and terrible deeds, a wonderful screen onto which our fears and desires can be projected.

This is certainly the case with the castle of Fumone, which appears to be inseparable from myth, from the enigmatic aura surrounding it, mostly on the account of its particularly dramatic history.

Right from its very name, this village shows a dark and most ominous legacy: Fumone, which means “great smoke”, refers to the advance of invaders.
Since it was annexed to the Papal States in XI Century, Fumone had a strategic outpost function, as it was designated to warn nearby villages of the presence of enemy armies; when they were spotted, a big fire was lit in the highest tower, called Arx Fumonis. This signal was then repeated by other cities, where similar pillars of thick smoke rose in the sky, until the alert came to Rome. “Cum Fumo fumat, tota campania tremat”: when Fumone is smoking, all the countryside trembles.
The castle, with its 14 towers, proved to be an impregnable military fortress, overruling the armies of Frederick Barbarossa and Henry VI, but the bloodiest part of its history has to do with its use as a prison by the State of the Church.
Fumone became sadly well-known both for its brutal detention conditions and for the illustrous guests who unwillingly entered its walls. Among others, notable prisoners were the antipope Gregory VIII in 1124 and, more than a century later, Pope Celestine V, guilty of the “big refusal”, that is abdicating the Papal throne.

These two characters are already shrouded in legend.
Gregory VIII died incarcerated in Fumone, after he opposed the Popes Paschal II, Gelasius II and Callixtus II and was defeated by the last one. In a corridor inside the castle, a plaque commemorates the antipope, and the guides (as well as the official website) never forget to suggest that Gregory’s corpse could be walled-up behind the plaque, as his body was never found. Just the first of many thrills offered by the tour.
As for the gentle but inconvenient Celestine V, he probably died of an infected abscess, weakened by the hardship of detention, and the legend has it that a flaming cross appeared floating over his cell door the day before his death. On several websites it is reported that a recent study of Celestine’s skull showed a hole caused by a 4-inch nail, the unmistakable sign of a cruel execution ordered by his successor Boniface VIII; but when researching more carefully, it turns out this “recent” survey in fact refers to two different and not-so-modern investigations, conducted in 1313 and 1888, while a 2013 analysis proved that the hole was inflicted many years after the Saint’s death.
But, as I’ve said, when it comes to Fumone, myth permeates every inch of the castle, overriding reality.

Another example is the infamous “Well of the Virgin”, located on the edge of a staircase.
From the castle website:

Upon arriving at the main floor, you will be directly in front of the “Well of the Virgin”.  This cruel and medieval method of punishment was used by the Vassals of Fumone when exercising the “Right of the Lord” an assumed legal right allowing the lord of a medieval estate to be the first to take the virginity of his serfs’ maiden daughters. If the girl was found not to be a virgin, she was thrown into the well.

Several portals, otherwise trustworthy, add that the Well “was allegedly equipped with sharp blades“; and all seem to agree that the “Right of the Lord” (ius primae noctis) was a real and actual practice. Yet it should be clear, after decades of research, that this is just another legend, born during the passage from the Middle Ages to the modern era. Scholars have examined the legislations of Germanic monarchies, Longobards, Carolingians, Communes, Holy Roman Empire and later kingdoms, and found no trace of the elusive right. If something similar existed, as a maritagium, it was very likely a right over assets and not persons: the father of the bride had to pay a compensation to grant his daughter a dowry — basically, possessions and lands passed from father-in-law to son-in-law at the cost of a fee to the local landlord.
But again, why asking what’s real, when the idea of a well where young victims were thrown is so morbidly alluring?

3357124

I would rather specify at this point that I have no interest in debunking the information reported on the castle’s website, nor on other sites. Legends exist since time immemorial, and if they survive it means they are effective, important, even necessary narratives. I am willing to maintain both a disenchanted and amazed look, as I’m constantly fascinated by the power of stories, and this analysis only helps clarifying that we are dealing, indeed, with legends.
But let’s go back to visiting the castle.

Perhaps the most bizarre curiosity in the whole manor house is a small piece of wooden furniture in the archive room.
In this room ancient books and documents are kept, and nothing can prepare the visitor for the surprise when the unremarkable cabinet is opened: inside, in a crystal display case, lies the embalmed body of a child, surrounded by his favorite toys. The lower door shows the dead boy’s wardrobe.

The somber story is that of “Little Marquis” Francesco Longhi, the eight and last child of Marchioness Emilia Caetani Longhi, and brother of seven sisters. According to the legend, his sisters did not look kindly upon this untimely heir, and proceded to poison him or bring him to a slow demise by secretly putting glass shreds in his food. The kid started feeling excruciating pains in the stomach and died shortly after, leaving his mother in the utmost desperation. Blinded by the suffering, the Marchioness called a painter to remove any sign of happiness from the family portraits, had the little boy embalmed and went on dressing him, undressing him, speaking to him and crying on his deathbed until her own death.

This tragic tale could not go without some supernatural twist. So here comes the Marchioness’ ghost, now and then seen crying inside the castle, and even the child’s ghost, who apparently enjoys playing around and moving objects in the fortress’ large rooms.

A place like Fumone seems to function as a catalyst for funereal mysteries, and represents the quintessence of our craving for the paranormal. It is no cause for indignation if this has become part of the castle’s marketing and communication strategies, as it is ever more difficult in Italy to promote the incredible richness of our own heritage. And in the end people come for the ghosts, and leave having learned a bit of history.
We would rather ask: why do we so viscerally love ghost stories, tales of concealed bodies and secret atrocities?

Fabio Camilletti, in his brilliant introduction to the anthology Fantasmagoriana, writes about Étienne-Gaspard Robert, known by the stage name of Robertson, one of the first impresarios to use a magic lantern in an astounding sound & light show. At the end of his performance he used to remind the audience of their final destiny, as a skeleton suddenly appeared out of nowhere.

Camilletti compares this gimmick to the idea that, ultimately, we ourselves are ghosts:

Robertson said something similar, before turning the projector back on and showing a skeleton standing on a pedestal: this is you, this is the fate that awaits you. Thus telling ghost stories, as paradoxical as it may seem, is also a way to come to terms with the fear of death, forgetting — in the enchanted space created by the narration, or by the magic lantern — our ephemeral and fleeting nature.

Whether this is the real motivation behind the success of  spook stories, or it’s maybe the opposite — a more mundane denial of impermanence which finds relief in the idea of leaving a trace after death (better to come back as a ghost than not coming back at all) — it is unquestionably an extremely powerful symbolic projection. So much so that in time it becomes stratified and lingers over certain places like a shadow, making them elusive and almost imaginary. The same goes for macabre tales of torture and murder, which by turning the ultimate terror into a narrative may help metabolyzing it.

The Longhi-De Paolis castle is still shrouded in a thick smoke: no longer coming from the highest tower, it is now the smoke of myth, the multitude of legends woven over history’s ancient skin. It would be hard, perhaps even fruitless in a place like this, to persist in discerning truth from symbolic construction, facts fom interpretations, reality from fantasy.
Fumone remains an “invisible” castle that Calvino would have certainly liked, a fortification which is more a mental representation than a tangible location, the haven of the dreamer seeking comfort (because yes, they do offer comfort) in cruel fables.

Here is Castle of Fumone‘s official site.

Il divoratore di bambini

brn

La Svizzera, si sa, è un posto tranquillo e la capitale elvetica, Berna, accoglie il visitatore con il distillato delle migliori attrattive nazionali: aria fresca, cucina prelibata, pulizia, precisione e ordine. Il centro storico della città è perfettamente conservato, e sorge sulla penisola all’interno di un’ansa del fiume Aare. Proprio nel cuore di questo gioiello di architettura medievale, quasi a contrastare con l’operosa ma placida atmosfera della Kornhausplatz, si erge un simbolo tutt’altro che mite e sereno. Si tratta del Kindlifresser, il Mangiatore di Bambini.

bern14

25830987
Alla base della colonna decorata, il fregio mostra degli orsi bruni (simbolo della città), armati di tutto punto, che partono per la guerra suonando strumenti militari come una cornamusa e un tamburo. In alto, invece, ecco il vero protagonista della composizione: un orco, appollaiato su un capitello corinzio, si infila in gola un bambino nudo, mentre altri neonati spuntano da un sacco per le provviste.

url

3253703958_35bed3beba
La Kindlifresserbrunnen, costruita nel 1546, è una delle fontane più antiche della città, ed è anche un esempio di come la storia e la cultura possano talvolta “perdersi” e venire dimenticate: oggi, infatti, nessuno sa perché quella statua stia lì, e quale fosse il suo significato originario.

010
Quello che si sa di certo è che l’autore della scultura è Hans Gieng, a cui secondo gli studiosi si devono quasi tutte le splendide fontane cinquecentesche che adornano la Città Vecchia, come ad esempio il bellissimo Sansone che uccide il leone (Simsonbrunnen). Ma, a differenza delle altre, l’orco che divora i bambini non è una rappresentazione classica facilmente comprensibile, e non essendo rimasto negli archivi nessun accenno al suo senso allegorico originale, per gli storici il Kindlifresser rimane un mistero.

4927976262_81f4c8c3da_o
Le teorie sono diverse. Secondo alcuni, potrebbe trattarsi di una raffigurazione di Crono, il Titano della mitologia Greca che, per non essere spodestato dai propri figli, li divorò ad uno ad uno mentre erano ancora in fasce (unico sopravvissuto: Zeus).

Un’altra teoria vede nella grottesca figura una sorta di monito per la comunità ebraica della città. In effetti pare che il vestito del Kindlifresser fosse originariamente pitturato in giallo, colore dei Giudei; anche il copricapo che indossa ricorda effettivamente il cappello conico imposto in Germania agli ebrei askenaziti, assieme alla rotella cucita sulle vesti o sul mantello. Se questo fosse vero, la statua avrebbe avuto allora un intento denigratorio collegato alla cosiddetta “accusa del sangue“, cioè alla diceria che gli israeliti praticassero sacrifici e omicidi rituali.

11552894583_995d82b938_z
Ma le ipotesi non si fermano qui. C’è chi suppone che il Kindlifresser sia il fratello maggiore del Duca Berchtold V. von Zähringen, fondatore di Berna, che in un accesso di follia avrebbe mangiato i bambini della città; secondo altri, il personaggio misterioso sarebbe il Cardinale Matthäus Schiner, comandante militare in diverse battaglie nel Nord Italia; secondo altri studi potrebbe trattarsi di uno spauracchio pensato perché i bambini stessero alla larga dalla celebre fossa degli orsi che si apriva lì vicino; infine, l’inquietante figura potrebbe semplicemente essere una maschera collegata alla Fastnacht, il Carnevale nato proprio nelle prime decadi del 1500 e ancora oggi celebrato in Svizzera.

Kindlifresserbrunnen_Bern_Schweiz
La ridda di congetture non intacca la foga con cui il Kindlifresser, da 500 anni, consuma il suo crudele pasto; spaventando i bambini bernesi, attirando frotte di turisti e ispirando artisti e scrittori.

The Monster Study

Vi sono molti disturbi ai quali la scienza non ha ancora saputo trovare un’origine e una causa certa.

Sotto il comune termine di “balbuzie” si è soliti raggruppare diversi tipi di impedimenti del linguaggio, più o meno gravi; al di là delle classificazioni specialistiche, ciò che risulta chiaro anche ai profani è che chi soffre di questo genere di disfluenze verbali finisce per essere sottoposto a forte stress, tanto da farsi problemi ad iniziare una conversazione, avere attacchi di ansia, e addirittura nei casi più estremi isolarsi dalla vita sociale. Si tratta di un circolo vizioso, perché se la balbuzie provoca ansia, l’ansia a sua volta ne aggrava i sintomi: la persona balbuziente, quindi, deve saper superare un continuo sentimento di inadeguatezza, lottando costantemente contro la perdita di controllo.

Le cause esatte della balbuzie non sono state scoperte, così come non è ancora stata trovata una vera e propria cura definitiva per il problema; è indubbio che il fattore ansiogeno sia comunque fondamentale, come dimostrano quelle situazioni in cui, a fronte di uno stress più ridotto (ad esempio, parlando al telefono), i sintomi tendono ad affievolirsi notevolmente se non a scomparire del tutto.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UB3N_nmeB9k]

Fra i primi a sottolineare l’importanza dell’aspetto psicologico della balbuzie (pensieri, attitudini ed emozioni dei pazienti) fu il Dr. Wendell Johnson. Riconosciuto oggi come uno dei più influenti patologi del linguaggio, egli focalizzò il suo lavoro su queste problematiche in un’epoca, gli anni ’30, in cui gli studi sul campo erano agli albori: eppure i dati raccolti nelle sue ricerche sui bambini balbuzienti sono ancora oggi i più numerosi ed esaustivi a disposizione degli psicologi.

wjoldcap
Nonostante le molte terapie efficaci da lui iniziate, e una vita intera dedicata alla comprensione e alla cura di questo disturbo (di cui egli stesso soffriva), Johnson viene spesso ricordato soltanto per un esperimento sfortunato e discutibile sotto il profilo etico, che nel tempo è divenuto tristemente famoso.

Wendell Johnson era convinto che la balbuzie non fosse genetica, ma che venisse invece fortemente influenzata da fattori esterni quali l’educazione, l’autostima e in generale l’ambiente di sviluppo del bambino. Per provare questa sua teoria, nel 1939 Johnson elaborò un complesso esperimento che affidò a una studentessa universitaria, Mary Tudor, sotto la sua supervisione. Lo scopo del progetto consisteva nel verificare quanto influissero i complimenti e i rimproveri sullo sviluppo del linguaggio: la Tudor avrebbe cercato di “curare” la balbuzie di alcuni bambini, lodando il loro modo di esprimersi, e allo stesso tempo – ecco che arriva la parte spinosa – di indurla in altri bambini perfettamente in grado di parlare, tramite continui attacchi alla loro autostima. Venne deciso che le piccole cavie umane sarebbero state dei bambini orfani, in quanto facili da reperire e privi di figure genitoriali che potessero interferire con il progetto.

In un orfanotrofio di veterani nello Iowa, Johnson e Tudor selezionarono ventidue bambini dai 5 ai 15 anni, che avevano tutti perso i genitori in guerra; fra questi, soltanto dieci erano balbuzienti. I bambini con problemi di balbuzie vennero divisi in due gruppi: a quelli del gruppo IA, sperimentale, la Tudor doveva ripetere che il loro linguaggio era ottimo, e che non avevano da preoccuparsi. Il gruppo IB, di controllo, non riceveva particolari suggestioni o complimenti.

Poi c’erano i dodici bambini che parlavano fluentemente: anche loro vennero divisi in due gruppi, IIA e IIB. I più fortunati erano quelli del secondo gruppo di controllo (IIB), che venivano educati in maniera normale e corretta. Il gruppo IIA, invece, è il vero e proprio pomo della discordia: ai bambini, tutti in grado di parlare bene, venne fatto credere che il loro linguaggio mostrasse un inizio preoccupante di balbuzie. La Tudor li incalzava, durante le sue visite, facendo notare ogni loro minimo inciampo, e recitando dei copioni precedentemente concordati con il suo docente: “Siamo arrivati alla conclusione che hai dei grossi problemi di linguaggio… hai molti dei sintomi di un bambino che comincia a balbettare. Devi cercare immediatamente di fermarti. Usa la forza di volontà… Fa’ qualunque cosa pur di non balbettare… Non parlare nemmeno finché non sai di poterlo fare bene. Vedi come balbetta quel bambino, vero? Beh, certamente ha iniziato proprio in questo modo”.

L’esperimento durò da gennaio a maggio, con Mary Tudor che parlava ad ogni bambino per 45 minuti ogni due o tre settimane. I bambini del gruppo IIA, bersagliati per i loro fantomatici difetti di pronuncia, accusarono immediatamente il trattamento: i loro voti peggiorarono, e la loro sicurezza si disintegrò totalmente. Una bambina di nove anni cominciò a rifiutarsi di parlare e a tenere gli occhi coperti da un braccio tutto il tempo, un’altra di cinque divenne molto silenziosa. Una ragazzina quindicenne, per evitare di balbettare, ripeteva “Ah” sempre più frequentemente fra una parola e l’altra; rimproverata anche per questo, cadde in una sorta di loop e iniziò a schioccare le dita per impedirsi di dire “Ah”.

I bambini della sezione IIA, nel corso dei cinque mesi dell’esperimento, divennero introversi e insicuri. La stessa Mary Tudor riteneva che la ricerca si fosse spinta troppo oltre: presa dai sensi di colpa, per ben tre volte dopo aver concluso l’esperimento Mary ritornò all’orfanotrofio per rimediare ai danni che era convinta di aver provocato. Così, di sua spontanea iniziativa, cercò di far capire ai bambini del gruppo IIA che, in realtà, non avevano mai veramente balbettato. Se questo tardivo moto di pietà sia servito a ridare sicurezza ai piccoli orfani, oppure abbia disorientato ancora di più le loro già confuse menti, non lo sapremo mai.

WJ 3

I risultati dell’esperimento dimostravano, secondo Johnson, che la balbuzie vera e propria poteva nascere da un errato riconoscimento del problema in famiglia: anche con le migliori intenzioni, i genitori potevano infatti scambiare per balbuzie dei piccoli difetti di linguaggio, perfettamente normali durante la crescita, e ingigantirli fino a portarli a livello di una vera e propria patologia. Lo psicologo si rese comunque conto che il suo esperimento poggiava su un confine etico piuttosto delicato, e decise di non pubblicarlo, ma di renderlo liberamente disponibile nella biblioteca dell’Università dello Iowa.

Passarono più di sessant’anni, quando nel 2001 un giornalista investigativo del San Jose Mercury News scoprì l’intera vicenda, e intuì subito di poterci costruire uno scoop clamoroso. Johnson, morto nel frattempo nel 1965, era ritenuto uno degli studiosi del linguaggio di più alto profilo, rispettato ed ammirato; il sensazionale furore mediatico che scaturì dalla rivelazione dell’esperimento alimentò un intenso dibattito sull’eticità del suo lavoro. L’Università si scusò pubblicamente per aver finanziato il “Monster Study” (com’era stato immediatamente ribattezzato dai giornali), e il 17 agosto 2007 sei degli orfani ancora in vita ottennero dallo Stato un risarcimento di 950.000 dollari, per le ferite psicologiche ed emotive sofferte a causa dall’esperimento.

Era davvero così “mostruoso” questo studio? I bambini del gruppo IIA rimasero balbuzienti per tutta la vita?

In realtà, non lo divennero mai, nonostante Johnson sostenesse di aver provato la sua tesi anti-genetica. Mary Tudor aveva parlato di “conseguenze inequivocabili” sulle abilità linguistiche degli orfani, eppure a nessuno dei bambini del gruppo IIA venne in seguito diagnosticata una balbuzie. Alcuni di loro riferirono in tribunale di essere diventati introversi, ma di vera e propria balbuzie indotta, neanche l’ombra.

Le valutazioni degli odierni patologi del linguaggio variano considerevolmente sugli effetti negativi che la ricerca di Johnson potrebbe aver provocato. Quanto all’eticità del progetto in sé, non va dimenticato che negli anni ’30 la sensibilità era differente, e non esisteva ancora alcuna direttiva scientifica internazionale riguardo gli esperimenti sugli esseri umani. A sorpresa, in tutto questo, l’aspetto più discutibile rimane quello scientifico: i professori Nicoline G. Ambrose e Ehud Yairi, in un’analisi dell’esperimento condotta dopo il 2001, si mostrano estremamente critici nei confronti dei risultati, viziati secondo loro dalla frettolosa e confusa progettazione e dai “ripensamenti” della Tudor. Anche l’idea che la balbuzie sia un comportamento che il bambino sviluppa a causa della pressione psicologica dei genitori – concetto di cui Johnson era strenuamente convinto e che ripeté come un mantra fino alla fine dei suoi giorni – non viene assolutamente corroborata dai dati dell’esperimento, visto che alcuni dei bambini in cui sarebbe dovuta insorgere la balbuzie avevano invece conosciuto addirittura dei miglioramenti.

La vera macchia nella brillante carriera di Johnson, quindi, non sarebbe tanto la sua mancanza di scrupoli, ma di scrupolo: la ricerca, una volta spogliata da tutti gli elementi sensazionalistici ed analizzata oggettivamente, si è rivelata meno grave del previsto nelle conseguenze, ma più pasticciata e tendenziosa nei risultati che proponeva.

Il Monster Study è ancora oggi un esperimento pressoché universalmente ritenuto infame e riprovevole, e di sicuro lo è secondo gli standard morali odierni, visto che ha causato un indubbio stress emotivo a un gruppo di minori già provati a sufficienza dalla morte dei genitori. Ma, come si è detto, erano altri tempi; di lì a poco si sarebbero conosciuti esperimenti umani ben più terrificanti, questa volta dalla nostra parte dell’Oceano.

Ad oggi, nonostante l’eziologia precisa del disturbo rimanga sconosciuta, si ritiene che la balbuzie abbia cause di tipo genetico e neurologico.

Pubblicità giapponese

Sono aperte le scommesse per capire quale sia il prodotto sponsorizzato da questa splendida pubblicità televisiva, assolutamente weird.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oq8xuVnB-Pk]

Placentofagia

Qualche tempo fa, Nicole Kidman dichiarò di aver mangiato la placenta dopo il suo ultimo parto. (Dichiarò anche di bere la propria urina per mantenersi giovane, ma quella è un’altra storia). Follie da VIP, direte. E invece pare che la moda stia prendendo piede.

La placenta, si sa, è quell’organo tipico dei mammiferi che serve a scambiare il nutrimento fra il corpo della madre e il feto, “avvicinando” le due circolazioni sanguigne tanto da far passare le sostanze nutritive e l’ossigeno attraverso una membrana chiamata barriera placentale, che divide la parte di placenta che appartiene alla mamma (placenta decidua) da quella del feto (corion). La placenta si distacca e viene espulsa durante il secondamento, la fase immediatamente successiva al parto; si tratta dell’unico organo umano che viene “perso” una volta terminata la sua funzione.

Quasi tutti i mammiferi mangiano la propria placenta dopo il parto: si tratta infatti di un organo ricco di sostanze nutritive e, sembrerebbe, contiene ossitocina e prostaglandine che aiutano l’utero a ritornare alle dimensioni normali ed alleviano lo stress del parto. Anche gli erbivori, come capre o cavalli, stranamente sembrano apprezzare questo strappo alla loro dieta vegetariana. Pochi mammiferi fanno eccezione e non praticano la placentofagia: il cammello, ad esempio, le balene e le foche. Anche i marsupiali non la mangiano, ma anche se volessero, non potrebbero – la loro placenta non viene espulsa ma riassorbita.

Se per quanto riguarda gli animali è intuitivo comprendere lo sfruttamento di una risorsa tanto nutritiva alla fine di un processo estenuante come il parto, diverso è il discorso per gli umani. Noi siamo normalmente ben nutriti, e non avremmo realmente bisogno di questo “tiramisù” naturale. Perché allora si sta diffondendo la moda della placentofagia?

La motivazione di questa pratica, almeno a sentire i sostenitori, sarebbe il tentativo di evitare o lenire la depressione post-partum. Più precisamente, la placenta avrebbe il potere di far sparire i sintomi del cosiddetto baby blues (quel senso di leggera depressione e irritabilità che il 70% delle neomamme dice di provare per qualche giorno dopo il parto), evitando quindi che degenerino in una depressione più seria. Sfortunatamente, nessuna ricerca scientifica ha mai suffragato queste teorie. Non c’è alcun motivo medico per mangiare la placenta. Ma le mode della medicina alternativa, si sa, di questo non si curano granché.

E così ecco spuntare decine di video su YouTube, e siti che propongono ricette culinarie a base di placenta: c’è chi la salta in padella con le cipolle e il pomodoro, chi preferisce farne un ragù per la lasagna o gli spaghetti, chi la disidrata e ne ricava una sorta di “dado in polvere” per insaporire le vivande quotidiane. Se siete persone più esclusive, potete sempre prepararvi un bel cocktail di placenta da sorseggiare a bordo piscina. Ecco un breve ricettario (in inglese) tratto dal sito per mamme Mothers 35 Plus.

Consci che l’idea di mangiare la propria placenta può non solleticare tutti i nostri lettori, vi suggeriamo un ultimo utilizzo, certamente più artistico, che sta pure prendendo piede. Si tratta delle cosiddette placenta prints, ovvero “stampe di placenta”. Il metodo è semplicissimo: piazzate la placenta fresca, ancora ricoperta di sangue, su un tavolo; premeteci sopra un foglio da disegno, in modo che il sangue imprima la figura sulla carta. Potete anche spargere un po’ di inchiostro sulla placenta prima di passarci sopra il foglio, così da ottenere risultati più duraturi. E voilà, ecco che avrete un bel quadretto a ricordo del vostro travaglio, da incorniciare e appendere nell’angolo più in vista del vostro salotto.

La madre nascosta

Esiste un certo tipo di fotografie ottocentesche, particolarmente ricercate dai collezionisti, che sono chiamate fotografie della “madre nascosta”. Si tratta di scatti realizzati negli studi di posa dei fotografi, e il loro scopo era quello di immortalare i bambini. Per tenerli buoni (gli scatti richiedevano un tempo di esposizione maggiore di quello odierno), venivano posti in braccio alla madre.

Ma poiché le fotografie sarebbero state in un secondo momento ricoperte da un cartoncino sagomato che lasciava in vista esclusivamente il bambino, spesso le madri venivano coperte con scialli, panni, coperte e altri tessuti, in modo da rendere il trucco meno evidente.

Così, in molte foto d’epoca, se si rimuove il cartoncino sagomato ci si trova di fronte a un’immagine bizzarra e decisamente inquietante.

Scoperto via Accidental Mysteries.