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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Death 2.0

Considerations about death in the age of social media

Chart

Take a look at the above Top Chart.
Blackbird is a Beatles song originally published in the 1968 White Album.
Although Paul McCartney wrote it 46 years ago, last week the song topped the iTunes charts in the Rock genre. Why?
The answer is below:

Italian articles about “daddy Blackbird”.

Chris Picco lives in California: he lost his wife Ashley, who died prematurely giving birth to litle Lennon. On November 12 a video appeared on YouTube showing Chris singing Blackbird before the incubator where his son was struggling for life; the child died just four days after birth.
The video went immediately viral, soon reaching 15 million views, bouncing from social neworks to newspapers and viceversa, with great pariticipation and a flood of sad emoticons and moving comments. This is just the last episode in a new, yet already well-established tendency of public exhibitions of suffering and mourning.

Brittany Maynard (1984-2014), terminally ill, activist for assisted suicide rights.

A recent article by Kelly Conaboy, adressing the phenomenon of tragic videos and stories going viral, uses the expression grief porn: these videos may well be a heart-felt, sincere display to begin with, but they soon become pure entertainment, giving the spectator an immediate and quick adrenaline rush; once the “emotional masturbation” is over, once our little tear has been shed, once we’ve commented and shared, we feel better. We close the browser, and go on with our lives.
If the tabloid genre of grief porn, Conaboy stresses out, is as old as sexual scandals, until now it was only limited to particularly tragic, violent, extraordinary death accounts; the internet, on the other hand, makes it possible to expose common people’s private lives. These videos could be part of a widespread exhibitionism/vouyeurism dynamics, in which the will to show off one’s pain is matched by the users’ desire to watch it — and to press the “Like” button in order to prove their sensitivity.

During the Twentieth Century we witnessed a collective removal of death. So much has been written about this removal process, there is no need to dwell on it. The real question is: is something changing? What do these new phenomenons tell us about our own relationship with death? How is it evolving?

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If death as a real, first-hand experience still remains a sorrowful mystery, a forbidden territory encompassing both the reality of the dead body (the true “scandal”) and the elaboration of grief (not so strictly coded as it once was), on the other hand we are witnessing an unprecedented pervasiveness of the representation of death.
Beyond the issues of commercialization and banalization, we have to face an ever more unhibited presence of death images in today’s society: from skulls decorating bags, pins, Tshirts as well as showing up in modern art Museums, to death becoming a communication/marketing/propaganda tool (terrorist beheadings, drug cartels execution videos, immense websites archiving raw footage of accidents, homicides and suicides). All of this is not death, it must be stressed, it’s just its image, its simulacrum — which doesn’t even require a narrative.
Referring to it as “death pornography” does make sense, given that these representations rely on what is in fact the most exciting element of classic pornography: it is what Baudrillard called hyper-reality, an image so realistic that it surpasses, or takes over, reality. (In porn videos, think of viewpoints which would be “impossibile” during the actual intercourse, think of HD resolution bringing out every detail of the actors’ skin, of 3D porn, etc. — this is also what happens with death in simulacrum.)

Damien Hirst poses with his famous For the love of God.

We can now die a million times, on the tip of a cursor, with every click starting a video or loading a picture. This omnipresence of representations of death, on the other hand, might not be a sign of an obscenity-bound, degenerated society, but rather a natural reaction and metabolization of last century’s removal. The mystery of death still untouched, its obscenity is coming apart (the obscene being brought back “on scene”) until it becomes an everyday image. To continue the parallelism with pornography, director Davide Ferrario (in his investigative book Guardami. Storie dal porno) wrote that witnessing a sexual intercourse, as a guest on an adult movie set, was not in the least exciting for him; but as soon as he looked into the camera viewfinder, everything changed and the scene became more real. Even some war photographers report that explosions do not seem real until they observe them through the camera lens. It is the dominion of the image taking over concrete objects, and if in Baudrillard’s writings this historic shift was described in somewhat apocalyptic colors, today we understand that this state of things — the imaginary overcoming reality — might not be the end of our society, but rather a new beginning.

Little by little our society is heading towards a global and globalized mythology. Intelligence — at least the classic idea of a “genius”, an individual achieving extraordinary deeds on his own — is becoming an outdated myth, giving way to the super-conscience of the web-organism, able to work more and more effectively than the single individual. There will be less and less monuments to epic characters, if this tendency proves durable, less and less heroes. More and more innovations and discoveries will be ascribable to virtual communities (but is there a virtuality opposing reality any more?), and the merit of great achievements will be distributed among a net of individuals.

In much the same way, death is changing in weight and significance.
Preservation and devotion to human remains, although both well-established traditions, are already being challenged by a new and widespread recycling sensitivity, and the idea of ecological reuse basically means taking back decomposition — abhorred for centuries by Western societies, and denied through the use of caskets preventing the body from touching the dirt. The Resurrection of the flesh, the main theological motivation behind an “intact” burial, is giving way to the idea of composting, which is a noble concept in its own right. Within this new perspective, respect for the bodies is not exclusively expressed through devotion, fear towards the bones or the inviolability of the corpse; it gives importance to the body’s usefulness, whether through organ transplant, donation to science, or reduction of its pollution impact. Destroying the body is no longer considered a taboo, but rather an act of generosity towards the environment.

At the same time, this new approach to death is slowly getting rid of the old mysterious, serious and dark overtones. Macabre fashion, black tourism or the many death-related entertainment and cultural events, trying to raise awareness about these topics (for example the London Month of the Dead, or the seminal Death Salon), are ways of dealing once and for all with the removal. Even humor and kitsch, as offensive as they might seem, are necessary steps in this transformation.

Human ashes pressed into a vinyl.

Human ashes turned into a diamond.

And so the internet is daily suggesting a kind of death which is no longer censored or denied, but openly faced, up to the point of turning it into a show.
In respect to the dizzying success of images of suffering and death, the word voyeurism is often used. But can we call it voyeurism when the stranger’s gaze is desired and requested by the “victims” themselves, for instance by terminally ill people trying to raise awareness about their condition, to leave a testimony or simply to give a voice to their pain?

Jennifer Johnson, madre di due bambini e malata terminale, nell'ultimo video prima della morte.

Jennifer Johnson, mother of two children, in her last video before she died (2012).

The exhibition of difficult personal experiences is a part of our society’s new expedient to deal with death and suffering: these are no longer taboos to be hidden and elaborated in the private sphere, but feelings worth sharing with the entire world. If at the time of big extended families, in the first decades of ‘900, grief was “spread” over the whole community, and in the second half of the century it fell back on the individual, who was lacking the instruments to elaborate it, now online community is offering a new way of allocation of suffering. Condoleances and affectionate messages can be received by perfect strangers, in a new paradigm of “superficial” but industrious solidarity.
Chris Picco, “daddy Blackbird”, certainly does not complain about the attention the video brought to him, because the users generosity made it possible for him to raise the $ 200.000 needed to cover medical expenses.

I could never articulate how much your support and your strength and your prayers and your emails and your Facebook messages and your text messages—I don’t know how any of you got my number, but there’s been a lot of me just, ‘Uh, okay, thank you, um.’ I didn’t bother going into the whole, ‘I don’t know who you are, but thank you.’ I just—it has meant so much to me, and so when I say ‘thank you’ I know exactly what you mean.

On the other end of the PC screen is the secret curiosity of those who watch images of death. Those who share these videos, more or less openly enjoying them. Is it really just “emotional masturbation”? Is this some obscene and morbid curiosity?
I personally don’t think there is such a thing as a morbid — that is, pathological — curiosity. Curiosity is an evolutionary tool which enables us to elaborate strategies for the future, and therefore it is always sane and healthy. If we examine voyeurism under this light, it turns out to be a real resource. When cars slow down at the sight of an accident, it’s not always in hope of seeing blood and guts: our brain is urging us to slow down because it needs time to investigate the situation, to elaborate what has happened, to understand what went on there. That’s exactly what the brain is wired to do — inferring data which might prove useful in the future, should we find ourselves in a similar situation.road-accidents

Accordingly, the history of theater, literature and cinema is full to the brim with tragedy, violence, disasters: the interest lies in finding out how the characters will react to the difficulties they come about. We still need the Hero’s Journey, we still need to discover how he’s going to overcome the tests he finds along the way, and to see how he will solve his problems. As kids, we carefully studied our parents to learn the appropriate response to every situation, and as adults our mind keeps amassing as much detail as possible, to try and control future obstacles.

By identifying with the father playing a sweet song to his dying son, we are confronting ourselves. “What is this man feeling? What would I do in such a predicament? Would I be able to overcome terror in this same way? Would this strategy work for me?”
The construction of our online persona comes only at a later time, when the video is over. Then it becomes important to prove to our contacts and followers that we are humane and sympathetic, that we were deeply moved, and so begins the second phase, with all the expressions of grief, the (real or fake) tears, the participation. This new paradigma, this modern kind of mourning, requires little time and resources, but it could work better than we think (again, see the success of Mr. Picco’s fund-raising campaing). And this sharing of grief is only possible on the account of the initial curiosity that made us click on that video.

And what about those people who dig even deeper into the dark side of the web, with its endless supply of images of death, and watch extremly gruesome videos?
The fundamental stimulus behind watching a video of a man who gets, let’s say, eaten alive by a crocodile, is probably the very same. At a basic lavel, we are always trying to acquire useful data to respond to the unknown, and curiosity is our weapon of defense and adaptation against an uncertain future; a future in which, almost certainly, we won’t have to fight off an alligator, but we’ll certainly need to face suffering, death and the unexpected.
The most shocking videos sometimes lure us with the promise of showing what is normally forbidden or censored: how does the human body react to a fall from a ten story building? Watching the video, it’s as if we too are falling by proxy; just like, by proxy but in a more acceptable context, we can indentify with the tragic reaction of a father watching his child die.

A weightlifter is lifting a barbell. Suddenly his knee snaps and collapses. We scream, jump off the seat, feel a stab of pain. We divert our eyes, then look again, and each time we go over the scene in our mind it’s like we are feeling a little bit of the athlete’s pain (a famous neurologic study on empathy proved that, in part, this is exactly what is going on). This is not masochism, nor a strange need to be upset: anticipation of pain is considered one of the common psychological strategies to prepare for it, and watching a video is a cheap and harmless solution.

In my opinion, the curiosity of those who watch images of suffering and death should not be stigmatized as “sick”, as it is a completely natural instinct. And this very curiosity is behind the ever growing offer of such images, as it is also what allows suffering people to stage their own condition.

The real innovations of these last few years have been the legitimization of death as a public representation, and the collectivization of the experience of grief and mourning — according to the spirit of open confrontation and sharing, typical of social media. These features will probably get more and more evident on Facebook, Twitter and similar platforms: even today, many people suffering from an illness are choosing to post real-time updates on their therapy, in fact opening the curtain over a reality (disease and hospital care) which has been concealed for a long time.

There’ll be the breaking of the ancient Western Code / Your private life will suddenly explode, sang Leonard Cohen in The Future. The great poet’s views expressed in the song are pessimistic, if not apocalyptc, as you would expect from a Twentieth century exponent. Yet it looks like this voluntary (and partial) sacrifice of the private sphere is proving to be an effective way to fix the general lack of grief elaboration codes. We talk ever more frequently about death and disease, and until now it seems that the benefits of this dialogue are exceeding the possible stress from over-exposure (see this article).

What prompted me to write this post is the feeling, albeit vague and uncertain, that a transition is taking place, before our eyes, even if it’s still all too cloudy to be clearly outlined; and of course, such a transformation cannot be immune to excesses, which inevitably affect any crisis. We shall see if these unprecedented, still partly unconscious strategies prove to be an adequate solution in dealing with our ultimate fate, or if they are bound to take other, different forms.
But something is definitely changing.

La biblioteca delle meraviglie – V

Alberto Zanchetta

FRENOLOGIA DELLA VANITAS – Il teschio nelle arti visive

(2011, Johan & Levi)

Vita, miracoli e morte del teschio. Lo splendido volume di Alberto Zanchetta racconta la storia di una trasformazione. Attraverso un unico elemento simbolico, l’effigie del teschio nella storia dell’arte, e seguendone le mutazioni di senso e di significato nel corso dei secoli, ci parla di come la nostra stessa sensibilità abbia cambiato forma con il passare del tempo. Da icona funebre a dettaglio centrale delle vanitas, fino alla moderna ubiquità che ne fa vacua decorazione e ne appiattisce ogni forza oscena, il teschio ha accompagnato dalla preistoria fino ad oggi la nostra cultura: vero e proprio specchio, le cui orbite vuote fissano l’osservatore spingendolo a meditare sull’inesorabilità del tempo e sulla morte. Come si sono serviti gli artisti di questo prodigioso elemento iconografico? Quando e perché è cambiato il suo utilizzo dal Medioevo ad oggi? C’è il rischio che l’attuale proliferare indiscriminato dei teschi, dalla moda, ai tatuaggi, ai graffiti, possa renderli “innocui” e alla lunga privarci di un simbolo forte e antico quanto l’uomo? L’autore ripercorre questa particolare storia esaminando e approfondendo di volta in volta tematiche e autori distanti fra loro nel tempo e nello spazio: da Basquiat a Cézanne, da Picasso a Witkin, da Mapplethorpe a Hirst (per citarne solo alcuni). Abbiamo parlato di tanto in tanto, qui su Bizzarro Bazar, di come la morte sia stata negata e occultata nell’ultimo secolo in Occidente; e di come oggi la sua spettacolarizzazione tenda a renderla ancora meno reale, più immaginata, pensata cioè per immagini. Zanchetta aggiunge un tassello importante a questa idea, con il suo resoconto di un simbolo che era un tempo essenziale, e si presenta ormai stanco e abusato.

Bill Bass e Jon Jefferson

LA VERA FABBRICA DEI CORPI

(2006, TEA)

Non lasciatevi ingannare dalla fuorviante traduzione del titolo originale (che si riferisce invece alla “fattoria dei corpi”). Il libro di Bass e Jefferson non parla né di androidi né di clonazioni, ma della nascita e dello sviluppo della rete di cosiddette body farms americane, fondate dallo stesso Bass: strutture universitarie in cui si studia la decomposizione umana a fini scientifici e, soprattutto, forensici. Il lavoro e la specializzazione del professor Bass è infatti comprendere, a partire da resti umani, la data e/o l’ora esatta della morte, nonché le modalità del decesso. Per raggiungere la precisione necessaria a scagionare o accusare un imputato di omicidio, gli antropologi forensi hanno dovuto comprendere a fondo come si “comporta” un cadavere in tutte le situazioni immaginabili, come reagisce agli elementi esterni, quale fauna entomologica si ciba dei resti e in quale successione temporale si avvicendano le ondate di larve e insetti. Nelle body farms, un centinaio di cadaveri all’anno vengono lasciati alle intemperie, bruciati, immersi nell’acqua, nel ghiaccio… Negli anni il dottor Bass ha ottenuto una serie di risultati decisivi per far luce su innumerevoli misteri, confluiti in un archivio consultato da tutte le polizie del mondo. Questo simpatico vecchietto oggi, guardando i resti di un cadavere, riesce a capire in breve tempo come è morto, se è stato spostato dopo la morte, da quanto tempo, eccetera.

Questo libro è uno di quelli che si leggono tutti d’un fiato, e per più di un motivo. Innanzitutto, lo stile scorrevole e semplice degli autori non è privo di una buona dose di umorismo, che aiuta a “digerire” anche i dettagli più macabri. In secondo luogo, le informazioni scientifiche sono precise e sorprendenti: non potremmo immaginare in quanti e quali modi un cadavere possa “mentire” riguardo alle sue origini, finché Bass non ci confessa tutte le false piste in cui è caduto, gli errori commessi, le situazioni senza apparente spiegazione in cui si è ritrovato. Perché La vera fabbrica dei corpi è anche un libro giallo, a suo modo, e racconta le investigazioni svoltesi in diversi casi celebri di cronaca nera. E, infine, il grande valore di queste pagine è quello di raccontarci una vita avventurosa, strana e particolare, di caccia ai killer, in stretto contatto quotidiano con la morte; la vita di un uomo che dichiara di conoscere ormai fin troppo bene il suo destino, e dice di trovare conforto nell’idea che, una volta morto, vivrà negli esseri che si sfameranno con il suo corpo. Un uomo dalla voce ironica e pacata che, nonostante tutti questi anni, continua “ad odiare le mosche”.

La donna gorilla

La trasformazione a vista d’occhio di una donna in gorilla è uno dei trucchi storici che hanno avuto maggiore successo nei luna-park, nelle fiere itineranti, nei sideshow e nei circhi di tutto il mondo. Ultimamente sta un po’ passando di moda, dopo decenni di lustro e splendore, ma qualche circo (anche italiano) utilizza ancora questa attrazione per divertire e intrattenere il pubblico.

L’attrazione consiste in questo: voi (il pubblico) entrate in una piccola stanza oscura, e vedete sul palco una gabbia illuminata. All’interno della gabbia, una donna discinta. L’imbonitore sale sul palco, e comincia ad affabularvi con la sua storia. Il più delle volte vi racconterà del celebre “anello mancante”, quel primate che si troverebbe fra lo stadio di scimmia e quello umano, che Darwin non riuscì mai a individuare. Dopo avervi rassicurato della robustezza della gabbia, e avervi preparato allo show più elettrizzante dell’intero pianeta, vi annuncerà che la ragazza sta per mutare di forma sotto ai vostri occhi! Sì, proprio lei, quella bella prigioniera che scuote le sbarre della gabbia grugnendo, è l’anello mancante! Può passare indistintamente dallo stadio umano a quello di scimmia e viceversa! “Guardate i suoi denti divenire feroci fauci, signore e signori!”

Mentre, scettici, aspettate il momento clou, comincia davvero a succedere qualcosa: lentamente, come in un morphing cinematografico, alla ragazza spuntano dei peli, le braccia divengono nere e muscolose e per ultima la sua faccia assume i tratti di uno scimmione tropicale… e poco importa se capite benissimo che il gorilla è in realtà un tizio in un costume, siete colpiti e ipnotizzati dall’effetto della trasformazione, che è talmente vivida e reale… in quel momento sospeso, in quell’attimo di sorpresa, il gorilla con un colpo secco sfonda le sbarre della gabbia, e si avventa verso di voi urlando! Nelle grida di panico e nel fuggi fuggi generale (aiutato dai circensi che, con la scusa di salvarvi la pelle, vi indirizzano gesticolando verso l’uscita), senza sapere come, vi trovate fuori dall’attrazione, insicuri e un po’ frastornati da ciò che avete visto.

Cosa è successo? Si tratta in verità di un ingegnoso trucco ottico messo a punto nei lontani anni 1860 da due scienziati, Henry Dircks e John Henry Pepper (l’effetto prenderà il nome di quest’ultimo, data la sua celebrità nell’epoca vittoriana, nonostante egli avesse più volte cercato di dare il giusto credito al vero inventore, Dircks). Inizialmente studiato per il teatro, non prese mai piede sui grandi palcoscenici: fu invece “riciclato” per i luna-park e viene tutt’ora impiegato nei più grandi parchi a tema del mondo.

Il segreto sta in un pannello di vetro o uno specchio semitrasparente, camuffato e posto tra il pubblico e la scena. Il vetro è angolato (in verde nella figura) in modo da riflettere gli oggetti che vengono illuminati in una seconda camera (nascosta al pubblico, il quale vede soltanto il palco, delimitato dal quadratino rosso). Visto da una posizione più elevata, l’effetto sarebbe visibile in questo modo:

Le due camere (quella di scena e quella “segreta”) devono combaciare perfettamente nel riflesso sul vetro. Il fantasmino nascosto nella stanza di sinistra, quando è illuminato, è visibile nel riflesso come se fosse presente veramente sulla scena; se è illuminato fiocamente, appare come una presenza ectoplasmatica; e se resta al buio, rimane completamente invisibile.

Una volta preparate con cura le due camere e il vetro, il resto diviene semplice: la donna mantiene una posizione fissa in fondo alla stanza visibile, e mentre il gorilla (il fantasma, nello schema) viene gradatamente illuminato, il pubblico vedrà i suoi peli “comparire” a poco a poco, come in una dissolvenza incrociata, sul corpo della giovane fanciulla. Finché, ad un certo punto, resterà soltanto il gorilla, capace (grazie a un cambio di luci repentino e a un calcolato “sbalzo di tensione” che oscura la scena per un paio di secondi) di balzare fuori dalla sua stanza segreta e sfondare la gabbia per gettarsi sul pubblico.

L’effetto, come già detto, era stato pensato per il teatro. Gli attori avrebbero avuto la possibilità di fingere un combattimento o un dialogo con uno spettro realistico. Il vero problema erano però i soldi: sembrava una follia riadattare tutti i teatri soltanto perché Amleto avesse finalmente la possibilità di parlare con uno spettro del padre più “evanescente” del solito.

Oggi la tecnica del “fantasma di Pepper” è utilizzata invece, oltre che nei circhi, anche in molti musei scientifici e culturali, per movimentare la didattica di alcune esibizioni.

Pagina Wikipedia (in inglese) sul Pepper’s Ghost.