Rita Fanari: The Last of the Dwarfs

ROLL UP! ROLL UP! The great phenomenon of nature, the smallest woman in the world, 70 cm tall, 57 years old, weighing 5 Kg. RITA FANARI, from UXELLUS. She has been blind since the age of 14 and yet she threads yarn throug a needle, she sews, and all this in the presence of the public. She responds to any query. Every day at all hours you can see this great phenomenon.

So read the 1907 billboard announcing the debut on the scene of Rita Fanari. Unfortunately it was not a prestigious stage, but a sideshow at the Santa Reparata fair in the small town of Usellus (Oristano), at the time a very remote town in Sardinia, a community of just over a thousand souls. Rita shared her billboard – and perhaps even the stage – with a taxidermy of a two-headed lamb: we can suppose that whoever made that poster added it because he doubted that the tiny woman, alone, would be able to fascinate the gaze of passers-by… So right from the start, little Rita’s career was certainly not stellar.

Rita Fanari was born on 26 January 1850, daughter of Appolonia Pilloni and Placito Fanari. She suffered from pituitary dwarfism, and her sight abandoned her during adolescence; she lived with her parents until in 1900, when they probably died and she was adopted, at the age of fifty, by the family of Raimondo Orrù. This educated and wealthy man exhibited her in various fairs and village festivals including that of Santa Croce in Oristano. Since she had never found a husband, Rita used to appear on stage wearing the traditional dress for bagadia manna (elderly unmarried woman), and over time she gained enough notoriety to even enter vernacular expressions: when someone sang with a high-pitched  voice, people used to mock them by saying “mi paris Arrita Fanài cantendi!” (“You sound like Rita Fanari singing!”).

Rita died in 1913. Her life might seem humble, as negligible as her own stature. A blind little woman, who managed to survive thanks to the interest of a landowner who forced her to perform at village fairs: a person not worthy of note, mildly interesting only to those researching local folklore. One of the “last”, those people whose memory is fogotten by history.

Yet, on closer inspection, her story is significant for more than one reason. Not only she was the only documented case of a Sardinian woman suffering from dwarfism who performed at a sideshow; Rita Fanari was also a rather unusual case for Italy in those years. Let’s try to understand why.

Among all congenital malformations, dwarfism has always attracted particular attention over the centuries. People suffering from this growth deficiency, often considered a sign of good luck and fortune (or even divine incarnations, as apparently was the case among the Egyptians), sometimes enjoyed high favors and were in great demand in all European courts. Owning and even “collecting” dwarfs became an obsession for many rulers, from Sigismund II Augustus to Catherine de’ Medici to the Tsar Peter the Great — who in 1710 organized the scandalous “wedding of dwarfs” I mentioned in this article (Italian only).

The public exhibition of Rita Fanari should therefore not surprise us that much, especially if we think of the success that human wonders were having in traveling circuses and amusement parks around the world. A typical American freak show consisted exactly in what Fanari did: the deformed person would sit on the stage, ready to satisfy the curiosity and answer questions from the spectators (“she responds to any query“, emphasized Rita’s poster).

Yet in the early 1900s the situation in Italy was different compared to the rest of the world. Only in Italian circuses, in fact, the figure of the dwarf clown had evolved into that of the “bagonghi”.

The origin of this term is uncertain, and according to some sources it comes from the surname of a Bolognese chestnut street seller who was 70 centimeters high and who in 1890 was hired by the Circus Guillaume. However, this nickname soon became a generic name identifying a unique act in the circus world. The bagonghi was not a simple “midget clown”, but a complete artist:

The bagonghi does not merely display his deformity, he performs – leaping, juggling, jesting; and he needs, therefore, like any other actor or clown, talent, devotion and long practice of his art. But he also must be from the beginning monstrous and afflicted, which is to say, pathetic. Indeed, there is a pop mythology dear to Italian journalists which insists on seeing all bagonghi as victims of their roles.

(L. Fiedler, Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self, 1978)

A few examples: the bagonghi Giuseppe Rambelli, known as Goliath, was an acrobat as well as an equestrian vaulter; Andrea Bernabè, born in Faenza in 1850, performed as an acrobat on the carpet, a magician, a juggler; Giuseppe Bignoli, born in 1892 – certainly the most famous bagonghi in history – was considered one of the best acrobatic riders tout court, so much so that many circuses were fighting for the chance to book him.

Giuseppe Bignoli (1893-1939)

After the war Francesco Medori and Mario Bolzanella, both employed in the Circo Togni, became famous; the first, a skillful stunter, died trying to tame a terrible fire in 1951; the second hit the headlines when he married Lina Traverso, who was also a little person, and above all when the news brok that a jealous circus chimpazee had scratched the bride in the face. A comic and grotesque scene, perfectly fitting with the classical imagery of the bagonghi, who

can be considered as a sort of Harlequin born between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, and that quickly became a typical character, like those of the commedia dell’arte. The bagonghi is therefore a sort of modern masked “type” that first appeared and was developed within the Italian circus world, and then spread worldwide.

(M. Fini, Fenomeni da baraccone. Miti e avventure dei grandi circensi italiani, Italica Edizioni, 2013)

Going back to our Rita Fanari, we can understand why her career as a “great phenomenon of nature” was decidedly unusual and way too old for a time when the audience had already started to favor the show of diversity (a theatrical, choreographic performance) over its simple exhibition.

The fact that her act was more rudimentary than those performed in the rest of Italy can be undoubtedly explained with the rural context she lived in, and with her visual impairment. A handicap that, despite being advertised as a doubtful added value, actually did not allow her to show off any other skill other than to put the thread through the needle’s eye and start sewing. Not exactly a dazzling sight.
Rita was inevitably the last among the many successful dwarfs, little people like her who in those years were having a huge success under the Big Top, and who sometimes got very rich ( “I spent my whole life amassing a fortune”, Bignoli wrote in his last letter). As she was cut off from actual show business, and incapacitated by her disability, her luck was much more modest; so much so that her very existence would certainly have been forgotten, if a few years ago Dr. Raimondo Orru, the descendant and namesake of her benefactor, had not found some details of her life in the family archives.

But those very circumstances that prevented her from keeping up with the times, also made her “the last one” in a more meaningful sense. Perhaps because of the rustic agro-pastoral context, her act was very old-fashioned. In fact, hers may have been the last historical case in Italy of a person with dwarfism exhibited as a pure lusus naturae, an exotic “freak of nature”, a prodigy to parade and display.
In mainland Italy, as we said, things were already changing. Midgets and dwarfs, well before any other “different” or disabled person, had to prove their desire to overcome their condition, making a show of their skills and courage, performing exceptional stunts.
Along with this idea, and with the definitive pathologization of physical anomalies during the twentieth century, the mythological aura surrounding exceptional, uneven bodies will be lost; and a gaze of pity/admiration will become established. Today, the spectacle of disability is only accepted in these two modes — it’s either tragedy, the true motor of charity events and telethons, or the exemplum, the heroic overcoming of the disabled person’s own “limits”, with all the plethora of inspirational, motivational, life-affirming anecdotes that come with it.

It is impossible to know precisely how the villagers considered Rita at the time. Was she the object of ridicule, or wonder?
The only element available to us, that billboard from 1907, definitely shows her as an admirable creature in herself. In this sense Rita was really someone out of the past, because she presented herself in the public eye just for what she was. The last of the dwarfs of times past, who had the capacity to fascinate without having to do acrobatics: she needed nothing more than herself and her extraordinary figure, half old half child, to be at least considered worthy the price of admission.

On the ethics of our approach to disability, check out my article Freaks: Gaze and Disability.
I would like to thank Stefano Pisu, beacuse all the info on Rita Fanari in this article come from a Facebook post he wrote on the page of the Associazione culturale Julia Augusta di Usellus.
Pictures of the original billboard are shown here courtesy of Raimondo Orru; his findings on Rita’s life are included in the book Usellus. Costume popolare e matrimonio (Edizioni Grafica del Parteolla, 2000).

Ship of Fools: The Deviant’s Exile and Other Wrecks

In 1494 in Basel, Sebastian Brant published Ship of Fools (Das Narrenschiff). It is a satirical poem divided into 112 chapters, containing some beautiful woodcuts attributed to Albrecht Dürer.

The image of a boat whose crew is composed entirely of insane men was already widespread in Europe at the time, from Holland to Austria, and it appeared in several poems starting from the XIII Century. Brant used it with humorous and moralistic purposes, devoting each chapter to one foolish passenger, and making a compilation of human sins, faults and vices.

Each character becomes the expression of a specific human “folly” – greed, gambling, gluttony, adultery, gossip, useless studies, usury, sensual pleasure, ingratitude, foul language, etc. There are chapters for those who disobey their physician’s orders, for the arrogants who constantly correct others, for those who willingly put themselves at risk, for those who feel superior, for those who cannot keep a secret, for men who marry old women for inheritance, for those who go out at night singing and playing instuments when it’s time to rest.

Brant’s vision is fierce, even if partly mitigated by a carnivalesque style; in fact the ship of fools is clearly related to the Carnival – which could take its name from the carrus navalis (“ship-like cart”), a festive processional wagon built in shape of a boat.
The Carnival was the time of year where the “sacred” reversal took place, when every excess was allowed, and high priests and powerful noblemen could be openly mocked through pantomimes and wild travesties: these “ships on wheels”, loaded with masks and grotesque characters, effectively brought some kind of madness into the streets. But these celebrations were accepted only because they were limited to a narrow timeframe, a permitted transgression which actually reinforced the overall equilibrium.

Foucault, who wrote about the ship of fools in his History of Madness, interprets it as the symbol of one of the two great non-programmatic strategies used throughout the centuries in order to fight the perils of epidemics (and, generically speaking, the danger of Evil lurking within society).

On one hand there is the concept of the Stultifera Navis, the ship of fools, consisting in the marginalization of anything that’s considered unhealable. The boats full of misfits, lunatics and ne’er-do-wells perhaps really existed: as P. Barbetta wrote, “crazy persons were expelled from the cities, boarded on ships to be abandoned elsewhere, but the captain often threw them in the water or left them on desolate islands, where they died. Many drowned.


The lunatic and the leper were exiled outside the city walls by the community, during a sort of grand purification ritual:

The violent act through which they are removed from the life of the polis retroactively defines the immunitary nature of the Community of normal people. The lunatic is in fact considered taboo, a foreign body that needs to be purged, rejected, excluded. Sailors then beome their keepers: to be stowed inside the Stultifera navis and abandoned in the water signifies the need for a symbolic purifying ritual but also an emprisonment with no hope of redention. The apparent freedom of sailing without a course is, in reality, a kind of slavery from which it is impossible to escape.

(M. Recalcati, Scacco alla ragione, Repubblica, 29-05-16)

On the other hand, Foucault pinpoints a second ancient model which resurfaced starting from the end of the XVII Century, in conjunction with the ravages of the plague: the model of the inclusion of plague victims.
Here society does not instinctively banish a part of the citizens, but instead plans a minute web of control, to establish who is sick and who is healthy.
Literature and theater have often described plague epidemics as a moment when all rules explode, and chaos reigns; on the contrary, Foucault sees in the plague the moment when a new kind of political power is established, a “thorough, obstacle-free power, a power entirely transparent to its object; a power that is fully exercised” (from Abnormal).
The instrument of quarantine is implemented; daily patrols are organized, citizens are controlled district after district, house after house, even window after window; the population is submitted to a census and divided to its minimum terms, and those who do not show up at the headcount are excluded from their social status in a “surgical” manner.

This is why this second model shows the sadeian traits of absolute control: a plagued society is the delight of those who dream of a military society.

A real integration of madness and deviance was never considered.

Still today, the truly scandalous figures (as Baudrillard pointed out in Simulachra and Simulation) are the mad, the child and the animal – scandalous, because they do not speak. And if they don’t talk, if they exist outside of the logos, they are dangerous: they need to be denied, or at least not considered, in order to avoid the risk of jeopardising the boundaries of culture.
Therefore children are not deemed capable of discernment, are not considered fully entitled individuals and obviously do not have a voice in important decisions; animals, with their mysterious eyes and their unforgivable mutism, need to be always subjugated; the mad, eventually, are relegated abord their ship bound to get lost among the waves.

We could perhaps add to Baudrillard’s triad of “scandals” one more problematic category, the Foreigner – who speaks a language but it’s not our language, and who since time immemorial was seen alternatively as a bringer of innovation or of danger, as a “freak of nature” (and thus included in bestiaries and accounts of exotic marvels) or as a monstrum which was incompatible with an advanced society.

The opposition between the city/terra firma, intended as the Norm, and the maritime exhile of the deviant never really disappeared.

But getting back to Brant’s satire, that Narrenschiff which established the ship allegory in the collective unconscious: we could try to interpret it in a less reactionary or conformist way.
In fact taking a better look at the crowd of misfits, madmen and fools, it is difficult not to identify at least partially with some of the ship’s passengers. It’s not by chance that in the penultimate chapter the author included himself within the senseless riffraff.

That’s why we could start to doubt: what if the intent of the book wasn’t to simply ridicule human vices, but rather to build a desperate metaphore of our existential condition? What if those grotesque, greedy and petulant faces were our own, and dry land didn’t really exist?
If that’s the case – if we are the mad ones –, what caused our madness?

There is a fifth, last kind of “scandalous-because-silent” interlocutors, with which we have much, too much in common: they are the corpses.

And within the memento mori narrative, laughing skeletons are functional characters as much as Brant’s floating lunatics. In the danse macabre, each of the skeletons represents his own specific vanity, each one exhibits his own pathetic mundane pride, his aristocratic origin, firmly convinced of being a prince or a beggar.

Despite all the ruses to turn it into a symbol, to give it some meaning, death still brings down the house of cards. The corpse is the real unhealable obscene, because it does not communicate, it does not work or produce, and it does not behave properly.
From this perspective the ship of fools, much larger than previously thought, doesn’t just carry vicious sinners but the whole humanity: it represents the absurdity of existence which is deprived of its meaning by death. When faced with this reality, there are no more strangers, no more deviants.

What made us lose our minds was a premonition: that of the inevitable shipwreck.
The loss of reason comes with realizing that our belief that we can separate ourselves from nature, was a sublime illusion. “Mankind – in Brecht’s words is kept alive by bestial acts“. And with a bestial act, we die.

The ancient mariner‘s glittering eye has had a glimpse of the truth: he discovered just how fragile the boundary is between our supposed rationality and all the monsters, ghosts, damnation, bestiality, and he is condemned to forever tell his tale.

The humanity, maddened by the vision of death, is the one we see in the wretches embarked on the raft of the Medusa; and Géricault‘s great intuition, in order to study the palette of dead flesh, was to obtain and bring to his workshop some real severed limbs and human heads – reduction of man to a cut of meat in a slaughterhouse.

Even if in the finished painting the horror is mitigated by hope (the redeeming vessel spotted on the horizon), hope certainly wasn’t what sparked the artist’s interest, or gave rise to the following controversies. The focus here is on the obscene flesh, the cannibalism, the bestial act, the Panic that besieges and conquers, the shipwreck as an orgy where all order collpases.

Water, water everywhere“: mad are those who believe they are sane and reasonable, but maddened are those who realize the lack of meaning, the world’s transience… In this unsolvable dilemma lies the tragedy of man since the Ecclesiastes, in the impossibility of making a rational choice

We cannot be cured from this madness, we cannot disembark from this ship.
All we can do is, perhaps, embrace the absurd, enjoy the adventurous journey, and marvel at those ancient stars in the sky.

Brant’s Das Narrenschiff di Brant si available online in its original German edition, or in a 1874 English translation in two volumes (1 & 2), or on Amazon.

Neapolitan Ritual Food

by Michelangelo Pascali

Everybody knows Italian cuisine, but few are aware that several traditional dishes hold a symbolic meaning. Guestblogger Michelangelo Pascali uncovers the metaphorical value of some Neapolitan recipes.

Neapolitan culture shows a dense symbology that accompanies the preparation and consumption of certain dishes, mostly for propitiatory purposes, during heartfelt ritual holidays. These very ancient holidays, some of which were later converted to Christian holidays, are linked to the passage of time and to the seasons of life.
The symbolic meaning of ritual food can sometimes refer to the cyclic nature of life, or to some exceptional social circumstances.

One of the most well-known “devotional courses” is certainly the white and crunchy torrone, which is eaten during the festivities for the Dead, between the end of October and the beginning of November. The almonds on the inside represent the bones of the departed which are to be absorbed in an vaguely cannibal perspective (as with Mexican sugar skeletons). The so-called torrone dei morti (“torrone of the Dead”) can also traditionally be squared-shaped, its white paste covered with dark chocolate to mimick the outline of a tavùto (“casket”).

The rhombus-shaped decorations on the pastiera, an Easter cake, together with the wheat forming its base, are meant to evoke the plowed fields and the coming of the mild season, more favorable for life.


The rebirth of springtime, after the “death” of winter, finds another representation in the casatiello, the traditional Easter Monday savory pie, that has to be left to rise for an entire night from dusk till dawn. Its ring-like shape is a reminder of the circular nature of time, as seen by the ancient agricultural, earthbound society (and therefore quite distant, in many ways, from the linear message of Christian religion); the inside cheese and sausages once again represent the dead, buried in the ground. But the real peculiarity, here, is the emerging of some eggs from the pie, protected by a “cross” made of crust: a bizarre element, which would have no reason to be there were it not an allegory of birth — in fact, the eggs are placed that way to suggest a movement that goes “from the underground to the surface“, or “from the Earth to the Sky“.

In the Neapolitan Christmas Eve menu, “mandatory courses are still called ‘devotions’, just like in ancient Greek sacred banquets”, and “the obligation of lean days is turned into its very opposite” (M. Niola, Il sacrificio del capitone, in Repubblica, 15/12/2013).
The traditional Christmas dinner is carried out along the lines of ancient funerary dinners (with the unavoidable presence of dried fruit and seafood), and it also has the function of consuming the leftovers before the arrival of a new year, as for example in the menestra maretata (‘married soup’).

But the main protagonist is the capitone, the huge female eel. This fish has a peculiar reproduction cycle (on the account of its migratory habits) and is symbolically linked to the Ouroboros. The capitone‘s affinity with the snake, an animal associated with the concept of time in many cultures, is coupled with its being a water animal, therefore providing a link to the most vital element.
The capitone is first bred and raised within the family, only to be killed by the family members themselves (in a ritual that even allows for the animal to “escape”, if it manages to do so): an explicit ritual sacrifice carried out inside the community.

While still alive, the capitone is cut into pieces and thrown in boiling oil to be fried, as each segment still frantically writhes and squirms: in this preparation, it is as if the infinite moving cycle was broken apart and then absorbed. The snake as a metaphor of Evil seems to be a more recent symbology, juxtaposed to the ancient one.

Then there are the struffoli, spherical pastries covered in honey — a precious ingredient, so much so that the body of Baby Jesus is said to be a “honey-dripping rock” — candied fruit and diavulilli (multi-colored confetti); we suppose that in their aspect they might symbolize a connection with the stars. These pastries are indeed offered to the guests during Christmas season, an important cosmological moment: Macrobius called the winter solstice “the door of the Gods“, as under the Capricorn it becomes possible for men to communicate with divinities. It is the moment in which many Solar deities were born, like the Persian god Mitra, the Irish demigod Cú Chulainn, or the Greek Apollo — a pre-Christian protector of Naples, whose temple was found where the Cathedral now is. And the Saint patron Januarius, whose blood is collected right inside the Cathedral, is symbolically close to Apollo himself.
Of course the Church established the commemoration of Christ’s birth in the proximity of the solstice, whereas it was first set on January 6:  the Earth reaches its maximum distance from the Sunon the 21st of December, and begins to get closer to it after three days.

The sfogliatella riccia, on the other hand, is an allusion to the shape of the female reproductive organ, the ‘valley of fire’ (this is the translation of its Neapolitan common nickname, which has a Greek etymology). It is said to date back to the time when orgiastic rites were performed in Naples, where they were widespread for over a millennium and a half after the coming of the Christian Era, carried out in several peculiar places such as the caves of the Chiatamone. This pastry was perhaps invented to provide high energetic intake to the orgy participants.

Lastly, an exquistely mundane motivation is behind the pairing of chiacchiere and sanguinaccio.
Chiacchiere look like tongues, or like those strings of paper where, in paintings and bas-relief, the words of the speaking characters were inscribed; and their name literally means “chit-chat”. The sanguinaccio is a sort of chocolate black pudding which was originally prepared with pig’s blood (but not any more).
During the Carnival, the only real profane holiday that is left, the association between these two desserts sounds like a code of silence: it warns and cautions not to contaminate with ordinary logic the subversive charge of this secular rite, which is completely egalitarian (Carnival masks hide our individual identity, making us both unrecognizable and also indistinguishable from each other).
What happens during Carnival must stay confined within the realm of Carnival — on penalty of “tongues being drowned in blood“.

Testa di Legno

Melvin Burkhardt è stato, a suo modo, una leggenda. Ha lavorato nei principali luna park e circhi americani dagli anni ’20 fino al suo ritiro dalle scene nel 1989.

Nel mondo dei sideshow americani, lo spettacolo di Mel faceva parte dei cosiddetti working act, ossia quelle esibizioni incentrate sulle abilità dell’artista piuttosto che sulle sue deformità genetiche o acquisite. Ma quello che davvero lo distingueva da tanti altri performer specializzati in una singola prodezza, era l’incredibile ecletticità del suo talento: nella sua lunghissima carriera, Burkhardt ha ingoiato spade, lanciato coltelli, sputato fuoco, combattuto serpenti, eseguito innovativi numeri di magia, resistito allo shock della sedia elettrica.

melvin-burkhart

È stato anche la prima “Meraviglia Anatomica” della storia del circo, grazie alla sua capacità di risucchiare lo stomaco dentro la gabbia toracica, allungare il collo oltre misura, far protrudere le scapole in maniera grottesca, torcere la testa quasi a 180°, “rigirare” lo stomaco sul suo stesso asse. Mel sapeva anche sorridere con metà faccia, mentre l’altra metà si accigliava preoccupata (provate a coprire alternativamente con una mano la foto qui sotto per rendervi conto della sua incredibile abilità).

Le sue specialità erano talmente tante che, durante la Grande Depressione, Burkhardt riuscì a sostenere da solo ben 9 dei 14 numeri proposti dal circo per cui lavorava. Praticamente un one-man show, tanto che alle volte qualcuno fra il pubblico lo punzecchiava ironicamente gridandogli: “Vedremo qualcun altro, stasera, oltre a te?”
Ma il suo maggiore contributo alla storia dei circhi itineranti è senza dubbio il numero chiamato The Human Blockhead – ovvero, la “Testa di Legno Umana”. La genesi di questo stunt, come tutto quello che concerneva Burkhardt, è piuttosto eccentrica. Ad un certo punto della sua vita, Melvin si era lasciato prendere dalla velleità di diventare un pugile professionista; purtroppo però, dopo la sesta sconfitta consecutiva, si ritrovò con i denti rotti, il labbro tumefatto e il naso completamente fracassato. Finito sotto i ferri del chirurgo, Burkhardt stava contemplando la rovina della sua carriera agonistica mentre il medico, con pinze ed altri strumenti, estraeva dalle sue cavità nasali dei sanguinolenti pezzi di osso. Eppure, mentre veniva operato, ecco che piano piano si faceva strada in lui un’illuminazione: i lunghi attrezzi del medico entravano così facilmente nel naso per rimuovere i frammenti di turbinati fratturati, che forse si poteva sfruttare questa scoperta e costruirci attorno un numero!

Detto fatto: Melvin Burkhardt divenne il primo performer ad esibirsi nell’impressionante atto di piantarsi a martellate un chiodo nel naso.

Lo spettacolo dello Human Blockhead fa leva sulla concezione errata che le nostre narici salgano verso l’alto, percorrendo la cartilagine fino all’attaccatura del naso: l’anatomia ci insegna invece che la cavità nasale si apre direttamente dietro i fori del naso, in orizzontale. Un chiodo o un altro oggetto abbastanza sottile da non causare lesioni interne può essere inserito nel setto nasale senza particolari danni.

chiodo_3

Proprio come accade per i mangiatori di spade, non c’è quindi alcun trucco: si tratta in questo caso di comprendere fino a dove si può spingere il chiodo, come inclinarlo e quale forza applicare. La parte più lunga e difficile sta nell’allenarsi a controllare ed inibire il riflesso dello starnuto, che potrebbe risultare estremamente pericoloso; altri rischi includono infezioni alle fosse nasali, ai seni paranasali e alla gola, rottura dei turbinati, lacerazioni della mucosa e via dicendo (nei casi più estremi si potrebbe arrivare addirittura a danneggiare lo sfenoide). Un lungo periodo di pratica e di studio del proprio corpo è necessario per imparare tutte le mosse necessarie.

human-block-head-3

Mel Burkhardt, però, non era affatto geloso delle sue invenzioni, anzi: con generosità davvero inusuale per il cinico mondo dello show business, insegnava tutti i suoi trucchi ai giovani performer. Così, lo Human Blockhead divenne uno dei grandi classici della tradizione circense, replicato ed eseguito infinite volte nelle decadi successive.

Magic-Brian-and-Tyler-Fyre-perform-The-Human-Blockhead-pic-by-Mitchell-Klein

Anche oggi, dopo che nel 2001 Melvin Burkhardt ci ha lasciato all’età di 94 anni, innumerevoli performer e fachiri continuano a piantarsi chiodi nel naso, nella cornice degli ultimi, rari sideshow – così come nella loro moderna controparte, i talent show televisivi da “guinness dei primati”. Moltissime le varianti rispetto al vecchio e risaputo chiodo: c’è chi nel naso inserisce coltelli, trapani elettrici funzionanti, lecca-lecca, ganci da macellaio, e chi più ne ha più ne metta. Ma nessuno di questi numeri può replicare la sorniona e consumata verve del vecchio Mel Burkhardt che, a chi gli chiedeva se ci fosse un trucco o un segreto, rispondeva serafico: “Uso un naso finto”.

La biblioteca delle meraviglie – III

FREAKS – LA COLLEZIONE AKIMITSU NARUYAMA

(2000, Logos)

Ovvero “Lo Sfruttamento Delle Anomalie Fisiche Nei Circhi E Negli Spettacoli Itineranti”.

L’impressionante collezione fotografica di meraviglie umane di Naruyama è un vero tesoro. Immagini storiche, di un’importanza eccezionale, raccolte in un libricino che, pur non offrendo un approfondito background storico, ha il potere di stregare il lettore grazie alla bellezza delle illustrazioni. Dai Lillipuziani alla Meraviglia Senza Braccia, dai Bambini Aztechi ai ragazzi-leone, tutti i più famosi freaks vissuti a cavallo fra diciannovesimo e ventesimo secolo sono presenti nella raccolta; molte delle fotografie sono infatti relative agli spettacoli circensi e alle fiere itineranti americane in cui questi artisti si esibivano. Dopo lo show, un’ulteriore fonte di profitto erano proprio le fotografie che venivano vendute al pubblico, autografate. Per quanto l’esibizione della deformità all’interno dei carnivals americani sia un capitolo affascinante della storia dello spettacolo moderno, questo prezioso libro però, così focalizzato com’è sui ritratti, offre qualcosa di diverso.

La raccolta documenta un’epoca e una società attraverso i suoi corpi meno fortunati, e allo stesso tempo nello scorrere le pagine avvertiamo l’atemporalità di queste anomalie: nell’antichità come nell’epoca moderna, certi uomini hanno dovuto sopportare il fardello di fattezze eccezionali, spesso temuti ed emarginati. Eppure, se è vero che ogni uomo è specchio per il suo prossimo, fissando gli occhi di questi nostri fratelli dai corpi stupefacenti ci accorgiamo che il loro sguardo rimanda il riflesso più puro e vero.

Alex Boese

ELEFANTI IN ACIDO E ALTRI BIZZARRI ESPERIMENTI

(2009, Baldini Castoldi Dalai)

Una buona parte degli articoli di Bizzarro Bazar contenuti nella sezione “Scienza anomala” nasconde un debito verso questo splendido libro. Boese raccoglie, in forma divulgativa e spesso scanzonata, gli esperimenti scientifici più improbabili, sconcertanti, risibili – e, talvolta, illuminanti. Chi pensa che gli scienziati siano persone serie e compite, sempre nascosti dietro provette o lavagne piene di equazioni impossibili, farebbe meglio a ricredersi: l’immagine della scienza che esce dalle pagine di Elefanti in acido è quella di una disciplina viva, fantasiosa, sempre pronta a prendere le strade meno battute, anche a costo di errori madornali e vergognosi fallimenti. In definitiva, una disciplina molto più umana (nel bene o nel male) di come viene normalmente rappresentata.

Molti di questi esperimenti sono spassosi in quanto, a una prima occhiata, totalmente inconcludenti. Dai ricercatori del titolo, che somministrano a un elefante una potentissima dose di LSD, fino allo psicologo che in automobile resta fermo quando scatta il semaforo verde soltanto per cronometrare quanto ci mette l’autista dietro di lui a suonare il clacson, per finire con gli scienziati che costruiscono uno stadio per le corse degli scarafaggi, il tempo perso dagli studiosi in progetti dagli esiti comici può sconcertare. Eppure, come ricorda l’autore, non sempre la scienza ricerca soltanto le risposte alle nobili e grandi domande. Ogni tassello, per quanto insignificante possa sembrare, contribuisce a comprendere qualcosa di più del mondo in cui viviamo. È vero che gli uomini preferiscono le donne difficili da conquistare? Se cadessimo in un pozzo, il nostro cane verrebbe a salvarci? Perché non riusciamo a farci il solletico da soli?

I ricercatori le cui vicende sono narrate in Elefanti in acido hanno una fiducia smisurata nel metodo scientifico, e non esitano ad applicarlo a quesiti di questo tenore. Anche se, come nel caso dello scienziato che si incaponisce a contare tutti i peli pubici dei suoi colleghi, questa fiducia sembra talvolta divenire talmente cieca da non accorgersi dell’assurdità della ricerca stessa. E anche questo è molto umano.

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!

Elmer McCurdy

Chi è appassionato di storia dei carnivals (i luna-park itineranti, attivi dall’Ottocento fino a pochi decenni fa) conoscerà senza dubbio la grande tradizione americana dei cosiddetti sideshow: si trattava, come dice il nome, di attrazioni secondarie – non cioè delle vere e proprie giostre, ma molto spesso dei piccoli “musei” contenenti meraviglie vere o presunte tali, fino ai veri e propri gaff, dei falsi ricostruiti con cura. Si trovava di tutto, nei sideshow: dalle sirene delle isole Fiji mummificate, al cervello di Hitler sotto formalina, ad esemplari di mucche con due teste, alla macchina in cui morirono Bonnie e Clyde, ai vari freak deformi (freakshow).

Quello che invece pochi ricordano è il nome di Elmer McCurdy. La sua storia, assurta poi a livello di leggenda urbana, è invece effettivamente accaduta.

Elmer McCurdy fu ucciso da un sottoposto dello sceriffo sul confine tra Oklahoma e Kansas nel 1911 a causa di una rapina al treno che gli aveva fruttato 46 dollari e due damigiane di whiskey. Essendo un ubriacone e un fallito, nessuno reclamò la salma.

Il coroner locale, nel frattempo, ebbe l’idea di esibire il suo cadavere imbalsamato al costo di 5 cents per persona. I visitatori dovevano far scivolare le monete fra le labbra del morto – vi lascio immaginare come i soldi venissero recuperati dall’imbalsamatore.

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Per i primi anni, McCurdy stette in piedi in un angolo dell’obitorio, finché due impresari di luna-park si finsero suoi fratelli e reclamarono il corpo.

Saltiamo ora al 1976: una troupe televisiva del programma The Six Million Dollar Man stava effettuando delle riprese nel parco divertimenti di Pike a Long Beach, California. All’interno dell’attrazione della casa dei fantasmi, un membro della troupe per errore staccò un braccio al manichino di un impiccato, rivelando al suo interno ossa umane mummificate. I proprietari dell’attrazione restarono sconvolti, dato che erano i primi ad essere convinti che si trattasse semplicemente di un manichino. La realistica mummia era in realtà, l’avrete capito, il vecchio Elmer, la cui storia fu poi ricostruita a ritroso fra fiere, parchi divertimenti, luna-park e sideshow differenti: un passaggio di mano in mano del macabro “accessorio di scena” protrattosi per così tanto tempo (cinque decadi) da far scordare la sua vera origine.

Elmermccurdy

Si dice anche che quando fu finalmente seppellito nel 1977 a Guthrie, Oklahoma, venne versata una colata di cemento sulla sua bara per impedire che qualcuno lucrasse ancora sul povero corpo di Elmer McCurdy.

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