“Rachel”: Between Fairy Tales and Anatomy

The last time I wrote about my friend and mentor Stefano Bessoni was four years ago, when his book and short film Gallows Songs came out. Many things have happened since then. Stefano has been teaching in countless stop motion workshops in Italy and abroad, and he published some handbooks on the subject (an introductory book, together with first and second level animation textbooks); but he also continued to explore children’s literature by reinterpreting some classics such as Alice, Pinocchio, the Wizard of Oz and the traditional figure of Mr. Punch / Pulcinella.

Bessoni’s last effort is called Rachel, a thrilling work for several reasons.

First of all, this is the reincarnation of a project Stefano has been working on for decades: when I first met him – eons ago – he was already raising funds for a movie entitled The Land of Inexact Sciences, to this day one of the most genuinely original scripts I have ever read.

Set during the Great War in a faraway village lost on the ocean shores, it told the story of a seeker of wonders in a fantastic world; eccentric characters roamed this land, obsessed with anomalous and pataphysical sciences, amongst ravenous wunderkammern, giant squid hunters, mad anatomists, taverns built inside beached whales, apocriphal zoology shops, ventriloquists, ghosts and homunculi.

A true compendium of Bessoni’s poetics, stemming from his love for dark fairy tales, for the aesthetics of cabinets of curiosities, for 18th Century natural philosophy and Nick Cave’s macabre ballads.

Today Stefano is bringing this very peculiar universe back to life, and Rachel is only one piece of the puzzle. It is in fact the first volume of the Inexact Sciences tetralogy, which will be published every six months and will include three more titles dedicated to the other protagonists of the story: Rebecca, Giona and Theophilus.

Rachel is a sort of prequel, or backstory, for the actual plot: it’s the story of a strange and melancholic little girl, who lives alone in a house on a cliff, in the company of some unlikely imaginary friends. But a terrible revelation awaits…

Although reimagined, the main character is based on the real historical figure of Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750), daughter of famous Dutch anatomist Frederik Ruysch (about whom I’ve written before).

As Bessoni writes:

It is said that Rachel helped her father with his preparations, and that she was actually very good at it. A proof of this unusual childhood activity is her presence in a famous painting by Jan van Neck where, dressed as a little boy, she assists her father during an anatomy lesson on a dissected newborn baby. Rachel’s job was to dress with lace and decorate with flowers the anatomical creations, preserved in a fluid Ruysch had named liquor balsamicus, an extraordinary mixture which could fix in time the ephemeral beauty of dead things; many of these specimens, now on display in museum, still maintain their original skin complexion and the softness of a live body.

But Rachel’s fate was different from what I imagined in my story. She abandoned medicine and anatomy, and grew up to be a very good artist specializing in still life paintings and portraits, one of the very few female artists of her time that we know of. Some of her works are now on display at the Uffizi and at the Palatine Gallery in Florence.

Rachel Ruysch, Still Life with Basket Full of Flowers and Herbs With Insects, 1711

At this point, I feel I should make a confession: Bessoni’s books have always been like a special compass to me. Each time I can’t focus or remember my direction anymore, I only need to take one of his books from the shelf and all of a sudden his illustrations show me what is really essential: because Stefano’s work reflects such a complete devotion to the side of himself that is able to be amazed. And such a purity is precious.

You only need to look at the love with which, in Rachel, he pays homage to Ruysch’s fabulous lost dioramas; behind the talking anatomical dolls, the chimeras, the little children preserved in formaline, or his trademark crocodile skulls, there is no trace of adulteration, no such thing as the mannerism of a recognized artist. There’s only an enthusiastic, childish gaze, still able to be moved by enchantment, still filled with onirical visions of rare beauty — for instance the Zeppelin fleets hovering in the sky over the cliff where little Rachel lives.

This is why knowing that his most ambitious and personal project has come back to light fills me with joy.
And then there’s one more reason.

After so many years, and taking off from these very books, The Inexact Sciences is about to turn into a stop motion feature film, and this time for real. Currently in development, the movie will be a France-Italy co-production, and has alreay been recognized a “film of national interest” by the Italian Ministry of Culture (MiBACT).

And who wouldn’t want these characters, and this macabre, funny world, to come alive on the screen?

Rachel by Stefano Bessoni is available (in Italian) here.

Links, curiosities & mixed wonders – 9

Let’s start with some quick updates.

Just three days left till the end of the Bizzarro Bazar Contest. I received so many fantastic entries, which you will discover next week when the winners are announced. So if you’re among the procrastinators, hurry up and don’t forget to review the guidelines: this blog has to be explicitly mentioned/portrayed within your work.

On October 1st I will be at Teatro Bonci in Cesena for the CICAP Fest 2017 [CICAP is a skeptical educational organization.]
As this year’s edition will focus on fake news, hoaxes and post-truth, I was asked to bring along some wonders from my wunderkammer — particularly a bunch of objects that lie between truth and lies, between reality and imagination. And, just to be a bit of a rebel, I will talk about creative hoaxes and fruitful conspiracies.

As we are mentioning my collection, I wanted to share my enthusiasm for one of the last arrivals: this extraordinary work of art.

I hear you say “Well, what’s so special about it?“. Oh, you really don’t understand modern art, do you?
This picture, dated 2008, was painted by the famous artist Jomo.

Here’s Jomo:

Here’s Jomo as a bronze statuette, acquired along with the painting.

Exactly, you guessed it: from now on I will be able to pull  the good old Pierre Brassau prank on my house guests.
I was also glad the auction proceeds for the gorilla painting went to the Toronto Zoo personnel, who daily look after these wonderful primates. By the way, the Toronto Zoo is an active member of the North American Gorilla Species Survival Plan and also works in Africa to save endangered gorillas (who I was surprised to find are facing extinction because of our cellphones).

And now let’s start with our usual selection of goodies:

She’d given me rendez-vous in a graveyard / At midnight – and I went: / Wind was howling, dark was the sky / The crosses stood white before the churchyard; / And to this pale young girl I asked: / – Why did you give me rendez-vous in a graveyard? / – I am dead, she answered, and you do not know: / Would you lay down beside me in this grave? / Many years ago I loved you, alive, / For many a year the merciless tomb sealed me off… / Cold is the ground, my beloved youth! / I am dead, she answered, and you do not know.

  • This is a poem by Igino Ugo Tarchetti, one of the leading figures in the Scapigliatura, the most bizarre, gothic and “maudit” of all Italian literary movements. (My new upcoming book for the Bizzarro Bazar Collection will also deal, although marginally, with the Scapigliati.)

  • And let’s move onto shrikes, these adorable little birds of the order of the Passeriformes.
    Adorable, yet carnivore: their family name, Laniidae, comes from the Latin word for “butcher” and as a matter of fact, being so small, they need to resort to a rather cruel ploy. After attacking a prey (insects but also small vertebrates), a shrike proceeds to impale it on thorns, small branches, brambles or barbed wire, in order to immobilize it and then comfortably tear it to pieces, little by little, while often still alive — making Vlad Tepes look like a newbie.

  • Talking about animals, whales (like many other mammals) mourn their dead. Here’s a National Geographic article on cetacean grief.
  • Let’s change the subject and talk a bit about sex toys. Sexpert Ayzad compiled the definitive list of erotic novelties you should definitely NOT buy: these ultra-kitsch, completely demented and even disturbing accessories are so many that he had to break them into three articles, one, two and three. Buckle up for a descent into the most schizoid and abnormal part of sexual consumerism (obviously some pics are NSFW).
  • Up next, culture fetishists: people who describe themselves as “sapiosexuals”, sexually attracted by intelligence and erudition, are every nerd’s dream, every introverted bookworm’s mirage.
    But, as this article suggests, choosing an intelligent partner is not really such a new idea: it has been a part of evolution strategies for millions of years. Therefore those who label themselves as sapiosexual on social networks just seem pretentious and eventually end up looking stupid. Thus chasing away anyone with even a modicum of intelligence. Ah, the irony.

  • Meanwhile The LondoNerD, the Italian blog on London’s secrets, has discovered a small, eccentric museum dedicated to Sir Richard Francis Burton, the adventurer whose life would be enough to fill a dozen Indiana Jones movies. [Sorry, the post is in Italian only]

Someone fixed giraffes, at last.

Il museo online di Frederik Ruysch

È da poco stato aperto un museo online riguardante la vita e le opere dell’anatomista olandese Frederik Ruysch (1638-1731), forse il più grande artista della preparazione medica della storia. Il sito “De anatomische peparaten van Frederik Ruysch” (per ora soltanto in lingua olandese, ma l’inglese è promesso a breve) contiene informazioni bibliografiche e storiche, ma la sezione davvero spettacolare è quella dedicata alle preparazioni stesse: mediante un sistema di zoom ad alta definizione, è possibile “esplorare” gli esemplari preservati da Ruysch fin nei minimi dettagli.

Ruysch (l’uomo che sta sezionando un bambino nel dipinto qui sopra, il celebre La lezione di anatomia del dottor Frederik Ruysch, di Jan van Neck) era il più grande artista medico del suo tempo. Le sue composizioni sono state definite “i Rembrandt della preparazione anatomica”. Creò più di 2.000 esemplari, tra cui spiccano i fantasiosi tableaux allegorici composti usando scheletri fetali e altre parti anatomiche perfettamente preservate. Purtroppo, della dozzina di tableaux realizzati da Ruysch non ne rimane nemmeno uno, ma Steven J. Gould ce ne dà un’accurata descrizione: “… i temi allegorici erano quelli della morte e la transitorietà della vita… Ruysch costruiva la base di questi paesaggi geografici usando calcoli renali e della vescica (che fungevano da “rocce”), e la flora di questi paesaggi era costituita da vene  e arterie iniettate e indurite per creare gli “alberi”, mentre i “cespugli” e l'”erba” erano creati dal tessuto più ramificato e vascolarizzato dei polmoni e dei capillari. Gli scheletri dei feti […] erano ornati di simboli della morte e della caducità della vita – le loro mani stringevano delle ephemeropterae (farfalle che vivono soltanto un giorno nel loro stato adulto); gli scheletri piangevano il loro stato nascondendo il viso nei loro “fazzoletti” ricavati dal mesenterio delle meningi, elegantemente iniettato; “serpenti” e “vermi”, simboli della corruzione, e creati a partire da intestini umani, si attorcigliavano attorno alle pelvi o alla cassa toracica”.

In questi quadri che dovevano fungere da memento mori, spesso trovavano posto delle didascalie che davano voce ai piccoli scheletri: uno di questi tiene nella mano una collana di perle, ed esclama: “Perché dovrei desiderare le cose di questo mondo?”. Un altro, che suona un violino con un arco ricavato da un’arteria essiccata, si lamenta laconicamente: “Oh fato, oh fato crudele”.

Oltre ai suoi celebri tableaux, adorati fra gli altri da Pietro il Grande di Russia, Ruysch divenne celebre per i suoi preparati in soluzione: la sua formula era segretissima, e includeva l’iniezione con cere colorate per sopperire alla depigmentazione naturale. La figlia Rachel gli dava una mano, adornando questi esemplari con pizzi, vestiti, e addirittura turbanti che nascondevano i tagli e le parti non complete dell’esemplare, e aggiungevano una nota di grazia e delicatezza al preparato.

Gli esemplari venivano poi immersi nella soluzione top-secret ideata dall’anatomista olandese, consistente in spiriti vari, pepe nero, e altri ingredienti sconosciuti. Il risultato? Ancora oggi, dopo secoli, i suoi preparati hanno un colorito roseo e naturale che è difficile riscontrare nei tipici esemplari anatomici, anche moderni, immancabilmente bianchicci e spenti.

Nel suo gabinetto delle curiosità, i filosofi e i medici che passavano in visita potevano ammirare, oltre ai suoi tableaux, anche “parti anatomiche in vasi di vetro, scheletri di bambini, e organi preservati… assieme a uccelli esotici, farfalle e piante”.

Come dicevo, nessuno dei suoi diorami allegorici sembra essere sopravvissuto all’inclemenza del tempo; di contro, molte delle sue preparazioni in vitro possono essere ammirate in musei quali la Kunstkammer di San Pietroburgo, e altri musei anatomici in giro per il mondo. Il nuovo sito (http://ruysch.dpc.uba.uva.nl) promette di ingrandirsi con il tempo e di ospitare la più grande bacheca virtuale delle opere di Ruysch consultabile online. Bravi ragazzi!

(Scoperto via Morbid Anatomy)