Links, curiosities & mixed wonders – 7

Back with Bizzarro Bazar’s mix of exotic and quirky trouvailles, quite handy when it comes to entertaining your friends and acting like the one who’s always telling funny stories. Please grin knowingly when they ask you where in the world you find all this stuff.

  • We already talked about killer rabbits in the margins of medieval books. Now a funny video unveils the mystery of another great classic of illustrated manuscripts: snail-fighting knights. SPOILER: it’s those vicious Lumbards again.
  • As an expert on alternative sexualities, Ayzad has developed a certain aplomb when discussing the most extreme and absurd erotic practices — in Hunter Thompson’s words, “when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro“. Yet even a shrewd guy like him was baffled by the most deranged story in recent times: the Nazi furry scandal.
  • In 1973, Playboy asked Salvador Dali to collaborate with photographer Pompeo Posar for an exclusive nude photoshoot. The painter was given complete freedom and control over the project, so much so that he was on set directing the shooting. Dali then manipulated the shots produced during that session through collage. The result is a strange and highly enjoyable example of surrealism, eggs, masks, snakes and nude bunnies. The Master, in a letter to the magazine, calimed to be satisfied with the experience: “The meaning of my work is the motivation that is of the purest – money. What I did for Playboy is very good, and your payment is equal to the task.” (Grazie, Silvia!)

  • Speaking of photography, Robert Shults dedicated his series The Washing Away of Wrongs to the biggest center for the study of decomposition in the world, the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University. Shot in stark, high-contrast black and white as they were shot in the near-infrared spectrum, these pictures are really powerful and exhibit an almost dream-like quality. They document the hard but necessary work of students and researchers, who set out to understand the modifications in human remains under the most disparate conditions: the ever more precise data they gather will become invaluable in the forensic field. You can find some more photos in this article, and here’s Robert Shults website.

  • One last photographic entry. Swedish photographer Erik Simander produced a series of portraits of his grandfather, after he just became a widower. The loneliness of a man who just found himself without his life’s companion is described through little details (the empty sink, with a single toothbrush) that suddenly become definitive, devastating symbols of loss; small, poetic and lacerating touches, delicate and painful at the same time. After all, grief is a different feeling for evry person, and Simander shows a commendable discretion in observing the limit, the threshold beyond which emotions become too personal to be shared. A sublime piece of work, heart-breaking and humane, and which has the merit of tackling an issue (the loss of a partner among the elderly) still pretty much taboo. This theme had already been brought to the big screen in 2012 by the ruthless and emotionally demanding Amour, directed by Michael Haneke.
  • Speaking of widowers, here’s a great article on another aspect we hear very little about: the sudden sex-appeal of grieving men, and the emotional distress it can cause.
  • To return to lighter subjects, here’s a spectacular pincushion seen in an antique store (spotted and photographed by Emma).

  • Are you looking for a secluded little place for your vacations, Arabian nights style? You’re welcome.
  • Would you prefer to stay home with your box of popcorn for a B-movies binge-watching session? Here’s one of the best lists you can find on the web. You have my word.
  • The inimitable Lindsey Fitzharris published on her Chirurgeon’s Apprentice a cute little post about surgical removal of bladder stones before the invention of anesthesia. Perfect read to squirm deliciously in your seat.
  • Death Expo was recently held in Amsterdam, sporting all the latest novelties in the funerary industry. Among the best designs: an IKEA-style, build-it-yourself coffin, but above all the coffin to play games on. (via DeathSalon)
  • I ignore how or why things re-surface at a certain time on the Net. And yet, for the last few days (at least in my whacky internet bubble) the story of Portuguese serial killer Diogo Alves has been popping out again and again. Not all of Diogo Alves, actually — just his head, which is kept in a jar at the Faculty of Medicine in Lisbon. But what really made me chuckle was discovering one of the “related images” suggested by Google algorythms:

Diogo’s head…

…Radiohead.

  • Remember the Tsavo Man-Eaters? There’s a very good Italian article on the whole story — or you can read the English Wiki entry. (Thanks, Bruno!)
  • And finally we get to the most succulent news: my old native town, Vicenza, proved to still have some surprises in store for me.
    On the hills near the city, in the Arcugnano district, a pre-Roman amphitheatre has just been discovered. It layed buried for thousands of years… it could accomodate up to 4300 spectators and 300 actors, musicians, dancers… and the original stage is still there, underwater beneath the small lake… and there’s even a cave which acted as a megaphone for the actors’ voices, amplifying sounds from 8 Hz to 432 Hz… and there’s even a nearby temple devoted to Janus… and that temple was the real birthplace of Juliet, of Shakespearean fame… and there are even traces of ancient canine Gods… and of the passage of Julius Cesar and Cleopatra…. and… and…
    And, pardon my rudeness, wouldn’t all this happen to be a hoax?


No, it’s not a mere hoax, it is an extraordinary hoax. A stunt that would deserve a slow, admired clap, if it wasn’t a plain fraud.
The creative spirit behind the amphitheatre is the property owner, Franco Malosso von Rosenfranz (the name says it all). Instead of settling for the traditional Italian-style unauthorized development  — the classic two or three small houses secretely and illegally built — he had the idea of faking an archeological find just to scam tourists. Taking advantage of a license to build a passageway between two parts of his property, so that the constant flow of trucks and bulldozers wouldn’t raise suspicions, Malosso von Rosenfranz allegedly excavated his “ancient” theatre, with the intention of opening it to the public at the price of 40 € per visitor, and to put it up for hire for big events.
Together with the initial enthusiasm and popularity on social networks, unfortunately came legal trouble. The evidence against Malosso was so blatant from the start, that he immediately ended up on trial without any preliminary hearing. He is charged with unauthorized building, unauthorized manufacturing and forgery.
Therefore, this wonderful example of Italian ingenuity will be dismanteled and torn down; but the amphitheatre website is fortunately still online, a funny fanta-history jumble devised to back up the real site. A messy mixtre of references to local figures, famous characters from the Roman Era, supermarket mythology and (needless to say) the omnipresent Templars.


The ultimate irony is that there are people in Arcugnano still supporting him because, well, “at least now we have a theatre“. After all, as the Wiki page on unauthorized building explains, “the perception of this phenomenon as illegal […] is so thin that such a crime does not entail social reprimand for a large percentage of the population. In Italy, this malpractice has damaged and keeps damaging the economy, the landscape and the culture of law and respect for regulations“.
And here resides the brilliance of old fox Malosso von Rosenfranz’s plan: to cash in on these times of post-truth, creating an unauthorized building which does not really degrade the territory, but rather increase — albeit falsely — its heritage.
Well, you might have got it by now. I am amused, in a sense. My secret chimeric desire is that it all turns out to be an incredible, unprecedented art installations.  Andthat Malosso one day might confess that yes, it was all a huge experiment to show how little we care abot our environment and landscape, how we leave our authenticarcheological wonders fall apart, and yet we are ready to stand up for the fake ones. (Thanks, Silvietta!)

The mysterious artist Pierre Brassau

In 1964 the Gallerie Christinae in Göteborg, Sweden, held an exhibition of young avantgarde painters.
Among the works of these promising artists from Italy, Austria, Denmark, England and Sweden, were also four abstract paintings by the french Pierre Brassau. His name was completely unknown to the art scene, but his talents looked undisputable: this young man, although still a beginner, really seemed qualified to become the next Jackson Pollock — so much so that since the opening, his paintings stole the attention from all other featured works.

Journalists and art critics were almost unanimous in considering Pierre Brassau the true revelation of Gallerie Christinae’s exhibit. Rolf Anderberg, a critic for the Posten, was particularly impressed and penned an article, published the next day, in which he affirmed: “Brassau paints with powerful strokes, but also with clear determination. His brush strokes twist with furious fastidiousness. Pierre is an artist who performs with the delicacy of a ballet dancer“.

As should be expected, in spite of the general enthusiasm, there was also the usual skeptic. One critic, making a stand, defiantly declared: “only an ape could have done this“.
There will  always be somebody who must go against the mainstream. And, even if it’s hard to admit, in doing so he sometimes can be right.
Pierre Brassau, in reality, was actually a monkey. More precisely a four-year-old African chimpanzee living in the Borås Zoo.

Showing primate’s works in a modern art exhibition was Åke “Dacke” Axelsso’s idea, as he was at the time a journalist for the daily paper Göteborgs-Tidningen. The concept was not actually new: some years before, Congo the chimp  had become a celebrity because of his paintings, which fascinated Picasso, Miro and Dali (in 2005 Congo’s works were auctioned for 14.400 punds, while in the same sale a Warhol painting and a Renoir sculpture were withdrawn).
Thus Åke decided to challenge critics in this provocative way: behind the humor of the prank was not (just) the will to ridicule the art establishment, but rather the intention of raising a question that would become more and more urgent in the following years: how can we judge an abstract art piece, if it does not contain any figurative element — or if it even denies that any specific competence is needed to produce art?

Åke had convinced the zoo keeper, who was then 17 years old, to provide a chimp named Peter with brushes and canvas. In the beginning Peter had smeared the paint everywhere, except on the canvas, and even ate it: he had a particularly sweet tooth, it is said, for cobalt blue — a color which will indeed be prominently featured in his later work. Encouraged by the journalist, the primate started to really paint, and to enjoy this creative activity. Åke then selected his four best paintings to be shown at the exhibit.

Even when the true identity of mysterious Pierre Brassau was revealed, many critics stuck by their assessment, claiming the monkey’s paintings were better than all the others at the gallery. What else could they say?
The happiest person, in this little scandal, was probably Bertil Eklöt, a private collector who had bought a painting by the chimpanzee for $90 (about $7-800 today). Perhaps he just wanted to own a curious piece: but now that painting could be worth a fortune, as Pierre Brassau’s story has become a classic anecdote in art history. And one that still raises the question on whether works of art are, as Rilke put it, “of an infinite solitude, and no means of approach is so useless as criticism“.


The first international press article on Brassau appeared on Time magazine. Other info taken from this post by Museum of Hoaxes.

(Thanks, Giacomo!)

The mysteries of Sansevero Chapel – II

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The Prince, just like a sorcerer, is stirring the preparation in a big cauldron. Eventually, the long-awaited reaction takes place: a mysterious liquid is ready. On the other side of the room, the two bound and gagged servants can’t even scream anymore. The man is sobbing, while the woman, even immobilized, stays vigilant and alert — perhaps the new life she carries in her womb prevents her from giving in to fear, commanding an already impossible defense. The Prince hasn’t got much time, he has to act quickly. He pours the liquid down a strange pump, then he gets close to his victims: in their eyes he sees an unnameable terror. He starts with the man, puncturing the jugular vein and injecting the liquid right into his bloodstream with a syringe. The heart will pump the preparation throughout the body, and the Prince watches the agonizing man’s face as the dense poison begins to circulate. There, it’s all done: the servant is dead. It will take two to three hours for the mixture to solidify, and surely more than a month for the putrified flesh to fall off the skeleton and the network of veins, arteries and capillaries the process turned into marble.
Now it’s the woman’s turn.

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What you just read is the legend surrounding the two “anatomical machines” still visible in the Underground Chamber of the Sansevero Chapel. According to this story, Prince Raimondo di Sangro created them by sacrifying the life of his servants in order to obtain an exact representation of the vascular system. to an otherwise impossible to achieve level of accuracy. Even Benedetto Croce mentioned the legend in his  Storie e leggende napoletane (1919): “with the pretext of a minor fault, he had two of his servants killed, a man and a woman, and their bodies weirdly embalmed so that they showed all their internal viscera, the arteries and veins, and kept them locked in a closet…“. The two “machines” are in fact a man and a woman (pregnant, even if the fetus was stolen in the Sixties), their skeletons still wrapped in the thick net of circulatory apparatus.

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How were the “machines” really built?
The answer is maybe less exciting but also less cruel than legend has it: they were created through great expertise and great patience. And not by Raimondo di Sangro himself: in fact, the Prince commissioned this work in 1763-64 to Giuseppe Salerno, a physician from Palermo, providing for the iron wire and wax necessary to the construction, and gratifying the Sicilian artist with a nice pension for the rest of his life. If the skeletons are undoubtedly authentic, the whole vascular system was recreated using wire, which was then wrapped up in silk and later imbued in a peculiar mix of pigmented beewax and varnish, allowing the wire to be manipulated, bent in every direction and acting as a shock-absorbant material during transportation.
Giuseppe Salerno was not the only person to build such “machines”, for as early as 1753 and 1758 in Palermo a doctor called Paolo Graffeo had already presented a similar couple of anatomical models, complete with a 4-month-old fetus.

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The “black” legend about servants mercilessly killed stems from the figure of Raimondo di Sangro, whose life and work — just like the Sammartino’s Christ we talked about in our previous article — seem to be covered by a veil, albeit a symbolic one.
An extraordinary intellectual and inventor, chemistry, physics and technology enthusiast, Raimondo di Sangro was always regarded as suspisious because of his Freemasonry and alchemic interests, so much so that he became some sort of devil in popular fantasy.

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At the dawn of science, in the middle of XVIII Century, rationalism had yet to abandon alchemic symbology: alchemists obviously worked on concrete matter (chemistry will later grow from these very researches), but every procedure or preparation was also interpreted according to different metaphysical readings. Raimondo di Sangro claimed he invented tens of contraptions, such as a folding stage, a color typography, a sea chariot, hydraulic machines and alchemic marbles, fireproof paper and waterproof tissues, and even a much-celebrated “eternal candle”; but all the information about these creations come from his own Lettera apologetica, published in 1750, and some scholars maintain that these very inventions, whether they really existed or not, should be interpreted as symbols of the Prince’s alchemic research. Accordingly, the originary placement of the “anatomical machines”, inside the Phoenix Apartment on a revolving platform, looks like a symbolic choice: maybe Raimondo di Sangro thought of them as a depiction of the rubedo, a stage in the search for the philosopher’s stone in which matter recomposes itself, granting immortality.

Today, the two “machines” still amaze scholars for their realism and accuracy, and they prove that in the XVIII Century an almost perfect knowledge of the circulatory system had already been reached. Modern versions of these models, created through injection of sylicon polymers (this time on real cadavers), can be seen throughout the well-known Body Worlds exhibitions coordinated by Gunther Von Hagens, the inventor of plastination.

Here is some more info (in Italian): an article on the Prince buying the machines; an in-depth analysis of his inventions’ esoteric symbolism; an essay on Raimondo di Sangro in reference to his relationship with Free Masonry. And, of course, the Sansevero Chapel Museum website.

You can read the first part of this article here.

The mysteries of Sansevero Chapel – I

If you have never fallen victim to the Stendhal syndrome, then you probably have yet to visit the Cappella Sansevero in Naples.
The experience is hard to describe. Entering this space, full to the brim with works of art, you might almost feel assaulted by beauty, a beauty you cannot escape, filling every detail of your field of vision. The crucial difference here, in respect to any other baroque art collection, is that some of the works exposed inside the chapel do not offer just an aesthetic pleasure, but hinge on a second, deeper level of emotion: wonder.
Some of these are seemingly “impossible” sculptures, much too elaborate and realistic to be the result of a simple chisel, and the gracefulness of shapes is rendered with a technical dexterity that is hard to conceive.

The Release from Deception (Il Disinganno), is, for example, an astounding sculpted group: one could spend hours admiring the intricate net, held by the male figure, and wonder how Queirolo was able to extract it from a single marble block.

The Chastity (La Pudicizia) by Corradini, with its drapery veiling the female character as if it was transparent, is another “mystery” of sculpting technique, where the stone seems to have lost its weight, becoming ethereal and almost floating. Imagine how the artist started his work from a squared block of marble, how his mind’s eye “saw” this figure inside of it, how he patiently removed all which didn’t belong, freeing the figure from the stone little by little, smoothing the surface, refining, chiselling every wrinkle of her veil.

But the attention is mostly drawn by the most famous art piece displayed in the chapel, the Veiled Christ.
This sculpture has fascinated visitors for two and a half centuries, astounding artists and writers (from the Marquis de Sade to Canova), and is considered one of the world’s best sculpted masterpieces.
Completed in 1753 by Giuseppe Sanmartino and commissioned by Raimondo di Sangro, it portrays Christ deposed after crucifixion, covered by a transparent veil. This veil is rendered with such subtlety as to be almost deceiving to the eye, and the effect seen in person is really striking: one gets the impression that the “real” sculpture is lying underneath, and that the shroud could be easily grabbed and lifted.

It’s precisely because of Sanmartino’s extraordinary virtuosity in sculpting the veil that a legend surrounding this Christ dies hard – fooling from time to time even specialized magazines and otherwise irreproachable art websites.
Legend has it that prince Raimondo di Sangro, who commissioned the work, actually fabricated the veil himself, laying it down over Sanmartino’s sculpture and petrifying it with an alchemic method of his own invention; hence the phenomenal liquidness of the drapery, and the “transparence” of the tissue.

This legend keeps coming back, in the internet era, thanks to articles such as this:

The news is the recent discovery that the veil is not made of marble, as was believed until now, but of fine cloth, marbled through an alchemic procedure by the Prince himself, so that it became a whole with the underlying sculpture. In the Notarial Archives, the contract between Raimondo di Sangro and Sanmartino regarding the statue has been found. In it, the sculptor commits himself to deliver “a good and perfect statue depicting Our Lord dead in a natural pose, to be shown inside the Prince’s gentilitial church”. Raimondo di Sangro binds himself, in addition to supplying the marble, “to make a Shroud of weaved fabric, which will be placed over the sculpture; after this, the Prince will manipulate it through his own inventions; that is, coating the veil with a subtle layer of pulverized marble… until it looks like it’s sculpted with the statue”. Sammartino also commits to “never reveal, after completing the statue, the Prince’s method for making the shroud that covers the statue”. With this amazing contract, comes another document describing the recipe for powdered marble. If the two documents unequivocally prove the limits of Sammartino’s skills, they also show the alchemic genius of Sansevero, who put his expertise at the service of the hermetic doctrine, realizing one of the most important mysteric images of christian symbolism, that Holy Shroud Jesus was wrapped in, after he died on the cross.

(Excerpt from Restaurars)

Digging a bit deeper, it looks like this “sensational” discovery is not even recent, but goes back to the Eighties. It was made by neapolitan researcher Clara Miccinelli, who became interested in Raimondo di Sangro after being contacted by his spirit during a seance. Miccinelli published a couple of books, in 1982 and 1984, centered on the enigmatic figure of the Prince, freemason and alchemist, a character depicted in folklore as both a mad scientist and a genius.
The document Miccinelli found in the Archives is actually a fake. Here is what the Sansevero Chapel Museum has to say about it:

The document […], transcribed and published by Clara Miccinelli, is unanimously considered nonauthentic by scholars. In particular, a very accurate analysis of the document was conducted by Prof. Rosanna Cioffi, who in note 107, page 147 of her book “La Cappella Sansevero. Arte barocca e ideologia massonica” (sec. ed., Salerno 1994) lists and discusses as much as nine reasons – frankly inconfutable – for which the document cannot be held to be authentic (from the absence of watermark on the paper, to the handwriting being different from every other deed compiled by notary Liborio Scala, to the fact that the sheet of paper is loose and not included in the volume collecting all the deeds for the year 1752, to the notary’s “signum” which just in this document is different from all the other deeds, etc.). […] There are on the other hand certainly authentic documents, that can be consulted freely and publicly, in the Historic Archive of the Banco di Napoli, unearthed by Eduardo Nappi and published on different occasions: from a negotiable instrument dated December 16 1752, in which Raimondo di Sangro describes the statue in the making as “a statue of Our Lord being dead, and covered with a veil from the same marble”, to the payment of 30 ducats (as a settlment of 500 ducats) on February 13 1754, in which the Prince of Sansevero unequivocally describes the Christ as being “covered with a transparent shroud of the same marble”. All this without taking into account one of the Prince’s famous letters to Giraldi on the “eternal light”, published for the first time in May 1753 in “Novelle Letterarie” in Florence, in which he thus talks about the Christ: “the marble statue of Our Lord Jesus Christ being dead, wrapped in a transparent veil of the same marble, but executed with such expertise as to fool the most accurate observers”. […]
All the documentary evidence, therefore, points to one conclusion: the Veiled Christ is a work entirely made of marble. To settle things once and for all, there was eventually a scientific non-invasive analysis conducted by the company “Ars Mensurae”, which concluded that the only material present in this work is marble. The analysis report was published in 2008 in: S. Ridolfi, “Analisi di materiale lapideo tramite sistema portatile di Fluorescenza X: il caso del ‘Cristo Velato’ nella Cappella Sansevero di Napoli”. […]
We believe that the fact that Sanmartino’s Christ is entirely made from marble only adds charm […] to the work.

Miccinelli has subsequently found in her home a chest containing an incredible series of Jesuit manuscripts which completely overturn the whole precolonial history of Andean civilizations as we know it. The “case” has divided the ethnological community, even jeopardizing accademic relationships with Peru (see this English article), as many italian specialists believe the documents to be authentic, whereas by the majority of Anglosaxon and South American scholars they are considered artfully constructed fakes. The harsh debate did not discourage Miccinelli, who just can’t seem to be able to open a drawer without discovering some rare unpublished work: in 1991 it was the turn of an original writing by Dumas, which enabled her to decrypt the alchemical symbologies of the Count of Monte Cristo.

The second part of this article is dedicated to another legend surrounding the Sansevero Chapel, namely the one regarding the two “anatomical machines” preserved in the Underground Chamber. You can read it here.

Lo sconosciuto dall’elmo di ferro

Una sera imprecisata del 1907, nel lussuoso centro sportivo londinese di King Street, Covent Garden. Due fra gli uomini più ricchi del mondo – fra una sbuffata di sigaro, e una puntata sull’incontro di boxe a cui stavano assistendo – discutevano di una questione piuttosto singolare. L’argomento di discussione era se fosse possibile per un uomo attraversare il mondo intero senza mai essere identificato.

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Hugh Cecil Lowther, quinto conte di Lonsdale, era convinto che l’impresa fosse attuabile; il suo interlocutore, il finanziere americano John Pierpont Morgan, sosteneva il contrario. Quest’ultimo, nella foga, si disse disposto a scommettere ben 100.000 dollari, equivalenti a diversi milioni di euro in valuta odierna: era forse la più grande somma mai scommessa nella storia. Lì vicino, ad ascoltarli, stava un gentleman inglese di nome Harry Bensley, celebre donnaiolo e viveur, mantenuto da una costante rendita di circa 5.000 sterline l’anno grazie ai suoi investimenti in Russia. A lui, quei soldi fecero subito gola, ma soprattutto lo attirò la bizzarra avventura che la sfida sembrava promettere. Così, interrompendo l’accalorata discussione, annunciò che accettava la scommessa del magnate americano.

Harry Bensley, sulla sinistra.

Harry Bensley, sulla sinistra.

I termini della prova furono messi nero su bianco. Bensley avrebbe dovuto soddisfare ben 15 condizioni, che lo costringevano a viaggiare mascherato, spingendo una carrozzella per bambini, attraversando 169 città inglesi, e 125 città in 18 nazioni differenti in giro per il mondo – tra cui Irlanda, Canada, Stati Uniti, Sud America, Nuova Zelanda, Australia, Sud Africa, Giappone, Cina, India, Egitto, Italia, Francia, Spagna, Portogallo, Belgio, Germania e Olanda. Doveva cominciare il suo viaggio investendo esclusivamente una sterlina in materiale “pubblicitario”, cioè fotografie, dépliant e pamphlet, da vendere durante il suo girovagare: non avrebbe potuto avere altra fonte di reddito oltre al ricavato di quelle foto per tutta la durata della sfida. Anche i vestiti erano limitati ad un unico cambio e, per rendere le cose ancora più complicate, durante il viaggio avrebbe dovuto perfino ammogliarsi – trovare, cioè, una donna disposta a sposarlo senza conoscere la sua vera identità.

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Così, il primo gennaio del 1908, all’età di 31 anni, Harry Bensley si presentò sul luogo indicato dal contratto, a Trafalgar Square, indossando un elmo di ferro da armatura e spingendo un passeggino che conteneva i suoi vestiti e il materiale pubblicitario: al suo fianco, il “garante” (chiamato The Minder) che l’avrebbe accompagnato durante l’intera epopea, per assicurarsi che le condizioni della scommessa venissero rispettate. La folla esultante lo acclamò, visto che la notizia della incredibile impresa si era già sparsa ovunque; e così accadde anche nelle tappe successive del viaggio – tutti acquistavano le fotografie, c’era chi lasciava delle offerte, praticamente i soldi gli piovevano addosso.

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Talmente tanti soldi, in realtà, che ad un certo punto Bensley venne arrestato per vendita di cartoline senza permesso a Bexley Heath, Kent; arrivato in tribunale con il suo elmo, Harry spiegò al giudice i termini della scommessa e, grazie alla benevolenza di costui, per la prima volta nella storia si svolse un processo in totale anonimità dell’imputato. Giudicato colpevole, sotto il nome di “Uomo nella Maschera di Ferro”, venne condannato a una multa di una dozzina di sterline, e gli venne permesso di continuare il suo viaggio.
Altri gustosi aneddoti raccontano di come una cameriera si nascose sotto il letto della camera di Bensley nel tentativo di svelare la sua identità e guadagnarsi le 1.000 sterline messe in palio da un giornale, ma venne scoperta in tempo; e di come lo stesso Re Edoardo VII, divertito, chiese perfino un autografo al misterioso “cavaliere”, che rifiutò per ovvie ragioni di privacy…
Anche le offerte di matrimonio non mancavano: Harry disse di averne ricevute più di 200, da nobildonne provenienti dall’Europa, dall’Australia e dall’America. Le rifiutò tutte.

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Dopo sei anni, l’impresa procedeva con immenso successo: Bensley aveva già visitato 12 paesi, e avrebbe molto probabilmente vinto la scommessa, se non fosse incappato in un tragico imprevisto: la Prima Guerra Mondiale. Arrivato a Genova, infatti, ricevette un infausto telegramma in cui il finanziere americano Morgan gli comunicava che la sfida era da considerarsi conclusa. Egli temeva che la Guerra avrebbe messo a repentaglio il suo impero economico e, non avendo certo voglia di perdere soldi in maniera frivola, si ritirò dalla scommessa. Nonostante gli fossero state riconosciute 4.000 sterline di ricompensa, Bensley fu devastato dalla notizia. Rabbioso e deluso, donò tutto il ricavato in beneficenza; tornò in patria, si arruolò nel 1915, combattè per un anno al fronte prima di rimanere ferito ed essere rispedito a casa.

Army Service record

I suoi investimenti finanziari in Russia crollarono in seguito alla Rivoluzione, ed egli tirò a campare facendo la maschera nei cinema, il guardiano d’hotel, e più tardi lavorando in una fabbrica di armamenti fino alla sua morte, avvenuta il 21 maggio 1956 all’età di 79 anni. L’elmo e la carrozzina, conservati in soffitta, non furono mai più ritrovati.

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Questa è la storia ufficiale del viaggiatore mascherato, così come è raccontata sul sito del pronipote (illegittimo) di Bensley, che però avanza qualche dubbio. Secondo quanto si racconta nella sua famiglia, le cose sarebbero andate molto diversamente: dopo una notte di gioco d’azzardo in continua perdita, Bensley avrebbe puntato l’intera sua fortuna (investimenti in Russia compresi) su una sola carta… e avrebbe perso.
Gli altri giocatori, cioè proprio il Conte di Lonsdale e J. P. Morgan, impietositi, avrebbero “commutato” questo debito in una sorta di farsesco contrappasso dantesco. Il dongiovanni avrebbe dovuto imparare a fare a meno del suo fascino, coprendosi il volto; il damerino abituato alla bella vita avrebbe dovuto campare con una sterlina sola, spingendo una carrozzina a elemosinare in giro per il mondo, con un unico cambio di vestiti. Gli fu consentito, per salvaguardare quel briciolo di onore che gli rimaneva, di far passare questa punizione per una impresa eroica – ma si trattava in realtà di una vera e propria beffa, un dileggio conosciuto a pochi insider, che sanciva di fatto la sua uscita dal circolo del bel mondo londinese.

Ma attenzione, perché ora viene il bello. Tutto quello che avete appena letto, sia la versione “ufficiale” che quella “segreta”, potrebbe non essere mai accaduto.

Negli scorsi anni, infatti, sono emersi nuovi dettagli che delineano una storia dai risvolti molto più ambigui: pare che del fantomatico uomo mascherato si fossero perse le tracce già dall’autunno del 1908, poco dopo l’inizio della sfida. I discendenti di Bensley, che hanno dato vita al sito internet proprio per racimolare informazioni sul loro antenato, ammettono che non vi sia alcuna prova che egli abbia mai lasciato l’Inghilterra.
La sfida, quindi, non sarebbe stata completata? E allora, le 4.000 sterline vinte da Bensley e da lui donate in beneficenza?
Davvero difficile che il magnate J. P. Morgan abbia potuto decidere di versare quella somma nell’agosto del 1914, come racconta la storia ufficiale, visto che era morto l’anno prima.

Nel dicembre del 1908, su un giornale chiamato Answers to Correspondents on Every Subject under the sun, veniva posta la fatidica domanda: ma dove diavolo è finito l’uomo con la maschera di ferro? Poco dopo alla testata arrivò una lettera, pubblicata il 19 dicembre, da parte di un uomo che sosteneva di essere, per l’appunto, l’uomo mascherato.

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Nella lunga lettera, l’anonimo confessava che la scommessa, la sfida e il viaggio intorno al mondo non erano altro che un’elaborata bufala, studiata meticolosamente mentre egli stava scontando una condanna in prigione. L’ispirazione, raccontava, gli era arrivata da un libro sulla celeberrima e misteriosa figura della Maschera di Ferro incarcerata alla Bastiglia: aveva così preso forma l’idea di spostarsi di città in città indossando l’elmo per attirare l’attenzione delle folle, dando risonanza alle sue apparizioni mediante la finta storia della scommessa fra i due milionari (ignari di tutto). Una volta uscito di galera, l’uomo era però senza il becco d’un quattrino: con la complicità di un tedesco conosciuto in cella, che si sarebbe finto “garante” della scommessa, aveva quindi raggirato i primi ignari finanziatori con la promessa di futuri dividendi, riuscendo ad acquistare l’elmo, il passeggino e il lotto iniziale di fotografie da vendere. Quanto al matrimonio, che secondo le “condizioni” egli avrebbe dovuto contrarre durante il viaggio, non c’era problema: egli era già sposato, e pronto a far spuntare sua moglie al momento opportuno come parte della messinscena.

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La truffa aveva funzionato: fin dal primo giorno la risposta della gente era stata sensazionale. Anche la parte relativa al giudice che gli permetteva di tenere l’elmo in un’aula di tribunale era veritiera: egli era stato davvero processato anonimamente, grazie alla fama della sua “sfida”.

Ma l’arzigogolato inganno gli si era presto ritorto contro: dopo dieci mesi in cammino, senza mai lasciare la Gran Bretagna, indossando continuamente l’elmo e spingendo una carrozzina di 50 chili per quasi 4.000 chilometri, la sua salute era peggiorata. “Gli occhi mi bruciavano, e soffrivo di tremende emicranee. In diverse occasioni svenni sul bordo della strada, e in alcuni casi fui confinato a letto per due o tre giorni di fila.” Ad un certo punto, sfinito, il truffatore aveva gettato la spugna, e si era dileguato. La lettera ad Answers era, in un certo senso, l’ultimo atto della recita, in cui l’attore calava (figuratamente, e concretamente) la maschera divenuta troppo pesante. Non rinunciando però ad un ultimo moto d’orgoglio: “posso affermare, senza tema d’esser contraddetto, che mi sono guadagnato il viaggio, e ho mantenuto me stesso, mia moglie, e il mio assistente, i cavalli e gli inservienti che ho impiegato, interamente con la vendita delle mie cartoline e pamphlet, e che non ho ricevuto nulla sotto forma di carità sin dal primo giorno del mio itinerario“.

Questa confessione è quasi certamente opera di Bensley, visto che i fatti citati dall’anonimo autore coincidono con un elemento chiave scoperto di recente (e passato sotto silenzio sul poco aggiornato sito dei discendenti, forse più interessati alla leggenda): nel 1904, egli era stato effettivamente processato per truffa e condannato a quattro anni di carcere.
L’allora ventinovenne Bensley era descritto dai giornali come un semplice manovale, figlio di un operaio di una segheria: un imbroglione qualunque, che si era fatto prestare dei soldi con la promessa di una favolosa eredità pronta per essere riscattata.

E, nella storia delle truffe, Bensley sarebbe rimasto del tutto anonimo, se la sua fantasia non si fosse scatenata proprio con l’idea dell’Uomo nella Maschera di Ferro. Il progetto di fingersi un gentleman facoltoso impegnato in una pittoresca ed eccentrica scommessa mostrava senza dubbio un guizzo di straordinaria inventiva. Si trattava di una truffa giocata sul meccanismo dell’esagerazione: “se è così assurdo – era indotta a pensare la gente – deve per forza essere vero”.
Peccato che quegli stessi dettagli strampalati (l’elmo, la carrozzina, gli spostamenti a piedi) si fossero presto rivelati il punto debole del piano, facendo finire il gioco prima del previsto.

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Ecco il sito del pronipote di Harry Bensley. The Big Retort è il blog che ha scoperto la lettera ad Answers. Ulteriori dettagli in questo articolo di Baionette Librarie, ottimo sito che si occupa di steampunk, fantascienza, armi, fatine e conigli.

Finte meraviglie

Sulla strada del meraviglioso, non è tutto oro ciò che luccica. Dai mostri più stupefacenti, agli spettacoli circensi più mirabolanti, gli imbonitori hanno sempre saputo sfruttare i “falsi” creati ad arte per raggirare e abbindolare i creduloni.

Già all’inizio del 1500 erano diffusi i Jenny Haniver: si trattava di cadaveri rinsecchiti di sirene o di fate dei fondali marini, esseri fantastici e inquietantemente umani nell’aspetto, nonostante avessero tutte le caratteristiche di un pesce.

In realtà erano dei falsi creati a partire da un tipo di razza, o dal pesce chitarra, che veniva tagliato, arricciato, ricucito ed essiccato per assumere sembianze antropomorfe. Si tratta di uno dei primi esempi di tassidermia “creativa”. L’etimologia del nomignolo “Jenny Haniver” è controversa (pare che derivi dai pescatori di Anversa, che potrebbero aver iniziato la tradizione di costruire e vendere questi falsi); fatto sta che ancora oggi in alcuni negozi turistici di mare si possono trovare questi souvenir particolari. La cosa davvero incredibile, però, è che ancora in tempi recenti c’è chi continua a cascarci: nel 2006 il Giornale di Brescia segnalò un Jenny Haniver come un possibile cadavere di extraterreste!

Sulla stessa linea, la Sirena delle Fiji, qui sopra, è divenuta un vero e proprio classico – diciamo la regina dei “sideshow gaffs“, ovvero dei falsi esposti come curiosità all’interno dei Luna Park americani a cavallo fra l’800 e il ‘900. I primi cadaveri di sirene erano già un must delle wunderkammer rinascimentali, ma l’idea di esibirle all’interno dei sideshow si deve, manco a dirlo, all’incredibile inventiva e fiuto del “Santo Patrono degli imbonitori”, Phineas T. Barnum. Presentate come mummie di veri ibridi uomo-pesce, divennero ben presto un pezzo fisso e irrinunciabile delle fiere itineranti americane, e vengono prodotte ancora oggi con tecniche miste (scultoree e tassidermiche).

Più tardi, alcuni sideshow progettarono un sistema più “realistico” per esibire le Sirene delle Fiji: non si trattava più di pupazzetti mummificati, ma di un complesso sistema di specchi che permetteva di proiettare l’immagine di un’attrice all’interno di un acquario. Si racconta l’aneddoto di una di queste “sirene” che sbadatamente cominciò a fumare una sigaretta – nonostante fosse “sott’acqua” – provocando le ire degli spettatori.

Lo stesso Barnum portò a livelli scientifici una prassi comune nei Luna Park dell’epoca: far passare per freaks delle persone normalissime, in modo da rimpinguare le fila delle “meraviglie umane” esibite all’interno del freakshow. Già a una prima occhiata avrete indovinato che il gentiluomo qui sopra, Pasqual Pinon, portava una improbabile faccia posticcia sulla parrucca, piuttosto che essere davvero “il Messicano a Due Teste”. Allo stesso modo, la “meraviglia a tre occhi” aveva un occhio finto incollato alla fronte, i “gemelli siamesi Adolph e Rudolph” si esibivano legati alla vita (uno dei due aveva le gambe atrofizzate e minuscole, e le nascondeva nei pantaloni dell’altro), le sorelle Milton erano tutt’altro che siamesi. Queste ultime, in particolare, scioccavano gli spettatori inscenando una violenta lite e “separandosi” in diretta, uscendo poi stizzite dai due lati del palcoscenico.

Per un impresario circense dell’epoca, arrivare a scritturare un albino non era abbastanza. Occorreva trasformarlo in qualcosa di ancora più fantastico e meraviglioso. Doveva diventare “l’ultimo Atlantideo”, il “Re dei Ghiacci”, o “l’Uomo di Marte”. Ma c’è una figura ancora più emblematica di questa verve inventiva nel presentare come abnorme e curioso qualcosa che in verità era molto meno affascinante.

Il geek era un’attrazione che normalmente apriva il freakshow. Veniva presentato talvolta come “anello mancante” tra l’uomo e l’animale, o come “ragazzo selvaggio”, o più semplicemente come un essere bestiale senza capacità di parola – una sorta di mostro vorace e famelico. All’interno di una gabbia, o di un’arena circolare, il geek grugniva e sbavava in modo animalesco, mentre gli venivano lanciati dei polli vivi (più raramente, serpenti). Il “mostro” li rincorreva a quattro zampe finché, afferratone uno, gli strappava la testa con un morso e la inghiottiva. Lo spettacolo era violento e turbava non poco gli spettatori: spesso le signore svenivano alla vista dell’inumana abiezione di quell’essere. In realtà si trattava di un attore, molto spesso un senzatetto alcolista che inscenava questa recita pur di rimediare qualche bottiglia di whiskey. Oggi il termine è stato preso a prestito dagli amanti della tecnologia (che si definiscono geek in contrapposizione a nerd, che ha una connotazione negativa).

Ma forse il primo premio nelle finte meraviglie inventate per raggirare gli spettatori va nuovamente a P. T. Barnum. Non contento di esibire 500.000 curiosità, vere e finte, provenienti dai quattro angoli del pianeta, egli escogitò forse la bufala delle bufale: un’attrazione che non esiste!

Nel suo museo, appena entrati, gli spettatori vedevano un cartello con la scritta “THIS WAY TO EGRESS”. Nessuno sapeva cosa fosse questo misterioso Egress, ma di sicuro suonava come una meraviglia inedita, così tutti si affrettavano in quella direzione. Peccato che “egress” fosse un termine arcaico per “uscita”. Così, poco dopo essere entrati, gli spettatori si trovavano fuori dal museo e, se volevano rientrare, erano costretti a pagare un altro quarto di dollaro…

It’s only show biz!