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).

The Grim Reaper at the Chessboard

Few games lend themselves to philosophical metaphors like the game of chess.
The two armies, one dark and one bright, have been battling each other for millennia in endless struggle. An abstract fight of mathematical perfection, as mankind’s “terrible love of war” is inscribed within an orthogonal grid which is only superficially reassuring.
The chessboard hides in fact an impossible combinatory vertigo, an infinity of variations. One should not be fooled by the apparent simplicity of the scheme (the estimate of all possible games is a staggering number), and remember that famous Pharaoh who, upon accepting to pay a grain of wheat on the first square and to double the number of grains on the following squares, found himself ruined.

The battle of 32 pieces on the 64 squares inspired, aside from the obvious martial allegories, several poems tracing the analogy between the chessboard and the Universe itself, and between the pawns and human condition.
The most ancient and famous is one of Omar Khayyám‘s quatrains:

Tis all a Chequer-board of nights and days
Where Destiny with men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the closet lays.

This idea of God moving men over the chessboard as he pleases might look somewhat disquieting, but Jorge Luis Borges multiplied it into an infinite regress, asking if God himself might be an unknowing piece on a larger chessboard:

Weakling king,  slanting bishop, relentless
Queen, direct rook and cunning pawn
Seek and wage their armed battle
Across the black and white of the field.

They know not that the player’s notorious
Hand governs their destiny,
They know not that a rigor adamantine
Subjects their will and rules their day.

The player also is a prisoner
(The saying  is Omar’s) of another board
Of black nights and of white days.

God moves the player, and he, the piece.
Which god behind God begets the plot
Of dust and time and dream and agonies?

This cosmic game is of course all about free will, but is also part of the wider context of memento mori and of Death being  the Great Leveler. Whether we are Kings or Bishops, rooks or simple pawns; whether we fight for the White or Black side; whether our army wins or loses — the true outcome of the battle is already set. We will all end up being put back in the box with all other pieces, down in “time’s common grave“.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Death many times sat at the chessboard before Man.

In the oldest representations, the skeleton was depicted as cruel and dangerous, ready to violently clutch the unsuspecting bystander; but by the late Middle Ages, with the birth of the Danse Macabre (and possibly with the influence of the haunting but not malevolent Breton figure of Ankou) the skeleton had become unarmed and peaceful, even prone to dancing, in a carnival feast which, while reminding the viewer of his inevitable fate, also had an exorcistic quality.

That Death might be willing to allow Man a game of chess, therefore, is connected with a more positive idea in respect to previous iconographic themes (Triumph of Death, Last Judgement, the Three Kings, etc.). But it goes further than that: the very fact that the Reaper could now be challenged, suggests the beginning of Renaissance thought.

In fact, in depictions of Death playing chess, just like in the Danse Macabre, there are no

allusions or symbols directly pointing to the apocalyptic presence of religion, nor to the necessity of its rituals; for instance, there are no elements suggesting the need of receiving, in the final act, the extreme confort of a priest or the absolution as a viaticum for the next world, which would stress the feeling of impotence of man. Portrayed in the Danse Macabre is a man who sees himself as a part of the world, who acknowledges his being the maker of change in personal and social reality, who is inscribed in historical perspective.

(A. Tanfoglio, Lo spettacolo della morte… Quaderni di estetica e mimesi del bello nell’arte macabra in Europa, Vol. 4, 1985)

The man making his moves against Death was no more a Medieval man, but a modern one.
Later on, the Devil himself was destined to be beat at the game: according to the legend, Sixteenth Century chess master Paolo Boi from Syracuse played a game against a mysterious stranger, who left horrified when on the chessboard the pieces formed the shape of a cross…

But what is probably the most interesting episode happened in recent times, in 1985.
A Dr. Wolfgang Eisenbeiss and an aquaintance decided to arrange a very peculiar match: it was to be played between two great chess masters, one living and one dead.
The execution of the game would be made possible thanks to Robert Rollans, a “trustworthy” medium with no knowledge of chess (so as not to influence the outcome).
The odd party soon found a living player who was willing to try the experiment, chess grandmaster Viktor Korchnoi; contacting the challenger proved to be a little more difficult, but on June 15 the spirit of Géza Maróczy, who had died more than 30 years before on May 29, 1951, agreed to pick up the challenge.
Comunicating the moves between the two adversaries, through the psychic’s automatic writing, also took more time than expected. The game lasted 7 years and 8 months, until the Maróczy’s ghost eventually gave up, after 47 moves.

This “supernatural” game shows that the symbolic value of chess survived through the centuries.
One of the most ancient games is still providing inspiration for human creativity, from literature (Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass was built upon a chess enigma) to painting, from sculpture to modern so-called mysteries (how could chess not play a part in Rennes-le-Château mythology?).
From time to time, the 64 squares have been used as an emblem of seduction and flirtation, of political challenges, or of the great battle between the White and the Black, a battle going on within ourselves, on the chessboard of our soul.

It is ultimately an ambiguous, dual fascination.
The chessboard provides a finite, clear, rationalist battlefield. It shows life as a series of strategical decisions, of rules and predictable movements. We fancy a game with intrinsic accuracy and logic.
And yet every game is uncertain, and there’s always the possibility that the true “endgame” will suddenly catch us off guard, as it did with the Pharaoh:

CLOV (fixed gaze, tonelessly):
Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished.
(Pause.)
Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap.

(Thanks, Mauro!)

Links, curiosities & mixed wonders – 2

Tomorrow I will be at Winchester University to take part in a three-day interdisciplinary conference focusing on Death, art and anatomy. My talk will focus on memento mori in relation to the Capuchin Crypt in Rome — which, together with other Italian religious ossuaries, I explored in my Mors Pretiosa.
Waiting to tell you more about the event, and about the following days I will spend in London, I leave you with some curiosities to savour.

  • SynDaver Labs, which already created a synthetic cadaver for autopsies (I wrote about it in this post), is developing a canine version for veterinary surgery training. This puppy, like his human analogue, can breathe, bleed and even die.

  • Even if it turned out to be fake, this would still be one of the tastiest news in recent times: in Sculcoates, East Yorks, some ghost hunters were visiting a Nineteenth century cemetery when they suddenly heard some strange, eerie moanings. Ghost monks roaming through the graves? A demonic presence haunting this sacred place? None of the above. In the graveyard someone was secretely shooting a porno.
  • Speaking of unusual places to make love, why not inside a whale? It happened in the 1930s at Gotheburg Museum of Natural History, hosting the only completely taxidermied blue whale inside of which a lounge was built, equipped with benches and carpets. After a couple was caught having sex in there, the cetacean was unfortunately closed to the public.

  • In case you’ve missed it, there was also a man who turned a whale’s carcass into a theatre.
  • The borders of medieval manuscripts sometimes feature rabbits engaged in unlikely battles and different cruelties. Why? According to this article, it was basically a satire.

  • If you think warmongering rabbits are bizarre, wait until you see cats with jetpacks on their backs, depicted in some Sixteenth century miniatures. Here is a National Geographic article about them.

  • One last iconographic enigma. What was the meaning of the strange Sixteenth century engravings showing a satyr fathoming a woman’s private parts with a plumb line? An in-depth and quite beautiful study (sorry, Italian only) unveils the mystery.

  • Adventurous lives: Violet Constance Jessop was an ocean liner stewardess who in 1911 survived the Olympia ship incident. Then in 1912 she survived the sinking of the Titanic. And in 1916 the sinking of the Britannic.

  • Here is my piece about Johnny Eck, the Half-Boy, on the new issue of Illustrati dedicated to vices and virtues.

Ecstatic bodies: hagiography and eroticism

la_pal2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pompero_batoni,_estasi_di_s._caterina_da_siena,_1743,_da_s._caterina,_lu_2

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

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

Codex_Bodmer_127_039v_Detail

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

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

Tela_Sant'Agata_Lecce

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

Francisco_de_Zurbarán_035

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sebastiano_del_Piombo_001

Transi

Il transi (termine francese, da leggersi accentato) è una particolare scultura funeraria diffusasi prima in Francia e poi in Europa dal XIV° al XVII° Secolo.

Nel Medioevo non tutti potevano permettersi una lapide istoriata o addirittura un busto scolpito: era un privilegio costoso, riservato alle alte cariche ecclesiastiche, ai nobili, ai reali. Solitamente, quindi, sui monumenti funebri (chiamati gisant) e le lastre tombali medievali il defunto veniva rappresentato sereno, dal pacifico sorriso, e comunque vestito di abiti e corredi che identificavano e sottolineavano la sua condizione sociale. La morte, in questa rappresentazione classica derivante dalle effigi romane, non è molto più che un sonno ad occhi aperti, in cui il dormiente sembra già bearsi delle visioni ultraterrene che lo attendono.

Invece, a sorpresa, fra il 1300 e il 1400 in Francia cominciò ad apparire un nuovo tipo di rappresentazione, detto appunto transi, termine originario che gli studiosi hanno tratto dai documenti d’epoca in cui tali sculture venivano commissionate. Si tratta, come dice il nome, di sculture incentrate sulla “transitorietà”, sul passaggio dal mondo terreno dei vivi al Regno dei Cieli. Il corpo del defunto viene quindi spogliato di ogni orpello e segno di nobiltà e raffigurato come un cadavere in piena putrefazione, rinsecchito, dalla pelle lacerata e infestata di larve.

In alcuni casi, per marcare ancora meglio questa differenza, la parte alta del monumento funebre mostra il morto com’era in vita, con tanto di corone, armature o corredi sacri, mentre la parte bassa ci rivela la vanità di questi sfarzosi simboli di potere, nella forma di uno scheletro roso dai vermi.

Con il gusto del macabro tipico del tardo gotico, il transi è inteso come un vero e proprio memento mori, e agisce non soltanto come crudele simbolo della vanità dell’esistenza ma anche come vero e proprio strumento di conversione: non a caso la maggioranza di queste sculture sono ubicate all’interno delle chiese, a servire da contemplazione e ammonimento. Le iscrizioni sulle tombe recitano immancabilmente lo stesso appello all’umiltà e al pentimento: “sarai presto come me, orrido cadavere, pasto dei vermi” (tomba di Guillaume de Harcigny), “chiunque tu sia, verrai abbattuto dalla morte. Resta qui, stai in guardia, piangi. Io sono ciò che tu sarai, un mucchio di cenere. Implora, prega per me” (transi a Clermont in Val-D’Oise).

Alcuni transi vennero realizzati addirittura quando il soggetto ritratto non era ancora deceduto. Rimane interessante il monumento funebre ordinato da Caterina de’ Medici a Girolamo della Robbia, e mai completato: la rappresentazione del corpo della regina morta, con il capo riverso e il petto scheletrico e gonfio, venne probabilmente giudicato troppo atroce da Caterina stessa, che per adornare la propria tomba si orientò verso qualcosa di più “classico”.

Il transi marca una rottura importante nell’iconografia nel Medioevo, ed è un curioso indizio di come è cambiata la visione della morte attraverso il tempo. Nato in un secolo in cui guerra, carestia e peste avevano falcidiato la metà della popolazione, propone una rappresentazione realistica e senza sconti della caducità del corpo umano. Eppure, si tratta pur sempre di una effigie sacra, che sottintende un momento di passaggio da una realtà a quella successiva, e che va inteso come strumento di meditazione e preghiera. Se violenza c’è, in questa raffigurazione, non è nei confronti del defunto ma verso i vivi che contemplano la scena, per scuotere le coscienze e ricordare che la stessa sorte attende i poveri derelitti, così come i ricchi e potenti.

(Grazie, Edo!)