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

Links, curiosities & mixed wonders – 10

Here’s another plate of fresh links and random weirdness to swallow in one bite, like the above frog did with a little snake.

  • In Madagascar there is a kind of double burial called famadihana: somewhat similar to the more famous Sulawesi traditionfamadihana consists in exhuming the bodies of the departed, equipping them with a new and clean shroud, and then burying them again. But not before having enjoyed one last, happy dance with the dead relative.

  • Whining about your writer’s block? Francis van Helmont, alchemist and close friend of  famed philosopher Leibniz, was imprisoned by the Inquisition and wrote a book in between torture sessions. Besides obviously being a tough guy, he also had quite original ideas: according to his theory, ancient Hebrew letters were actually diagrams showing how lips and mouth should be positioned in order to pronounce the same letters. God, in other words, might have “printed” the Hebrew alphabet inside our very anatomy.

  • Reason #4178 to love Japan: giant rice straw sculptures.
  • At the beginning of the last century, it was legal to send babies through the mail in the US. (Do we have a picture? Of course we do.)

  • In France, on the other hand, around the year 1657 children were eager to play a nice little game called Fart-In-The-Face (“Back in my day, we had one toy, and it was our…“).

  • James Ballard was passionate for what he called “invisible literature”: sales recepits, grocery lists, autopsy reports, assembly instructions, and so on. I find a similar thrill in seeking 19th-century embalming handbooks: such technical, professional publications, if read today, always have a certain surreal je ne sais quoi. And sometimes they also come with exceptional photographs, like these taken from a 1897 book.

  • In closing, I would like to remind you of two forthcoming appointments: on October 29, at 7pm, I will be in Rome at Giufà Libreria Caffe’ to present Tabula Esmeraldina, the latest visionary work by my Chilean friend Claudio Romo.
    On November 3-5, you will find me at Lucca Comics & Games, stand NAP201, signing copies of Paris Mirabilia and chatting with readers of Bizzarro Bazar. See you there!

 

Children of the Grave

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

(S. Beckett, Aspettando Godot)

An Italian Horror Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buried Alive?

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

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

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

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

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

Coffin Birth

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

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

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

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

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

Life In Death

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

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

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

Nascentes morimur, finisque ab origine pendet.

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

Fumone, the invisible castle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is Castle of Fumone‘s official site.

Mater incerta

In 2002 Lydia Fairchild, a 26-year-old woman living in Washington state, was already a mother of two kids, with a third one on her way, and without a steady job; she had decided to seek public assistance.
The procedure required her children to undergo DNA testing to confirm that their father was indeed Jamie Townsend, Fairchild’s former partner. It should have been a routine check, but some days later the woman received a strange call, asking her to come in the prosecutor’s office at Social Services.
And that is when her world almost fell apart.

Once she went in, the officers closed the door behind her and started drilling her: “Who are you?”, they kept asking her repeatedly, without her understanding what was going on.
The reason behind the relentless questioning was absolutely unpredictable: the DNA tests had proven that Jamie Townsend was actually the children’s father… but Lydia was not their mother.

Although the woman kept repeating that she had carried and delivered them, the results categorically excluded this possibility: the genetic profiles of her children were in fact made up for one half from their father’s chromosomes, and for the other half from the chromosomes of an unknown woman. Lydia Fairchild was facing the risk of having her kids taken away from her.
Before the woman’s despair, Social Services ordered a new test, which gave exactly the same results. Lydia showed no genetic link with her children.

During the following 16 months, things got worse. The officers launched court action to remove her custody rights, as this could turn out to be a case of abduction, and the state even had a court officer witness her third child’s delivery, so that DNA test could be run immediately after birth. Once again, the newborn baby showed no genes in common with Lydia, who then became a suspect of acting as a surrogate for payment (which in Washington state is considered gross misdemeanor).
Lydia Fairchild was living a true nightmare: “I’d sit and have dinner with my kids and just break out crying. They would just look at me like, ‘What’s wrong, Mum.’ They’d come get me a hug, and I couldn’t explain it to them, because I didn’t understand“.

Her lawyer Alan Tindell, though initially perplexed by the case, decided to investigate and one day stumbled upon a similar story that happened in Boston, as described in a paper on the New England Journal of Medicine: a 52-year-old woman, Karen Keegan, had undergone a hystological exam in view of a transplant, and the results had shown no link between her DNA and her children’s.
Quite often the solution for the most intricate mysteries turn out to be disappointing, but in this case the explanation was just as incredible.
The lawyer understood that, just like the mother the scientific paper was about, Lydia too was a chimera.

Tetragametic chimerism happens when two egg cells are fertilized by two different sperm cells and, instead of developing into two fraternal twins, they fuse together at a very early stage. The chimeric individual is equipped with two different genetic makeups, and can develop whole organs having different chromosomes from all the others. Most chimeras do not even know they are, because the existence of two cellular lines is not often noticeable; but they carry inside them for instance the liver, or some other gland, that should have been part of their unborn twin.
In Fairchild’s case, the “foreign” organs were her ovaries. Inside of them were hidden those unknown chromosomes that formed the genetic makeup of Lydias’s children, as was confirmed by the examination of the cells obtained via pap test.

Finally the court dismissed the case. In the court hearing, the judge openly wondered how reliable could DNA tests be, as they are even today held essential in forensic cases — but what if the criminal is a chimera?
Today Lydia Fairchild is back to her normal life, leaving this terrible adventure behind. And some years ago she gave birth to her fourth daughter; or, if you will, the fourth daughter of that sister she never had.

The New England Journal of Medicine paper mentioned in the post can be read here. To discover some less-known istances of chimerism, I suggest this articolo.

Balthus’ adolescents

Art should comfort the disturbed,
and disturb the comfortable.

(Cesar A. Cruz)

Until January 31 2016 it is possible to visit the Balthus retrospective in Rome, which is divided in two parts, a most comprehensive exhibit being held at the Scuderie del Quirinale, and a second part in Villa Medici focusing on the artist’s creative process and giving access to the rooms the painter renovated and lived in during his 16 years as director of the Academy of France.

In many ways Balthus still remains an enigmatic figure, so unswervingly antimodernist to keep the viewer at distance: his gaze, always directed to the Renaissance (Piero della Francesca above all), is matched by a constant and meticulous research on materials, on painting itself before anything else. Closely examined, his canvas shows an immense plastic work on paint, applied in uneven and rugged strokes, but just taking a few steps back this proves to be functional to the creation of that peculiar fine dust always dancing within the light of his compositions, that kind of glow cloaking figures and objects and giving them a magical realist aura.

Even if the exhibit has the merit of retracing the whole spectrum of influences, experimentations and different themes explored by the painter in his long (but not too prolific) career, the paintings he created from the 30s to the 50s are unquestionably the ones that still remain in the collective unconscious. The fact that Balthus is not widely known and exhibited can be ascribed to the artist’s predilection for adolescent subjects, often half-undressed young girls depicted in provocative poses. In Villa Medici are presented some of the infamous polaroids which caused a German exhibit to close last year, with accusations of displaying pedophilic material.

The question of Balthus’ alleged pedophilia — latent or not — is one that could only arise in our days, when the taboo regarding children has grown to unprecedented proportions; and it closely resembles the shadows cast over Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, guilty of taking several photographs of little girls (pictures that Balthus, by the way, adored).

But if some of his paintings cause such an uproar even today, it may be because they bring up something subtly unsettling. Is this eroticism, pornography, or something else?

Trying to find a perfect definition separating eroticism from pornography is an outdated exercise. More interesting is perhaps the distinction made by Angela Carter (a great writer actively involved in the feminist cause) in her essay The Sadeian Woman, namely the contrast between reactionary pornography and “moral” (revolutionary) pornography.

Carter states that pornography, despite being obscene, is largely reactionary: it is devised to comfort and strenghten stereotypes, reducing sexuality to the level of those crude graffiti on the walls of public lavatories. This representation of intercourse inevitably ends up being just an encounter of penises and vaginas, or their analogues/substitutes. What is left out, is the complexity behind every sexual expression, which is actually influenced by economics, society and politics, even if we have a hard time acknowledging it. Being poor, for intance, can limit or deny your chance for a sophisticated eroticism: if you live in a cold climate and cannot afford heating, then you will have to give up on nudity; if you have many children, you will be denied intimacy, and so on. The way we make love is a product of circumstances, social class, culture and several other factors.

Thus, the “moral” pornographer is one who does not back up in the face of complexity, who does not try to reduce it but rather to stress it, even to the detriment of his work’s erotic appeal; in doing so, he distances himself from the pornographic cliché that would want sexual intercourse to be just an abstract encounter of genitals, a shallow and  meaningless icon; in giving back to sexuality its real depth, this pornographer creates true literature, true art. This attitude is clearly subversive, in that it calls into question biases and archetypes that our culture — according to Carter — secretely inoculates in our minds (for instance the idea of the Male with an erect sex ready to invade and conquer, the Female still bleeding every month on the account of the primordial castration that turned her genitals passive and “receptive”, etc.).

In this sense, Carter sees in Sade not a simple satyr but a satirist, the pioneer of this pornography aiming to expose the logic and stereoptypes used by power to mollify and dull people’s minds: in the Marquis’ universe, in fact, sex is always an act of abuse, and it is used as a narrative to depict a social horizon just as violent and immoral. Sade’s vision is certainly not tender towards the powerful, who are described as revolting monsters devoted by their own nature to crime, nor towards the weak, who are guilty of not rebelling to their own condition. When confronting his pornographic production with all that came before and after him, particularly erotic novels about young girls’ sexual education, it is clear how much Sade actually used it in a subversive and taunting way.

Pierre Klossowksi, Balthus’ brother, was one of Sade’s greatest commentators, yet we probably should not assign too much relevance to this connection; the painter’s frirendship with Antonin Artaud could be more enlightening.

Beyond their actual collaborations (in 1934 Artaud reviewed Balthus’ first personal exhibit, and the following year the painter designed costumes and sets for the staging of The Cenci), Artaudian theories can guide us in reading more deeply into Balthus’ most controversial works.

Cruelty was for Artaud a destructive and at the same time enlivening force, essential requisite for theater or for any other kind of art: cruelty against the spectator, who should be violently shaken from his certainties, and cruelty against the artist himself, in order to break every mask and to open the dizzying abyss hidden behind them.

Balthus’ Uncanny is not as striking, but it moves along the same lines. He sees in his adolscents, portrayed in bare bourgeois interiors and severe geometric perspectives, a subversive force — a cruel force, because it referes to raw instincts, to that primordial animalism society is always trying to deny.

Prepuberal and puberal age are the moments in which, once we leave the innocence of childhood behind, the conflict between Nature and Culture enters our everyday life. The child for the first time runs into prohibitions that should, in the mind of adults, create a cut from our wild past: his most undignified instincts must be suppressed by the rules of good behavior. And, almost as if they wanted to irritate the spectators, Balthus’ teenagers do anything but sit properly: they read in unbecoming positions, they precariously lean against the armchair with their thighs open, incorrigibly provocative despite their blank faces.

But is this a sexual provocation, or just ironic disobedience? Balthus never grew tired of repeating that malice lies only in the eyes of the beholder. Because adolescents are still pure, even if for a short time, and with their unaffectedness they reveal the adults inhibitions.

This is the subtle and elegant subversive vein of his paintings, the true reason for which they still cause such an uproar: Balthus’ cruelty lies in showing us a golden age, our own purest soul, the one that gets killed each time an adolescent becomes an adult. His aesthetic and poetic admiration is focused on this glimpse of freedom, on that instant in which the lost diamond of youth sparkles.

And if we want at all costs to find a trace of eroticism in his paintings, it will have to be some kind of “revolutionary” eroticism, like we said earlier, as it insinuates under our skin a complexity of emotions, and definitely not reassuring ones. Because with their cheeky ambiguity Balthus’ girls always leave us with the unpleasant feeling that we might be the real perverts.

Miss Bambina

Una bizzarria assolutamente americana ed oggi molto controversa è quella dei Child Beauty Pageant, ossia dei concorsi di bellezza per bambine – qualcuno di voi se ne ricorderà per via dello splendido film Little Miss Sunshine (2006).

Nati negli anni ’20 ma esplosi negli anni ’60, i concorsi per bambine e teenager di cui stiamo parlando hanno ciascuno regole leggermente diverse, ma tutti prevedono determinate categorie di eventi e “numeri” di vario genere, sulla base dei quali la giuria assegnerà i premi. Proprio come in un regolare concorso di bellezza, ci sono quindi prove di canto o danza, interviste con le candidate, sfilate in abiti sportivi o da spiaggia, ma anche abbigliamento a tema, per esempio in stile “western”, e via dicendo. Di queste bambine si giudicano qualità come il portamento, la fiducia, l’individualità, l’abilità.

Ma il tipo di evento che maggiormente colpisce l’immaginario è quello che vede le bambine sfilare con l’abito da sera. Quello è il momento che tutti attendono, nel quale si deciderà la vera reginetta della serata: le partecipanti si sottopongono anche a diverse ore di preparazione in camerino con una truccatrice professionista. E, infine, salgono sul palco.

Messe in piega elaboratissime (e pacchiane), denti finti, make-up pesantissimo, abbronzature spray, perfette manicure, abiti su misura glamour e kitsch: gli occhi dei genitori brillano di orgoglio, ed è difficile scuotersi di dosso l’angosciante sensazione che queste bambine non siano altro che delle grottesche bamboline lanciate sulla scena proprio per il compiacimento ossessivo di mamma e papà.

Cosa può spingere due genitori a far partecipare la figlia in tenera età ad uno di questi concorsi? Certo, può essere l’ammirazione “cieca” per la propria bambina. Può essere anche che, come dichiarano molti genitori, spedirle sul palco sia un modo per educarle, per migliorare la loro autostima, per insegnare loro a parlare in pubblico… Eppure, c’è anche qualcos’altro.

Ogni anno negli Stati Uniti si svolgono 25.000 concorsi di bellezza per bambine. Le quote di iscrizione vanno da poche centinaia  fino a svariate migliaia di dollari. I vestiti su misura da soli possono costare anche più di 5000$, senza parlare degli accessori di trucco e dei compensi per parrucchiere e make-up artist professioniste. Visti le  spese altissime, le bambine che partecipano a un solo concorso di bellezza praticamente non esistono: se si fa l’investimento, tocca almeno rientrare della spesa.
Così, la maggioranza dei genitori accompagna le figlie da un concorso all’altro, spostandosi di stato in stato, seguendo un calendario serrato ed estenuante. Nonostante per la legge americana i concorsi di bellezza non possano essere considerati un lavoro (e non ricadano quindi nelle leggi sullo sfruttamento del lavoro minorile), per le piccole miss si tratta di un vero e proprio impegno a tempo pieno. I premi e i trofei — talvolta più alti delle vincitrici stesse! — implicano vincite in denaro, contratti con riviste di moda e sponsor, più tutta una galassia di beni di lusso come vestiti, elettronica, ecc.. È un’industria da un miliardo di dollari l’anno.

Per questo motivo la controversia riguardante questi concorsi è tutt’ora aspra. In particolare, si è molto discusso sulla sessualizzazione infantile messa in scena in questi eventi, anche in relazione alla pedofilia. In questo strano e assurdo contesto, infatti, i genitori possono trasformare le loro figliolette di cinque anni in vere e proprie femmes fatales, con rossetti di fuoco e ciglia lunghissime, tacchi alti e abiti da sera. Cercando di fare delle loro bambine proprio quello che terrorizza gli altri genitori: un oggetto del desiderio.