The Erotic Tombs of Madagascar

On the Western coast of Madagascar live the Sakalava people, a rather diverse ethnic group; their population is in fact composed of the descendants of numerous peoples that formed the Menabe Kingdom. This empire reached its peak in the Eighteenth Century, thanks to an intense slave trade with the Arabs and European colonists.

One of the most peculiar aspects of Sakalava culture is undoubtedly represented by the funerary sculptures which adorn burial sites. Placed at the four corners of a grave, these carved wooden posts are often composed by a male and a female figure.
But these effigies have fascinated the Westerners since the 1800s, and for a very specific reason: their uninhibited eroticism.

In the eyes of European colonists, the openly exhibited penises, and the female genitalia which are in some cases stretched open by the woman’s hands, must have already been an obscene sight; but the funerary statues of the Sakalava even graphically represent sexual intercourse.

These sculptures are quite unique even within the context of the notoriously heterogeneous funerary art of Madagascar. What was their meaning?

We could instinctively interpret them in the light of the promiscuity between Eros and Thanatos, thus falling into the trap of a wrongful cultural projection: as Giuseppe Ferrauto cautioned, the meaning of these works “rather than being a message of sinful «lust», is nothing more than a message of fertility” (in Arcana, vol. II, 1970).


A similar opinion is expressed by Jacques Lombard, who extensively ecplained the symbolic value of the Sakalava funerary eroticism:

We could say that two apparently opposite things are given a huge value, in much the same manner, among the Sakalava as well as among all Madagascar ethnic groups. The dead, the ancestors, on one side, and the offspring, the lineage on the other. […] A fully erect – or «open» – sexual organ, far from being vulgar, is on the contrary a form of prayer, the most evident display of religious fervor. In the same way the funerals, which once could go on for days and days, are the occasion for particularly explicit chants where once again love, birth and life are celebrated in the most graphic terms, through the most risqué expressions. In this occasion, women notably engage in verbal manifestations, but also gestural acts, evoking and mimicking sex right beside the grave.
[…] The extended family, the lineage, is the point of contact between the living and the dead but also with all those who will come, and the circle is closed thanks to the meeting with all the ancestors, up to the highest one, and therefore with God and all his children up to the farthest in time, at the heart of the distant future. To honor one’s ancestors, and to generate an offspring, is to claim one’s place in the eternity of the world.

Jacques Lombard, L’art et les ancêtres:
le dialogue avec les morts: l’art sakalava
,
in Madagascar: Arts De La Vie Et De La Survie
(Cahiers de l’ADEIAO n.8, 1989)

One last thing worth noting is the fact that the Sakalava exponentially increased the production of this kind of funerary artifacts at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.
Why?
For a simple reason: in order to satisfy the naughty curiosity of Western tourists.

You can find a comprehensive account of the Sakalava culture on this page.

Bizzarro Bazar a Palermo

Sorry, this entry is only available in Italian.

Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 13

GIF art by Colin Raff

These last times have been quite dense, in the wake of the publication of The Petrifier.
Allow me a breif summary. 1) On the Italian magazine Venerdì di Repubblica a nice article by Giulia Villoresi came out: it starts out by reviewing the book but soon shifts to the wider subject of new aesthetics of the macabre, saving some nice words for this blog. 2) I was featured on the Swiss website Ossarium for their series Death Expert of the Month, and upon answering one of their three questions I recounted a tragic episode that particularly influenced my work. 3) I also took part in The Death Hangout, a podcast + YouTube series in which I chatted for half an hour with hosts Olivier and Keith, discussing museums and disturbing places, the symbolic meaning of human remains, the cruelty and bestiality of death, etc. 4) Carlo Vannini‘s photographs served as an inspiration to the talented Claudia Crobatia of A Course In Dying for her excellent considerations on the morbid but fruitful curiosity of the generation that grew up with websites like Rotten.com.

Let’s start immediately with the links, but not before having revisited a classic 1972 Monty Python sketch, in which Sam Peckinpah, who in those years was quite controversial for his violent westerns, gets to direct a movie about British upper class’ good old days.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LeYznvQvnsY

  • The blog Rocaille – dedicated to the kind of Beauty that lurks in the dark – is one of my favorite virtual spaces. And recently Annalisa visited the wunderkammer Theatrum Mundi (I also wrote about it a while ago), which in turn is one of my favorite concrete spaces. So, you can imagine, I was twice as delighted.
  • Another friend I unconditionally admire is relic hunter Elizabeth Harper, who runs the All The Saints You Should Know website. A few days ago she published a truly exceptional account of the Holy Week processions in Zamora, Spain: during those long days dedicated to the celebration of Christ’s death, she witnessed a paradoxical loosening of social and sexual inhibitions. But is it really a paradox? Maybe not, if, as Georges Bataille pointed out, eroticism is ultimately an anticipation of death itself, which erases individual boundaries. This might be why it is so strictly connected to ecstasy, and to the sacred.

  • Since we’re talking Bataille: in his obscene Story of the Eye, there’s this unforgettable passage where the protagonist Simone slips between her legs the eyeball she tore off the corpse of a priest (the engraving above, inspired by the scene in question , is by Bellmer).
    This eyed vagina, or vagina oculata, is an extreme and repulsive image, but it has an archetypal quality and it is representative of the complex eye/egg analogy that underlies the whole story.
    Following the same juxtaposition between creation (bringing to light) and vision, some have inserted a pinhole camera into the female genitalia. The Brainoise blog talks about it in a fascinating article (Italian only): several artists have in fact tried to use these rudimentary and handcrafted appliances in a Cronenberg-like fusion with the human body.
  • By the way, one of the first posts on Bizzarro Bazar back in 2009 was dedicated to Wayne Martin Belger’s pinhole cameras, which contain organic materials and human remains.
  • Toru Kamei creates beautiful still, or not-so-still, life paintings. Here are some of his works:

  • When it comes to recipes, we Italians can be really exasperating. Post a pic of chicken spaghetti, and in zero time you will be earning many colorful and unlikely names. A food nazi Twitter account.

  • Above is a mummified skeleton found 15 years ago in the Atacama desert of Chile. Many thought — hoped — it would be proved to be of alien origin. DNA tests have shown a much more earthly, and touching, truth.
  • A typical morning in Australia: you wake up, still sleepy, you put your feet down and you realize that one of your slippers has disappeared. Where the heck can it be? You’re sure you left it there last night, beside the other one. You also don’t recall seeing that three-meter python curled up in the bedroom.

  • Everybody knows New Orleans Mardi Gras, but few are familiar with its more visceral version, held each year in several Cajun communities of South Louisiana: the courir de Mardi Gras. Unsettling masks and attires of ancient origin mocking noblemen’s clothes and the clergy, armies of unruly pranksters, bring chaos in the streets and whipped by captains on horseback, sacrificial chickens chased through muddy fields… here are some wonderful black and white photos of this eccentric manifestation. (Thanks, Elisa!)

  • There are several “metamorphic” vanitas, containing a skull that becomes visible only if the image is looked at from a certain distance. This is my favorite one, on the account of the unusual side view and the perfect synthesis of Eros and Thanatos; anybody knows who the artist is? [EDIT: art by Bernhard Gutmann, 1905, “In the midst of life we are in death”. Thanks Roberto!]

  • Country homes in Vermont often feature a special, crooked window that apparently serves no practical purpose. Perhaps they are meant to discourage witches that might be fluttering around the house.
  • My Twitter went a little crazy since I posted the photos of this magnificent goat, found mainly in Siria and Lebanon. The breed is the result of careful genetic selection, and it won several beauty contests for ruminants. And I bet this cutie would break many a heart in the Star Wars Cantina, too.

  • Finally, I would like to leave you with a little gift that I hope is welcome: I created a playlist on Spotify for all readers of Bizzarro Bazar. A very heterogeneous musical offer, but with a common denominator which is ultimately the same underlying this blog: wonder. Whether it’s an experimental indie piece, a dark melody, a tattered and frenzied polka, a nostalgic song, some old blues about death, an ironic and weird reinterpretation of a classic theme, or an example of outsider music played by homeless people and deviant characters, these tunes can surprise you, transport you to unusual soundscapes, sometimes push you out of your comfort zone.
    Each song has been selected for a specific reason I could even explain in a didactic way — but I won’t. I will leave you the pleasure of discovery, and also the freedom to guess why I included this or that.
    The playlist consists of more than 8 hours of music (and I will continue to add stuff), which should be enough for anyone to find a little something, maybe just a starting point for new research and discoveries. Enjoy!

Hidden Eros

Our virtues are most frequently but vices in disguise.

(La Rochefoucauld, Reflections, 1665)

We advocate freedom, against any kind of censorship.
And yet today, sex being everywhere, legitimized, we feel we are missing something. There is in fact a strange paradox about eroticism: the need to have a prohibition, in order to transgress it.
Is sex dirty? Only when it’s being done right“, Woody Allen joked, summarizing how much the orthodox or religious restrictions have actually fostered and given a richer flavor to sexual congresses.

An enlightening example might come from the terrible best-selling books of the past few years: we might wonder why nowadays erotic literature seems to be produced by people who can’t write, for people who can’t read.
The great masterpieces of erotica appeared when it was forbidden to write about sex. Both the author (often a well-known and otherwise respectable writer) and the editor were forced to act in anonimity and, if exposed, could be subjected to a harsh sentence. Dangerous, outlaw literature: it wasn’t written with the purpose of seeling hundreds of thousands of copies, but rather to be sold under the counter to the few who could understand it.
Thus, paradoxically, such a strict censorship granted that the publishing of an erotic work corresponded to a poetic, authorial urgency. Risqué literature, in many cases, represented a necessary and unsuppressible artistic expression. The crossing of a boundary, of a barrier.

Given the current flat landscape, we inevitably look with curiosity (if not a bit of nostalgia) at those times when eroticism had to be carefully concealed from prying eyes.
An original variation of this “sunken” collective imagination are those erotic objects which in France (where they were paricularly popular) are called à système, “with a device”.
They consisted in obscene representations hidden behind a harmless appearance, and could only be seen by those who knew the mechanism, the secret move, the trick to uncover them.

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Some twenty years ago in Chinese restaurants in Italy, liquor at the end of the meal was served in peculiar little cups that had a convex glass base: when the cup was full, the optic distorsion was corrected by the liquid and it was possible to admire, on the bottom, the picture of a half-undressed lady, who became invisible once again as the cup was emptied.
The concept behind the ancient objets à système was the same: simple objects, sometimes common home furnishings, disguising the owners’ unmentionable fantasies from potential guests coming to the house.

The most basic kind of objects à système had false bottoms and secret compartments. Indecent images could be hidden in all sorts of accessories, from snuffboxes to walking canes, from fake cheese cartons to double paintings.

Ivory box, the lid shows a double scene. XIX Century.

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 Gioco del domino, in avorio intarsiato alla maniera dei marinai, con tavole erotiche.

Inlaid domino game, in the manner of sailors decorations, with erotic plates.

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Walking stick knob handle.

Paintings with hidden pictures.

A young woman reads a book: if the painting is opened, her improper fantasies are visualized.

Other, slightly more elaborate objects presented a double face: a change of perspective was needed in order to discover their indecent side. A classic example from the beginning of the XX Century are ceramic sculptures or ashtrays which, when turned upside down, held some surprises.

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The monk, a classic erotic figure, is hiding a secret inside the wicker basket on his shoulders.

Double-faced pendant: the woman’s legs can be closed, and on the back a romantic flowered heart takes shape.

Then there were objects featuring a hinge, a device that had to be activated, or removable parts. Some statuettes, such as the beautiful bronzes created by Bergman‘s famous Austrian forgery, were perfect art nouveau decorations, but still concealed a spicy little secret.

 

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The top half of this polichrome ceramic figurine is actually a lid which, once removed, shows the Marquise crouching in the position called de la pisseuse, popularized by an infamous Rembrandt etching.

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Snuffbox, sailor’s sculpture. Here the mechanism causes the soldier’s hat to “fall down”, revealing the true nature of the gallant scene.

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Meerschaum pipe. Upon inserting a pipe cleaner into the chamber, a small lever is activated.

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In time, the artisans came up with ever more creative ideas.
For instance there were decorations composed of two separate figurines, showing a beautiful and chaste young girl in the company of a gallant faun. But it was enough to alter the charachters’ position in order to see the continuation of their affair, and to verify how successful the satyr’s seduction had been.

 

Even more elaborate ruses were devised to disguise these images. The following picture shows a fake book (end of XVIII Century) hiding a secret chest. The spring keys on the bottom allow for the unrolling of a strip which contained seven small risqué scenes, appearing through the oval frame.

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The following figures were a real classic, and with many variations ended up printed on pillboxes, dishes, matchstick boxes, and several other utensiles. At first glance, they don’t look obscene at all; their secret becomes only clear when they are turned uspide down, and the bottom part of the drawing is covered with one hand (you can try it yourself below).

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The medals in the picture below were particularly ingenious. Once again, the images on both sides showed nothing suspicious if examied by the non-initiated. But flipping the medal on its axis caused them to “combine” like the frames of a movie, and to appear together. The results can be easily imagined.

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In closing, here are some surprising Chinese fans.
In his book La magia dei libri (presented in NYC in 2015), Mariano Tomatis reports several historical examples of “hacked books”, which were specifically modified to achieve a conjuring effect. These magic fans work in similar fashion: they sport innocent pictures on both sides, provided that the fan is opened as usual from left to right. But if the fan is opened from right to left, the show gets kinky.

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A feature of these artisan creations, as opposed to classic erotic art, was a constant element of irony. The very concept of these objects appears to be mocking and sardonic.
Think about it: anyone could keep some pornographic works locked up in a safe. But to exhibit them in the living room, before unsuspecting relatives and acquaintances? To put them in plain view, under the nose of your mother-in-law or the visiting reverend?

That was evidently the ultimate pleasure, a real triumph of dissimulation.

Playing card with nude watermark, made visible by placing it in front of a candle.

Such objects have suffered the same loss of meaning afflicting libertine literature; as there is no real reason to produce them anymore, they have become little more than a collector’s curiosity.
And nonetheless they can still help us to better understand the paradox we talked about in the beginning: the objets à système manage to give us a thrill only in the presence of a taboo, only as long as they are supposed to remain under cover, just like the sexual ghosts which according to Freud lie behind the innocuous images we see in our dreams.
Should we interpret these objects as symbols of bourgeois duplicity, of the urge to maintain at all cost an honorable facade? Were they instead an attempt to rebel against the established rules?
And furthermore, are we sure that sexual transgression is so revolutionary as it appears, or does it actually play a conservative social role in regard to the Norm?

Eventually, making sex acceptable and bringing it to light – depriving it of its part of darkness – will not cause our desire to vanish, as desire can always find its way. It probably won’t even impoverish art or literature, which will (hopefully) build new symbolic imagery suitable for a “public domain” eroticism.
The only aspect which is on the brink of extinction is precisely that good old idea of transgression, which also animated these naughty knick-knacks. Taking a look at contemporary conventions on alternative sexuality, it would seem that the fall of taboos has already occurred. In the absence of prohibitions, with no more rules to break, sex is losing its venomous and dangerous character; and yet it is conquering unprecedented serenity and new possibilities of exploration.

So what about us?
We would like to have our cake and eat it too: we advocate freedom, against any kind of censorship, but secretely keep longing for that exquisite frisson of danger and sin.

Untitled-2

The images in this article are for the most part taken from Jean-Pierre Bourgeron, Les Masques d’Eros – Les objets érotiques de collection à système (1985, Editions de l’amateur, Paris).
The extraordinary collection of erotic objects assembled by André Pieyre de Mandiargues (French poet and writer close to the Surrealist movement) was the focus of a short film by Walerian Borowczyk:
Une collection particulière (1973) can be seen on YouTube.

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.

Veneri anatomiche: l’ossessione del femmineo

C’è un’ossessione profonda, che attraversa i secoli e non accenna a placarsi. L’ossessione maschile per il corpo della donna.

Un corpo magnetico che conduce a sé (seduce), tirando i fili del simbolo; carne duttile e plasmabile, che nell’atto sessuale ha funzione ricettiva, eppure voragine abissale nella quale ci si può perdere; corpo castrante, che eccita la violenza e l’idolatria, corpo di dea callipigia da deflorare; scrigno che racchiude il segreto della vita, sessualità ambigua il cui piacere è sconosciuto e terribile.

Così è capitato che nel corpo femminile si sia scavato, per cavarne fuori questo suo mistero, aprendolo, smembrandolo in pezzi da ricombinare, cercando le occulte e segrete analogie, le geometrie nascoste, l’algebra del desiderio, come ha fatto ad esempio Hans Bellmer in tutta la sua carriera. Nei suoi scritti e nelle sue opere pittoriche (oltre che nelle sue bambole, di cui avevo parlato qui) l’artista tedesco ha maniacalmente decostruito la figura femminile disegnando paralleli inaspettati e perturbanti fra le varie parti anatomiche, in una sorta di febbrile feticismo onnicomprensivo, in cui occhi, vulve, piedi, orecchie si fondono assieme fluidamente, fino a creare inedite configurazioni di carne e di sogno.

illustration-by-hans-bellmer-from-lanatomie-de-limage-anatomy-of-the-image-1344796896_b

histoire de l'oeil (1)

L’erotismo di Bellmer è uno sguardo psicopatologico e assieme lucidissimo, freddo e visionario al tempo stesso; ed è nella sua opera Rose ouverte la nuit (1934), e nelle successive declinazioni del tema, che l’artista dà la più esatta indicazione di quale sia la sua ricerca. Nel dipinto, una ragazza solleva la pelle del suo stesso ventre per esaminare le proprie viscere.

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L’atto di alzare la pelle della donna, come si potrebbe sollevare una gonna, è una delle più potenti raffigurazioni dell’ossessione di cui parliamo. È lo strip-tease finale che lascia la femmina più nuda del nudo, che permette di scrutare all’interno della donna alla ricerca di un segreto che forse, beffardamente, non si troverà mai.
Ma l’immagine non è nuova, anzi vuole riecheggiare lo stesso turbamento che si può provare di fronte alle numerose e meravigliose veneri anatomiche a grandezza naturale scolpite in passato da abili artisti, una tradizione nata a Firenze alla fine del XVII secolo.

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venere

Queste bellissime fanciulle adagiate in pose languide aprono l’interno del loro corpo allo sguardo dello spettatore, senza pudore, senza mostrare dolore. Anzi, dalle espressioni dei loro volti si direbbe quasi che vi sia in loro un sottile compiacimento, un piacere estatico nell’offrirsi in questa nudità assoluta.
Perché questi corpi non sono rappresentati come cadaveri, ma essenzialmente vivi e coscienti?
L’esistenza stessa di simili sculture oggi può disorientare, ma è in realtà una naturale evoluzione delle preoccupazioni artistiche, scientifiche e religiose dei secoli precedenti. Prima di parlare di queste straordinarie opere ceroplastiche, facciamo dunque un rapido excursus che ci permetta di comprenderne appieno il contesto; sottolineo che non mi interesso qui alla storia delle veneri, né esclusivamente alla loro portata scientifica, quanto piuttosto al loro particolarissimo ruolo in riguardo al femmineo.

Vesalius_Fabrica_fronticepiece

Il dominio dello sguardo
Quando Vesalio, con incredibile coraggio (o spavalderia), si fece immortalare sul frontespizio della sua De humani corporis fabrica (1543) nell’atto di dissezionare personalmente un cadavere, stava lanciando un messaggio rivoluzionario: la medicina galenica, indiscussa fino ad allora, era colma di errori perché nessuno si era premurato di aprire un corpo umano e guardarci dentro con i propri occhi. Uomo del Rinascimento, Vesalio era strenuo sostenitore dell’esperienza diretta – in un’epoca, questo è ancora più notevole, in cui la “scienza” come la conosciamo non era ancora nata – e fu il primo a scindere il corpo da tutte le altre preoccupazioni metafisiche. Dopo di lui, il funzionamento del corpo umano non andrà più cercato nell’astrologia, nelle relazioni simbolico-alchemiche o negli elementi, ma in esso stesso.
Da questo momento, la dissezione occuperà per i secoli a venire il centro di ogni ricerca medica. Ed è lo sguardo di Vesalio, uno sguardo di sfida, altero e duro come la pietra, a imporsi come il paradigma dell’osservazione scientifica.

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Il problema morale
Bisogna tenere a mente che nei secoli che stiamo prendendo in esame, l’anatomia non era affatto distaccata dalla visione religiosa, anzi si riteneva che studiare l’uomo – centro assoluto della Natura, immagine e somiglianza del Creatore e culmine della sua opera – significasse avvicinarsi un po’ di più anche a Dio.

Eppure, per quanto si riconoscesse come fondamentale l’esperienza diretta, era difficile liberarsi dall’idea che dissezionare una salma fosse in realtà una sorta di sacrilegio. Questa sensazione scomoda venne aggirata cercando soggetti di studio che avessero in qualche modo perso il loro statuto di “uomini”: criminali, suicidi o poveracci che il mondo non reclamava. Candidati ideali per il tavolo settorio. La violazione che si osava infliggere ai loro corpi era poi ulteriormente giustificata in quanto alle spoglie dissezionate venivano garantite, in cambio del sacrificio, una messa e una sepoltura cristiana che altrimenti non avrebbero avuto. Grazie al loro contributo alla ricerca, avendo scontato per così dire la loro pena, essi tornavano ad essere accettati dalla società.

Lo stesso senso di colpa per l’attività di dissezione spiega il successo delle tavole anatomiche che raffigurano i cosiddetti écorché, gli scorticati. Per raffigurare gli apparati interni, si decise di mostrare soggetti in pose plastiche, vivi e vegeti a dispetto delle apparenze, anzi spesso artefici o complici delle loro stesse dissezioni. Una simile visione era certamente meno fastidiosa e scioccante che vedere le parti anatomiche esposte su un tavolo come carne da macello (cfr. M. Vène, Ecorchés : L’exploration du corps, XVIème-XVIIIème siècle, 2001).

L’uomo, che si è scorticato da solo, osserva l’interno della sua stessa pelle come a carpirne i segreti. Da Valverde, Anatomia del corpo humano (1560).

Dal medesimo volume, dissezione del peritoneo in tre atti. Nella terza figura, il personaggio tiene fra i denti la propria parete addominale per mostrarne il reticolo vascolare.

Dal medesimo volume, dissezione del peritoneo in tre atti. Nella terza figura, il personaggio tiene fra i denti il proprio grembiule omentale per mostrarne il reticolo vascolare.

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Spiegel e Casseri, De humani corporis fabrica libri decem (1627).

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Spiegel e Casseri, Ibid.

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Già nelle stampe degli écorché si nota una differenza fra figure maschili e femminili. Per illustrare il sistema muscolare venivano utilizzati soggetti maschili, mentre le donne esibivano spesso e volentieri gli organi interni, e fin dalle primissime rappresentazioni erano nella quasi totalità dei casi gravide. Il feto visibile all’interno del grembo femminile sottolineava la primaria funzione della donna come generatrice di vita, mentre dall’altro canto gli écorché maschi si presentavano in pose virili che ne esaltavano la prestanza fisica.

Spiegel e Casseri, Ibid.

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Un muscoloso corpo maschile posa per una tavola che in realtà descrive una dissezione del cranio. Dal De dissectione partium corporis humani libri tres di C. Estienne (1545).

Dal medesimo volume, l’anatomia degli intestini è baroccamente inserita all’interno di una corazza da guerriero romano.

Lo svelamento dell’utero, messa in scena simbolica della denudazione. Dal Carpi commentaria cum amplissimis additionibus super Anatomia Mundini (1521).

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La gravida di Pietro Berrettini (1618) si alza snella e graziosa per esibire il suo apparato riproduttivo.

Come si vede nelle stampe qui sotto, già dalla metà del ‘500 i soggetti femminili mostrano una certa sensualità, mentre si abbandonano a pose che in altri contesti risulterebbero indecenti e impudiche. L’artista qui si spinse addirittura a realizzare delle versioni anatomiche di celebri stampe erotiche clandestine, ricopiando le pose dei personaggi ma scorticandoli secondo la tradizione anatomica, “raffreddando” così ironicamente la scena.

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Donna che tiene la placenta di due gemelli. Ispirata a una stampa erotica di Perino Del Vaga. Dal De dissectione partium corporis humani libri tres di C. Estienne (1545).

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Dal medesimo testo, gravida che espone l’apparato riproduttivo. Il contesto di camera da letto dona alla posa una connotazione marcatamente erotica.

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Altra illustrazione ispirata a una stampa erotica di Perino del Vaga (vedi sotto).

Ecco il modello “proibito” per la stampa anatomica precedente. (G.G. Caraglio, Giove e Antiope, da Perino del Vaga)

Non bisogna dimenticare infatti che un altro sottotesto — decisamente più misogino — di alcune stampe anatomiche femminili, è quello che intende smentire, sfatare il fascino della donna. Tutta la sua carica erotica, tutta la sua bellezza tentatrice viene disinnescata tramite l’esposizione delle interiora.
Difficile non pensare a Memento di Tarchetti:

Quando bacio il tuo labbro profumato,
cara fanciulla, non posso obbliare
che un bianco teschio vi è sotto celato.

Quando a me stringo il tuo corpo vezzoso,
obbliar non poss’io, cara fanciulla,
che vi è sotto uno scheletro nascosto.

E nell’orrenda visïone assorto,
dovunque o tocchi, o baci, o la man posi,
sento sporgere le fredda ossa di morto.

(Disjecta, 1879)

Se dobbiamo credere a Baudrillard (Della seduzione, 1979), l’uomo ha sempre avuto il controllo sul potere concreto, mentre la femmina si è appropriata nel tempo del potere sull’immaginario. E il secondo è infinitamente più importante del primo: ecco spiegata l’origine dell’ossessione maschile, quel senso di impotenza di fronte alla forza del simbolo detenuto dalla donna. Pur con tutte le sue violente guerre e le sue conquiste virili, egli ne è sedotto e soggiogato senza scampo.
Ricorre dunque all’estrema soluzione: frustrato da un mistero che non riesce a svelare, finisce per negare che esso sia mai esistito.
Ecce mulier! Questa è la tanto vagheggiata femmina, che fa perdere la testa agli uomini e induce al peccato: soltanto un ammasso di disgustosi organi e budella.

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Da Valverde, Anatomia del corpo humano (1560).

La messa in scena dell’osceno
Alcune stampe cinquecentesche erano composte di diversi fogli ritagliati, in modo che il lettore potesse sollevarli e scostare poco a poco i vari “strati” del corpo del soggetto, scoprendone l’anatomia in maniera attiva. L’immagine qui sotto, del 1570 circa e poi numerose volte ristampata, è un esempio di questi antesignani dei pop-up book; pensata ad uso dei barbieri-chirurghi (l’uomo tiene la mano in una bacinella di acqua calda per gonfiare le vene del braccio prima di un salasso), consiste di quattro risvolti incollati da sfogliare in successione per vedere gli organi interni.

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Le veneri anatomiche, decomponibili, non erano dunque che la versione tridimensionale di questo genere di stampe. Gli studenti avevano la possibilità di smontare gli organi, studiarne la morfologia e la posizione senza dover ricorrere a un cadavere.

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Se la ceroplastica si propose quindi fin dal principio come sostituto o complemento della dissezione, ottimo strumento didattico per medici e anatomisti spesso in cronica penuria di salme fresche, le statue in cera costituirono anche uno dei primi esempi di spettacolo anatomico accessibile anche alla gente comune. Le dissezioni vere e proprie erano già un educativo divertissement per la buona società, che pagava volentieri il biglietto di entrata per il teatro anatomico approntato solitamente nei pressi dell’Università. Ma la collezione fiorentina di cere anatomiche contenute all’interno del Museo della Specola, voluto dal Granduca di Toscana, era visitabile anche dai profani.

Da sovrano illuminato e da appassionato di scienza qual era, si rese conto, con molto anticipo rispetto agli altri regnanti, di quanto fosse importante la cultura scientifica e di come questa dovesse essere resa accessibile a tutti. […] C’erano orari diversi per le persone istruite e per il popolo: quest’ultimo infatti poteva visitare il Museo dalle 8 alle 10 “purché politamente vestito” lasciando poi spazio fino “alle 1 dopo mezzogiorno… alle persone intelligenti e studiose”. Anche se ora questa distinzione ci suona un po’ offensiva, si capisce quanto fosse innovativa per quell’epoca l’apertura anche al grosso pubblico.

(M. Poggesi, La collezione ceroplastica del Museo La Specola, in Encyclopaedia anatomica, 2001)

Le cere anatomiche dunque, oltre ad essere un supporto di studio, facevano anche appello ad altre, più nascoste fascinazioni che attiravano con enorme successo masse di visitatori di ogni estrazione sociale, divenendo tra l’altro tappa fissa dei Grand Tour.

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Allo stesso modo delle stampe antiche, anche nelle statue di cera si ritrova la stessa esposizione del corpo della donna – passiva, sottomessa all’anatomista che (presumibilmente) la sta aprendo, spesso gravida del feto che porta dentro di sé, il volto mai scorticato e anzi seducente; e la figura maschile è invece ancora una volta utilizzata principalmente per illustrare l’apparato muscolo-scheletrico, i vasi sanguigni e linfatici ed è priva della sensualità che contraddistingue i soggetti femminili.

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Eros, Thanatos e crudeltà
Le veneri anatomiche fiorentine non potevano non suscitare l’interesse di Sade.
Il Marchese ne parla una prima volta, col tono discreto del turista, nel suo Viaggio in Italia; le menziona ancora in Juliette, quando la sua perversa eroina scopre con giubilo cinque piccoli tableaux di Zumbo che mostrano le fasi della decomposizione di un cadavere. Ma è nelle 120 giornate di Sodoma che le cere sono utilizzate nella loro dimensione più sadiana: qui una giovane fanciulla viene accompagnata all’interno di una stanza che racchiude diverse veneri anatomiche, e dovrà decidere in quale modo preferisce essere uccisa e squartata.

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Lo sguardo lucido di Sade ha dunque colto il volto oscuro, cioè l’erotismo perturbante e crudele, di queste straordinarie opere d’arte scientifica. Sono senza dubbio i volti serafici, in alcuni casi quasi maliziosi, di queste donne a suggerire un loro malcelato piacere nell’essere lacerate e offerte al pubblico; e allo stesso tempo questi modelli tridimensionali rendono ancora più evidente la surreale contraddizione degli écorché, che restano in vita come nulla fosse, nonostante le ferite mortali.
Si può discutere se il Susini e gli altri ceroplasti suoi emuli fossero o meno perfettamente coscienti di un simile aspetto, forse non del tutto secondario, della loro opera; ma è innegabile che una parte del fascino di queste sculture provenga proprio dalla loro sensuale ambiguità.
Bataille fa notare (Le lacrime di Eros, 1961) che, nel momento in cui l’uomo ha preso coscienza della morte, seppellendo i suoi morti con rituali funebri, ha anche cominciato a raffigurare se stesso, sulle pareti delle grotte, con il sesso eretto; a dimostrazione di quanto morte e sesso siano collegati a doppio filo, quali opposti che spesso si confondono.

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Le veneri anatomiche, in questo senso, racchiudono in maniera perfetta tutta la complessità di questi temi. Splendidi e preziosi strumenti di indagine scientifica, meravigliosi oggetti d’arte, misteriosi e conturbanti simboli; con il loro misto di innocenza e crudeltà sembrano ancora oggi raccontarci le intricate peripezie del desiderio umano.

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Ecco la pagina dedicata alle cere anatomiche del Museo di Storia Naturale di Firenze.

The Mysteries of Saint Cristina

(English translation courtesy of Elizabeth Harper,
of the wonderful All the Saints You Should Know
)

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Two days ago, one of the most unusual solemnities in Italy was held as usual: the “Mysteries” of Saint Cristina of Bolsena, a martyr who lived in the early fourth century.

Every year on the night of July 23rd, the statue of St. Cristina is carried in a procession from the basilica to the church of St. Salvatore in the highest and oldest part of the village. The next morning, the statue follows the path in reverse. The procession stops in five town squares where wooden stages are set up. Here, the people of Bolsena perform ten tableaux vivants that retrace the life and martyrdom of the saint.

These sacred representations have intrigued anthropologists and scholars of theater history and religion for more than a century. Their origins lie in the fog of time.

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In our article Ecstatic Bodies, which is devoted to the relationship between the lives of the saints and eroticism, we mentioned the martyrdom of St. Cristina. In fact, her hagiography is (in our opinion) a masterful little narrative, full of plot twists and underlying symbolism.

According to tradition, Cristina was a 12-year old virgin who secretly converted to Christianity against the wishes of her father, Urbano. Urbano held the position of Prefect of Volsinii (the ancient name for Bolsena). Urbano tried every way of removing the girl from the Christian faith and bringing her back to worship pagan gods, but he was unsuccessful. His “rebellious” daughter, in her battle against her religious father, even destroyed the golden idols and distributed the pieces to the poor. After she stepped out of line again, Urban decided to bend her will through force.

It is at this point the legend of St. Cristina becomes unique. It becomes one of the most imaginative, brutal, and surprising martyrologies that has been handed down.

Initially, Cristina was slapped and beaten with rods by twelve men. They became exhausted little by little, but the strength of Cristina’s faith was unaffected. So Urbano commanded her to be brought to the wheel, and she was tied to it. When the wheel turned, it broke the body and disarticulated the bones, but that wasn’t enough. Urban lit an oil-fueled fire under the wheel to make his daughter burn faster.  But as soon as Cristina prayed to God and Jesus, the flames turned against her captors and devoured them (“instantly the fire turned away from her and killed fifteen hundred persecutors and idolaters, while St. Cristina lay on the wheel as if she were on a bed and the angels served her”).

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So Urbano locked her up in prison where Cristina was visited by her mother – but not even maternal tears could make it stop. Desperate, her father sent five slaves out at night. They picked up the girl, tied a huge millstone around her neck and threw her in the dark waters of the lake.

The next morning at dawn, Urbano left the palace and sadly went down to the shore of the lake. But suddenly he saw something floating on the water, a kind of mirage that was getting closer. It was his daughter, as a sort of Venus or nymph rising from the waves. She was standing on the stone that was supposed to drag her to the bottom; instead it floated like a small boat. Seeing this, Urban could not withstand such a miraculous defeat. He died on the spot and demons took possession of his soul.

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But Cristina’s torments were not finished: Urbano was succeeded by Dione, a new persecutor. He administered his cruelty by immersing the virgin in a cauldron of boiling oil and pitch, which the saint entered singing the praises of God as if it were a refreshing bath. Dione then ordered her hair to be cut and for her to be carried naked through the streets of the city to the temple of Apollo. There, the statue of the god shattered in front of Cristina and a splinter killed Dione.

The third perpetrator was a judge named Giuliano: he walled her in a furnace alive for five days. When he reopened the oven, Cristina was found in the company of a group of angels, who by flapping their wings held the fire back the whole time.

Giuliano then commanded a snake charmer to put two vipers and two snakes on her body. The snakes twisted at her feet, licking the sweat from her torments and the vipers attached to her breasts like infants. The snake charmer agitated the vipers, but they turned against him and killed him. Then the fury and frustration of Giuliano came to a head. He ripped the breasts off the girl, but they gushed milk instead of blood. Later he ordered her tongue cut out. The saint collected a piece of her own tongue and threw it in his face, blinding him in one eye. Finally, the imperial archers tied her to a pole and God graciously allowed the pains of the virgin to end: Cristina was killed with two arrows, one in the chest and one to the side and her soul flew away to contemplate the face of Christ.

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In the aforementioned article we addressed the undeniable sexual tension present in the character of Cristina. She is the untouchable female, a virgin whom it’s not possible to deflower by virtue of her mysterious and miraculous body. The torturers, all men, were eager to torture and punish her flesh, but their attacks inevitably backfired against them: in each episode, the men are tricked and impotent when they’re not metaphorically castrated (see the tongue that blinds Giuliano). Cristina is a contemptuous saint, beautiful, unearthly, and feminine while bitter and menacing. The symbols of her sacrifice (breasts cut off and spewing milk, snakes licking her sweat) could recall darker characters, like the female demons of Mesopotamian mythology, or even suggest the imagery linked to witches (the power to float on water), if they were not taken in the Christian context. Here, these supernatural characteristics are reinterpreted to strengthen the stoicism and the heroism of the martyr. The miracles are attributed to the angels and God; Cristina is favored because she accepts untold suffering to prove His omnipotence. She is therefore an example of unwavering faith, of divine excellence.

Without a doubt, the tortures of St. Cristina, with their relentless climax, lend themselves to the sacred representation. Because of this, the “mysteries”, as they are called, have always magnetically attracted crowds: citizens, tourists, the curious, and groups arrive for the event, crowding the narrow streets of the town and sharing this singular euphoria. The mysteries selected may vary. This year on the night of 23rd, the wheel, the furnace, the prisons, the lake, and the demons were staged, and the next morning the baptism, the snakes, the cutting of the tongue, the arrows and the glorification were staged.

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The people are immobile, in the spirit of the tableaux vivant, and silent. The sets are in some cases bare, but this ostentatious poverty of materials is balanced by the baroque choreography. Dozens of players are arranged in Caravaggio-esque poses and the absolute stillness gives a particular sense of suspense.

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In the prison, Cristina is shown chained, while behind her a few jailers cut the hair and amputate the hands of other unfortunate prisoners. You might be surprised by the presence of children in these cruel representations, but their eyes can barely hide the excitement of the moment. Of course, there is torture, but here the saint dominates the scene with a determined look, ready for the punishment. The players are so focused on their role, they seem almost enraptured and inevitably there is someone in the audience trying to make them laugh or move. It is the classic spirit of the Italians, capable of feeling the sacred and profane at the same time; without participation failing because of it. As soon as they close the curtain, everyone walks back behind the statue, chanting prayers.

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The scene with the demons that possess the soul of Urbano (one of the few scenes with movement) ends the nighttime procession and is undoubtedly one of the most impressive moments. The pit of hell is unleashed around the corpse of Urbano while the half-naked devils writhe and throw themselves on each other in a confusion of bodies; Satan, lit in bright colors, encourages the uproar with his pitchfork. When the saint finally appears on the ramparts of the castle, a pyrotechnic waterfall frames the evocative and glorious figure.

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The next morning, on the feast of St. Cristina, the icon traces the same route back and returns to her basilica, this time accompanied by the band.

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Even the martyrdom of snakes is animated. The reptiles, which were once collected near the lake, are now rented from nurseries, carefully handled and protected from the heat. The torturer agitates the snakes in front of the impassive face of the saint before falling victim to the poison. The crowd erupts into enthusiastic applause.

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The cutting of the tongue is another one of those moments that would not be out of place in a Grand Guignol performance. A child holds out a knife to the executioner, who brings the blade to the lips of the martyr. Once the tongue is severed, she tilts her head as blood gushes from her mouth. The crowd is, if anything, even more euphoric.

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Here Cristina meets her death with two arrows planted in her chest. The last act of her passion happens in front of a multitude of hard-eyed and indifferent women, while the ranks of archers watch for her breathing to stop.

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The final scene is the glorification of the saint. A group of boys displays the lifeless body covered with a cloth, while chorus members and children rise to give Cristina offerings and praise.

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One striking aspect of the Mysteries of Bolsena is their undeniable sensuality. It’s not just that young, beautiful girls traditionally play the saint, even the half-naked male bodies are a constant presence. They wear quivers or angel wings; they’re surrounded by snakes or they raise up Cristina, sweetly abandoned to death, and their muscles sparkle under lights or in the sun, the perfect counterpoint to the physical nature of the passion of the saint. It should be emphasized that this sensuality does not detract from the veneration. As with many other folk expressions common in our peninsula, the spiritual relationship with the divine becomes intensely carnal as well.

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The legend of St. Cristina effectively hides an underlying sexual tension and it is remarkable that such symbolism remains, even in these sacred representations (heavily veiled, of course). While we admire the reconstructions of torture and the resounding victories of the child martyr and patron saint of Bolsena, we realize that getting onstage is not only the sincere and spontaneous expression in the city. Along with the miracles they’re meant to remember, the tableaux seem to allude to another, larger “mystery”. These scenes appear fixed and immovable, but beneath the surface there is bubbling passion, metaphysical impulses and life.

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Skeletons and young girls

Come! let the burial rite be read – the funeral song be sung! –
An anthem for the queenliest dead that ever died so young –
A dirge for her, the doubly dead in that she died so young.

(E. A. Poe, Lenore, 1831)

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She will never be able to count her whitening hair, nor the lines that years and experiences impressed on her face; she shall not know the joys of marriage, she shall never be a mother: she is the dead maiden.
Whenever death strikes those who have not even had a chance to live, we are filled with a sense of injustice. “It’s not fair”, we then say, “that’s a crime, it’s not natural”, because the order of things wants the father to go before the son (or so we believe).
The innocence and sweetness of the young lady’s face, who didn’t deserve such a tragic fate, makes us think of a sacrilege.

But, in stopping the maiden’s heart, death has saved her from the ruins and aberrations of time, he has spared her from the melancholy of old age and from the weight of a decrepit body. He fixed her image in her brighter and most gracious instant: the memory she leaves behind is sublime. All vanishing beauty, is actually the highest and most excruciating beauty.

For these reasons the figure of the dead maiden has always known a certain success in the literary and visual arts; it combines sorrow with the subject’s attractiveness, and has an incomparable emotional appeal.

The virgin girl, in fact, has encountered Death in many forms since the classical era, from the abduction of goddess Persephone by Hades, the god of the underworld, to the self-immolation of Iphigenia. Then, right in the middle of XIV century, when plague, epidemics and wars were ravaging Europe, death became the central obsession of those dark times: and in almost all representations of the danse macabre, at least one of the skeletons invites a splendid dame or a sweet-looking maid to the disturbing ball.

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But at the end of XV century an unprecedented, stunning depiction of the encounter between these two characters begins to appear; if, until then, they had somehow unexpectedly crossed their paths, the birth of a specific iconographic theme (called “Death and the Maiden”) shows a truly epochal transition taking place in mentality.
Yes, because the rendezvous between the two, surprisingly enough, begin to show open sexual tones.

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If in the danse macabre, or in portrayals of the “three ages of life”, no sign of eroticism was present, here the female figure is indeed seduced or molested by Death. Often the decaying corpse kisses her on the mouth, sometimes he touches her breast — if his hands don’t push themselves even further. The whiteness of the maiden’s skin contrasts with the brown complexion of the mummified body, and the sense of repulsion is intensified by the obscenity of their embrace.

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Of course, the moral behind this kind of depiction clearly aims at exposing the ephemeral aspect of life, the vanity of beauty and pride. But beyond this facade, this theme evokes darker thoughts, amid visions of crawling worms and putrid blood flowing. The frailty of beauty gives way to a fascination with the macabre: as will happen in Baudelaire‘s Flowers of Evil, it seems that death and ugliness are already contained, in seed form, in the maiden’s sensual appearance.
And in fact this is the first time we see recognized, and so overtly expressed, the relationship between Eros and Thanatos – a cultural theme which will become essential, for poets and thinkers alike.

Valente Celle Tomb, 1893, The Staglieno Cemetery, Genoa - Italy

Clutched by his skinny fingers, the Maiden surrenders to Death’s seduction.
The embrace we are witnessing becomes, through allegory, one between life and death: to associate the attractive Venus to the dreadful skeleton means to redefine sexuality. Ever so distant from the shyness of courtly love, this image of a new eroticism predates the idea of sex as a return to wholeness (after the “section” occured with birth), which Freud will write about, or the annihilation of the Self into the Other, as Bataille‘s work points out, or even that mix of death and life impulses which will so much fascinate the romantics and the maudits.

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Even today, Death and the Maiden, depicted together, have lost nothing of their morbid and unsettling charm. And they still speak to the most hidden part of our souls; on one hand reminding us of the fleeting nature of the body, but suggesting on the other hand that there’s a secret complicity between beauty and repulsion, between light and shadows, between love and death.

Ecstatic bodies: hagiography and eroticism

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The body plays a fundamental role in Christian tradition.
Among the three great monotheistic religions, Christianity is indeed the only one to imply a God who became a man himself, thus granting an essential value to flesh and blood. According to Christian doctrine, it is told that resurrection will not be merely spiritual, but will also concern the physical body. Nevertheless, our flesh never got rid of its intrinsic duplicity: on the one hand, it lets the perfection of God’s work shine through – so much so that a holy body can “retain” within itself a part of the sanctity of the soul, whence the cult of relics – while on the other hand, of all human elements, it is the weakest and more susceptible to falling into temptation. The corruption of the flesh cannot be avoided except by mortifying sensuality or – in the most extreme cases – through the final sacrifice, more or less voluntary.

During the Middle Ages a distinction actually arose, ever sharper, between the carnal body and the body which will be resurrected at the end of times. As LeGoff writes, “the body of the Christian, dead or alive, lives in expectation of the body of glory it will take on, if it does not revel in the wretched physical body. The entire funeral ideology of Christianity revolves around the interplay between the wretched body and the glorious body, and is so organized as to wrest one from the other“.

That is why, in the lives of the saints, a disdainful denial of physicality and earthly life prevails. But, and that’s where things get interesting, there is a clear difference between male and female saints.
If the male saint usually accepts his martyrdom with courage and abnegation, in the vitae of female saints, female bodies are relentelssly destroyed or degraded, reaching superhuman extents in the hagiographic imagery.
As Elisabeth Roudinesco writes (in Our Dark Side: A History of Perversion, 2007):

When they were adopted by certain mystics, the great sacrificial rituals – from flagellation to the ingestion of unspeakable substances – became proof of their saintly exaltation. […] While the first duty of male saints was, following the Christian interpretation of the Book of Job, to annihilate any form of desire to fornicate, woman saints condemned themselves to a radical sterilization of their wombs, which became putrid, either by eating excrement or by exhibiting their tortured bodies.

Gilles Tétart in his Saintes coprophages: souillure et alimentation sacrée en Occident chrétien (2004, in Corps et Affects, edited by F. Héritier and M. Xanthakou) recounts several examples of this paroxysmal crusade against the flesh and its temptations.

Margaret Mary Alacoque, a French nun who lived in the Sevententh Century and was known for her mystic raptures, was “so sensitive that anything dirty made her heart jump“. But after Jesus had called her back to order, she could clean up the vomit of a sick woman by making it her food. She later absorbed the fecal matter of a woman with dysentery. By divine grace, what once would have disgusted her to death, now provoked in her the most intense visions of Christ, holding her with her mouth pressed against his wound: “If I had a thousand bodies, a thousand loves, a thousand lives, I would sacrifice them to be your slave“, she uttered.

According to some accounts, Catherine of Siena sucked the pus from the breasts of a woman with cancer, and stated that she had never eaten anything more delicious. Christ appeared to her, and reassuringly said: “My beloved, you have fought great battles for me and, with my help, you are still victorious. You have never been dearer or more agreeable to me […]. Not only have you scorned sensual pleasures; you have defeated nature by drinking a horrible beverage with joy and for the love of me. Well, as you have perfomed a supernatural act for me, I want to give you a supernatural liquor“.

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Before we go further, it is important to always keep in mind that hagiographies are not History. They are in fact literary works in which every element finds its place inside the narration for a specific purpose – that is not the accuracy of facts. The purpose of these tales is rather to create a bond with the reader, who at the time was supposed not only to deeply admire the saints, but to empathize with their suffering, to feel the pain in first person, even if vicariously, to identify with their tormented body.

Secondly, it should be considered that the lives of saint women were mainly written by male monks, and clearly reflect male enthusiasm and fantasies. All this has brought several authors (B. Burgwinkle e C. Howie, G. Sorgo, S. Schäfer-Athaus, R. Mills) to analyze the hidden parallelisms between hagiography and pornography, as the two genres – all obvious differences considered – share some common features: for instance, the special attention given to the body, the importance of identification, the extremely detailed descritptions, the use of stylized characters, and so on.

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Sarah Schäfer-Althaus, in her paper Painful Pleasure. Saintly Torture on the Verge of Pornography (in Woods, Ian et alii, Mirabilia 18 2014/1) focuses on three saint women: Saint Agatha, Saint Apollonia e Saint Christina.
In the case of Saint Agatha, according to some versions, during the torture a significant inversion occurs. If Saint Catherine, as we’ve seen, found the horrid pus “delicious”, for Saint Agatha the suffering turns into pleasure.

“The pains are my delight”, she literally exclaims, “it is as if I were hearing some good news” – an announcement, which enrages her male tormentor to such an extent that he redirects his attention not only back at her already mutilated body, but especially at her breast – the utmost signifier of her femininity – and has it brutally cut off. Once more, contemporary readers might expect a reaction denoting anguish and pain, a cry for heavenly relief for her suffering, yet instead, Agatha angrily replies in several versions of her legend: “Are you not ashamed to cut off that which you yourself wanted to suck?”

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Therefore the aggression reveals a sexual nuance, or at least there is some kind of erotic tension in the martyrdom, which in itself can be read as a symbolic defloration of the saint’s femininity. A real defloration or penetration – it must be stressed, cannot happen  the saint woman can’t be actually raped, because it is essential for the hagiographic tale that she preserves her virginity to her death.

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The same goes for Saint Apollonia and Saint Christina: here too, the penetration is merely symbolic, so that the protagonists can be joined with Christ while still chaste, and therefore their mouths end up being violated. Saint Apollonia endures the torment of having all of her teeth pulled out, and Christina has her tongue cut off.
At first glance the sexual allusion in these tortures might not be evident, but Schäfer-Althaus unveils its metaphorical code:

In medieval common knowledge, the mouth was on the one hand considered a “lock” with the teeth functioning as the final “barrier”, deciding what ideas and thoughts enter and leave the body. On the other hand, however, from Antiquity up to the ninteenth century, the mouth was linked to the female genitals and the tongue was often paralleled with the clitoris. The clitoris was in return often described as a “little tongue” and belonged to one of “woman’s shameful members”.

So these two torments could imply sexual violence, although it is only symbolic in order to allow the reunification with Jesus. These are, eventually, tortures which violate all of the most feminine body parts, yet preserving the purity of the soul.
So much so that Saint Christina can dare pick up her freshly cut tongue, and throw it in the face of her tormentor.

And her tongue, this instrument of speech and this symbolic clitoris, takes away his eyesight.

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If the parallel between hagiography and pornography is intersting but let’s face it a little risky, undoubtedly these hyperbolic tales compiled, as mentioned, by male authors in a monastic environment, give us a glimpse of medieval male fantasies.
There are scholars, like the already quoted Roudinesco, who have come as far as to recognize in these medieval tales an anticipation of Sade’s themes or, more precisely, a source of inspiration for the Marquis‘ work:

This is why The Golden Legend, a work of piety that relates the lives of saints, can be read as prefiguring Sade’s perverse inversion of the Law in The One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom. We find in both the same tortured bodies that have been stripped naked and covered in filth. There is no difference between these two types of martyrdom. The Marquis adopts the model of monastic confinement, which is full of maceration and pain, removes the presence of God, and invents a sort of sexological zoo given over to the combinatory of a boundless jouissance of bodies.

After all, the line between pleasure and pain is often blurred, and this is even more true in hagiographic literature, since in martyrdom the pain of sacrifice is inseparable from the joy of reunification with God.
And the hidden gratification for the most atrocious details, the colourful language and the vivid descriptions, had to provoke in the reader a desire: desire to emulate these fearless saints and these powerful, incorruptible virgins who were able to transform pain into ecstasy.

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Martiri

Roma, il Pomarancio e l’arte sacra crudele

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I martiri costituiscono uno dei temi prediletti dall’arte cristiana fin dagli albori. Eppure inizialmente le rappresentazioni dei supplizi subìti dai santi in testimonianza della loro fede mostravano comunque dei toni abbastanza neutri. Come scrive Umberto Eco nella sua Storia della bruttezza:

Raramente nell’arte medievale il martire è rappresentato imbruttito dai tormenti come si era osato fare col Cristo. Nel caso di Cristo si sottolineava l’immensità inimitabile del sacrificio compiuto, mentre nel caso dei martiri (per esortare a imitarli) si mostra la serenità serafica con cui essi sono andati incontro alla propria sorte. Ed ecco che una sequenza di decapitazioni, tormenti sulla graticola, asportazione dei seni, può dar luogo a composizioni aggraziate, quasi in forma di balletto. Il compiacimento per la crudeltà del tormento sarà caso mai reperibile più tardi […], nella pittura seicentesca.

In realtà già nel Tardo Manierismo, vale a dire verso la fine del ‘500, la Controriforma aveva riportato una rigorosa ortodossia nell’arte sacra; nel 1582 il Cardinale Gabriele Paleotti pubblica il suo fondamentale Discorso intorno alle immagini sacre e profane, in cui vengono dettate le direttive iconografiche ecclesiastiche da seguire. Da questo momento gli artisti dovranno concentrarsi su scene bibliche educative, di immediata lettura, allontanandosi dai temi classici e attenendosi scrupolosamente a quanto riportato nelle Scritture; nel caso dei martiri, si dovrà cercare di rendere il più possibile concreta la descrizione della sofferenza, in modo da favorire l’immedesimazione del fedele. In questo clima di propaganda, nacquero quindi affreschi e dipinti di una violenza senza precedenti.

A Roma soprattutto si trovano alcune chiese particolarmente ricche di simili raffigurazioni. La più significativa è quella di Santo Stefano Rotondo al Celio; poco distante si trova la Chiesa dei Santi Nereo e Achilleo; in via Nazionale, invece, sorge la Basilica di San Vitale. Innumerevoli altri esempi sono sparsi un po’ ovunque nella capitale, ma queste tre chiese da sole costituiscono una sorta di enciclopedia illustrata della tortura.

In particolare le prime due ospitano gli affreschi di Niccolò Circignani detto il Pomarancio (ma attenzione, perché il nomignolo venne dato anche a suo figlio Antonio e al pittore Cristoforo Roncalli). Autore manierista ma lontano dagli eccessi bizzarri del periodo, Niccolò Circignani mostrava una spiccata teatralità compositiva, e un’esecuzione semplice ma efficace, dai colori vivaci e incisivi.

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Il ciclo del martiriologio a Santo Stefano Rotondo è impressionante ancora oggi per il realismo cruento e a tratti rivoltante delle scene: dal supplizio di Sant’Agata, a cui le tenaglie dilaniano il petto, alla lapidazione del primo martire della storia (Santo Stefano, appunto), fino alla “pena forte e dura“, le pareti della chiesa sono un susseguirsi di santi bolliti vivi o soffocati dal piombo fuso, lingue strappate, occhi e budella sparse, corpi fatti a pezzi, mazzolati, bruciati, straziati in ogni possibile variante.

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Sempre al Pomarancio sono attribuite altre opere situate nella Chiesa dei Santi Nereo e Achilleo. Qui San Simone viene segato a metà a partire dal cranio, San Giacomo Maggiore decapitato, San Bartolomeo scorticato vivo, e via dicendo.

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Nella Basilica di San Vitale possiamo ammirare il santo omonimo che viene prima torturato sulla ruota, e poi sepolto vivo – anche se in questo caso i dipinti sono ad opera di Agostino Ciampelli. La chiesa contiene anche decapitazioni e teste mozzate.

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Certo, nelle intenzioni queste scene dovevano essere educative, e spingere all’imitazione di questi esempi di fede incrollabile. Ma che dire dell’evidente compiacimento nel mostrare le varie torture e i supplizi? Il nostro sadismo non è forse stuzzicato da queste rappresentazioni?

È questo fascino oscuro che spinge Eco a parlare di “erotica del dolore“; e d’altronde Bataille termina il suo excursus nell’arte erotica (Le lacrime di Eros) sulla fotografia di un condannato alla pena cinese del lingchi, la morte dai mille tagli, “inevitabile conclusione di una storia dell’erotismo” e simbolo dell’ “erotismo religioso, l’identità dell’orrore e del religioso“.
Fotografia talmente insostenibile che il filosofo confessa: “a partire da questa violenza – ancora oggi io non riesco a propormene un’altra più folle, più orribile – io fui così sconvolto che accedetti all’estasi“. Rapimento mistico, orgasmo e orrore sono, per Bataille, inscindibili.

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Questa seduzione ambigua delle immagini violente, però, è intrinseca in ogni crudeltà. Il concetto trova infatti origine in due ceppi etimologici diversi – da una parte cruor, la carne sanguinosa, il sangue sparso, e dall’altra crudus, il crudo, tutto ciò che è animalesco, primordiale e non ancora conquistato dalla cultura umana (conoscere il fuoco e utilizzarlo per cuocere il cibo è, sostiene Lévi-Strauss ne Il crudo e il cotto, uno dei momenti fondanti dell’umanità, rispetto alla vita bestiale).
In questo senso la crudeltà oscilla fra due opposti perturbanti: l’orrore e l’oscenità della violenza, e il segreto giubilo di vedere riaffiorare l’istinto represso, che minaccia l’ordine costituito.
Starebbe in questo nucleo di sentimenti contrapposti la calamita che attira il nostro sguardo verso simili immagini, eccitandoci e repellendoci al tempo stesso, e forse facendoci in questo modo accedere alla parte più nascosta del nostro essere.

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Per approfondire i risvolti concettuali della crudeltà, il saggio di riferimento è l’eccellente Filosofia della crudeltà. Etica ed estetica di un enigma di Lucrezia Ercoli.
Se vi interessa conoscere meglio la figura del Pomarancio, ecco un esaustivo podcast di Finestre sull’arte.