Oedipus in Indonesia

This article originally apeared on #ILLUSTRATI n. 49, “Incest”

There were once two animals: a dog called Tumang, and a female boar named Celeng Wayungyang. They weren’t ordinary animals, but two deities transformed into beasts because of a sin they had committed long before.
One day, in the jungle, the sow-goddess drank the urine of a king who was hunting nearby and got pregnant; being a supernatural creature, she gave birth to her daughter within a few hours. The king, who was still in the jungle, heard the baby cry, and when he found her, he adopted her.
The little girl, called Dayang Sumbi, grew up at the palace and became a skilful weaver, a beautiful girl courted by many princes and noblemen.
One day, while she was spinning on the terrace, her loom fell down to the courtyard and since, being a princess, she could not put her feet on the ground to go and get it, Dayang Sumbi promised aloud that she would marry anyone who would bring it back to her. To her great disconcert, it was Tumang the dog the one who granted her wish, and she was obliged to marry him, unaware that he was actually a demigod. As soon as the king found out about the outrageous union between his daughter and a dog, he disowned her and banished her from the palace.
The couple went to live in a hut in the jungle, where Dayang Sumbi soon discovered that on full moon nights Tumang returned to his original appearance, turning into a young and wonderful lover; together they conceived a son, and they called him Sangkuriang.

When Sangkuriang was ten years old, his mother asked him to find a deer’s liver, for which she had a taste. So the boy went hunting in the jungle with his loyal dog Tumang (he didn’t know the dog was his father).
In the forest there was no sign of deer, but the two of them bumped into a beautiful female boar, and Sangkuriang thought that maybe her liver would do anyway. However, when he tried to kill the beast, Tumang the dog – having realized it was the goddess, which means Sangkuriang’s grandmother – diverted the bow and made him miss the target. Sangkuriang was furious and aimed his arrows at Tumang, killing him. Then he brought the dog’s liver to his mother, who cooked it believing it was wild game. As soon as she discovered the trick, though, poor Dayang Sumbi flared up, realizing that she had just eaten her husband’s liver; therefore she hit her son on the head with a ladle, and the blow was so severe that the boy completely lost his memory, and ran away into the forest, terrified.

Twelve long years passed.
Sangkuriang had become a handsome, strong and attractive young man. He didn’t remember anything at all about his mother, so when one day he accidentally met her – being the daughter of a goddess, she was still young and beautiful – he fell in love with her. They decided to get married, until one day Dayang Sumbi, while she was combing her fiancé, noticed on his head the scar left by the ladle and realized Sangkurian was her son.
She tried to convince him to break off the engagement but the young man, still a victim of amnesia, didn’t believe her and insisted that the wedding should be celebrated.

Then Dayang Sumbi devised a trick, an impossible proof of love. She told Sangkuriang she would marry him only if he managed to fill the entire valley with water: furthermore, still before the cock crowed, he should build a boat so that the two of them could sail together on the newly formed lake. The woman was sure that this was going to be an impossible task.
But, to her great surprise, Sangkuriang invoked the help of heavenly spirits and made the riverbanks collapse, filling the valley with water: he had managed to create a lake!
Then he cut down a huge tree and started to carve a boat.
Dayang Sumbi realized that her son was going to succeed in the challenge, so she feverishly started to weave huge red veils; she too prayed the heavenly creatures, and they spread the big veils along the horizon. The cocks, deceived, thought that dawn had already come and began to crow. Deceived, Sangkuriang flared up and kicked the unfinished boat upside down, which turned into an enormous mountain. The splinters formed other mountaintops around the first one.

Mount Tangkuban Perahu, its profile reminiscent of a capsized boat.

This very old legend is still told nowadays by the Sundanese people of the Island of Java, and it sounds surprising not only because of its resemblance with the story of Oedipus.
This myth actually explains the creation of the Bandung basin, of Mount Tangkuban Parahu (which literally means “capsized boat”) and of the mountains nearby. But Lake Bandung, described in the legend, is dried out since no less than 16,000 years and the mountains took shape even earlier, because of a series of volcanic eruptions.
Archaeologists and anthropologists are positive that in the colourful legend of Sankguriang and of the challenges his mother threw down at him to avoid the incestuous relationship there is a kernel of historical truth: orally handed down through generations, it seems to bear the ancestral memory of the lake which disappeared thousands of years ago and of the seismic events which gave rise to the mountain range.
On the base of this myth, scholars have therefore dated the settlement of the Sundanese people in this geographical area to approximately 50,000 years ago.

Fumone, the invisible castle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is Castle of Fumone‘s official site.

The mysteries of Sansevero Chapel – II

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The Prince, just like a sorcerer, is stirring the preparation in a big cauldron. Eventually, the long-awaited reaction takes place: a mysterious liquid is ready. On the other side of the room, the two bound and gagged servants can’t even scream anymore. The man is sobbing, while the woman, even immobilized, stays vigilant and alert — perhaps the new life she carries in her womb prevents her from giving in to fear, commanding an already impossible defense. The Prince hasn’t got much time, he has to act quickly. He pours the liquid down a strange pump, then he gets close to his victims: in their eyes he sees an unnameable terror. He starts with the man, puncturing the jugular vein and injecting the liquid right into his bloodstream with a syringe. The heart will pump the preparation throughout the body, and the Prince watches the agonizing man’s face as the dense poison begins to circulate. There, it’s all done: the servant is dead. It will take two to three hours for the mixture to solidify, and surely more than a month for the putrified flesh to fall off the skeleton and the network of veins, arteries and capillaries the process turned into marble.
Now it’s the woman’s turn.

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What you just read is the legend surrounding the two “anatomical machines” still visible in the Underground Chamber of the Sansevero Chapel. According to this story, Prince Raimondo di Sangro created them by sacrifying the life of his servants in order to obtain an exact representation of the vascular system. to an otherwise impossible to achieve level of accuracy. Even Benedetto Croce mentioned the legend in his  Storie e leggende napoletane (1919): “with the pretext of a minor fault, he had two of his servants killed, a man and a woman, and their bodies weirdly embalmed so that they showed all their internal viscera, the arteries and veins, and kept them locked in a closet…“. The two “machines” are in fact a man and a woman (pregnant, even if the fetus was stolen in the Sixties), their skeletons still wrapped in the thick net of circulatory apparatus.

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How were the “machines” really built?
The answer is maybe less exciting but also less cruel than legend has it: they were created through great expertise and great patience. And not by Raimondo di Sangro himself: in fact, the Prince commissioned this work in 1763-64 to Giuseppe Salerno, a physician from Palermo, providing for the iron wire and wax necessary to the construction, and gratifying the Sicilian artist with a nice pension for the rest of his life. If the skeletons are undoubtedly authentic, the whole vascular system was recreated using wire, which was then wrapped up in silk and later imbued in a peculiar mix of pigmented beewax and varnish, allowing the wire to be manipulated, bent in every direction and acting as a shock-absorbant material during transportation.
Giuseppe Salerno was not the only person to build such “machines”, for as early as 1753 and 1758 in Palermo a doctor called Paolo Graffeo had already presented a similar couple of anatomical models, complete with a 4-month-old fetus.

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The “black” legend about servants mercilessly killed stems from the figure of Raimondo di Sangro, whose life and work — just like the Sammartino’s Christ we talked about in our previous article — seem to be covered by a veil, albeit a symbolic one.
An extraordinary intellectual and inventor, chemistry, physics and technology enthusiast, Raimondo di Sangro was always regarded as suspisious because of his Freemasonry and alchemic interests, so much so that he became some sort of devil in popular fantasy.

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At the dawn of science, in the middle of XVIII Century, rationalism had yet to abandon alchemic symbology: alchemists obviously worked on concrete matter (chemistry will later grow from these very researches), but every procedure or preparation was also interpreted according to different metaphysical readings. Raimondo di Sangro claimed he invented tens of contraptions, such as a folding stage, a color typography, a sea chariot, hydraulic machines and alchemic marbles, fireproof paper and waterproof tissues, and even a much-celebrated “eternal candle”; but all the information about these creations come from his own Lettera apologetica, published in 1750, and some scholars maintain that these very inventions, whether they really existed or not, should be interpreted as symbols of the Prince’s alchemic research. Accordingly, the originary placement of the “anatomical machines”, inside the Phoenix Apartment on a revolving platform, looks like a symbolic choice: maybe Raimondo di Sangro thought of them as a depiction of the rubedo, a stage in the search for the philosopher’s stone in which matter recomposes itself, granting immortality.

Today, the two “machines” still amaze scholars for their realism and accuracy, and they prove that in the XVIII Century an almost perfect knowledge of the circulatory system had already been reached. Modern versions of these models, created through injection of sylicon polymers (this time on real cadavers), can be seen throughout the well-known Body Worlds exhibitions coordinated by Gunther Von Hagens, the inventor of plastination.

Here is some more info (in Italian): an article on the Prince buying the machines; an in-depth analysis of his inventions’ esoteric symbolism; an essay on Raimondo di Sangro in reference to his relationship with Free Masonry. And, of course, the Sansevero Chapel Museum website.

You can read the first part of this article here.

The mysteries of Sansevero Chapel – I

If you have never fallen victim to the Stendhal syndrome, then you probably have yet to visit the Cappella Sansevero in Naples.
The experience is hard to describe. Entering this space, full to the brim with works of art, you might almost feel assaulted by beauty, a beauty you cannot escape, filling every detail of your field of vision. The crucial difference here, in respect to any other baroque art collection, is that some of the works exposed inside the chapel do not offer just an aesthetic pleasure, but hinge on a second, deeper level of emotion: wonder.
Some of these are seemingly “impossible” sculptures, much too elaborate and realistic to be the result of a simple chisel, and the gracefulness of shapes is rendered with a technical dexterity that is hard to conceive.

The Release from Deception (Il Disinganno), is, for example, an astounding sculpted group: one could spend hours admiring the intricate net, held by the male figure, and wonder how Queirolo was able to extract it from a single marble block.

The Chastity (La Pudicizia) by Corradini, with its drapery veiling the female character as if it was transparent, is another “mystery” of sculpting technique, where the stone seems to have lost its weight, becoming ethereal and almost floating. Imagine how the artist started his work from a squared block of marble, how his mind’s eye “saw” this figure inside of it, how he patiently removed all which didn’t belong, freeing the figure from the stone little by little, smoothing the surface, refining, chiselling every wrinkle of her veil.

But the attention is mostly drawn by the most famous art piece displayed in the chapel, the Veiled Christ.
This sculpture has fascinated visitors for two and a half centuries, astounding artists and writers (from the Marquis de Sade to Canova), and is considered one of the world’s best sculpted masterpieces.
Completed in 1753 by Giuseppe Sanmartino and commissioned by Raimondo di Sangro, it portrays Christ deposed after crucifixion, covered by a transparent veil. This veil is rendered with such subtlety as to be almost deceiving to the eye, and the effect seen in person is really striking: one gets the impression that the “real” sculpture is lying underneath, and that the shroud could be easily grabbed and lifted.

It’s precisely because of Sanmartino’s extraordinary virtuosity in sculpting the veil that a legend surrounding this Christ dies hard – fooling from time to time even specialized magazines and otherwise irreproachable art websites.
Legend has it that prince Raimondo di Sangro, who commissioned the work, actually fabricated the veil himself, laying it down over Sanmartino’s sculpture and petrifying it with an alchemic method of his own invention; hence the phenomenal liquidness of the drapery, and the “transparence” of the tissue.

This legend keeps coming back, in the internet era, thanks to articles such as this:

The news is the recent discovery that the veil is not made of marble, as was believed until now, but of fine cloth, marbled through an alchemic procedure by the Prince himself, so that it became a whole with the underlying sculpture. In the Notarial Archives, the contract between Raimondo di Sangro and Sanmartino regarding the statue has been found. In it, the sculptor commits himself to deliver “a good and perfect statue depicting Our Lord dead in a natural pose, to be shown inside the Prince’s gentilitial church”. Raimondo di Sangro binds himself, in addition to supplying the marble, “to make a Shroud of weaved fabric, which will be placed over the sculpture; after this, the Prince will manipulate it through his own inventions; that is, coating the veil with a subtle layer of pulverized marble… until it looks like it’s sculpted with the statue”. Sammartino also commits to “never reveal, after completing the statue, the Prince’s method for making the shroud that covers the statue”. With this amazing contract, comes another document describing the recipe for powdered marble. If the two documents unequivocally prove the limits of Sammartino’s skills, they also show the alchemic genius of Sansevero, who put his expertise at the service of the hermetic doctrine, realizing one of the most important mysteric images of christian symbolism, that Holy Shroud Jesus was wrapped in, after he died on the cross.

(Excerpt from Restaurars)

Digging a bit deeper, it looks like this “sensational” discovery is not even recent, but goes back to the Eighties. It was made by neapolitan researcher Clara Miccinelli, who became interested in Raimondo di Sangro after being contacted by his spirit during a seance. Miccinelli published a couple of books, in 1982 and 1984, centered on the enigmatic figure of the Prince, freemason and alchemist, a character depicted in folklore as both a mad scientist and a genius.
The document Miccinelli found in the Archives is actually a fake. Here is what the Sansevero Chapel Museum has to say about it:

The document […], transcribed and published by Clara Miccinelli, is unanimously considered nonauthentic by scholars. In particular, a very accurate analysis of the document was conducted by Prof. Rosanna Cioffi, who in note 107, page 147 of her book “La Cappella Sansevero. Arte barocca e ideologia massonica” (sec. ed., Salerno 1994) lists and discusses as much as nine reasons – frankly inconfutable – for which the document cannot be held to be authentic (from the absence of watermark on the paper, to the handwriting being different from every other deed compiled by notary Liborio Scala, to the fact that the sheet of paper is loose and not included in the volume collecting all the deeds for the year 1752, to the notary’s “signum” which just in this document is different from all the other deeds, etc.). […] There are on the other hand certainly authentic documents, that can be consulted freely and publicly, in the Historic Archive of the Banco di Napoli, unearthed by Eduardo Nappi and published on different occasions: from a negotiable instrument dated December 16 1752, in which Raimondo di Sangro describes the statue in the making as “a statue of Our Lord being dead, and covered with a veil from the same marble”, to the payment of 30 ducats (as a settlment of 500 ducats) on February 13 1754, in which the Prince of Sansevero unequivocally describes the Christ as being “covered with a transparent shroud of the same marble”. All this without taking into account one of the Prince’s famous letters to Giraldi on the “eternal light”, published for the first time in May 1753 in “Novelle Letterarie” in Florence, in which he thus talks about the Christ: “the marble statue of Our Lord Jesus Christ being dead, wrapped in a transparent veil of the same marble, but executed with such expertise as to fool the most accurate observers”. […]
All the documentary evidence, therefore, points to one conclusion: the Veiled Christ is a work entirely made of marble. To settle things once and for all, there was eventually a scientific non-invasive analysis conducted by the company “Ars Mensurae”, which concluded that the only material present in this work is marble. The analysis report was published in 2008 in: S. Ridolfi, “Analisi di materiale lapideo tramite sistema portatile di Fluorescenza X: il caso del ‘Cristo Velato’ nella Cappella Sansevero di Napoli”. […]
We believe that the fact that Sanmartino’s Christ is entirely made from marble only adds charm […] to the work.

Miccinelli has subsequently found in her home a chest containing an incredible series of Jesuit manuscripts which completely overturn the whole precolonial history of Andean civilizations as we know it. The “case” has divided the ethnological community, even jeopardizing accademic relationships with Peru (see this English article), as many italian specialists believe the documents to be authentic, whereas by the majority of Anglosaxon and South American scholars they are considered artfully constructed fakes. The harsh debate did not discourage Miccinelli, who just can’t seem to be able to open a drawer without discovering some rare unpublished work: in 1991 it was the turn of an original writing by Dumas, which enabled her to decrypt the alchemical symbologies of the Count of Monte Cristo.

The second part of this article is dedicated to another legend surrounding the Sansevero Chapel, namely the one regarding the two “anatomical machines” preserved in the Underground Chamber. You can read it here.

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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La sconosciuta della Senna

Parliamo oggi di una delle più romantiche ed enigmatiche figure di inizio ‘900: l’inconnue de la Seine.

La leggenda vuole che a Parigi, a fine ‘800, il corpo di una donna venisse ripescato dalla Senna – avvenimento non straordinario per l’epoca. Portata all’obitorio, un operatore funebre restò affascinato dalla sua bellezza, ma sopratutto rimase impressionato dal sorriso della ragazza: un sorriso che restituiva una tale idea di pace e serenità da ricordare quello della Gioconda. La giovane suicida doveva aver trovato, nel suo ultimo gesto, quella felicità che le era stata negata in vita.

Così l’impiegato della morgue eseguì una maschera mortuaria della bella sconosciuta, cioè un calco in gesso del suo viso. Dopodiché il corpo fu esposto nella vetrina dell’obitorio, com’era uso fare a quei tempi, affinché qualcuno dei passanti potesse identificarlo (vista con occhi contemporanei, una simile usanza può sembrare strana ma la morte, allora, non era ancora il tabù occultato e nascosto che è al giorno d’oggi).

Nessuno riconobbe la salma, che trovò una sepoltura comune e anonima.

Da quando la leggenda si diffuse, la “sconosciuta della Senna” divenne in breve tempo un clamoroso caso che stimolava la fascinazione macabra della Parigi bohémienne dei primi del ‘900. Cominciarono a circolare molte copie della maschera mortuaria, che andarono a ruba. Una seconda serie di calchi venne addirittura fatta a partire da una fotografia di quello originale, e queste “copie di copie” riproducevano dei dettagli compleamente irrealistici – ma tant’è, anche questa seconda ondata fu esaurita nel giro di pochi mesi. Pareva che tutti gli intellettuali e gli artisti fossero innamorati di questo viso enigmatico, e mille dissertazioni furono fatte sul suo sorriso e su quello che poteva rivelare della vita, della posizione sociale o della morte della povera ragazza. Le maschere mortuarie dell’inconnue addobbavano case e salotti esclusivi: secondo quanto riportato da alcune testimonianze, la ragazza divenne addirittura un ideale erotico, tanto da ispirare l’acconciatura dei capelli di un’intera generazione femminile, e da suggerire ad attrici del teatro e del cinema il look vincente.

La sconosciuta della Senna apparve in poemi, romanzi, pièce teatrali, novelle – ma non stiamo parlando di libriccini scandalistici. Per farvi capire la statura degli autori che ne scrissero, basta un veloce elenco di nomi: Rilke, Nabokov, Camus, Aragon, più recentemente Palahniuk

Ma chi era veramente la sconosciuta della Senna? Mille teorie sono state avanzate, tra cui quella che vuole che la giovane donna non fosse morta suicida, ma vittima di un omicidio. Il dottor Harry Battley è convinto di aver trovato in un negozio di anticaglie una fotografia della sconosciuta ancora in vita. Secondo le sue “ricerche” si tratterebbe di un’artista ungherese di music-hall, invischiata in un torbido adulterio di cui avrebbe pagato le conseguenze… insomma, vi risparmiamo i dettagli: la fotografia è interessante, ma la teoria che ci sta dietro è quantomeno bislacca.

La verità è probabilmente molto lontana dalla leggenda, e sicuramente molto meno romantica. Chiunque abbia un minimo di familiarità con le scienze forensi avrà già capito che il volto dell’inconnue ha davvero poche possibilità di essere il volto di un’annegata. Georges Villa, illustratore, dice di avrer saputo dal suo maestro Jules Lefebvre che il modello era in realtà una giovane donna morta di tubercolosi nel 1875.

Che il pesante calco utilizzato per le maschere mortuarie potesse poi immortalare un lieve e delicato sorriso come quello della sconosciuta, è altrettanto improbabile. Il sorriso potrebbe, in effetti, essere stato scolpito a posteriori sul negativo del calco. Secondo Claire Forestier, che lavora nella ditta di modelli in gesso che probabilmente all’epoca prese il calco, la sconosciuta non era affatto morta, ma era una viva e vegeta modella di 16 anni.

Non sapremo mai con certezza l’identità della sconosciuta che appassionò e fece innamorare mezza Europa. Ma la sua macabra storia finisce con un inaspettato, surreale happy ending.

Nel 1958, in America, venne costruito il primo manichino di addestramento per il pronto soccorso, chiamato Rescue Annie (o Resusci Annie). Indovinate un po’? I suoi inventori decisero di regalargli il volto della sconosciuta della Senna. Utilizzato nell’addestramento al massaggio cardiaco e alla respirazione bocca a bocca, il volto della sconosciuta (oltre ad aver contribuito a salvare molte vite) divenne così “il più baciato del mondo”.

Un sito (in inglese) che esplora in modo molto approfondito la leggenda, le teorie di omicidio ma soprattutto l’eredità lasciata da questa figura nella letteratura, nell’arte e nella musica del ‘900 è The Legend Of The Inconnue.

r. Harry Battley

Vagina dentata

The Latin expression vagina dentata defines one of the most ancient archetypes of mankind: mythical representations of female genitalia equipped with ferocious dentition can be found in very different cultures and traditions.

In what can be read as an early warning against the dangers of the vagina, Hesiod recounts how, even before being born, Chronos castrated his understably surprised father Uranus from inside his mother Gaia’s vulva. In many other mythological tales, the hero on his quest has to pass through the gigantic vagina, armed with teeth, of a goddess: this happens in the Maori foundation myths, as well as in those of the Chaco tribes of Paraguay, or the Guyanese people. From North America populations to South East Asia, this monstrous menace was a primal fear. In Europe, particularly in Ireland and Grat Britain, cathedrals and castle fortifications sported the Sheela na Gig, gargoyles showing oversized, unsettling vulvas.

As you can guess, this myth is linked to an exquisitely masculine unconscious terror, so much so that Sigmund Freud interpreted it as a symbol of castration anxiety, that fear every male adolescent feels when first confronted with the female reproductive organ. Others see it as an allegory of the frustration of masculine vigor, which in a sexual intercourse enters “triumphantly” and always leaves “diminished”. In this sense, it is clear how the vagina dentata might be related to the ancient theme of the puella venenata (the “poisonous girl”), to other myths such as the succubus (which was perhaps meant to explain nocturnal emissions), and female spermophagus figures, who feed on men’s vital force, as for example the Mesopotamian demon Lilith.

The history of the vagina dentata, which was sometimes told to children, could have also served as a deterrent against molesters or occasional sex. Even in recent times, during the Vietnam War, a legend circulated among American troops regarding Viet Cong prostitutes who allegedly inserted razor blades or broken glass in their intimate parts, with the intent of mutilating those unwary soldiers who engaged in sex.

What few people know is that, in a purely theoretical way, a toothed vagina could be biologically possible. Dermoid cysts are masses of specialized cells; if these cells end up in the wrong part of the body, they can grow hair, bones or teeth. Inguinal dermoid cysts, however, do not localize in the vaginal area, but usually near ovaries. And even in the implausible scenario of a complete dentition being produced, the teeth would be incapsulated inside the cyst’s own tissue anyway.

Therefore, despite stories on the internet about mysterious “medical cases” of internal cysts growing teeth that pierce the uterus walls, in reality the vagina dentata remains just a fascinating myth.

As expected, this uncanny idea has been exploited in the movies: the most recent case is the comedy horror film Teeth (2007, directed by M. Lichtenstein), the story of a young girl who finds out her private parts behave rather aggressively during intercourse. Less ambitious, and more aware of the humorous potential of its subject matter, is the Japanese B-movie Sexual Parasite: Killer Pussy (2004, by T. Nakano).

In Tokyo Gore Police (2008, by Y. Nishimura) a mutant girl grows a crocodile mandible in place of her thighs:

Many great authors have written about vagina dentata, including the great Tommaso Landolfi, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, Neil Gaiman, Mario Vargas Llosa and others.