Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: Episode 2

In the 2nd episode of the Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: pharmacy mummies and products of the human body used in medicine; a mysterious artist; a theater built from the carcass of a whale. [Remember to turn English subtitles on.]

If you like this episode be sure to subscribe to the channel, and most of all spread the word. Enjoy!

Written & Hosted by Ivan Cenzi
Directed by Francesco Erba
Produced by Ivan Cenzi, Francesco Erba, Theatrum Mundi & Onda Videoproduzioni

Pestilence, Sacred Trees And A Glass of Tonic Water

I have a soft spot for tonic water. Maybe because it’s the only soda beverage with a taste I never fully understood, impossible to describe: an ambiguous aroma, a strange contrast between that pinch of sugar and a sour vein that makes your palate dry.
Every now and then, during summer evenings, I happen to take a sip on my balcony while I watch the Alban Hills, where the Roman Castles cling to a long-dead volcano. And as I bring the glass to my lips, I can’t help thinking about how strange history of mankind can be.

Kings, wars, crusades, invasions, revolutions and so on. What is the most powerful cause for change? What agent produced the most dramatic long-term modification of human society?
The answer is: epidemics.
According to some historians, no other element has had such a profound impact on our culture, so much so that without the Plague, social and scientific progress as we know it might not have been possible (I wrote about this some time ago). With each stroke of epidemic, the survivors were left less numerous and much richer, so the arts and sciences could develop and flourish; but the plague also changed the history of medicine and its methods.

“Plague” is actually a very generic word, just like “disease”: it was used throughout history to define different kinds of epidemic. Among these, one of the most ancient and probably the worst that ever hit mankind, was malaria.

It is believed that malaria killed more people than all other causes of death put together throughout the entire human history.
In spite of an impressive reduction of the disease burden in the last decade, the World Health Organization estimates that as many as 300 million people are infected by the disease every year. That’s about the size of the entire US population. Of those who fall sick, more than 400,000 die every year, mostly children: malaria claims the life of one child every two minutes.

Malaria takes its name from the Italian words “mala aria”, the bad air one could breathe in the marshes and swamps that surrounded the city of Rome. It was believed that the filthy, smelly air was the cause of the ague. (Giovanni Maria Lancisi suggested in 1712 that mosquitoes might have something to do with the epidemic, but only at the end of the Nineteenth century Sir Ronald Ross, an English Nobel-awarded gentleman, proved that malaria is transmitted by the Anopheles mosquito.)

Back in Medieval Rome, every summer brought back the scourge, and people died by the hundreds. The plague hit indistinctively: it killed aristocrats, warriors, peasants, cardinals, even Popes. As Goffredo da Viterbo wrote in 1167, “When unable to defend herself by the sword, Rome could defend herself by means of the fever”.

Malaria was widespread throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa. Yet, no one knew exactly what it was, nor did they know how to treat it. There was no cure, no remedy.

Well, this is the part that really blows my mind. I cannot shake the feeling that someone was playing a bad joke on us humans. Because, actually, there was a remedy. But the mocking Gods had placed it in a land which had never been attained by malaria. Worse: it was in a land that no one had discovered yet.

As Europe continued to be ravaged by the terrible marsh fevers, the solution was lying hidden in the jungles of Peru.

Enter the Jesuits.
Their first mission in Peru was founded in 1609. Jesuits could not perform medicine: the instructions left by the founder of the order, St Ignatius of Loyola, forbade his followers to become doctors, for they should only focus on the souls of men. Despite being expressly forbidden to practice medicine, Jesuit priests often turned their attention to the study of herbs and plants. Father Agustino Salumbrino was a Jesuit, and a pharmacist. He was among the firsts missionaries in Peru, and he lived in the College of San Pablo in Lima, putting his knowledge of pharmacy to good use as he built what would become the best and biggest pharmacy in the whole New World. Jesuits wanted to convert the natives to Catholicism, but understood that it couldn’t be done by means of force: first they needed to understand the indios and their culture. The native healers, of course, knew all sorts of plant remedies, and the priests took good notice of all this knowledge, picking never-before-seen plants and herbs, recording and detailing their effects.
That’s when they noted that the Indians who lived in the Andes sometimes drank infusions of a particular bark to stop from shivering. The Jesuits made the connection: maybe that bark could be effective in the treatment of marsh fevers.

By the early 1630s Father Salumbrino (possibly with the help of another Jesuit, Bernabé Cobo) decided to send a small bundle of this dried bark back to Rome, to see if it could help with malaria.
In Rome, at the time, there was another extraordinary character: Cardinal Juan De Lugo, director of the pharmacy of the Hospital Santo Spirito. He was the one responsible for turning the pharmacy from an artisan studio to something approaching an industrial production line: under his direction, the apothecary resembled nothing that had gone before it, either in scale or vision. Thousands of jars and bottles. shelves filled with recipes for preparations of medicines, prescriptions for their use and descriptions of illnesses and symptoms. De Lugo would cure the poor, distributing free medicine. When the Peruvian bark arrived in Rome, De Lugo understood its potential and decided to publicize the medicine as much as he could: this was the first remedy that actually worked against the fever.

Peru handing Science a cinchona branch (XVII C. etching).

The bark of the cinchona tree contains 4 different alkaloids that act against the malaria parasite, the most important of which is quinine. Quinine’s secret is that it calms the fever and shivering but also kills the parasite that causes malaria, so it can be used both as a cure and a preventive treatment.

But not everyone was happy with the arrival of this new, miraculous bark powder.

First of all, it had been discovered by Jesuits. Therefore, all Protestants immediately refused to take the medicine. They just could not accept that the cure for the most ancient and deadly of diseases came from their religious rivals. So, in Holland, Germany and England pretty much everybody rejected the cure.
Secondly, the bark was awfully bitter. “We knew it, those Jesuits are trying to poison us!

But maybe the most violent refusal came from the world of medicine itself.
This might not come as a surprise, once you know how doctors treated malaria before quinine. Many medieval cures involved transferring the disease onto animals or objects: a sheep was brought into the bedroom of a fever patient, and holy chants were recited to displace the ailment from the human to the beast. One cure that was still popular in the seventeenth century involved a sweet apple and an incantation to the three kings who followed the star to Bethlehem: “Cut the apple into three parts. In the first part, write the words Ave Gaspari. In the second write Ave Balthasar, in the third Ave Melchior. Then eat each segment early on three consecutive mornings, and recite three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys”.

Even after the Middle Ages, the medical orthodoxy still blindly believed in Galen‘s teachings. Traditionalists who wanted to preserve the ancient doctrine of Galenic medicine at any cost felt the cinchona bark would overturn their view of the human body – and it was actually going to. According to Galen, fever was a bile-caused disorder: it was not a symptom but a disease in itself. A patient with a high fever was said to be suffering from “fermentation” of the blood. When fermented, blood behaved a little like boiling milk, producing a thick residue that to be got rid of before the patient could recover. For this reason the preferred treatments for fever were bleeding, purging, or both.
But Peruvian bark seemed to be curing the fever without producing any residue. How could it be possible?

The years passed, and the success of the cure came from those who tried it: no one knew why, but it worked. In time, cinchona bark would change the way doctors approached diseases: it would provide one of decisive blows against Galen’s doctrine, and open the door to modern medicine.

A big breakthrough for the acceptance of Jesuits Bark came from a guy named Robert Tabor. Talbor was not a doctor: he had no proper training, he was just a quack. But he managed to become quite famous and fashionable, and when summoned to cure Charles II of England of malaria, he used a secret remedy which he had been experimenting with. It worked, and of course it turned out to be the Jesuits powder, mixed with wine. Charles appointed Talbor as his personal physician much to the fury of the English medical establishment and sent him over to France where he proceeded to cure the King’s son too. Without really realizing it, Talbor had discovered the right way to administrate cinchona bark: the most potent mixtures were made by dissolving the powder into wine — not water — as the cinchona alkaloids were highly soluble in alcohol.

By the end of the 18th century, nearly three hundred ships were arriving in Spanish ports from the Americas every year — almost one each day. One out of three came from Peru, none of which ever failed to carry cinchona bark.

Caventou & Pelletier.

And in 1820, quinine was officially born: two scientists, Pelletier and Caventou, succeeded in isolating the chemical quinine and worked out how to extract the alkaloid from the wood. They named their drug from the original Inca word for the cinchona tree bark, quina or quina-quina, which means “bark of barks” or “holy bark”.

Many other battles were fought for quinine, lives were risked and lost. In the 1840s and 1850s British soldiers and colonials in India were using more than 700 tons of bark every year, but the Spanish had the monopoly on quinine. English and Dutch explorers began to smuggle seeds, and it was the Dutch who finally succeded in establishing plantations in Java, soon controlling the world’s supplies.

During WWII the Japanese occupied Java, and once more men wnt to war over tree bark extract; but fortunately this time a synthetic version of quinine was developed, and for the first time pharmaceutical companies were able to produce the drugs without the need for big plantations.

Troops based in the Colonies all consumed anti-fever, quinine-based pharmaceuticals, like for instance Warburg’s Tincture. This led to the creation, through the addition of soda, of several  QuinineTonic Waters; in 1870 Schweppe’s “Indian Tonic Water” was commercialized, based on the famous carbonated mineral water invented around 1790 by Swiss watchmaker Jacob Schweppe. Indian Tonic Water was specifically aimed at British colonials who started each day with a strong dose of bitter quinine sulphate. It contained citric acid, to dissolve the quinine, and a touch of sugar.

So here I am, now, looking at the Alban Hills. The place where I live is precisely where the dreaded ancient swamps once began; the deadly “bad air” originated from these very lands.
Of course, malaria was eradicated in the 1950s throughout the Italian peninsula. Yet every time I pour myself a glass of tonic water, and taste its bitter quinine flavor, I can’t help thinking about the strange history of mankind — in which a holy tree from across the ocean might prove more valuable than all the kings, wars and crusades in the world.

Most of the info in this post are taken from Fiammetta Rocco, The Miraculous Fever-Tree. Malaria, medicine and the cure that changed the world (2003 Harper-Collins).

My week of English wonders – II

(Continued from the previous post)

The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art & Natural History still resides in its original location, in Mare Street, Hackney, East London (some years ago I sent over a trusted correspondant and published his ironic reportage).
Many things have changed since then: in 2014, the owner launched a 1-month Kickstarter campaign which earned him £ 16,000, allowing him to turn his eclectic collection into a proper museum, complete with a small cocktail bar, an art gallery and an underground dinining room. Just a couple of tables, to be precise; but it’s hard to think of another place where guests can dine around an authentic 19th century skeleton.

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The outrageous bad taste of placing human remains inside a dinner table is a good example of the sacrilegious vein that runs through the whole disposition of objects collected by Viktor: here the very idea of the museum as a high-culture institution is deconstructed and openly mocked. Refined works of art lay beside pornographic paperbacks, rare and precious ancient artifacts are on display next to McDonald’s Happy Meal toy surprises.

But this is not a meaningless jumble — it goes back to the original idea of a Museum being the domain of the Muses, a place of inspiration, of mysterious and unexpected connections, of a real attack to the senses. And this wunderkammer could infuriate wunderkammern purists.

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When I met up with him, Viktor Wynd didn’t even need to talk about himself. Among dodo bones, giant crabs, anatomical models, skulls and unique books, unmatched from their very titles — for instance Group Sex: A How-To Guide, or If You Want Closure in Your Relationship, Start with Your Legs — the museum owner was immersed in the objectification of his boundless imagination. As he moved along the display cases in his immense collection (insured for 1 million pounds), he looked like he was wandering through the rooms of his own mind.
Artist, surrealist and intellectual dandy, his life story as fascinating as his projects, Viktor always talks about the Museum as an inevitable necessity: “I need beauty and the uncanny, the funny and the silly, the odd and the rare. Rare and beautiful things are the barrier between me and a bottomless pit of misery and despair“.

And this strange bistro of wonders, where he holds conferences, cocktail parties, masqued balls, exhibitions, dinners, is certainly a rare and beautiful thing.

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I then moved to the London Bridge area. In front of Borough Market is St. Thomas Street, where old St. Thomas church stands embedded between modern buildings. It was not the church itself I was interested in, but rather its garret.
The attic under the church’s roof hosts a little known museum with a peculiar history.

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The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret is located in the space where all pharmaceuticals were prepared and stored, to be used in the annexed St. Thomas Hospital. A first section of the museum is dedicated to medicinal plants and antique therapeutic instruments. On display are several devices no longer in use, such as tools for cupping, bleeding and trepanation, and other quite menacing contraptions. But, together with its unique location, what gives this part of the museum its almost fantastic dimension is the sharp fragrance of dried flowers, herbs and spices (typical of other ancient pharmacies).

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If the pharmacy is thought to have been active since the 18th Century, only in 1822 a part of the garret was transformed into operating theatre — one of the oldest in Europe.
Here the patients from the female ward were operated. They were mostly poor women, who agreed to go under the knife before a crowd of medicine students, but in return were treated by the best surgeons available at the time, a privilege they could not have afforded otherwise.
Operations were usually the last resort, when all other remedies had failed. Without anestetics, unaware of the importance of hygiene measures, surgeons had to rely solely on their own swiftness and precision (see for instance my post about Robert Liston). The results were predictable: despite all efforts, given the often already critical conditions of the patients, intraoperative and postoperative mortality was very high.

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The last two places awaiting me in London turned out to be the only ones where photographs were not allowed. And this is a particularly interesting detail.

The first was of course the Hunterian Museum.
Over two floors are displayed thousands of veterinary and human anatomical specimens collected by famed Scottish surgeon John Hunter (in Leicester Square you can see his sculpted bust).
Among them, the preparations acquired by John Evelyn in Padua stand out as the oldest in Europe, and illustrate the vascular and nervous systems. The other “star” of the Museum is the skeleton of Charles Byrne, the “Irish giant” who died in 1783. Byrne was so terrified of ending up in an anatomical museum that he hired some fishermen to throw his corpse offshore. This unfortunately didn’t stop John Hunter who, determined to take possession of that extraordinary body, bribed the fishermen and paid a huge amount of money to get hold of his trophy.

The specimens, some of which pathological, are extremely interesting and yet everything seemed a bit cold if compared to the charm of old Italian anatomy museums, or even to the garret I had just visited in St. Thomas Church. What I felt was missing was the atmosphere, the narrative: the human body, especially the pathological body, in my view is a true theatrical play, a tragic spectacle, but here the dramatic dimension was carefully avoided. Upon reading the museum labels, I could actually perceive a certain urgency to stress the value and expressly scientific purpose of the collection. This is probably a response to the debate on ethical implications of displaying human remains in museums, a topic which gained much attention in the past few years. The Hunterian Museum is, after all, the place where the bones of the Irish giant, unscrupulously stolen to the ocean waves, are still displayed in a big glass case and might seem “helpless” under the visitors’ gaze.

My last place of wonder, and one of London’s best-kept secrets, is the Wildgoose Memorial Library.
The work of one single person, artist Jane Wildgoose, this library is part of her private home, can be visited by appointment and reached through a series of directions which make the trip look like a tresure hunt.
And a tresure it is indeed.

Jane is a kind and gentle spirit, the incarnation of serene hospitality.
Before disappearing to make some coffee, she whispered: “take your time to skim the titles, or to leaf through a couple of pages… and to read the objects“.
The objects she was referring to are really the heart of her library, which besides the books also houses plaster casts, sculptures, Victorian mourning hair wreaths, old fans and fashion items, daguerrotypes, engravings, seashells, urns, death masks, animal skulls. Yet, compared to so many other collections of wonders I have seen over the years, this one struck me for its compositional grace, for the evident, painstaking attention accorded to the objects’ disposition. But there was something else, which eluded me at that moment.

As Jane came back into the room holding the coffee tray, I noticed her smile looked slightly tense. In her eyes I could guess a mixture of expectation and faint embarassement. I was, after all, an outsider she had intentionally let into the cosiness of her home. If the miracle of a mutual harmony was to happen, this could turn out to be one of those rare moments of actual contact between strangers; but the stakes were high. This woman was presenting me with everything she held most sacred — “a poet is a naked person“, Bob Dylan once wrote — and now it all came down to my sensibility.

We began to talk, and she told me of her life spent safeguarding objects, trying to understand them, to recognize their hidden relationships: from the time when, as a child, she collected seashells on the southern shores of England, up to her latest art installations. Little by little, I started to realize what was that specific trait in her collection which at first I could not clearly pinpoint: the empathy, the humanity.
The Wildgoose Memorial Library is not meant to explore the concept of death, but rather the concept of grief. Jane is interested in the traces of our passage, in the signs that sorrow inevitably leaves behind, in the absence, in the longing and loss. This is what lies at the core of her works, commissioned by the most prestigious institutions, in which I feel she is attempting to process unresolved, unknown bereavements. That’s why she patiently fathoms the archives searching for traces of life and sorrow; that’s why her attention for the soul of things enabled her to see, for instance, how a cold catalogue accompanying the 1786 sale of Margaret Cavendish’s goods after her death could actually be the Duchess’s most intimate portrait, a key to unearthing her passions and her friendships.

This living room, I realized, is where Jane tries to mend heartaches — not just her own, but also those of her fellow human beings, and even those of the deceased.

And suddenly the Hunterian Museum came to my mind.
There, as in this living room, human remains were present.
There, as in this living room, the objects on display spoke about suffering and death.
There, as in this living room, pictures were not allowed, for the sake of respect and discretion.

Yet the two collections could not be more distant from each other, placed at opposite extremes of the spectrum.
On one hand, the aseptic showcases, the modern setting from which all emotion is removed, where the Obscene Body (in order to be explained, and accepted by the public) must be filtered through a detached, scientific gaze. The same Museum which, ironically, has to deal with the lack of ethics of its founders, who lived in a time when collecting anatomical specimens posed very little moral dilemmas.
On the other, this oasis of meditation, a personal vision of human beings and their impermanence enclosed in the warm, dark wood of Jane Wildgoose’s old library; a place where compassion is not only tangible, it gets under your skin; a place which can only exist because of its creator’s ethical concerns. And, ultimately, a research facility addressing death as an essential experience we should not be afraid of: it’s no accident the library is dedicated to Persephone because, as Jane pointed out, there’s “no winter without summer“.

Perhaps we need both opposites, as we would with two different medicines. To study the body without forgetting about the soul, and viceversa.
On the express train back to the airport, I stared at a clear sky between the passing trees. Not a single cloud in sight. No rain without sun, I told myself. And so much for the preconceptions I held at the beginning of my journey.

Mummie officinali

mummia

Se vi dicessimo che soltanto tre secoli fa i nostri antenati praticavano diffusamente il cannibalismo, non ci credereste. E certamente non staremmo parlando di cadaveri smembrati e fatti arrosto sulla griglia. Esistono forme più sottili e meno eclatanti per mangiare un morto.

Fino al 1800 in Europa coloro che erano affetti da qualche tipo di malattia sapevano di poter contare su uno dei farmaci più potenti e ricercati di sempre: le mummie.
A patto di poterselo permettere, si aveva facoltà di acquistare tutta una varietà di unguenti, oli, tinture e polveri estratti da cadaveri mummificati, per uso esterno ed interno. Alcuni di questi rimedi andavano spalmati sulla parte dolorante, altri servivano per impacchi da porre direttamente sulle ferite aperte, altri ancora venivano assunti per via orale oppure inalati. Curavano quasi ogni genere di disturbo, dall’emicrania all’epilessia, dal mal di stomaco al mal di denti, dalle punture velenose alle ulcere, e via dicendo.

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Da quando furono scoperte nelle tombe egizie, le mummie esercitarono immediatamente un fortissimo fascino sull’immaginario occidentale: corpi miracolosamente incorrotti, sottoposti a un misterioso procedimento che rendeva le loro carni impermeabili al passare del tempo. L’idea che le mummie potessero avere degli effetti benefici contro le malattie e per allungare la vita derivava da due concetti molto in voga nei secoli passati.
Da una parte c’era la dottrina della transplantatio, mutuata da Paracelso, secondo cui un corpo morto poteva ancora “trasferire” le sue qualità spirituali: dal punto di vista antropologico, quest’idea è molto simile al cannibalismo rituale vero e proprio, in cui il corpo del nemico viene mangiato per ottenere il suo coraggio e la forza dimostrata in battaglia – e alcuni hanno voluto leggere perfino nel rituale dell’Eucarestia la stessa volontà, tramite la libagione simbolica delle carni (il “corpo di Cristo”), di appropriarsi dei caratteri spirituali superiori del defunto/santo.
Dall’altra parte si credeva nel principio terapeutico denominato similia similibus, vale a dire che il male andava sconfitto con qualcosa che gli fosse simile. In questo senso, per il corpo umano nessun ritrovato terapeutico poteva essere più efficace che il corpo umano stesso. Tutte le secrezioni prodotte in vita erano utilizzate come farmaci, e com’è naturale anche il corpo morto aveva le sue virtù.

Ma non pensiate che queste pratiche fossero appannaggio dell’antichità. Il corpo umano era considerato insostituibile per la guarigione da disturbi e malattie ancora a metà del ‘700, tanto che la Farmacopea di James del 1758 riporta alla voce Homo:

l’Uomo non è solo il soggetto della medicina, ma anche contribuisce dal suo corpo molte cose alla Materia Medica. I [composti] semplici delle Officine, tratti dal corpo umano ancora vivo, sono i peli, le ugne, la saliva, la cera delle orecchie, il sudore, il latte, il sangue mestruo, le secondine, l’orina, il sangue e la membrana che copre la testa del feto […].

Altre fonti citano fra i prodotti naturali del corpo umano da utilizzare come farmaci anche il seme, lo sterco, i vermi intestinali, i calcoli, i pidocchi. Il testo medico precedente continua così:

Li semplici poi, che si traggono dal cadavero umano, sono la Mummia, che ha una superfizie resinosa, indurita, nera, e risplendente, di sapore alquanto acre, e amaretto, e di odore fragrante.

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Con queste premesse, è ovvio che le straordinarie mummie egiziane, che tanto stupore avevano suscitato fin dai tempi di Erodoto, fossero ritenute fra le più raffinate panacee esistenti. Le resine e gli unguenti utilizzati per conservare il cadavere in Egitto non facevano che esaltare le proprietà curative del cadavere stesso. Per questo motivo, tutte le farmacopee del XVII e XVIII secolo avvertono che vi sono sul mercato tipi differenti di mummia, e che bisogna saperli ben distinguere per non farsi “fregare” al momento dell’acquisto. La categorizzazione più precisa è forse quella di Johann Schroder (1600-1664), contenuta nella sua Pharmacopoeia:

1. Mummia degli Arabi, che è il liquame, o liquore, denso che essuda dai cadaveri nel sepolcro conditi con aloe, Mirra e Balsamo.
2. Degli Egiziani, che è il liquame sprigionato dai cadaveri conditi con il Pissasfalto [pece + asfalto]. Sicuramente così venivano conditi i cadaveri dei poveri, e pertanto non si trovano facilmente esposti cadaveri in tal modo conditi.
3. Pissasfalto composto, cioè bitume misto a pece, che rivendicano essere vera Mummia.
4. Cadavere disseccato sotto l’arena arsa dal Sole. Si trova nella regione degli Ammoni, che è tra la regione di Cirene ed Alessandria, dove le Sirti deserte, sollevato il turbine dei venti, seppelliscono i corpi degli incauti viandanti, e qui asciugano e seccano i loro cadaveri per il calore del Sole ardente.
5. A queste si può aggiungere la Mummia recente.

Le mummie più pregiate rimasero sempre le mummie “nere”, egiziane, rubate dai nobili mausolei e dalle tombe più antiche; le meno efficaci invece erano quelle “recenti”, ovvero dei cadaveri morti da poco, trattati in modo che le proprietà benefiche ne fossero esaltate. Dato il fiorente mercato di mummie o parti di mummia (il porto di Venezia era rinomato per questo particolare smercio), bisognava davvero fare attenzione a tutti quei venditori disonesti che si procuravano dei cadaveri, li essiccavano frettolosamente e cercavano di farli passare per mummie autentiche.
Se invece si voleva fare le cose per bene, anche in assenza di una Mumia d’elite egiziana, si poteva ricorrere alla Basilica Chymica (1608), in cui Osvald Croll esponeva la ricetta per la preparazione della mummia di Paracelso, detta Filosofica o Spirituale:

Si prenda il cadavere di un uomo rosso, sano, appena morto di morte vergognosa, di circa ventiquattro anni, impiccato, tritato dalla Ruota o impalato, raccolto con un tempo sereno, di notte o di giorno. Questa Mummia, una volta colorata ed irradiata da due finestre, si trita a pezzi o a briciole e si cosparge di polvere di Mirra, di almeno un po’ di Aloe (poiché troppa la renderebbe amara), poi si imbeve, lasciandola macerare per qualche giorno in spirito di vino; viene a sospendersene un poco e si imbeve per la seconda volta, dal momento che quanto è venuto a sospendersi si seccherebbe inutilmente all’aria sino a prender l’aspetto della carne arrostita senza odore. Poi con lo Spirito di vino, come secondo l’arte, o con quello Sambucino, si estrae una tintura rubicondissima.

Avete letto bene, grappa o sambuca di mummia. Ovviamente qui la transplantatio di cui parlavamo prima, ossia il passaggio delle qualità spirituali dal morto al vivo, viene dimenticata (chi vorrebbe assumere le qualità di un criminale condannato a morte?) in favore di un’attenzione particolare per la buona “salute” del cadavere – giovane, di pelle chiara, senza macchie e fisicamente sano. La formula di Croll, con qualche variante, resterà la base per tutti i preparati di mummia officinale in età moderna, talvolta chiamata mummia liquida, Mummia dei Medici Chimici, ecc.

Verso la fine del XVIII secolo la mummia comincerà pian piano a sparire dalle farmacopee ufficiali, sostituita da nuovi composti, in concomitanza con il progresso della chimica applicata e della farmacologia. Questa commistione, ai nostri occhi inconcepibile, di medicina galenica e di alchimia andrà affievolendosi fino ad essere totalmente rifiutata dalla scienza nella prima metà dell’800. Le due discipline si separeranno definitivamente, e le mummie superstiti troveranno posto nei musei, invece che sugli scaffali dei farmacisti.

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Le informazioni contenute in questo articolo provengono dallo studio di Silvia Marinozzi, La mummia come rimedio terapeutico, in Le mummie e l’arte medica nell’Evo Moderno, Medicina nei Secoli, Supplemento 1, 2005.

Museo dell’Arte Sanitaria

Del Museo Storico Nazionale dell’Arte Sanitaria avevamo già parlato molto brevemente nella nostra vecchia serie di articoli sui musei anatomici italiani; torniamo ad occuparcene, un po’ più approfonditamente, perché si tratta a nostro avviso di una piccola perla nascosta e in parte dimenticata, inspiegabilmente più famosa all’estero che da noi – tanto che la maggior parte dei visitatori sono stranieri.

Il museo, fondato nel 1933, si trova in un’ala dell’Ospedale Santo Spirito in Sassia, a Roma, e si propone di illustrare la lunga strada che la medicina, la farmacologia e la chirurgia hanno percorso dall’antichità ad oggi, tramite reperti e ricostruzioni straordinarie.

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Entrando nella Sala Alessandrina, si possono ammirare le tavole anatomiche colorate di Paolo Mascagni, incluse alcune a grandezza naturale che mostrano i vari sistemi (linfatico, muscolare, circolatorio, osseo). Si salgono le scale, e ci si ritrova immediatamente in quella che è forse la stanza più spettacolare dell’intero museo, la sala Flajani.

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Qui sono esposti alcuni impressionanti preparati anatomici, a secco e in formalina, di diverse malformazioni natali: dalle lesioni ossee provocate dalla sifilide, al fenomeno dei gemelli siamesi, dalla macrocefalia alla bicefalia, e via dicendo.

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Scheletri fetali, feti mummificati o sotto liquido, sono presentati assieme a una magnifica collezione di cere anatomiche, tra la quali spiccano la serie di studi ostetrici sulle varie fasi dello sviluppo prenatale (anomalie incluse) e alcuni busti a grandezza naturale di rara bellezza.

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La sala ospita anche una collezione di preparati anatomici più antichi, realizzati con tecniche desuete e dall’effetto finale curioso e straniante. In queste teche spiccano alcuni feti siamesi mummificati.

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Nella sala sono anche presenti un antico mortaio per la preparazione del chinino (che sconfisse la malaria nel ‘700, importato dalle Americhe dai padri gesuiti), e una collezione di calcoli estratti chirurgicamente nell’800 all’Ospedale del Santo Spirito.

Dopo questa prima sala, comincia il vero e proprio viaggio nella storia della medicina; dai primi rimedi misteriosi, come il bezoario (palla calcarea che si forma nell’intestino dei ruminanti e al quale venivano attribuite virtù terapeutiche) o il corno dell’unicorno (che nella realtà era un raro dente di narvalo), agli ex voto romani ed etruschi, risulta evidente come la medicina degli albori fosse inscindibile dall’universo magico.

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Il museo ospita anche una ricostruzione accurata di come si doveva presentare il laboratorio di un alchimista, sei o sette secoli fa: gli alambicchi, le storte, il forno, i matracci, le bocce, i mortai sono esposti in maniera estremamente scenografica. La sapienza alchemica univa il potere del simbolo alla conoscenza pratica delle virtù taumaturgiche degli elementi; una volta epurata dal mito, questa antica arte darà origine alla scienza farmacologica.

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A fianco, ecco la ricostruzione di una farmacia del 1600, con il banco dello speziale che assomiglia a un imponente trono, e gli scaffali ricolmi di vasi che contenevano le differenti spezie che soltanto il farmacista sapeva dosare e mischiare efficacemente.

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Le varie teche contenengono poi le collezioni di strumenti chirurgici o diagnostici: antichi trapani per craniotomie, lancette per i salassi, seghe da amputazione, forcipi, specula, e via dicendo; uno degli oggetti più curiosi è la “siringa battesimale”, che veniva riempita di acqua santa ed utilizzata per battezzare in utero quei feti che rischiavano di essere abortiti.

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In quest’ultima sala, oltre a rarità come ad esempio un’antica poltrona per partorienti, o una “venere anatomica”, troviamo altri tre reperti eccezionali: due preparati a secco del sistema nervoso centrale e periferico a grandezza naturale, e la mano di una bambina “metallizzata” da Angelo Motta di Cremona nel 1881, con un procedimento tuttora segreto.

Ecco il sito ufficiale del Museo Storico dell’Arte Sanitaria.

L’uomo mellificato

In alcuni degli ultimi post, qui su Bizzarro Bazar, abbiamo parlato di terapie mediche che oggi appaiono poco ortodosse, come le sanguisughe, o la lobotomia. Circonfuso dall’alone misterioso della leggenda, ecco a voi uno dei rimedi più estremi dell’arte medica: l’uomo mellificato.

Il farmacologo e medico cinese Li Shizhen (1518-1593), nel suo enciclopedico trattato Bencao Gangmu (“Compendio di materia medica”) parla di questo antico rimedio, attribuendo la tradizione agli Arabi. La “ricetta” di questa panacea per tutti i mali è quantomeno sorprendente.

Serviva innanzitutto un vecchio, dai 70 agli 80 anni di età, a cui restasse poco da vivere e che si proponesse volontariamente come “donatore” (così lo definiremmo oggi). L’uomo veniva quindi nutrito esclusivamente con il miele, sempre e soltanto con il miele. Veniva immerso ogni giorno in vasche di miele.

Dopo circa un mese, il corpo era completamente impregnato e purificato dalla dolce sostanza: anche le urine e le feci erano esclusivamente costituite da miele. Abitualmente, dopo questo periodo, il vecchio moriva. Veniva quindi posto in un’apposita bara di pietra, e interamente ricoperto di miele. Sul coperchio della bara veniva apposta una targa con la data esatta della morte.

Dopo cento anni, durante i quali il cadavere era lentamente macerato nel miele, i sigilli venivano tolti, e la bara scoperchiata. La “confettura” a base di miele e resti umani veniva quindi posta nei barattoli, e venduta a peso d’oro. Andava spalmata sugli arti feriti o rotti (sembra che fosse un toccasana per le fratture). Ma c’è di peggio: il composto, se preso per via orale, guariva immediatamente da ogni male.

Lo stesso Li Shizhen ci tiene a sottolineare che non sa se si tratti di una leggenda o di una pratica reale. Certo è che il miele è stato un ingrediente fondamentale delle pratiche funerarie in molte culture differenti, anche grazie alla sua lunga conservazione. Per migliaia di anni (almeno 2700) il miele è stato usato per curare le ferite, ma soltanto recentemente sono state chimicamente spiegate le sue proprietà antisettiche e antibatteriche. Anche in Occidente, comunque, i corpi dei morti sono stati utilizzati come ingredienti farmaceutici: dal Medioevo fino al diciottesimo secolo era credenza comune che i preparati medicinali a base di polvere di mummia fossero particolarmente potenti, e nell’impero romano il sangue dei gladiatori morti veniva utilizzato come rimedio per l’epilessia. Queste convinzioni si possono collegare anche al vero e proprio cannibalismo, che si fonda spesso sull’idea di incorporare e assumere, assieme alla carne del defunto, anche le sue virtù e qualità.

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