Wunderkammer Reborn – Part II

(Second and last part – you can find the first one here.)

In the Nineteenth Century, wunderkammern disappeared.
The collections ended up disassembled, sold to private citizens or integrated in the newly born modern museums. Scientists, whose discipline was already defined, lost interest for the ancient kind of baroque wonder, perhaps deemed child-like in respect to the more serious postitivism.
This type of collecting continued in sporadic and marginal ways during the first decades of the Twetieth Century. Some rare antique dealer, especially in Belgium, the Netherlands or Paris, still sold some occasional mirabilia, but the golden age of the trade was long gone.
Of the few collectors of this first half of the century the most famous is André Breton, whose cabinet of curiosities is now on permanent exhibit at the Centre Pompidou.

The interest of wunderkammern began to reawaken during the Eighties from two distinct fronts: academics and artists.
On one hand, museology scholars began to recognize the role of wunderkammern as precursors of today’s museal collections; on the other, some artists fell in love with the concept of the chamber of wonders and started using it in their work as a metaphor of Man’s relationship with objects.
But the real upswing came with the internet. The neo-wunderkammer “movement” developed via the web, which opened new possibilities not only for sharing the knowledge but also to revitalize the commerce of curiosities.

Let’s take a look, as we did for the classical collections, to some conceptual elements of neo-wunderkammern.

A Democratic Wunderkammer

The first macroscopic difference with the past is that collecting curiosities is no more an exclusive of wealthy billionaires. Sure, a very-high-profile market exists, one that the majority of enthusiasts will never access; but the good news is that today, anybody who can afford an internet conection already has the means to begin a little collection. Thanks to the web, even a teenager can create his/her own shelf of wonders. All that’s needed is good will and a little patience to comb through the many natural history collectibles websites or online auctions for some real bargain.

There are now children’s books, school activities and specific courses encouraging kids to start this form of exploration of natural wonders.

The result of all this is a more democratic wunderkammer, within the reach of almost any wallet.

Reinventing Exotica

We talked about the classic category of exotica, those objects that arrived from distant colonies and from mysterious cultures.
But today, what is really exotic – etymologically, “coming from the outside, from far away”? After all we live in a world where distances don’t matter any more, and we can travel without even moving: in a bunch of seconds and a few clicks, we can virtually explore any place, from a mule track on the Andes to the jungles of Borneo.

This is a fundamental issue for the collectors, because globalization runs the risk of annihilating an important part of the very concept of wonder. Their strategies, conscious or not, are numerous.
Some collectors have turned their eyes towards the only real “external space” that is left — the cosmos; they started looking for memorabilia from the heroic times of the Space Race. Spacesuits, gear and instruments from various space missions, and even fragments of the Moon.

Others push in the opposite direction, towards the most distant past; consequently the demand for dinosaur fossils is in constant growth.

But there are other kinds of new exotica that are closer to us – indeed, they pertain directly to our own society.
Internal exoticism: not really an oxymoron, if we consider that anthropologists have long turned the instruments of ethnology towards the modern Western worold (take for instance Marc Augé). To seek what is exotic within our own cultre is to investigate liminal zones, fringe realities of our time or of the recent past.

Thus we find a recent fascination for some “taboo” areas, related for example to crime (murder weapons, investigative items, serial killer memorabilia) or death (funerary objecs and Victorian mourning apparel); the medicalia sub-category of quack remedies, as for example electric shock terapies or radioactive pharamecutical products.

Jessika M. collection – photo Brian Powell, from Morbid Curiosities (courtesy P. Gambino)

Funerary collectibles.

Violet wand kit; its low-voltage electric shock was marketed as the cure for everything.

Even curiosa, vintage or ancient erotic objects, are an example of exotica coming from a recent past which is now transfigured.

A Dialogue Between The Objects

Building a wunderkammer today is an eminently artistic endeavour. The scientific or anthropological interest, no matter how relevant, cannot help but be strictly connected to aesthetics.
There is a greater general attention to the interplay between the objects than in the past. A painting can interact with an object placed in front of it; a tribal mask can be made to “dialogue” with an other similar item from a completely different tradition. There is undoubtedly a certain dose of postmodern irreverence in this approach; for when pop culture collectibles are allowed entrance to the wunderkammer, ending up exhibited along with precious and refined antiques, the self-righteous art critic is bound to shudder (see for instance Victor Wynd‘s peculiar iconoclasm).

An example I find paradigmatic of this search for a deeper interaction are the “adventurous” juxtapositions experimented by friend Luca Cableri (the man who brought to Moon to Italy); you can read the interview he gave me if you wish to know more about him.

Wearing A Wunderkammer

Fashion is always aware of new trends, and it intercepted some aspects of the world of wunerkammern. Thanks mainly to the goth and dark subcultures, one can find jewelry and necklaces made from naturalistic specimens: on Etsy, eBay or Craigslist, countless shops specialize in hand-crafted brooches, hair clips or other fashion accessories sporting skulls, small wearable taxidermies and so on.

Conceptual Art and Rogue Taxidermists

As we said, the renewed interest also came from the art world, which found in wunderkammern an effective theoretical frame to reflect about modernity.
The first name that comes to mind is of course Damien Hirst, who took advantage of the concept both in his iconic fluid-preserved animals and in his kaleidoscopic compositions of lepidoptera and butterflies; but even his For The Love of God, the well-known skull covered in diamonds, is an excessively precious curiosity that would not have been out of place in a Sixteenth Century treasure chamber.

Hirst is not the only artist taking inspiration from the wunderkammer aesthetics. Mark Dion, for instance, creates proper cabinets of wonders for the modern era: in his work, it’s not natural specimens that are put under formaldeyde, but rather their plastic replicas or even everyday objects, from push brooms to rubber dildos. Dion builds a sort of museum of consumerism in which – yet again – Nature and Culture collide and even at times fuse together, giving us no hope of telling them apart.

In 2013 Rosamund Purcell’s installation recreated a 3D version of the Seventeenth Century Ole Worm Museum: reinvention/replica, postmodern doppelgänger and hyperreal simulachrum which allows the public to step into one of the most famous etchings in the history of wunderkammern.

Besides the “high” art world – auction houses and prestigious galleries – we are also witnessing a rejuvenation of more artisanal sectors.
This is the case with the art of taxidermy, which is enjoying a new youth: today taxidermy courses and workshops are multiplying.

Remember that in the first post I talked about taxidermy as a domestication of the scariest aspects of Nature? Well, according to the participants, these workshops offer a way to exorcise their fear of death on a comfortably small scale, through direct contact and a creative activity. (We shall return on this tactile element.)
A further push towards innovation has come from yet another digital movement, called Rogue Taxidermy.

Artistic, non-traditional taxidermy has always existed, from fake mirabilia and gaffs such as mummified sirens and Jenny Hanivers to Walter Potter‘s antropomorphic dioramas. But rogue taxidermists bring all this to a whole new level.

Initially born as a consortium of three artists – Sarina Brewer, Scott Bibus e Robert Marbury – who were interested in taxidermy in the broadest sense (Marbury does not even use real animals for his creations, but plush toys), rogue taxidermy quickly became an international movement thanks to the web.

The fantastic chimeras produced by these artists are actually meta-taxidermies: by exhibiting their medium in such a manifest way, they seem to question our own relationship with animals. A relationship that has undergone profound changes and is now moving towards a greater respect and care for the environment. One of the tenets of rogue taxidermy is in fact the use of ethically sourced materials, and the animals used in preparations all died of natural causes. (Here’s a great book tracing the evolution and work of major rogue taxidermy artists.)

Wunderkammer Reborn

So we are left with the fundamental question: why are wunderkammern enjoying such a huge success right now, after five centuries? Is it just a retro, nostalgic trend, a vintage frivolous fashion like we find in many subcultures (yes I’m looking at you, my dear hipster friends) or does its attractiveness lie in deeper urgencies?

It is perhaps too soon to put forward a hypothesis, but I shall go out on a limb anyway: it is my belief that the rebirth of wunderkammern is to be sought in a dual necessity. On one hand the need to rethink death, and on the other the need to rethink art and narratives.

Rethinking Death
(And While We’re At It, Why Not Domesticate It)

Swiss anthropologist Bernard Crettaz was among the first to voice the ever more widespread need to break the “tyrannical secrecy” regarding death, typical of the Twentieth Century: in 2004 he organized in Neuchâtel the first Café mortel, a free event in which participants could talk about grief, and discuss their fears but also their curiosities on the subject. Inspired by Crettaz’s works and ideas, Jon Underwood launched the first British Death Café in 2011. His model received an enthusiastic response, and today almost 5000 events have been held in 50 countries across the world.

Meanwhile, in the US, a real Death-Positive Movement was born.
Originated from the will to drastically change the American funeral industry, criticized by founder Caitlin Doughty, the movement aims at lifting the taboo regarding the subject of death, and promotes an open reflection on related topics and end-of-life issues. (You probably know my personal engagement in the project, to which I contributed now and then: you can read my interview to Caitlin and my report from the Death Salon in Philadelphia).

What has the taboo of death got to do with collecting wonders?
Over the years, I have had the opportunity of talking to many a collector. Almost all of them recall, “as if it were yesterday“, the emotion they felt while holding in their hands the first piece of their collection, that one piece that gave way to their obsession. And for the large majority of them it was a naturalistic specimen – an animal skeleton, a taxidermy, etc.: as a friend collector says, “you never forget your first skull“.

The tactile element is as essential today as it was in classical wunderkammern, where the public was invited to study, examine, touch the specimens firsthand.

Owning an animal skull (or even a human one) is a safe and harmless way to become familiar with the concreteness of death. This might be the reason why the macabre element of wunderkammern, which was marginal centuries ago, often becomes a prevalent aspect today.

Ryan Matthew Cohn collection – photo Dan Howell & Steve Prue, from Morbid Curiosities (courtesy P. Gambino)

Rethinking Art: The Aesthetics Of Wonder

After the decline of figurative arts, after the industrial reproducibility of pop art, after the advent of ready-made art, conceptual art reached its outer limit, giving a coup the grace to meaning.  Many contemporary artists have de facto released art not just from manual skill, from artistry, but also from the old-fashioned idea that art should always deliver a message.
Pure form, pure signifier, the new conceptual artworks are problematic because they aspire to put a full stop to art history as we know it. They look impossible to understand, precisely because they are designed to escape any discourse.
It is therefore hard to imagine in what way artistic research will overcome this emptiness made of cold appearance, polished brilliance but mere surface nonetheless; hard to tell what new horizon might open up, beyond multi-million auctions, artistars and financial hikes planned beforehand by mega-dealers and mega-collectors.

To me, it seems that the passion for wunderkammern might be a way to go back to narratives, to meaning. An antidote to the overwhelming surface. Because an object is worth its place inside a chamber of marvels only by virtue of the story it tells, the awe it arises, the vertigo it entails.
I believe I recognize in this genre of collecting a profound desire to give back reality to its lost enchantment.
Lost? No, reality never ceased to be wonderous, it is our gaze that needs to be reeducated.

From Cabinets de Curiosités (2011) – photo C. Fleurant

Eventually, a  wunderkammer is just a collection of objects, and we already live submerged in an ocean of objects.
But it is also an instrument (as it once was, as it has always been) – a magnifying glass to inspect the world and ourselves. In these bizarre and strange items, the collector seeks a magical-narrative dimension against the homologation and seriality of mass production. Whether he knows it or not, by being sensitive to the stories concealed within the objects, the emotions they convey, their unicity, the wunderkammer collector is carrying out an act of resistence: because placing value in the exception, in the exotic, is a way to seek new perspectives in spite of the Unanimous Vision.

Da Cabinets de Curiosités (2011) – foto C. Fleurant

Links, curiosities & mixed wonders – 7

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

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

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

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

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

Diogo’s head…

…Radiohead.

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


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


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

I morti in piedi

Le tradizioni funerarie, come qualsiasi altra espressione culturale, non sono fisse e immutabili ma si evolvono e variano a seconda dell’epoca e della sensibilità della società che le adotta. Non bisogna perciò stupirsi se anche nell’ambito delle pratiche di sepoltura si formano nuovi costumi, e in qualche caso delle vere e proprie mode.

È quello che succede da qualche anno nel bacino del Golfo del Messico, dove sta prendendo piede l’usanza dei muertos paraos (“morti in piedi”). Si tratta ancora di una nicchia all’interno della tradizione più classica, ma si contano già diversi casi di questa peculiare e fantasiosa attitudine nei confronti del cadavere di un defunto. Rintracciarne la storia può riservare alcune sorprese.

Il primo caso di muerto parao avvenne nel 2008 nell’isola di Porto Rico. Le spoglie di David Morales Colon, un giovane vittima di una sparatoria, per volere dei parenti vengono preparate nella camera ardente in maniera pittoresca: il cadavere è fissato sulla sua motocicletta preferita, come se stesse ancora sfrecciando a tutto gas sulla strada (l’avevamo segnalato in un vecchio post).

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Questo tipo di disposizione scenografica della salma non è, com’è intuibile, in alcun modo contemplata dalla legge, che prevede severe norme igieniche, in particolare in relazione alla vicinanza fra il pubblico e il cadavere. In effetti, sempre nel 2008, i responsabili delle pompe funebri passano qualche guaio giudiziario, soprattutto dopo che replicano l’exploit sul corpo di  Luis Angel Pantoja Medina, esposto in piedi nel salotto di famiglia per tutti e tre i giorni della veglia funebre.

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Ma è difficile imputare un vero e proprio reato agli imbalsamatori: si tratta, in definitiva, di un modo forse un po’ stravagante di onorare le passioni e gli ultimi voleri del defunto.
Nel frattempo le fotografie e i video realizzati nelle camere ardenti fanno il giro del mondo, complice la rete, e ci vuole poco perché l’idea prenda piede.

Quindi su internet compare la salma di Carlos Cabrera, alias El Che Cabrera, seduto come se stesse meditando sull’imminente rivoluzione, nel tentativo di dare un’estrema veste iconografica alla sua figura.

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Ed ecco il boxeur Christopher Rivera, le cui spoglie mortali sono fissate all’angolo di un ring, come se la morte non avesse minimamente intaccato il suo spirito battagliero: un guerriero pronto ad affrontare l’aldilà con forza e determinazione immutate.

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La moda dei muertos paraos sbarca a New Orleans. Qui “Uncle” Lionel Batiste, storico musicista e cantante jazz e blues, leader di una banda tradizionale di ottoni, decide che “nessuno guarderà il mio cadavere dall’alto in basso”. Si fa quindi imbalsamare in piedi, per l’estremo saluto.

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Allo stesso modo, lo scorso aprile la mondana Mary Cathryn “Mickey” Easterling, gran dama di New Orleans, è rimasta seduta – senza vita -, tra fiori, piume di struzzo, sigarette con bocchino, e tutto il suo usuale armamentario di seduzione, all’interno del Saenger Theatre.

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Il proprietario di una ditta di veicoli di pronto soccorso, deceduto quando un colpo di pistola è accidentalmente partito dall’arma di un suo collega, viene immortalato nell’atto di guidare un’autoambulanza.

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La moda conquista altri stati. Un biker di ben 82 anni, Bill Standley, viene seppellito in Ohio in una bara di plexiglas appositamente studiata, a cavallo della sua amata moto.

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Ma da dove nasce questa moda? È una trovata degli ultimi anni, o sono esistiti dei precursori?
Se questo trend vi sembra moderno e originale, ricordiamo qui l’antesignano Willie “The Wimp” Stokes Jr., ganster e pappone di Chicago (figlio di “Flukey” Stokes Sr.) che nel 1984 venne esposto, e in seguito seppellito, all’interno di una bara a forma di Cadillac con banconote da 100$ nascoste sotto i suoi anelli con diamante.

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E viene spontaneao azzardare un parallelo, anche soltanto pensando al patrimonio che gli Stati Uniti hanno ereditato geneticamente e culturalmente dall’Africa, fra questo peculiare tipo di rapporto con la morte, e quello esibito dalle tribù Ga-Adangme del Ghana e del Togo.
In queste popolazioni dell’Africa, infatti, vigono dei pittoreschi costumi funebri: le bare vengono realizzate da falegnami esperti, ciascuna in una foggia che richiami i gusti personali o il lavoro del defunto. Le hall di queste pompe funebri assomigliano ad un laboratorio di un parco divertimenti: se un morto viveva di pesca, il suo sarcofago sarà a forma di pesce. L’operaio, invece, verrà sepolto in una bara a forma di martello. Se il trapassato indulgeva nell’alcol, la sua cassa avrà la forma di una bottiglia, se era un gran fumatore assomiglierà ad una sigaretta, e così via. Ecco quindi che anche qui, come nella moda dei muertos paraos, il funerale non è standardizzato e identico per tutti, ma personalizzato: le bare dei Ga-Adangme sono un colorato, vivace e simbolico viatico per l’aldilà, nel rispetto delle passioni e della vita del defunto, così come si è dipanata.

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Per noi, che ancora deponiamo i nostri morti in loculi “democraticamente” identici, orizzontali, nascosti alla vista, potrebbe quasi sembrare un insulto o una mancanza di rispetto verso il morto. Ma ogni funerale non è che un simbolo volto ad elaborare il lutto, e le modalità di consegna del defunto all’ “aldilà” mutano come e quando muta la cultura.

Così, non è detto che la moda non sbarchi anche sulle coste italiche. E il cadavere di una donna, seduta al suo posto preferito, con una birra in una mano e una sigaretta nell’altra, potrebbe in futuro sembrarci meno assurdo di quanto crediamo.

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(Grazie, ipnosarcoma!)

Maschere mortuarie

Le maschere mortuarie sono una delle tradizioni più antiche del mondo, diffusa praticamente ovunque dall’Europa all’Asia all’Africa. Così come assieme al cadavere venivano spesso lasciati viveri, armi o altri oggetti che potessero servire al morto nel suo viaggio verso l’aldilà, spesso coprire il volto con una maschera garantiva al suo spirito maggiore forza e protezione. Nelle tradizioni africane queste maschere erano minacciose e terribili, per spaventare ed allontanare i dèmoni dall’anima del defunto. Nell’antico bacino del Mediterraneo, invece, la maschera veniva forgiata stilizzando le reali fattezze del morto: ricorderete certamente le più famose maschere funerarie, quella di Tutankhamen e quella attribuita tradizionalmente ad Agamennone (qui sopra).

Ma già dal basso Impero Romano, e poi nel Medio Evo, le maschere non si seppellivano più assieme al corpo, si conservavano come ricordi; inoltre si cercò di riprodurre in maniera sempre più fedele il volto del defunto. Si ricorse allora all’uso di calchi in cera o in gesso, applicati sulla faccia poco dopo la morte del soggetto da ritrarre: da questo negativo venivano poi prodotte le maschere funerarie vere e proprie. Si trattava di un processo che pochi si potevano permettere e dunque riservato a un’élite composta da nobili e sovrani – ma anche a personalità di spicco dell’arte, della letteratura o della filosofia. È grazie a questi calchi che oggi conosciamo con esattezza il volto di molti grandi del passato: Dante, Leopardi, Voltaire, Robespierre, Pascal, Newton e innumerevoli altri ancora.

La differenza con un ritratto dipinto o una scultura dal vivo è evidente: nelle maschere mortuarie non è possibile l’idealizzazione, lo scultore riproduce senza imbellettare, e ogni minimo difetto nel volto rimane impresso così come ogni grazia. Non soltanto, alcune maschere mostrano volti con fattezze già cadaveriche, occhi infossati, guance molli e cadenti, mascelle allentate. Con la sensibilità odierna ci si può domandare se sia davvero il caso di ricordare il defunto in questo stato – dubbio non soltanto moderno, visto che Eugène Delacroix aveva dato disposizioni affinché “dopo la sua morte dei suoi lineamenti non fosse conservata memoria”.

Eppure, se pensiamo che la fotografia post-mortem prenderà il posto delle maschere dalla fine del 1800, forse queste estreme, ultime immagini hanno un valore e un significato simbolico necessario. Possibile che ci raccontino qualcosa della persona a cui apparteneva quel volto? Il volto di un cadavere ci interroga sempre, pare nascondere un ambiguo segreto; quando poi si tratta del viso di un grande uomo, l’emozione è ancora più forte. Ci ricorda che la morte arriva per tutti, certo, ma segna anche la fine di una vita straordinaria, magari di un’epoca come nel caso della maschera mortuaria di Napoleone. E, soprattutto, riporta nomi celebri a una concretezza e una fisicità terrena che nessun dipinto, statua o addirittura fotografia potrà mai avere: si fanno segni della loro realtà storica, ci ricordano che questi uomini leggendari sono davvero passati di qui, hanno avuto un corpo come noi, e sono stati capaci di cambiare il mondo.

Se volete approfondire, questa pagina raccoglie molte delle principali maschere mortuarie con splendide foto; è anche consigliata una visita al Virtual Museum of Death Mask, più incentrato sulla tradizione russa, e che permette di confrontare le foto o i ritratti “in vita” e le maschere mortuarie di alcuni personaggi celebri.