Merry Christmas!

During this holiday season, more than ever, there’s been so much talking about trees.
It seems that the latest fad is positioning Christmas trees upside down. I have my doubts about the “medieval origins” of this “tradition” (as some suggested), but upside down trees definitely have a bizarre and surreal element which I do not dislike.

But here in Italy, and especially in Rome, we’ve been also talking about “Mangy” Christmas trees that fell short of everybody’s expectations.
Leaving all political issues aside, I would like to take these “deviant” trees as a pretext to wish you all a weird, nonconventional, offbeat Christmas.

And to do this, there’s nothing better that this funny little story, narrated by Tom Waits during one of his gigs.

Once upon a time in a forest, there were two trees: there was the crooked tree, and there was the straight tree. And all day long the straight tree would look over at the crooked tree, saying “Look at you, you’re crooked! You’re crooked — look at your branches, they’re crooked too! Even your leaves, they’re crooked! You’re probably crooked underground as well… but look at me. I’m tall. I’m straight. But you’re crooked!”
So one day… the lumberjacks came into the forest.
And they took a look around. And one of them said “Bob, cut off the straight trees.”
And that crooked tree is still there to this day, growing stronger, and stranger, every day.

Happy Holidays!

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).

2017: A New Year of Wonders

New Year’s Day is just a convention; yet this holiday’s ultimate meaning is to make us aware of seasons, of the cyclic nature of things, to remind us that Time is both an incessant end and a continuous beginning. We suddenly feel able to turn the page, to start anew, allowing ourselves those very reveries and hopes we held back until the day before. New Year’s Day is the time to dream new dreams.

As for Bizzarro Bazar, 2017 promises to be an annus mirabilis: plenty of new things coming our way.
I still have to keep most of these projects secret (they wouldn’t be suprises, would they), but all will be revealed in due time throughout the year.

A first anticipation leaked out yesterday on Facebook.
Cult+, an RSI (Swiss Radio and Television) web format, will devote some episodes of the next season to the macabre and curious side of Rome: who do you think they called to be their guide?

The eccentric Ronco (Stefano Roncoroni, creator of the series), asked me to introduce him not just to the darker side of the Capital and Italy’s macabre heritage, but also to Rome’s underworld of seekers, scholars and creators of wonder.
An ever more present reality, which — I say this with a bit of pride — is emerging also thanks to this blog acting as a catalyst, in particular with the successful initiatives of the Academy of Enchantment. The Swiss crew was present at one of our meetings at the wunderkammer Mirabilia, interviewing both lecturers and participants from the audience; it will be interesting to see what a foreign eye saw in our passions!
You can follow all the developments on Cult+ Facebook page.

But every new year also entails looking back.
Therefore, as a welcome to 2017, I thought I would gather my four years of collaborations with the art magazine Illustrati, published by Logos, in one single e-book.

The Illustrati Archives 2012-2016 is an anthology of all the articles published on the magazine until now, pieces which never appeared on this blog.
Here’s a glance of what awaits you:

A deaf and dumb abbott sculpting a secret, monumental work; several men surviving for six years trapped in a bunker; one single man causes more damage to the planet than any other organism in the history of the world. And then: trousers made of human skin, zombie ants, haunted forests, mini porn stars, wacky scientific theories, and the mystery of the color blue – which for the ancient Greeks did not exist.

Three dollars for thirty treats of wonder.
The Kindle e-book is available at this link.
(My gratitude to those who will choose to support Bizzarro Bazar this way.)

And now back to work, unearthing new oddities, of which reality is always prodigal.
Because “the larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder“.

Booksigning 2016

There will be plenty of opportunities to meet before the year is over.

His Anatomical Majesty will be presented at the University of Padova on November 22. Here are the event details:


But that’s not all. Besides the usual appointment at Lucca Comics & Games (tomorrow you will find me there, at the stand Logos, E137 Napoleone), I will also be in Florence on November 3 to converse with Claudio Romo, author of Nueva Carne — not to mention all the events of the Academy of Enchantment, taking place every Sunday in Rome.

If you want your book copy signed, if you would love to chat a bit about those topics you never get to discuss with anybody (because how-can-you-like-things-like-that) or even just to drop by and say hello, here is my schedule.
See you soon!

The Academy of Enchantment

The time has finally come to unveil the project I have been spending a good part of this year on.

Everything started with a place, a curious secret nestled in the heart of Rome, a stone’s throw away from the Circo Massimo. Very likely, my favorite haven in the whole city: the wunderkammer Mirabilia, a cabinet of wonders recreating the philosophy and taste of sixteenth-century collections, from which modern museums evolved.

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Taxidermied giraffes and lions, high-profile artworks and rarities from all over the world were gathered here after many years of research and adventures by the gallery owner, Giano Del Bufalo, a young collector I previously wrote about.

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This baroque studio, where beauty marries the macabre and the wonderful, has become for me a special spot in which to withdraw and to dream, especially after a hard day.
Given these premises, it was just a matter of time before the idea of a collaboration between Bizzarro Bazar and Mirabilia was born.

And now we’re getting there.
On October 9, within this gallery’s perfect setting, the Academy of Enchantment will open its doors.

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What Giano and I have designed is an alternative cultural center, unprecedented in the Italian scenario and tailor-made for the lovers of the unusual.
The Academy will host a series of meetings with scientists, writers, artists and scholars who devoted their lives to the exploration of reality’s strangest facets: they range from mummification specialists to magic books researchers, from pathologists to gothic literature experts, from sex historians to some of the most original contemporary artists.

You can easily guess how much this project is close to my heart, as it represents a physical transposition of many years of work on this blog. But the privilege of planning its ‘bursting into’ the real world has been accorded only by the friendly willingness of a whole number of kindred spirits I have met over the years thanks to Bizzarro Bazar.
I was surprised and actually a bit intimidated by the enthusiasm shown by these extraordinary people, whom I hold in the highest regard: University professors, filmmakers, illusionists and collectors of oddities all warmly responded to my call for action, which can be summarized by the ambitious objective of “cultivating the vertigo of amazement”.

I address a similar appeal to this blog’s followers: spread the word, share the news and participate to the events if you can. It will be a unique occasion to listen and discuss, to meet these exceptional lecturers in person, to train your dream muscles… but above all it will be an opportunity to find each other.

This is indeed how we like to think of the Academy of Enchantment: as a frontier outpost, where the large family of wonder pioneers and enthusiasts can finally meet; where itineraries and discoveries can intersect; and from which, eventually, everyone will be able to head off towards new explorations.

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In order to attain the meetings you will be requested to join the Mirabilia cultural association; on the Accademia dell’Incanto website you will soon find all about the next events and application methods.
The Accademia dell’Incanto is also on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
“Keep the World Weird!”

Heaven is full of perverts

Ayzad is one of the biggest Italian experts in alternative sexuality and BDSM, author of several books on the subject. My respect for his work is unconditional: even if you are not into whips or bondage, my advice is to follow him anyway, because his explorations of the galaxies of extreme sex often entail innovative viewpoints and intuitions on all sexuality, on the psychology of relationships, on the semantics of eroticism and on the narratives we tell ourselves while we think we are simply making love. Addressing these issues in a meticulous yet ironic way, his cartography of the weirdest sexual practices offers lots of fun, awe and many surprises.
I met him the night before the opening of Rome BDSM Conference, where he was lecturing, and he kindly agreed to pen a report for Bizzarro Bazar on this unusual event.

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The Rome BDSM Conference report

by Ayzad

I spent the last few days surrounded by people in tears. Which was to be expected, since the setting was the largest BDSM convention in Europe. The surprising part, in fact, was the reason of their crying – but we’ll get to it later.

The third edition of the Rome BDSM Conference was held in a nice suburban hotel set in the farthest possible environment from the romantic imagery one usually associates with the Eternal City. The area is so existentially dreadful to be the subject of an actual gag in a rather famous Italian movie, where not even the overly optimistic protagonist can find anything good to it. Although I had been there the for the previous edition already, the mismatch with common expectations was no less bizarre – and would prove to be but the first of many during the kinky weekend.

What could be shocking for most people, who generally identify erotic deviations with crass porn or with the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon, is that a sadomasochists’ convention doesn’t look that different from any corporate event or professional gathering. The lobby placards that point the attendees to the conference halls sit side by side with the indications for boring accountancy quarterly meetings, people wear nametags on a lanyard not unlike at an orthodontics exhibition, and exhausted-looking participants sneak out to the lobby bar to catch their breath – and the occasional nap in a corner armchair.
Ties and power suits are a rare sight among the casual outfits preferred by most, yet fetish clothing is equally uncommon. You don’t really see more naughty high heels or suggestive details in the common areas than you would on any given working day: the few discreet slave collars and corsets are largely offset by regular t-shirts and jeans.

The people themselves, on the other hand, are striking in their diversity. Besides their geographical provenience (foreigners outnumber Italians, puzzling the organization), it is apparent that this bunch is happily unburdened by the anxiety of conforming to social standards. Same sex couples mingle with a lack of care so refreshingly alien from the unending controversy fabricated by the local media and politicians around equal rights; several unapologetically oversized persons who’d be frowned upon in another milieu are accepted just as much as the coolest fetish models here, and the same goes for the random disabled ones. Twentysomethings mix with seniors on polite yet equal terms. The situation closely reminded me of naturist resorts, where nakedness is quickly forgotten as you instinctively see people for their human essence and value, not their appearance.

As a matter of fact, this aspect of the Conference has a tendency to pull the rug from under your feet whenever you stop and consider the situation from an outsider’s perspective. «Wait, am I actually discussing anal fisting with a Slovakian asexual surgeon and a girl who’s barely one third of my own age and identifies as a bratty pony?» It took the better part of one day, for example, for me to realize that I had been talking with a trans person, even if this was pretty apparent: I simply hadn’t given this aspect the littlest thought. On a similar note, once you are immersed in such environment it takes a little while to notice that sitting in a workshop dedicated to the various techniques to safely penetrate a woman with a bayonet, or watching a lesson about biting people, isn’t exactly normal – even for me. Because yes: of course the BDSM Conference is a pretty hands-on affair too.

The event itself takes place in the convention area of the hotel, consisting of several lecture rooms set along a hallway where kinky artisans sell whips, collars, floggers, leather locking cuffs and other wicked toys. This year they shared the space with an exhibition featuring the photos from an art contest organized by the largest Italian leather association, whose winner was announced during the gala dinner held on the second day of the Conference.
The program offered over eighty workshops, each of them one hour and a half long. Presenters come from all over Europe, Israel and the USA (and Japan, in the previous editions), and this is where the similarities with other conventions end.

In the attendees-only area of the hotel participants remained indeed cheerful and civil, but the sounds coming from behind the classes doors often left no doubt on the nature of the lessons. Whip cracks and loud moans mixed with laughter and the occasional yelp, as the workshops continued with a barrage of bizarre titles. Violet wands, what to do with electricity ran side to side with The culture of consent; you could jump from Negotiating a scene to Artistic cutting or the rather technical Progressions for freestyle suspension bondage; high concept classes such as The reality of total power exchange relationships, Destructuring a BDSM scene or my own Polyamory and BDSM coexisted with the definitely down-to-earth The ups and downs of anal play and Needleplay for sadists. Other topics included fetishes, psychology, kinbaku, safety, communication, instruments and subjects as exotic as erotic tickling and the semantics of sex. The one thing you couldn’t find anywhere were the chudwahs.

Chudwah’ stands for Clueless Heterosexual Dominant Wannabe, a portmanteau indicating the sort of troglodytes who plague kinky communities both on- and offline thinking that a loud voice and a snarl are all it takes to bring home hot partners willing to provide oral sex and housekeeping in exchange for a few face slaps. They cannot conceive that BDSM is an art that in order to be safe and pleasurable requires dedication, much less actual study.
All the Conference participants were definitely committed to bring their game to a higher level instead, so they behaved like proper scholars. This made the workshops an especially surreal experience, with people keenly taking notes as desperate interpreters struggled to find the appropriate words to translate speeches about topics as improbable as erotic ageplay, extreme mindfuck, traditional Japanese bondage or the historical origin of a flogger flourish in Reinassance Italy. Trust me when I say that few things in life are weirder than finding yourself at the end of a class compiling a feedback form and wondering with a fellow student whether the genital suturing demonstration should get four or five stars.

No matter how apparently absurd the situation, everyone was seriously committed to learning and sharing, because this sort of knowledge immediately translates into pleasure and safety once you hit the bedroom – or the dungeon. Extreme erotic literacy took absolute priority throughout the event, keeping the discussion going all the time. Even on the third day, when everybody was positively exhausted, the bilingual conversation during lunch focused for example on the comparative merits of the lecturing style of two presenters who had both tackled erotic humiliation in their lessons. Everyone agreed that the shock of feeling seriously humiliated does help to shed your everyday persona and give yourself permission to leave inhibitions behind. One teacher however had carefully built a safe mindspace to explore embarrassment, while the other had subjected his partner to an extremely degrading session which many attendees found plainly abusive. A heated yet educated debate ensued, and it would have continued if it wasn’t for yet another set of classes coming up and demanding our attention. But it wasn’t just work and no play, of course.

You cannot expect to corral hundreds of kinksters in a secluded locations without them getting to have fun in their own unique ways. The retreat program thus included two parties: one for the attendees only and a larger one the night after, open to outsiders as well. They were both held in the large, warehouse-like rooms where the bondage and singletail workshops had taken place during the day, due to their major space requirements. The same carpeted floors that normally accomodated sleep-inducing corporate presentations were cleared of conference chairs and outfitted with an impressive array of St. Andrew’s crosses, whipping benches, cages, fisting slings, pillories and other unsettling furniture. An immense structure built with the kind of tubes used for construction scaffoldings looked like the biggest jungle gym ever, but it was meant as a support for multiple suspension bondages.

I won’t delve in any depth on the parties. What really set them apart from many analogous play nights was simply being surrounded by the very same people you had met red-eyed at breakfast, then as diligent students during the day, then slacking off at the bar or making their moves in the lobby, then elegantly (or outrageously) dressed for the gala dinner, and now flaunting their latex and leather outfits as they writhed in pain and delight in the dimly-lit halls. As I queued with them again at the pancake and juice stations the morning after, I felt sort of voyeuristically privileged for the chance I was given to see these strangers so thoroughly naked in all their daily masks and without, candidly exposing sides of their character that only spouses would witness otherwise – and not even all of them at that.
If 24/7 intimacy begets deep bonding already, the awareness that everyone was there for their passion for extreme eroticism took things one step further. With our psychosexual phantasms exposed from the start, the need to conceal and sublimate our libido simply disappeared, with three curious effects.

The former was the utter absence of the sort of neurotic behavior that’s so common throughout our daily lives; repressed sexual urges and thoughts are the overwhelming cause of personal issues, after all. I venture to say that the rare uneasy persons I stumbled into all appeared to harbor problems of a different nature.
Another peculiarity was that lechery and creepiness were nowhere to be seen. People eyed each other, sure, but erotic proposals were offered and received with a characteristic lack of drama, just like refusals got gallantly accepted. Why wrapping a normal, healthy part of life in the shroud of anxiety, indeed? The contrast with the intensely sexualized imagery spewing from the few television screens and the magazines in the hotel lobby highlighted how “normal” society twists the joy of sex into its evil twin – and how weird it is that we ended up believing this dreadful charade, often missing entirely the point of sexuality itself.

The latter and possibly most fascinating effect of the unusual cohabitation was to witness the subtle changes in the participants’ body language. The more the event got underway, the more people looked relaxed and accepting of their own bodies – including the bruises and marks that were gladly worn not unlike actual badges of honor. Far from the frigid Helmut Newton stereotypes that are still so prominent in BDSM imagery, smiles and hugs abounded; movements became softer and more deliberate; people literally had learned not to be afraid of each other and of themselves. The general attitude changed as well: instead of being always ready to criticize or get annoyed by every minor glitch as it often happens in our everyday lives, on this particular occasion everybody tended to be more inclined towards being on the lookout for whatever opportunity of pleasure – be it a new erotic practice or a simple bit of nice conversation – ignoring the rest. As a sexologist friend commented during the previous edition, anyone who had came in looking for perversion and depravity would feel disconcerted by the tenderness displayed by the attendees.

And this is why, come the end of that three-days extravaganza, so many participants were crying at the closing cerimony. For these outcasts who finally found their home and tribe, this final moment becomes so emotionally loaded that they even bet on how long will it take for the burly organizer himself to burst into tears during his thank you speech. He is not alone in that, though: just imagine how would you feel if you had finally spent a heavenly weekend, and you knew you had to wait another whole year to feel among kindred spirits again. Imagine what it is like to have experienced a perfect world – free of prejudices, ignorance, pettiness, fear, competition, hate – and having to leave it behind to step back into the mundane mess we all suffer. Imagine how strange it is to realize that life would be so much better if only more people grew less scared of their own sexuality, and how odd to discover this at a kinky convention.

Mors pretiosa

Mors Pretiosa

Here comes the third volume in the Bizzarro Bazar Collection, Mors pretiosa – Italian religious ossuaries, already on pre-sale at the Logos bookshop.

This book, closing an ideal trilogy about those Italian sacred spaces where a direct contact with the dead is still possible, explores three exceptional locations: the Capuchin Crypt in Via Veneto, Rome, the hypogeum of Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte in via Giulia, also in Rome, and the chapel of San Bernardino alle Ossa in Milan.
Our journey through these three wonderful examples of decorated charnel houses, confronts us with a question that might seems almost outrageous today: can death possess a kind of peculiar, terrible beauty?

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From the press kit:

There is a crack, a crack in everything: that’s how the light gets in” sings Leonard Cohen, and this is ultimately the message brought by the bones that can be admired in this book; death is an eternal wound and at the same time a way out. A long way from the idea of cemetery, its atmosphere of peace and the emotions it instils, the term “ossuary” usually evokes an impression of gloomy coldness but the three places in this book are very different. The subjects in question are Italy’s most important religious ossuaries in which bones have been used with decorative ends: the Capuchin Crypt and Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte in Rome, and San Bernardino alle Ossa in Milan. Thick with the sensation of mortality and vanitas, these ossuaries are capable of performing a completely unexpected role: on the one hand they embody the memento mori as an exhortation to trust in an afterlife for which the earthly life is a mere preparation and test, on the other they represent shining examples of macabre art. They are the suggestive and emotional expression – which is at the same time compassionate – of a “high” feeling: that of the transitory, of the inexorability of detachment and the hope of Resurrection. Decorated with the same bones they are charged with safeguarding, they pursue the Greek concept of kalokagathìa, namely to make the “good death” even aesthetically beautiful, disassembling the physical body to recompose it in pleasant and splendid arrangements and thereby transcend it. The clear and in-depth texts of the book set these places in the context of the fideistic attitudes of their time and Christian theological traditions whereas the images immerse us in these sacred places charged with fear and fascination. Page after page, the patterns of skulls and bones show us death in all of its splendour, they make it mirabilis, worthy of being admired.

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In the text are recounted some fascinating stories about these places, from sacred representations in which human remains were used as props, to the misadventures of corpse seekers; but mainly we discover that these bone arabesques were much more than a mere attempt to impress the viewer, while in fact they represented a sort of death encyclopedia, which was meant to be read and interpreted as a real eschatological itinerary.

As usual, the book is extensively illustrated by Carlo Vannini‘s evocative photographs.

You can pre-order your copy of Mors Pretiosa on this page, and in the Bookshop you can purchase the previous two books in the series.

Martiri

Roma, il Pomarancio e l’arte sacra crudele

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I martiri costituiscono uno dei temi prediletti dall’arte cristiana fin dagli albori. Eppure inizialmente le rappresentazioni dei supplizi subìti dai santi in testimonianza della loro fede mostravano comunque dei toni abbastanza neutri. Come scrive Umberto Eco nella sua Storia della bruttezza:

Raramente nell’arte medievale il martire è rappresentato imbruttito dai tormenti come si era osato fare col Cristo. Nel caso di Cristo si sottolineava l’immensità inimitabile del sacrificio compiuto, mentre nel caso dei martiri (per esortare a imitarli) si mostra la serenità serafica con cui essi sono andati incontro alla propria sorte. Ed ecco che una sequenza di decapitazioni, tormenti sulla graticola, asportazione dei seni, può dar luogo a composizioni aggraziate, quasi in forma di balletto. Il compiacimento per la crudeltà del tormento sarà caso mai reperibile più tardi […], nella pittura seicentesca.

In realtà già nel Tardo Manierismo, vale a dire verso la fine del ‘500, la Controriforma aveva riportato una rigorosa ortodossia nell’arte sacra; nel 1582 il Cardinale Gabriele Paleotti pubblica il suo fondamentale Discorso intorno alle immagini sacre e profane, in cui vengono dettate le direttive iconografiche ecclesiastiche da seguire. Da questo momento gli artisti dovranno concentrarsi su scene bibliche educative, di immediata lettura, allontanandosi dai temi classici e attenendosi scrupolosamente a quanto riportato nelle Scritture; nel caso dei martiri, si dovrà cercare di rendere il più possibile concreta la descrizione della sofferenza, in modo da favorire l’immedesimazione del fedele. In questo clima di propaganda, nacquero quindi affreschi e dipinti di una violenza senza precedenti.

A Roma soprattutto si trovano alcune chiese particolarmente ricche di simili raffigurazioni. La più significativa è quella di Santo Stefano Rotondo al Celio; poco distante si trova la Chiesa dei Santi Nereo e Achilleo; in via Nazionale, invece, sorge la Basilica di San Vitale. Innumerevoli altri esempi sono sparsi un po’ ovunque nella capitale, ma queste tre chiese da sole costituiscono una sorta di enciclopedia illustrata della tortura.

In particolare le prime due ospitano gli affreschi di Niccolò Circignani detto il Pomarancio (ma attenzione, perché il nomignolo venne dato anche a suo figlio Antonio e al pittore Cristoforo Roncalli). Autore manierista ma lontano dagli eccessi bizzarri del periodo, Niccolò Circignani mostrava una spiccata teatralità compositiva, e un’esecuzione semplice ma efficace, dai colori vivaci e incisivi.

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Il ciclo del martiriologio a Santo Stefano Rotondo è impressionante ancora oggi per il realismo cruento e a tratti rivoltante delle scene: dal supplizio di Sant’Agata, a cui le tenaglie dilaniano il petto, alla lapidazione del primo martire della storia (Santo Stefano, appunto), fino alla “pena forte e dura“, le pareti della chiesa sono un susseguirsi di santi bolliti vivi o soffocati dal piombo fuso, lingue strappate, occhi e budella sparse, corpi fatti a pezzi, mazzolati, bruciati, straziati in ogni possibile variante.

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Sempre al Pomarancio sono attribuite altre opere situate nella Chiesa dei Santi Nereo e Achilleo. Qui San Simone viene segato a metà a partire dal cranio, San Giacomo Maggiore decapitato, San Bartolomeo scorticato vivo, e via dicendo.

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Nella Basilica di San Vitale possiamo ammirare il santo omonimo che viene prima torturato sulla ruota, e poi sepolto vivo – anche se in questo caso i dipinti sono ad opera di Agostino Ciampelli. La chiesa contiene anche decapitazioni e teste mozzate.

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Certo, nelle intenzioni queste scene dovevano essere educative, e spingere all’imitazione di questi esempi di fede incrollabile. Ma che dire dell’evidente compiacimento nel mostrare le varie torture e i supplizi? Il nostro sadismo non è forse stuzzicato da queste rappresentazioni?

È questo fascino oscuro che spinge Eco a parlare di “erotica del dolore“; e d’altronde Bataille termina il suo excursus nell’arte erotica (Le lacrime di Eros) sulla fotografia di un condannato alla pena cinese del lingchi, la morte dai mille tagli, “inevitabile conclusione di una storia dell’erotismo” e simbolo dell’ “erotismo religioso, l’identità dell’orrore e del religioso“.
Fotografia talmente insostenibile che il filosofo confessa: “a partire da questa violenza – ancora oggi io non riesco a propormene un’altra più folle, più orribile – io fui così sconvolto che accedetti all’estasi“. Rapimento mistico, orgasmo e orrore sono, per Bataille, inscindibili.

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Questa seduzione ambigua delle immagini violente, però, è intrinseca in ogni crudeltà. Il concetto trova infatti origine in due ceppi etimologici diversi – da una parte cruor, la carne sanguinosa, il sangue sparso, e dall’altra crudus, il crudo, tutto ciò che è animalesco, primordiale e non ancora conquistato dalla cultura umana (conoscere il fuoco e utilizzarlo per cuocere il cibo è, sostiene Lévi-Strauss ne Il crudo e il cotto, uno dei momenti fondanti dell’umanità, rispetto alla vita bestiale).
In questo senso la crudeltà oscilla fra due opposti perturbanti: l’orrore e l’oscenità della violenza, e il segreto giubilo di vedere riaffiorare l’istinto represso, che minaccia l’ordine costituito.
Starebbe in questo nucleo di sentimenti contrapposti la calamita che attira il nostro sguardo verso simili immagini, eccitandoci e repellendoci al tempo stesso, e forse facendoci in questo modo accedere alla parte più nascosta del nostro essere.

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Per approfondire i risvolti concettuali della crudeltà, il saggio di riferimento è l’eccellente Filosofia della crudeltà. Etica ed estetica di un enigma di Lucrezia Ercoli.
Se vi interessa conoscere meglio la figura del Pomarancio, ecco un esaustivo podcast di Finestre sull’arte.

Il palo del barbiere

Il palo del barbiere è un’insegna antichissima, che distingue questa attività sin dal Medioevo. Si tratta di un’asta più o meno lunga, con un pomo di bronzo all’estremità, e una spirale di strisce bianche e rosse che ne percorre la lunghezza (nella versione americana, compare anche il colore blu). Ma che significato ha?

Nell’antica Roma, farsi radere la barba era un implicito dovere di ogni adulto che non volesse sfigurare in società: se un uomo non era rasato, o era un filosofo o era un soldato, oppure… un barbone, appunto. Di conseguenza i tonsor erano fra i professionisti più pagati fra tutti, tanto che poeti satirici come Marziale o Giovenale non perdono occasione di ironizzare sugli ex-barbieri divenuti nobili cavalieri, che devono il loro successo alla forfex più che alla spada.


Nel Medioevo, però, i barbieri assunsero anche un’altra funzione. Fra il 1123, anno del primo Concilio Lateranense, e il 1215, anno del quarto Concilio Lateranense, ai sacerdoti cattolici e ai diaconi venne proibito di praticare la medicina a discapito della loro funzione ecclesiastica. Fino ad allora, infatti (ne avevamo già parlato in questo articolo) erano proprio i religiosi che, edotti di anatomia, curavano i malati e spesso eseguivano piccole operazioni. Quando la Chiesa cominciò ad esigere il distacco da queste pratiche, furono i barbieri ad occupare la “nicchia” di lavoro appena liberatasi.

Nella bottega del barbiere quindi non ci si recava solo per tagliarsi i capelli o regolare la barba: in condizioni igieniche a dir poco aberranti, venivano svolti anche servizi quali l’incisione di ascessi, la ricomposizione delle fratture, l’estrazione di denti marci e la rimozione (lenta e paziente) di pidocchi, pulci e zecche.


Ma nessuno di questi compiti era importante quanto la vera specialità dei barbieri: il salasso. Il prelievo di sangue (flebotomia) è un rimedio antico come il mondo, praticato già nell’antica Mesopotamia e in Egitto; la terapia, oggi ovviamente abbandonata, si basava sull’idea che il cibo si trasformasse in sangue all’interno del fegato, e venisse poi consumato con l’esercizio fisico: ma se questo sistema non funzionava correttamente, il sangue poteva ristagnare nel corpo, causando diversi disturbi, come mal di testa, febbre, fino addirittura all’infarto. Il controllo e il bilanciamento degli umori avveniva tramite l’incisione delle vene (o l’applicazione di sanguisughe, vedi questo post) in combinazione con farmaci emetici, per indurre il vomito, o diuretici.


I chirurghi veri e propri ritenevano l’arte del salasso una pratica minore, ben al di sotto del loro status, e spedivano dal barbiere tutti i pazienti a loro parere curabili con un semplice prelievo di sangue.

Come altri artigiani, i barbieri si ingegnarono presto per trovare un modo di pubblicizzare la propria attività: ma all’inizio non ci andarono tanto per il sottile. Nella Londra medievale, ogni bottega esponeva alla finestra dei grandi boccali ripieni del sangue dei clienti, in modo che anche il più distratto dei passanti li notasse.

Nel 1307, la gente di Londra decise che ne aveva abbastanza di questi vasi ripieni di sangue putrido e coagulato, e venne emanata una legge che ordinava: “nessun barbiere sarà così temerario o ardito da mettere sangue nelle finestre”. La stessa legge imponeva ai barbieri di disfarsi dei liquidi corporali portandoli fino al Tamigi, e lanciandoli nel fiume.

Così la gilda dei barbieri si organizzò per trovare un simbolo meno cruento che pubblicizzasse i servizi offerti: ecco che comparve il palo. L’asta rimandava al palo che veniva dato da stringere al paziente durante il salasso, in modo che il braccio restasse orizzontale e le vene risultassero ben visibili a causa dello sforzo. Il pomo in bronzo all’estremità simboleggiava invece il vaso in cui il sangue si raccoglieva.


Le strisce bianche e rosse all’inizio non erano affatto pitturate: si trattava delle bende insanguinate che venivano appese al palo ad asciugare, come prova dell’operazione avvenuta con successo; le bende, nel vento, si attorcigliavano all’asta. Con il tempo, si prese a dipingere direttamente il palo con la spirale bianca e rossa.

Nel XVIII secolo le gilde di chirurghi e barbieri vennero distinte e regolate per legge, e i barbieri furono relegati alla sola tosatura dei capelli, prima in Inghilterra e poi nel resto dell’Europa. Questa perdita di prestigio dei barbieri coincide con la nascita della cosiddetta medicina moderna, intorno alla metà del 1700; ma l’insegna con il palo è rimasta fino ai giorni nostri. Ne esistono diverse varianti, spesso luminose e motorizzate: in America, viene usata anche una striscia blu, oltre a quelle rosse e bianche, forse a distinguere il sangue venoso da quello arterioso – o, molto più probabilmente, per richiamare i colori della bandiera. Anche in Italia può capitare di vedere ancora qualche esercizio che espone il palo multicolore, anche se fortunatamente il salasso non è più annoverato fra i servizi offerti dai moderni saloni di barbiere.

Museo dell’Arte Sanitaria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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