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

Teresa Margolles: Translating The Horror

Imagine you live in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.
The “City of Evil”, one of the most violent places on the entire planet. Here, in the past few years, murders have reached inconceivable numbers. More than 3000 victims only in 2010 – an average of eight to nine people killed every day.
So every day, you leave your home praying you won’t be caught in some score-settling fight between the over 900 pandillas (armed gangs) tied to the drug cartels. Every day, like it or not, you are a witness to the neverending slaughter that goes on in your town. It’s not a metaphor. It is a real, daily, dreadful massacre.

Now imagine you live in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and you’re a woman aged between 15 and 25.
Your chances of not being subjected to violence, and of staying alive, drastically drop. In Juárez women like you are oppressed, battered, raped; they often disappear, and their bodies – if they’re ever found – show signs of torture and mutilations.
If you were to be kidnapped, you already know that in all probability your disappearance wouldn’t even be reported. No one would look for you anyway: the police seem to be doing anything but investigating. “She must have had something to do with the cartel – people would say – or else she somehow asked for it“.

Photo credit: Scott Dalton.

Finally, imagine you live in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, you’re a woman and you’re an artist.
How would you explain this hell to those who live outside Juárez? How can you address the burden of desperation and suffering this carnage places upon the hearts of the relatives? How will you be heard, in a world which is already saturated with images of violence? How are you going to convey in a palpable way all this anguish, the sense of constant loss, the waste of human life?

Teresa Margolles, born in 1963 in Culiacán, Sinaloa, was a trained pathologist before she became an artist. She now lives in Mexico City, but in the past she worked in several morgues across South America, including the one in Ciudad Juárez, that terrible mortuary where an endless river of bodies keeps flowing through four huge refrigerators (each containing up to 120 corpses).
A morgue for me is a thermometer of a society. What happens inside a morgue is what happens outside. The way people die show me what is happening in the city.

Starting from this direct experience, Margolles oriented her whole research towards two difficult objectives: one one hand she aims at sabotaging the narrative, ubiquitous in Mexican media and society, which blames the victims (the afore-mentioned “they were asking for it“); on the other, she wants to make the consequences of violence concrete and tangible to her audience, translating the horror into a physical, universal language.

But a peculiar lucidity is needed to avoid certain traps. The easiest way would be to rely on a raw kind of shock art: subjecting the public to scenes of massacre, mutilated bodies, mangled flesh. But the effect would be counter-productive, as our society is already bombarded with such representations, and we are so used to hyperreal images that we can hardly tell them apart from fiction.

It is then necessary to bring the public in touch with death and pain, but through some kind of transfer, or translation, so that the observer is brought on the edge of the abyss by his own sensitivity.

This is the complex path Teresa Margolles chose to take. The following is a small personal selection of her works displayed around the world, in major museums and art galleries, and in several Biennials.

En el aire (2003). The public enters a room, and is immediately seized by a slight euforia upon seeing dozens of soap bubbles joyfully floating in the air: the first childish reaction is to reach out and make them burst. The bubble pops, and some drops of water fall on the skin.
What the audience soon discovers, though, is those bubbles are created with the water and soap that have been used to wash the bodies of homicide victims in the morgue. And suddenly everything changes: the water which fell on our skin created an invisible, magical connection between us and these anonymous cadavers; and each bubble becomes the symbol of a life, a fragile soul that got lost in the void.

Vaporización (2001). Here the water from the mortuary, once again collected and disinfected, is vaporized in the room by some humidifiers. Death saturates the atmosphere, and we cannot help but breathe this thick mist, where every particle bears the memory of brutally killed human beings.

Tarjetas para picar cocaina (1997-99). Margolles collected some pictures of homicide victims connected with drug wars. She then gave them to drug addicts so they could use them to cut their dose of cocaine. The nonjudgemental metaphor is clear – the dead fuel narco-trafficking, every sniff implies the violence – but at the same time these photographs become spiritual objects, invested as they are with a symbolic/magic meaning directly connected to a specific dead person.

Lote Bravo (2005). Layed out on the floor are what look like simple bricks. In fact, they have been created using the sand collected in five different spots in Juárez, where the bodies of raped and murdered women were found. Each handmade brick is the symbol of a woman who was killed in the “city of dead girls”.

Trepanaciones (Sonidos de la morgue) (2003). Just some headphones, hanging from the ceiling. The visitor who decides to wear one, will hear the worldess sounds of the autopsies carried out by Margolles herself. Sounds of open bodies, bones being cut – but without any images that might give some context to these obscene noises, without the possibility of knowing exactly what they refer to. Or to whom they correspond: to what name, broken life, interrupted hopes.

Linea fronteriza (2005). The photograph of a suture, a body sewed up after the autopsy: but the detail that makes this image really powerful is the tattoo of the Virgin of Guadalupe, with its two halves that do not match anymore. Tattoos are a way to express one’s own individuality: a senseless death is the border line that disrupts and shatters it.

Frontera (2011). Margolles removed two walls from Juárez and Culiacán, and exhibited them inside the gallery. Some bullet holes are clearly visible on these walls, the remnants of the execution of two policemen and four young men at the hands of the drug cartel. Facing these walls, one is left to wonder. What does it feel like to stand before a firing squad?
Furthermore, by “saving” these walls (which were quickly replaced by new ones, in the original locations) Margolles is also preserving the visual trace of an act of violence that society is eager to remove from collective memory.

Frazada/La Sombra (2016). A simple structure, installed outdoors, supports a blanket, like the tent of a peddler stand. You can sit in the shade to cool off from the sun. And yet this blanket comes from the morgue in La Paz, where it was used to wrap up the corpse of a femicide victim. The shadow stands for the code of silence surrounding these crimes – it is, once again, a conceptual stratagem to bring us closer to the woman’s death. This shroud, this murder is casting its shadow on us too.

Pajharu/Sobre la sangre (2017). Ten murdered  women, ten blood-stained pieces of cloth that held their corpses. Margolles enrolled seven Aymara weavers to embroider this canvas with traditional motifs. The clotted blood stains intertwine with the floreal decorations, and end up being absorbed and disguised within the patterns. This extraordinary work denounces, on one hand, how violence has become an essential part of a culture: when we think of Mexico, we often think of its most colorful traditions, without taking notice of the blood that soaks them, without realizing the painful truth hidden behind those stereotypes we tourists love so much. On the other hand, though, Sobre la sangre is an act of love and respect for those murdered women. Far from being mere ghosts, they are an actual presence; by preserving and embellishing these blood traces, Margolles is trying to subtract them from oblivion, and give them back their lost beauty.

Lengua (2000). Margolles arranged funeral services for this boy, who was killed in a drug-related feud, and in return asked his family permission to preserve and use his tonge for this installation. So that it could speak on. Like the tattoo in Linea frontizera, here the piercing is the sign of a truncated singularity.
The theoretical shift here is worthy of note: a human organ, deprived of the body that contained it and decontextualized, becomes an object in its own right, a rebel tongue, a “full” body in itself — carrying a whole new meaning. Scholar Bethany Tabor interpreted this work as mirroring the Deleuzian concept of body without organs, a body which de-organizes itself, revolting against those functions that are imparted upon it by society, by capitalism, by the established powers (all that Artaud referred to by using the term “God”, and from which he whished “to have done with“).

37 cuerpos (2007). The remnants of the thread used to sew up the corpses of 37 victims are tied together to form a rope which stretches across the space and divides it like a border.

¿De qué otra cosa podríamos hablar? (2009). This work, awarded at the 53rd Venice Biennial, is the one that brought Margolles in the spotlight. The floor of the room is wet with the water used to wash bodies at the Juárez morgue. On the walls, huge canvases look like abstract paintings but in reality these are sheets soaked in the victims blood.
Outside the Mexican Pavillion, on a balcony overlooking the calle, an equally blood-stained Mexico flag is hoisted. Necropolitics takes over the art spaces.

It is not easy to live in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to be a woman, and to be an artist who directly tackles the endless, often voiceless violence. It is even more difficult to try and find that miraculous balance between rawness and sensitivity, minimalism and incisivity, while maintaining a radical and poetic approach that can upset the public but also touch their heart.

For this post I am indebted to Bethany Tabor, who at Death & The Maiden Conference presented her brilliant paper Performative Remains: The Forensic Art of Teresa Margolles, focusing on the Deleuzian implications of Margolle’s works.
A couple of available essays on Margolles are
What Else Could We Talk About? and Teresa Margolles and the Aesthetics of Death.

Links, curiosities & mixed wonders – 5

Here’s a gift pack of strange food for the mind and weird stuff that should keep you busy until Christmas.

  • You surely remember Caitlin Doughty, founder  of the Order of the Good Death as well as author of best-seller Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. In the past I interviewd her, I wrote a piece for the Order, and I even flew to Philadelphia to meet her for a three-day conference.
    Caitlin is also famous for her ironic videos on the culture of death. The latest episode is dedicated to a story that will surely sound familiar, if you follow this blog: the story of the ‘Punsihed Suicide’ of Padua, which was published for the first time in my book His Anatomical Majesty.
    With her trademark humor, Caitlin succeeds in asking what in my view is the fundamental question: is it worth judging a similar episode by our contemporary ethical standards, or is it better to focus on what this tale can tell us about our history and about the evolution of sensibility towards death?

  • In 1966 a mysterious box washed up on a British shore: it contained swords, chandeliers, red capes, and a whole array of arcane symbols related to occultism. What was the function of these objects, and why were they left to the waves?
  • While we’re at it, here is an autopsy photograph from the 1920s, probably taken in Belgium. Was pipe smoking a way of warding off the bad smell?
    (Seen here, thanks again Claudia!)

  • A new photographic book on evolution is coming out, and it looks sumptuous. Robert Clark’s wonderful pictures carry a disquieting message: “Some scientists who study evolution in real time believe we may be in the midst of the world’s sixth mass extinction, a slow-motion funnel of death that will leave the planet with a small fraction of its current biodiversity. One reason that no one can forecast how it will end—and who will be left standing—is that, in many ways, our understanding of evolution itself continues to evolve“.
  • But don’t get too alarmed: our world might eventually be just an illusion. Sure, this concept is far from new: all the great spiritual, mythological or artistic messages have basically been repeating us for millennia that we should not trust our senses, suggesting ther is more to this reality than meets the eye. Yet, up until now, no one had ever tried to prove this mathematically. Until now.
    A cognitive science professor at the University of California elaborated an intriguing model that is causing a bit of a fuss: his hypothesis is that our perception has really nothing to do with the world out there, as it is; our sensory filter might not have evolved to give us a realistic image of things, but rather a convenient one. Here is an article on the Atlantic, and here is a podcast in which our dear professor quietly tears down everything we think we know about the world.
  • Nonsense, you say? What if I told you that highly evolved aliens could already be among us — without the need for a croncrete body, but in the form of laws of physics?

Other brilliant ideas: Goodyear in 1961 developed these illuminated tires.

  • Mariano Tomatis’ Blog of Wonders is actually Bizzarro Bazar’s less morbid, but more magical twin. You could spend days sifting through the archives, and always come up with some pearl you missed the first time: for example this post on the hidden ‘racism’ of those who believe Maya people came from outer space (Italian only).
  • In Medieval manuscripts we often find some exceedingly unlucky figures, which had the function of illustrating all possible injuries. Here is an article on the history and evolution of the strange and slightly comic Wound Man.

  • Looking at colored paint spilled on milk? Not really a mesmerizing thought, until you take four minutes off and let yourself be hypnotized by Memories of Painting, by Thomas Blanchard.

  • Let’s go back to the fallacy of our senses, ith these images of the Aspidochelone (also called Zaratan), one of the fantastical beasts I adored as a child. The idea of a sea monster so huge that it could be mistaken for an island, and on whose back even vegetation can grow, had great fortune from Pliny to modern literature:

  • But the real surprise is to find that the Zaratan actually exists, albeit in miniature:

  • Saddam Hussein, shortly after his sixtieth birthday, had 27 liters of his own blood taken just to write a 600-page calligraphied version of the Quran.
    An uncomfortable manuscript, so much so that authorities don’t really know what to do with it.
  • Time for a couple of Christmas tips, in case you want to make your decorations slightly menacing: 1) a set of ornaments featuring the faces of infamous serial killers, namely Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey DahmerEd Gein and H. H. Holmes; 2) a murderous Santa Claus. Make your guests understand festivities stress you out, and that might trigger some uncontrolled impulse. If you wish to buy these refined, tasteful little objects, just click on pictures to go to the corresponding Etsy store. You’re welcome.

  • Finally, if you run out of gift ideas for Christmas and you find yourself falling back on the usual book, at least make sure it’s not the usual book. Here are four random, purely coincidental examples…
    Happy holidays!

(Click on image to open bookshop)

R.I.P. Herschell G. Lewis

Yesterday, at the age of 87, Herschell Gordon Lewis passed away.
This man remains an adorable, unique paradox. Clumsy director yet a crafty old devil, completely foreign to the elegance of images, who only ever made movies to scrape out a living. A man who unwillingly changed the history of cinema.

His intuition — even slightly accidental, according to the legend — was to understand B-movies had the task of filling, unveiling mainstream cinema’s ellipses: the key was to try and put inside the frame everything that, for moral or conventional reasons, was usually left off-screen.
A first example were nudies, those little flicks featuring ridiculous plots (if any), only meant to show some buttocks and breasts; a kind of rudimental sexploitation, not even aiming to be erotic. H. G. Lewis was the first to realize there was a second taboo besides nudity that was never being shown in “serious” movies, and on which he could try to cash in: violence, or better, its effects. The obscene view of blood, torn flesh, exposed guts.

In 1960 Hitchcock, in order to get Psycho through censorship, had to promise he would change the editing of the shower scene, because someone in the examination board thought he had seen a frame where the knife blade penetrated Janet Leigh’s skin. It doesn’t matter that Hitch never really re-edited the sequence, but presented it again a month later with no actual modification (and this time nobody saw anything outrageous): the story is nonetheless emblematic of Hays Code‘s impositions at the time.
Three years later, Lewis’ Blood Feast came out. An awfully bad movie, poorly directed and even more awkwardly acted. But its opening sequence was a bomb by itself: on the scene, a woman was stabbed in the eye, then the killer proceeded to dismember her in full details… all this, in a bathtub.
In your face, Sir Alfred.

Of course today even Lewis’ most hardcore scenes, heirs to the butcheries of Grand Guignol, seem laughable on the account of their naivety. It’s even hard to imagine splatter films were once a true genre, before they became a language.

Explicit violence is today no more than an additional color in the director’s palette, an available option to knowingly choose among others: we find it anywhere, from crime stories to sci-fi, even in comedies. As blood has entered the cinematic lexicon, it is now a well-thought-out element, pondered and carefully weighed, sometimes aestheticised to the extremes of mannerism (I’m looking at you, Quentin).

But in order to get to this freedom, the gore genre had to be relegated for a long time to second and third-rank movies. To those bad, dirty, ugly films which couldn’t show less concern for the sociology of violence, or its symbolic meanings. Which, for that very same reason, were damn exciting in their own right.

Blood Feast is like a Walt Whitman poem“, Lewis loved to repeat. “It’s no good, but it was the first of its type“.
Today, with the death of its godfather, we may declare the splatter genre finally filed and historicized.

But still, any time we are shocked by some brutal killing in the latest Game of Thrones episode, we should spare a thankful thought to this man, and that bucket of cheap offal he purchased just to make a bloody film.

Sport bestiali: il gioco, il sangue, la crudeltà

famoso Orson Welles con ordonez

Orson Welles, come è noto, ha cambiato la storia del cinema a soli 26 anni con l’inarrivabile Quarto Potere, un film che già nel 1941 mostrava un linguaggio inaspettatamente moderno e complesso. Welles era anche un eccellente prestigiatore e illusionista, ma quello che pochi sanno è che in gioventù il poliedrico artista e intellettuale aveva accarezzato il sogno di diventare un torero. La sua passione per le battaglie con i tori scemò progressivamente negli anni, quando Welles vide prevalere l’aspetto sensazionalistico e folkloristico della corrida sul suo significato simbolico – nelle sue parole, il sacrificio della “bestia coraggiosa” che incontra un “uomo coraggioso” in una battaglia rituale. “Odio tutto quello che è folkloristico. Ma non ce l’ho con la corrida perché ha bisogno di tutti quei giapponesi nella prima fila per continuare ad esistere (e ne ha bisogno davvero); piuttosto, mi è successa la stessa cosa di mio padre, che era un grande cacciatore e di colpo smise di cacciare, perché disse: ho ucciso troppi animali, e adesso mi vergogno di me stesso“.
Nella stessa splendida intervista con Michael Parkinson, Welles definiva la corrida “indifendibile e irresistibile” allo stesso tempo.

Irresistibile. Qualsiasi scontro violento fra uomo e animale, o fra animale e animale, attira inevitabilmente il nostro sguardo. Sarà forse un richiamo primitivo che ci riporta in contatto con l’antica paura di diventare prede; ma alzi la mano chi non è rimasto, almeno da bambino, incantato di fronte alle immagini televisive dei leoni maschi che combattono per il privilegio sulla femmina, o dei cervi che si scornano per il territorio. La lotta, la violenza sono parte integrante della natura, ed esercitano ancora su di noi un fascino potente e ancestrale.

Questo è probabilmente lo stimolo che sottende un tipo di “show” (se così si può chiamare), già avversato sotto il profilo etico nell’800, e ormai quasi universalmente condannato per la sua crudeltà: si tratta dei cosiddetti bloodsport, definiti dal Cambridge Dictionary come “qualsiasi sport che implica l’uccisione o il ferimento di animali per l’eccitazione degli spettatori o delle persone che ne prendono parte”.
Combattimenti fra galli, fra cani, fra tori, fra orsi, fra ratti, fra tassi: la fantasia non ha mai avuto confini quando si trattava di spingere due animali ad un duello per il semplice gusto dello spettacolo. In questo articolo passeremo in rassegna alcuni dei bloodsport più bizzarri – e probabilmente farete fatica a credere che alcune di queste forme di “intrattenimento” esistano, o siano esistite, per davvero.

rat_killing_dog

Il tiro dell’oca viene praticato ancora oggi in alcune regioni del Belgio, dell’Olanda, e della Germania, ma si utilizza un’oca già morta, uccisa con “metodi umani” da un veterinario. Non era così al principio della tradizione: l’oca, ancora viva, veniva legata per le zampe ad un’asse o a una corda sospesa; si spalmavano attentamente la testa e il collo dell’animale con grasso o sapone. I concorrenti, a turno, dovevano cavalcare sotto il palo e tentare di afferrare la scivolosa testa dell’oca. L’eroe del giorno era chi riusciva a staccare la testa all’uccello, e spesso il premio per la vincita era semplicemente l’oca stessa. Poteva sembrare un’impresa semplice, ma non lo era affatto, come testimonia un passaggio di William G. Simms:

Soltanto al cavaliere esperto, e all’esperto sportivo, è possibile assicurarsi il successo. I giovani principianti, che considerano l’impresa piuttosto facile, sono costantemente scornati; molti scoprono che è impossibile per loro passare nel punto giusto; molti vengono tirati giù dalla sella, e anche quando siano riusciti a passare sotto all’albero senza disastri, falliscono nell’afferrare l’oca, che continua a svolazzare e gridare; oppure, non riescono, andando al galoppo, a mantenere la presa sul collo scivoloso come un’anguilla e sulla testa che hanno preso.

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Nato nel XVII secolo in Olanda, questo sport si diffuse anche in Inghilterra e nel Nord America e, nonostante fosse criticato da molte voci autorevoli dell’epoca, resistette oltreoceano fino alla fine dell’800. Una versione leggermente diversa, ma altrettanto antica, si tiene ogni anno in Svizzera, a Sursee, durante la festa chiamata Gansabhauet: i concorrenti indossano una maschera che rappresenta il volto del Sole e una casacca rossa; la maschera impedisce di vedere alcunché e i partecipanti, procedendo alla cieca, devono riuscire a decapitare un’oca (già morta) appesa ad una corda, utilizzando una spada a cui, per aumentare la difficoltà, è stato tolto il filo.

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Un altro sport stravagante vide la luce invece in tempi più recenti, durante gli anni ’60. Si tratta dell’octopus wrestling: senza bombole o boccagli di sorta, i concorrenti dovevano riuscire ad afferrare una piovra gigante a mani nude e riportarla in superficie. Il peso del polpo determinava il vincitore. L’animale veniva in seguito cucinato, donato all’acquario locale oppure rimesso in libertà.

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Agli inizi degli anni ’60 si teneva annualmente un Campionato Mondiale di octopus wrestling, che attraeva migliaia di persone, tanto da essere ripreso perfino dalla televisione; nell’edizione del 1963 vennero pescati un totale di 25 polpi giganti del Pacifico, il più grosso dei quali pesava quasi 26 chili. Si aggiudicò la medaglia d’oro lo scozzese Alexander Williams, che catturò ben tre animali.

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In Giappone, nella cittadina di Kajiki, ogni anno si tiene il festival tradizionale Kumo Gassen, che è il più celebre evento di lotta fra ragni. Praticata un po’ in tutto il Sud Est asiatico, questa disciplina prevede l’utilizzo di argiopi a strisce nere e gialle. Amorevolmente allevati come fossero dei cuccioli, i ragni sono liberi di vagare per la casa, di camminare sulla faccia e sul corpo dei loro padroni, e di costruirsi le loro ragnatele a piacimento: lo scotto da pagare per questa libertà è il duro allenamento alla lotta. A dire il vero, questi aracnidi non sono per loro natura particolarmente aggressivi, e anche durante il combattimento, che avviene per mezzo di un bastoncino sul quale i ragni si scontrano, è raro che si feriscano brutalmente. In ogni caso, è presente un arbitro addetto a separarli, se le cose dovessero farsi troppo violente.

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Se il Kumo Gassen non è in definitiva uno sport particolarmente cruento rispetto ad altri, concludiamo invece con quello che è forse il più agghiacciante fra tutti: il fuchsprellen, popolare nel XVII e XVIII secolo.
Immaginate la scena. In un’arena chiusa (il cortile di un castello, oppure uno spazio appositamente delimitato) si radunavano le coppie di partecipanti al gioco. Nobili con le loro consorti, alti dignitari e rampolli di grandi casate. Ogni coppia era spesso composta da marito e moglie, in modo da aumentare la competitività dei concorrenti. A sei o sette metri di distanza l’uno dall’altra, entrambi tenevano in mano il capo di una rete o di una serie di corde poggiata per terra: questa era la loro fionda.
Ad un tratto, una volpe veniva liberata nel cortile: spaventata, correva di qua e di là finché non passava sopra alla fionda di una delle coppie. In quell’esatto momento i due concorrenti dovevano tirare gli estremi della rete con tutta la forza, per lanciare l’animale il più in alto possibile.

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Nel campionato di lancio della volpe indetto da Augusto II di Polonia, non furono soltanto questi bellissimi animali a venire sparati in aria: vennero fiondati in totale 647 volpi, 533 lepri, 34 tassi e 21 gatti selvatici. Il Re in persona partecipò ai giochi, e dimostrò (a quanto si racconta) la sua forza tenendo la rete con un solo dito, mentre all’altro capo stavano due dei cortigiani più muscolosi. Ogni tanto si provava anche qualche nuova variante: nel 1648 vennero liberati nel recinto 34 cinghiali “con grande diletto dei cavalieri, ma causando il terrore delle nobildonne, fra le gonne delle quali i cinghiali crearono grande scompiglio, per l’ilarità senza fine dell’illustre compagnia ivi assembrata“. Nello stesso campionato si provò a lanciare tre lupi.
Leopoldo I d’Asburgo invece si univa con gioia ai nani di corte per finire a mazzate gli animali appena atterrati, tanto che un ambasciatore annotò la sua sorpresa nel vedere l’Imperatore del Sacro Romano Impero accompagnarsi con quella cricca di “minuscoli ragazzi, e idioti“.

Indifendibile, ma non certo irresistibile.

(Grazie, Gianluca!)

Auto trapanazione

Fino a dove sareste disposti ad arrivare, pur di “ampliare la vostra coscienza”? Potreste scegliere la strada più lunga, la meditazione, lo yoga, lo zazen e via dicendo. Oppure potreste decidere di prendere la “scorciatoia” delle sostanze psicoattive, e cercare di “liberare la mente” attraverso lo yage o i funghetti mescalinici, o l’acido lisergico. Ma arrivereste mai al punto di prendere il vostro fido trapano Black&Decker a percussione, puntarvelo alla fronte e praticare un bel foro nel cranio, dal quale si possa vedere la dura mater che ricopre il cervello?

La trapanazione è stata praticata fin dal Neolitico. Era una pratica relativamente comune, con la quale si cercava di far “uscire” gli spiriti maligni dalla testa del malato. Secondo alcune interpretazioni dei dipinti rupestri, pare che i nostri antenati fossero convinti che praticare un foro nel cranio potesse curare da emicranie, epilessia o disordini mentali. L’intervento, popolare nelle aree germaniche durante il Medio Evo, sembra inoltre aver avuto un’alta percentuale di sopravvivenza – a giudicare dai bordi soffici dei fori sui teschi ritrovati, le ferite stavano cominciando a guarire:  sette persone su otto si riprendevano dall’operazione.

Flashforward al 1964. I tre protagonisti di questa storia si chiamano Bart, Amanda e Joseph.

Bart Huges, un giovane olandese che non aveva mai potuto finire gli studi di medicina per via del suo uso di stupefacenti, pubblica un incartamento underground intitolato Il meccanismo del Volume del Sangue al Cervello, conosciuto anche come Homo Sapiens Correctus. In questo piccolo, psichedelico saggio Huges parla di come il cervello del bambino sia così ricettivo perché le ossa del cranio sono elastiche e la fontanella alla cima della testa permette al cervello di “respirare”, ossia di sostenere la pressione del sangue proveniente dal cuore con una sua propria “pulsazione”. Crescendo, però, la fontanella si salda e le ossa si solidificano. Il nostro cervello rimane così rinchiuso in una vera e propria prigione. Praticando un foro nel cranio, si allenta la pressione del cervello e lo si libera, dandogli uno sfogo per “respirare” e rendendo possibile una sorta di sballo permanente, oltre che un ampliamento della coscienza senza precedenti. Bart Huges praticò su se stesso la trapanazione, l’anno successivo, nel 1965. L’operazione durò 45 minuti, ma per togliere il sangue dai muri occorsero 4 ore.

Con le sue bende che coprivano l’impressionante foro, praticato all’altezza del terzo occhio, Bart Huges divenne il guru della trapanazione, auspicando che tutti gli ospedali la praticassero gratuitamente, e arrivando a opinare che in un futuro non troppo lontano il buco in testa venisse praticato a tutti, a una certa età, per creare un’umanità evoluta e sensitiva.

Ora, penserete, in un mondo normale nessuno darebbe credito a un guru di questo tipo, e soprattutto alle sue fantasticherie pseudoscientifiche. Ma questo non è un mondo normale, e men che meno lo era quello dei favolosi Sixties, in cui la liberazione della mente era uno degli scopi principali dell’esistenza, assieme al libero amore e alla musica rock. Huges cominciò con il farsi un adepto, Joseph Mellen, un hippie piuttosto fatto che però ebbe il merito di fargli conoscere Amanda Feilding. Fra i due scoccò subito la scintilla della passione. Bart e Amanda convinsero il povero Joseph a trapanarsi – ma se Bart aveva usato un trapano elettrico, Joseph avrebbe dovuto usare un trapano a mano, “per convincere le autorità che anche le popolazioni del terzo mondo avrebbero potuto godere della tecnica”. Joseph, che aveva forse poca personalità ma di certo molta buona volontà, provò a bucarsi la testa con quel trapano, senza riuscirvi, forse anche a causa della quantità impressionante di LSD che si era calato per “calmare i nervi”.

Mellen ci riprovò per altre quattro volte, nell’arco dei quattro anni successivi, talvolta assistito da Amanda (che aveva nel frattempo lasciato Bart, e si era sposata con lui). Una volta, ancora strafatto di LSD, si era trapanato fino a svenire ed essere ricoverato d’urgenza. Un’altra volta aveva sentito “un sacco di bolle corrermi dentro la testa”, ma visto che l’estasi prevista non arrivava, aveva concluso che  il buco praticato doveva per forza essere troppo piccolo. Un’altra volta si ruppe il trapano, Joseph dovette interrompere l’operazione a metà, andare a chiedere a un vicino di riparargli l’utensile, e poi riprendere il “lavoro”. Infine, dopo tanti tentativi tragicomici, Mellen riuscì ad ottenere il suo bel buco, e il più grande e potente sballo della sua vita (a suo dire). Amanda, imparando dagli errori del marito, decise tre mesi dopo di tentare anche lei.

Filmata da Joseph, la sua fu un’operazione sopraffina, e divenne ben presto un filmato d’arte underground che ancora oggi pochi hanno avuto la fortuna (?) di vedere: Heartbeat In The Brain (1970). Il filmato, esplicito e duro, ebbe una certa eco negli ambienti artistici nei quali la Feilding era conosciuta.

Amanda Feilding è sempre stata più ambigua sul risultato della sua auto trapanazione; ha continuato a sostenerne gli effetti benefici con strenua convinzione, ma ha anche spesso sottolineato la “soggettività” delle sue posizioni. (A onor del vero, bisogna sottolineare che nessuno di questi ferventi fautori della trapanazione ha mai sostenuto l’auto trapanazione: vi sono arrivati dopo che nessun chirurgo si era prestato a soddisfare le loro richieste).

Dopo vent’otto anni assieme e due figli, Mellen e Fielding si separarono. Risposati, ognuno di loro convinse il rispettivo nuovo coniuge a farsi trapanare. In tutto, le persone trapanate al mondo dovrebbero essere circa una ventina. Fino a qualche anno fa era attiva anche una Church Of Trepanation, con sede in Messico, che proponeva per un modico prezzo una trapanazione operata da un chirurgo messicano compiacente. Oggi si è trasformata in un più sobrio Gruppo per la Trapanazione, con un sito ad appoggio delle teorie in favore di questa pratica.

Per saperne di più:

Trapanazione su Wikipedia (inglese) – Intervista-racconto ad Amanda Feilding – il documentario A Hole in The Head

Lacrime di sangue

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Calvin Inman è un teenager del Tennessee che almeno tre volte al giorno, a causa di una sconosciuta sindrome, piange sangue.  I medici non sanno dare una spiegazione a questo fenomeno: l’emolacria (questo il nome scientifico delle lacrime di sangue) è estremamente rara e riscontrata solo dopo un forte trauma o a seguito di gravi ferite alla testa. Il ragazzo è in perfetta salute, se si esclude questa sconcertante peculiarità. TAC, ultrasuoni e altri esami non hanno fornito alcuna delucidazione sulle possibili cause di questa affezione.

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(Via BoingBoing)